Our history teaches us to treat asylum seekers kindly

The Isle of Man (Wikipedia)
The Isle of Man (Wikipedia)

I’m writing this from the Isle of Man, where I have spent the past few days, alongside 50 descendants of German and Austrian Jews interned here as “enemy aliens” during the Second World War, with colleagues Monica Bohm-Duchen, founding director of Insiders/Outsiders who conceived the idea for the trip, and Michael Newman, chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR).

Our organisations came together more than 18 months ago to ask how we would commemorate the 80th anniversary of this morally murky piece of British history, little realising that, when we did so, it would be at a time when millions of new refugees are massing along Europe’s borders and Parliament would be debating whether to detain “offshore” those seeking asylum in the UK.

We talk often about the Kindertransport, although this, too, is more than the general ‘feel-good’ perception. Only infrequently do we remember Churchill’s instructions to “Collar the lot!” in early summer 1940, in response to the fall of France and hysteria stirred up by a populist press intolerant of foreigners.

Hastily-assembled tribunals, which often had under 10 minutes to decide someone’s fate, categorised refugees according to their supposed threat level, including some of those older children who had arrived alone on the Kindertransport. Such was the fear of the “fifth columnist” spy that most adult males were sent to transit camps, where they were crammed in hundreds to a hall, with hardly any washing facilities, sleeping on pallets of hay infested with rats, before being interned on the Isle of Man. Over the next few months, many Jewish women and children were sent to the island.

The category C prisoners only spent a few weeks here, many then enlisting in the Pioneer Corps. But some of those with higher classifications, or accidentally documented with incorrect paperwork, were sent in ships to Canada or Australia, or kept here, behind barbed wire, for up to two years. They included Manfred Kalb, who is accompanying our group, brought to the island with his mother aged four, who remembers celebrating his sixth birthday in a boarding house in Port St Mary.

By spring 1942, all the Jews had been freed, the government realising rabbis and artists, composers and dentists, young mothers and six-year-old children posed no threat. Left on the island were only the openly-fascist Nazi sympathisers, whom they had often been imprisoned alongside.

On Monday the chief minister of the island, Alfred Cannan, unveiled a Blue Plaque at the Ferry Terminal. We planted an oak tree in Hutchinson Square as part of AJR’s 80 trees for 80 years project. As Michael observed: “It is our fervent hope that this tree will endure and put down its roots in the same way that Manfred and so many others were able to do.”

But over the past few days, I have been haunted by the pain and trauma the internees had to overcome. They were separated from their families and considered threats when they were just ordinary, scared people, who fled conflict and mistreatment, and found themselves in an unfamiliar unfamiliar place.

As British Jews, it is our responsibility to caution our government not to repeat history’s mistakes. To choose the kind path rather than the supposedly populist, fearful one, and welcome asylum seekers with warmth and compassion rather than plotting to retraumatise and displace them again.

About the Author
Aviva is the Executive Director of Jewish Renaissance, the UK’s quarterly Jewish arts magazine. She lectures on modern Jewish culture at the University of Roehampton, the London School of Jewish Studies and JW3 and is a regular contributor to courses and programs for the British Library, the British Museum and BBC Radio 4.