Jethro Bithell vs Joseph Witriol

After my father, Joseph Witriol, took his ‘Intermediate Arts’ in French, German and Logic in 1932, Jethro Bithell (Reader in German at Birkbeck College) sent a note, in German, saying “you will be heartily welcome to us as a first class honours man”. Dad got a third.

After this several notes from Mr Bithell followed in one of which, written in 1936, the possibility of working as a teaching assistant in “Austria or German-speaking parts of Switzerland” was mentioned. Obviously he knew that a Jew should not now go to Germany.

These notes also refer to the possibility of his taking an MA to “cancel the Third” as well as testimonials for job applications and the BM Library (“smile at the ghosts”)

Twenty years later the correspondence is renewed following the publication of dad’s translation of Max Brod’s Heinrich Heine: The Artist in Revolt. Bithell could now proudly place dad in the category of his pupils “who have distinguished themselves”, notably Lord Haw Haw (“the only one who had the distinction of being hanged”) and – lehavdil – Israel Sieff (“he belonged to the Jew slums of Manchester”).

These letters cover both the intellectual and technical side of reviews, publishing, translation and the like. They are suffused with literary allusions, foreign tags and urbane writing, interspersed with more homely comments (“I must rush off to vatric the guests’ bedroom”). Although stylish writing came easily to dad, I detect an attempt on occasions to try just a bit too hard, along with showing respect and gratitude that his tutor took the trouble to write at length to him.

According to the DNB entry, “…a charge against Bithell himself of antisemitism is hard to substantiate.” And no doubt some usages that seem inappropriate were acceptable in his day. Still, from some of his comments such as  “my best returns are always from firms directed by ‘dynamic’ Jews”, I wonder if he comes into that category of harmless antisemite who stereotypes too readily.

Jethro Bithell: correspondence with Joseph Witriol (large pdf file containing the letters my dad kept)

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