History Workshop: Women and Refugees

University of Glamorgan, G.304 and G.305: Saturday 13 March 2010, 10.00-14.00

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There have always been refugees but in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s there were some of the most monumental and severe refugee crises in the history of the world. Throughout the inter-war years democratic regimes collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian models in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, France and many other countries. These regimes characterised many individuals and groups as ‘the enemy’, whether they were political opponents – such as the Spanish Republicans – or racially defined ‘others’ – such as German Jews. These were some of the first refugees of the long Second World War.

During the Second World War, there were vast, forced population movements, and more spontaneous movements as people fled from the fighting or from attempts at political persecution. By the end of the war displacement was clearly a tremendous problem and by the summer of 1945 approximately 7 million civilians were on the move in Western Europe. Some wanted to go home, some, especially those from Eastern Europe, were determined never to return.

What should be done with all these itinerant people? Who was responsible for them, and who should look after them? We will discuss the way in which key individuals and groups answered those questions. Susan Cohen will talk about the life and work of Eleanor Rathbone, an Independent MP who championed the rights of the refugees fleeing from Hitler’s Germany. Despite political and popular opposition she argued that they should be given a home in Britain. After the war, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was responsible for the care of a large number of refugees and displaced people. Sharif Gemie describes the role of UNRRA and Laure Humbert will talk about one woman’s experiences as an UNRRA worker. Alongside UNRRA there were numerous voluntary organisations, many of whom had a far wider remit for relief work. Fiona Reid will describe the work of the Friends’ Relief Service and will consider the extent to which the Friends offered a distinct approach to welfare work.

The morning will finish with a brief look at an UNNRA film, The Search, which will be introduced by Louise Rees. This will form the basis for a group discussion about the themes raised during the day.

This event is free and all are welcome. There will be an opportunity to buy Susan Cohen’s book, Rescue the Perishing. Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees. (2010). Contact: freid1@glam.ac.uk for more information