Kari Polanyi Levitt

Emerita Professor of Economics, McGill University, Montreal – Canada

Three Development Economists: Kari Levitt, Gerry Helleiner and Hans Singer

Kari Polanyi Levitt, Gerry Helleiner and Hans Singer are interviewed in “To and through the UK: Holocaust refugee ethnographies of escape, education, internment and careers in development,” by David Simon, an article which is one output from his project on Holocaust escapees and survivors who later became prominent figures in the evolving field of development studies and policy. Another part of his interview with Kari Polanyi Levitt is reported on in David Simon (2009) ‘From the Holocaust to Development: reflections of surviving development pioneers’, Third World Quarterly 30(5): 849-884; DOI: 10.1080/01436590902959057. He is currently writing up the project as a book. The following is a version of the interview with comments from Kari Polanyi Levitt inserted.

Professor Kari Polanyi Levitt (1923–)

Kari Polanyi Levitt’s father, the late Karl Polanyi (1886–1964), a lawyer and then prominent journalist by profession, worked in Vienna as a senior editor of the liberal Österreichischer Volkswirt, Austria’s leading weekly economic and financial newspaper. Born in Vienna, Polanyi’s parents were Jews from Hungary and Russia. He lived, studied and worked in Budapest until a short while after the First World War, where he opposed the rise of Communism [This is not the case].

His progressive views and strong opposition to Fascism made him an immediate target for harassment by Nazi sympathisers. [This really is not true. My father was asked to resign from the OV and his salary was terminated in 1933 because the liberal publisher of the journal could not keep a prominent socialist, because of the rising influence of Austrian clerical fascists . He was a political refugee, but not a target of harassment by Nazi sympathisers.] He was therefore in touch with Sir William Beveridge and the AAC very soon after its inception. In September 1933, he replied to a letter from Walter Adams, Secretary of the AAC, apologising for having been on leave and hence missing the latter’s recent visit to Vienna, and indicating that he would indeed have been very happy to discuss how to assist dismissed German academics, who included several personal friends.

By the end of the year Polanyi himself had been forced to resign from the newspaper’s Vienna staff due to political and/or financial pressures.7 He moved to London, where he became its foreign correspondent. This was an inadequate and insecure livelihood and he struggled to make a living. Not being an academic, he was ineligible for direct support from the AAC, which nevertheless assisted his efforts to gain funding elsewhere. The opportunity of a research fellowship at Liverpool University eluded him since, having eventually embraced Christianity after phases following different convictions, he was deemed ineligible for the funding then available from the Central British Fund for German Jewry, which did not cover non-Jews who lost their jobs on political grounds. He subsequently obtained small maintenance grants from church appeals, and was also funded to give annual lecture tours to the United States.

In mid-May 1934, Polanyi’s wife (‘Frau Dr Polanyi’, Ilona Duckzynska) and daughter (Kari) were able to join him in London [I was sent from Vienna to London in March 1934. In my recollection I travelled alone although there may have been some adult who was asked to keep an eye on me and assist in transit from the train to the Calais-Dover ferry and back to train. My destination in London was the home of the Grant family whom I knew well from their prolonged stay in Vienna. My mother neither accompanied me nor visited London in 1934, she stayed in Vienna to work with the then-illegal Schutzbund after February 1934 and participated in training some of the volunteers who joined the International Brigade in Spain. She probably knew Gerry's grandfather, Julius Deutsch. I remember when she arrived in London in 1936. My parents rented a room in a boarding house for overseas students where my mother was expected to assist in minimal domestic duties. The landlady imagined that coming from Vienna she would excel at cooking and baking but soon discovered that these were not among her many talents, and the arrangement was soon terminated. The address was in West End Lane.] Informing the AAC of this, Zoë Fairfield of the Auxiliary Movement, which was then assisting Karl with modest church-sourced funds, wrote that their young daughter was also in London with them and that they were in effect refugees. Dr Polanyi would be unlikely to retain his affiliation with his newspaper in Vienna for any length of time, so it was vital to find him employment as soon as possible.9 Kari then disappeared from the correspondence (which provides fascinating insights into Karl’s thinking and philosophy) until February 1937, when it emerged that the wealthy Wedgwood family, into which Frau Dr Polanyi’s cousin had married, were to rent them a cottage and provide financial assistance for Kari’s secondary education at Bedale’s School in Hampshire. [I won a scholarship which covered full tuition fees at Bedales although it is possible that Janos and Rosamund (Wedgwood) Bekassy contributed to incidental expenses. To me they were my aunt and uncle in England and I spent many happy vacations at their farm in Suffolk. The reference to the renting of a cottage may refer to some financial assistance for renting a small house in rural Kent after leaving the boarding house in West End Lane.] Kari’s only subsequent mention in the correspondence was in relation to applications from 1937 onwards for British naturalisation; all three Polanyis obtained this at a crucial moment in 1940, just before the internment of all German-speaking refugees as potential enemy aliens (see below).

After Bedale’s, Kari studied economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) from 1942 to 1947, graduating with a first-class degree and specialisation in statistics. Her studies were interrupted by two years of national service in the research department of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in London, an experience which, together with her statistical training, equipped her for subsequent work in factories and trade union research in Canada, where she emigrated in 1947 upon marrying a Canadian historian. [I married Joe Levitt in January 1950] She commenced graduate studies at the University of Toronto in 1957, joining the Department of Economics at McGill University in 1961, where she specialized in techniques of developement planning and development economics. From the 1960s she also specialised in Caribbean economic development—the career direction which brings her within this study.

During the interview with Kari (by telephone from Montreal on 29 April 2008), I mentioned the early correspondence her father had commenced with Walter Adams and Esther Simpson from Vienna in 1933. She recalled that Esther had apparently spent some time in Vienna that year: [Esther Simpson was a close personal friend of the Grant family, and I remember her frequent visits to Vienna.]

K: I’m almost certain the connection was through a family by the name of Grant. There was a Donald and Irene Grant who became very good friends of my family in Vienna. Donald Grant was a conscientious objector in the First World War and served in Wormwood Scrubs, and indeed was conscious of how fortunate he was because it seemed that a number of conscientious objectors in the First World War in Britain met a very sticky end. He explained that conscientious objectors in uniform were court martialed and faced the firing squad. After the war he and his young bride, Irene, came to the continent to do relief work. Eventually the Grants got to know my parents. I think my father probably went to look for some kind of relief or clothes, or goodness knows what, in the hard times of the early twenties and met them there. The Grants were very close friends of Esther Simpson who was also English, and they were part of an English community in Vienna—English-speaking as well as actually English. They were also were quite instrumental and helpful in helping people to escape.

Kari also identified Zoë Fairfield of the Auxiliary Movement (see above) as a member of the Grants’ circle.

Kari’s account differed from the archival record in respect of only one—albeit significant—detail: whereas Fairfield’s 1934 letter (see note 7) stated that Kari and her mother had arrived together, Kari was clear that she had arrived then but that her mother remained in Vienna for another two years, only joining her and her father in 1936. This she elucidated with interesting detail, also indicating a deeper connection with the Grants:

KPL: After the one-week 1934 Civil War, my mother, who was quite a revolutionary and a militant and had a very interesting career of her own, decided to stay in Vienna and work for the anti-fascist underground. After two years in the underground she re-joined the Communist Party and stayed in Austria for two more years. And I was sent to England, to join my father.

David Simon [DS]: When did you come exactly?

Kari Polanyi Levitt [KPL]: March of 1934. I was at that time almost eleven. I didn’t know a word of English, but I was sent to stay with the Grant family and they had three children. Since I had no brothers and sisters, they were like brothers and sisters to me and I grew up with them. And eventually I went to elementary school—Hampstead Garden Suburb— and also to a secondary school for one year. And then I won a scholarship with all expenses paid to a boarding school called Bedale’s….

DS: I have not investigated this discrepancy further or sought independent verification since it has little relevance for the major focus of this research. However, it does remind one of the need for vigilance and a critical eye with respect to all sources, archival and contemporary. The authors of letters may have been influenced by various factors in situations of imperfect information, especially when motivated by a desire to help refugees. Conversely, human memory is fallible. It is possible that Kari’s mother did accompany her to London but stayed only a short while before returning to Vienna to pursue her campaigning. Indeed, such an explanation would go a long way to reconciling the apparently significant discrepancy of the two accounts.

Another part of the interview covered the family’s British naturalisation and also their relationship with the Wedgwoods. The dialogue bears reproduction verbatim:

KPL: You mentioned the British naturalisation that we received at a crucial time in May of 1940. I believe my family owed this largely to Sir Josiah Wedgwood, and there is correspondence in the archives with Sir Josiah Wedgwood.
… I know that because we had a family relationship with the Wedgwoods. In addition Sir Josiah Wedgwood was a Labour Peer and a very decent fellow who did an awful lot for people to help them to get out of Austria, Germany, and elsewhere. In this case he helped my father obtain British naturalisation probably two or three weeks before he would otherwise have been interned. And given my father’s advanced age (I mean advanced in terms of other young people), I don’t really know what would have happened to him, but he certainly would never have had the chance to write his most famous book. It gave him his entrée late in life into [the] academic world…

DS: So the critical thing you said a moment ago was that the naturalisation came through just a few weeks before he would have been interned.

KPL: Really and truly at the most critical moment, about a week after the war started in May 1940.

DS: Well, that was one of the missing links because the correspondence that I found runs more or less up to that point but it wasn’t 100% clear to me that it came through in time, so you’ve answered one of the key questions.

KPL: … Fortunately. There would be no Karl Polanyi that anybody would have heard of if it had not been for that!

This dialogue highlights the importance of social relations and social capital through the influential roles—as advocates, champions and/or referees—that well-placed members of the establishment were able to play on behalf of individual refugees. Sometimes, such representations were made in concert with the SPSL or other bodies, or actual or intending employers, but on other occasions they proved effective in the last resort, being able to call in favours or draw on longstanding personal or professional connections.