Glasgow and Refugees: A Lesson From The Past

Glasgow is currently home to one of the largest refugee populations in the UK. As growing numbers of people try to reach a better life in Europe, marches promoting anti-racism and open arms prevail over scaremongering in Scotland’s largest city. This is not the first time that the city has reacted to the plight of refugees. In the 1930s, the world also faced a refugee crisis. Glasgow’s response offers apposite lessons.

As the Nazi government’s legislation and violence became more overt and extreme from 1933 to 1939, so did the need to escape. German Jews trickled out over the years until 1938 but when the Anschluss in March brought horrific levels of violence in Vienna and the November pogrom duplicated the excesses in Germany, the trickle became a flood.

The lethargic response of the international community offered sympathy in their words but no such sentiment in their actions. With economies still reeling from the Great Depression and unemployment high, many saw the job market competition posed by refugees as an intolerable risk. Refugees also constituted an uncomfortable and difficult political problem in an era of appeasement and infant international organisations.

Even Jewish communities had their hesitations about accepting refugees in substantial numbers. Whilst they tirelessly poured efforts and funds into assisting refugees, there was one important factor which tempered their will to accept refugees into their own communities: anti-Semitism. It was feared that larger numbers of Jews, especially those impoverished through persecution, would lead to a general worsening of the Jewish community’s image and the consequences would rebound on all.

This internationally scaled problem found its local manifestation as much in Glasgow as in other cities in Britain. Britain’s fourth largest Jewish community took upon themselves the responsibility to help their co-religionists in a variety of ways. In the years prior to 1938, most refugees in Britain were concentrated in London and the South East, but a few made it up to Scotland to retrain in universities in programs designed to help academics, scientists, and medics who were among the first in the German Jewish community to fall prey to discriminatory Nazi legislation. A few refugee children were also housed at the city’s Gertrude Jacobson Jewish Orphanage.

In this period, however, community activities focused more on the economic power they could exert through fundraising for relief and settlement elsewhere, particularly Palestine, and boycotting German goods and services.

The pressure on Britain after 1938 led to Glasgow becoming more involved in the hosting of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Desperate letters from vaguer and more distant contacts flooded the Glasgow Jewish community as they sought out individuals able to guarantee those in need or some sort of employment. Many women were able to escape to become domestic servants, one of the few occupations where demand always outstripped supply. The Glasgow Jewish community also was particularly helpful towards children, taking in many from the Kindertransport and setting up a hostel in Garnethill with the sole purpose of housing refugee children. A training camp for resettlement elsewhere (often a condition of entry to Britain) was also set up in Whittinghame House in East Lothian.


The same fears of anti-Semitism, however, also conditioned the response of the Glasgow community. Though Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists never gained much of a foothold, other organisations such as the Protestant League, which combined anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish elements, gained 6 seats in Glasgow’s 1933 municipal elections totalling some 67,000 votes. Other incidents brought worry to the community such as anti-Jewish bill boards and posters, swastika graffiti on the Hebrew Cemetery in Cathcart, and Nazi propaganda being promoted by a lecturer at the University of Glasgow. The concerns were heightened by the generally poor levels of integration of the Glasgow Jewish community. Most of them were refugees themselves from pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It should be noted that in outlining Glasgow’s response to the refugee crisis of the 1930s, the focus has been entirely on the actions of the Jewish community. This is no accident. They shouldered almost the entire burden of Glasgow’s response to the refugee crisis, except from a few notable individuals and organisations. This was in part due to a poor level of education about the gravity of the situation in Germany, something which the Jewish community fervently strove to remedy.

Glasgow’s response to the refugee crisis of the 1930s can therefore provide pertinent lessons for us living in the city today. We should not let the burden for aiding others fall on small groups based on ethnic or religious ties, instead opting to educate ourselves and provide substantial and diverse types of assistance. Furthermore, we should not let xenophobic undercurrents temper willingness to help but also be cautious about these undercurrents rising. The best way to tackle them, again, is through better education. Ultimately, we should ensure to heed the most important lessons this historical episode provides: the reinforcing dangers of ignorance and apathy.


By Susannah Fitzgerald

Image: Boys living at the Garnethill Hostel, 1939

(Copyright: SJAC; Source:

Information from research at the Scottish Jewish Archive Centre, Rayner Kölmel’s ‘German-Jewish Refugees in Scotland’ in Aspects of Scottish Jewry (ed. Dr Kenneth Collins), and Jews in Glasgow, 1879-1939 by Ben Braber.