A lost plea (a curiosity from the archives)

It’s not often we come across a piece of history-in-the-raw. In this case, an appeal for assistance from a German-Jewish exile in the 1930s.

In preparation for our 2013 event, we’re putting together a mini-exhibition. This means a trawl through boxes that probably haven’t been opened since they left the Public Record Office.

At the bottom of one file of unsorted papers from the 1950s and 1960s comes this curio: two sheets of writing paper, typed, undated, unsigned, and headed ‘Proposal RECHNITZ’:



It is a request for a job, or rather that a job be created for the applicant – who otherwise faces deportation. The full text is below. It is a curious document, both because it was a request for a job that would never exist, and for its mere survival.

A job application for a job that didn’t exist

At the time of writing, the Committee of the International Medieval Latin Dictionary had just published its Word List, but was years away from preparing the Dictionary: the proposal for a ‘new Ducange’ lay moribund.

In addition, the average annual wage in 1938 was £208 pounds; Rechnitz, an academic, was asking for a pittance. The minimum salary for the shortest length of time that would allow him to stay in the country.

One can only imagine the anxiety Rechnitz must have been suffering at the thought of deportation. The proposal doesn’t say, of course, that he was Jewish. It probably didn’t have to.

It wasn’t a form letter – it was a tailored appeal to the Committee. There would have been a covering letter no doubt, but it has been lost.

The answer from the Committee is not in our files either. He didn’t get the job, of course. There wasn’t one for him to get.

An accidental survival?

The wonder is that the ‘proposal’ has survived at all. It’s preserved in the dictionary-related papers of H. C. Johnson, the Secretary to the British committee (not the International committee). The file it’s from contains nothing else pre-war and mostly contains documents related to the history of the project in the 1940s and 1950s. The ‘proposal’ could have just been misfiled, but how did it survive in order to be misfiled?

  • All other correspondence from the 1930s is in a separate correspondence file, tagged and ordered.
  • It is at the bottom of a loose-bound small file collated by one of Britian’s leading archivists.
  • The file it is from is the earliest we have containing the plans for the Dictionary itself.

Johnson carefully organised and archived all of his committee correspondence from the 1930s. So we can only speculate as to why he kept this in order for it to be swept up into the wrong file.

Given the chaos of the time, and the difficulties of communication and research in the 1940s, I doubt Johnson would have known anything more about Rechnitz and what happened to him. Perhaps he kept the proposal precisely because he didn’t know what happened to the German scholar. I’d like to think so.

Modern research has its benefits

Of course, nowadays we aren’t constrained by mere files. From a little Google work we know some of what happened next.

On balance, it’s a happy ending: the philologist (and qualified librarian) Dr Wilhelm L. Rechnitz was assisted to stay in Britain in the 1930s by the Anglican church; he was (brutally) deported to Australia on the Dunera in 1940 and interned as an enemy alien at Tartura; he converted to Anglicanism, and was ordained as a vicar; after the war he spent most of his life among the Torres Strait Islanders as a teacher, missionary, linguist, and advocate for the peoples of the Torres Strait. Born in Germany in 1899, he died in Brisbane, Australia in 1978.

There was an exhibition (in part) about his work in 2011, set up by the State Library of Queensland, which holds his papers, and there is a biography (with a partial list of his works) on the Verfolgung und Auswanderung deutschsprachiger Sprachforscher 1933-1945 site. His collected works Wilhelm Lorenz Rechnitz: altphilologie und priester – Schriften, were published in 1992 (the only copies are in Germany, the US (Harvard), and Australia).

He is interesting reticent in his proposal about the publications he had actually written, and about his librarianship. As it happens, that would have been useful for a committee overburdened with unsorted slips and with no bibliographic method, a weakness it took a decade to correct.

More, perhaps, on the progress of the dictionary in a later post.

Full text of the ‘proposal’

“Proposal RECHNITZ

Since I am here for more than three years and the time is approaching that my stay will no more be prolonged by the Home Office unless I have found some permanent work, and because I know many English scholars, I propose to send an address to the Academic Assistance Council that the Committee of the International Medieval latin Dictionary want me to be a collaborator for the following reasons: 1) The above-mentioned reasons of stay 2) I am specially qualified for this kind of work for I dealt with the history of literary genders and was a collaborator of the Index Interpolationum of the Roman Digest 3) I am able to bring the Committee in touch with other scholars which are interested in this work, and the comments of which will be valuable.

“As to the salary, it should be stated that for at l[e]ast three years (for reasons of stay). The minimum would be £150-£200 a year, but probably [page 2] it will be necessary to propose a higher sum in order to get the above-mentioned one. In the case of disagreement, would it be possible that a part is paid by the Academy, another by the Academic Assistance Council?

“Scholars who also will support and sign the address, are Sir Frederic Kenyon, Prof. H. E. Butler, Prof. G. Murray, Dr. H. T. Bell”


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