Ian Thomson

The new age of the refugee

Mass migration after the second world war challenged the concept of nationality and changed the face of Europe forever

After years of estrangement in a foreign land, what can immigrants expect to find on their return home? The remembered warmth and blazing beauty of Jamaica have remained with some British West Indians for over half a century of exile. Yet 100 changes will have occurred since they left. Long brooding over the loss of one’s homeland can exaggerate its charm and sweetness.

The first mass immigration to British shores occurred in the late 19th century, when Ashkenazim arrived by the thousand after escaping the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Many changed their names and even their accents. The trappings of orthodoxy — beards, sidelocks — left them vulnerable to anti-Semitic abuse as they settled in cramped London streets north of Whitechapel Road.

Half a century later, ironically, the descendants of those Victorian-era refugees bitterly resented the presence of Jews from Hitlerite Germany. Not only were they seen as haughty, but they knew nothing of British culture. An estimated 55,000 German-speaking Jews nevertheless stayed on in Britain after the war. Their descendants are active now in the nation’s arts and media. Of Britain’s Jewish refugee dynasties, the Freuds are probably the most prolific. The fashion designer Bella, the novelist Esther, the publicist Matthew and the journalist Emma are all descended from Sigmund Freud, who escaped to London from Nazi Vienna in 1938.

The historian Keith Lowe, a renowned authority on the second world war, has written sympathetically on the plight of refugees from totalitarian Europe. His 2012 book, Savage Continent, offered a grimly absorbing account of postwar Europe and its lingering antagonisms. Its sequel, The Fear and the Freedom, concentrates on the psychological consequences of the 1939–45 conflict. Postwar propaganda and planning was effectively defined by a new age of the refugee.

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