I recently came across a little booklet that was given to my mother in 1939, when she arrived in the UK as an 18-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany.
It is called ‘Helpful information and guidance for every refugee’ - and in the light of the current debate about refugees and immigrants, it makes fascinating reading.
But first some context: in the 1930s and early 1940s, an estimated 70,000 Jewish refugees were granted asylum in the UK. Another 500,000 who applied for entry were unsuccessful; among them was my grandmother, who had to stay behind in Germany and was shot by a Nazi death squad in 1941. (I tell her story here.)
The booklet that I found among my mother’s possessions was published by the German Jewish Aid Committee and the Jewish Board of Deputies (as it then was). Each section is in both English and German.
First, there is a list of ‘organisations useful for our visitors’. Then comes ‘How to register with your local police’. And then, under the heading ‘The tolerance and sympathy of Britain and the British Commonwealth’, comes a long list of do’s and don’ts.
Rule No. 1: ‘Spend your spare time immediately in learning the English language and its correct pronunciation.’
Rule No. 2: ’Refrain from speaking German in the streets and in public conveyances and in public places such as restaurants. Talk halting English rather than fluent German ― and do not talk in a loud voice (Italics in the original).
Another rule says: ‘Do not make yourself conspicuous by speaking loudly, nor by your manner or dress. The Englishman greatly dislikes ostentation, loudness of dress or manner, or unconventionality of dress or manner. The Englishman attaches very great importance to modesty, under-statement in speech rather than over-statement, and quietness of dress and manner. He values good manners far more than he values the evidence of wealth. (You will find that he says “Thank you” for the slightest service - even for a penny bus ticket for which he has paid.)’
There are also words of warning: ‘Do not expect to be received immediately in English homes, because the Englishman takes some time before he opens his home wide to strangers.’
And a final admonition, in heavy, bold type: ’Be loyal to England, your host.′
What a long time ago it was. How Britain has changed. And how quaint was the language, the writers apparently unaware of the existence either of women or of anywhere in the UK that isn’t England.
The picture that the booklet painted, of a country obsessed with good manners and keeping up appearances, was, perhaps understandably, very definitely rose-tinted. Why upset newly-arrived refugees with tales of Oswald Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street, which had taken place in the East End of London less than three years previously, when Jewish and other anti-Fascists resisted a planned march through a Jewish neighbourhood by Mosley’s Blackshirts?
Why remind them that in 1938, the Daily Mail had approvingly quoted a London magistrate who said: ‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage.’
My mother soon learned for herself that refugees were not universally welcomed: within two weeks of having found work as a mother’s help in north London, war had been declared and she was summarily dismissed. Her employer, who was Jewish, said she didn’t want ‘a German’ in her home.
Inevitably, leafing through that nearly eighty-year-old booklet, my thoughts turned to today’s refugees, from Syria, Yemen, Eritrea or Sudan. Especially as I had just been reminded yet again of the bigotry and prejudice that still greets foreigners fleeing from violence and persecution.
A couple of days ago, I suggested on television that the German chancellor Angela Merkel had done the right thing in 2015 by opening Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants, even though it was clearly to her political disadvantage. The reaction, in messages to me on social media, was immediate and ugly.
‘Europeans do NOT need low IQ Africans to flood in bringing their lack of restraint, bestial sexual habits & violence.’
‘We do not need Islam or millions of uneducated people from Africa in Europe who bring violence, rape, fgm, child marriage, crime, jihad, and a burden on the tax payer.’
There was more in a similar vein. I found it depressing, although not surprising. But I also remembered the hundreds of British friends my parents made in post-war Britain, many of whom will be joining us in a couple of weeks’ time to celebrate the life of my late father, another refugee from Nazi Germany, who died just before Christmas at the ripe old age of ninety-eight.
Both my parents followed the rules in that little booklet to the letter - and they enjoyed long and happy lives together in the country they called home. Shortly before he died, my father wrote: ‘Unless you were born and grew up in this country, you will never be an Englishman, and nobody will call you that. But all the same, I call Great Britain my “home country”, as I feel at home here, and I am glad this is where I lived my life, rather than anywhere else.’
I hope that one day, today’s refugees will be able to say the same.