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- 17 October 2004
WW2 — Interning the Innocents by Ernie-the-Author
Having been born in Berlin in 1932 and being of Jewish heritage, I, along with my parents, became refugees from Nazi persecution when we left Germany in 1933. My father recognised the dangers early. There really was no choice, yet, the decision was indeed both drastic and stark: leave, or perish. Thereby we forfeited, not only the considerable family wealth, properties and father’s large successful textile business, but also our German nationality, which, by the mid 1930s, the Third Reich had revoked for all Jews in its sphere of influence anyway.
My father found a consultancy job in Liechtenstein for two years, to accrue some funds with which to emigrate. My sister Marian was born in nearby Switzerland before we moved on to settle in England in 1935. Despite having learnt to deeply mistrust nationalism, I thereby started to become more British than the Brits and later, more Scottish than the Scots — since we/I chose to live here!
Unfortunately, we had missed the five-year residency criterion to be eligible for naturalisation before the war by about six months. The naturalisation process ceased for the duration of the war. Hence, while my London born brothers were British from birth, the rest of us were classified as “aliens” and remained Stateless for 10 years! Eventually, we became British citizens in 1946. For this and that Britain gave us safe haven, I am, of course, most grateful.
The onset of war caused much government confusion in Britain. To be a friendly alien one moment and then be reclassified an enemy alien the next was very odd, indeed absurd. The apex of this bureaucratic farce came when France meekly capitulated to Hitler’s forces in mid 1940. The Home Office panicked. Officials ordered my father, along with many other totally innocent refugees, to be interned — in reality imprisoned — astonishingly along with known Nazi sympathisers! In father’s case, this was via a warehouse in Liverpool to a redundant old rotting military camp, ironically in the very beautiful Knapdale region of Argyllshire, in the West Highlands of Scotland.
The reasons given to mother proved how ridiculous this was. The main reason was to sift for German spies. The start of father’s internment, however, was the best part of a year after the start of the war — so, “closing the gate long after the horse had bolted.” Real spies had, of course, entrenched themselves into hiding very much earlier. Another reason given was for the “protection” of refugees from the Axis, lest the indigenous Brits sought vengeance with their anti-German/Italian wrath. Some such foreign shops and restaurants were vandalized during those times.
The British government of the day seemed to have failed completely to understand that Hitler’s first and foremost enemy was the Jew. From Mein Kampf (1922) onwards, it was blatantly clear that his war against Jewry and his determination to rid Europe of Jews (and eventually committing genocide by exterminating six million of them) took priority over everything else, including his expansionist “Lebensraum” operations and later even the defence of his “thousand-year Reich.” It was quite incredible that a Jewish refugee, once outside Nazi jurisdiction, would spy for his own worst and most dreaded enemy (other than perhaps as a “double agent” to disseminate misinformation)
Mother had no wish to be left to manage on her own and could not understand why she could not join father during these uncertain and dangerous times. The Home Office, however, insisted that women, particularly young mothers, were incapable of being spies and should be left to face civil strife and the bombing blitz at home alone. This outraged mother. When officialdom runs out of answers, however, it becomes dumb — the null (or idiot’s) response. Perhaps this is because Britain was (and most likely still is) the most secretive and paranoid of western democracies.
Father’s incarceration was, very fortunately, in Britain. Many internees, including a large number of Italians, were shipped to Canada. Many of these perished at sea, torpedoed by German U-boats, which were the scourge of all transatlantic shipping. It seemed to have been a lottery as to who embarked on ships and who on rail trains.
Despite some hardships of inadequate heating, clothing, bedding, food and the problems of being remote, enforced constraints, boredom and stagnation, with little useful activity, father actually enjoyed part of this. His fellow internees soon recognised his leadership and management experience. They elected him camp leader, to put his skills in mediation, negotiation and organisation to good use.
Mother failed to appreciate father enjoying any part of his situation, while she was trying cope on her own — with a baby, a toddler, her ageing and ailing parents and no provider. Marian and I, at least, were safe at boarding school at the time, although Marian had to return home during this period due to the consequential lack of funds. We still have a few censored pro-forma camp letters from father to mother, albeit far too many of these mysteriously went “missing” and failed to reach mother.
It took father a few months to extricate himself from this fiasco. On his release, he helped the Home Office to sort out the shambles. Father mentioned a Lord somebody and a “Sir” or two with whom he worked. He shunned the limelight and any accolade, however, so I have no record of this voluntary service. Father was modest — but also wisely prudent - I suspect for family security reasons (the threat of Nazi invasion was then still very real). Behind the scenes, however, he helped to release many other innocent internees.
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