Cataloguing the Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert Miller Archive

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Refugee life and organisations

The Millers were most closely associated with the Austrian exile theatre company, the Laterndl, but their papers also contain documents relating to a number of other political and cultural organisations established by members of the 30,000-strong Austrian refugee community.1 The organisations shown here had various aims, including helping other potential refugees still in Nazi-occupied territory to escape, improving the daily life of the refugees in the UK, and focusing attention on how to build a better Austria after the war. Such organisations would also have fulfilled a much-needed social function for the members themselves, as they created a sense of community and helped refugees overcome feelings of loss, hardship and alienation.2 

Letter from Austrian Self-Aid, 1938

Miller 2/151. Letter from Austrian Self-Aid, 1938

Probably the earliest document in the Miller collection relating to the refugee organisations is the above letter, which documents some of the desperate attempts by refugees already in the UK to help more victims of Nazi persecution to emigrate, as the wave of Nazi terror in Vienna increased in 1938. It was written by the founders of ‘Austrian Self-Aid’, a ‘charitable, non-political organisation with the aim of providing assistance and information for other Austrian refugees in Britain’.2 Although the exiles who established it were mainly Communist Party members, they gave their political views a low profile in order not to alienate members of the general refugee community and to avoid difficulties with the British authorities. Unfortunately the second page of the letter is missing so the reason for writing is not certain, but since it was written in English and describes the difficulties of dealing with the immense demand for help given the group’s limited resources, it seems likely that it was intended for British supporters of the Austrian cause to request financial support.

British Council carol concert programme (front), 1939

Miller 5/3/3. British Council carol concert programme (front), 1939

British Council carol concert programme (inner), 1939

Miller 5/3/3. British Council carol concert programme (inner), 1939

Another document in the collection, which illustrates one way in which the British authorities interacted positively with the refugee groups, is the above programme for a carol concert held at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Christmas Eve 1939. The concert was organised by the Resident Foreigners’ Committee of the British Council, which had recently been established to provide educational and cultural support to refugees and allied service personnel.3 As the programme shows, the concert included performances by Czech and Polish choirs, an ad hoc group of German-speaking actors (most of whom were members of one or other of the established German-language exile theatre companies in London) led by Martin Miller, as well as the well-travelled British singing group, Fleet Street Choir 4 Below is a letter from the British Council to Martin sent after the event, congratulating him on the success of the production and thanking him for the Austrians’ hard work.

Letter from the British Council, 1939

Miller 2/17. Letter from the British Council, 1939

For many Austrian refugees, the heart of the exile community was the Austrian Centre (AC). Located in Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, London, it was set up by Communist refugees as a self-help organisation to provide support for the community. The above flyer for the AC, dated 30 July 1942, gives information on the Centre’s events, facilities and publications. It shows, for example, the range of Austrian specialities on the menu of the Centre’s restaurant, such as ‘Fridattensuppe’ (broth with sliced pancake), ‘Polsterzipf’ (sweet pastries) and ‘Faschiertes mit Spinat’ (minced meat with spinach). It lists entertainment events organised by refugees at the AC, such as the Laterndl’s production Spiel im Schloss and the première of a farce by Franz und Paul von Schönthan: Raub der Sabinerinnen. It also notifies readers of forthcoming information events concerning the British internment of refugees as enemy aliens, and of a new translation service provided by the AC for members needing to have their documents translated into English.

Austrian Centre info sheet, Jul 1942

Miller 1/2/3/2. Austrian Centre info sheet, Jul 1942

Also advertised on the AC flyer is the Centre’s own German-language newspaper, the Zeitspiegel, which was claimed to be ‘unentbehrlich für jeden Emigranten’ (‘indispensible for every emigrant’). This was a weekly paper focusing on topics of most relevance to the refugees, such as antisemitism, the internment situation, and events in Austria and Germany. For example, this edition from the collection (below) reports on developments in Vienna, where hunger, exhaustion and sabotage were apparently dramatically reducing war production.

Miller 5/4. "Zeitspiegel" (no. 46, 15 November 1941)

Miller 5/4. “Zeitspiegel” (no. 46, 15 November 1941)

Finally, this flyer from 1941 highlights some of the key political issues that were considered of particular importance by at least some of the Austrian refugee community at the time. It advertised a series of public debates organised by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’ (‘The coming Austria’), at the Mary Ward Settlement in Tavistock Place, London. The discussion topics included the position of the Austrian Communists with regard to unity in the fight against Hitler; the prerequisites for a Central European federation; and the legal position of Austrian refugees and their incorporation into war production and civil defence.

Miller 5/3/7. Flyer for a series of discussion evenings hosted by the association, 'Das kommende Österreich'

Miller 5/3/7. Flyer for a series of discussion evenings hosted by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’

Footnotes
This figure is from Anthony Grenville, ‘The Emigration of Austrians to Britain after 1938 and the Early Years of Settlement: a Survey’, in Immortal Austria: Austrians in Exile in Britain, ed. by Charmian Brinson, Richard Dover and Jennifer Taylor, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 8 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 3-17 (p. 3).
2 Andrea Reiter, ‘Introduction’ in ‘I didn’t want to float; I wanted to belong to something.’ Refugee Organisations in Britain 1933-1945′, ed. by Anthony Grenville and Andrea Reiter, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 10 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. ix-xvi (pp. x-xi).
3 Charmian Brinson, ‘Eva Kolmer and the Austrian Emigration in Britain, 1938-1946’, in German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain, ed. by Anthony Grenville, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 143-169 (p. 145).
4 http://www.britishcouncil.org/organisation/history/timeline.
5 http://aim25test.da.ulcc.ac.uk/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=16008&inst_id=118&nv1=browse&nv2=sub.

Martin Miller’s sponsors

Until now relatively little was known about the two women who probably saved Martin Miller’s life by helping him to emigrate to the UK from Berlin in March 1939. There are no records of either his journey from Germany or the arrangements the women made to bring him to the UK. In an interview in 1995 Hannah Norbert-Miller reported that the women, a Miss Howson and Miss Townsend, were Quakers who had ‘already brought some refugees over and … wanted to bring people from all walks of life’.1 She also stated that the women lived in Putney and had bought another house nearby to house the refugees after their arrival.

Miller 2/71. Letter to Martin Miller from the Jüdischer Kulturbund, Berlin, March 1939

Miller 2/71. Letter to Martin Miller from the Jüdischer Kulturbund, Berlin, March 1939

Close examination of a number of items during the course of cataloguing, and a little background research have uncovered a few details which shed a little more light on the house and identity of the two women. Letters like this one, sent to Martin from Berlin just three weeks after his arrival in the UK, reveal the location of the house provided by the women for the refugees: it was at number 37, Deodar Road, a road running parallel to the Thames near Putney Bridge. Three months earlier than Martin, the South African writer, Pauline Smith, had also been a resident of the house and had described in a letter her view across the river and the wharf opposite, where boats bringing bricks from Holland and marble from Italy docked. She also wrote that she had met some of the Jewish refugees staying in the house and had tried to comfort them when ‘news of the sufferings of their people still in Germany reaches them’.2

View across the Thames from Deodar Road, 1930s

View across the Thames from Deodar Road, 1930s

More information about the women themselves was revealed when I came across a another letter sent from Deodar Road from 1955 (below). This time the house number was 79, but I guessed that the proximity of the two addresses was unlikely to be a coincidence and soon realised that it was written by one of the women who had sponsored Martin in 1939. The letter itself was just a message of thanks for a gift, but what caught my eye was the headed notepaper on which it was written. It revealed that the writer was in fact the British stained glass artist of the Arts and Crafts movement, Joan Howson.

Miller 2/063. Letter from Joan Howson to Martin Miller, p1, 1955

Miller 2/063. Letter from Joan Howson to Martin Miller, p1, 1955

Miller 2/063. Letter from Joan Howson to Martin Miller, p2, 1955

Miller 2/063. Letter from Joan Howson to Martin Miller, p2, 1955

Joan Howson (1885-1964) had studied textile design and stained glass at Liverpool School of Art before moving to London.3 There she became the first pupil and lifelong friend of Caroline Charlotte Townsend (1878–1944), another well-known stained glass artist, who was, of course, the second of Martin’s sponsors. From 1920 the women worked together in partnership at their house in Deodar Road, which they converted into a studio and workshop, and were neighbours to a number of Arts and Crafts stained glass artists.

Dove Window  in All Saints' Church, High Wycombe, designed by  Townshend and Howson commemorating women's campaigner, Frances Dove. Photograph by Weglinde (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Window in All Saints’, High Wycombe, designed by Townshend and Howson, commemorating women’s campaigner, Frances Dove. Photograph by Weglinde (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Howson and Townsend had much in common: as well as their professional partnership, both were involved in the suffragette movement and shared an interest in socialism. One of Townsend’s best-known works is the Fabian window at the London School of Economics, which was designed by George Bernard Shaw in 1910 in commemoration of the Society, and unveiled by Tony Blair in 2010 when it was recovered and installed after having been lost for more than 25 years. The window depicts a number of figures involved in progressive politics at the time, including Townshend herself and HG Wells.  For more on this see http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2006/FabianWindow.aspx

Martin Miller was one of many refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria whom Howson and Townsend helped to escape to the safety of the UK and then supported. In each case they would have paid the required £50 per refugee as a guarantee that the person admitted would not be a burden on the British State, and then also provided accommodation for them when they arrived. Thousands of refugees’ lives were saved in this way by Quakers like Howson and Townsend. For more information see http://remember.org/unite/quakers.htm.

Arrival of Jewish refugees, London, Feb 1939. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S69279 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Arrival of Jewish refugees, London, Feb 1939. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S69279 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Martin’s original intention was to stay in the UK for just six months. This would, he hoped, give him enough time to learn English before moving to the US, where a relative had signed an affadavit of support for him. However, with the outbreak of war he decided to remain in the UK, where he had already established himself as a central figure in the Austrian exile theatre, the Laterndl. It may possibly have been through Martin’s friendship with Howson and Townsend that HG Wells came to be present at the Laterndl’s opening evening in June 1939.

Miller 3. Photograph signed 'from CC Townsend', date unknown.

Miller 3. Photograph signed ‘from CC Townsend’, date unknown.

Miller 3. Reverse of photograph signed 'from CC Townsend', date unknown.

Miller 3. Inscription on reverse of photograph: ‘David Linkmann from CC Townsend’, date unknown.

Unfortunately there is very little in the collection to testify to the connection between Martin and Townsend, who died in 1944. However, there is one photograph (above), of what appears to be a small group visit to a sculptor at work in his studio. The photo is inscribed on the reverse ‘David Linkmann from CC Townsend’. As yet I have been unable to find out any more information about David Linkmann or to identify anyone else in the photo (other than Martin, in the middle of the three visitors). I would be delighted to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me!

Footnotes

1 Archive of the Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London, Exile Archive, Interview with Hannah Norbert Miller by Charmian Brinson, December 1995.
2 Pauline Smith, ‘Letters July 1927-June 1956’English in Africa 23/2 (1996), 5-84 (p.16-17).
3 M.E. Aldrich Rope, ‘Obituary of Joan Howson’, Journal of Stained Glass, 14/2 (1965), 110-113.