The family name Gollancz originates from the town of Golancz in west-central Poland. It is also the name of a prominent Jewish dynasty of London immigrants which has a varied but distinct literary reputation.
Rabbi and scholar Hermann Gollancz was born at Bremen on 30 November 1852. He came to England when his father was appointed rabbi of the Hambro Synagogue in Leadenhall Street, City of London. Hermann was the first Jew to obtain the degree of Doctor of Literature at London University. In 1902 he was elected Goldsmid Professor of Hebrew at University College London. He was the first British rabbi to be granted a knighthood. On retirement he presented his valuable library of Hebraica and Judaica to the University (which is housed as a separate collection within the splendid Mocatta Library).
His younger brother Israel Gollancz was born in London. A Shakespeare scholar, he was Professor of English Language and Literature at King’s College from 1903 to 1930, and a founder member and the first Secretary of the British Academy. He edited the so-called ‘Temple’ Shakespeare, a uniform edition of the complete works in pocket size volumes. It was the most popular Shakespeare edition of its day.
Hermann and Israel were brothers to Alexander Gollancz, a wholesale jeweller, who was father to publisher Victor Gollancz, born on 9 April 1893 at no. 256 Elgin Avenue, Maida Vale. Having rejected the orthodoxy of his parents, Victor became an independent thinker and an advocate of women’s rights. In 1918 he joined the publishing house of Benn Brothers (founded by the liberal politician John Benn: Gollancz recruited H.G. Wells for his employers), before starting his own firm in 1928. His publishing methods were revolutionary.
In collaboration with Stanley Morison, he devised a striking typographical dust jacket featuring black and magenta on a brilliant yellow background, which was used on most of his titles. Gollancz was primarily an educationist, and his main concern as a publisher was to encourage an awareness of current affairs and, above all, send a socialist message. In 1933 George Orwell issued his debut novel Down and Out in London and Paris with Gollancz, his first publisher.
A significant undertaking that involved Gollancz was the foundation of the Left Book Club (LBC) in 1936. Housed at no. 14 Henrietta Street, it aimed at combating the dual threats of Nazism and Fascism in which authors like Arthur Koestler and George Orwell took part at a time when the need for the dissemination of left-wing politics was keenly felt among British intellectuals. The venture was an immediate success on its establishment, with 6,000 subscriptions after a month and a membership of 40,000 by the end of its first year. Gollancz was also actively engaged with a number of German writers in exile in London during the war (including Hilde Meisel).
The Free German League of Culture (FGLC = Freie Deutsche Kulturbund) was founded in 1939 at an informal meeting held at the Hampstead home of the Jewish refugee lawyer and painter Manfred [Fred] Uhlman. Aiming to represent all German exiles irrespective of religion or race, it was the foremost cultural and socio-political organisation representing anti-Nazism in Britain during the war. On arrival, these refugees were considered enemy aliens and most of them had suffered the pain of internment, either in the Isle of Man or as far adrift as Canada or Australia. At its peak, the League had some 1,500 members. It included a youth wing, the Freie Deutsche Jugend; it created a university in exile, the Freie Deutsche Hochschule; and it formed the core of the Free German Movement which planned for a democratic post-war Germany. The League was formally constituted at a meeting on 1 March 1939, when Uhlman was appointed chairman (later that year he was replaced by the novelist Hans Flesch-Brunninger), and four honorary presidents were elected: the painter Oskar Kokoschka, the drama critic Alfred Kerr, the novelist Stefan Zweig and the film director Berthold Viertel. The FGLC was advertised as politically neutral (to avoid interference from the British authorities), describing itself as an ‘anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist, non-party, refugee organisation’. From December 1939, the FGLC had premises of its own, at no. 36a Upper Park Road, Belsize Park. It was wound up in 1946.
In 1960 Gollancz published Fred Uhlman’s autobiography The Making of an Englishman whose ironical title points to the author’s struggle, as a Jewish intellectual from Stuttgart, to adapt to a life of exile in a British environment that felt completely alien to him. The book contains a vivid account of his internment experiences as an enemy alien at Hutchinson camp, Isle of Man (where he befriended Kurt Schwitters), a description of the depression and frustration he suffered, which was fuelled – even in retrospect – by a sense of outrage at the injustice of his treatment.
A prominent member of the German League was the communist author Jan Petersen. Born Hans Schwalm on 2 July 1906 in Berlin, he led a resistance group of anti-Fascist writers between 1933 and 1935. Being placed on the Nazi death list, he was forced to emigrate to Switzerland, France, and then to England. He was deprived of his German citizenship in 1938. Between 1940 and 1942 he was interned in Canada as an enemy alien by the British authorities.
Petersen is remembered for an extraordinary act of bravery. In 1934 he had finished the manuscript of his novel Unsere Strasse, a true story about life on Wallstrasse in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg and an account of left wing resistance to Nazism just before Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor. To get this ‘explosive’ manuscript safely out of Germany was a huge problem. He made two copies, sending one to Hamburg where it was to be taken to England by a German soldier, but was eventually thrown into the Channel to avoid discovery. Friends failed to smuggle a second copy into Czechoslovakia. Finally, Petersen pulled off a dangerous trick himself. Dressed in ski clothes to look as though he was going on holiday, he set off for Prague. At the border, the SS guards searched his rucksack, only to find two tasty fruit cakes. Baked inside was the manuscript which remained undetected. The creative process demands courage and commitment. Few authors would have pushed the limits as far as Petersen dared. Translated into English as Our Street, the novel was published in 1938 by Gollancz’s Left Book Club. Petersen returned to East Berlin in 1946 where he was awarded a number of literary prizes in the course of his career. There he died in November 1969. His novel was republished by Faber & Faber in 2010.