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Warm British welcome for Jews fleeing Nazis a ‘myth’

28 Feb 2013

The warm British welcome for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s is a myth, according to research by a University of Manchester historian.

Mothers Day card from Ruth Schneider, from Vienna, in Austria to her parents.

Bill Williams, from the University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, has cast new light on the way Britons responded to the desperate plight of Jews fleeing Germany after the Nazis came to power.

The migrants were, he says in his new book published by Manchester University Press, neglected across all sections of British society.

Even the Jewish community themselves, he argues in Jews and Other Foreigners, were inhibited by fears of an anti-Semitic backlash caused by letting in ‘alien’ foreigners.

Mr Williams, one of the country’s leading scholars of Jewish migration to the UK, believes Government offers of help were half-hearted.

The Quakers declared they would only support “non practicing Jews and Friends”  - those with existing contacts within the Quaker community - and the Catholic Church did virtually nothing, argues Mr Williams.

He said: “Though both the British and Mancunians have strong humanitarian traditions, they they were often undermined by self-interest, government policy, the failure to challenge it and anti-semitism.

“So these findings have a critical bearing on the notion of how in Britain we regard ourselves as a tolerant society.

“So much more could have been done to support the Jews – especially as the British knew what was happening in Nazi Germany.

“Many refugees were well treated, but many weren’t. There is a degree of complacency about our recent past so it’s important to dispel that myth.

“Lessons should be learned from remembering how it really was: our political leaders say they preach tolerance, but their rhetoric is often anti-immigrant.”

Britain’s treatment of the Jews was no worse than many other countries, argues Mr Williams.

Only 1930s Shanghai, which was ruled by Japan, was a true safe haven, where Jews could arrive without a visa.

He added: “Manchester, which touts itself as a beacon of tolerance, was particularly poor.

“The Lancashire Development Company, for example, was happy to bring in refugees but only if they were useful.

“The Kurers, in another example, were a family of devout Viennese Jews brought to Manchester by the Manchester Quakers.

“The Quakers were keen to support the Kurers- but only on their terms and not as Jews.

“The family were documented as taking part in a ‘Christmas party’ at the Meeting House with the head of the family dressing up as Father Christmas.

“This must surely have been difficult for them.

“Only the Rotary Club acquitted itself well in Manchester, and that was down to two strong individuals who overruled hostility to the Jews within the organisation, opening a hostel for training refugees in 1938.”

Notes for editors

Images are available

  • Mothers Day card from Ruth Schneider, from Vienna, in Austria to her parents. She was allowed to travel to Manchester by British authorities in 1939 for her safety. Ruth's parents Josephine and Isak Schneider were not admitted and were killed by Yugoslavian fascists in 1941.
  • Scrapbook of pictures showing the experience of a German Jewish  refugee family living in Chorlton


Mr Williams is available for comment

For media enquiries contact:
Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
Michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk