4. Wartime in Britain

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, refugees from Germany and Austria became 'enemy aliens' and were subject to a curfew and other restrictions.


In the summer of 1940, when France fell, the British government ordered the mass internment of enemy aliens. Some 27,000 were interned, mostly on the Isle of Man. Some were deported on to Canada and Australia. A German submarine sank one of these transports, the Arandora Star, with great loss of life, and the resulting public outcry caused the government to initiate a change of policy.


Many refugees were eager to fight Hitler. At first they were only allowed to join the non-combatant Pioneer Corps, which had several 'Aliens Companies', but in time both men and women refugees were accepted into many branches of H.M. Forces. Some gave their lives fighting for their adopted country against Nazism.


Refugees served with distinction, and there were even special German-speaking Commando units manned by refugees. Civilian refugees contributed to the war effort in munitions factories, in civil defence and by performing other essential tasks. They shared the terrors of the Blitz and the privations of wartime life with the British.


Refugee families were frequently split up by internment or war service, and many women were left to fend for themselves and their children. The Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain (AJR) was founded in June 1941, to safeguard the interests of the refugees in these dark days.

The police came on the 13th of May- 12th of May rather, 12th of May, 1940... and... they said, “We have to take you in for the duration of the war.” I said, “Why?” “Well, because you are a - a foreign immigrant. You are actually a member of, of, of our... opponents, the Germans and the Austrians.” I said, “Yes, but I’m a Jew so that therefore that doesn’t exist. I’m here because I’m a Jew, and because of the fact that I’m not one of them.” That wasn’t good enough. That just wasn’t good enough. He took me in. I said, “My mother and father are in Bournemouth, and I would like to phone them- what’s happening to me.” “Well you can’t.” They did not let me talk to my parents. My parents only found out what happened to me afterwards when I wasn’t communicating with them they obviously went to the hostel and found out. That all of us were interned. And that’s what they called it, ‘an internment’.

I was in the barracks for the women. They did have a so-called hospital barrack, which my mother was put into when she was - because not only was she starving to death, she also had breast cancer for the second time. And I remember sitting by her side… just being with her, until I was taken away because - she was no more. I remember the staff were… pretty awful to her. Brutal, because she was no longer continent, and there was a mess everywhere. I can’t see that it mattered; the mess was terrible anyway. But I remember her being told off. That would strike a child. I was then six. No sorry, I was…I was five. I was five at that time. The washing facilities, so-called, we were terrified of those showers, the children. Because people had come from all over the place including Auschwitz, and word had got round that the showers did not give off water; they gave off gas. Well that wasn’t the case in Belsen, but the word went round. I’m sure there were a lot of awful rumours all the time, and I had a deep fear of those showers.

I volunteered for the Women’s Land Army. The office was in Oxford Street, I went in and volunteered, shocked my aunt. She had never heard of a Jewish girl going into the Land Army, but there were one or two. And it was a happier time for me. It was the happiest time for me at that time, to be in the Land Army, to be someone.

I continued working at the university until the last week of the round-up of enemy aliens, when I was taken into custody and had six, seven months until the university got me out from internment to continue on work of national importance. I… those seven months were probably the period when I leant most about life. I went into three camps, the first was a tented camp where I met some very nice people and had the great advantage of having been a scout in this country, so I knew at least how barrel tents operated… and how latrines could be made… Prees Heath in Shropshire.I then was transferred to Huyton near Liverpool where there was a very large internment camp; where after a week or two doing odd jobs someone decided I knew a bit about English education. So I was roped in to organise the excellent education services they were running there. So I learnt quite a lot about people there, and about things. And after six weeks I was transferred to Sefton Camp on the Isle of Man. And a letter of recommendation went forward that I had been organising this and that, which went to Sefton, and after about two or three days I was approached: would I be willing to help in the intelligence office? So for the rest of my time there, I worked outside of the barbed wire, but slept inside and learnt more about humanity than you can imagine. And I’m probably in the unusual position that I made out my own release orders.

Just labour work, you know. Stuff that …had to be shifted and unloaded. Dunkirk had finished, you see? We came out of the bunkers and … stayed the night at St. Malo Racecourse… We were commandeered in Dutch… and were sent home on a wing and a prayer …back to Weymouth. By which time the Pioneer (Corps) headquarters had moved from Richborough to Ilfracombe.

The food wasn't all that much, was it, but one thing one has to remember about those times, that in Hungary we were living very well. There were no food shortages, or no real food shortages. So we had quite a bit of what I refer to as ‘tactical reserve’ on us, but in Auschwitz it was very rapidly disappearing.

[Life in the Land Army] We used to sleep in bunk beds, one up, one down. It was, we had four or five bathrooms and we used to have to fight for those bathrooms. At the end of the day we were filthy dirty because we had to do a lot of heavy work. Threshing, haymaking, harvesting, cutting kale, ditching, all sorts of things. It was good for me at that time, I needed to let my energies go into the right sort of channel

VE Day... Everybody was so happy and so you know…That was the unhappiest days of my life perhaps because then I heard… Up till now I could hope and think you know perhaps one day I’ll see them [her parents and sister] again. If I haven’t heard by then, I won’t hear any more - That’s the end of it, the end of hoping.

[ being evacuated to the countryside] The Women's Voluntary Service - the WVS - picked us up as we came- as all of us - the whole school. In a crocodile we walked up the village. And they knocked at each door and said, “I think you agreed you'd have two boys…” and, “you'd have two girls.” Nobody had agreed to have two German boys. Eh? So we were left right- right to the end. There was nobody else. Came to the last house of the village. And the- the husband was away. The wife… took the- took the risk on taking us. It was a brilliant success

We were forbidden to speak German. And I remember asking Martin, “Why? It's stupid.” And he said, “Well, look around. We're in England and there are English soldiers all around.” Which there were, because there were on manoeuvres in Kent. And he said, “If a soldier hears you speaking German, they'll shoot you. Because England is at war with Germany.” I believed him; I believed everything my brother said. So that's how you learn a language very quickly, if you speak nothing but...

Some of the younger kids [in school] found out I'd come from Germany. I don't know how, but they started doing ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes to me in the playground and calling me a Nazi. And I defended myself by telling them that I couldn't possibly be a Nazi, because I wasn't even German, I was Jewish. I had no idea what Jewish was. But from that moment on, I developed a Jewish identity.

Then came the internment- They came, very early in the morning... In a Black Maria, to collect a German solicitor who was on the list. Anyway, so the landlady said, ‘But you took him yesterday’, so the policeman said, ‘Haven’t you got anybody else?’, so she said, ‘Yes, we have Mr. Hinrichsen’, so off I went.

I had a certain training in bearing quite difficult situations. I found that there was an organisation called the Jewish Relief Unit that was training people to go to Germany or elsewhere immediately after the war and I joined. There was discussion with people about what to expect and how we were going to cope, and we were posed certain very difficult questions. One difficult question was: what do you do in the face of people you cannot help? What do you do, faced with that? The answer I came up with and I hope I am correct, was that we had to learn that we couldn’t help everybody.

My aunt, who was still in Goslar, saw the British troops coming, and she waved a white handkerchief out of her window and somebody came to see her. And she told him she had 2 nieces in England, would he please, please, please contact us and tell us that she was still alive? And he did.

In the Blitz I was in London. I started my nursing training in Queen Mary’s Hospital in Carshalton, for sick children. And they were there for literally years. With polio, bone TB, rheumatic fevers - really long term things. And they used to be visited once a fortnight for one hour by their parents. Can you imagine? And there was one nurse on the ward at night for twenty eight children.

I compare myself sometimes to others who have had similar experiences. I must have been given by God a very good nature. I don’t get panicky; I don’t get scared. When we came to London, the bombs - I didn’t even hear them. My mother had to wake me up during the Blitz.

I was an enemy alien. [If] I wanted to go out of Liverpool, I had to ask the chief constable for permission. I was allowed in the radius of five miles from where I lived. I had the opportunity to go to the Isle of Man with a family and asked for permission. They wouldn’t give permission. Somebody offered me a passport of somebody else who looked like me. I said, ‘No, I rather not take it’, and didn’t go. I never wanted to be in trouble with the police

I worked for the War Office through a designer called Abram Games. He designed some of the most remarkable and classic posters for the War Office during the war.

[After emigrating to England] During the war I did fire watching. Taking messages on bicycle and things like that. Helped in the Red Cross shop. The shop in Muswell Hill was on the corner and from that corner we very sadly watched London starting to burn, because we could look down on the City and it really made us shudder when we saw that.

[Doing fire service] The V2s came over, which were soundless. I was assigned to go up on the roof with some of the officers in Rupert Street, one of the tall buildings, to monitor and watch what was happening. I saw them coming over and heard them explode, but nothing happened to me. And when I spoke to the Oppenheimers, they said, ‘How can you? It’s so dangerous! And in Soho of all places!’ I did that until the end of the war, and then I was discharged.

My first memories are of the Isle of Man. I remember being brought to my mother’s room and opening the door and she was lying on the bed. I think she’d been crying. She had plenty to cry about. But- and also I remember on my third birthday we were- at the centre of the women’s camp was a small hotel. And there was a dining-cum-ballroom. And I remember on my third birthday I had a little pretty dress, a little organdie dress with pink and green ribbon trimming. And I remember dancing around with this little dress.

I remember we- there was a sort of big barbed wire fence that cut off the end of the street [on the Isle of Man]. And we stood by the side of the road. And my mother pointed- the men came in formation, you know, six abreast or something. And my mother pointed, “Look darling, there’s your daddy!” And there was this man carrying a big parcel that turned out to be a rocking horse he’d made for me. And they were marched in, and then at some later point they must have been reunited.

My husband was an exceptional person in many ways. He was absolutely bilingual. No accent. Spoke English probably better than most English people. Spoke German. He gave a radio commentary… simultaneous translation during the Prague crisis, when Hitler gave one or two speeches. It was transmitted as simultaneous translation by the BBC. Then the BBC said to him, “When war breaks out, which no doubt it will, please come and work for us.” And more or less the first week when war broke out he joined the BBC

I flew operations. I was with 609 and we were flying Typhoons, which were in those days the most powerful fighter in the RAF…. We became, from just before D-Day till all through D-Day and all through the advance through Belgium, Holland and finally Germany, close support for the Canadian and British armies.

I also had to run a military government court. I’m not a lawyer, so they sent a civilian lawyer from England who advised me. What I found unbelievable was the letters of denunciation and verbal denunciation I received daily from people saying ‘he was a Nazi’, ‘she was a Nazi’. I mean there was a complete moral collapse in Germany. Nobody had been a Nazi and everybody was a Nazi. It was an incredible experience.

I remember the end of the war very well. I was with a girlfriend, and we went outside Buckingham Palace with hundreds of other people. And we- Americans, Polish, all kinds of people- and we stood outside Buckingham Palace, cheering. And then the girlfriend and I walked all the way back from Buckingham Palace to Willesden. And we weren't molested or anything. It must have been dark... but nobody molested us.

I used to have to go to work at 6 a.m. because I was a probationer. And the bombs were dropping all over the place, each side of me, on the North Circular Road. But I had to get to work. So I just went on walking.

When war was declared? It was a lovely sunny day. None of you know this, but it was a lovely sunny day. It was a Sunday, and I was cooking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and peas and was podding the peas. And Mrs Hunt came in the kitchen and said, ‘War, we are now at war with Germany’. And that of course was very traumatic because one knew that everything was, well, cut off then. But still work was so demanding one didn’t even have time to think about it.

We were evacuated- we went to Newbury in Berkshire. Apparently that was considered a safe place. And my sister and I have very vivid memories of that. Because it was when the German planes were coming over, almost…they were almost free to fly about, because the RAF hadn't really got going then. And we were- my mother had made a friend, and she had a little girl. And we had this billet in Newbury and there was a courtyard. We had rooms in the house. I think there were other children there as well - local people. And one day, my sister was upstairs, playing upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I suppose. And I was down in the yard with other children, playing. And this plane came over. And my sister said she actually made eye contact, he was so low. And he took out his machine gun, and he tried to shoot at her. But he managed to shoot down into the yard. So we all got quickly into the house.

My mother got a letter from the Home Office saying, “We regret to tell you that your son, Fred Stern, was sunk on the Arandora Star.” They had the whole business mixed up, which is not surprising. The Home Office. Right, so when you think about the Home Office, you have to think about it – or I do, anyway - with a certain reservation. Or any office. And that letter came a day after they got a telegram, which I asked my parents’ friends in New York to send immediately to my mother that I’ve arrived in Canada. And that letter to my mother came the day after she had the letter from the people in New York. Had it been the other way around…

We had a lovely time in York [internment camp]. It was away from the war, very understanding people who were in charge of us. One was the father of an M.P. today, Janner, a Liberal M.P, I believe. And he kept us there no longer than he could. He made it easy for us to find reasons for leaving. One of the main reasons was bad health. And we had in our company a man with diabetes, and he would sell his urine to people, which we took ourselves to the camp doctor, one by one, and every day one of us was released for suffering from diabetes, except the man himself, who stayed till the end, of course, because it was a marvelous revenue for him. He was the last one to leave the camp. So we stayed for a total of about six months or so.


@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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