Feb 2010 Journal
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The Kitchener Camp: The Sandwich response
Recent issues of the AJR Journal have contained a number of references to the Kitchener Camp. An article by Anthony Grenville in the May 2009 issue outlined the history of the Camp and last month a Sandwich resident, Hilda Keen, shared her memories of it.
The story of the Camp, which was funded by the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF) and rescued about 4,000 men from Greater Germany, has been rather overlooked in the general histories of British attitudes towards refugees just before the Second World War. Given the number of men rescued, the Camp is, to my mind, almost as important as the Kindertransport. Its importance lies in the way the CBF found the means, through the generosity of the Anglo-Jewish community, the American Joint Distribution Committee and the Society of Friends, to fund the Camp, and the way in which the Camp was organised and successfully run by three young men from the Jewish Lads’ Brigade with the help of the refugees themselves. I am in the process of researching and writing about the Camp using archival material I have found in the Wiener Library, the Imperial War Museum and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and, last but not least, using interviews with men who lived in Kitchener in 1939. In addition, I have the advantage of living in Sandwich in east Kent, where the Camp was located. One of my great delights has been talking to the residents of Sandwich, many of whom – among its older population – remember the Camp and ‘the refugees’, as they call them, with affection. In last month’s Journal, one of those older residents, Hilda Keen, now 83, told of her fond memories of Dr Laski, Franz (Frank) Mandl, Mr and Mrs Rosenberg and the others who often came to her parents’ bakery in Sandwich. She described how her mother was persuaded to buy ‘proper’ coffee by Dr Laski and to sell it on to the refugees. An intriguing thought: a sort of Viennese café squeezed into a tiny shop in a medieval street in such a very English town.
The CBF had been anxious about the reception the refugees would receive locally and were worried that large numbers of men wandering about Sandwich (which, with a population of less than 4,000, was smaller than the camp itself) might lead to an upsurge in anti-Semitic feelings among the British. They were keen to keep the men inside the camp as much as possible and ensured this by filling their time with hard work and hard play, and having perimeter fences, guarded gates, evening roll calls and permits for men who wanted to leave the camp overnight. The CBF knew there was a well-organised branch of the British Union of Fascists in Sandwich run by a local businesswoman, Lady Grace Pearson, who was also president of the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce, and they also would have known that Captain Robert Gordon Canning, a virulent anti-Semite, lived on the Sandwich Bay Estate. He and his grand friends from London (including, it is rumoured, the Prince of Wales before the abdication) used to meet there at the weekends to play golf on the famous Royal St Georges Golf Course. (After the war, Captain Gordon Canning purchased the bust of Hitler sold at the auction of chattels from the German embassy and kept it in his house in Sandwich.)
But the stories Sandwich people tell me – of going to concerts at the camp, ‘walking out’ with some of the young men in the camp, joining them for sports activities – demonstrate a much more positive response than the CBF had expected. The truth is that Sandwich was divided – there were some Fascists in the town but they were largely drawn from the upper-class people of Sandwich. Far more important were the relationships between the men in the Kitchener Camp and the more ordinary people of the town. They met largely through the work of the Camp itself: for example, local builders helped with the reinstatement of the Camp, local market gardeners and coal merchants provided much-needed food and fuel, and local teachers volunteered to give English lessons to the men. The mayor of Sandwich was a strong supporter of the Camp and a frequent visitor to it. The town was intrigued by the men in the Camp –who seemed exotic and were very well-mannered, had travelled and came from major European cities. Sandwich was depressed at the time and many of its residents had probably never been to London, let alone Vienna or Berlin. And the Camp added fun to the goings-on in Sandwich and neighbouring towns of Ramsgate and Margate – there was a Camp jazz band, a Camp orchestra (which by all accounts was very good), Camp comedians and actors – even a trapeze artist. The weekly local newspaper had a slot for ‘The Kitchener Camp’ where the Camp’s activities were briefly described, alongside the doings of the local Women’s Institute and the local churches. In that lovely summer of 1939, the Camp sent a float to the Ramsgate Carnival with ‘Our Thanks To England’ emblazoned on a banner along its side; the jazz band played at one end of the lorry and a refugee sat in his nightshirt in a bunk bed at the other and pulled funny faces.
A number of men were invited to the homes of Sandwich residents. Some of these events were grand: a couple called Peto used to invite a select group of men to tea in the beautiful gardens of their big house, but more often individual men were invited to rather more modest homes. Peter Mansbacher, who eventually emigrated to the USA, wrote a memoir which is now deposited in the Wiener Library. A Kindertransportee, he was one of a group of ‘Dovercourt boys’ who volunteered to live in the Camp and help with the repair of the huts in the early days of the Camp’s life as a refugee camp. He describes evocatively his invitation to Sunday tea with a Mr and Mrs Gray. I find the description of this event particularly moving, especially if one remembers the context of the visit: Peter was a young man entirely on his own, having left his parents behind in Lübeck. The scene beside the coal fire, the silence and the sleepy dog are resonant of the family life Peter had so sadly lost:
After tea Mr Gray lit the fire and he and I settled into easy chairs in front of the fireplace. He had put out all the lights and only the light from the dancing flames in the fireplace lit up the room. Now Mr and Mrs Gray were sitting on either side of me while their dog had his head in my lap. How peaceful it was and how different from camp life. It was so enjoyable. In camp we had become numbers. There was no privacy, no place where we could be alone with our thoughts. In camp we were all in the same boat and there was little sympathy for one another. Most of us had had to leave our parents, wives, children, our loved ones … The peace, the warmth and the dancing flames made me realise how lucky I was to be where I was. I appreciated what they had done for me and I was grateful for their silent company. When I returned that evening to the camp and looked about me, I so much wished that I could change things and comfort many of the men in camp.
As Peter Mansbacher indicates, life in the Kitchener Camp was no bed of roses and there could be intense loneliness in a crowd. But my evidence from Sandwich indicates that many ordinary people in Sandwich recognised the hardships endured there and understood something of the awful circumstances surrounding the arrival of so many refugees on the edge of the town. There was no local upsurge in anti-Semitism - quite the reverse. Indeed, the Kitchener Camp seems to me to be really worthy of celebration – for many reasons.
If you have memories and/or mementos of the Kitchener Camp, please contact Professor Ungerson at email@example.com or via the Journal.
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