The refugee revolution

November 23, 2017
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Nevil Gibson at the NBR notes the importance of migrants to New Zealand’s arts scene. The Second World War brought refugees from central and eastern Europe. Their contributions are noted in a new book from Leonard Ball at Auckland University Press. Nevil writes:

Historically, despite being a 19th-century settler economy, immigration was minimal in the 1930s and popular attitudes were hostile to “strangers.” Even the arrival of some 1100 refugees allowed in up to 1940 was resisted in some quarters.

The author of a new book on these mostly central European refugees from Nazism says, “The doors to New Zealand were almost closed.”

Leonard Bell’s Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the arts in New Zealand, 1930-80* describes the impact of those immigrants both before and after World War II. Supplemented later by Dutch migrants and those fleeing communism, they had a profound influence on architecture, the arts, education, industry, science, medicine, fashion, cuisine and much else.

A Czech refugee, Ernst Mandl (Mr Bell’s father-in-law), was told by the New Zealand High Commission in London in mid-1939 that 16,000 applications from others seeking to leave Europe had been rejected.

A junior staff member of the commission, George Fraser, later recalled in his memoir, Both Eyes Open, that, ”We could have recruited some of Europe’s finest … but balked at it.”

Opposition came from groups as varied as the British Medical Association (which demanded “retraining” of doctors), the Returned Services Association and sports clubs.

Xenophobia and, let’s face it, anti-Semitism was commonly expressed in the media and in attitudes to hiring “aliens” from European countries – Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – that New Zealand had fought in World War I.

Those attitudes were also directed at European allies, such as the French, but were countered by local Jews, Quakers and academics, who were supportive of the refugees. (For another perspective, see Jewish Lives in New Zealand History (2012), co-edited by Mr Bell.)

Nevil goes through substantial contributions to the arts, culture and architecture from New Zealand’s small group of admitted WW2 refugees – he calls it a cultural revolution.

I wonder what contributions the thousands who were turned away could have made here, and how many of them were murdered in Europe after finding doors closed.

Ball discusses his book here.

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