Monday, 30 December 2019

Brexit Britain would have been no country for a child immigrant called Lothar Baruch who became its Professor of Immunology, Leslie Brent

Leslie died on the 21st December at the age of 94, after living in Britain for 70 years, having arrived a Jewish child immigrant fleeing from Nazi Germany in 1939. Two days before he died the Queen addressed the assembled Members of Parliament with the words :

"My Lords and Members of the House of Commons.

My Government’s priority is to deliver the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31 January. My Ministers will bring forward legislation to ensure the United Kingdom’s exit on that date and to make the most of the opportunities that this brings for all the people of the United Kingdom."

What she didn't say, because it is part of the detail of this legislation, is that it will remove 'the Government’s existing obligations (under section 17 of the European Union Withdrawal Act) with regard to unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the EU who have family members in the UK.' The clause was included in the original Withdrawal Agreement Bill after a campaign led by Lord Dubs, 87, who fled Nazi Germany via Kindertransport when he was six years old.

This means the new legislation removes a post-Brexit obligation on the Government to secure protection for refugee children in Europe who may want to reunite with family members in Britain. If Leslie, who fled the Nazis via Kindertransport in 1938 when he was 13 years old, was aware of this hardening of the Government's position towards these children, two days before he died, it must have filled his heart with sadness.

Back in 2016 he argued against Prime Minister David Cameron's hard line attitude to child refugees from war-torn Syria when he and Conservative MPs voted against an Immigration Bill Amendment that would have forced his Government to bring in 3,000 Syrian child refugees already in Europe. Cameron said : "We shouldn't be encouraging people to make this dangerous journey. I think it's right to stick to the idea we keep investing in the refugee camps and in the neighbouring countries." 

Leslie responded with : "My survival is entirely due to the extreme generosity of the British government in 1938 and the contrast with the present government is quite pathetic" and "I  don't know anyone who came over on one of the Kindertransports who hasn't more than repaid the generosity of Britain in one way or another and I have little doubt that these modern refugee children would act in the same way. Everyone thinks of them as a nuisance and a burden."
There is little doubt that, three years later, his attitude towards unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the EU who have family members in Britain who they seek to join, would have been exactly the same. Hence his imagined sadness at the Government's loveless attitude to child migrants,

In November 2018 he said : "Brexit has unleashed a wave of hatred of foreigners which is quite frightening – one of the many negative aspects of Brexit. People say the situation is very different but these are parentless children, exploited, destitute. It may be unworthy of me, but I can’t help thinking there is an underlying racism here. I wonder if these refugees had been European, would the attitude have been the same?"

* * * * * * * * 

Leslie was born Lothar Baruch, in the summer of 1925 in Köslin, Germany, the son of his religious, although not orthodox, German Jewish parents, Charlotte and Arthur, a commercial traveller working for large companies. He enjoyed his first 8 years - the family were cultured and comfortably off - his father played the piano and his mother sang in a choir and took him and his sister Eva to the rehearsals.

His parents sent him to middle school where he learned English and all was well until 1933 and Hitler and the Nazis came to power. He recalled :  "I came in the class and it was written on the board : 'All Christians are liars and Deceivers'." Leslie was the only Jewish boy in the class and the teacher, himself a Nazi, who sometimes wore his brown shirt uniform, accused him of the writing and said : ""That was what the Jew, the Jewish boy did." I had to stand in front and listen to him insult me ​​and there I was desperate. I couldn't go to school anymore and my parents decided to educate me somehow differently."

At the age of 11 in 1936, in order to protect him from anti-Semitic harassment, he'd had stones thrown at him, his parents packed him off to the Jewish orphanage in Berlin-Pankow. It was a frightening experience to find himself in a "big building with about 100 other boys, many of them very poor, pretty horrible lives, were really orphans and actually didn't have a good life and were very unhappy. It was very difficult to suddenly live in such a large mass."

He remembered about three months before Kristallnacht there was a so-called 'rehearsal in Pankow.' "A mob of men entered the house and were confronted by a teacher with a child in his arms who addressed them calmly and said : "I want you remember that this house is an orphanage, I want to invite you to leave immediately. " Afterwards we sat in the garden and had eaten strawberries with cream. I remember that very well. But the orphanage was not attacked at all on Kristallnacht. Funny. I do not understand. All other Jewish houses, synagogues and shops were destroyed, but the orphanage was not attacked."

The Director of the Orphanage, Dr. Kurt Crohn, who would be murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, organised a place for him on the first Kindertransport out of Germany in December 1938 and he can be seen in transit in Europe with other boys.
He wrote : 'Almost 10,000 children arrived in the Kindertransports from December 1938 to the outbreak of World War Two, which put a stop to the evacuations. I was 13 at the time, but children up to the age of 16 were admitted. Certain conditions were insisted upon – a guarantee of £50 per child, the children were to be unaccompanied and required to move to other countries after the war. (The latter condition was totally forgotten about and most remained in the UK.)'

He recalled : "I was nonetheless fortunate in many respects : once in England, I was selected to continue my education in a Jewish boarding school that its farsighted head mistress, Anna Essinger, had brought from Germany to this country as early as 1933."

Anna was a remarkable German lady. The eldest of nine children, she had studied at American universities, where she became impressed by Quaker philosophies. She opened a school in rural Herrlingen in Germany, in 1926, with two of her sisters, believing tranquil surroundings were the best setting for learning. Avoiding actual teaching in favour of organisation, she embraced a liberal educational path known as 'Reformpedagogic', in which pupils were considered to be equal and community spirit was fostered above all.

Leslie recalled : "TA, as she was always known - it was short for Tante Anna - was a truly formidable woman. She was very stout, stern and not that good with children, but she had their welfare absolutely at heart" and given that the school eschewed science teaching because they couldn't afford laboratories "in spite of that, an astonishing number of us went on to become doctors and scientists, and I put that down to a really solid early education." He went on : "My life and that of the others was thus saved : my parents and sister and most of my relatives were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis in 1942." 

For many years he had believed they has perished in the Auschwitz Death Camp and only found out fairly recently that they had been deported to Riga in Latvia and were murdered in the Rambula Massacre. "I found that my parents were followed my sister (Eva) in October '42 and were taken into the woods and shot." He confessed that this was "a little better than what I thought had happened to them in the concentration camp. I have had so many nightmares about this. I still suffer from survivor's guilt, however irrational I know it is."

Oblivious of this, at the age of 15, Leslie sat his school certificate exams : "I had to sit it with five other pupils in 1940, six weeks after the school was evacuated to Shropshire, and we lost a fortnight's education helping with all the loading and unloading." He now had no choice but to leave school "when money ran out for me after School Certificate - our fees were paid by the Refugee Committee." which was the Central Jewish Fund for German Refugees.

At the school he recalled : "We had a very good teacher at the school in Bunce Court who taught biology and that interested me very much in the subject and there I have always thought, well, it would be very nice to study biology." In fact, at the age of 16 in 1941 he got a job as a laboratory technician at the Birmingham Central Technical College and "had studied there in the evening and at the weekend, to prepare myself for university.

Then, at the age of 18 enlisted to serve in the British Army and Anglicized his name to 'Brent' in the process. He joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, anxious to serve his new country and to help his family at the same time. He later recalled : "Having volunteered for the infantry in the middle of 1943, when the war was far from won, I had ‘a good war' in that I survived and was demobbed in 1947 with the rank of Captain." In fact, if he had been captured by the German Army, his status as a defector would have spelt certain death at the hands of the enemy.

He now studied for two years at the Birmingham Central Technical College and after passing his school certificates, gained a place to study as a zoology undergraduate at the University of Birmingham where he came under the influence the head of the Zoology Department, Professor Medawar.

"He was a charismatic lecturer, teaching us statistics, embryology, and immunology. I had planned to become a school teacher and had already applied for a postgraduate diploma in education at Cambridge University. Toward the end of my studies, Medawar who, unknown to me, had already nominated me for the Vice Chancellor’s Prize for 'The Most Outstanding Undergraduate of the Year' (I had been president of the Students’ Union and played lawn hockey for the university), asked me whether I would like to join him as a postgraduate student. I jumped at the idea and duly abandoned my plan to become a teacher."

When Peter moved to University College London he offered Leslie a studentship that involved the study of what became the phenomenon of ‘acquired immunological tolerance’." he reflected : "for me it was a tremendous opportunity, together to work with this very charismatic man. He was an excellent teacher, an excellent scientist, a wonderful man who I very much revered." 

At the age of 26, the research he did as a PhD student in 1951 with Peter and Research Fellow, Rupert Billingham, dealt with 'immunological tolerance' - the question of how to succeed in organ transplants to outsmart the body’s immune system so that the new organ is not rejected by the body. "Our method was completely organic. We were able to show that if you have cells injected from strange mice into very young mice that have just been born, then you can completely change the recipient's immune system." "Then you can, when the mice are five or six weeks old, take a small piece of skin from the Transplant donor mouse and then it will be accepted like normal skin." 
It is worth remembering that we now take for granted that tissues and organs can be transplanted even if the recipient is genetically dissimilar and perpetually takes powerful drugs that suppress the immune response. This was unthinkable in the early 1950s.

The donor skin grafts were accepted without rejection. Their first paper was published in 'Nature' in 1953. Leslie later confessed that : "The tolerance studies were undoubtedly the most challenging and formative of my career " and "the best experience was almost certainly the day on which we discovered that some of the mice we had inoculated in utero with allogenic spleen cells had donor strain skin grafts that far exceeded their normal lifespan. it was a "eureka" moment : After quite a few months of experimentation this was our first indication of success."

Leslie (left) worked with Rupert (right) in the lab under Peter's guidance for 6 years. In addition to their landmark finding in induced immunological
tolerance they also discovered what became known as Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), an immune condition that occurs in a patient after transplantation when immune cells present in donor tissue, the graft, attack the host's own tissues.

It was a mark of their brilliance as scientists and a display of intellect, creativity and great technical ingenuity and perseverance and their results were published in a series of landmark papers. When Peter, who later became known as the 'Father of Transplantation', shared the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance" with Frank Macfarlane Burnet, he also shared the prize money with Leslie and Rupert in recognition of their contribution to the award.

Peter 's career prospered : his doctorate at University College London was followed by a two year stint as Lecturer in the Department of Zoology followed by a year as a Rockefeller Research Fellow, California Institute of Technology, 1956–57. Then back to Britain he worked for three years followed by his appointment as Professor of Zoology at the University of Southampton. In 1969 he was appointed Professor of Immunology at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School, London where he continued his studies of transplantation tolerance, trained and mentored PhD students and post-doctoral fellows and supported the development of immunology at St.Mary's including a major focus on HIV and AIDS.

As one of the pioneers of the transplantation of organs he served as the European Editor, of 'Transplantation', 1963–68, the General Secretary of the British Transplantation Society, 1971–75 and then its President 1976–78. He won the Medawar Prize in 1994, the highest distinction of the international Transplantation Society. After his retirement in 1990 he continued as  Professor Emeritus at the University of London and in 2009 saw his autobiography, 'Sunday Child ? - A Memoir.'

In 2016 he said : "At one of the recent demonstrations I gave an interview to a reporter from the Socialist Worker and some of my rather fierce comments were published by them. It was at the demonstration in Parliament Square and with all the noise around me I hadn’t understand which organisation the interviewer belonged to. When I read their report I said to my wife: “Damn, there goes my OBE!” Her reply : “It went ages ago, my dear.”"

In fact, they were both wrong : Leslie was awarded an OBE for 'Services to Holocaust Education and the Field of Immunology and Organ Transplantation' in the 2020 New Year's Honour List. Despite, his deteriorating health, he continued to campaign for refugee children throughout the year, a rare example of a great and good man in 2019, a year in which so many in public life have sunk to new lows.

Leslie looked at the pictures of Charlotte, Arthur and Eva in his bedroom every day and said :
"I would like to believe that my survival in this country is a little comfort for my parents and sister."

Update : January 9th : 

The House of Commons has rejected proposals to keep protections for child refugees in the redrafted EU withdrawal agreement bill, triggering dismay from campaigners and Alf Dubs said it was a “very depressing” development. It is very disappointing that the first real act of the new Boris Johnson government is to kick these children in the teeth. It is a betrayal of Britain’s humanitarian tradition and will leave children who are very vulnerable existing in danger in northern France and in the Greek islands.” 

MPs voted 348 to 252 against the amendment, which had previously been accepted by Theresa May’s Government and which would have guaranteed the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with family members living in the Britain after Brexit.

Brexit Britain confirmed as a country, hard-faced, unloving and uncharitable.

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