PEN Past and Present: PEN and Refugees

Last year PEN launched its Make Space campaign, to help to support and advocate for refugees, Senior Research Associate Katherine Cooper explains why this is a natural choice for an organisation which has always advocated for refugee rights…

In October 1938 following the Munich Pact in which Chamberlain and the allies gave away large amounts of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany, English PEN President Storm Jameson wrote to English and International Secretary Hermon Ould.

She noted her own shame at her government’s complicity in a deal which she felt let down Czechoslovakia, abandoning it to the Nazis and wondered what PEN might do to help the inevitable flow of refugee writers fleeing Nazi censorship and persecution.

‘It is money that the Czechs want’ she noted, and with that she and Ould began the Refugee Writers Fund.

Since Hitler came to power in 1933, Ould had been receiving letters from beleaguered writers enquiring about passage to England and assistance that PEN could provide once there.

At the Dubrovnik conference of that year, International President H.G. Wells had kicked out the German PEN for their lack of action to defend these writers, many of whom were Jews.

But by 1938 things were intensifying and the PEN offices were struggling to process requests for help to escape the continent and letters asking for references and employment ideas from writers who had made the journey to the UK already.

Ould, Jameson and others from the Executive Committee of English PEN began to write to members asking for contributions to the Fund, which would help to pay for visas, for travel and for staff at PEN to process the paperwork.

They also wrote to publishers and newspapers. One of their appeals in 1940 was entitled, ‘To the Conscience of the World’ foregrounding the importance that they attributed to the fates of these refugee writers.

To the COnscience

Image ‘To the Conscience of the World’ courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas.

Janet Chance and Doreen Marsden were taken on to work solely on the fund as PEN began to advise the British government on refugee writers.

By 1940 the Fund began to focus on providing  weekly maintenance payments or one-off payment to help writers to buy paper, typewriter ribbons and to pay translators in order to continue their work in the UK.

The fund helped hundreds – even thousands – of writers to escape Europe and to make a living in the UK and led directly to the foundation of the Writers in Exile Centre after the war.

It began a long history of helping refugees, which PEN continued throughout the Cold War and wars of independence throughout Africa and Asia.

The Make Space Campaign is a clear continuation of PEN’s work to recognise the needs of refugees but also its belief that literature represents not only an opportunity for catharsis and coming-to-terms for individual refugees but also a point of collective and regeneration for society as a whole.

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