Cities of Refuge: German Jews in London and New York, 1935-1945.
Lori Gemeiner Buhler's comparative study of the German Jewish experience in London and New York "challenges the widely held notion that immigrants integrated into American society because they were recipients of a greater tradition of tolerance and diversity" (xi). Her fascinating study is based on archival collections of German Jewish refugees, interviews, refugee publications such as Aufbau (New York), and a wide array of other primary and secondary source materials. The book reveals divergent experiences with integration in different places. Buhler asks "why German Jews in London felt pressure to appear British but did not self-identify as such, while at the same time, German Jews in New York looked and sounded German Jewish, but identified as American" (12). Her study argues that "the discrepancy between cultural adaptation and identity practice is due primarily to circumstantial or external factors, namely, differing British and American immigration visa policies and the proximity of each country to the events in Europe" (149).
Even though Britain is closer to Europe, US immigration policies resulted in allowing 250,000 German Jews to enter the country as contrasted to the approximately 80,000 who entered Britain in the decade examined by Buhler. This, of course, resulted in a greater concentration of German Jews in New York. Proximity to the European continent also contributed to differences in German Jewish identity practices. To explain the resulting differences, Buhler examines German Jewish identity in chapters entitled "Arrival and Settlement"; "Family, Friendship, and Food"; "Dress and Names"; "Language and Mannerisms"; "Organizational Life"; and "Identities."
In the chapter on "Identities" the author looks at the self-descriptors German Jews used in London and New York. German Jews in London favored the terms exile, emigre, and continental to denote they were not British while at the same time concealing their German origins. In New York, German Jews referred to themselves mainly as immigrants, accepting the American notion of diversity whereby they could become Americans, while retaining German Jewish customs and traditions. With Britain facing the threat of a Nazi invasion, German Jews were reluctant to identify themselves as German, choosing rather to remain as invisible as possible. German Jews in New York did refer to themselves as Deutsck, or German, "but only to differentiate themselves from American Jews who were of East European descent" (146). However, some political refugees did self-identify as German. Rudolf Katz, for example, called himself "an exiled German political man" (146).
By exploring "Dress and Names," Buhler shows that having the appearance of being German was problematic in London, especially after September 1939, whereas German Jews in New York could take on American-style fashion "at their own pace" (77). In New York, German Jews retained their German first names in refugee circles, using American versions elsewhere. As for surnames, German Jews in London felt the need to adopt an English name to avoid possible negative reactions to a German name. For example, Karl Levinsohn became Charles Leigh and Liesel Rosenthal became Alice Rosen. By contrast, less than fifteen percent of German Jews in New York changed their surnames. Two factors contributed to this. First, the existence of a German Jewish enclave in New York meant German Jewish culture could thrive. Second, German Jewish names enjoyed respectability and honor in America going back to the nineteenth century.
In the chapter on "Language'" Buhler found that in London "it became imperative for German Jews to speak English" (92). After the outbreak of war in 1939, the pressure became particularly intense to switch to English. However, in New York, German Jews spoke German to a greater extent, as it was the language of discourse in home and community life. And in the chapter on "Family, Friendship, and Food," Buhler relates that refugees quickly accepted British food, whereas in New York German food was readily available, although homes served up a mix of German and American foods.
In conclusion, Buhler observes: "The discrepancies in identity formation and cultural adaptation in London and New York are due more to broader national policies around immigration and war, rather than to preconceived notions of British or American diversity and openness to foreigners." And, she correctly notes: "This study's results have implications for a stronger understanding of the culture and identity formation for refugee and immigrant groups around the world today" (158). It also has implications for understanding American immigration history. Although focused on the German Jewish experience in a specific time period, I found that much of Buhler's study relates to the German-American historical experience in general, and that it even read in part much like chapters out of my own family history. Given the ongoing influx of immigration, Buhler's study has obvious implications for understanding present and future patterns of ethnic identity and retention.
Don Heinrich Tolzmann
University of Cincinnati, Emeritus
Don Heinrich Tolzmann served until retirement as curator of the German-Americana Collection and director of German-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of German-Americana: Selected Essays (2009).
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|Author:||Tolzmann, Don Heinrich|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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