Janet’s love-hate relationship with her home country

By Doreen Wachmann

MANCHESTER-born art sociology professor Janet Wolff has had mixed feelings about her native land, unlike her Holocaust refugee father Arthur Wolff.

Berlin-born Arthur settled in Eccles in 1938 to work for his fellow refugee chemist Heinz Kroch at Lankro Chemicals.

He was involved with other refugees like the late Dayan Dr Isidor Grunfeld and Julius Jakobovits, father of the late Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, in setting up a Thank-You Britain Fund which raised £50,000 for university scholarships in a fund administered by the British Academy.

But Janet, who has just published her oblique memoir, Austerity Baby, is less wholehearted in her praise of Britain.

Arthur wrote in a memoir in 1976: “It is too often forgotten how much we owe the British government of the day, who, with the help of Jewish and other British organisations, in which people like Eleanor Rathbone played a leading part, saved tens of thousands of Nazi victims, when all other countries refused to do anything.”

Whereas Arthur never criticised his internment as an enemy alien in the Isle of Man, Janet was outraged by it, as well as by the 1905 Aliens Act and British antisemitism which she discovered in her sociology work on Anglo-Jewish artists.

Janet’s love-hate relationship towards her native land even led her to believe that England tried to kill her and that America, which she had idealised as a teenager for its rock ‘n’ roll culture, actually saved her life.

In 1989, Janet left her position as reader in sociology of culture at Leeds University to teach in Californian universities.

She told me: “I had some health insurance from my teaching in California.

“In America, they do preventative cancer checks all the time. A nurse noticed when she felt my throat that there was a lump. She said let’s just test it. It wasn’t visible. I didn’t have symptoms.

“It was just as well she found it. There was already thyroid cancer in one lymph node.”

Retrospectively, Janet attributed her thyroid cancer to the Sellafield disaster of 1957 which she claims could have affected Manchester drinking water which originated in the Lake District.

But now Janet admits: “It was an interesting fantasy. At some level I felt I was going to the USA to give me a new lease of life. It did save my life.”

But later Janet’s loyalty to Britain — particularly to her native Manchester — kicked in.

In 2006 she returned to the UK to lecture at Manchester University and settled in Didsbury.

She said: “I was born in the UK. I live here. This is my country. I feel very English. I enjoyed feeling English even when I lived in America.

“I never thought of living there for good or getting citizenship. I wasn’t surprised when I thought, I am ready to come back.”

Austerity Baby begins with a 1909 travel diary, written by Henry Norr, a cousin of Janet’s maternal grandfather Maurice Noar, who lived in Manchester.

Janet was born in 1943. Her mother Rosabelle Noar announced her birth in her diary: “Arrived a few days after schedule. Very tiny, ugly and thin — folds of skin without any fat. From starting off as a real Austerity baby, war time model, she soon became lovely and plump.”

Like many girls of that era Janet felt a compulsion to be well-behaved. She spent the first two years of her life in north Manchester, till the family moved to Didsbury when she was 13.

Janet, who gained a scholarship to Manchester High School, describes her north Manchester days as taking place in black and white and after that in technicolour.

Until the move to Didsbury, Janet’s refugee paternal grandmother had lived with them until she went into the Morris Feinmann Home.

Janet writes: “She had lived with my parents since their marriage and therefore with me for the whole of my life. Widowed within six months of her arrival as a refugee from Germany in 1939, far from any members of her family, except for her son, she did not have many options.

“I didn’t even consider until many years later that this may have been a rather ghastly option for both my mother and grandmother. I absolutely had no knowledge of the probable cause of my grandmother’s sadness — the loss of many family members in the Holocaust.

“Now I am absolutely sure that the lightness after the move was very much to do with a general sense of relief — not just the absence of my grandmother (who was a rather dark and brooding presence, always dressed in dark clothes) but more particularly the lifting of my mother’s depression.”

The book includes a copy of a prize label from the Manchester Congregation of British Jews presented for regular Shabbat attendance by Rabbi P Selvin Goldberg.

Janet said: “My parents first went to Holy Law synagogue or Higher Crumpsall synagogue. Then we went to Park Lane and then Jacksons Row synagogue. We weren’t very involved. I went to Jacksons Row Youth Club and cheder and synagogue every Saturday with one of my uncles who was in the choir.”

Surprising for someone who later devoted her life to academia, at Manchester High, Janet had no desire to go to university.

Instead she went to Miss Wilkinson’s School for Gentlewomen in Manchester and learned to be a secretary. She was a private secretary to a manager at the North West Gas Board for a few years.

She said: “I just needed a break from having to do well. University life did not particularly appeal to me.”

But when her sister went to university in Bristol, Janet thought it looked attractive.

At 22, she went to Birmingham University to study moral and political philosophy and loved it. She gained a first class degree, which was followed by a PhD in sociology and the arts.

Her studies were followed by another period of secretarial work, this time in London, accompanied by studies in modern dance.

She said: “I didn’t plan to be an academic. I spent a couple of years in London, not particularly enjoying it because I never liked London. I have lived there twice and didn’t like it either time.”

Then in 1973 she fell into the academic life when Jewish Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who had been her external examiner for her PhD, asked her to teach in his department at Leeds University, where she stayed for 15 years.

Janet said: “I was glad to be back in the north of England.”

At Leeds she lived for a time in a commune near the university.

Janet initially went to America because of a relationship.

She said: “To be yourself, you need to go somewhere else and feel free to develop your personality.

“I always had an idea from the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and Hollywood movies, that America was the place I wanted to be. I had a chance to go and get jobs there. I stayed for ages till I it was time to come home.”

After teaching in various universities in California, she lectured at universities in New York state and city.

On her return to the UK she chose her hometown of Manchester. She said: “I had job offers from other British universities, but I knew that if I came back it would be to Manchester, where I have my sister, Veronica Kaiserman, of Wilmslow. Manchester has always been my home.”

Janet has only positive feelings towards Germany, from where her father fled for his life.

She told me: “I feel very warmly towards Germany. I think they have been admirable recently in relation to political refugees.

“I was there last year. I met some amazing non-Jewish people who have devoted their lives to working on the history of the Jews, both in the place where my father was raised and where my grandmother grew up in south-west Germany.”

Before he died, Janet’s father returned to Berlin as a guest of the city’s mayor.

She said: “He found it very interesting, never hostile. He wrote a little book about the people who were kind to him in Germany.”

In order to still remain an EU citizen despite Brexit, Janet has taken advantage of her ancestry to become a German citizen.

Janet will speak about Austerity Baby at Leeds Limmud on October 29.

Austerity Baby is published by Manchester University Press (£12).

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph