A room full of fellow aliens

My Dad, Tom Leimdorfer, who came to England as a refugee in 1956, gave a speech at the 5th Anniversary celebrations of North Somerset BME Forum. It’s a touching account of his youth, coupled with some amusing reflections of life as an immigrant in the UK. Here it is in full:

Carmela, madam Chairperson, thank you for inviting me to be your speaker.
Congratulations on the 5th Anniversary of North Somerset BME Forum

How nice it is to be in a room full of fellow aliens. I believe, without undue modesty, that I am qualified to speak about being ‘an alien’. I have been an alien in England for almost 55 years. Of course, I was an alien even for the first 14 years of my life, only I was not aware of it. Like most of you, I was born in a country inhabited by aliens, but I had to come to England before appreciating this fundamental fact. The humorist George Mikes (born in Hungary like myself) wrote a helpful guide entitled: ‘How to be an alien’. It was written in 1946, but much of it still rings true:

‘It is a shame and bad taste to be an alien, and it is no use pretending otherwise. There is no way out of it. A criminal may improve and become a decent member of society, but once a foreigner, always a foreigner. There is no way out. You may become British, you can never become English. So better reconcile yourself to the sorrowful reality. There are noble English people who will forgive you. They realise that it is not your fault, only your misfortune. They will treat you with condescension, understanding and sympathy. They may invite you into their homes. Just as they keep lap-dogs and other pets, they are quite prepared to keep a few foreigners’.

Not too many, of course! Mikes gives a set of rules about ‘How to an alien’ in England and so to become acceptable in English society. But he gives this warning:
‘If you study these rules, you can imitate the English. If you don’t succeed in imitating them, you become ridiculous, if you do, you become even more ridiculous’.

I hope this is a pessimistic view, so I will try to give another side to this picture. I did not have the easiest of starts in life, being born into a Hungarian Jewish family during the war. Before I was two years old, my father had died on the Russian front, in the Jewish forced labour unit of the Hungarian army and two my grandparents perished in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. On my second birthday, the Hungarian Nazi ‘Arrow Cross’ government came to power and started exterminating the Jews of Budapest.

Tom in Hungary

Tom in Hungary

Altogether 16 members of my wider family were killed; but my mother and I, an uncle and aunt and my paternal grandparents survived in hiding. My childhood years were a mixture hardship, fun, sadness and enjoyment. School days during the most repressive years of the communist dictatorship were difficult and drab, but not without their lighter side. However, it was a state founded on fear and lies. I was there outside the Parliament on the 23rd October 1956 in the crowd when the Hungarian revolution started.

After the revolution was brutally crushed my mother and I escaped to Austria in December 1956, crawling under the old ‘iron curtain’ at the border in the dead of night, having been arrested earlier. We left all our possessions behind and came with just a rucksack each.

Times were different and refugees were welcomed. We were given extra clothes when we arrived in London. My mother’s brother already lived in London and he gave us shelter and help. The kindly headmaster of the local grammar school accepted me as pupil. Sadly, my mother died of cancer four months after we arrived in England.

So here I was, a young teenage orphan refugee in a strange land. However, I was fortunate to have around me my uncle and aunt cousins, the support of a loving family. My school mates definitely regarded me as ‘an alien’, but were generally friendly and helpful while I tried to master their language. They were patient with me about getting things wrong in English they found it much harder to forgive that I got things right in Maths and physics.

Actually, I soon found out that it is very bad form for aliens to get anything right. By the way, as Mikes reminds us;

‘In England it is bad manners to be clever, to assert something confidently. It may be your own personal view that two and two make four, but you must not state it in a self assured way, because this is a democratic country and others may be of different opinion’.

Even today, I often find that my fellow councillors get quite upset if I confuse them with the facts.

My classmates expected me to be brilliant at football. After all Hungary beat England 6:3 at Wembley a couple of years earlier. I was quite average at football, just about making the school’s second team. I was good at table tennis and chess, but that did not really impress. After all, even English kids who are good at chess are regarded as ‘aliens’.

In the early 60s I passed several milestones: I had an English girlfriend in the sixth form at school and then a girlfriend at university who became my wife for 26 year and the mother of my three children. She died 20 years ago of a brain tumour.

When I was 21, I became a ‘naturalised’ British Subject. By then, I was good at exams but I did not have to take any exams to become a British Subject. That was rather disappointing really. When I got my degree, I had a handshake from the Queen Mother, but I became ‘naturalised just by receiving a rather dull piece of paper through the post.

Now if you want to become a naturalised British Subject you will have the pleasure of demonstrating that you can answer questions like:

  • Where have migrants come from in the past and why? What sort of work have they done?
  • Do women have equal rights in voting, education and work, has this always been the case?
  • How many people belong to an ethnic minority and which are the largest minority groups? Where are there large ethnic communities?
  • What is the Opposition and what is the role of the Leader of the Opposition?

I am still trying to discover the answer to that last Question as far as North Somerset Council is concerned!

You notice that to become British you are ‘naturalised’. One definition of the word ‘natural’ is ‘of or according to nature, physically existing, innate, instinctive, normal’. So note that until you obtain British citizenship, the English doubt whether you are ‘normal’ or indeed provided by nature.

Now I will read you a whole chapter from the book by Mikes. Luckily it is the shortest chapter, the chapter on ‘Sex’: ‘Continental people have sex life, the English have hot-water bottles’ Actually, that is way out of date. We changed all that in the 60s – and it was probably all the fault of us foreigners!

Today we have here a wonderful rich tapestry of traditions from all over the world. You have brought with you your individual stories, your joys and sorrows, your language, your culture, your history. Never let go of all that in trying to become assimilated. Look for all that is of value here in England, here in North Somerset and add it to what you have brought with you. The longer you live here, the more will surprise you.

I had a history teacher at school who attempted to make me less of a barbarian by trying to convert me to rugby and by introducing me to the Lake District. He failed in the first task, so he kindly took me with an older group of students to the Lakes. On the first day, we climbed four mountains. As we struggled up a narrow rocky path by a sheer drop in the mist, I vowed that if I survived, I will never go back there again. By the end of the week, I decided that it was the most wonderful, mysterious, awesome place on earth and I have been back about 16 times. So if the going is hard – stick with it and you may discover something really worthwhile.

Perhaps I have fallen into the trap George Mikes warned about. By assimilating and succeeding in imitating the English, perhaps I have become more ridiculous than if I hadn’t tried. (I am fond of wearing tweed jackets long after most English people have given them up). But the longer I live here, the more wonderful things I discover about this country and its people. Oh, it’s not easy to ignore the xenophobia, the racism and the tabloids blaming foreigners (or immigrants or asylum seekers) for unemployment, crime and the loss of the ‘British way of life’.

The lovely photo I have here of my grandson’s class in north London with children from 17 different ethnic backgrounds would scare many of the residents of North Somerset. The simple fact (and it is a fact) that immigrants have paid more tax than taken in benefit, added more to the economy than taken from it as well as adding to the culture, the quality of food and entertainment. When I came to England, London Transport relied on immigrants to run the buses, since then the NHS became entirely reliant on immigrants.

So aliens or not, let us hold our head up high! At the same time, let us always be sensitive to the strange tribe who consider themselves English (although when you scratch the surface, they all come from a right old mixture). The one thing we here all have in common is that at present North Somerset is our home. Perhaps there is an advantage in being ‘aliens’. Many of us now also feel ‘aliens’ in the country of our origin. Perhaps that makes us real citizens of this planet. We have chosen this part of it to be home, but we are aware that it is a tiny part of our one precious, threatened common home. This Earth. Earth citizens are those who are truly ‘naturalised’.

I hope you feel you can contribute to life in North Somerset with all its challenges. I hope your feel it is your North Somerset. It has been my privilege to represent my village as a councillor for the past 8 and a half years. This country welcomed me as a teenage refugee, as an alien – and I wanted to put something back to the community I now call my home. I hope you also feel increasingly welcomed here. Aliens we may remain but that should not stop us from making this truly our home and putting something back into our community. I am sure many of you do that already and I wish you well on the rest of your life’s journey… starting with today’s celebrations.

NOTE:

There is a more detailed account of Tom’s recollections of the 1956 uprisings in Hungary on the BBC News Website.

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