Dec 2009 Journal
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Return to Canada: The New Brunswick Internment Camp Museum
I arrived in Canada in June 1940 on the good ship Sobieski bound for Quebec. I was all of 17 years old, one of the 4,000 of the 27,000 civilian internees the British government was deporting. After being recognised as a ‘refugee from Nazi oppression’, I changed my status to ‘enemy alien’ after Churchill decided to ‘collar the lot’. My father, who had been a doctor in Vienna, considered himself fortunate to have escaped Nazi Germany to obtain a job as a caretaker at a refugee club in Edinburgh. He too was interned but stayed behind on the Isle of Man, which became a massive internment camp.
Separated on the crossing from us civilian internees by barbed wire were German POWs. When they found out that most of the internees on the other side of the wire were Jews, they went through the repertoire of anti-Semitic songs popular among followers of the Nazi regime. It should have warned me of the murderous goals of their movement. I laughed them off, being more intent on enjoying my first experience of the Atlantic on board an ocean liner.
After disembarking at Quebec, a short stop-over at Trois Rivières and an endless seeming train journey through dense forest, I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere and taken to a camp that was to be my new home. It was enclosed by two rows of barbed wire fences and watch towers manned by Canadian soldiers. I was sent back to England the following year, no longer an ‘enemy alien’, and later joined the Royal Air Force. I didn’t see the site of the camp again until 68 years later, having returned to Canada as a landed immigrant in 1966.
Camp B was not in the middle of nowhere, but 34 km east of Fredericton, New Brunswick. There are no barbed wire fences and huts now. But the 52 buildings of the prison compound are clearly marked, thanks to local students working under the direction of Ed Caissie, a retired high school teacher. After taking us round the site on well maintained walking trails, Ed took me and my wife to Minto, where he had developed the New Brunswick Internment Camp Museum.
It took me back to my time as an internee. A double bunk reminded me how I had shared my personal space with Wolfi, another refugee from Vienna. We had met at Friends School Great Ayton, a Quaker school in Yorkshire, where we founded a two-member club: ‘Mir san Mir’ - Viennese dialect for ‘Wir sind wir’ (We Are Us).
Wolfi and I also held close political views. Communism wasn’t yet a dirty word, and the view that the Communist Party represented the most determined opposition to the Fascist and Nazi movements was widespread. To some it also held out the hope for a more just world. In the camp the Austrian Communist Party was well represented. It included Jenö Kostmann, the editor of an anti-Nazi paper published in London. He could discuss every subject under the sun from the Marxist perspective. We also had our local hero, Fredl Hreisenau. He was wounded in the Spanish Civil War, fighting in the International Brigades.
There were often fierce arguments between groups. There was heckling, and on New Year’s Eve a man who attempted to introduce phony levity during a concert in the recreation hut was bombarded with egg shells. That was the extent of the violence among us.
The camp population resembled the sections found in the community of many small towns. They each brought to internment memories and skills from their previous lives. Study courses for the younger ones to complete their high school education were set up by some teachers, musicians began to give concerts, twins perfected a contortionist act they had performed in a circus, and pastry cooks started to bake cakes for a cafe that was opened in the recreation hut.
A group of orthodox Jews kept to themselves and seemed content as long as they could keep up the rituals demanded by their religion. These included the demand for a kosher kitchen, which they suceeded in obtaining. The only contact with our group was through Fredl Hreisenau. Not being Jewish, he took on the role of their shabbes goy, who would light the fires in the stoves of their huts when they wouldn’t do any work.
Ed Caissie demonsrated the lay-out of the camp on an impressive scale model which Minto Middle School students had constructed. It reminded me of the time I walked round the inner perimeter with Wolfi on New Year’s Eve, contemplating our future. We didn’t come to any conclusions and later our paths separated.
Other than our double bunk and a mannequin dressed as an internee, there were no artifacts from the camp’s first period. The mannequin was wearing a blue jacket with a red circular piece of material on the back and a peaked cap with a red stripe in the middle. I put on the hat - I was back at Camp B!
But there were many artifacts from the second period in the life of the camp. The Minto students excavated the grounds at the camp site to a depth of three feet. They discovered a range of objects that were displayed in the museum in such a way that one could almost feel how the internees had spent their time, using makeshift tools for artistic productions. They included skilful carvings as well as portraits, and flower and landscape paintings.
I noticed a swastika armband as an exhibit. It was like the ones worn by the storm troopers I had seen in Vienna in March 1938. It made me wonder who these internees were and I checked it out in Ted Jones’s study Both Sides of the Wire. The internees from the second period were even more diverse than those from my time at the camp. They included real German and Italian POWs, German merchant marine sailors, as well as Canadian Nazis or Nazi sympathisers - yes, they did exist! There were also a number of German and Austrian civilians who had been living in Canada since the 20s and become successful farmers or were well established in other occupations. They were exposed to the propaganda machine emanating from Hitler’s Germany and no doubt some were taken in by it. They were interned by the Canadian authorities on the same basis as I, on account of their ethnic background or simply their names. They included outspoken opponents of the Nazi regime. If they were in a mixed camp which included numbers of Nazis, they were frequently terrorised by them and had to appeal to the Canadian authorities. Similar problems were encountered by a group of anti-Nazi seamen who were in the crew of the German cargo ship M/S Weser, which had been captured off the Mexican coast by a Canadian armed merchant cruiser. These requests were not always well received. The Canadian authorities refused to intervene until there was overt violence. Which did occur in February 1943, when an attempt was made by a group of internees to have a group of their fellow internees expelled from the camp.
Ted Jones’s account of life on both sides of the wire includes chilling references to the virulent anti-Semitism of some internees of the second phase of Camp B. They had elected as their spokesman Johannes Brendel, a German businessman who had emigrated to Canada after the First World War. When internees from other camps were moved and expected in Camp B, he made his position clear as to who among them would be acceptable. This is what he wrote to the Swiss consul general, the official responsible for looking after German interests during the war:
According to the Geneva Convention different nationalities or races shall, as far as possible, not be brought together in the same camp ... It ought to be quite clear – after three years of war – that we will not protest against the presence in this camp of e.g. pro-Axis Canadian citizens of German descent ... pro-Axis Hungarians, Finns and others, whose compatriots are fighting shoulder to shoulder with our brothers ... But we certainly do most vigorously protest against the presence in this camp of Jews, Half-Jews, Marxists, criminals and other questionable individuals ... Moreover, if the Canadian Government wants to shut up these undesirable elements ... it should create a concentration camp ... we demand that all the anti-Axis elements ... be removed to a concentration camp. This would give us back the feeling of being honourably interned.
The intense hatred of Jews was portrayed even more vividly by Lewis Chase, a member of the veterans’ guard during both phases of the camp: ‘When the German prisoners arrived after the Jewish refugees had left, they demanded that the huts be fumigated; they even tore up the flower beds that the Jews had planted.’
Reading these accounts reminded me of the vast system of concentration camps created under the Nazis, and obviously approved of by Johannes Brendel. How would he have fitted in if he had been spending the war years on the other side of the world, ‘fighting shoulder to shoulder’ with his brothers against those ‘undesirable elements’ whose presence he couldn’t tolerate in the camp? Being an expert on camps, would he have qualified as a guard? Not content with fumigating their empty huts, could he have participated in eliminating these undesirables in the shower rooms built for that purpose?
Answers to such questions can, of course, never be found in a museum. The New Brunswick Internment Camp Museum is highly successful in demonstrating the daily life of the internees and how they managed to develop their many-sided talents with great ingenuity. They were physically removed from the momentous events that were taking place outside and had to develop an independent lifestyle geared to these circumstances. Just as the group of internees to which I belonged brought old prejudices and attitudes into the camp, the second group did exactly the same. We shouldn’t expect anything different.
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