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Living Languages

The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Internment and refugee organisations in the Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert-Miller Archive

The internment of nearly 30,000 of the 80,000 refugees from Nazi Europe in the UK in the summer of 1940 disrupted community organisations and the vital support networks which provided a measure of relief to the traumatised refugees. Austrian Jewish exile actors Martin Miller and Hanne Norbert were active in a number of these organisations, notably the Austrian exile theatre, the Laterndl. In this blogpost Miller Archivist Clare George looks at some of the records in their archive for evidence of how mass internment in the summer of 1940 affected such organisations.

The Austrian exile theatre was established in the spring of 1939 with the aim of contributing to the fight against Nazism and in the first year of its existence it provided an opportunity for the refugee community to share stories and the experience of exile. The theatre reflected on the issue of hostility to the refugees in UK in the sketch ‘Bow Street’ by Rudolf Spitz, which was staged in the company’s first production, Unterwegs, in June 1939. Set in Bow Street Magistrates Court, the sketch saw the trial of three refugees being overseen by Judge Commonsense, General Bias and Mrs Charity. The Times described the sketch as the theatre’s ‘most ambitious piece, … which reflects upon the grim present’ and The Spectator reported that the sketch had ‘a real and unforced pathos that brought tears to the eyes of weaker members of the audience’. The scene appeared almost to anticipate the ‘enemy alien’ tribunals that would start a few months later, with the positive outcome of the trial and Mrs Charity’s triumph over General Bias perhaps reflecting the gratitude to the UK felt by many newly-arrived refugees in 1939.

‘Bow Street’ script by Rudolf Spitz, 1939 (Miller 1/2/2/15)

This early sketch was in fact unusual in its focus, since the Laterndl players aimed their satire principally at Nazi leaders and developments in Austria and Germany. In March 1940, as the UK’s press was demanding the imprisonment of the refugees as ‘spies’ and ‘fifth columnists’, the company produced one of its most popular anti-Nazi shows, The Eternal Schwejk. In April 1940 the actors began rehearsals for a new production of Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper, and in early May the theatre group was confident enough of its future to plan the publication of a yearbook to mark the first anniversary of its existence. By the time the Dreigroschenoper opened in late May however, the mass arrests had begun, and the company struggled to keep up with the loss of the actors to the internment camps. When first one and then a second actor playing the role of Mackie Messer was interned, the challenge of finding a third was just about met but it was clear that the theatre would have to suspend its activities.

In August the remaining company members attempted to re-open the theatre. With the support of the Laterndl’s patrons, PEN members Janet Chance, Herman Ould and Storm Jameson, they wrote to the Advisory Council on Aliens at the Foreign Office for support. One of the Council’s functions was ‘to suggest measures to maintain morale for aliens in this country so as to bind them more closely to our common cause’. Pointing out that the theatre had been run ‘solely by exiled anti-Nazi writers and actors’, receiving ‘considerable publicity’ and ‘good audiences’, Laterndl writer Rudolf Spitz asked if the theatre could apply for ‘a grant to ensure its first expenses’. How the Council responded to the Council is not known, but in any case the theatre did not reopen at this point.

Austrian Centre leaflet, July 1940 (Miller 1/2/3/2)

The Laterndl’s parent body, the Austrian Centre near Paddington, London, also came under severe strain through the crisis, with many of its staff and most of its members interned. The Centre had been established by Austrian Communist refugees in March 1939 and by 1940 it was the largest Austrian exile self-help organisation in the UK. This newssheet from 30 July 1940 documents some of the ways it responded proactively to the challenge of mass internment in support of the community. Meetings and information events were held twice weekly to provide support and practical help for those whose loved ones had been arrested. The Centre’s newspaper, the Zeitspiegel, led with articles on wider UK public opinion on internment and debates in the House of Commons.

The Centre also launched an entertainment programme of concerts and literary performance to raise funds for the internees. Some of the Laterndl actors who had not been interned contributed to the programme, amongst them Martin Miller. In a fascinating oral history interview carried out by Charmian Brinson in 1995 with Norbert (by then Hannah Norbert-Miller), the latter revealed that it was in fact Miller’s work at the Centre and the Laterndl which had indirectly enabled him to avoid internment in June 1940. Miller, who had been classed as Category C (no security risk) at a tribunal in October 1939, was then living in Putney in south west London. It was a considerable journey from there to both the Laterndl at Swiss Cottage and the Austrian Centre at Paddington, and to save on fares Miller would stay at work and sleep in the offices overnight. When the police came to arrest him early in the morning in June 1940, they were therefore met with the simple message that he was away from home, at which point they appear to have given up. Norbert-Miller commented that this was ‘a thing I just can’t understand. Instead of thinking this very suspicious, they just never bothered to find him. I used to meet him in Marble Arch, courting at 6 o’clock in the morning’.

Home Office: Aliens Department: Internees Index card for Martin Miller (Rudolf Mueller), 1940 (The National Archives, HO 396/166)
Poster for the Kammerspiele des Austrian Centre (Miller 5/3/8)

As well as the programme of weekly concerts and literary events for fund-raising at the Centre, space and support was also given to a new theatre group, the Kammerspiele des Austrian Centre. The group brought together actors from the Laterndl who had not been interned, including Hanne Norbert and Lilly Durra, with those in a similar position from the Free German League of Culture, which had also been forced to close. The Kammerspiele also involved a number of German-speaking refugee actors from Czechoslovakia, who were not under threat of mass internment since they were considered to be ‘friendly aliens’. Very few traces of this theatre company have survived but this poster shows that their productions included Nestroy’s Freiheit in Kraehwinkel and Offenbach’s Salon Pitzelberger. The company probably did not last more than a few months, however, and it was more than a year before the community could announce it had a fully functioning theatre again, with re-opening of the Laterndl in new premises in September 1941.

This blogpost draws on research by Professor Charmian Brinson and Professor Richard Dove into the archive of Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert-Miller. The archive was kindly deposited at the IMLR by the Millers’ son Daniel Miller in 2001 and is managed by Senate House Library on behalf of the Institute. Further information about the archive can be found here and an online catalogue of the archive can be found here.  

Professor Brinson’s oral history interview with Hannah Norbert-Miller was carried out in 1995 as part of a series of interviews carried out by members of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies with German-speaking refugees from Nazi Europe. Further information about the interview is available here.

Read more Stories from the Exile Archives

Dr Clare George, Archivist (Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert-Miller Trust), Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile StudiesIMLR.

Reading for the Everyday in Postwar French Fiction

David Ewing is a doctoral candidate in Modern French at the University of Cambridge. His research considers the relationship between everyday life and narrative fiction in postwar France.

A history of the everyday in modern European literature might begin with Baudelaire, who refused the Romantic flight from daily reality to the realm of the marvellous: by bringing thought to bear on poetry, the everyday could be made to eat away at itself, eventually yielding a marvellous truth that would cancel and replace it. Generations later, the Surrealists would find only new means to the same end: the dissolution of the ordinary into the extraordinary. Meanwhile, Flaubert, Baudelaire’s partner in prose, was to develop a style that could linger on the everyday, but less to celebrate its richness than to underscore its banality. More hospitable was Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a work whose poly-ness (-phony, -rhythm, -valence, etc.) was able to transfigure – but not yet banish – the everyday. The view from the mid-twentieth century, however, was that literature had been unable to come good on the possibilities opened by Joyce. If Claude Simon’s La Route des Flandres (The Flanders Road, 1960) bears notable similarities to Joyce’s masterpiece, it does not so much metamorphose the time, speech, and life of the everyday, as cool those aspects to a point of stasis; and if this process generates possibilities of its own, these have less to do with everyday reality than with literature as a project unto itself.

This is a caricature of the history of literature that underpins Henri Lefebvre’s formidable body of writings on everyday life. An abridged version of the story appeared in the first volume of his Critique de la vie quotidienne (Critique of Everyday Life, 1947); additional scenes are to be found in his primer of 1967, La Vie quotidienne dans le monde moderne (Everyday Life in the Modern World). In the latter work, Lefebvre asked what had changed between Ulysses and La Route des Flandres: the capacity of literature to transform everyday life through representational means, or everyday life as such? The answer, in short, was both, with the upshot that only critique could hope to grasp, and transform, the totality of the everyday. At least one facet of this argument – namely, that narrative fiction after modernism struggled to find a productive relationship with everyday life – has proven durable: in Modernism and the Ordinary (2009), Liesl Olson suggests that ‘theorists like Lefebvre begin to write about the everyday when it becomes a question of whether the novel or postmodern writing more generally can represent the everyday through the conventions of realism.’[1] But in what texts is such a crisis of representation most acutely posed, and what is offered as a way out? If it is not straightforwardly a flight from the everyday, what can the path of travel tell us about the potential of narrative fiction vis-à-vis everyday life?

Georges Perec (credit: UPI/AFP)

My research homes in on the relationship between ordinary experience and French narrative fiction in the period bookended by the publication of Lefebvre’s first volume of the Critique in 1947 and the appearance of its final instalment in 1981. In the thirty or so years following the Second World War, writers such as Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Georges Perec, whose names are often found in parentheses accompanying an invocation of le nouveau roman (and, with it, rather un-ordinary connotations of abstraction, formalism, and elitism), were seeking to restage the encounter between the novelistic form and experience. To be sure, the category of experience is capacious; only with some force can it be reduced to the everyday. But in taking a corpus of texts written in the wake of literary modernism and plotting the movements staged between ordinary experience and its counterpoints (extraordinary experience, the event, death, life grasped in the singular, and so on), it is possible to generate a set of ideal types that represent the possibilities opened by experimental fiction for dealing with – and, ultimately, vesting value in – the everyday. This way of reading for the everyday not only allows us to ask how successfully such texts worked on the everyday lives of their original readers; it also allows us to rethink, or reperceive, the phenomenological aspects of the everyday through some of the most daring apprehensions of experience, space, and time in the history of the novel.

David Ewing, doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge

[1] Liesl Olson, Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 14.

A Museum for Me | Un Museo Para Mi

On 10 May 2020, a unique virtual museum for English and Spanish-speaking audiences was launched at the University of Liverpool as part of the Culture Unconfined digital festival and AHRC-funded MVR Research project, led by Professor Claire Taylor.  

A Museum for Me | Un Museo Para Mí” creates a space for survivors and exiles of the Colombian armed conflict to share stories, and helps make visible the work of the Colombian Truth Commission  (la Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No Repetición) with members of the Colombian diaspora.

Dr Cherilyn Elston, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Reading, and a member of the UK and Ireland Hub in support of the Colombian Truth Commission,[1] interviews Professor Taylor and Dr Lucia Brandi (MVR project), about this exciting new initiative.

Cherilyn:             First can you just briefly tell us who or what the MVR project is?

Claire:                 MVR stands for Memory, Victims, and Representations of the armed conflict in Colombia – it’s an AHRC project led by Liverpool with research partners in Colombia and the UK. We’re just drawing to a close, in terms of the initial investigations, but entering a really exciting new phase, focusing on translating MVR findings into specific actions with lasting impact. For example, we are working with community actors to address the invisibility or silencing of particular social groups within the conflict, and gender-blind or identity-blind representations of violence.  A Museum for Me is one of the legacies of the MVR project, thanks to the UK’s Global Challenges fund (GCRF) and the Museo Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá.

Cherilyn:             Addressing the invisibility of particular social groups within the conflict is hugely important, and chimes with my own research on gender and the armed conflict in Colombia, as well as my work with Colombian migrants and exiles living abroad who have been historically silenced in peacebuilding processes and mainstream narratives of the conflict.  How would you describe A Museum for Me?

Lucia:                  A Museum for Me began life as a very simple idea and single product- we worked with the designer at the Museo Nacional de Colombia, Camilo Sánchez, to create craft kits for building your own mini-museum. We ran workshops for adults and children in the UK and Colombia, in which participants created mini-museums and placed objects and exhibits inside that tell their own stories. The workshops were really popular, and some of the creations were even displayed at the Tate Liverpool and the Museo Nacional de Colombia for our inaugural exhibition on 25 February this year. The workshops seem to function on different levels for different participants  – for embedding memory, for consciousness-raising, honouring loved ones, as focus groups, inter-generational communication, or for just reflecting on what is important to you  – the more the museum kits are used, the more functions they reveal. Now we have a whole range of products, but I think the most meaningful activities are always the simplest.

Cherilyn:             Why the move to a virtual museum? Is that just a response to lockdown? 

Lucia:                  Yes and no – I think we were always planning a digital platform for the project, but obviously lockdown has accelerated our actions. In fact, I think it has led us to a whole new layer of community engagement that complements face to face workshops. A Museum for Me is no longer a set activity or product, but rather it exists as a nexus of virtual and physical spaces where victims, survivors, exiles, artists, human rights activists, researchers, museologists and NGOs can take centre-stage. People use the platform to communicate personal memories or relate the testimonies of others, clarify truths, showcase their social action, and intervene directly in the representation and discourses around their person and stories. These stories come in myriad formats, from plain narrative and text, to music, poetry, dance, visual arts – in essence, the character of A Museum for Me has been determined by its contributors,  who include the UK Representative of the Colombian Truth Commission, and the many volunteers of the UK and Ireland Hub, who are reaching out to exiles and gathering testimonies as part of the peace process. For example, A Museum for Me supported the Commission’s efforts to include LGBT voices in analyses of truth, recognition and exile. And I would add that the platform is not delimited or exclusive – for example, we just recently saw in Refugee Week how Mujer Diáspora (a UK-based network of exiled Colombian women, which I know you are closely involved in) created content in English in order to connect with non-Spanish-speaking audiences, and celebrate an opportunity for making links between all survivors of war and conflict.

We’ve also had expressions of interest in our content from museums outside of Colombia, in other Latin American countries, which shows how the activities speak to many other national contexts. This energy and creativity are the momentum behind the site.

Cherilyn:             You mention English-speaking audiences – so is most of the content in English?

Lucia:                  Absolutely not, in fact the site is a good example of the Spanish/English translanguaging practices of the diaspora, who move between codes freely according to the source / target / function / context of a speech act. At the same time, there is more than enough content in each language to suit monolingual English or Spanish-speaking audiences.  I do think the language choices people make tells us something about how the platform is viewed and could be used in the future, within and beyond specific communities. In fact, all the materials are still available online for public use, and we’d very much encourage people to download the packs and create their own museums and other kits.

Cherilyn:             As a collaborator with the UK Hub in support of the Colombian Truth Commission, I know that both the act of sharing, and of listening to, personal testimonies of human rights abuse, is highly sensitive terrain and potentially very distressing – why would anyone choose to contribute their story to A Museum for Me, or for that matter, choose to visit?

Lucia                   Yes that’s entirely true, but for me, I think it’s because we are living through an historic moment – the Colombian Truth Commission is starting to wind-up its reception of testimonies and getting ready to produce its final report – people know this opportunity will not come around again, and are more determined than ever that truths, which they have held close over decades, should reach the public domain, and that the fate of loved ones should be brought to light. That’s why the activism of the Colombian diaspora, and groups such as Mujer Diáspora has been so central to the shape of the Truth Commission, and it’s why A Museum for Me is so timely. It’s no contradiction to also describe A Museum for Me as joyous and inspiring – profound depths of grief are matched only by the heights of energy and creativity of contributors, and an unshakeable commitment to peace, well-being, and non-violence.  It is actually a very life-affirming and uplifting experience, and an important reminder that violence is not the last word in the Colombian story.  

Dr Lucia Brandi, Research Associate, Impact and Engagement, AHRC project ‘Memory, Victims, and Representation of the Colombian Conflict’, University of Liverpool

[1] The UK and Ireland Hub in support the Colombian Truth Commission was created to fulfil the mechanisms for truth, reparation and recognition of victims agreed in the peace accords. Made up of individuals and organisations from the Colombian diaspora and civil society, its members included trained interviewers, who take testimonies for the Truth Commission. Please contact for more information.