A Sense of Mission

German-Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex

The University of Sussex, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in autumn 2011, has always been a cosmopolitan institution. When I joined the staff as an assistant lecturer in German in autumn 1963 it was a surprise to discover how few of those teaching literature courses were of English origin. David Daiches was the son of an Edinburgh rabbi whose mother tongue was Yiddish, while other colleagues included Larry Lerner from South Africa, Gabriel Josipovici from Egypt, and Gamini Salgado from Ceylon.

Daiches was the most inspirational figure. Literature, he argued, explores the human condition, but under circumstances that are continuously changing – hence the importance of an interdisciplinary approach within clearly defined historical contexts. The most remarkable innovation was the Modern European Mind, a course originated by Daiches to which colleagues contributed across a plurality of subjects: literature, philosophy and the history of ideas, psychology and even theology. The course was to inspire successive generations of students for over forty years.

When I returned as a professor in 1992, after gaining further experience as a lecturer in Cambridge, my impression was that the original Sussex vision had stood the test of time. Students and staff were grouped in Schools, preserving an intimacy of scale amid rapid expansion, and the revitalized Modern European Mind, including topics like Literature & Psychoanalysis and Modernism in the Arts, was still proving exceptionally popular.

However, the approach to German literature through periods like the Age of Classicism struck me as pedestrian, so I drafted two fresh proposals: German-Jewish Culture and Politics, and Anglo-German Intellectual Relations. The Anglo-German project would have focused on the influential achievements of poets like Goethe and Heine and philosophers such as Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. To encourage students to reflect on their own position, there would have been a module on the idea of the university, so influentially redefined by Wilhelm von Humboldt.

It was the Jewish option that appealed to colleagues whose judgment carried most weight, Gabriel Josipovici (who had spent his early years in hiding in Vichy France), Laci Löb (a Holocaust survivor from Hungary), and the Anglo-German political historian John Röhl. All three had indelible memories of their childhood in Nazi-occupied Europe, a factor that may have inhibited them from making the academic case themselves.

The challenge was to explain how such a civilized nation as the Germans had succumbed to barbarism, charting the trajectory from the ideals of the Enlightenment to the atrocities of the Holocaust. To modify the crude perpetrator-victim model of German-Jewish relations, we would highlight the role of Jews as catalysts for European civilization. Their innovative achievements attracted envy, as I’d noted in a Jewish Quarterly article of autumn 1990:

Jewish entrepreneurs built the railroads, financed the coalmines, set up pilsner beer production, pioneered sugar-refining, developed the iron and steel industries, controlled the leading banks and newspapers, and were prominent in the leather goods, furniture, clothing and food-processing trades.

Tragically, I concluded, this provoked such resentment in both Germany and Austria that the Jews found themselves victimized for their success.

The purpose of the Centre for German-Jewish Studies, which has flourished at Sussex for almost twenty years, is to study the contribution of German-Jewish communities to modern civilisation and to train new generations to understand the causes of racial prejudice and the consequences of enforced migration. From its base within a dynamic modern university committed to interdisciplinary studies, the Centre makes a distinctive contribution to both historical and scholarship and multi-cultural education.

‘What was so important about Vienna?’ asked Max Kochmann, a refugee from Berlin, as the launch of the Centre was being planned. ‘Vienna’, I replied, ‘exemplified the contribution of German-speaking Jews to modern civilisation –  think of Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl, Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Many German speaking Jews came from highly educated backgrounds, and they brought with them as refugees from National Socialism their love of the arts and sciences, greatly enriching the cultural life of Britain.’

The aim of teaching and research, as defined in the Centre’s original mission statement, has been to reassess the concept of a ‘German-Jewish symbiosis’, that creative identification with German culture which was so characteristic of Jews in many parts of central Europe, including the territories of Austro-Hungarian Empire. A second main objective is to research the experiences and achievements of refugees and their families. Taking amount of the currents of anti-Semitism which culminated in National Socialism, the Centre has also developed a third group of projects relating to commemorations of the Shoah.

The founding of the Centre coincided with a surge of international interest in the Holocaust. The opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in April 1993 was followed by the release of Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Thus our timing could hardly have been more fortunate. When the ecologist Gordon Conway was appointed Sussex Vice-Chancellor, he asked the Chancellor Lord (Richard) Attenborough whether there was any programme at Sussex that he would like to support. The consequences were unexpected. In January 1995 the Higher Education Supplement announced that Steven Spielberg had pledged $100,000 of the revenues from Schindler’s List to the Centre for German-Jewish Studies.

At Attenborough’s suggestion, Spielberg was making the donation through his Righteous Persons Foundation, set up to support Holocaust research. Interviewed in Higher Education, I explained that the grant would help to research the experiences of refugees. Their testimony would complement the Sussex-based Mass Observation Archive, a unique collection documenting British attitudes during the Second World War. ‘Even those refugees who came to the UK as children are reaching retirement’, I explained. ‘It is time to put their memories on record.’

By the turn of the century the work of the Centre had gathered such momentum that Sussex awarded an honorary doctorate to Max Kochmann, chairman of our London Support Group, which regularly meets in the library of Belsize Square Synagogue. That synagogue, together with other institutions created by German-Jewish exiles like the Warburg Institute, the Freud Museum and the Association of Jewish Refugees, has featured prominently in the Centre’s research.

The eulogy to Max Kochmann delivered at the honorary degree ceremony in January 2000 acknowledged not only of his individual merits but those of the remarkable generation he represented. Those who fled from Nazism in the 1930s brought to Britain traditions of economic enterprise, cultural achievement and public service that have provided long-term benefits.

The Sussex ceremony was attended by Lord Attenborough, whose presence has been an inspiration for the innumerable graduands on whom he conferred degrees. On that same day, 27 January 2000, he inaugurated the Centre’s Archive in the University Library. After movingly recalling his family’s involvement with the refugees of the 1930s (they provided a home for two Jewish girls), he unveiled a plaque with the Centre’s logo, designed by Christopher Calderhead (Fig. 1). This features the Star of David encircled by a rose, symbolizing the ideal of cooperation between Jewish and Christian communities.

It was essential, Attenborough continued, highlighting our sense of mission, to teach the younger generation how the murder of Jews and other people deemed ‘unworthy of life’ could have occurred. The Sussex Archive would help to ensure that those events were never forgotten. These ideas were echoed in the vote of thanks by a Sussex student, who cited an exalted concept from Jewish liturgy: ‘shamor ve-zakhor’. Remembrance combined with remedial action is needed to reshape the future.

The Centre’s archive, which forms part of the university’s Special Collections, is developing in accordance with our three main themes. There is a particular interest in materials documenting histories of German-Jewish families since the Enlightenment, including diaries, letters, oral testimony, survival narratives and other biographical sources. This has enabled us to focus on the impact of National Socialism, using the methods of Life History to record the voices of the victims.

Our archival research was enhanced by a further momentous discovery. Not long after the founding of the Centre the phone rang in my office. ‘What has happened to the Daghani collection?’ asked an anxious voice. The Sussex archives, the Librarian had assured me, held no Jewish collections (the emphasis was on the Mass Observation Archive, the Kipling papers and the Bloomsbury Group). But on the line was a journalist from Hove, Mollie Brandl Bowen, insisting that only a few years earlier the university had acquired the work of a Holocaust survivor. Asked where this mysterious collection was located, the chair of the archives committee, Margaret McGowan, took several weeks to find the answer. Locked away in a storeroom in the Education Building we then discovered a treasure trove – the artistic and literary estate of Arnold Daghani.

This strengthened our sense of mission, for the artist was born in 1909 in an eastern frontier town of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a member of a German-speaking Jewish family. After enduring persecution, deportation and exile, Daghani had died in 1985 in Hove, where he and his wife Nanino had finally found sanctuary. The Trustees, his sister-in-law his Carola and her husband Miron Grindea, had the task of finding a home for the works that had been displayed at the artist’s apartment. When the collection was offered to the Israel Museum in February 1987, the offer was politely refused by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. But Miron and Carola found an ally closer to home: Norbert Lynton, Professor of the History of Art at Sussex. ‘As a refugee who has lost many relatives and some childhood friends in the Holocaust,’ Lynton later explained, ‘I could not but be sympathetic.’ When the Trustees offered Daghani’s estate to the university, Lynton ensured that the collection found a haven on the campus.

‘MAJOR ART COLLECTION COMES TO SUSSEX’ proclaimed the University Bulletin on 12 May 1987. But at Sussex, despite its interdisciplinary ethos, the collection fell between two schools. Professor Lynton took early retirement, and his colleagues in History of Art had other priorities. The gift, which was to form part of the University Art Collection, was not their departmental responsibility. For political historians, on the other hand, it was too subjective to be regarded as a reliable source, while it was too pictorial to be acceptable as part of the Manuscript Collection in the Library. Moreover, there was no funding to catalogue the collection, so for ten years it languished in storage, virtually forgotten.

With colleagues at the Centre I rescued key works from the dismal storeroom and raised funding to have them catalogued. A grant from the Ian Karten Trust enabled us to employ a young art historian, Deborah Schultz, to catalogue the collection and develop a strategy for conservation and analysis. Daghani’s estate included approximately 6000 artistic and commemorative works – the most significant collection of work by a Holocaust survivor at any British institution. Further items were added after Deborah and I visited Carola Grindea at her West London home. The wall of her music room was covered with paintings, while half the floor space was taken up by a grand piano. ‘Have a look under the piano,’ Carola said, and several hours later we were still marvelling at the treasures that lay there. I drove back to Sussex with Daghani’s monumental album 1942-1943 in the boot of the car, a unique compilation of commemorative paintings and writings.

To draw attention to the achievements of this idiosyncratic artist, the Centre published our initial findings in a research paper entitled Memories of Mikhailowka: Labour Camp Testimonies in the Arnold Daghani Archive. One of his albums concludes with an account of how more than a hundred and fifty Jews from the camp were executed by the Germans in December 1943, followed by a calligraphic portrait of a woman prisoner incorporating their names (Fig. 2). Daghani’s aim was to rescue the victims from oblivion and remind us that each of them had a human face.

Fulfilling Attenborough’s admonition to collect and evaluate the testimony of survivors required systematic collaboration. To balance my focus on culture and politics, the Centre recruited researchers with complementary skills. Our study of Racist Materials on the Internet was undertaken by Information Technology experts led by Stella Rock. A further project, funded by the British Academy, related to those who fled from Nazism as children on the Kindertransport. Together with the archivist Samira Teuteberg, our research fellow Andrea Hammel compiled a database of British archival materials relating to the refugee generation, exploring the international context in collaboration with Wolfgang Benz, Director of the Centre for Antisemitism Research at the Technical University in Berlin. An archive-based study of Refugee Experiences in London and New York was completed by Lori Gemeiner, while Iris Guske from Bavaria undertook oral history interviews for her project on the Kindertransport Experience: A Socio-Psychological Study.

Further educational projects were developed by Cathy Gelbin and Chana Moshenska with the support of the ANNE FRANK-Fonds. As Director of Educational Programmes, Chana arranged a remarkable series of speakers to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. In January 2002 we heard the testimony of two Auschwitz survivors, Trude Levi and Fred Knoller. Sensitive to the atmosphere of xenophobia resulting from the destruction of the World Trade Building in New York, we began the day with an inter-faith service on the theme of Remembrance and Hope. Our theme the following year, Survivors and Refugees 1933-2003, connected the experiences during the Nazi period of Janina Fischler-Martinho with the more recent ordeal of a refugee from Afghanistan, Abdul Lazlad, whose escape from the clutches of the Taliban gave a personal edge to his analysis of British Asylum Policy. During the following years we explored further topical themes, especially relating to genocide. In January 2008, after Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg had analysed the obstacles to inter-faith dialogue, we were warned by Mark Levene (of Southampton University’s Parkes Institute) that the competition for scarce resources caused by climate change could have apocalyptic consequences.

Strengthening international cooperation has been one of the priorities of my successors as Director of the Centre: first Dr Raphael Gross, who held the post jointly with the Directorship of the London Leo Baeck Institute; and more recently Professor Christian Wiese, author of a widely acclaimed study of the German-Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. Professor Wiese’s appointment to the Martin Buber Chair in Jewish Thought at the University of Frankfurt am Main is a signal honour which is also bringing benefits to the Centre, for he has continued to act as Interim Director of the Centre. Meanwhile, a permanent post as Reader in Jewish History and Director of the Sussex Centre has been advertised and should shortly be filled. Our current research includes a three-year project on the Quakers as Rescuers during the Nazi Period supported by a generous gift from Dr Alfred Bader, channeled through the American Friends of the University of Sussex.

The above account is excerpted from the memoirs of Edward Timms, Taking up the Torch: English Institutions, German Dialectics and Multicultural Commitments (Sussex Academic Press, 2011) by kind permission of the publisher.

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