Proposals for a Centre for German-Jewish Studies, initiated in 1994 by Edward Timms, appealed to colleagues at the University of Sussex with indelible memories of childhood in Nazi-occupied Europe: Ladislaus Löb, John Röhl and Gabriel Josipovici. But why base the centre in Brighton, where there was only a relatively small Jewish community? ‘You must speak… Read more »
Proposals for a Centre for German-Jewish Studies, initiated in 1994 by Edward Timms, appealed to colleagues at the University of Sussex with indelible memories of childhood in Nazi-occupied Europe: Ladislaus Löb, John Röhl and Gabriel Josipovici. But why base the centre in Brighton, where there was only a relatively small Jewish community? ‘You must speak to Arthur Oppenheimer!’they said. Arthur, the son of a former German-Jewish economist turned antiques dealer who had fled to Britain, would surely be keen to reclaim his heritage. How right they were! Arthur’s personal ebullience and professional judgement proved inspirational. He put us in touch with kindred spirits in London, notably Diana Franklin, daughter of a German-Jewish refugee, and Ralph Emanuel, a Brightonian whose family had helped refugees from Nazism in the 1930s.
Diana travelled down to the University of Sussex to support our work, while Arthur kept us focused on deliverables, including a series of public events. In autumn 1995, a packed University Meeting House heard Rabbi Julia Neuberger speak about her book On Being Jewish. Her account of the diverse strands of Judaism highlighted the German liberal tradition that encourages women to play an active role in community affairs. Rabbi Neuberger spoke with pride about her German heritage and the campaign to assist refugees. For Vice-Chancellor Gordon Conway, who chaired the event, this was the moment of truth. He realised that Hans Woyda, the maths teacher at Kingston Grammar School who had originally kindled his passion for science, must have been one of those refugees.
The newly founded centre caught a rising tide of interest in the experiences of refugees. During the 1980s, Julius Carlebach, refugee son of a celebrated Hamburg rabbi, had been Reader in Sociology at Sussex, before moving to Heidelberg as Director of the High School for Jewish Studies. He and his wife Myrna had kept a home in Brighton, and one afternoon Myrna ushered Edward Timms into a room lined from floor to ceiling with books in German and Hebrew. A dozen years earlier, Julius recalled, he had attempted to establish a programme of Jewish studies at Sussex. Even now he was dubious about our prospects, although he promised his support.
“How many battalions do you have?” he asked, giving Edward a piercing look. It was several moments before it became clear that this referred to funding. “Only a research development grant from the Vice-Chancellor,” he replied, “but there is an enormous fund of goodwill and we are working with wonderful people.”
It is people who have made the Centre for German-Jewish Studies a continuing success. Members of the Brighton & Hove Jewish communities have been welcomed to events on campus and become involved in the centre’s activities. Generous donors, led by Richard Attenborough and Stephen Spielberg, made it possible to develop cutting-edge research, while innovative courses have introduced students to a challenging field.
The aim has been to highlight the role of Jews as catalysts in European civilization, while explaining how Germany betrayed the ideals of the Enlightenment and perpetrated the crimes of the Holocaust. Under Gideon Reuveni, the current director, the centre continues to develop new initiatives, including a digitisation programme that will make its rich archival collection more widely available.