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The unrecognised influence of New Zealand’s wartime refugees

Refugees flee during Nazi bombing raids on a French town. Photo/Getty Images

The influx of wartime refugees and émigrés greatly changed New Zealand’s cultural and intellectual life. But many of their stories have gone untold. 

They arrived with their leather suitcases, their foreign accents and their impossible memories. Between 1933 and 1939, about 1100 mainly Jewish refugees fled Nazism and came to settle in New Zealand, a country second only to Canada in the strictness of its entry requirements. In the aftermath of the war, more came – survivors, relatives of earlier refugees and displaced people from central and eastern Europe, the Baltic states and, later, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
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Among them were a disproportionately high number of artists, photographers, writers and architects. Landing in a small country of just two million people, with a culture anchored in British traditions, they brought a distinctly European sensibility, steeped in an appreciation of the humanistic values of art, literature, philosophy and music and informed by interwar cultural developments, such the Bauhaus movement, the Dutch De Stijl groups of artists, primitive art, Cubism and the whole brief history of modernism.

In the world they left behind, explains Leonard Bell, associate professor of art history at the University of Auckland, “the visual arts, literature and music were seen as prime areas of intellectual exploration. That was the air they breathed.”

For some in New Zealand, far removed from the modernist aesthetic emerging from pre-World War II Europe, it was a welcome gust of fresh air. As journalist and academic James Bertram reflected some years later, “These ‘refugees’, as they were still commonly called, were a most welcome leaven in the stolid lump of New Zealand society.”

Read more: Disowned, displaced and discovered: NZ's Japanese war brides

Theo Schoon and Paratene Matchitt with Schoon’s decorated gourds at the first Festival of the Arts at Ngaruawahia in 1963. Photo/Ans Westra

But aside from a few well-known names – philosopher Karl Popper, artist and photographer Theo Schoon, photographer Ans Westra, architect and designer Ernst Plischke and poet Karl Wolfskehl – most, says Bell, have been dropped from our art and architectural record, “either because they didn’t fit into the prevailing artistic categories and narratives or because what they did was too strange for most locals”.

He points to Dutch artist, gallerist, lecturer and co-founder of the New Zealand Print Council Kees Hos, imprisoned during the war for protecting Jews. Arriving in New Zealand in 1956, he and his wife, Tine, a weaver, founded Auckland’s New Vision Gallery, a focal point for new émigré art, photography, ceramics, weaving and jewellery. It also showcased work by young local artists, including Gordon Walters, Louise Henderson, Don Driver, Philip Trusttum and Tony Fomison.

Yet, although Hos’s own work was lauded by critics, few of his pieces are held in public collections and his name is largely absent from our standard art history texts.

“There he was,” says Bell. “This central figure and he just doesn’t appear.”

The Goodman house in Parnell, Auckland, designed in 1956 by Imi Porsolt. Photo/Stephen Robinson

Equal recognition

In his new book Strangers Arrive, Bell, whose parents-in-law came here from Czechoslovakia in 1939 as refugees from Nazism, retrieves these forgotten names from our cultural basement, demonstrating the extent to which this disparate band of refugees, exiles and émigrés influenced New Zealand’s art, art writing, photography and architecture.

Within just a few decades, artists here could find inspiration in Hos’s etchings and screenprints; the constructivist-informed art of writer, artist, architect and Czechoslovakian refugee Frederick Ost; the “galactic” abstract landscapes of northern European Rudi Gopas; and the expressive, seemingly naive paintings of Patrick Hayman. All brought the European avant-garde to the door of New Zealand galleries and art schools.

In line with Bauhaus philosophy, new media and craft practices were given equal recognition to “fine” arts. Potter Mirek Smíšek, a post-World War II refugee from communist Czechoslovakia, is acknowledged as the country’s first full-time independent ceramicist. German-born Ilse von Randow, fleeing China with her two sons after the Communist takeover in 1949, helped professionalise fabric art in New Zealand.

European photographers, such as Frank Hofmann, Irene Koppel and Richard Sharell, introduced the aesthetics of New Photography, applying the formal properties of structure, texture and light to landscape, new architectural projects and, with the German invention of the small Leica camera, street photography and photojournalism. Female photographers, such as Koppel and German refugee Lily Inge Byttiner (Bettina), made their way as professional freelancers and studio portraitists in what was largely a male domain.

A cohort of new architects, including Plischke, Helmut Einhorn, Henry Kulka, Frederick Newman, Imi Porsolt and Vladimir Čačala, introduced a Bauhaus-informed modernism that was simple, sophisticated and functional, and aesthetic in its use of space and light.

Peter Tomory (left), Auckland Art Gallery director from 1956-65, with artist Colin McCahon.

New level of professionalism

Many of the “intense ideas” of these central European designers, wrote architect Allan Wild, former head of the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture, didn’t always “sit comfortably with Kiwi casualness”. But in their attention to liveability, site and indoor-outdoor flow, they helped forge a new way of looking at New Zealand’s built environment.

European academics and critics, writes Bell, also brought a new level of professionalism to art and architectural writing. Alongside British immigrant and gallery director Peter Tomory, Gerda Eichbaum (later Bell), who fled Nazism with the help of a job offer from the headmistress of private Havelock North girls’ school Woodford House, “pioneered art historically and theoretically informed art writing in New Zealand”.

As with Ost, Schoon and Erik Schwimmer, poet, essayist and founding editor of Department of Maori Affairs bilingual quarterly journal Te Ao Hou, Eichbaum was not afraid to place Māori visual art in a modern global art context – previously unheard of in this country.

Ideas around these new approaches to art and architecture were transmitted in lecture theatres, bookshops and cafes, such as those founded by Harry Seresin at Parsons Bookshop and Downstage Theatre in Wellington, André Brooke’s coffee bar at his Gallery 91 in Christchurch and Meme Churton’s Ca’ d’Oro in Auckland.

Figures at Night by Douglas MacDiarmid, who was influenced by migrants.

Domestic epicentres

Émigrés set up European-style salons in their homes: scientist and musician Otto Frankel and his wife, Tilli, in Christchurch; German refugees Gertrud and Joachim Kahn in Wellington; and Ernst and Elisabeth Reizenstein in Auckland. All established domestic epicentres for discussion and debate for fellow migrants and New Zealanders keen to share the heady atmosphere of European modernism.

In a foreign and fearful country, such support was vital. Many new arrivals found a receptive audience, but there was also a prevailing sense of wartime suspicion. Under the Aliens Emergency Regulations, many refugees were restricted in their movements. Austrian professional photographer Franz Barta, arriving in New Zealand in 1938, had his camera confiscated; Bettina was prohibited from using her camera outside (so became a well-respected Auckland studio photographer and portraitist). Wolfskehl’s mail was censored and his travel within New Zealand was restricted. Shanghai-born and Berlin-educated Odo Strewe – writer, landscaper and model for the character Gauss in Maurice Gee’s 1998 novel Live Bodies – was interned on Matiu/Somes Island. The Kahns were accused of using the sweeping views of their new Plischke-designed Wellington home to carry out secret surveillance for New Zealand’s enemies.

The Sutch-Smith House in Brooklyn, Wellington, 1953-56, designed by Ernst Plischke. Photo/Paul McCredie

A pervasive distrust also prevented many from continuing previous professions. The local branch of the British Medical Association insisted that, from 1940, no further refugee doctors should be registered. The New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) was reluctant to accept recently arrived continental architects.

Writing a reference for Plischke in 1948, Timaru architect Percy Watts Rule said, “With his impressive list of qualifications, it would appear to me to be as absurd to ask him to sit an exam as to ask [Dame Nellie] Melba to undergo a voice test for admission to a village choir.”

Even the Ruapehu Ski Club weighed in, agreeing that “enemy aliens” should be allowed to join only with “extreme care”. Literary historian and linguist Paul Binswanger and his wife, writer Otti, faced suspicion and at times harassment. Philologist, musician and art collector Ernst Reizenstein was unable to find professional work – instead, he founded a continental bakery, now a chapter in the Vogel’s bread story.

The Sutch-Smith House. Photo/Paul McCredie

Even New Zealand writers and artists attentive to changing arts practice in Europe were often perplexed by these new cultural emissaries. How to respond to Dutch immigrant artist Jan Michels’ bleak woodcuts depicting death camps and Jewish ghettoes? Or Schoon’s extraordinary photography, deep passion for Māori rock art and acerbic critiques of provincial Pākehā culture? “New Zealand is neither a country nor a culture,” he snarled, “it’s a branch of the Salvation Army.”

Or, later still, to the sophisticated, absurdist “visual ephemera” of Tom Kreisler, born in Argentina to Austrian-Jewish refugee parents? Although Kreisler’s reputation has grown since his death in 2002, says Bell, during his life in New Zealand, “most of the public was not ready for Kreisler’s work, and didn’t know what to make of it”.

In the 1930s, too, many New Zealand artists and writers were trying to shake off the weighty legacy of European culture, applying their skills instead to the development of a distinctly New Zealand identity. As poet ARD Fairburn wrote in 1932, “New Zealanders had no right to be monkeying about with European culture.” Such overt nationalism was anathema to those fleeing Hitler’s Europe.

Plischke in 1947.

“Lonely exile”

Some of the new arrivals acculturated quickly, but others lived out their lives in New Zealand “like people waiting to leave the next day”. In a letter from Auckland in 1947, included in an insightful new book of translations by Nelson Wattie, Wolfskehl described his years of “lonely exile”: “There are as many flowers as one could wish for too, most of them the familiar ones from Europe. But all in all and in spite of all that: everything is different, completely different, and the feeling of being in a foreign land has never left me for as much as a day throughout these 10 years.”

Others, including Popper, Schwimmer, Hayman and Plischke, left New Zealand for new jobs or more receptive cultures. As did those New Zealand-born writers and artists who felt alienated in their own country. Bell includes in his list of “virtual strangers” Hokitika-born James Boswell, an artist, draughtsman and “astute and nuanced thinker”; and “bohemian roustabout” artist and photographer Douglas Glass. Both forged remarkable careers in England and the Continent; both disappeared from our art-history canon.

But regardless of whether they left or lived out their lives here, their legacy remains in their work. The remarkable nature photography of Sharell, who came to New Zealand with his wife, Lily, as a refugee from Austria in 1939, populated the School Journal and classic nature texts The Tuatara, Lizards and Frogs of New Zealand (1966) and New Zealand Insects and Their Story (1971).

Yantra for Mahana (2006) by Marté Szirmay. Photo/Sally Blundell

The bronze statues of Tangaroa in Tauranga and Young Nick in Gisborne are testimony to the work of Frank Szirmay, who fled the Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary with his family in 1956. The hand of his stepdaughter Marté Szirmay, a child refugee from Hungary, is still seen in the large abstract works Yantra for Mahana at Woollaston Estate Winery, near Nelson, and Smirnoff Sculpture in Newmarket, the first large abstract work commissioned in Auckland.

Our urban architecture similarly holds testaments to the modernist-informed aesthetic introduced by these mid-century arrivals. There’s Auckland’s apartment block at 44 Symonds St, designed by Vienna-born Newman; the Parnell Baths, designed by a team led by Auckland City Council chief architect Tibor Donnor, a forced émigré from Romania; Wellington’s Adelphi apartment block on The Terrace (Ost); the modernist 1ZB Radio Studio in Auckland (Porsolt); and a number of hydroelectric power stations designed by German architect, engineer, town planner and environmentalist Einhorn.

Alongside a number of private houses and apartment blocks, these buildings stand as evidence of the extraordinary architectural vision arriving on these shores in the wake of World War II. Finding initial reluctance by the NZIA, many found work as draughtsmen in state housing and institutional projects, including Kulka, who played an important role in designing Government state houses (as well as the house of émigré and prolific photographer Marti Friedlander) and Max Rosenfeld, author of the hugely popular book The New Zealand House.

Fletcher Construction also employed a number of émigrés, including Georg Haydn, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, founding partner of Haydn & Rollett Construction.

A photograph of Hungarian-born pianist and refugee Lili Kraus (1946) by Frank Hofmann.

Influential teachers

For many young artists, these European immigrants provided patronage, guidance and stimulation. Ost’s lectures on European modernism inspired a young Gordon Walters; artist Mervyn Williams was enthused by Viennese musician and intellectual Ernst Specht; and Colin McCahon was influenced by Hungarian-Jewish refugee artist Desiderius Orban in Australia and Hayman in New Zealand.

Rudi Gopas, the influential teacher at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts, was a primary catalyst for neo-expressionism in New Zealand, galvanising a generation of young artists, including Fomison, Philip Clairmont, Allen Maddox and Philippa Blair.

Gopas entered New Zealand as a Lithuanian displaced person in 1949, but was, in fact, an ethnic German, surname Hopp, who served in the German Army during World War II. Had this been known, he would never have been allowed into this country.

Descendants of this cohort of “Aliens”, or those who came to New Zealand as small children, continue to make their mark on New Zealand arts and writing. Bell lists director/actor Danny Mulheron, film-maker Vincent Ward, cinematographer Michael Seresin, curator Aaron Kreisler, artists Saskia Leek and Ronnie van Hout and Mr Lee Grant (born Bogdan Kominowski in a German concentration camp in 1945), among others.

Strangers Arrive is a timely text. As we encounter the greatest refugee outflow the world has ever experienced, we can learn much from the influx of mid-20th century refugees and émigrés, says Bell. “What is strikingly clear now,” he writes, “is how much the host countries – the US, Great Britain, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, for instance – gained; how much their cultural and intellectual capital was enhanced.”

STRANGERS ARRIVE: émigrés and the Arts in New Zealand 1930-1980, by Leonard Bell (AUP, $75)

POETRY AND EXILE: LETTERS FROM NEW ZEALAND 1938-1948, by Karl Wolfskehl, translated by Nelson Wattie (Cold Hub Press, $45)

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.