Wolja’s Story – A Cara Fellow from 1938

September 5, 2017 | News

I grew up in a very untidy family. My mother often apologised for the mess she would be leaving after her death, so my brother and I knew that there would be a lot to clear up.  But we had no idea that we would find so many boxes and envelopes full of papers and photographs.  They were in sideboards and cupboards, in the loft and in the garage.  Some were simply stuffed at the back of drawers.  There were personal and official letters, unfinished drafts and carbon copies, legal documents, bills, receipts and my father’s childhood poems in a school exercise book.

Both my parents were born in Berlin. They came to this country as Jewish refugees – my father Wolja in May 1938 and my mother Lotte joined him four months later. They married in London in July 1939. The papers we found are all concerned with their experiences as refugees. They span more than 80 years.

Once I got round to reading the papers – after many years of resistance and avoidance – I began to reconstruct my parent’s stories. I am using them to write a book which is an emotional history of their experiences – escape from Germany, arrival in the UK, my father’s internment, their many losses and separations, and the way in which they used their claims for reparations from Germany to come to terms with the past.
The information in the papers added to the stories they had told us, but I did not know how my father had succeeded in getting to the UK. He had been refused a visa by Switzerland because he was stateless and by the USA because he was virtually blind in one eye and might become a burden on the state. The Home Office told me that his file had been destroyed and the Isle of Man has no record of his internment.

But another unexpected rich source of evidence did become available to me. I knew that Wolja he had been helped by an organisation called the Society for Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) and in particular by a woman called Esther Simpson with whom he stayed in contact.  Her name remained with me, as she wrote to Lotte when Wolja died in 1980.  In 2009 I learned that SPSL had an archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  The online catalogue told me there was a file of personal correspondence with Wolja and additional papers filed under ‘internment’ and ‘naturalisation’.  On my first visit to the Bodleian, I sat in the Special Collections Reading Room with a large box folder on the desk in front of me. It contained the personal files of four different refugees. I did not open it immediately, I was too apprehensive, fearing there would be very little there. To prepare myself I wrote in my notebook:

71 years ago yesterday Wolja arrived in Britain. I’m in the Bodleian Library, about to look at Wolja’s correspondence in the SPSL archive. What will be there, am I about to be disappointed again?…It is a huge collection –  Folio 269 – 407, 137 pages…
It feels strange to be in the Bodleian crying. (8/5/09)

Wolja’s files contain letters, documents, testimonials, curriculum vitae and many handwritten notes which review or record his situation. The items are not always filed in date order; indeed some are not dated at all, although their content sometimes dates them for me.  Many of the papers only made sense because of what I already knew or had learned from my own archive; and conversely, I was now able to understand for the first time some of the items in my collection.

From this archive and my own family papers, I was able to piece together the story of how my father came to this country and was allowed to remain. It was not straightforward. He first approached AAC in June 1935; he arrived in the UK in May 1938.

One of the items in his file was a note, handwritten on a piece of pink paper:


Mr Makower:-

Quite desirable if can get job, but
prospects not good, though not impossible.
He might be let in for a limited period to
go the round of the electrical firms – others
with similar qualifications have found
positions, though he has rather less
practical  experience. Well trained and good
Prof  Committee would be prepared to keep
him for a month but would undertake no longer
(The Professional Committee was a subcommittee of the Jewish Refugee Committee)

At first I was not aware of its significance.  Later I recognised that it marks a decisive moment in Wolja’s story. Without this recommendation the Home Office would not have allowed him into the UK at all, but because of it his visa was for only one month.

In many memoirs of the Nazi period people attribute their survival, at least partly, to luck, to unexpected acts of kindness, or to sheer serendipity. In Wolja’s case it was philanthropy and networking that were crucial – in particular the willingness of establishment scientific figures in Germany and Britain to use their networks of friends and colleagues to support an unknown but promising Jewish scientist.  His PhD had been examined in 1935 by Professor Max von Laue, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1914 ‘for his discovery of the diffraction of X-Rays by crystals’. Von Laue recommended Wolja to SPSL and to influential people in the UK, including Sir William Bragg, who together with his son Lawrence built on von Laue’s work to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915 ‘for their services tin the analysis of crystal structure by X-Ray’.

Esther Simpson, at that time Assistant Secretary of SPSL, followed up every suggestion, always mentioning that Wolja came with a recommendation from Sir William Bragg. As a result of their efforts, Wolja was offered opportunities; but to be successful, he also had to have the capacity and confidence to make use of these networks. It must have been very frustrating; he was often seen as highly desirable, able to make a significant contribution, but unfortunately there were no vacancies.
His letters to Lotte during this period (in our personal archive) show how anxious all this made him, not knowing whether he would find a job and whether his visa would be renewed. At the same time he was looking for a domestic permit for Lotte. This was the only way in which she could get out of Germany. She was five years younger; she had started to study medicine in Berlin, but was thrown out after two semesters.

Lotte arrived at the end of August 1938 and by the end of the year Wolja had been offered a post with the Telephone Manufacturing Company and been given permission by the Home Office to take it. His visa continued to be renewed, always for short periods of time. All of this was managed through SPSL and the Professional Committee.

Taken together the papers in both archives document a personal story – the never-ending series of obstacles Wolja faced from 1933 to 1938 in obtaining his PhD and finding a country to take him. I felt in awe of his persistence, his determination not to be beaten, his sense of his rights, his confidence in his ability as a scientist and his capacity to seek help from a wide range of people. It helped to explain his frustration later in life about the ‘wasted years’ when he could not further his scientific career. But it is more than a personal story; the papers also shed light on both how the refugee organisations, including SPSL, operated at the day to day level and also on the role that some German scientists played in supporting their Jewish colleagues.

From the letters written about Wolja we get glimpses behind the scenes of the way in which the networks of eminent people in Germany and in the UK operated – of their system of shared values, codes of behaviour and discourses of communication. Helping was based on mutual personal respect between people of high status. In his book ‘The Refuge and the Fortress. Britain and the Persecuted 1933-2013, Seabrook describes it as an idea of noblesse oblige [that] had not yet quite faded; much could be achieved by a word in the appropriate ear… Those who lent their support to the AAC all knew each other. Many had attended the same schools and universities. A word in the right place, the lifting of a telephone, a friendly note could galvanise like-minded others into action. Their friendships, family relationships and a common experience ensured they would be heard. It was, no doubt, patrician and elitist; but it was effective. One can admire their energy and commitment, without necessarily approving of the hierarchies of privilege, to which, in part, they owed their capacity to get things done.

While recommendations were based on this network of relationships, the person being helped had also to conform – by being likable, enthusiastic and worthy of help.

In contrast to the genteel philanthropy of the elite, who had the power and influence to make things happen, Wolja’s personal file shows the care taken by the individual members of staff with whom he was in day to day contact. The names that appear again and again are all women – Esther (Tess) Simpson, Nancy Searle and Ilse Ursell of SPSL and Ruth Fellner of the Jewish Refugee Committee.  They all communicated with the refugees in a very personal way, usually replying to letters on the day they were received.

In addition to all her official work, advising and supporting refugees in their formal dealings with the Home Office, liaising with other organisations on their behalf and preparing documents for the Executive Committee, Esther Simpson showed a personal interest in and friendship to every single refugee with whom she had contact, networking widely on their behalf. In 1940, following the internment of many refugees, she liaised with them in the camps and also with the Home Office, and the Royal Society, who were preparing cases for early release on the grounds of the refugee’s potential contribution to science and learning. Examples of all these activities appear in Wolja’s file. To imagine this multiplied by the number of refugees seeking her help is truly amazing.

In 1947 SPSL also helped Wolja with his naturalisation, which was very important for him as he was engaged in a struggle with the Home Office to get his father out of Romania after the war.

In 1946 Wolja’s name appeared under the heading of ‘Telecommunications’ in a list, compiled by SPSL, of refugee scholars who had been engaged in war service.  The records of SPSL for the years 1933 to 1945 contain the names of 2,541 refugee scholars; in 1946, only 600 were recorded as remaining in Britain. Many of the more established academic scientists emigrated later to the USA.  By contrast, some refugee scientists were able to find jobs in British industry. By 1946 nine refugee physicists, including Wolja Saraga (Telephone Manufacturing Company), had been hired by industry.

My study of the papers concerning my father show how significant SPSL was in his story. He was always grateful to them and I recognise that I owe my own existence to them! But most importantly, I have gained a greater understanding of what it means to be a refugee. Although the circumstances are always different, I hope it has also given me an insight into the experience of today’s refugees and to recognise the continuing crucial importance of CARA’s work.

Since learning that SPSL is now Cara and that I wouldn’t be here today were it not for their support, I have set up a monthly direct debit through the Cara website and would urge you to do the same.

By his daughter Esther Saraga.