Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
The Parkes Institute

Family letters as a source I: From grandfather to grandson.

A letter, c. 1993; a former Jewish refugee tells his grandson about his German background and experiences as a 16 year old refugee in Britain, 1939.

Source: Peter Theodore Landsberg, Letter to his grandson John (July, 1993)

Dear John,

Your family name is rather foreign-sounding. [...] For our particular family group it was I who introduced this name to this country by coming here in the late 1930s. I was what people called a ‚refugee from Nazi oppression‘. My family were all Germans: mother, father, uncles, aunts. Some of the fought in the 1914 war for Germany and were killed or wounded. From your point of view, they were on the wrong side in that bloody clash [...]. For me, too, they were on the ‘wrong side’, but I cannot judge them too harshly on that account. After all, they were not great nationalists or marching types, they merely did what they thought, along with everyone else, was their duty. [...] How can I, or anyone else, reproach them for living in Germany? Or even fighting for Germany? My position in this matter is in no way disloyal to Britain. [...] The additional complication which flushed me out from one side of this divide to the other, was that all my family were Jewish: father, mother, uncles, aunts. [...] They were all liberal Jews: free thinkers, more or less well educated, who would not worry about kosher food or the sabbath and who would visit a synagogue perhaps once a year, or so. [...] Thus, at the age of sixteen, I found myself in England with the financial support of my mother’s brother, who had emigrated earlier to Brazil. My older brother was studying in London. But I was essentially alone: an insignificant seedling of German-Jewish culture had dropped upon the green pastures of England. Would it take? Actually you, John, lucky fellow, are one of the fruits.

Commentary on the Source:

Peter Theodore Landsberg was born in Berlin on August 8 1922, into an educated secular Jewish family. His father passed away in 1930, and after the Nazi rise to power he realized that could not fulfill his ambition to study in Germany. In his letter to John he explains: „I will not tell you here much about the effect of the Nazi-Jewish culture clash on a school boy in Berlin; it is fairly well documented.“In January 1939, at the age of 16, he left for Britain to join his elder brother Rolf. At the beginning of the war Landsberg was regarded as an enemy alien and a security risk and interned on the Isle of Man. After completing an external degree in Physics at London University, he studied for an MSc in 1946and was awarded a PhDfrom Imperial College in 1949

.In 1959, aged only 37, he was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College Cardiff, where he was deputy principal from 1968 to 1971. In 1972 he moved to the chair of Applied Mathematics at the University of Southampton, retiring in 1987. He died in February 2010. In his letter to John, Landsberg makes an attempt to reconstruct, and to explain, the changes and the continuities in this life, and to make his grandson aware of the “complicated” family history of which he is a part. Becoming “a Britisher”, as he puts it, seemed easy at first; it was only when he realized how German his accent in the English language sounded (and that people kept asking him “where he came from”) that he decided to write –for himself no less than for John –about the specific questions of identity and belonging that characterized the mind-sets of thousands of German Jews who had arrived in Britain as refugees. While he regarded himself as British, he could still identify with the sentence pronounced by President John F. Kennedy an June 26, 1963 from the balcony of the Schöneberg town hall: „Ich bin ein Berliner.“ This heritage remained important for him, and he wanted to pass it on to his grandson.

Suggested Reading, 19.05.2010

Joachim Schlör, Liebes Berlin! Stadtgefühle in der Korrespondenz zwischen Berliner Emigranten und ihrer Heimatstadt. Berlin: Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg 2020 (forthcoming)

Source commentary provided by:

Professor Joachim Schlör
Professor of Modern Jewish/non-Jewish Relations in History at the University of Southampton.

Useful Downloads

Need the software?PDF Reader
Privacy Settings