Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Would this heroine be successful today?

Thanks to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I now know about Esther (Tess) Simpson, born as Esther Sinovitch on 31 July 1903. She became a sought-after secretary-cum-translator-cum-interpreter after the 1914-18 war, but took a drop in pay in order to work for what became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. Simpson, a Quaker, had been appalled by Hitler's wholesale dismissal of Jewish lecturers and professors from German universities. She had asked Leo Szilard if she could be of use to the Academic Assistance Council recently founded in London by William Beveridge, Maynard Keynes, Gilbert Murray, Ernest Rutherford, and others, to help these persecuted scholars.

Tess Simpson was to persevere in that endeavour for the next sixty years. When challenged, late in life, about the council's exclusive focus on intellectuals, she replied: 'What was happening [in Germany] ... was anti-human and I wanted to do something to mitigate against that ... Each [refugee organization] could only do so much but of course I felt terrible about the plight of others' (The Times, 1 July 1992).

At first almost all the refugees were Jews. But after the Nuremberg laws of 1935 German academics could be expelled if they had just one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish wife. Between 1933 and 1940 Tess Simpson became a one-woman reception centre for nearly 2600 refugee intellectuals. They arrived in Britain rejected, nearly destitute, and traumatized by the humiliation and hatred meted out to them by Nazis, and found themselves in a country still suffering massive unemployment, whose popular newspapers were as hostile to Britain's being 'flooded' by foreign asylum seekers as at any other time, before or since. Tess Simpson was almost always the first person to meet each new arrival and she greeted him or her with warm sympathy, high intelligence, and immense practicality, setting them 'on the stairway to survival and success' (Hampstead and Highgate Express, November 1996). Many of these desperate people were eventually to become among the most eminent thinkers in their fields in the world, but they all started in Britain as Tess Simpson's 'children' for whom she found a new life, often locating work for them in small colleges in the United States or in university colleges in the British Commonwealth, if not at first in Britain.

After the fall of Norway in 1940, the British government, headed by Churchill, panicked about these and other 'enemy aliens' in Britain and decided to intern them all. To her horror Tess Simpson learned that over 500 of 'her' refugee scholars, many of them now doing work of national importance and of course anti-Nazis to a man, were about to be arrested, sent to camps surrounded by barbed wire, and possibly even deported. She made vain protests to the Home Office and had to spend the next year accumulating the most meticulous documentation attesting to the integrity of every single individual case in order to give Professor Archibald Vivian Hill, MP for Cambridge University and vice-president of the executive committee of the society, and Eleanor Rathbone, MP for the Northern Universities, the evidence they required before they could succeed in their joint effort, helped by Bishop George Bell of Chichester, to have all these interned intellectuals released. 'Do you know the story of Bruce and the spider? I am that spider', she later remarked (Cooper, Refugee Scholars, 134).

The public denigration of refugees was probably more flagrant in Tess Simpson's day than now, but fortunately the Establishment was - eventually - ready to yield to rational arguments rather than pander to ignorant prejudice.

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