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Jan 2010 Journal

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A Sandwich resident remembers the Kitchener Camp

Clare Ungerson writes: As AJR members will know, there was a refugee camp for Jewish men funded and organised by the Central British Fund for German Jewry just next to the ancient Cinque Port of Sandwich in East Kent. In 1939 about 4,000 men were housed in an old First World War army camp, known as the Kitchener Camp after Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief of the armed services at the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries.

I am conducting research on the history of the Kitchener Camp and have given a number of talks on the subject to AJR branches and to groups in Sandwich, where I live. As a result of one of my Sandwich talks, Hilda Keen (maiden name: Kimber) got in touch with me. Mrs Keen remembers well both the camp and a few of the men who lived there. She would love to be in touch with Frank Mandl or his descendants again – for one thing she would like to return his old gramophone record! – and hopes that the person she remembers as Trudi De-ak (she never saw Trudi’s surname written down) will also make contact, although she thinks it possible that Trudi went to Australia. We thought AJR members would like to read Hilda Keen’s recollections:

One day in 1939 I had got home from school, where I was learning German among other things, and mum called from the shop [Hilda’s parents owned the Golden Crust Bakery in the middle of Sandwich – CU]: ‘Hilda, you know some German, come and help me with these two chaps!’

Two young men who couldn’t speak much English wanted to know what was in some pies that were on sale. I just managed to say ‘Fleisch’ and my mother mooed like a cow! That was the first we knew about the Jewish refugees fleeing from Germany who had been given refuge in the old huts on the Ramsgate Road.

At the back of the shop were four small tables with a few chairs dotted around. In the summer months one or two people would come in for a cup of tea and gradually, in twos and threes, these quiet, polite men would congregate in the back of the shop, walking up from the Ramsgate Road. They didn’t want a pot of tea: they wanted coffee. So we made them coffee – Camp Coffee it was called, from a bottle.

‘Mrs Kimber,’ said Dr Laski, when he had introduced himself, ‘You should make proper coffee - the way we do in Austria. You must buy some ground coffee and put it in a linen bag and infuse it.’

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as mum would say: she would try anything to help trade. So an urn was bought, the ground coffee sewn into a cotton bag, water poured on and brought to the boil. Success!

And word must have got around the Kitchener Camp because numbers increased and the tables at the back of the shop were crowded. Once or twice I trailed home from school at Dover getting home about half-past five, only to have to stand in the kitchen because the table in the living room was full of men drinking coffee and talking mostly in English but occasionally slipping in a foreign word.

We got to know some of them quite well and they became friends. Franz Mandl (we called him Frank) was a medical student who had escaped over the roof of his family home in Vienna and who brought some records with him in his suitcase. It was some of the popular music of that time: ‘Wir treffen uns in Hüttledorf am Samstag an der Wien’ and an aria from Pagliacci, ‘On with the Motley’ sung in a foreign language. When he played it on our new gramophone, I thought I had never heard anything so sad in all my life. It was the first piece of classical music I had ever heard. I still have that record. ‘Turn that row off!’, said my mother hurrying through from the shop to the bakery.

We met Otto Knoller and Peggy (my older sister) and I played tennis once with Otto and Frank on the public tennis courts in the recreation ground where there is now a skateboard rink and a children’s playground. We wore white clothes, which you had to in those days. Poor Otto slipped and got a green stain on his trousers. He was very worried about it. I realise now that money was very scarce for him, and probably he couldn’t afford to have them cleaned. During the course of the game I hit a good backhand and my partner Otto said to Frank ‘Sie spielt besser als sie,’ meaning that I played better than my elder sister. ‘Sh,’ said Frank, ‘sie versteht Deutsch’ (she understands German). I kept a straight face and pretended I hadn’t heard but I was happy!

One Sunday afternoon we walked down the Ramsgate Road to the Kitchener Camp to attend a concert given by the refugees. It was held in one of the long buildings and, before it started, someone took a photo of me and one of Peggy. I still have mine - I’m wearing a home-made dress which still, I think, looks rather nice! When the pianist (a woman) started to play, the music disturbed some swallows which were nesting in the rafters – they made quite a noise and flew around creating a great fuss. Some of the refugees felt they should do something about this and arrived with long brooms to sweep the nest and the swallows away. But the audience made it clear that the swallows should be left alone, with cries of ‘Oh no! Let them be!’ and the like, and we had music accompanied by swallows. We felt very English – a kind-to-dumb-animals feeling!

Most of the refugees were waiting for visas – a new word to me which I didn’t understand – but which meant they could travel to America. The camp was for male refugees but, after a while, one or two women managed to escape from Germany. The strange thing was how we accepted these things without querying them. Little Mrs Rosenberg, for instance, a fine-boned tiny lady aged about 30 I suppose, suddenly appeared in the shop lugging a suitcase. We knew Mr Rosenberg already, a quiet shy man, and I suppose he couldn’t have known that his wife was able to get away. I think able-bodied men were Hitler’s target at first but Mr Rosenberg escaped from Germany; was able to get a message to his wife as to his whereabouts, and hence her arrival in Sandwich.

What do to do with her? Mum took her upstairs, via the shop stairs, to our new sitting room with its settee and two armchairs and sent me up there to ‘keep her company’ while, I suppose, word was got through to Mr Rosenberg. I was a shy, gauche 12-13-year-old, totally struck dumb by this lady, with (to me) strong make-up on, sitting with her on the settee with her suitcase next to her. I suppose she took pity on me and opened her case to show me, on the top layer, a tray divided into small compartments in which were rolled-up stockings. I had never seen anything like that before: we had no suitcases, we had never been on holiday.

Mum and dad gave up their bedroom to the Rosenbergs and they slept in what had been the bedroom of Tommy and Harry [Hilda’s younger brothers, who had both died of diphtheria in 1937 or 1938 – CU] in the other part of the house. That lasted a week or so until Mrs Rosenberg found employment as a live-in maid (I suppose) with a well-off person in Sandwich. To repay mum and dad’s kindness, Mr Rosenberg, a considerable artist, painted a water colour portrait of Peggy and he also went across the road, near Mrs Jones’s green-grocer shop, to draw our shop. This was unheard of! That someone should sit on the pavement outside her shop! Mrs Jones showed her disapproval by picking up the worn doormat just inside the door and shaking it thoroughly just to show Mr Rosenberg that he was invading her territory. We still have the pen-and-ink drawing he did of the shop.

Then Trudi De-ak appeared. She was about the same age as me and her very thick, frizzy hair was in two plaits wound over her head. She was a niece, I believe, of Dr Laski. I don’t know how or when she travelled to England or where her parents were. We didn’t fully understand what was happening in Europe – and, to me now, the strangest thing of all - we didn’t ask! Remember, I was 13 years old at that time!

One Sunday, in summer, suddenly she was in our shop, which was closed of course, and we were expected to look after her for the day. We hadn’t been asked. Trudi cried because her uncle had told her she was invited. Anyway, I had my bike and we borrowed Peggy Jones’s bike from across the road. It was a real lady’s bike and hard to get used to. Trudi and I were given some sandwiches and set off to ride to the bay. On the way, Trudi said she had a bad tummy and we should stop for a while. So we did and she wandered around for a bit clutching her stomach and said that her uncle said it was because of all the things that had happened that she had a bad tummy (she spoke good English). I listened politely, not thinking this girl is in a foreign country uprooted from her family and friends, but only why can’t we get on to the bay and enjoy ourselves?

When the war came and everyone was moved around we lost touch. During the war she and I did meet in London, where a pickpocket took my purse in Charing Cross Station, and once, after the war, she came down on the train for the day, but after that – nothing. I often wonder where she is and what she is doing, as I wonder about the others - those very nice people who opened my eyes to foreigners, with ladies who had stockings rolled down somehow to below their knees and had bare knees (shocking!), who asked for a glass of water to go with their coffee, and were so very different from us.

 

Hilda Keen

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