Internment 1940

Review of Internment in Britain in 1940
by Ines Newman, published by Vallentine Mitchell, 224 pages; $74.95

Following the fall of France in the summer of 1940, there was a deep trepidation that Britain would be the next to be overrun by the Nazi war machine. British Jews feared that they were about to suffer the fate of their cousins on the European mainland. In each country that had been conquered, a horde of homegrown Nazi sympathizers emerged, eager to please their new masters, profit from the catastrophe and hunt down Jews.

In Britain, the situation induced a suspicion of all foreigners, which was further whipped up by the hysteria in the press, especially in the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.

All this persuaded the government to pounce on a potential fifth column beforehand. Winston Churchill’s command “Collar the lot!” meant the arrest and internment of 27,000 mainly German-speakers. However, given the worry of that time, a large proportion of those interned turned out to be Jewish refugees. A few were indeed Nazis, but others were British citizens who had simply been born in Germany and could no longer even speak the language.
Ines Newman’s Internment in Britain in 1940: Life and Art Behind the Wire (Vallentine Mitchell 2021) illustrates this tense period and focuses on her grandfather Wilhelm Hollitscher and his brief stay in an internment camp at Huyton near Liverpool.

This book vividly brings home the zeitgeist of this period through the entries in Hollitscher’s Huyton diary. It also features the remarkable artwork of a young Austrian artist, Hugo Dashinger, who painted Hollitscher and illustrative scenes from camp life and routine.

Hollitscher’s diary records that sense of foreboding when Britain stood alone before neither the US nor the Soviet Union wished to confront the Nazi plague. He writes about the surreal atmosphere before the expected storm: “The sky is mercilessly blue, the sun is smiling, the birds are singing, everything is in flower – and people are killing each other.”

Hollitscher’s life in Vienna began with the patriotic drumbeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Franz Joseph and concluded with the humiliations and persecutions of the Anschluss and Kristallnacht. Boarding a flight to Britain a few months before the outbreak of war, he described flying over the German-Dutch border as being “like a salvation from a serious illness.” While he could be stripped of his homeland, like many in the camp in Huyton, he could not be torn from its culture.

Huyton was the playground of the acculturated German-speaking intelligentsia. It boasted 22 university professors declaiming on a wide range of subjects, concerts of Beethoven sonatas, an evening to celebrate the 191st birthday of Goethe and even an “Old Vienna Café.” Many saw themselves as Jewish Germans rather than as German Jews.
Like many acculturated German Jews, they often looked down on their brothers and sisters from the East. On hearing “Lecha Dodi” from the Friday night Sabbath service being sung, Hollitscher noted in his diary: “I did not participate, but observed them from outside; fanatic faith, grim determination not to be eradicated even by 100 Hitlers.”

Hollitscher reveals how depressed he was that Austria was not permitted to unite with Germany at the end of World War I. He was always attracted by the idea that Germany should be a great world power. In April 1940, he confided to his diary:
“I often think to myself if I was not a Jew and if Hitler had not made his racial persecution a central plank of his program, would I have followed him with great enthusiasm?”

Those suspected of being fifth columnists appeared before an Aliens Tribunal where they were categorized according to the danger they posed. In Category “A” were placed those who were perceived to be a security risk – with the result that anti-Nazi Jews often rubbed shoulders with die-hard followers of Hitler. Sometimes the guards were hostile and believed that some Jews were actually “secret Nazis.”

The tide began to turn when writers such as H. G. Wells began to voice their concerns. They were reinforced by principled political figures such as the womens’ rights campaigner Eleanor Rathbone and the friend and supporter of Jabotinsky, Josiah Wedgwood. In London, Jewish women boldly demonstrated outside Bloomsbury House, which housed several refugee organizations.

But what really shocked the British public was the sinking of the Arandora Star by a German U-boat en route to St. Johns, Newfoundland. The ship’s passengers were German and Italian internees, prisoners of war and their military guards. Over 800 people lost their lives. This proved to be a turning point which led to the eventual closing down of the camps and the release of the unjustly interned.

BRITAIN IS often thanked when Jewish grandees bow before British dignitaries at choreographed events. It is more than a mere gesture of the moment. Britain gave refuge to tens of thousands of refugees from Nazism – sometimes willingly, sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes not at all. The Jewish intellectuals also found their niche in debates and discussions in North London cafés in an attempt to recreate their former lives. Indeed, bus conductors referred to London’s Finchley Road as “Finchleystrasse.”

This absorbing account captures the trauma and flavor of that time through Hollitscher’s diary, Dashinger’s paintings and informed essays by Charmian Brinson and Rachel Dickson. It will be treasured in particular by the descendants of German-speaking Jews who found a tranquil home in Britain and elsewhere.

Jerusalem Post 12 August 2021 

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