Leo Baeck 1


Nov 2007 Journal

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Welcome to Canada

The first part of this article, ‘My internment’, appeared in the October issue.
Arriving by rail in Trois Rivières, we were marched through the city, inhabited by what seemed nineteenth-century French colonials cramming their balconies, from which they hurled abuse at us. It was a horrendous experience. At camp T, we were welcomed by German PoWs singing the Horst Wessel Song. It was most gruelling to hear the words ‘Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt’ (When Jewish blood sprays from the knife) 5,000 miles from the scene of those crimes. We managed to get separated.

We were allowed two censored letters a week, ‘Prisoner of War’ being embossed on the envelopes. Later I learned that my parents were informed by the Home Office that I had drowned on the Arandora Star! Luckily on the previous day they received a telegram from their friends, whom I had informed on arrival in Canada, that I was safe. The Home Office was sorry! But they were never sorry they had interned me at the age of 16. Nor did they offer any compensation. Times have changed!

Our first meal consisted of bread and pink Canadian cheese, which, we were told, was prepared by the Germans. We put a stop to that right away and our boys cooked meals to perfection. There was no shortage of ingredients. I acted as waiter, as I did throughout my internment. I discovered that the kitchen staff had to mix bromide into our cereals to stop us diverting our thoughts! Porridge has never since entered my home.

As this was a transit camp, we moved on to camp B, a clearing in the forest. We occupied ourselves with a variety of jobs and asked to be able to help the war effort. I found it rewarding to make camouflage nets from green cord for covering tanks. I also made trestle tables for the forces. In my spare time I made a pair of clogs with leather straps and created a wooden mushroom to repair my socks.

There was time to study too. We had among us good teachers, from whom I learned Spanish and Gregg Shorthand, and I taught myself trigonometry and calculus. I joined a matriculation course with Toronto University. In English literature we studied Julius Caesar, but did not neglect Goethe and Schiller for our German either. I also gave dissertations on Voltaire and Kemal Ataturk. We held organised political discussions as well as debating other subjects.

Throughout that time our ‘elder statesmen’ negotiated with the authorities regarding our refugee status, but to no avail. We decided to go on a hunger strike - for four days, having sent out our stock of food. Canadian newspapers found out about our action. We won. But the next day happened to be Yom Kippur. We fought hard to be recognised as Jewish refugees. It is enshrined in our Association’s title!

We moved on again, to camp A, where we had to build our own houses. Each house held 72 inmates, with showers and wash basins between the halves. I even joined a team digging the drains to the toilets. These had no doors and occasionally someone sailed a burning paper boat along the drain! Originally, we just had latrines in the open, which meant sitting on bars, careful not to bend backwards! Some volunteered to empty the buckets. We slept on bunk beds – I always chose the top bunk, jumping in from the end to the consternation of the fellow below. I made a bridge table, placed between the bunks. For our comfort we were issued a horse blanket – no sheets, my school satchel still acting as my pillow. I eventually bought myself pyjamas and other items with the 25 cents a day I earned.

The most exhilarating, but strenuous, work was felling trees in the winter. The gates in the barbed wire surrounding the camp were opened and about a dozen inmates, carrying axes, were escorted into the woods. Trees up to 1 ft. thick were felled - a big notch cut at the bottom, followed by a small one opposite until the tree fell in the desired direction over the first notch. Maple trees were not to be touched. We also shaved off the barks and carried the trees to a river to float them down. They were to serve as pit props. In the forest we had to wear a thick grey shirt with a red patch, one ft. in diameter, on our backs – so that we wouldn’t get too far away! Rubber boots and two pairs of socks didn’t prevent frostbite and chilblains at -20° C.

Life in internment was not all work and study. All the professions were represented. There was a great deal of talent for entertainment from comedy to concerts, to plays and even operas. Goethe’s Faust in German made a huge impression on me; it seemed totally authentic. Besides, we made an ice rink, played football and kept up our morale at all times. But we never dug an escape tunnel.

Just before matriculation examinations I acquired my release, my parents having worked hard to obtain it. A number of us were taken to the Isle aux Noix in the river in Montreal, where we spent several days in the company of Italian PoWs, who fed us spaghetti.

Returning to England in April 1942 on the Capetown Castle I found my way to Berkhamsted, where my parents were living. Unannounced, I rang the bell. My mother screamed ‘Der Bub ist da!’(The boy’s here!) and called my father. Her hair was white: my internment had taken its toll on her.

Was any harm done to me? Readers can make their own judgement. I lost two years, but learned a lot about life. Being of impressionable age, much of me was shaped by the experience. I do not underestimate the positive contribution it made to my mind, enabling me to deal with many a situation. Yet, I would not wish to go through it all again. It was certainly not a holiday.

Fred Stern

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