by Merilyn Moos
While there has been some research on and recognition of the exiles from Nazism who settled in the UK, little is known about their children: the British second generation, and what the long term effects of their parents’ exile have been on them. Indeed, this has been a largely invisible group. My book Breaking the Silence. Voices of the British Children of Refugees from Nazism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015) set out to cast light on this second generation group.
Although the exact figures are unknowable, about 70-80,000 refugees from Nazism were given sanctuary in the UK, arriving in particular from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary before the outbreak of war: although the main cause for exile was antisemitism, many refugees fled for political reasons: from critical business people to committed anti-Nazis. About 40,000 then moved on to other countries after the end of the Second World War. The British second generation are the children of the refugees who settled in Britain.
Almost all the people I interviewed told me that they were speaking about their and their families’ pasts for almost the first time. This is a history about which there has been much silence. The refugee parents found it very difficult to talk to their children about their lives before they came to Britain. They had left behind families, many of whom had subsequently been murdered. None of the second generation children ever knew these grandparents but they also had been told almost nothing by their parents about their grandparents. Some of the interviewees had not even known their grandparents’ names. The interviews revealed how important it was for the interviewees to find out: late in life, they had started a painful search for the details of the lives — and deaths — of their grandparents and other kin.
What parents sometimes also remained silent about was Jewishness. They wanted their second generation children to be assimilated into British society. And anyway, for many of their families. Jewishness had only been one aspect of a rainbow of identities in their country of origin. But for their children, it was their parents’ defined Jewishness which had caused their persecution and exile; most of the interviewees tried to work out in many different forms how important Jewishness was to them.
Also, noteworthy was how the interviewees did not generally see themselves as British, although born in the UK. Nor did they define themselves in terms of the parents’ country of origin. People talked of themselves, for example, as Europeans. This illustrates how far the interviewees felt themselves to be outsiders. Most of the interviewees were highly successful professionals yet at the same time they did not feel at ease in British society, feeling anxious or fearful.
Noticeable were the different responses to the issue of victimhood. It is too common to make being second generation synonymous with being a victim. But this was contested by in particular the children of parents who had taken on the Nazis politically. The difference was revealed in the interviewee’s feelings about their parents. Having parents who had actively opposed the Nazis increased their children’s identification with them; they felt a pride in their parents which was manifested as a pride in themselves. The idea of victimhood was explicitly rejected by most of the children of the anti-Nazi parents; indeed there was an embracing of the importance of drawing from the past to confront present day racisms. Another crucial difference in how the second generation saw themselves was how they understood the experience of their parents: Nazism had historical causes; while parents can indeed be understood as victims, they can be understood as the victims of history, of structural forces, not just of specifically individual persecution.
The effect of persecution is too often hidden away from the public gaze. Too often, it is not the persecuted who write the history. What my study revealed is how far the effects of Nazism live on in the second generation, although this is generally unacknowledged. I also doubt whether the experience of this second generation is unique. While the Nazi’s regime of systematized murder and terror is evidently at an extreme, other persecutionary regimes are also likely to continue to impact on the children of present day refugees.