A fresh start to study the past

Helen Leiser (MA European History, 2012) reflects on her family history and career of public service, leading to her decision to re-enter university life.

Coming to Birkbeck later in life was a ‘no-brainer’ for Helen Leiser. Having retired from a varied, successful career as a Senior Civil Servant, studying an MA in European History enabled Helen to connect with her German-Jewish background in a profound way. It also allowed her to escape “the insufferable fatigues of idleness” (to borrow her favourite quote from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes).

Helen’s father, a refugee with his part-Jewish family from Nazi Germany, met her mother while both were serving with the British Armed Forces in Plymouth in 1943, in the Second World War. However, in the First World War, Helen’s maternal and paternal grandfathers served their respective countries on opposite sides. According to Helen, these contrasting family experiences “largely explained why neither British nor German history was ever spoken of at home.” It was her studies at Birkbeck which gave Helen a vast intellectual vacuum to grapple with” – and a deeply personalised one at that.

Rising to this challenge, the topics explored by Helen at Birkbeck ranged from the causes of genocides, to the goals of forced population movements organised by Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel). This ultimately led to her dissertation: “What were the arrangements for the relief of needy Jewish refugees during World War Two?” Helen recalls that her own family was fortunate in terms of these arrangements. Despite many adult Jews being denied entry to the UK, due to labour market concerns during the Depression of the 1930s, Helen’s “hero” cousin (once removed) was already in the country as a property developer. From this position he was able to sponsor family members, including Helen’s father, to come to Britain.

“Birkbeck changed my life and I think it’s a great institution.”

Reflecting on this profound period of study, Helen said: “Birkbeck changed my life and I think it’s a great institution.” This motivated her charitable giving to the College, helping future students from all walks of life to experience the same life-affirming opportunities to study. Helen also looks forward to returning to the Birkbeck library, where she hopes to write more of her memoirs: recalling her family life, her career (five years at the Trade Union Congress, then three decades in the Civil Service) and her extensive worldwide travels.

As a civil servant, Helen assisted and advised several Ministers, including Michael Foot, Margaret Beckett and Peter Mandelson. However, she believes her most worthwhile ‘achievement’ was working with Michael Portillo to develop the 1965 Disability Discrimination Act: a complex project, entailing debates with Cabinet colleagues and overseas visits to study other countries’ systems, to decide whether mental disability should be covered and, if so, how it should be defined. The carefully inclusive definition enacted has, she surmises, proven workable and valuable for those affected.

When asked to summarise her time at Birkbeck, Helen describes it as “a beam of light.”