Review: ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk

Children from a Kindertransport after their arrival in Waterloo Station in London, February 2, 1939, (c) USHMM.

Until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, around 70,000 Jews escaped to Great Britain, seeking refuge from the escalating legal, social, cultural and economic repression put forward by the Nazis. Starting in 2003, the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) recorded autobiographical interviews with 150 of the refugees who have been living in Great Britain since. The Association itself had been established in 1941 as a charity organisation and continues to provide social services to Jews in Great Britain. It commissioned the historians Anthony Grenville and Bea Lewkowicz – both members of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies – to record the oral testimonies of Jewish refugees. This project has since been transformed into an easily accessible website with a wealth of biographical information and background material as well as a social media presence on Twitter and Facebook that continues to raise public interest.

While, unfortunately, the videotaped interviews cannot be accessed online, a list of the interviewees is available. They can be arranged alphabetically, by date of birth, and by interview order. The interviews can also be searched for places of birth or filtered for interviewees who experienced the Kindertransport, the so-called Kristallnacht, or deportation. Choosing an interview, one is presented with historical and contemporary photographs and a short biographical summary. The photos – family pictures, visas and letters – are a unique documentation of Jewish exile from an individual, very private perspective. A particularly interesting tool is the map depicting the places of birth of the interviewees, as it helps imagining the space in which Jewish emigration to Great Britain took place. It also highlights how different the experiences of Jewish refugees were, even if originating from the same city. Complementing the collection of interviews and maps, the website features a podcast on the Kindertransports, using first-hand accounts of the Refugee Voices project and additional information by Louise London, author of the reference work Whitehall and the Jews[1].

Additionally, there is a section providing historical background, explaining in simple terms why Jews had to escape Germany and German-occupied territories, how they came to Great Britain, what effects the Second World War had on Jews in the UK and on those “left behind”. It also sheds light on the integration into British society after the war, and Jewish identity in Britain, as post-war migration had a great impact on the composition of the British Jewish community as well. More informative than the articles, however, are the quotes by interviewees on the given topics. Here, we get a glimpse of the actual interviews, which are not available online.[2] They are autobiographical, giving insight into how Jewish migrants coped with their experience of exile and loss of family members as well as their lives in Britain after the war. 

Clippings in the segment “Lives in Focus” serve the same goal. It features, amongst others, an interview with Mirjam Finkelstein, daughter of Margarethe and Dr Alfred Wiener, founder of the Wiener Library (link). She speaks about her family’s emigration to Amsterdam, where her father set up the Jewish Central Information Office. While Alfred Wiener moved the library to London in early 1939, his family remained in the Netherlands where they suffered under repressive anti-semitic policies. Finkelstein vividly remembers the introduction of the yellow badge Jews were forced to buy and wear visibly on their clothes. Deported to the Dutch transit camp Westerbork and to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she was part of a prisoner exchange in 1945 and left for the United States. From there, she came to Great Britain to live with her father. 

Mirjam Finkelstein in Amsterdam, 1941 (c) Mirjam Finkelstein/AJR

If one is interested in the history of the Wiener Library and the influence of Jews on post-war planning in the “London Moment”, her account contributes a different, personal perspective on the circumstances under which Jewish refugees like Alfred Wiener arrived in London. Having to leave his family behind (and losing his wife to the barbaric system of concentration camps) certainly played a part in his determination to collect information on the ways in which the Nazis tried to exterminate German and European Jews.  

Thus, the website presents highly individual stories, which differ widely when it comes to socioeconomic background, faith, or circumstances of exile. Together, they provide a panorama of how prosecution, exile, and integration shaped the lives of Jews in European history and should encourage historians to grapple with questions of migration and identity from a biographical perspective.


[1] London, Louise: Whitehall and the Jews: British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust, London, 2000.

[2] In Germany, one can access the collection of interviews only at Freie Universität Berlin: http://www.refugeevoices.fu-berlin.de/sammlung/index.html



Cite this blog post
Sara Weydner (2019, December 16). Review: ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk. The London Moment. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/onm9

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