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Sep 2014 Journal

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Kitchener Camp: Exhibition and book

A group of musicians at Kitchener Camp established an orchestra and performed regular concerts for local residents in and around Sandwich on Saturday evenings (from In Pictures: Kent's Haven for German and Austrian Jews – BBC)
An exhibition devoted to Kitchener Camp, ‘Four Thousand Lives: The Kitchener Camp Rescue’, was recently shown at the Wiener Library. The exhibition, drawing on the Library’s unmatched collection of documents relating to National Socialism and the Holocaust, vividly brought to life the story of Kitchener Camp. This was set up in early 1939 at Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent, as a transit camp to accommodate Jewish men from Germany and Austria who had been arrested during the pogroms of November 1938, detained in Nazi concentration camps and then released on condition that they left the Reich promptly. Some 4,000 men were rescued and brought to Britain in this manner. Kitchener Camp closed in May 1940. My article about it, ‘Saved by a transit visa’, appeared in the AJR Journal of May 2009.
The exhibition was curated by Toby Simpson of the Wiener Library and Professor Clare Ungerson, formerly of Southampton University, who has written the first, and very welcome, full-length study of Kitchener Camp. Four Thousand Lives: The Rescue of German Jewish Men to Britain, 1939, was published in 2014 by the History Press of Stroud, Gloucestershire, at £18.99. It relates how in December 1938, Anglo-Jewish grandees like Professor Norman Bentwich and Sir Robert Waley Cohen undertook the daunting task of financing the renovation of Kitchener Camp, a disused First World War military camp, and of organising the reception, accommodation and maintenance of the camp’s inmates. This was achieved in a remarkably short time: by the end of January 1939, Jonas May, who had acted as Secretary of the Jewish Lads’ Brigade before being appointed Director of Kitchener Camp, and his younger brother Phineas, who became its Welfare Officer, had taken up their posts.
The launch of Ungerson’s book accompanied the opening of the exhibition. Those present heard short addresses by the author, now living in Sandwich, by the Right Reverend Michael Turnbull, formerly Bishop of Durham and also resident in Sandwich, and by Adrienne Harris, Phineas May’s daughter. Ungerson’s familiarity with the town of Sandwich is one of her book’s major assets, grounding it solidly in Kitchener Camp’s locality. Through careful local research, she has unearthed a fascist element in pre-war Sandwich, which included supporters of Oswald Mosley like Lady Grace Pearson, who was President of the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce, and Captain Robert Gordon Canning, who financed the fascist publication Action. However, fascist propaganda attempting to exploit the presence of the Jewish refugees at Kitchener Camp to arouse anti-Semitism in the town appears to have met with little success.
Ungerson has undertaken much detailed archival research for her book, though it remains eminently readable. It begins with an eye-witness account of the so-called ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom, which led to the incarceration of the future Kitchener Camp men in Nazi concentration camps. Similarly, the chapter on the Anglo-Jewish response focuses on an individual actor in the unfolding drama, commencing with a vignette of Norman Bentwich arriving at his office in January 1939. This approach gives the study considerable human immediacy, though it does mean that little space is devoted to the broader historical background. (For an account of Nazi policy towards the Jews in the Reich and the problematic issue of their emigration, see the opening chapter of my book Jewish Refugees from Germany and Austria in Britain, 1933-1970.)
Perhaps the strongest sections of Ungerson’s book are those that deal with the Anglo-Jewish figures, in particular Norman Bentwich, whose papers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem she has mined to good effect, or Julian Layton. Prominent figures from the refugee world, however, are not always given the space they merit. ‘A Mrs Schwab from the Welfare Department of the German Jewish Aid Committee’, for example, was Anna Schwab, a Jew of German origin long resident in Britain who worked tirelessly for the refugees from Hitler, in particular as Chairman of the Hospitality Committee of the Jewish Refugees Committee. Her daughter was Alice Schwab, who for many years wrote the ‘Art Notes’ column in AJR Information, and her granddaughter is Rabbi Julia Neuberger. Ungerson’s book is to be recommended as a sound study that will help to fill a significant historical gap.

Anthony Grenville

Anthony Grenville

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