Jewish refuge and the Nazi regime

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'Refugees', 1941 (Courtesy of the Ben Uri Gallery)
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Refugees (1941) by Josef Herman is an emotional and moving work, depicting a frightened family of refugees escaping.

Herman uses colour in a highly expressive way in this painting with blue used to heighten the overall sombre mood of the work. Herman paints this family to represent the mass sense of displacement and fear that Jews felt during the Second World War. As a migrant himself at this time, Herman felt a connection to their plight, and the figures’ wide eyes communicate a sense of anxiety and terror. A large cat, towering over the family in the background, plays with a mouse dangling in its mouth, which is symbolic of the precarious fate of Jewish migrants attempting to escape.

Herman's background leads us to believe this is a Jewish family; however, due to the lack of indicators of who they are, where they come from or their religion, the painting can be seen as a universal comment on migration and human struggle. 

(Source information: the image is provided courtesy of the Ben Uri Gallery. 60.7 x 53.2 x 3.3 cm, Ben Uri Collection © Estate of Josef Herman. All rights reserved). 

The rise of Adolf Hitler and European Jewish persecution 

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (otherwise known as the Nazi Party) came into power in Germany in 1933 after slowly growing in strength. Once they ascended to political supremacy, the party leader Adolf Hitler passed a number of laws and policies that increasingly segregated Jews from society and encouraged anti-Semitic ideology. As a result, there was an enormous amount of Jewish migration to countries across Europe, including to Britain where approximately 60,000 refugees travelled before the start of the Second World War.  

Whilst many Jews successfully migrated out of Germany, by October 1941 it was forbidden for Jews to leave the country, whereas before it was officially encouraged. Jews who had not left before this date were largely captured and forced to work in labour camps or were murdered in concentration camps, especially in Poland, which was the largest site of extermination during the war. Two of the largest concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, were based in Poland, a country with a population of over 3 million Jews in 1939. By the end of the Second World War no more than 400,000 Polish Jews are believed to have survived. 

Britain as fortress and refuge  

Whilst some might think Britain was always sympathetic to Jewish suffering, there was some initial hostility to Jewish migrants before the war began. Migrants were either deemed ‘bogus asylum seekers’ who had no immediate need to leave their country, or ‘economic migrants’ who were merely migrating to reap the benefits of Britain’s economy. A Daily Mail article from 1938 (with the headline ‘German Jews Pouring into This Country’) illustrates this attitude:

‘The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest.’

In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalde, the Old Street Magistrate yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering this country through the ‘back door’ – a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.

The number of aliens entering this country can be seen by the number of prosecutions in recent months. It is very difficult for the alien to escape the increasing vigilance of the police and port authorities.

Even if aliens manage to break through the defences, it is not long before they are caught and deported.

There was also a growing concern that jobless Jewish migrants would be competing with unemployed British citizens for jobs, which were already scarce as a result of the Great Depression (the global economic slump following the First World War). Approximately 2.2 million Britons were unemployed in 1933 and the British press fuelled the perception that refugees would steal jobs. 

The events of Kristallnacht drastically affected the British response to refugees. The Kristallnacht pogroms were exacted on the 9-10 November 1938 throughout Nazi Germany. Kristallnacht was a wave of extremist, violent attacks on Jewish homes, businesses, properties and cemeteries, as well as 267 synagogues. The event takes its name from the shattered glass (crystal) that filled the streets as a result of the attacks, and also marks the earliest instance of widespread imprisonment of Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime (approximately 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and transferred to the first concentration camps).  Following the pogroms, a number of Nazi-enforced laws were passed that transferred ownership of property from Jews to ‘Aryan’ Germans. These followed many other laws that sought to slowly de-humanise and eradicate Jews, such as the Nuremberg Laws passed in 1933, which officially categorised Jews as second-class citizens. 

In Britain sympathy turned and, from 1938 to 1939, trains known as Kindertransport, helped evacuate 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany to Britain, where they were transferred to foster care. The British Jewish community was overwhelmingly supportive of these refugees. Many organisations and charities provided much-needed financial and emotional support such as the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF), who guaranteed the British government they would financially support Jewish refugees, assuaging fears that migration would become a burden on the British economy.  

Following the Nazis' annexation of Austria on 12 March 1938, Britain introduced a visa requirement to prevent an influx of other refugees. Unlike the United States, there was no quota of how many refugees would be allowed into the country; however only four types of migrants were granted immediate entry:  transit migrants, who would be admitted on the condition that they would re-migrate within two years; children and under-18s on the Kindertransport; migrants aged between 16 and 35, who would be trained in Britain and then transferred to other countries; and over-60s. An exception to the strict entry requirements was that refugees who were notable in their fields – such as scientists and artists – were granted immediate entry. Another exception was any refugees who were willing to work in understaffed occupations. 

For refugees who fell outside of these categories, entry was far more complicated. They required a guarantor of British citizenship, who would agree to cover their living expenses, and provide evidence of their suitability by producing a lump sum of £200 (almost £10,000 today).  After the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain immediately cancelled all visas and banned migration from Nazi-occupied territory. Existing Jewish migrants settled in Britain were now classified as ‘enemy alien immigrants’ and were investigated. Many were put in internment camps in places such as the Isle of Man, where they were detained as prisoners of war despite the fact that their Jewish identity made them unlikely to be Nazi sympathisers.  

Josef Herman and escape 

The artist Josef Herman left Poland before the outbreak of war. Born in 1911 in Warsaw, Poland, Josef came to Glasgow in 1940 after fleeing through Brussels then France, stating that ‘I felt oppressed in Poland under its fascist regime, both as liberal and as a Jew.’ Josef escaped Poland before it was invaded, and before the Nazi regime’s ‘Final Solution’ was carried out.  His parents were not so fortunate; Josef learned some years later in 1942 that his family had died in the Warsaw Ghetto.   

Herman had trained at the Warsaw School of Art for a year before immigrating to Britain. He developed a passion there for painting ordinary, working people. When he arrived in Britain, his artworks were very successful, and he exhibited in a number of group and solo shows. A year after he painted Refugees (see above), Josef discovered the fate of his family in Warsaw and produced a series of works called Memory of Memories. In these works, Josef painted nostalgic scenes of the life he had left behind in Warsaw, imagining what his life would have been like had he not left his home country. The series also contained dark, melancholic paintings that imagine the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and depict the pogroms that destroyed his country. Josef moved to Wales after the war, where he became fascinated by the miners and field labourers he encountered. He saw the everyday workers as 'a walking monument of human labour'. Whilst the subject matter of his art changed following the war, Josef’s identity as a Jewish migrant remained with him, and his connection to people who faced great adversity in their lives was a constant throughout his artwork.

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'Crucifixion', Emmanuel Levy, 1942 (Courtesy of the Ben Uri Gallery. 102 x 78 cm, Ben Uri Collection © Estate of Emmanuel Levy)

British-born Jewish artists also sympathised with suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Emmanuel Levy (born in 1900 in Manchester) was the son of Russian-Jewish migrants and felt strong anger about the way the Jewish community were being persecuted during the Holocaust. Crucifixion, painted in 1942, shows his revulsion at the way his fellow Jews were being treated, and acts as a protest against their oppression. The artwork uses Christian and Jewish imagery, and shows an Orthodox Jew in the position of Jesus Christ the martyr – here representing Jewish suffering. The man wears a Tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) and has a Tefflin, also called ‘phylacteries’  (a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah) wrapped tightly around his arm. The word ‘Jude’ is written in blood red at the top of the crucifix and seems to signify the many Jews being killed. 

Fleeing to and being in Britain

There were a large number of ‘push’ factors that drove Jewish migration to Britain. As the Nazi political party grew in power, Jews like Josef Herman, from Poland, Germany and many other occupied European countries felt pressure to flee in order to escape persecution. The influx of Jews coming to Britain also resulted from the reluctance of other destination countries to admit ‘alien’ migrants, particularly America, which had strict immigration policies. Such loss of livelihood and homes, as well as fear for their lives, undoubtedly increased migration out of Germany. However, migration policies of destination countries at this point in time were still relatively strict. For Jews, the strongest ‘pull’ factor was to live in a country free from anti-Semitic persecution. Many other factors may have led Jews to migrate to Britain, such as having family already in the country, knowing the language or wishing to travel onward from Britain to destinations such as America. However, as more European countries became occupied by Nazi Germany, Britain became one of the last available countries where Jews wishing to escape could go. Whilst public outcry following the Kristallnacht pogroms led Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to ease admission policies concerning migrants, they were still only admitted on a temporary basis, meaning that there was a sense of uncertainty when they arrived. Josef gained popularity and recognition as an artist, which made his adjustment to British life easier. 

There was also public condemnation of the internment of Jews at the start of war. Many were released by 1940, and went on to join the British war effort in the Pioneer Corps and the armed forces, as well as becoming involved in the war effort at home.  

The war’s aftermath and reparations

At the end of the Second World War many Jewish people who had migrated to Britain remained in the country, gaining citizenship and establishing permanent roots. A large number of migrants brought with them considerable knowledge, and notable names in the fields of science, medicine, psychoanalysis, art history and publishing had an enormous impact on these fields in Britain. Josef, as well as artists such as Frank Auerbach, Eva Frankfurther, Klaus Meyer and Lucian Freud all immigrated to Britain during the Second World War and contributed greatly to Britain’s rich artistic heritage. 

From 1945, it was decided by Britain and its allies that the Jewish community should be granted reparations from Germany. A man named Chaim Weizmann wrote to the Allied Powers in 1945 on behalf of the Jewish Agency demanding compensation and restitution payments for Holocaust victims. His claim was ignored. However, in 1951 Israel’s foreign minister – Moshe Sharratt – submitted a similar request to the Allied Powers, claiming that the State of Israel was owed 1.5 billion dollars from Federal Germany to account for the financial burden incurred when Israel rehabilitated Jews escaping from Nazi persecution. These developments led to ‘The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany’ – or ‘The Claims Conference’ – being established in New York in 1951, a body dedicated to securing maximum reparation from Germany. Countries that were represented by the Claims Conference included the United States, Britain, France, Argentina, Canada, Australia and South Africa. In 1952, the Luxembourg Agreement was signed by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The agreement obligated Germany to pay 3 billion German marks to the State of Israel as compensation, and 450 million German marks to various Jewish organisations, which would then feed it back to Jewish individuals seeking financial reparations. As of 2012, Germany has paid 89 billion dollars in compensation for Nazi crimes, with many claims programmes still open to the Jewish community. 

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Questions and Student Activities
  • Art has often been a way for many to express their experiences. Can you find other artists who have had to migrate to escape persecution? How does their artwork respond to their experience?
  • During the 1930s many people migrated to Britain in the hope of reaching America. Why do you think America was a more appealing country to settle in during this time?
  • Whilst many Jewish migrants left Britain, after the Second World War, many remained and put down roots. Josef Herman is one example of a Jewish migrant who remained and whose work contributed to art in Britain. Can you research other famous Jewish migrants who settled in Britain after the Second World War – what impact did they have in shaping Britain today?