80 million refugees roam the world today. We view all of them through a political lens, and the language used to label runaways reveals our biases and defines their treatment.
There are 5 million (good) refugees from Ukraine. (Bad) illegals flood America’s southern border. British officers are deporting (bothersome) displaced persons to Rwanda. 3 million (ignored) Venezuelans seek political asylum in Columbia. (Pathetic) African Blacks and Middle East Muslims drown and others are enslaved trekking from Africa and Syria. (Dismissed) Afghanis on the run are just dying.
My father was a German-Jewish (enemy alien) refugee. The Nazis freed him from Buchenwald around 1940. His mother bought him a visa to Panama. Hitler expected refugees to be a burden to destination countries. Dad traveled from Fulda to Hamburg, boarding a boat sailing to Panama. The ship refueled and resupplied in England. Dad jumped off.
The British interned him in a camp for enemy aliens, Jews and non-Jews, Orthodox and secular, working men and intellectuals. Interns had to convince Colonel May that they were not spies. From concentration camp to internment camp like a summer fling. We visited a cousin who spent her teen years in a concentration camp. My young son piped up, “I’m going to camp this summer.” We busted out laughing until my cousin wished he did not go to the same one she survived.
Now there is a book that tells the rest of the story. Internment in Britain in 1940: Life and Art Behind the Wire by Ines Newman with Charmain Brinson & Rachel Dickson (Vallentine Mitchell 2021) fills in the details about the missing time. They built the book around a diary kept by Newman’s grandfather, Wilhelm Hollitscher.
Holitscher’s story mirrors that of my father. Neither spoke much about life in Buchenwald or the British internment camps until the Hollitscher diary was found. Newman too “knew very little about our grandparents.”
The diary somehow found its way into London’s Weiner Library. It is a first-hand, invaluable account for understanding how a nation at war protected civilian refugees. I can hear my father’s voice and imagine life through Hollitscher’s words and pictures; the days and nights in a refugee camp.
Newman and co-authors wrote Internment after years of extensive research. The effort let Newman get to know her grandparents she missed growing up. The book is in the best traditions of social anthropology. Meade and Benedict might have praised it.
America closed its borders, refusing asylum to European Jews long before war broke out. The British were at war and yet gave refuge to German Jews, Aryans, and Italians. Foreign nationals, that is suspected enemy aliens, were under arrest until cleared of being spies. They held 25,000 men and 4,000 women at any one time.
The interns were “called to appear in front of Aliens’ Tribunals throughout Britain.” The Tribunals graded each person according to a perceived level of security risk. Many avoided arrest and internment. America arrested and moved 120,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry, whether US citizens. My friend Smitherton was one of them, but that is another story. The White Americans running the war did not have relocation camps for Whites of German ancestry.
Hollitscher describes British camps as livable. Others were vermin-ridden tents where “British soldiers—and even their officers—helped themselves in plain sight to the inmates’ possessions.” Conditions were tough in the country. Britain was at war. Supplies rationed. The country fell into a depression after Russia collaborated with the Nazis, and the Polish and French militaries collapsed.
The book offers significant background details, and the diary is descriptive. Overall, its tone reflects my father’s attitude toward the British. Some interned Jews believed conditions might be better if certain guards, officers, and officials were not antisemitic, but it was better for Jews in Britain than for Japanese in the deserts and mountains of America.
The Hollitscher diary describes the daily privations, tedium, brooding, and “wrestling with their loss of identity.” But they were imaginative. When art supplies were in short supply, camp artists burnt twigs “to create sticks of charcoal; short beard hairs were plucked to use for brushes;” they made paints from brick dust or vegetable juice ground with linseed oil or olive oil from sardine cans.
In the diary’s Epilogue, there are ruminations by the Hollitscher about whether the wartime atmosphere resulted from government panic or the fault of the “military machine” responsible for refugees. Newman believes “Fascism reaches up into the highest circles…there exists an antisemitic alternative government, supported by members of the governing classes, which has its own views and is active and sabotages members of the government with a different view.”
This infection weaved its way through the Foreign Office and upper society. It manifested in the British official collaboration with the Arab world. The goal was to forefend a homeland for the Jews despite Prime Ministers Churchill’s wartime and post-war position that “My heart is full of sympathy for Zionism.” The book makes an important contribution to restructuring attitudes and services to refugees and fills in gaps in modern Jewish history.