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Senate House Library

Imagining a Post-War Future: The Story of a Refugee from Nazi Germany


Written by
Clare George, Miller Trust Archivist, Senate House Library/Institute of Modern Languages Research

Inspired by the ‘Imagine’ theme of this year’s Refugee Week (15-21 June 2020), this blog explores the archives of German refugee Paul Bondy and his imagining of a free and democratic Germany after the Second World War. 

This month marks 80 years since the mass internment of nearly 30,000 so-called ‘enemy aliens’ from Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940, causing terrible hardship for those who were already traumatised by Nazi persecution and the upheaval of exile, and, for many, engendering a feeling of betrayal by the British. Considering what the refugees had been through, their familiar world torn apart and their day-to-day lives so difficult, it seems astonishing now that many of them still felt able to look beyond the present and imagine a different future.

Fleeing From Home & Internment

Paul Bondy was a highly qualified and experienced aluminium export manager of Jewish heritage. He came to the UK in 1935 to escape the attention of the Gestapo after his involvement in anti-Nazi activities in Bremen. His girlfriend Charlotte Schmidt followed in 1936 and they were married the same year.

Paul Bondy and Charlotte and Jo Bondy, circa 1940
Paul Bondy and Charlotte and Jo Bondy

The anguish caused by Bondy’s five-month imprisonment in Huyton Alien Camp four years later is clear from the correspondence the couple exchanged at this time. Charlotte now found herself alone with their three-year-old daughter in London during the Blitz with little income, at one point made homeless by the bombing. While Charlotte tried desperately to drum up support for his release application, Bondy expressed despair at being unable to support his family or to contribute to the fight against the Nazi regime. 

Huyton Internment Camp
Huyton Internment Camp, 1940

Even at this low point, however, Bondy’s internment diary records how he and other veterans of the underground struggle in Germany were driven to action by their hope for a better Germany. He was one of a group of interned socialists hoping to persuade the British authorities via their supporters in the Labour Party to involve them in shaping policy on Germany. Bondy’s fellow internee, trade union leader Hans Gottfurcht, even sought government approval for the creation of a group of German opponents of Hitler to work on propaganda alongside MI5. At this stage in the war, however, such efforts to gain recognition of the input that the exiles could make were not successful.  

Shaping post-war German education policy

After his release from internment, Bondy worked for the release of fellow socialists and to persuade the government that they should play a role in shaping Germany’s future. Documents from this period point to Bondy’s belief that education had to be at the heart of the attempt to rebuild Germany, and that this should start with the refugees themselves. He exchanged ideas with another interned exile, educationalist Minna Specht, around the possibility of establishing an international school and a refugee university. He was also involved in discussions with the British Council on how to spread understanding of British culture amongst the refugees.

Perhaps the most enduring of the voluntary education schemes in which Bondy was involved was that of German Educational Reconstruction (G.E.R.), which was founded in 1942 to help refugee teachers and social workers prepare for their return to post-war Germany. After the war, when Bondy became editor of the G.E.R. Bulletin, it promoted Anglo-German educational relations more generally. His papers contain a wealth of information on the exchanges and conferences run by G.E.R. to bring together educationalists of all kinds in Germany and the UK. This conference programme from March 1951 includes some rather prophetic discussion titles such as differences in the British and German outlook on foreign policy, with special reference to the development of European union! 

GER report - Political Conditions & Institutions of Great Britain & Germany, 1951
Political Conditions & Institutions of Great Britain & Germany, 1951

German public opinion

By the end of the war the value of the exiles’ input in planning for post-war Germany had been recognised, and in 1945 Bondy spent nine months with the US Army’s Office of Strategic Services in Germany, gathering intelligence and recording public opinion on a wide range of issues. His files contain fascinating detail of the defeated Germans’ views on the church, education, food, Russia, the USA, and the anti-Nazi activists Sophie and Hans Scholl. Above all, his reports focused the need to rebuild the German trade union movement and the role of education in re-establishing democracy. 

POW re-education

The government decided that the 400,000 German POWs in the 1500 camps in the UK would make a fruitful pool from which to recruit administrators in post-war Germany, and a re-education scheme of lectures, films, radio and theatre was started by the Foreign Office in 1944. Bondy was one of a number of refugees who contributed to the lecture programme. The impressions he had gathered of life in immediate post-war Germany fed into his lectures, and the archive contains approximately 50 official reports on these lectures, giving fascinatingly frank details of prisoner reaction and morale.

A catalogue of the Bondy Archive will be made available online as soon as the listing is completed later this year.