The Wiener Holocaust Library and the Institute for the History of the German Jews were delighted to co-host this event with Simon May, author of How to be a Refugee: The Gripping True Story of How One Family Hid their Jewish Origins to Survive the Nazis. The most familiar fate of Jews living in Hitler’s Germany is either emigration or deportation to concentration camps. But there was another, much rarer, side to Jewish life at that time: denial of your origin to the point where you manage to erase almost all consciousness of it. You refuse to believe that you are Jewish.
How to Be a Refugee is Simon May’s gripping account of how three sisters – his mother and his two aunts – grappled with what they felt to be a lethal heritage. Their very different trajectories included conversion to Catholicism, marriage into the German aristocracy, securing ‘Aryan’ status with high-ranking help from inside Hitler’s regime, and engagement to a card-carrying Nazi. Even after his mother fled to London from Nazi Germany and Hitler had been defeated, her instinct for self-concealment didn’t abate. Following the early death of his father, also a German Jewish refugee, May was raised a Catholic and forbidden to identify as Jewish or German or British.
In the face of these banned inheritances, May embarks on a quest to uncover the lives of the three sisters as well as the secrets of a grandfather he never knew. His haunting story forcefully illuminates questions of belonging and home – questions that continue to press in on us today.
Professor Simon May is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London. Simon May’s interests lie in ethics, philosophy of the emotions, questions of identity and belonging, and German 19th and 20th Century thought, especially the work of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger. He is also a devotee of the aphoristic form. His monographs include Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on “Morality” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Love: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), and The Power of Cute (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).
Dr. Toby Simpson, the Director of the Wiener Holocaust Library, will lead the conversation with Simon May. Dr. Kim Wünschmann, the Director of the Institute for the History of the German Jews, will deliver concluding remarks.