Between 1933 and 1940, Manchester received between seven and eight thousand refugees from Fascist Europe. They included Jewish academics expelled from universities in Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy. Around two hundred were children from the Basque country of Spain evacuated to Britain on a temporary basis in 1937 as the fighting of the Spanish Civil War neared their home towns. Most were refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. As much as 95% of the refugees from Nazism were Jews threatened by the increasingly violent anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime. The rest were Communists, Social Democrats, Pacifists, Liberals, Confessional Christians and Sudeten Germans. There have been several valuable studies of the response of the British government to the refugee crisis. This study seeks to assess the responses in one city—Manchester—which had long cultivated an image of itself as a ‘liberal city’. Using documentary and oral sources, including interviews with Manchester refugees, it explores the work of those sectors of local society that took part in the work of rescue: Jewish communal organisations, the Society of Friends, the Rotarians, the University of Manchester, secondary schools in and around Manchester, pacifist bodies, the Roman Catholic Church and industrialists from the Manchester region. The book considers the reasons for their choices to help to assesses their degree of success and the forces which limited their effectiveness.
Bill Williams’ essay takes the opportunity of a unique study of the Manchester International Club to demonstrate the cosmopolitan tendencies in the city in the 1930s. The Club represented the first time that anyone had thought to give Manchester’s tradition of tolerance a local, practical and institutional form, and the essay explores the objectives and achievements of the founders of the Club. Williams records the city’s earlier history of pacifism and liberal internationalism in the early twentieth century, manifest in Manchester branches of various other organisations. The specific rationale for the International Club was to provide for Manchester’s foreign population, as well as to promote ‘a real understanding of other peoples’. The structure and governance of the Club is discussed, and some of the issues debated explored, through archival and other documents, as well as its relationship with the British Council. The Club served various populations, including foreign students, refugees and members of the armed forces.
This chapter notes the need to restore a sense of balance to Manchester's role in refugee history: to assess the degree to which the people and institutions of a supposedly liberal British city like Manchester actually reached beyond everyday concerns to help the victims of European Fascism find a haven of safety. It throws questions around the view of Manchester as a ‘liberal city’. It asks what it was about those who did reach out which caused them to do so; which differentiated them from an indifferent majority. In Holocaust history, the Manchester population might have been designated ‘bystanders’ to the unfolding tragedy wished by the Nazis upon those judged to have been unworthy of membership of the Third Reich.
Refugee academics and industrialists, trainees supported by Isidore Apfelbaum's ‘private’ operation, German domestic servants placed by the Ladies Lodge of B'nai Brith, the two or three foreign students accepted by the Yeshiva, the two German ‘refugee’ rabbis and the handful of pacifists and Jewish ‘Friends of Friend’ supported by the Quakers represented the only known refugees from Nazism to have arrived in Manchester before November 1938. In spite of an escalating ‘war against the Jews’, many had delayed their departure in the belief that the Hitler regime would be as short-lived as its predecessors or, at any rate, that his anti-Semitism had been no more than a device for the achievement of power.
J'accuse gave a special place to Jewish academics, highlighting their contributions to German science and culture and depicting their harassment and dismissal as the most evident indication of Germany's return to barbarism. They were noted too as one of several ways in which Britain might benefit from German obscurantism. In assessing the response of the University of Manchester to refugee scholars, it is difficult to avoid the benefit of hindsight. From that perspective, the offer of thirty-three temporary academic posts between 1933 and 1939 seems less than generous. Manchester stood fourth to Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE, although a rather distant fourth in the case of Oxbridge, in the league of British universities which received displaced scholars. Still, there can be no doubting the gains made by Manchester's programmes of rescue for the academic and business communities of Britain, Europe, the United States and Israel.
In applying immigration law, the British government made the occasional concession and its agents at the ports of entry their occasional mistake. The British public had apparently become persuaded by 1937 that the regulations contained in the Alien Acts represented a valid and minimal defence of the ‘national interest’. The temporary and conditional admission of the Basque children suggests the very limited impact which even as potentially explosive a mix of international events, popular sentiment and voluntary action, such as that which came to exist in the spring of 1937, might exert on public as well as governmental perceptions of the national interest. It seems clear from the imagery and language surrounding discussions of the Basque children that notions of Britain's humanitarian tradition floated freely within the whole of Britain's political spectrum.
Girls from the Kinder transport in Southport, 1938–1940
Sensing a lack of enthusiasm from the MJRC, which may well have seen Southport as lying well beyond its realistic sphere of operations, the promoters now converted themselves into the ‘Southport branch of the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany’, for the reception of children from the Kindertransport, and pressed on without Manchester support. On 12 February 1939, ‘Harris House’ was opened and consecrated by Rabbi Dr Silverstone as a hostel ‘for young ladies up to eighteen years of age’. Apart from providing the girls with guarantees and maintaining the hostel, the General Committee of the branch also ‘supervised the welfare of refugee children under private guardianship’and served as a means of liaison with the regional headquarters of the movement, in Manchester.
Refugees and the Manchester Women’s Lodge of B’nai Brith
A revival of interest in refugees within the Manchester B'nai Brith Women's Lodge, following the collapse of its Hospitality Committee in 1935, was apparently sparked off by the same chain of international events and those same pressures from Woburn House which had brought the MJRC into being. Later, the MJRC, found a viable plan, agreeable to the lodge, the committee, Woburn House and the Home Office, for the financing and management of a children's hostel with accommodation for a maximum of twenty-two children between the ages of thirteen and sixteen.
In taking responsibility for refugees from Czechoslovakia, the Quakers were brought into contact with political refugees, Communists and Social Democrats, brought to Britain by the Czech Refugee Trust Fund. Some of them were experienced members of the German KPD who, following the emergence of the Nazi regime, had taken refuge in Prague. Some had been sent on what turned out to be unproductive missions to Germany for just this purpose. Arriving in Britain in 1938, their political skills enabled them to re-group and to work for the rescue of their comrades still trapped in Czechoslovakia. One such group of KPD members, helped by the Quakers, found its way to Manchester, where it sought to provide their comrades with a means of escape. In doing so, they concealed their Communist identities in the hope of enlisting the support of the Quakers and of influential Manchester liberals.
Of all the reversals of attitude which followed the changing international situation after March 1938, the most dramatic was that of the Manchester Yeshiva. The admission of refugees contributed to an already critical financial deficit and was accompanied by fresh campaigns against such long-term latitudinarian opponents as the Talmud Torah. The explanation lies rather in the Yeshiva's open and unapologetic defiance of financial logic, communal policy and Home Office regulations, even of what might have seemed the reasonable caution of some of its own committee men, to pursue a campaign of rescue based as much on the humanitarian dictates of Jewish orthodoxy as its more routine battles for the religious integrity of the community.