May 2009 Journal
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Saved by a transit visa
Surprisingly little has been written about the Jewish refugees from Hitler who reached safety in Britain on transit visas, though at least 5,000 of them were admitted in 1939, in the last desperate months before the outbreak of war. In November 1938, at the time of the ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom, the Nazi authorities had rounded up some 30,000 Jewish men and detained them in concentration camps. The Nazis were prepared to release detained Jews, if they had entry visas for foreign countries and would emigrate immediately.
A problem arose, however, with visas, entry certificates and travel documents that were not immediately valid: visas for America, for example, were granted according to a rigid quota system with a strict annual limit, the result being that a visa granted in 1939 might only be valid for a later year, thus delaying any possibility of emigration. But a released Jew who was not able to emigrate quickly faced the threat of re-incarceration in a camp - effectively a death sentence. In this emergency situation, the British government agreed, after negotiations with a group of leading British Jews, to admit to Britain on transit visas Jews from Germany who had a realistic prospect of re-emigrating elsewhere.
This device almost certainly saved the lives of the several thousand men admitted as ‘transmigrants’, plus the family members they were then able to bring to Britain, at least as many people again. Fred Pelican describes in his autobiography, From Dachau to Dunkirk, how he was released from Dachau in April 1939, only to be warned by the SS that if he had not left Germany within a week he would be returned to the camp, ‘and this time forever’. He had a ticket for a ship scheduled to leave Liverpool for Shanghai (where no visa was required), but only on 28 October 1939; crucially, he also had the life-saving transit visa for Britain that enabled him to leave Germany within a few days.
Like most transmigrants, Fred Pelican stayed in Britain, serving with distinction in the army. The requirement that transmigrants should re-emigrate from Britain was quietly dropped, and they assumed the same status as refugees permanently resident in Britain. In a circular sent to its members in August 1944, the AJR was able to reassure those who had arrived as transmigrants that they need not fear to fill in a form from the Jewish Refugees Committee that drew attention to their status; the clear implication was that the AJR had received assurances that there was no longer any danger that transmigrants would be obliged to leave Britain.
In 1939, Werner Rosenstock, who served as editor of AJR Information from 1946 to 1982, was employed at the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, the only major Jewish organisation still functioning in Germany after the November pogrom. He worked in the department responsible for selecting those men from the camps whose applications for transit visas would be successful, and thus he had considerable first-hand experience of the scheme.
In an article in AJR Information in November 1958, on the twentieth anniversary of ‘Crystal Night’, Rosenstock described the desperate atmosphere of those months. He worked for a committee that chose as many emigrants as possible, provided they were under 45 and had some kind of documentation promising entry to a foreign country, from the mass of shorn-headed applicants freshly released from Nazi camps and from those still imprisoned, whose cases were pressed by their relatives. The agonising decisions the committee had to make were all too often a matter of life or death.
The view from the windows in the Reichsvertretung’s headquarters in Berlin’s Kantstrasse underlined the urgency of the situation: to the left was the burnt-out shell of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, a reminder of the November pogrom and its victims in the camps, while to the right was a station, Bahnhof Zoo, where the movements of troop trains indicated that the remaining period of peace was likely to prove short. Rosenstock paid tribute to two of the men who played a key part in the rescue work, stayed at their posts, and were later deported: Senatspräsident a. D. Richard Joachim, head of the department in charge, and Landgerichtsdirektor a. D. Walter Sprintz, chairman of one of the two selection committees. Rosenstock himself only reached Britain just before the outbreak of war.
Once in Britain, the transmigrants were housed in Kitchener Camp at Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent, a disused First World War army camp. The arrangements in Britain were organised by a committee of four leading Anglo-Jewish figures. Lieutenant-Colonel Julian Layton went to Berlin to negotiate the release of the endangered men with the Nazi authorities. Ernest Joseph arranged the accommodation. Sir Robert Waley-Cohen made the financial arrangements. The Jewish Refugees Committee was jointly responsible with the British government for financing Kitchener Camp; the total cost of the camp to the Jewish community in the 18 months of its existence, from early 1939 to summer 1940, was £100,000.
Professor Norman Bentwich negotiated the immigration technicalities with the British authorities. He prevailed on the Home Office to issue blocks of permits for transmigrants, which were sent to the Reichsvertretung in Berlin, where they could be issued individually to the selected applicants for emigration. In his obituary of Bentwich, who died on 8 April 1971 aged 88, Werner Rosenstock recalled the unfailing punctuality with which the permits arrived in Berlin from Bentwich’s office at the Central British Fund for German Jewry.
According to Fred Pelican, the routine at Kitchener Camp provided only a modest measure of comfort: refugees were given sixpence a week and a postage stamp for a letter home and were confined to camp, a pass being necessary for short periods of absence. But Pelican greatly appreciated the community spirit among the inmates, feeling that he had become ‘part of a large family’, and he enjoyed the array of entertainment on offer to inmates. He was befriended by a middle-aged British lady from Broadstairs, Mrs Joyce Piercey. The kindness of his benefactress meant a great deal to him, especially after his treatment in Dachau; he came to relish the convivial exuberance of the English seaside resorts that he was now free to visit.
The pool of talent in the camp was considerable. Organised activities included courses of study and team sports, as well as a camp orchestra, a theatrical group and a camp journal, the Kitchener Camp Review. When Mr E. Hearn advertised the laundry service he ran in West London in the AJR Information of April 1955, the journal reminded its readers that in an earlier incarnation his name had been Herrnstadt and that he had entertained Kitchener Camp inmates as the magician ‘Harun al Rashid’.
Herbert Freeden (Friedenthal), co-editor of AJR Information from 1946 to 1950, was among those accommodated at Kitchener Camp. His description of the camp, published in the journal in March 1959, dwelt on the inmates’ consuming fears for their relatives back in Germany and on the insular attitudes of the inhabitants of Sandwich who, for all the warmth of the welcome they extended to the newcomers, made it plain that they expected the refugees’ stay in Britain to be short. Yet Freeden also remembered the beauty of the Kent countryside with some nostalgia, and he admired the novel and daring plan that had been devised to extricate as many Jewish men as possible from the grip of the Nazis by setting up a transit station in a now forgotten spot in the south-eastern corner of England.
When war broke out, many of the camp inmates volunteered to join the two companies of the Pioneer Corps, No. 69 and No. 74, that were formed there. Writing 30 years later, in September 1969, Herbert Freeden recalled the Rosh Hashanah service that had been held in the camp after war had been declared. Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, later minister at the North Western Reform Synagogue and subsequently at the West London Synagogue, struggled to bring dignity to the improvised setting of a huge tent dimly lit in the blackout. Almost 3,000 people attended the service; Freeden imagined their prayers rising and travelling across the sea and the closed borders to meet with the thoughts and hopes of their dear ones trapped in Germany.
On 20 June 1971, a ceremony was held at the site of the former camp, at which a plaque was unveiled by Julian Layton, in the presence of a number of former inmates and staff members of the camp, the Mayor of Sandwich and Norman Bentwich’s widow, Helen. The AJR had taken charge of the arrangements. The inscription reads:
This plaque is to commemorate the Richborough Transit Camp (1939-1940) where 5,000 men found refuge from Nazi persecution on the Continent. During the Second World War most of them volunteered to fight for the Allied cause. – Erected in gratitude to the citizens of Sandwich and East Kent who, as in the past, welcomed the refugees.
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