This week is National Refugee Week. Sponsored by agencies such as Oxfam and Amnesty International, institutions and communities are encouraged to recognise and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to the United Kingdom. We think this is a brilliant idea, and we would like to highlight the experiences of one of the archaeologists whose archival collections are held by the Institute of Archaeology.
Paul Jacobsthal (1880 – 1957), an archaeologist specialising in Celtic art, was forced to flee from the Nazi regime in 1935 because of his Jewish descent. With the help of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, he left his native Germany for Oxford, where he worked as an academic with Christ Church College until his death. Deprived of his position as Director of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Marburg, Jacobsthal also had to give up his collection of thousands of photographic negatives, which had taken him years to compile.
To add insult to injury, Jacobsthal (along with many of his German Jewish colleagues) was classified as an enemy alien to the United Kingdom in 1940 and was held in several makeshift internment camps throughout the country (including Warth Mill, which, according to Jacobsthal, was a “hellish labyrinth”). Eventually, Jacobsthal was interned at Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man along with approximately 1200 other prisoners. Hutchinson Camp was known for having the most university professors and lecturers, and the academic internees would deliver daily lectures to their fellow prisoners.
Though Jacobsthal was only interned for three months, his time in the camps certainly left a lasting impression on him. The squalid conditions, the hostility of British civilians, and the relationships and hierarchies formed amongst the internees were topics on which he wrote in his own account of his internment (which was eventually published in the volume Refugee Scholars: Conversations with Tess Simpson, edited by R. M. Cooper). What perhaps struck Jacobsthal the most were the stories told to him by the more recent Jewish refugees coming from Germany; as he and his wife left Germany in 1935, they did not experience first-hand the horrors that befell the remaining Jews. Jacobsthal stated, “I was living with men who had terribly suffered: they spoke rarely, but the more impressively, of their ordeals in Concentration Camps: once far better off than I, they had lost everything and now with dignity led a life of privation in exile…”.
Despite his internment, Jacobsthal did not hold it against his adopted country. He realised that the internment of refugees was “a very stupid measure, of no avail to the country”, but remained in the United Kingdom until his death. He went on to publish Early Celtic Art, a work that was immediately hailed as a near-masterpiece and remains a benchmark in Celtic studies today. Shortly before his death, Jacobsthal published a book on Greek pins, which was described in a review by art historian John Boardman as “a work unlikely to be bettered for a long time”. Jacobsthal’s contribution to the United Kingdom (and, in fact, to the whole of Europe) was the introduction of new ideas about a pan-European heritage, which became vital in the rethinking of national identities in the post-war period.