How history is brought to life

In my research project on  German immigrants in Nottingham during the First World War I’m working with the Trent Academy Group, which consists of Rushcliffe School, The Farnborough Academy and Arnold Hill Academy.

Students and teachers from these schools collaborate in defining research questions and conduct aspects of the research activity and dissemination of the research findings. Furthermore, they are engaged in the production of lasting learning materials on this subject.

So far, ten Year 11 and 12 and thirty Year 9 students from the three schools have taken part in the research work. Below you can read what one of the students wrote in the July issue of their school magazine, the Rushcliffe Post.

We found out what happened to German individuals

“World War One is on our collective conscience currently as we are in the middle of the 100 year anniversary; with soldiers rightly remembered. However, what about the people left behind? What about the residents of Nottingham? In particular, what if, like the poet and First World War soldier Siegfried Sassoon- you had German ancestry, or were German? The three schools of the Trent Academy Group have been given an excellent opportunity to work with an historian on a project that will try to answer this question.

TAG 1The first part of the project entailed us spending a day in Nottingham Central Library and Nottinghamshire Archives, under the direction of historian Ben Braber. The students were given a framework to work in, but were using their research skills to find out about what happened to German individuals. Ultimately, their research will help develop knowledge and understanding about the impact of the war on the people involved and the wider community.

On Tuesday 12th July we went to the Nottinghamshire Archives. Our task was to find out as much information about Germans/Austrians living in Nottingham in WW1.

TAG 2Our person was a German man called Alexander Seelig. We shared what we had found out through looking through an accounting book and various old letters about Seelig to the other people at the event. Seelig was accused of trading with the enemy and found guilty. Before he was imprisoned he had his own export trading company called “Seelig & Company” which were an extremely wealthy company.

We then researched different people who were German/Austrian who lived in Nottingham using online records. After researching two different people we came to the conclusion that they must’ve been visiting or imprisoned as nothing came up for them. However we then were given a final person to look at called “Isaac Bowmer” and we found out that he was of Austrian heritage. We found a newspaper article showing that he’d committed suicide because he was so fearful of what might happen so him as an immigrant living in Britain.

Overall the day was extremely enjoyable and we learnt a lot about German and Austrian immigrants in Nottingham from 1910 onwards and how they lived there life.”

Hidden history brought to life

My current research project is on German immigrants in Nottingham during the First World War. It’s a collaborative undertaking for academics, teachers and students.

Overview

This project breaks new ground, because it examines a subject that has been somewhat overlooked.

The examination focuses on: German migrant numbers and ethnic coherence; their participation in the wider society; prisoners of war, implementation of national measures such as arrest, internment and deportation of German nationals; hostile attitudes such as Germanophobia; riots and disturbances, for example in May 1915 following the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania; and German reactions and support for the German migrants in Nottingham throughout the period.

This is new research, because the subject has not only often been ignored in academic research, but it has also largely disappeared from the collective (public) memory.

Furthermore, whereas other research and publications on Germans in the UK during this period are usually limited studies on other localities or general countrywide overviews lacking local detail, the findings of this local examination are reviewed in a UK context.

For these purposes the project uses primary sources on the history of Nottingham, available in local and national depositories such as Nottinghamshire Archives and the National Archives, and secondary sources on the history of the UK in this period.

Partners

I’m conducting this project with academics at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, and we are working with the Trent Academy Group (TAG) – a multi-academy trust that supports schools in providing outstanding education for their pupils. The members of the Group are: Rushcliffe School – An Academy specialising in Science; The Farnborough Academy; and Arnold Hill Academy. All three are based in Nottinghamshire, and teach the First World War as part of the curriculum.

TAG students and their teachers are collaborating in defining research questions as well as conducting aspects of the actual research activity and dissemination of the research findings. Furthermore, they are engaged in the production of lasting learning materials on this subject.

Questions

In addition to the focus of examination mentioned above, the students are questioning differences and similarities between the period of the First World War and today when it comes to the position and treatment of foreigners such as immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and the development and maintenance of British values in times of conflict, terrorist attack and war.

This assists them in broadening and deepening their historical and social knowledge and developing and honing their research and dissemination skills, and it helps them and their fellow students to identify with historical personalities and events in order to gain a greater understanding of past and present.

Thus, the project brings to life a hidden history of integration and segregation, and makes it relevant for young contemporary audiences through involvement, collaboration and dissemination, leaving a legacy in terms of experiences and learning materials that can be applied in future education and training.

What’s the use

Front cover image of This Cannot Happen Here.In my book This Cannot Happen Here – Integration and Jewish Resistance in the Netherlands, 1940-1945 (published by Amsterdam University Press) there’s a small section on the ways in which Jews used language. Here’s that passage.

During the 1930s Jews in the Netherlands were becoming part of a changing Dutch society. They contributed to some of the changes, but during the process of their integration into Dutch society Jews did not necessarily lose all characteristics of their Jewish identity. However, less than in the past Jews defined these characteristics in terms of religion such as congregational membership, synagogue attendance, observance of Jewish rituals and participation in organised Jewish education and activity. More than before, Jews in the Netherlands maintained and further developed Jewish identities in other aspects their daily life. This was expressed, for example, through the way they spoke.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century most Jews in the Netherlands spoke Dutch, which had replaced Yiddish as their everyday language. This had been a slow process, with Yiddish being diluted with Dutch, but the development accelerated after changes in education, where Jewish children increasingly took part in general, not specifically Jewish education. By 1900 some families still spoke Yiddish at home, but this was regarded as uncivilised by the establishment. Not only Jews changed their language – the general population also altered language use. Like other living languages, Dutch was constantly changing. Significantly, several Yiddish words were introduced into Dutch and used by non-Jews. For instance, the phrase het was een sof to indicate that an event had been bad or the use of the name Mokum for the Dutch capital Amsterdam showed that language change was part of a process of mutual cultural transfer.

The historian M.H. Gans has made several observations about the language spoken by Jews in Amsterdam. He noted their patter had certain characteristics that distinguished it from the Dutch spoken by non-Jews in that city.

Traditionally, the Jews of Amsterdam lived in and near a quarter on the east side of the city centre. It was not a restricted area or ghetto and was also inhabited by non-Jews. The old Jewish quarter in Amsterdam belonged to the part of the city that had some of the worst slums. Demolition of slums forced their inhabitants to move. Some individuals who were successful in business or employment also moved voluntarily to neighbouring and further outlying districts. However, such moves were by no means permanent. Sometimes people moved on, at other times they returned to the old neighbourhood, for example because they preferred living there as they had remained outsiders in the new neighbourhood or because they were forced to return as they could no longer afford the usually higher rents of their new homes. In any case, by 1930 only about 18 per cent of all Jews in Amsterdam still lived in the old neighbourhood. In 1941 there were four neighbourhoods in the capital where more than 50 per cent of the inhabitants were Jewish. In other neighbourhoods Jews often lived in clusters.

The population of Amsterdam used numerous language variants, some of which were specific to neighbourhoods. Jews had their own accents in the neighbourhoods where they were concentrated or they adapted the accent of the neighbourhood in which they lived or to which they moved.

Overall, Jews in Amsterdam pronounced some letters less sharp, their intonation was dissimilar, and they gave words extra endings, changed syntax and word order, and made different word choices and combinations. To some, this language sounded more melodious, others found it exaggerated or even vulgar.

Linguists have pointed out that it is common to have several speech communities within one city, which show differences in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation or intonation. These sometimes long-lasting differences can be caused by real or perceived ethnic origins. While this is a group phenomenon, individuals within one family can use different spoken variants of a language, not always depending on their education, and one person can use various language forms at different times, often in relation to the people he or she is addressing. The language Gans heard from Jews in Amsterdam can be best described as a non-standard variety of Dutch. For example, the feature he mentioned of wij bennen instead of wij zijn (we are) is characteristic of non-standard language.

Jews may have used language variety for several reasons. An overtly flowery word choice could have been typical for persons who were uncertain about their language use, for example, working-class people who thought their language use was improper or incorrect. This relates to what linguists call striving for overt prestige (in the eyes of users of the standard language) rather than covert prestige (in the eyes of users of non-standard forms). It suggests that the Jewish users of standard and non-standard Dutch wanted to express a sense of belonging, either to the group that apparently spoke the standard variety – ‘proper Dutch’ – or to the group that did not. As such, how Jews spoke and what they said could have been knowingly or unintentionally a response to attitudes about Jews in the general population, a wish to hide or express a Jewish identity or a desire to participate in or abstain from certain activities, both Jewish and general activities. However, the use of a non-standard variant could also cause misunderstandings between Jews and non-Jews, which set Jews apart within the general population.