On the benefits of cultural migration

A piece I wrote for this weekend’s JC magazine

 

When Swiss Cottage spoke German

© Norman Lebrecht, all rights reserved

 

By the time my generation moved in, not much was left of the Emigration beyond a tinkling of pianos in Canfield Gardens and a daylong cluster of grey heads in the Cosmo restaurant. The Emigra-zion, always capitalised, ending in a Hebrew-German twist, was made up of Jews who fled Europe between 1933 and 1939, settling in a triangular axis around an Alp-themed pub on a busy North London thoroughfare. What drew the refugees to Swiss Cottage is uncertain, but they gathered in such critical mass that bus conductors would shout, as they neared the pub, ‘this stop for British West Hampstead!’

 

Ranging across two postal districts, NW3 and NW6, they included the founder of psychoanalysis, a future Nobel Prize winner for Literature, the pioneering chronicler of Britain’s buildings and any number of artists, scientists and musicians. Hitler’s loss hit England’s Lane. So close a concentration of great minds was never equalled in any other time or place. It would be too easy to fill this article with uplifting tales of displaced celebrity, but nostalgia serves no purpose. What concerns me today about the Emigration is how massively it transformed a humdrum part of London and how productively it assimilated.

In the early 1980s I got to know Berthold Goldschmidt, a composer who arrived from Berlin in 1935 and spent the rest of his long life in a one-bed, cold-water flat on Belsize Park Gardens. ‘It was cheap,’ said Berthold, ‘and close to the concert halls.’ Culture, I was given to understand, was an existential necessity for the Emigration.

As soon as exiles had saved a few pennies from their desperately menial work as domestic servants and factory workers, they descended on Queens Hall and the Royal Albert Hall for a full symphonic immersion. It was not uncommon after concerts for conductor and soloist to ride home to Swiss Cottage on the same bus as half the audience. Sir Thomas Beecham, ever the entrepreneur, moved his Royal Philharmonic Sunday concerts to the Odeon cinema behind the pub.

A Freie Deutsche Kulturband was formed in Hampstead by, among others, the best-selling writer Stefan Zweig and the film director Berthold Viertel. They performed English plays in German and staged art exhibitions. An Anglo-Austrian Music Society was founded with Ralph Vaughan Williams as patron. A Blue Danube club catered to cabaret. Goldschmidt wrote a song, The Ex (Der Verflossene), for his wife’s girlfriend to perform there. Decades later, Ute Lemper recorded it for Decca.

berthold goldschmidt

Copyright lawyers called the composer, asking where he had found the text. In a Berlin magazine in 1928, he replied. The lawyers called again. They could find no trace of the poet, Alice Eckert-Rotholz. ‘Have you tried the London telephone directory?’ said Berthold, assuming that anyone who wrote for a non-Nazi Berlin paper would wind up in Swiss Cottage. Sure enough, Alice was found to be living two streets away from him.

Although just 60,000 refugees were admitted to the UK in the 1930s, it seemed as if an entire civilisation had been transplanted. The newcomers soon left their mark on the environment. A Bauhaus residence was built on Lawn Road, a modernist penguin pool at Regents Park Zoo. Bookshop windows were enlivened by elegant new covers, designed and published to continental standards.

 

Phaidon, the Viennese art publisher, resumed operations in Hampstead. Its best-seller, the Story of Art, was written by Ernst Gombrich, of Briardale Gardens. In a cottage near the Heath, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote The Buildings of England. Accustomed to the woodlands of Berlin and Vienna, exiles foraged Hampstead Heath for birdsong, wild flowers, berries and mushrooms.

cosmo_exterior_1965 (1)

Cosmo served schnitzels and strudl to the dispossessed. Sigmund Freud, in his last year of life, would totter in for coffee and goulash. After the war, the manager in charge hung Jung’s portrait on the wall.

 

In a corner sat Elias Canetti, his masterpiece Auto-da-fe fully formed and not a word of it written down. Canetti conducted a busy love-life in the locality with, among others, the writers Iris Murdoch and Bernice Rubens. His Vienna friend Anna Mahler, the composer’s daughter, sculpted in a studio close to her mother’s ex-lover, Oskar Kokoscha. Past connections were maintained with incestuous intensity.

 

Most studies of the Emigration focus on the creative community, to the exclusion of social and religious groups. The celebrities were, to be sure, far removed from their Jewish heritage, but the bed-sit majority were very much in need of the consolations of faith. So much so, that they set up no fewer than three synagogues, each with its distinctive brand of worship. The Liberal synagogue, ultimately on Belsize Square followed the moderately reformed liturgies of Vienna and Berlin, the melodies of Sulzer and Lewandowski. Orthodox worshippers, cold-shouldered by the grandees of St John Wood, formed a United Synagogue at South Hampstead. The ultra-Orthodox established an Adath Israel on Canfield Gardens. Kosher butchers, bakers and Sabbath candlestick makers abounded. The lingua franca was German, never Yiddish.

 

By the time we arrived, as young-marrieds in 1979, the last of the continentals were leaving. We had a marvellous emigré health visitor for our first baby and an electrician who knew how to instal a Sabbath clock. Our daughter went to Anna Freud’s nursery. My first book editor was Pevsner’s son, Dieter. Penguin Books was run by Peter Mayer. Tom Maschler, an Anschluss child, turned Jonathan Cape into the premier literary imprint.

 

Goldschmidt, in his 80s, enjoyed a double apotheosis. His student Simon Rattle was the number one new-gen conductor and his own compositions, stuck in a drawer for half a century, were recorded on several labels. His one-bed flat now had hot water. I would drop by for Jause, four o’clock coffee and cakes, and draw deep on his impeccable memory of the world between two wars.

 

All gone now (except the shuls and the shrinks). The coffee grinder on Finchley Road became a Snappy-snaps. The wall plaque commemorating Cosmo was removed.

swiss cottage 1930s

Yet their disappearance is no cause for regret. On the contrary, the ease with which the Emigration blended into London life is testament both to its open-mindedness and to the benign nature of British society.

 

By uncanny symmetry, the scale of Jewish influx matches the 60,000 Asians who arrived indigent from East Africa in 1973-74 and who, one generation on, form a vibrant part of our country. The triumph of the Emigra-zion lies less in its cultural distinction than in its assimilation. At a moment when the political process is being outshouted by fear of foreigners, the time when Swiss Cottage spoke German serves as proof positive that there is nothing to fear from aliens, only to gain.

NL

 

Norman Lebrecht is a writer, broadcaster and cultural commentator. His first novel, The Song of Names, is set largely in the streets around Swiss Cottage.

 

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  • Heartfelt Bravo!
    Both for your “historic world view”, so agree about impact of immigration and Emigra-Zion.
    I used to live in the area in the Sixties.

  • Perhaps assimilation comes easier when it helps fill war’s vacuum, when the merging cultures are not too dissimilar, when all parties share a common enemy but are tired of conflict. A deep breath after a plunge.
    Things are different now.

    Today’s xenophobia gorges itself on an ignorance born of information overload. Whatever you already believe, there is a blog or newsfeed for you, and no need to grow or expand beyond the known.

    Simultaneously, globalization weakens the walls that both divided and protected the tribes, leading to an uncomfortable rubbing of bare shoulders. How hard should one push? What are the rules of engagement?

    Should artistic and musical traditions be merged to help achieve assimilation? Or does each form have individual value, worthy of defence, thereby justifying conflict? Monoculture or chaos?

    It’s all too hard.

    Simpler and easier to close the door, and to return to the comfort of the blogs.

    • Fair enough. But maybe the current situation asks for a more sophisticated way of thinking about integration. The German/Syrian academic Bassam Tibi has written extensively about it, and in his ‘Europa ohne Identität?’ (Europe without identity?) he proposes a Leitkultur – an overall cultural context with shared values, within which different variations, different cultures, can thrive, as already happens at some places in Europe (for instance, in Amsterdam). Also he described and proposed a ‘Euro-Islam’ which since has indeed begun to establish itself. So, a process of Europeanization rather than multi-culti (the latter idea isolates immigrant communities instead of offering them a real place in society).

      ‘Openness’ is a double-edged sword. A culture can ony absord other influences when it sustains the core of its own identity; if not, it will disappear. Here lies a fundamental difference with the thirties, fourties,, sixties even. How European should Europe be? Comparable with: how Indian should India be, or: how Chinese should China be?

      But NL’s article is great and beautifully written.

      How much of a cultural elite came with the current immigration waves? There seems to be a great difference on this point with the thirties.

      • Bassam Tibi formulated the original term, Leitkultur in 1998. By 2000, the term was appropriated by the political right in Germany and became associated with anti-immigration policies, a monocultural vision of German society, ideas of European cultural superiority, and policies of compulsory cultural assimilation.

        Tests were to be administered to immigrants to measure if they were adequately German. This led to an interesting debate since the authorities couldn’t figure out exactly what being German is. Too many diverse tribes like Hessians, Saxons, Franks, Prussians, Schwabs, Rhinelanders, and Bavarians running around…

        Bassam Tibi protested that politicians had appropriated his proposal for their own purposes and pronounced the entire debate a ‘failure’. Historians noted that Leitkultur proposals were similar to the enforced Germanisation in territories occupied by Nazi Germany, where the population was usually forbidden to speak local languages. Similar ideas were advocated by the Kampfbund der deutsche Kuenstler (Fighting Group for German Artists) during the Third Reich:

        “Since we do not value, that a watered down internationalism is identified with German artistic genius, we must require, that in the future German art is represented abroad only by German artists, that carry in their person and their attitude of mind the seal of the purest Germaness.”

        In many respects, the debate about Leitkultur is moot. When children with foreign parents grow up in a country, they invariably become deeply assimilated. This is readily observable in the many young Turkish people in Germany. I know a very nice British couple who left Germany after several years of living here because they were alarmed at how German their two daughters were becoming (they were about 10 and 13).

        • I agree with the gist of the last paragraph. But what Tibi formulated with his Leitkultur-idea was something fundamentally different from what right-wing politicians made of it: he meant (and clearly idenfified) merely the general, western democratic values which keep-up the institutions of the ‘Rechtsstaat’, in the light of the growing number of immigrant groups who openly disavow western (in this context, German) society and mobilize drop-outs for their ends, among which a parrallel society. That is an alarming development which shows a sharp contrast with the normal integration / assimilation processes which are, fortunately, happening all over the place.

          By the way, David Afkham, a young and successful German conductor, stems from immigrant parents and he identifies himself the strongest with the core of the German, classical repertoire which he does really very well. His brother Micha is violinist in the Berlin Phil.

          A significant symbol, I think.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Afkham

  • One of the teachers who most influenced me during my university days was a Jewish refugee from Vienna named Kurt Frederik. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust and never returned to Austria. He was at the Wiener Musikhochschule at the same time as Webern and other luminaries.

    Kurt Frederik conducted the world premiere of “Survivor of Warsaw” in Albuquerque, N.M. in 1948. The work was commissioned by the Koussevitzsky Foundation. It was presumed that the Boston Symphony and Koussevitzsky would give the premiere, but Frederik learned of the work and asked Schönberg if he could premiere it. Given Frederik’s circumstances, both Schönberg and Koussevitzsky agreed.

    I have written about Kurt Frederik here:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/Frederik.htm

  • One of the teachers who most influenced me during my university days was a Jewish refugee named Kurt Frederik. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust and never returned to Austria. He was at the Wiener Musikhochschule at the same time as Webern and other luminaries.

    Kurt Frederik conducted the world premiere of “Survivor of Warsaw” in Albuquerque, N.M. in 1948. The work was commissioned by the Koussevitzsky Foundation. It was presumed that the Boston Symphony and Koussevitzsky would give the premiere, but Frederik learned of the work and asked Schönberg if he could premiere it. Given Frederik’s circumstances, both Schönberg and Koussevitzsky agreed.

    I have written about Kurt Frederik here:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/Frederik.htm

  • The utter madness of the Third Reich’s racial theories and the resulting expulsion and extermination of so much Jewish talent led to a huge impoverishment of German cultural and scientific life in the post WW2 period. Germany’s loss was to some extent Britain’s gain, although the British refusal to take all the Jewish refugees who sought asylum in the UK is a shabby footnote to the pretence of a liberal and open society. Where would we have been in the 2012 Olympics without the presence of so much Afro-Caribbean and Asian talent? Nobody in their right mind would argue in favour of unlimited immigration into such a small island, but the splendid example of how the Jewish community has integrated so successfully into North London is a salutary reminder of how the benefits that immigrants bring with them nearly always outweigh the problems.

    • How important is ethnic background to cultural identity? It seems that the talented elite which fled to England in the thirties was not ‘Jewish’ but simply German and Austrian, they were not ‘practicing Jews’ anyway (according to the article!), so their ‘Jewishness’ was rather the projection of nazi paranoia than a real part of their identity. This projection probably created Jewish identity abroad.

      Maybe racist discrimination in Europe will only end when there is a black lesbian appearing as the pope at the balcony of St Peter’s.

      • Don’t forget that many of those who fled Nazi Germany came from territory that is today Poland and the Baltic States. The Slav influence is also present today in the Jewish community in London.

  • “There is nothing to fear from aliens, only to gain”. Unless of course they try blowing you up and hack you to death on the street….

  • Very, very interesting piece. What drew them to Swiss Cottage? It could simply be that the first few chose it for no particular reason and the rest followed; lots of emigre communities in the oddest places started that way.

    • I suspect the ‘Swiss’ tag was an attractive aspect, even though in reality it bears no relationship to the district.
      Ie. Neutral Switzerland was also a popular place of refuge. in desperate times one clings onto any hopeful signposts.

  • And, to add insult to gross injury, most of them were rounded up in Sept ’39, and interned as “enemy aliens” in such remote locations as the Isle of Man, and then challenged to prove they were not a threat to His Majesty’s government.

  • The persons who did those things, who perpetrated those atrocities, were not ‘aliens’, they were BRITISH.

  • A wonderful, nostalgic article. I also moved to Swiss Cottage in 1979 and lived in Canfield and Compayne Gardens for the next 20 years. I remember the Cosmo well – it was like a slice of old Vienna. We used to joke about not speaking the local language but the area was rich in multiculturalism and artistic depth, truly assimilated.

  • Really enjoyed reading this, Norman.
    This kind of essay recalls the good old days of “The Lebrecht Weekly Index” 🙂

  • Wonderful article Norman. My late mother Dora (Dolly) came over with her parents and sister in 1932, and they lived in Golders Green, Abbey Road and West Hampstead before settling in Swiss Cottage. She loved Cosmo and the whole area and, perhaps inevitably, became a Child Psychotherapist at the Tavi. She really enjoyed your book Song of Names and said the depiction of the war years in North London was her childhood.

  • Very interesting article. I’m Alice Ekert-Rotholz’s grandson and remember eating at Cosmo’s with her – a favourite restaurant.

    Her name is in fact spelt ‘Ekert-Rotholz’ (no ‘c’). Perhaps made the lawyer’s job harder too!

    Although poetry was a lifelong interest, she was chiefly known for her novels, which were very successful during the ’50’s and 60’s.

    She lived in the Elsworthy Road from 1959 until her death in 1995.

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