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.

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@ Refugee Voices 2020