Deported Jews on the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border 1938
Photo by B. Birnbach; Wiener Library Photo Archive WL15019

At a time when violence and upheaval in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere have created an upsurge in the number of refugees, many look to historical examples for potential continuities and solutions. Conflict and war, political, religious and ethnic persecution have always caused the displacement of populations. Civilians are forced from their homes, fearing for their safety and future.

This exhibition examines responses to Jewish and other refugees in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. Built on the rich collection of refugee sources held by The Wiener Library, the exhibition explores a number of themes, including governmental policy on asylum and the kinds of assistance offered by humanitarian aid organisations at the international, national and local level. 

A Bitter Road also looks closely at the myriad experiences of Jewish refugees in Britain, including of surveillance and detention, poverty, separation and isolation. It highlights their resilience and means for coping with the hardships of integrating into a new society. Through the voices of refugees, A Bitter Road explores how refugees negotiated the road to safety and attempted to rebuild their lives. 

This timely exhibition raises important questions about historical examples of forced migration and Britain’s response in the past – and how the past can inform our responses to refugees today.

Follow the hashtag #ABitterRoad on Twitter for updates and responses to this exhibition. 

Purchase a copy of the exhibition catalogue for a selection of photographs and documents from our collections, personal refugee stories featured in the exhibition, and important historical context of Jewish refugees coming to Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. The catalogue is available to purchase at our Library’s reception desk, and

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Refugees Then and Now Series

To accompany our exhibition, we are hosting a series of events around the theme of refugees which will provide an opportunity to reflect upon both historic refugee situations and the experiences of present-day refugees. Events in the Refugees Then and Now Series include:

  • Roundtable: Making a Difference: Critical Responses to the Refugee Crises Then and Now (2 Nov)
  • Encounters with Albion: Images of Britain in Texts by Jewish Refugees (23 Nov)
  • PhD and a Cup of Tea: A New Approach to the Jewish Refugee Crisis in South-Western Europe, 1940-44 (8 Dec)
  • From Exodus 1947 to Lampedusa: Jewish Refugees and Other Boat People (8 Dec)
  • Curator’s Talk – A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s (12 Jan)
  • Refugees Then and Now: Young Syrian Refugees, Smartphones and Social Media (19 Jan)
  • #WLdebate 2017: Refugees or Migrants? Discussing Forced Migration Online (24 Jan)

Curator Chats

Short films by exhibition co-curators Dr Barbara Warnock (Education and Outreach Manager) and Dr Christine Schmidt (Deputy Director and Head of Research) on the personal collections of Jewish refugees Peter Johnson, Ruth Ucko, and Bernard Simon. 

Reading Room Exhibitions

Walter Marx and Lore Freudenthal

The Wiener Library’s latest Reading Room exhibition, staged in conjunction with the Britain and the Refugee Crisis exhibition tells the story of German Jewish refugee Walter Marx and his cousin Lore Freudenthal.

Walter Marx was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1914 and went on to work for his family clothing business. Walter was imprisoned in Dachau following the November Pogrom of 1938 (‘Kristallnacht’) and the family business was confiscated shortly after. His mother Selma managed to secure Walter’s release in February 1939, and he came to Britain, with a relative acting as a guarantor, on the basis that he would emigrate eventually to the United States. Despite the best efforts of Walter and his brother Kurt, then living in New York, Selma was not able to escape Nazi Germany and she died in 1940, unable as a Jew to receive appropriate medical treatment. Walter made is way to the US in 1946 and settled in Chicago.

Lore Freudenthal, Walter’s cousin, was born in 1930 in a village near Hessen, Germany. Her father was arrested during the November Pogrom and imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp for over a month. After his release, Lore’s parents worked hard to obtain sponsorship to enable their children to leave Germany. Lore came to Britain on the last Kindertransport to leave Frankfurt. She was nine years old. Her brother and parents were transported to Lublin, Poland, in 1942. Her father and brother perished in Majdanek, and her mother in Sobibor. In Britain, Lore lived initially in a hostel near where Walter was staying, and was then fostered and eventually adopted by Florence and Frederick Fish. She was later an artist and art teacher. 

Giulio Finzi

The first Reading Room exhibition told the story of Italian Jewish refugee to Britain, Giulio Finzi (1903-1979).

Giulio Finzi was born in Milan in 1903, part of a secular middle class Jewish family. In Italy he was a solicitor, but he was struck off the official register of lawyers in 1938 for ‘racial reasons’. Giulio travelled to Britain as a refugee. In 1940, he was interned by the British state in the Metropole Camp on the Isle of Man as an ‘Enemy Alien’. After his release in November 1940, Giulio served in the Pioneer Corps and married Elfriede (Friedel) Kastner (1916-1990), a Jewish refugee from Germany, in 1941. At end of the war, Giulio was given permission by the British authorities to travel to Italy to try and locate his mother and sister. Tragically, they had been transported to Eastern Europe and then to Auschwitz. Giulio’s mother Aurelia was murdered on arrival at Auschwitz, but the exact fate of her daughter Emma is not known.