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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Remembering Greta Burkill - her service to the College and the world

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    26 January 2017

    On 27 January, the UK remembers the horrors of the Holocaust in WWII. The aftermath of the Holocaust continues to raise challenging questions for individuals, communities and nations. Alumna Jane Day (New Hall 1974) shares her thoughts here, and we also share the words of College President Barbara Stocking which were made at a special event in Cambridge earlier this week.

    “Today, on Holocaust Memorial Day I remember the selfless dedication of those people who organised the Kindertransport, including Greta Burkhill – one of the members of the many committees which established New Hall (now Murray Edwards College). A Kindertransport organised by Sir Nicholas Winton from Prague in 1939 gave my 12-year-old mother, Hansi von Mauthner, safe passage to life.

    Subsequently, I was given the privilege to study at New Hall, little knowing its historic connection via Greta Burkill to the Cambridge Childen's Refugee Committee. The need is urgent now for humanitarians and visionaries like Greta who will rouse the conscience of the world to save the very many refugees who are waiting desperately for safe haven. Save one life, save the world.”  Jane Day (New Hall 1974 Modern and Medieval Languages)

    Greta Burkill was a European with a German father and a Russian mother, brought up in both countries. She went to school in England and to Newnham in Cambridge to study in 1917. She wasn’t a refugee or a Jew, but she had seen many persecutions in Germany and was the leading figure in helping refugees flee to safety. In 1938, Greta founded the Cambridge Children’s Refugee Committee, credited with receiving 2,000 Jewish refugee children in East Anglia. She took in two boys herself and later adopted them. Getting all the children out of Germany included many complex arrangements of finding homes, education and jobs for the older ones, who often worked in College kitchens.

    Murray Edwards College, or New Hall as it was to become then, is very grateful to Greta Burkill. Women were only permitted to take degrees in Cambridge from 1948. Although this expansion of the student body was limited to only 10% of the numbers of male students, Greta worked out that Newnham and Girton Colleges admitted only 600 women, which left 400 places to fill.

    With others from the Colleges for women, Greta met with the Vice-Chancellor. Greta put forward hard facts that more girls should be given an opportunity to study, but faced difficulties. She said, “All this seemed very harmless and in our innocence, impossible to contradict, but the discussion became acrimonious and indeed insulting”.

    It was decided there should be a public meeting to discuss this further. It became clear that funds were needed urgently, but the Vice-Chancellor halted proceedings. Another group of senior women (part of a Dining Club) decided a third foundation was needed. The two groups came together and after a long struggle, New Hall was founded in 1954.

    Later on, that Dining Club also argued for a society for women in Cambridge that was not associated with a College. That got University recognition in 1964 and became Lucy Cavendish College.

    Greta had said, “the history of women’s higher education is really very short”. She later succeeded in getting the Graduate Society and the Society of Visiting Scholars underway in Cambridge.

    Many of us have reasons to be grateful to Greta Burkill. It was because of her consuming impatience with red tape, bureaucrats and pretentiousness and pomp that so many refugee children were rescued. “

    Dame Barbara Stocking, President, Murray Edwards College


    You can read more about Greta and her work with the Kindertransport here.