Why Leaving a Bequest to Cambridge Matters to Me

Ann Altman (New Hall, 1966)

Ann Altman

Photo credit: Damian Hickey

In my will, I have left 10% of my estate to Murray Edwards College which I attended, when it was known as New Hall, from 1966 to 1969. The bequest is an expression both of my gratitude to the University of Cambridge and of my belief that the best way to improve the world is to educate its citizens, specifically women.

These days, the words "refugee" and "immigrant" are spoken by many with scorn. The word "Jew" has been spoken with scorn and, often, hatred for centuries. My gratitude to the University of Cambridge is the gratitude of a Jewish child of a refugee who is, herself, an immigrant.

In 1939 my father, Stephan Körner, was a young lawyer in the Moravian town of Ostrava, in Czechoslovakia. In March of that year, a man who had been at school with him came to his door in full Nazi uniform and said, "Stephan, if you do not leave today, you will not be able to leave tomorrow." My grandfather, a high-school teacher, reacted by saying, "We are not religious; we are not Communists or trade unionists. We have nothing to fear." But my father and a friend took the warning seriously and made their way to the Polish border which they crossed on foot, with my father carrying only a briefcase of books. They spent several tense months in the Polish town of Katowice, waiting and hoping for visas to England. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, those who had failed to get visas suffered an appalling fate. My father was one of the lucky ones and got to England. My grandparents perished.

During the war, my father served in the Czech Army in Exile, which was based in England. However, he also managed to gain admittance to the University of Cambridge and worked towards a Doctorate in Philosophy, his first love, under the tutelage of Professor Richard Braithwaite. Professor Braithwaite behaved with extraordinarily tactful kindness towards the penniless refugee in his care and, as a result, my father was able to pursue a career in philosophy that led him, eventually, to the Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bristol and appointment as Fellow of the British Academy.

The education and doctorate that my father received at Cambridge were the foundations of the success of the next generations. I grew up in comfortable circumstances in Bristol and was accepted at New Hall. From New Hall, I immigrated to the USA and received my own doctorate from Yale University. My children went to Harvard University (the other "Cambridge") and my son received his doctorate there; my daughter retrained as a midwife and delivers babies in one of Glasgow's biggest hospitals.

Every success in our family, since that fateful day in 1939, has depended on our ability to access the highest-quality education, without being subjected to discrimination as Jews, refugees or immigrants. And it is the University of Cambridge that provided the first stepping stones from poverty to success, from marginalization to full acceptance.

In establishing the Stephan Körner Graduate Studentship in Philosophy, Classics or Law at Murray Edwards College, I have repaid some of our family's debt, memorializing the career that Cambridge made possible. The terms of my future bequest specify that the money be used to provide a safety net for anyone at Murray Edwards who has a sudden unexpected need for one. The existence of such a safety net should provide reassurance to young women whose circumstances are more precarious than mine were when I was an undergraduate that, if they stumble, they need not fall.

I hope that those who owe debts to the University similar to mine will follow my example and repay those debts.