History with holes, Peter Russell

Promised New Zealand: Fleeing Nazi Persecution
Freya Klier, translated by Jenny Rawlings
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877372766


Born in East Germany in 1950, Freya Klier is a German filmmaker and author with a history of civil rights activism, which resulted in her being expelled from the GDR in 1988, an experience which helps to explain her interest in the plight of refugees. Her present book was inspired by a chance encounter with the daughter of a German-Jewish couple who had emigrated to New Zealand as refugees from Nazi persecution. Finding that “there was scarcely a mention of New Zealand in German exile research”, and that she had come upon a “dramatic and largely unknown chapter”, she set out to explore the subject, first in Berlin archives and then in those in New Zealand. She also sought out and interviewed German refugees here who were still living, or their descendants. The result was her book Gelobtes Neuseeland, published in Germany in 2006. The German title echoes the biblical “promised land” (in German “das gelobte Land”), but since “gelobt” is the past participle both of “geloben” (pledge, promise) and of “loben” (praise), it also means “Praised New Zealand”. Her book has now been published in English translation.

The book’s chief strength lies in its ingenious format. After a brief introduction to the 24 “people whose stories are told”, we then follow their lives strictly year by year from 1930 to 1948, a chapter per year, different characters coming and going as the narrative proceeds – with an epilogue to update us to the present. The vivid alternation of episodes reminds one of a film documentary. The prose style is novelistic and often racy, an effect of immediacy being achieved also by the use throughout of the present tense. While this makes for gripping, even exciting reading, there is a price: the necessity to introduce material from previous history forces occasional diversions into the past tense which at times read awkwardly and can confuse the chronology.

The author also provides year-by-year political and social background, both for the German-speaking countries of Europe, and for New Zealand. Thus as the cruelly tightening web of exclusion and persecution makes German Jews more and more desperate to emigrate, we at the same time watch the New Zealand Labour government (like other governments, including those of Britain and USA) implementing policies which make it increasingly hard for them to find a haven. Between 1933 and the outbreak of war, New Zealand took in only about 1100 refugees from Central and Eastern Europe: mostly those with money, contacts and good luck. Once here, most refugees further suffered the anguish of not knowing what had happened to family members left behind, and after the outbreak of war they lost all means of finding out. Eventually, rumours of a place called Auschwitz began to reach New Zealand.

The author, whose empathy with these people is palpable, gets the reader into their skins: there can be few accounts of the privations and humiliations suffered by Jews in Germany which so overwhelm one with pity, and with horror at the brutality they suffered at the hands not just of Nazi bureaucrats, storm troopers and Gestapo, but also of neighbours and fellow-citizens. Much pierces the heart. Her account of the lives of siblings Hansi and Fred Silberstein alone is worth the book. Moreover, the translation by Jenny Rawlings is excellent. The book thus provides especially for readers who may know little about the subject, a welcome and accessible entry to it. The more readers it has here, the better. For not only the ordeals of these people deserve to be better known here, but also the bravery with which they overcame them, and the enormous contribution they subsequently made to New Zealand society and culture.

Here problems begin. Not only does Klier’s book give little idea of that contribution, but she appears ignorant of it. For the claim made in her 2009 foreword that she is exploring a “largely unknown chapter” is wrong. Exile research in Germany alone, for example, includes a large literature on two of her chosen refugees, poet Karl Wolfskehl and philosopher Sir Karl Popper. It also includes two comprehensive (and complementary) studies in German, neither of which appears in her bibliography: Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich’s oral history of German immigration to New Zealand, Auswandern: Destination Neuseeland, which appeared in 2002 in both German and English and is based on painstaking field research, including 102 life-history interviews and in-depth study of archival sources and secondary literature; and Im Schatten zweier Kriege, the 2005 German edition of a wide-ranging study of German refugees to New Zealand edited by James Bade. Although the English edition of 1998, Out of the Shadow of War, is listed, there is no evidence that the author has looked at it; for while single chapters in it are devoted to figures she includes (Wolfskehl, Popper, Munz, Adam), it also informs about numerous others whom she never mentions. She does list, but seems not to have read, Ann Beaglehole’s excellent pioneering study, A Small Price to Pay: Refugees from Hitler in New Zealand (1988), with its scrupulously researched and annotated accounts of government immigration policies in the 1930s, much to be preferred to such emotional summaries by Klier as: “Labour abandons all religious and spiritual principles on which a democratic society is based in a pathetic attempt to protect New Zealand’s material prosperity.”

The author’s oblivion to work already done shows most startlingly in the summary in her foreword of the contribution made by German-Jewish refugees to their adopted country, which reads: “They brought practical knowhow, innovative ideas and medical skills, along with some European recipes. One of the Jewish immigrants created German sausage meats; another raised New Zealand packaging techniques to an international standard.” And that’s it! No mention whatever of music, theatre, art or architecture. But a study of Jewish refugees to New Zealand which does not feature Arthur Hilton in its index is a Hamlet without the prince. Good Horatio is missing too: Fred Turnovsky sidles onstage just once as an extra, to illustrate difficulties in obtaining citizenship. Yet the important contributions to our musical culture of these two outstanding personalities alone are recorded in detail in, for instance, John Mansfield Thomson’s history of the Music Federation of New Zealand – another book not in Klier’s bibliography. Two other eminences missing from this Elsinore are Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Lang, who both came here as refugee children. Similarly, in the arts: no Marie Vandewart or Claire Galambos-Winter; no Maria Dronke; no Ernst Plischke or Helmut Einhorn. And while the world of the intellect has three representatives – Wolfskehl, Popper, Munz – there’s no mention of university Germanists Paul Hoffmann and Gerda Bell; economist Wolfgang Rosenberg; doctor and reformer Erich Geiringer; psychoanalyst Mario Fleischl; churchman and peace activist Paul Oestreicher.

Of course every sample must be limited; the problem here is that it is so slanted. One wonders if Klier is indifferent to the kinds of individual distinction described, for she focuses instead on business people who, while admirable, are seldom able to raise their heads beyond the diurnal. Is this a result of her imperfect English, which meant that existing New Zealand publications were largely inaccessible to her? (One of her interviewed subjects has told me that her frequent misunderstanding of his English resulted in mistakes in the German edition which had to be corrected for the English edition.) Or could a GDR education with its emphasis on the collective also have played a part? For it is equally peculiar that when Klier names four German writers driven into exile in the 1930s, the most distinguished are missing there as well: no Thomas Mann, no Bertolt Brecht.

Both this limitation, and the book’s lack of any footnotes or references, means that it does not rate as a scholarly contribution to its subject. While, for the reasons explained, its publication in New Zealand is to be welcomed, the University of Otago Press deserves a rap over the knuckles for the claim on its cover that it is “a significant piece of world history”, and an “important work”. It is neither. As for the claim that it is “the first English-language translation”: how many are they expecting? As also demonstrated, their editor should not have let stand in a foreword dated June 2009: “With avid interest, I began researching this dramatic and largely unknown chapter.” But so too should the Otago Daily Times reviewer be rebuked for writing, “Freya Klier casts her net wide”. For she doesn’t – and this necessarily qualifies one’s admiration for the empathy and skill with which she uses it.


Peter Russell retired in 2006 as Reader in German at Victoria University of Wellington. 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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