As the “Jungle” at Calais is dismantled, and questions circulate in England about “too little” support to refugees and “too late”, I am reminded of the relocation of academic women refugees that Christine von Oertzen’s, book “Science, Gender and Internationalism, Women’s Academic Networks, 1917-1955”, illustrates so evocatively.
Letters I came across earlier in the year in the University of Melbourne archives between graduate women in Australia and Erna Hollitscher, the British Federation of University Women’s refugee secretary located at the Federation’s London headquarters, Crosby Hall, express a palpable sense of urgency about refugees during the late 1930s. They also point to dense networks of voluntary activity and of correspondence that supported relocations, as well as some of the boundaries of tolerance around refugees at a time when the relocation of refugees was beset with bureaucratic and political barriers.
Janet Plant, an Australian graduate visiting London in March 1939, wrote to Mrs McKeller, the secretary of the Victoria Graduates Association in Melbourne
“The secretary of the British Graduates and the international assistant secretary and refugee secretary fell on me asking the prospects of Australian Graduate Associations doing anything for the Viennese refugee graduates. …. You can’t imagine the appalling hurry that there is to do something. People at Crosby Hall would talk nothing else … Eminent psychologists, lady doctors and teachers in Vienna are learning domestic work and cooking to fit themselves for domestic work in Australia … The English graduates urge Australian associations to try to stand as guarantors … and take them as maids or governesses, anything to get them out of Austria. The graduates do not urge that they should have teaching or medical jobs – the refugees will abandon their professions for ever – are willing to take any job …”
Janet’s letter, which Mrs McKeller shared with her counterpart at the Adelaide Graduates Association, highlights the desperation of academic women who, as Tony Kushner shows, were willing to give up all that they had worked for in order to make a new life elsewhere.
Academic women who had reached Australia also urged secretaries of Australian associations of women graduates to advocate on friends’ behalf. Dr Grete Berman, an Austrian who had been in Australia for about a year wrote to an Australian member to ask her to urge Mrs. McKeller to write to Crosby Hall in support of her friend Dr Sidonie Lenzer, a doctor of philosophy of the University of Vienna whose major subject was chemistry. Her friend wrote to Mrs. McKeller, who then corresponded with Erna Hollitscher at Crosby Hall. Dr Sidonie Lenzer had arrived in England in February 1939 and was working as a general cook, where, noted Dr Berman, “she had given every satisfaction”. Dr Berman continued
“She would, of course prefer a professional position but takes domestic work until this could be found. She is of good character and would I am sure adapt herself to become a good Australian. I have advised her to apply to Crosby Hall and to send her particulars there. Would it be possible for the Victoria Association to be of any assistance to my friend? I know that it is impossible for the Association to advance money or to guarantee employment, but I was just hoping that it might help if a letter could be sent to Crosby Hall, stating that a friend of Miss Sidonie Lenzer is known to members of the Association and that this friend speaks very well of her.”
Australian newspaper cuttings collected with the letters show that the Victoria Graduates Association was working in the context of a backlash against refugees in Australia at the time. This was the background to the comment that Dr Lenzer would adapt herself to become a “good Australian”, which speaks to the long history of the boundaries of in/tolerance around support for refugees apparent today in many countries. Correspondence to Mrs McKeller from Constance Duncan, secretary of the Australian League of Nations Union, expressed a similar view – that it was “very important that those whom we do introduce to Victoria graduates are the best kind of refugee.”
When the Australian newspaper, “The Herald”, publicised Dr Sophie Lenzer’s arrival in Australia it was not her doctorate in chemistry that “The Herald” noted but her status as “the daughter of a professional man” and her willingness to be a domestic, along with her ability to speak four languages.
Christine von Oertzen’s study and research by Susan Cohen illustrates the myriad ways in which relocated refugee women worked to pick up threads of former academic careers, and went on to enrich the countries where they eventually found themselves living, but not without a struggle.