JBD

 

Jul 2004 Journal

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Music behind barbed wire (book review)

MUSIK HINTER STACHELDRAHT: TAGEBUCHBLÄTTER AUS DEM SOMMER 1940
Hans Gál
Berne: Peter Lang, 2004, £29/SFr.69

The internment memoirs of the distinguished Viennese-born composer Hans Gál are a graphic and often gripping account of his experiences in the summer of 1940, when he was one of many thousands of refugees from Germany and Austria to be interned by the British authorities. Gál was one of the luckier ones, in that he was released after four months, having been detained in a holding camp near Edinburgh, his adopted home town, then in Huyton on Merseyside, and finally in Central Promenade Camp on the Isle of Man. What distinguishes these memoirs is their freshness and directness, due largely to the fact that they were not intended for publication and were thus free of any of the artifice or stage-management that sometimes affects accounts of internment. It was only decades later that his daughter, Eva Fox-Gál, decided to edit her father's internment diary for publication, and it is our good fortune that she did so.

Gál conveys with vivid immediacy the poor conditions and cramped confinement that the internees had to suffer. But what emerges most clearly is their psychological suffering: they were kept in painful uncertainty about their fate, and communication with their families, at first cut off entirely, was meagre and sporadic; the organisation of the camps, if such it can be called, was a mixture of muddle, inefficiency, pedantic enforcement of petty regulations and a crass inability to understand what it meant to the anti-Nazi refugees to be treated as if they were dangerous enemies of Britain. The camp authorities seemed at first quite incapable of distinguishing between the (mostly Jewish) refugees and the (mostly pro-Nazi) interned Germans.

Under the circumstances, what the refugees achieved was remarkable. Gál describes the educational programme set up in his camp, while he himself composed a trio and the music for the camp revue What A Life! (The trio, known as the Huyton Suite, provided the haunting musical motif that accompanied the film in the Continental Britons exhibition.) Gál even delayed his release from the camp by a day so that he could direct the music for a performance of the revue, for which he won a thunderous ovation. The close friendships that developed among the internees are also movingly depicted. This book is to be recommended, the more so as it comes with a copy of Gál's internment music on CD and an expert essay on the internment of 'enemy aliens' by Professor Richard Dove.
Anthony Grenville

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