I am 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 World War II, with colleagues Monica Bohm-Duchen , founding director of Insiders/Outsiders who conceived the idea of the trip, and Michael Newman, executive director of the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR).
Our organizations came together over 18 months ago to ask how we would commemorate the 80th anniversary of this morally murky piece of British history, not realizing that when we did it would be at a time when millions new refugees would gather. Europe’s borders and parliament are reportedly debating whether to detain ‘overseas’ those seeking asylum in the UK.
We often talk about Kindertransport, although this too is more than the general perception of “well-being”. Only rarely do we remember Churchill’s instructions to “stick the lot!” in the early summer of 1940, in response to the fall of France and hysteria over an intolerant populist press abroad.
Hastily convened tribunals, which often had less than 10 minutes to decide someone’s fate, ranked refugees according to their supposed level of threat, including some of those older children who had arrived alone on the Kinder transport. Such was the fear of the ‘Fifth Columnist’ spy that most of the adult males were sent to transit camps, where they were crammed by the hundreds into a hall, with barely any toilet facilities, sleeping on pallets of hay infested with rats, before being interned on the Isle of Man. Over the following months, many Jewish women and children were sent to the island.
Class C prisoners only spent a few weeks there, many of them then enlisting in the Pioneer Corps. But some of those with higher classifications, or accidentally documented with incorrect documentation, were sent on ships to Canada or Australia, or kept here, behind barbed wire, for up to two years. Among them was Manfred Kalb, who accompanies our group, brought to the island with his four-year-old mother, who remembers celebrating her sixth birthday at a boarding house in Port St Mary.
By the spring of 1942, all Jews had been liberated, the government realizing that rabbis and artists, composers and dentists, young mothers and six-year-old children posed no threat. Only openly fascist Nazi sympathizers remained on the island, with whom they had often been imprisoned.
On Monday, the island’s chief minister, 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, “We fervently hope that this tree will endure and take root in the same way that Manfred and so many others have done.”
But in recent days I have been haunted by the pain and trauma the internees have had to overcome. They were separated from their families and seen as threats when they were just ordinary, frightened people who fled conflict and abuse and found themselves in an unfamiliar and unfamiliar place.
As British Jews it is our responsibility to warn our government not to repeat the mistakes of history. Choosing the benevolent path rather than the so-called populist and fearful one, and welcoming asylum seekers with warmth and compassion rather than plotting to re-traumatize and displace them again.
Aviva is 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 contributes regularly to courses and programs for the British Library, the British Museum and BBC Radio 4.