It’s a stark fact that Helmut Anderson may not have survived World War 2 without the welcome people showed him as a refugee. That’s something which has had a profound effect on his grandson, Ed Anderson (above), an Assistant Professor at Northumbria University where he specialises in migration and diaspora. It is also why Ed has chosen to run his first half marathon for Action Foundation next month. Read his fascinating blog below and please consider sponsoring him here: https://greatnorthrun2023.enthuse.com/pf/edward-anderson
In September I will be attempting the Great North Run – my first ever half-marathon – 110 years after my grandfather was born, and 85 years after he arrived in Britain as a refugee. Although, as a devout non-runner, summoning the courage to undertake a 21-kilometre race was something of a struggle, deciding to do it to raise money for Action Foundation was a very easy choice.
We live in times in which the importance of providing sanctuary to those in need, and treating people who choose to come to Britain with respect and dignity, is greater than ever. It feels as though a relatively small, but noisy and sometimes powerful, minority in Britain do not share this basic level of humanity. It is a cruel irony that some of those who spearhead hostility towards immigrants are, like me, descendants of migrants themselves.
A family uprooted
Portrait of Helmut Fürst as a young boy in Vienna, c.1920-25
My grandfather, Helmut Anderson, was born in 1913 in Berlin but moved shortly afterwards with his family to the Jewish district of Vienna. There he lived until 1938 – the year of the ‘Anschluss’, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria – after which he escaped persecution and the risk of deportation to a concentration camp, and managed to move to London. His family were, of course, lucky to get out, but their lives were uprooted.
This profound dislocation is forever etched into my family’s name – he arrived as Helmut Fürst but was soon urged to Anglicise it. Shortly after getting to Britain, he joined the Army: first the Pioneer Corps (made up of many foreigners and refugees, and known informally as ‘The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’). Later in the war he was transferred to the Special Forces.
It was during the training for this perilous deployment that a colonel ordered him to opt for an English-sounding name. Short of ideas, he went with the name of the house where his unit was stationed for training – Anderson Manor – and from that point on never changed it back.
The war years
Helmut, Kathleen & baby Robert (Ed’s father) late 1944 or early 1945
He served in France and Italy during the war, but it was while back in England that he met my grandmother, a Londoner named Kathleen. They met in the summer of 1942, in Covent Garden, London when she was part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. The night they met, there was a Luftwaffe bombing of London and he went to her house in Finchley to check she was safe. The next year they married and remained together for six decades until his death in 2004.
Before the war was over, they had their first child – my father, Robert – who was joined after the war by my aunt, Helen, and uncle, Richard. Helmut and Kathleen had nine grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren, although sadly did not live long enough to meet my two: Maya and Haroun.
My grandfather’s story is a tiny part of the huge and diverse history of refugees arriving in Britain, over many centuries, from all over the world. Today, as a historian specialising in migration and diaspora, the way in which the movement of people is a central aspect of British history – a totally normal part of life that has made our country, indeed our world, what it is – is at the heart of what I research and teach.
On the one hand, it’s important not to romanticise the extent to which Britain has welcomed refugees over the years. But on the other hand, we must recognise that hundreds of thousands of refugees have settled and thrived here. Sometimes they have been, and continue to be, met with hostility – subjected to scapegoating and dehumanising rhetoric around being ‘invaded’ or ‘swamped’, threatened with deportation, or presented with cruel policies and bewildering bureaucracy.
Helmut in 1993, aged 80, on a return trip to Vienna, 55 years after he fled the city
But very often people from all walks of life have welcomed those who arrive seeking to make a new life for themselves here. Just like my grandfather did all those years ago.
Ordinary people, and extraordinary organisations like Action Foundation, have helped new arrivals to get on their feet, integrate into society, and be valued and valuable members of the beautifully diverse communities that make up this region and the country as a whole.
I feel very proud to be raising money and awareness for Action Foundation at the Great North Run 2023. I am also aware of the particular honour that my first half-marathon will be the last run by one of the country’s most famous refugees – the great Sir Mo Farah! I may not quite keep up with him, but I hope that the thought of my grandad, and the inspirational work of Action Foundation, will give me the strength I need to get my very unfit body around the rather daunting 13 miles!