Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Spotlight: Willi Guttsman

Spotlight on Willi Guttsman
(by Jason Snow)

In the last letter, Ella asks if Tom has had any news about Willi Guttsman. This was a name I didn’t know and had no frame of reference. In searching online, I am almost positive it is the person below. He was born in Berlin around when Tom was and says he went to school in Berlin, so perhaps they were classmates at some point. Either way, here is what I know of Willi:

Willi Guttsman was born on August 23, 1920 in Berlin, son of an engineer and a schoolteacher. He was Jewish. Willi transferred to a Jewish school in 1933. In 1936, his father lost his job because they were trying to “aryanize” the workplace. They moved outside of Berlin and at 16, Willi left school. As the war began, Willi was one of many taken to the concentration camps (Willi spent time at Buchenwald). He did not stay there and his parents got him an emigration visa to England with no money or relatives. His parents were murdered in 1941, most likely at Auschwitz. As a nineteen-year-old he was given work picking potatoes on an isolated farm in Scotland, but when the war finally came he was classified as an enemy alien and deported to Australia. All this he endured quietly and with philosophical acceptance, but also with a tenacious resolve to survive his misfortunes.
The bureaucratic authorities would not reclassify Guttsman but returned him to Britain. From that point his life gradually turned from disaster to eccentric success. He came back to be united with his beloved Valerie Lichtigov√°, whom he had first met in Scotland, where she, a refugee from Czechoslovakia, was employed as a dairymaid and given a sleeping berth above the cows. They married on 11 July 1942 and worked for the rest of the war with a group of young Jews, he on a farm and she cultivating a market garden near St Albans. In 1942 Guttsman began a part-time degree course at Birkbeck College, and in 1946 went on to study for an MSc (Econ) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), an institution especially hospitable to refugees from fascist regimes, who included Karl Popper, Ilya Neustadt, and Claus Moser. In the early post-war years jobs in the social sciences in Britain were hard to come by; Guttsman, like Neustadt, found one at LSE as a library assistant, in fact as a lowly basement boy. He combined his duties as librarian with preparing, first, a thesis and, later, a book supervised by David Glass and other colleagues at LSE. The book, The British Political √Člite (1963), became the most frequently cited work on this topic, widely admired for its combination of learned history and exact statistical analysis—a model of its kind.
Then came Guttsman's great career opportunity: the opening of the new Robbins universities of the 1960s. Among the first five foundations was the University of East Anglia, where the vice-chancellor, Frank Thistlethwaite, envisaged a central library with open access. The chief architect was Denys Lasdun. Thistlethwaite sought a founding librarian and approached LSE; Guttsman was appointed, fitting the job specification as a competent acquisitions librarian and a devotee of the arts. From the outset he treated his job at Norwich as a vocation, a way of life. Not only did he continue to write books himself, including The German Social Democratic Party, 1875–1933 (1981) and ending with Art for the Workers (1997), but he also quickly assembled a teaching collection, organized exhibitions, and impressed both colleagues and students, as well as Denys Lasdun, with his meticulous and exacting discipline in the running of a highly efficient modern library.
Guttsman stayed at the University of East Anglia until he retired in 1985, as emeritus librarian. His wife was a psychiatric social worker, and they were both energetically and happily involved in the town and the university. Valerie Guttsman was lord mayor of Norwich in 1979–80 and was appointed OBE in 1991, for community service. Guttsman was proud of the achievements of his wife and of their daughter Janet, a journalist. He remained an eccentric individualist who never hid his socialist sympathies or his discriminating love for England. He very seldom spoke his mother tongue. He was modest but articulate, shy but determined. He was one among many Jewish continental refugees who contributed spectacularly to the cultural life of war-time and post-war Britain, its science, its drama, its art, its architecture, its music, and—perhaps, above all—its universities. Willi Guttsman died, of cancer, at his home, 9 Osborne Court, Lime Tree Road, Norwich, on 13 February 1998. He was survived by his wife and daughter.

Adapted from Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies and Obituary online


  1. Just want to thank you for this posting - I am currently writing my 2nd book - a group biography of the 17 female Lord Mayors of Norwich, in which Valerie Guttsman has her own chapter. Clearly no story about Valerie is complete without wide reference to Willi and your article is so helpful in its clarity. My book should be published by Pen and Sword Books in February 2018 and you can find my blog at Take a look! Phyllida Scrivens, Norwich, England

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog! How wonderful that our research worlds collided. I hope my readers reference your blog and books for more historical information! The Guttsmans sound like such an interesting pair- I would love to have met them.


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