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The Golden Jubilee of the Thank-Offering to Britain Fellowship

Blog • • Dr Anthony Grenville

In November 1965, fifty years ago this autumn, the British Academy received a remarkable donation. Two years earlier, in 1963, the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), which has represented the Jewish refugees from Nazism in Britain since 1941, had launched an appeal to raise funds for a project intended to show the refugees’ gratitude to Britain, their adopted homeland. The appeal raised the very considerable amount of £96,000 (about £1 million in today’s money), which the refugees decided to donate to the British Academy, to finance a fellowship that would support research to be carried out to the benefit of the people of the UK. The generosity of this gesture was striking, given that most of the donors had arrived in Britain in the late 1930s as penniless refugees from Nazi terror and had had little more than fifteen years of peacetime conditions, since the end of the war in 1945, to achieve some level of prosperity.

Thus was born the Thank-Offering to Britain Fellowship, which is awarded annually or biennially by the British Academy alongside the highly prestigious Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowships. The Fellowship was first awarded in 1967, and its recipients over the years read like a roll call of distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences, whose research has enriched British academic life. As long as money was available, the Academy also used the funds for an annual lecture. The lecturers included Lionel Robbins, Roy Jenkins, Ralf Dahrendorf, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Robert Blake and Stuart Hampshire, as well as three former refugees, the author Arthur Koestler, the lawyer Otto Kahn-Freund and Claus Moser, one of Britain’s most distinguished public servants, through whose recent death the Academy has lost a great and valued friend and supporter.

The British Academy treated the fund-raising appeal and the donation with due respect. The fund’s patrons were the Academy’s President, Lionel Robbins (famous for the Robbins Report on higher education) and Isaiah Berlin, a member of its Council, and three former refugees, the Nobel Prize-winning scientists Ernst Chain and Hans Krebs, and the spinal injuries specialist Ludwig Guttmann. Responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the appeal fund rested with the AJR’s long-serving General Secretary, Werner Rosenstock, and with Doris Pearson, Assistant Secretary at the British Academy. Some 4,500 people contributed to the fund, the vast majority of them Jewish refugees – a striking figure, given the size of the refugee community. Among the contributors were famous names like Anna Freud, Ernst Gombrich (pictured above, with the Queen Mother on the occasion of her visit to the Institute, 8 March 1973), Max Perutz and the cartoonist Vicky (Victor Weisz). But the great majority were ‘ordinary’ refugees; the most common surnames in the list of contributors were the classic German-Jewish names Stern, Rosenthal and Goldschmidt, the last of these doubling in number when those who had anglicised their name to Goldsmith are included.

On 8 November 1965, the money raised by the appeal was formally handed over by Hans Krebs, on behalf of the refugees, to Lionel Robbins of the British Academy; two representatives of the refugees, Werner M. Behr and Victor Ross, co-chairmen of the appeal fund’s committee, signed the document assigning the proceeds of the appeal to the Academy. The ceremony took place in Saddlers’ Hall in the City of London. The date was almost certainly chosen to be as close as possible to the anniversary of the so-called ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom of 9/10 November 1938, which many German and Austrian Jews saw as the start of the systematic use of violence by the Nazi regime against the Jews that was to culminate in the Holocaust.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of that ceremony, the British Academy, in collaboration with the AJR, is holding an event on 10 November 2015 entitled ‘Commemoration and Celebration: The British Academy and the Jewish Refugee Academics after 1933’. The event will consist of an afternoon conference and an early evening reception. The conference will commence at 2.00pm. There will be four lectures about distinguished refugees: Otto Kahn-Freund by Professor Sandy Fredman, Ernst Gombrich by Professor Richard Gombrich, Ernst Chain by Sir Ralph Kohn and Ludwig Guttmann by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and a concluding lecture by Dr Anthony Grenville of the AJR, detailing the relations between the Jewish refugees and the British Academy and commemorating the refugee experience. The reception will commence at 6.00pm, with an address by Lord Stern, President of the British Academy, at 6.30pm. Those wishing to attend should contact Jennifer Hawton at the British Academy, by phone on 0207 969 5258 or by email at j.hawton@britac.ac.uk, by Friday 30th October.

Anthony Grenville is the son of Jewish refugees who fled from Vienna to London in 1938. He studied at Oxford, then lectured in German at the Universities of Reading, Bristol and Westminster, 1971-1996. Since 1996, he has worked with the Association of Jewish Refugees, since 2006 as Consultant Editor of its monthly publication AJR Journal. Among his other publications is the first history of the Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in Britain to go beyond the 1940s. He is Chair of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London.