Part one: My internment
The recent literary output on internment prompts me to write my personal account as an internee to ensure that this chapter of British history is chronicled and preserved for posterity, rather than erased as an uncomfortable reminder of gross misjudgement. It records the fate of thousands of refugees who owe their lives to this country and of those who worked ceaselessly to rescue us from the clutches of the Nazis. This article is no more than a thumbnail sketch of an episode. This literary output represents my own experience rather than stating an opinion.
When Winston Churchill proclaimed ‘Collar the lot!’ he was expressing the fears of the people and panicked into an act of great folly by losing, at a stroke, the most valuable and trustworthy people in this country. His action achieved no purpose. On the contrary, it diminished the war effort and increased the war’s duration not only by reducing the workforce but also by stifling the contribution of the most well-meaning friends that Britain ever had.
On Sunday 12 May 1940, police came to the youth hostel in Bournemouth where I was living by the grace of the Jewish committee, which was not very anxious to rescue Jews from Germany and Austria. My mother, who had the great foresight to find domestic work in England, pleaded with the committee for my inclusion in the Kindertransport. The police not only interrogated the boys, but also inspected our belongings. Among my dear possessions was a Morse tape set I had used in my scouting days in Vienna. This battery-operated device, connected by wire, was viewed with suspicion as I might have used it to communicate with invading German ships off the coast of Bournemouth! It was confiscated, as was a map of Switzerland on which was marked in red the route travelled by coach on a holiday with the Scouts.
I hurriedly packed my schoolbag, forgetting my pyjamas and toothbrush: we were only going to be taken away for a short period! I was not allowed to phone my parents (I managed to bring my father over in time before the war started - the rest of the family perished). We arrived in Southampton and camped in a school gym. We were joined by many other boys, given a rough blanket and laid on the bare floor, my schoolbag serving as a pillow. I managed to secure a toothbrush and used one of two shirts as a nightdress! After a week, we were sent to Huyton, where we stayed in a holiday camp. I was allocated a tent, shared by four boys. We slept on straw mattresses, which we filled. They were used by day as bridge tables.
After a time we were moved into houses which, after the tent accommodation, resembled five-star hotels! Those of us who were enterprising found ways and means to improve our living standards by ‘organising’ forays to secure extra food, blankets, shoes, clothes, tools and other amenities. After all, we were in a holiday camp! I rubbed shoulders with Kaiser Wilhelm’s grandson looking for firewood.
The jolly atmosphere was abruptly ended when we suffered what we called the ‘black hole of Calcutta’ in Liverpool. From there we went to the Isle of Man, where we were to live in houses along the Douglas promenade. A barbed-wire fence limited our movement but we were allowed to swim, while soldiers stood in the water with their rifles above their heads. Every day we were subjected to a roll call. Each house had a ‘father’ who was responsible for us. Two very old brothers in the house who were also interned in the first war had never become naturalised.
One day in July, we were offered the choice of being sent to Australia or Canada. I opted for the latter because it was not as far from England and from friends who lived in New York. We were told we were to be interned as ‘enemy aliens’ for the duration of the war, which we expected to be over in a year.
It is worth recording the events that decided my fate. Along with the other boys in the hostel, I was requested to go to the police station with all my documentation. There I was questioned as to why and how I had come to England. Irrespectively, we were all assessed as a risk to the security of the country as we might have been members of the Hitler youth and spied on our parents! We were awarded a Category B, which presaged internment. On that occasion, I had my Austrian passport, bearing a large red ‘J’ and ‘Israel’ added to my name, impounded by the police. Even had they noticed these accolades in my passport, it would not have altered their preconceived decision. My father was classed as a C since he was not considered as high a risk, but he was later also interned as the war progressed, arriving in Douglas just after I left. Male and some female refugees in this country were interned, particularly those living in certain coastal areas. The whole affair was disorganisation on a grand scale.
We boarded the Sobieski and sailed for Canada in a convoy, but soon lost the power of an engine and had to slow down. We were left alone except for a destroyer which guarded us from a U-boat. From the start, we found that half the ship was partitioned off and occupied by German PoWs. Evidently, the authorities recognised that we were a different sort of alien. Eating at long trestle tables, we soon noticed the soup slopping about in the plate and the horizon moving up and down in sympathy. This proved too much for most of us and we scrambled up to the deck. Old soldiers were guarding us along the rails as if we were likely to escape! They were just as seasick as we were. One of them asked me to hold his bayoneted rifle while he kept the seagulls happy. In the bowels of the ship we slept in hammocks. I can’t recall how we kept clean, but we survived. I don’t remember being scared, trusting the protection afforded us. Somehow, with much daily sickness and in rude health, we crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland after ten days at sea and sailed up the St Lawrence to Quebec. Welcome to Canada!
The second and concluding part of this article will appear in the November issue.