Tag Archives: Refugees

The Ockenden Venture ‘Westholme’

Sometimes when cataloguing an archive collection you come across an item which has no obvious link to the other papers it is with and clues to help you identify the links are few and far between. Such was the case with a small pamphlet with the title ‘Ockenden Venture ‘Westholme’ training and education for refugee boys’ which caught my attention in the records of Bull Street Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. As this week is Refugee Week, when the contributions of refugees to the UK are celebrated and greater understanding about why refugees seek sanctuary is promoted, it seemed fitting that the story of Westholme should be retold.

The Ockenden Venture was established in 1951 by three school teachers in Woking, Surrey. They were concerned about the conditions in which displaced East European teenagers were living and recognised that the educational provision in the camps was insufficient after a group came on holiday from a displaced persons camp in Germany at Ockenden House where Joyce Pearce (1915-1985) ran a sixth form. Pearce, together with Ruth Hicks (1900 – 1986) and Margaret Dixon (1907-2001) housed small numbers of East European teenagers from the camps at Ockenden House and later in houses at Haslemere, Surrey and Donington Hall near Derby and provided for them so that they could complete their secondary education.

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Birmingham Quakers and the Spanish Civil War


Promise of donation to the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee appeal for funds, n.d.[ c. 1936-9] [SF/2/1/1/3/12/2/1]

This month is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco attempted to overthrow the left-wing democratically elected Republican government. The war caused much suffering and a million deaths, and resulted in the Nationalists taking power. General Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975.

In Birmingham in November 1936, Horace G. Alexander, a member of staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and a member of Cotteridge Preparative Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends drew Friends’ attention to the plight of children on both sides of the war in Spain, and the need for relief work. Work to establish what relief was needed had already been undertaken by the US born British Quaker, Alfred Jacob in Spain and an agreement had been made between the Friends Service Council (1919-1927), and the Save the Children Fund to launch an appeal for funding.

In response, on 10th November 1936, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends established the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee to organise an appeal locally, but it was also to work with the London-based Friends Service Council. Initial members included Horace G. Alexander, Evelyn Sturge, John S. Hoyland, and Ethel M. Barrow, with other members such as George Cadbury, Florence M. Barrow, Margaret Backhouse, Helena Graham, Catharine Albright and Francesca Wilson and others being invited to join at a later date.


Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting copy minute 156, 10 November 1936, establishing the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee  [SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1]

Over the next three years, the Committee took part in a variety of activities. They focused on raising awareness of the campaign amongst Friends as well as the wider public and they also appealed for people to go to Spain to help carry out relief work in the areas that most needed it. Appeals for funds were regularly made at local and monthly Quaker meetings, with updates on the situation in Spain. Ethel M. Barrow reported to the Monthly Meeting in March 1937 that £1600 had been collected for the Spanish Children’s Relief Fund and that more was needed. The Committee minutes record that,

‘The Committee feel that the dire need of the Spanish people is not sufficiently realised by Friends and it is hoped that a much greater effort be made to collect money and clothing for the relief of this great mass of suffering’

(SF/2/1/1/1/1/33 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, minute 223)

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‘I Chose Where To Stand: The Life of Else Rosenfeld’

dont_stand_by_logoThe theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January is ‘Don’t Stand By’, reminding us that the Holocaust and later genocides occurred as a result of local populations either actively supporting and taking part in government persecution or remaining silent, whether through fear or indifference, and allowing persecution to take hold and grow.

The story of Else (or Elsbeth) Rosenfeld, recorded by Charles Parker, the BBC documentary radio producer in 1963, is the story of someone who didn’t stand by. Born in Berlin in 1891, to a non-practising Jewish father and a Christian mother, she and her siblings were brought up as Lutheran Christians, and were encouraged to treat everyone equally, irrespective of their beliefs. Her father was a well-liked doctor, practicing in one of the poorer areas of Berlin. As a child, Else often accompanied him when he visited patients, an experience which in later life influenced her decision to train as a social worker, at that time an unusual occupation for a woman. She initially worked in a team which cared for disabled soldiers, and later worked as a social worker rehabilitating inmates in a women’s prison in Berlin.

'The Life of Elsbeth Rosenfeld' from Charles Parker's library (ref MS 4000/4)

‘The Life of Elsbeth Rosenfeld’ ( MS 4000/4)

In 1920, she married Siegfried Rosenfeld, a Jewish lawyer who became a Social Democrat MP in the Prussian Parliament and a civil servant at the Prussian Ministry of Justice in Berlin, but in 1933, her husband was removed from office. Else, despite being Christian, was asked to stop her work in the prison because of her marriage to a Jew.  At the same time, rehabilitation or social work for prisoners was banned by the Nazi regime.

Life became increasingly difficult for the couple and their children, but despite this, they hid Jewish friends in their house until it became too dangerous to do so. In the summer of 1933, they decided to move to the countryside, where they were forced to move villages numerous times over the next few years because of tightening restrictions on what non-Aryans were allowed to do, and increasing intolerance and abuse from the people living around them.

In 1937, out of a desire to help the Jewish community and fight against injustice, Else asked a liberal Rabbi to register her as a member of the Jewish community and provide her with a certificate, though she did not renounce Christianity. She realised that the skills she had gained through social work could be of use in helping to alleviate some of the suffering of the Jews, but without the certificate, it would have been hard for her to be accepted and trusted by the Jewish community at that time. By deciding to stand with the Jews, she was putting herself into a dangerous situation from which her Christian faith could have saved her.

Ghetto gates. Image courtesy of the Wiener Library via http://hmd.org.uk/resources

Ghetto gates. Image courtesy of the Wiener Library via http://hmd.org.uk/resources

The family’s plans to leave Germany fell through after tightened restrictions on the movement of Jews after Kristallnacht in 1938. Knowing that it would soon be impossible to leave the country, they managed to get help from the Quakers so that their children could travel to England. Just before the outbreak of war, when Else’s travel permit failed to arrive, she convinced her husband to leave for England to join their children.

Soup Kitchen in Lodz ghetto.

Soup Kitchen in Lodz ghetto. Image courtesy of the Wiener Library via http://hmd.org.uk/resources

Else was soon travelling to Munich every day to help people in the ghetto. She was responsible for finding housing in the already crowded ghetto for 350 displaced Jews from Baden, and providing them with ration cards, food and clothing. She also supervised three homes for the elderly.

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Real People, Real Archives: a crucial lesson from ‘Connecting Histories’

‘The Talking Tent’, Birmingham Citizens Day (2005) MS 4786

‘The Talking Tent’, Birmingham Citizens Day (2005) MS 4786

The Connecting Histories Project [CHP] is ten years old this month.  Whilst it formally lasted just two years, its legacy has continued through subsequent projects (Birmingham Stories, Suburban Birmingham) and crucially, through the people it touched.  These included the project team members, but importantly also those members of the public who were encouraged to engage with archives in many, varied ways.[i]

The CHP was a partnership between Birmingham Library & Archives Service and the universities of Birmingham and Warwick.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it set out to engage with communities who were largely marginalised from the cultural / heritage mainstream.  A multi-disciplinary team was assembled, consisting of established and trainee archivists, academics, researchers, outreach officers and a web editor.  It strove to make existing archives more accessible through cataloguing and outreach exercises, whilst demonstrating their relevance to wide ranges of people.  It also sought to make the institution of ‘the archives’ more welcoming to diverse communities, by attracting new collections relevant to them and through greater participation in the archive profession by under-represented groups, as employees and as volunteers.  To this end, the project mentored two cultural / heritage graduates as they studied by distance learning to become archivists, whilst working directly as cataloguers and organising practical sessions with volunteers drawn from community groups.

The Somaliland Diaspora (2007) MS 4786

The Somaliland Diaspora (2007) MS 4786

A major lesson learned early on was the crucial role that archives have in validating peoples’ notion of self-worth – both as individuals and as members of communities (however defined).  Whilst many archivists recognise this at an intellectual level, the pressures and practicalities of daily duties sometimes dull this awareness.  The CHP was forcefully reminded of this key role as we encountered people for whom self-identity was a precious possession.  Migrants and especially refugees often had little to affirm their original cultural identity and they cherished those records, mementoes and memories that survived with them.  The CHP (and its successors) encountered Jewish and Polish refugees from World War Two and its aftermath, as well as refugees from more recent conflicts.

The example of Ahmed reflects this.  As a refugee from Somaliland, he is anxious that his personal story is recorded and understood, as well as that of his community.  As Twenty First Century arrivals in Birmingham, the traditional pattern of archival accruals would not normally reflect this aspect of City life for many years.  Through patient encouragement and dialogue with Ahmed and others, the CHP has addressed this and ensured that the issues relating to a distinctive Somaliland community are recorded.[ii]

One City – Many Stories (2006) MS 4786

One City – Many Stories (2006) MS 4786

Unfortunately, refugee experiences are not confined to any one group of people and Ahmed has worked with CHP to enable diverse communities to share experiences and celebrate their own identities.  A series of events was organised to facilitate community interaction, including ‘Citizens’ Day’ (October 2005); ‘One City – Many Stories’ (March 2006) and ‘Connecting Diasporas’ (November 2006). Overall a range of insights into other communities was provided, but for me personally the whole rationale of CHP was encapsulated at the end of the ‘Connecting Diasporas’ event.  Ahmed presented the delegates with a large, sumptuous cake, baked by members of his community and celebrating his pride in being empowered to record his presence in the City through the archives.  That one gesture confirmed for me that archives are truly rooted in reality, reflecting and affecting real people.

Connecting Diasporas Cake (2006) MS 4786

Connecting Diasporas Cake (2006) MS 4786

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Quakers and the Kindertransport

Holocaust Memorial Day 2015_logo_high_res

10, 000 children, the majority of whom were Jewish, were brought to Britain from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to escape persecution by the Nazis between 1 December 1938 and 1 September 1939. What came to be known as the Kindertransport was the result of the combined efforts of Jewish and Quaker organisations in successfully persuading the British government, in the days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, to ease its immigration restrictions for refugee children. The children were permitted to enter Britain on temporary visas without their parents if a guarantee of £50 per child were provided to cover the costs of care, education and re-emigration from Britain once the war was over. If the children were over 14, they were to be found work in agriculture or domestic service. The first group of children arrived at Harwich on 2 December 1938 and was accommodated at Dovercourt Camp for Refugee Children until suitable accommodation could be arranged with a host family or in a hostel.

Led by Bertha Bracey, Secretary of the Friends Germany Emergency Committee (later Friends Committee on Refugees and Aliens) in London, the Religious Society of Friends, working with Jewish and other Christian organisations, was involved in all aspects of the Kindertransport.  In Birmingham on 13 December 1938, the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends agreed that a committee should be set up locally to coordinate relief work for Jewish refugees.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book, 13 December 1938.

Religious Society of Friends, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book 1936-1939, 13 December 1938, minute 581.

The Committee worked with the Friends Germany Emergency Committee and the Birmingham Council for Refugees. Some of its objectives included setting up a clearing house for children from Dovercourt Camp and for other refugees, finding homes for refugees, seeking agricultural and industrial training, raising money to support relief work, and helping Friends House, London by undertaking some of the advisory work it carried out.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Refugees and Aliens Emergency Committee report: list of members, 1939.

By 10 January 1939, the Committee had already been offered the use of Allendale Cottage, Wast Hills by William and Emiline Cadbury which was to be used to accommodate 6 refugee children prior to finding them more permanent housing. An advice bureau was set up at the Library in Bull Street Meeting House and each Thursday 8 volunteer Friends and 6 volunteer refugees provided advice both for refugees in need of aid, and for Friends wanting to offer their services in the relief effort. The principle objective of the bureau was to,

‘penetrate the maze of Refugees organisation and disorganisation, and to master the intricacies of  case preparation for successful approach through the Refugee Committees to the Home Office’ (Warwickshire Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1939-1943, extract from Refugee and Aliens Emergency Committee annual report, 1939).

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