By Cheryl Kempler
In 1939, the threat of war had little effect on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British possession in the Irish Sea, or on its 52,000 residents, that included farmers, fisherman, shopkeepers, and hotel and rooming house owners who catered to thousands of vacationing British tourists each spring and summer. But, change would arrive swiftly. Within months, the island transformed into a world of barbed wire, imprisoning thousands of people, a vast majority of them innocent Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria.
About 60,000 Jewish refugees, initially welcomed, from Austria and Germany, flooded into Britain during 1938 and 1939. Many were former concentration camp prisoners, among them highly educated professionals or graduate students fluent in English. All sought to resume their careers or procure advanced degrees in fields including medicine, architecture, science and the arts. Some married British subjects and started a family.
On Sept. 3, 1939, England declared war on Germany. As the Nazis marched across Europe, details emerged of traitors and spies in Norway, Holland and other countries assisting Hitler. British newspapers initiated editorial campaigns, demonizing them to a public woefully ignorant of Hitler’s policy of Jewish persecution. Subjected to tribunals and screenings, 99 percent of the Jewish and German refugees were classified “as posing no threat,” to no avail.
Fueled by anti-Semitism, hysteria escalated until Winston Churchill issued an order to “collar the lot,” arresting both the dangerous and the harmless. Men were taken from homes and offices in police cars, while crowds gathered in the streets to jeer.
Enduring deplorable conditions leading to illness and malnutrition, the refugees spent time in prisons, or in hastily prepared camps in race course stables, abandoned factories and unfinished buildings lacking heat or plumbing. Some men slept in tents. Over the next 18 months, others would be crowded onto antiquated ships and deported to Canada and Australia.
As in World War I, enemy aliens would be sent to camps on the Isle of Man and supervised by both military and civilian personnel. The anxieties of the populace would be assuaged by the income and wartime jobs the government promised. Historian Connery Chappell describes the advocacy of the island paper, Mona’s Herald: “It was a ‘welcome indication’ that at long last a move was being made to replace ‘something of the losses entailed in the cessation of the visiting industry [tourism]’…internment camps would mean some sort of work for many islanders.”
On May 27, 1940, Isle of Man residents gathered behind barricades at the docks, witnessing the arrival of the first 823 prisoners. Leaving the boat under armed guard, they included German Nazi sympathizers, mixed in with Jewish men in their 20s and 30s, as well as a few school boys, conspicuous in short pants. They would set the pattern for those coming in the next weeks and months, assigned to camps located in Ramsey, Douglas, Onchan and other seaside spots. Cleared of tourists, ordered to leave behind their sports equipment for the inmates, quaint Victorian rooming houses and private hotels were grouped together and ringed with barbed wire to form compounds. In some, Jews and Nazis shared the same spaces.
After England went to war on June 11, 1940 against Fascist Italy, Italian resident aliens, working on British boats and restaurants, were also rounded up. Most were interned in their own camp, Peel, on the Isle of Man. Within the first week, releases were initiated—one June memo is headed “return of the Kosher internees”—but newcomers from transit camps would take their place. By August 1, 14,000 prisoners swelled the island.
They included 10,000 men housed in nine camps. Four thousand women and their children were supervised by the department of immigration and security and confined in a resort area called Rushen on the opposite coast. There, the women could swim, open bank accounts and work as seamstresses, if they chose, but saw their husbands only during monthly visiting days until spring 1941, when families reunited in their own apartments. Adjustment wasn’t easy for 10-year-old Herbert Levi. “That was the difficulty for us, we couldn’t really enjoy the sunshine and beauty,” he told the BBC, “because we didn’t know what was going to happen to us.”
Ruth Heiman, who had come to England without her parents, was a 16-year old who enjoyed her time at Rushen. She had no duties or chores and could enjoy the beach or read as much as she wanted.
There was significant overcrowding at Hutchinson camp, one of several in the town of Douglas. But at others, the prisoners slept in their own beds in housing which had heat and indoor plumbing. In contrast to those who subsisted on the British mainland, their rations were augmented by locally supplied fish, dairy and produce. Particularly fond of the Manx catch, kippers, they referred to them as “yom kippers,” which also became the nickname of Hutchinson Camp. Confined to Central Camp, young Henry Fulda recalled the daily walks out of the compound, when guards looked away so that inmates could run to local shops to buy chocolate. He also remembered that he and others were allowed to swim under guard outside the compound.
It was especially difficult for the interned professionals. The graphic designer Helmuth Weissenborn said he endured “continuous torment.” The men needed to be occupied, and they were soon allowed responsibility for some day-to-day operations like ordering food, cooking and cleaning, and working the land on island farms, under the supervision of armed soldiers. Others catered to the camp and the outside community, cutting hair, making shoes out of recycled leather and cloth, repairing clothes and constructing chicken coops. One Austrian baker in Hutchinson ran a café in a Hutchinson laundry room.
Faculty members of the Hutchinson Camp “university” included world-renowned scholars who taught outdoor classes in language, law, math and science, accommodating large numbers of pupils. As remembered by Fred Uhlman, later a well-known novelist and painter, non-academic lecturers included: “…a lion tamer who was unlucky [enough] to be born in Germany… He always carried a small lasso and for a party trick he used to pick flowers with that lasso. His talks were always well attended as he had been out to Africa to capture the animals before actually training them.”
A teenager, Fred Godshaw, wrote, “one of the most amazing stories… was really what happened to Claus Moser. He was also our age, and one of the professors, for something to do, started setting up some statistics about all the people in the camp. Claus helped him with this task and got interested… After his release from the camp Claus studied [statistics], later became the government chief statistician and is now Lord Moser.”
In 1941, there were 200 Jewish physicians from London in Douglas’ Central Camp alone. Specialists and surgeons who had carried their instruments to the Isle of Man assisted local doctors running the camp sick bays and dispensaries, and caring for those with contagious or serious illnesses in hospital facilities in the Falcon Cliff Hotel. Forming close relationships, many attended the Central Promenade Camp Synagogue, whose services, in English took place in the ballroom of the Lido Dance Hall nearby; there was also a synagogue set up in a hut at the Onchan Camp.
Compelled to create, artists in the Hutchinson and Onchan camps relied on their powers of invention. While his colleagues endured the smell of the decaying assemblages made with organic materials, including potatoes and porridge, famed collage maker Kurt Schwitters, who wasn’t Jewish, initiated a craze for scratching salacious designs into the blue paint used on windowpanes to block light from overhead bombers. A mixture of graphite and margarine produced ink for cartoons executed on toilet paper. Portraits and landscapes were painted with a mixture of clay and olive oil from sardine cans, while graphic artists used a laundry mangle as a press. Sculptor Ernst Blensdorf carved a memorable series of wooden reliefs out of shards salvaged from a hacked up piano.
Some enjoyed a period of increased activity behind barbed wire: their hand-to-mouth existence on the outside was alleviated by the regular meals and free housing. Eventually, Hutchinson’s commandant, Capt. H.O. Daniel, requisitioned materials and studio space for the artists, who were then able to teach, organize exhibits and sell their works at the post office. The artists forged professional bonds that lasted well beyond their time in prison, which ranged from a few weeks to more than 18 months, in the case of Schwitters. In 2010, surviving works were included in exhibits on the Isle of Man and in London’s Ben Uri Gallery, marking the 70th anniversary of the camps, and reproduced on a postage stamp series by the British government.
Camp publications, including Hutchinson’s “The Camp” and “The Sefton Review,” focused on the internees’ concerns about their community and the war. Exuding a decidedly British sense of optimism in its debut issue, the “Onchan Pioneer” would reveal the frustration of its contributors, who asked in both German and English: “What is our station, Mr. Churchill? It can’t be the idleness of an internment camp…has this country in its terrible struggle no use for the strength of our hearts and the ability of our brains, the might of our work?” As early as July 1940, their complaints were echoed by the people of their adopted country, who had begun to realize that the aliens shared their desire to defeat Hitler.
Although the Isle of Man Camps operated through 1945, the numbers of Jewish inmates dwindled steadily after March 1941, as they were offered the chance to enlist, or were released to work for the war effort. Camps throughout Britain housed prisoners of war from Finland and Japan, as well as British detainees whose allegiance to the imprisoned English fascist Sir Oswald Mosley posed a dangerous threat.
Perhaps many Jewish men remained embittered, but some retained the capacity to forgive in later years. Manfred Gans, who later emigrated from Britain to the United States, sympathized with how the British dealt with the refugees, “because of all the things I read about the traitors in Norway and France. I think they were justified.”
Years after his internment, Fred Godshaw reflected:
“Looking back on those four months in captivity, I can only say that they were most probably the most interesting months of my life, and I feel at the time the British Government had no choice to do what they did at that very dangerous time with an invasion imminent. It is always easy to be wise after the event.”