From the 1930s through the 1950s, a substantial number of forced migrants – refugees from Nazism, displaced people after World War II and escapees from Communist countries – arrived in New Zealand from Europe. Among them were an extraordinary group of artists and writers, photographers and architects whose European modernism radically reshaped the arts in this country. In words and pictures, Strangers Arrive tells their story. Ranging across the arts from photographer Irene Koppel to art dealer and printmaker Kees Hos, architect Imric Porsolt to writer Antigone Kefala, Leonard Bell takes us inside New Zealand's bookstores and coffeehouses, studios and galleries to introduce us to a compelling body of artistic work. He asks key questions. How were migrants received by New Zealanders? How did displacement and settlement in New Zealand transform their work? How did the arrival of European modernists intersect with the burgeoning nationalist movement in the arts in New Zealand? Strangers Arrive introduces us to a talented group of ‘aliens' who were critical catalysts for change in New Zealand culture.
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None of us had the faintest idea where we were going [but] during 1938–39 ... the town [Christchurch] was made strangely interesting for anyone like myself, [with the] scattered arrival of 'the refugees'. All at once there were people among us who were actually from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin ... who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius.
— Antony Alpers, 'Thank Offering' (1985)
Tikis: Impressions in black and white was published in Wellington in 1946. Its author, Frederick Ost (1905–85), a Prague-trained polymath, and his wife, Greta Ostova, a professional cellist, had landed in New Zealand via Poland and England as refugees from Nazism in 1940.
Tikis reproduced seven of Ost's large black pen-and-ink drawings. One is titled A Stranger Arrives (1944). There are several intersecting pictures within the composition, at the centre of which is a statuesque tiki figure; a small manikin sits at its base. Otherwise we see an internally framed harbourscape (recognisably Wellington, the site of arrival), parts of other pictures (abstract, constructivist and cubist), a guitar, bits of a vase, and other objects, such as a suitcase labelled New York, Praha (Prague), Lisbon, Paris. They signal where the stranger came from. The various parts abut one another obliquely; their borders indistinct or broken. They make up an assemblage of spatial dislocations; an image marked by fractures. A Stranger Arrives stands as a visual metaphor of the experiences, travel and travail of 'aliens', as refugees from Nazism and people from non-English-speaking countries were officially classified in New Zealand. Ost's picture also exemplifies how displacement produces new configurations.
The Palestinian-American academic Edward Said claimed that '[m]odern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés and refugees'. Creative 'aliens' in the mid-twentieth century contributed to cultural and social developments in Britain and America out of all proportion to their numbers. Strangers Arrive explores the cultural impact of forced migrants in New Zealand – those refugees from Nazism and the threat of war who arrived in the 1930s, and the survivors and displaced people (DPs) who arrived after World War II.
What impacts did these 'strangers' have on New Zealand's culture and society? How prominent were they as agents of change? Which of their ideas and practices were influential, which were not, and why? How were the 'aliens' received by the locals? What roles did they play in the far-reaching cultural transformations and artistic developments that occurred in New Zealand from the 1940s to the 1970s and beyond?
Even in a small country a comprehensive coverage of refugee impacts in all spheres of activity would require several volumes. Strangers Arrive is partial. It focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the visual arts and on writing about visual culture: photography, painting, sculpture, graphic art, crafts, architecture and planning. I focus on some key characters: photographers Frank Hofmann, Irene Koppel and Richard Sharell; artists Ost, Patrick Hayman, Jan Michels and Kees Hos; Continental film distributor and theatrical impresario Natan Scheinwald; arts writers Imric Porsolt and Gerda Eichbaum (later Bell); architects Helmut Einhorn, Henry Kulka, Frederick Newman (Neumann), Tibor Donner, Vladimir Cacala and Porsolt. Others, more difficult to place, have important roles, too: town planner and writer Gerhard Rosenberg; print collector and advocate Walter Auburn; artist and teacher Rudi Gopas; writer Antigone Kefala; photographers Bettina (Lily Inge Byttiner), Maja Blumenfeld and Franz Barta; craftsmen and designers Edzer (Bob) Roukema and Felix Schwimmer; architect Ernst Gerson; bookseller and writer Robert Goodman; collector and musician Ernst Specht. Probably the best-known creative 'aliens' who were active in New Zealand in the mid-twentieth century are artist, craftsman and polemicist Theo Schoon, architect and planner Ernst Plischke and poet Karl Wolfskehl. Because they have now been written about extensively it would be redundant to foreground them; nevertheless, they make periodic appearances.
The work and careers of these individuals exemplify not just the impacts of emigrés and the problems they faced, but also the tensions and complexities of their encounters with locals. A few of these 'aliens' are well known, even if little written about, but most are relatively obscure. Some might be regarded as minor. Yet close scrutiny shows that they played key roles in cultural change: as seminal triggers, as innovators in particular fields or as inspirational figures.
After World War I and the Russian Revolution the poet Osip Mandelstam observed, 'In our day Europeans have been hurled out of their biographies, like balls from the pockets of billiard tables.' With the Nazi accession to power in 1933, the Anschluss in Austria and Munich Settlement in 1938, and then the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the numbers of people fleeing their countries became a flood.
About 1100 refugees from the Nazis reached New Zealand before and during World War II. They were predominantly Jewish, or of Jewish descent, and had been forced out of Europe – from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia mainly, but also from Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands. After the war and into the 1950s several thousand more survivors of Nazism, relatives of earlier refugees, and DPs from Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States fleeing communist totalitarianism landed up in New Zealand. New Zealand governments in the 1950s also supported immigration from the Netherlands. Many of those Dutch migrants were getting as far away as possible from the trauma and devastations of the war and they, too, were registered as 'aliens'.
The arrival of refugees, DPs and forced migrants, mostly from Continental Europe, changed the visual arts in New Zealand in two primary ways. The new arrivals transmitted European modernist and metropolitan ideas and practices, offering alternatives to the traditional Anglo-oriented visual arts and prevalent preoccupation with national identity. They also played crucial roles in introducing and enhancing the standing of traditional European cultural practices. Refugees' and DPs' cultural baggage included a strong belief in the essential social roles of the arts and the need to balance the traditional and the modern. They were either ahead of dominant local thinking or stimulated nascent cultural developments.
'Aliens' were critical catalysts for change and innovation in New Zealand culture. Fred Turnovsky, a refugee from Czechoslovakia, a major benefactor of the arts and long-time Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council member, succinctly characterised the Central European refugees from multilingual and multi-ethnic societies as 'hybrids', the 'yeast that makes a society interesting'.
The title Strangers Arrive signals a distinctive perspective. The figure of 'the stranger' is integral to making sense of refugee and DP encounters with 'natives'. The stranger is the outsider who, by his or her very nature, destabilises the established order and blurs boundaries. This figure held a powerful purchase during the calamitous twentieth century of wars, persecutions and forced migrations. Several early- and mid-century essays by Central European and American scholars, all titled 'The Stranger', elucidate the character.
German-Jewish sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) defined the stranger as 'he who comes today, and stays tomorrow, one in whom nearness and distance are synthesised', and for whom fixity and movement come together. Simmel argued that while the stranger entered a new-to-him social space, that position was 'determined by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning; that he imports qualities into it which do not and cannot stem from the [inside] group itself'. For Simmel the archetypal strangers were Jewish intellectuals and professionals, whose presence had such creatively stimulating and divisive effects in European societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
American scholar Margaret Wood's 1936 essay offered a broader conceptualisation. Her stranger is determined not by length of contact, or by whether he or she stays or goes, but by the nature of the meetings between people who did not know one another before, who are strangers to one other. She noted that sometimes strangers become insiders, and sometimes they remain outsiders, even when they stay.
Austrian-Jewish sociologist Alfred Schutz's 1944 essay 'The Stranger' was written in America when he was a refugee from Nazism. He addressed the 'typical situation of a stranger (whether refugee or immigrant) trying to interpret the cultural pattern of [the] social group he approaches, and to orient himself within it', in an attempt 'to be permanently accepted, or at least tolerated by the group he approaches'. Almost invariably, Schutz argued, strangers interpret their new social environments in terms of the practices and concepts derived from the culture and society they had left. These may have limited applicability in the new environment and limited acceptance from its local members. The degree to which strangers and locals adjust to one another and absorb elements of the others' cultural patterns, Schutz argued, determines whether strangers find acceptance, and cease to be strangers, or whether they remain 'marginal', 'cultural hybrids on the edges of two differing cultural patterns, without belonging to either'.
The arrivals of strangers in these remote South Pacific islands unsettled locals. Even though immigration was minimal in New Zealand during the 1930s, refugees from Nazism generated significant comment. Ann Beaglehole's A Small Price to Pay (1988) describes the governmental response: how difficult it was to gain entry; the suspicious treatment of 'aliens' and their surveillance and incarceration; the restrictions on movement and the use of cameras. Those 1100 or so refugees allowed in up to 1940 by numbers, and in proportion to the country's population, constituted a much smaller intake than those admitted to Britain, the USA or Australia. Only Canada of the English-speaking countries was more restrictive. The doors to New Zealand were almost closed.
When Ernst Mandl (1897–1975), a refugee from Czechoslovakia, collected his entry visa from the New Zealand High Commission in London in mid-1939, he asked how many applications from people still in Europe had been rejected. The answer was '16,000', and that was just the London office. Career diplomat Cyril Burdekin administered, though did not approve or reject, visa applications from Jewish and political refugees at the London High Commission. Burdekin substituted for the New Zealand representative at the League of Nations in Geneva in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Based at the High Commission from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, he attended the League's Evian conference in Switzerland, which addressed the Jewish refugee 'problem' in 1939. Burdekin expressed sympathy for refugees, but stated that New Zealand's economic situation limited the number it could accept. Golda Meir, who in 1938 was the Jewish observer from the British Mandate for Palestine, retorted about sympathisers, 'We don't want more sympathy. We want action.'
George Fraser was a junior employee at the High Commission. In his memoir, Both Eyes Open, he claimed that the High Commission was not equipped to address the refugee situation. He assisted Burdekin, who he thought was the librarian. Fraser recalled, 'It was a rewarding experience, meeting and corresponding with [applicants], although relatively few got through New Zealand's net of suspicion and professional jealousy.' He lamented: 'We could have recruited some of Europe's finest ... but balked at it.' Fraser noted about those applicants who managed to get here that 'their contribution to science, the arts and industry has more than repaid whatever they may have owed [this country]'.
Individual and institutional reactions to refugees in New Zealand ranged the whole spectrum from paranoid hostility to positive support, usually depending on whether particular kinds of refugee were seen as assets or liabilities. Local branches of many professional and occupational associations were hostile. The British Medical Association, for example, demanded that refugee doctors should not be registered, with or without three years' 'retraining' at Otago University College medical school. After 1939 no more refugee doctors were admitted. Meanwhile, the executive committee of the Returned Services' Association resolved in July 1945 that refugees should be sent back to their countries of origin. Less known is the reported obstructiveness of the Architectural Association towards attempts by foreign architects to register here. The refugee 'problem' was divisive in many institutions. For instance, in 1941 the Ruapehu Ski Club committee debated whether 'enemy aliens' should be allowed to join. Three members voted to ban them, but the majority favoured admission, though only with 'extreme care'.
Such xenophobia was common in the media. NZ Truth, the widely read, populist weekly (and thus, perhaps, a reliable index of commonly held prejudices), was a potent rabble-rouser. Refugees were blamed for stealing the jobs of locals or servicemen overseas. On 10 May 1939 an article titled 'Why Foreigners?' reported the Physical Education Society of New Zealand's resolution of concern over the Wellington Technical College's appointment of a 'foreign physical instructor', as they labelled Gisa Taglicht, who had been a professor of physical culture at Vienna University and was a refugee from Austria. Truth opined that 'our own flesh and blood should have preference ... foreigners must not be given opportunities at the expense of our people'. On 13 March 1940 the paper described an 'invidious infiltration of aliens into trade and industry' and claimed that 'swarms of alleged refugees have plagued the fur and clothing industries'. Doctors in particular were targeted. For example, on 21 February 1940 Truth bellowed that 'New Zealand may be flooded with refugee doctors', and that 'if the tide is not stemmed ... it will handicap children of men who fought the last war, while we extend preference to the children of their adversaries'.
A review of Welcome Stranger, a play by American playwright Aaron Hoffman, performed in Wellington in 1921, claimed that anti-Jewish prejudice was not accepted here; and yet anti-Semitism lay behind some of the antipathy to migrants. On 17 January 1940 Truth advised its readers: 'It is abundantly plain ... that there must be no more refugees, particularly Jews, admitted,' adding, 'It should be unlawful [for them] to change their names,' so that the 'credulous public' was not deceived. Prominent New Zealand-born writer Geoffrey de Montalk, the self-styled Count Potocki, penned virulent attacks on refugees, especially Jews. In a letter to The New Triad and an article published in Truth in late 1939, he deployed the crudest anti-Semitic bile. De Montalk wrote that 'the case against the Jews is an overwhelming one ... My ancestors created the civilisation of the European races for you and your Jew friends to drag down below the level of a Negro tribe.' According to de Montalk, refugees were 'loud, vindictive, hypercritical ... hideous and degenerate'.
To focus just on hostility to refugees would misrepresent a much more complex social situation. Antagonistic responses were challenged by other New Zealanders. Writing to Truth in 1945, Arthur Sewell, professor of English at Auckland University College, declared:
[Y]ou have published with full page splashes and inflammatory headlines ... on the treatment of refugees and 'defaulters' ... you have affected to be writing for the good of the country ... you fill the air with such obscene clamour ... [and] the language of the gutter press ... [You make] scapegoats on whom they can vent their anger ... you have learned nothing from the horror in Europe ... You will not see that you may generate in the Dominion that barbarous intolerance with which Germany cancelled all civilization ... [your article] becomes an act of nauseous cynicism to label your journal 'Truth'.
Local Jews, Quakers and academics formed committees to facilitate visas and assist refugees. Artists and writers helped, too. For instance, in his 'Forgotten Men: Whither the refugee' (1939) Noel Hoggard, a well-known poet, publisher and printer, pleaded for humanitarian treatment of refugees, stating that 'our immigration laws are unnecessarily harsh'. The radical periodical Tomorrow made a plea for a much more liberal approach to immigration in 1939. The same issue contained Jean Mather's poem 'The Refugees': 'We are the nameless ones/weary and desolate/ ... Who will receive us?' First prize in poetry at the 1940 Centennial Exhibition went to J. R. Hervey from Christchurch for his 'War Refugee'.
Excerpted from "Strangers Arrive"
Copyright © 2017 Leonard Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Alien Registration,
Chapter Two: Taking Pictures,
Chapter Three: New Visions,
Chapter Four: Words,
Chapter Five: Architectural Episodes,
Chapter Six: Virtual Strangers,