Churchill had the right kind of instincts “We’ve got to do something” and like in Germany, you immediately turn on the Jews
Stepney, East London Boy A lot of Italians were interned, even ones who had lived in England since before the First World War. Most of the Italians in our area got interned. They were shortly released. Most weren’t interned very long. Our family had a particularly good Italian friend, Jack the Ice Cream Man, who had an ice cream stall in Leman Street, on the way to my school, and he was one of the few Italian families that didn’t get interned. All his sons volunteered for the army. Jack – I don’t think that was his real name – he was in his fifties. (1)
German Refugee I had been in the country five years when I applied for British naturalisation in May, ’38. You can’t do that for five years, you see. I stuck the thing in the letter box. It takes six months before it even comes up. War broke out and all proceedings were suspended. Strictly speaking I was an enemy alien, as were my parents. We were in Newcastle upon Tyne at the time.
The sale of the house we were trying to buy fell through but the owners very kindly agreed, because they were desperate, to rent the house to my parents. We came up before a Tribunal like everybody else. The Chairman was some Colonel or other. I think he was a country gent – very suspicious of Jews, but more so of people whose official affiliation was social democrat or communist. My Father had always been a devout atheist and liberal social democrat. He didn’t let on fortunately, on my advice, otherwise it would have made it worse. I was sent out and they interviewed my parents. My father spoke practically no English. Then I was interviewed, and then we were all interviewed again. They decided to classify me as C because I’d lived in England long enough; was familiar with British methods; the sense of fairness and justice; and my English was good. With my parents it was different.
First of all, what proof did my father have, short of my word, that he had been in Buchenwald. I appealed to the Tribunal to look at the colour of his face! Secondly, he hadn’t been in the country long enough and could not be expected to have developed a sense of loyalty to Britain. Though the British were willing to stamp his passport “Victim of Nazi Persecution” he was classified B, which meant he couldn’t move outside five miles of his home. He was deeply hurt by this. I joked with him – all my life I’ve had to jolly my parents up, ever since 1929 when the thing began. You’ve got to learn a sense of humour after a while, particularly with the British. We found that out long ago.
You learn your sense of humour in Germany, first of all, but the authorities are much the same the world over. Only in England we felt, and my wife feels it even more, the English have developed a sense and an ability of hypocrisy which is probably second to none compared with any nation. Hypocrisy mixed with self-deception, which is a more vicious form of hypocrisy.
My parents were eventually re-classified as C. I was transferred back to London by my firm where they were designing reinforced concrete ships for the British Admiralty – a design team on which I was employed, notwithstanding my being classified as an enemy alien, I might add. About the time of Dunkirk, a little bit earlier I believe, all enemy aliens were cleared from coastal strips, within so many miles, and this included Newcastle-upon-Tyne. My parents were given twenty-four hours to leave. Once again they had to leave all their possessions behind. I ought to add that subsequently a “friend” of theirs, an Englishman, who they charged with selling their goods, sold them, but for a nominal amount. There was a grand piano which he sold for ten shillings. There was a car of mine, in storage, which was also sold for ten shillings. It was just a confiscation. So there we were – having less and less money.
On 20 June, 1940 there was the famous knock at the door at 6 o’ clock in the morning.
Then Dunkirk happened. The Daily Telegraph had an article saying that Sir John Anderson (2) had sent round a circular, an order, under which all enemy aliens were to be interned – notwithstanding that all dangerous enemy aliens had already been interned. That same day I said to my firm, Muchel and Partners, “I think I’m going to be interned tomorrow.” They said they were only too pleased to hear that, because the British Admiralty had sent a letter saying that they had to terminate the programme because there wasn’t enough wood in England to build formwork for reinforced concrete ships. The programme folded up and a lot of people were dismissed. They were only too pleased to let me go. The Secretary of the firm – the big boss Secretary – said to me that I deserved all I got because “wasn’t it the Jews”, he said, “who’d put Hitler up to this – to declare war on Germany.” I was a bit shaken by that. I joked “Look, why not the bicyclists?” – that’s the old joke, you know – “They put Hitler up to it, not the Jews.”
The next day there was the famous knock at the door at 6 o’ clock in the morning. A couple of detectives said “Would you please accompany us to the police station.” I said “I’ll gladly come, but would you mind giving me a few hours to see my bank and I assure you I won’t run away. Where could I go to?” Little did I know I could have gone, could have disappeared, as a lot of people did. But I didn’t. I regularised my affairs. All three of us – my father, my brother (who had come over to England six months after me in ’33) and myself found ourselves under the internment books. We were all, including my mother, living in a boarding house. Females were not included in that Internment Order. In London everyone was interned. They rolled over London like a swath. Each day, a few streets. We were in the fourth or fifth day of the internment.
On the seventh day there was panic because the camps were full. They rang up Anderson. Anderson said that that wasn’t the order he’d given. He said he told the Chief Constables that they were to intern the dangerous aliens that were left. Some Chief Constables had interned no-one, others said they didn’t know who was dangerous and who was not, because all the dangerous ones had surely already been locked up, and others interned everybody. I know that north of Fitzjohn’s Avenue, number 45 or thereabouts, north towards Hampstead, that they were interned on the Friday or Saturday. But by that time internments were stopped. But we were down in Finchley Road, so we were interned. We said good-byes – great tears. I was 26, my brother 21.
We wandered down to the police station. “What are you worrying about?” said one of the detectives, “you’ll be living on the fat of the land”. “That’s all I wanted to hear”, I said, “that’s all I needed. I’d have preferred if you’d been honest with us, instead of telling us a cock and bull story.” “Mind your p’s and q’s. No lip please”, he said. They were very polite. The rest I can’t remember except arriving at the camp, which was rather overcrowded and very muddy because it had been raining like hell, even though it was June. It was a big stadium at Huyton. (3)
We were still with our father. A day or so later my father left for the Isle of Man where he spent the next three months playing cards. Had quite a good time and was promptly released. There was a review and all the elderly people were released. But my mother never heard from us for a long time.
We decided to join a transport to Canada, despite the fact that the Arandora Star, a ship carrying internees to Canada had been torpedoed and sunk
It was raining like hell and we were all feeling miserable. A soldier came along to us – an ordinary soldier, and said “Look here chaps, I’ve heard there are transports going and you’ll be well advised to take it because you doubt heard that the Dutch handed over the keys of the internment camps to the Nazis.” We knew this because we could buy papers in the camp. “How do you know we’re not going to be over-run next week, so if you can, why don’t you leave?” My brother and I talked it over. We decided to join a transport to Canada, despite the fact that the Arandora Star, (4) a ship carrying internees to Canada had been torpedoed and sunk. It was certain in those days that the Nazis would come over and take over the country, and it was also quite certain, after the behaviour we had received, that the officials would hand those keys over. Not necessarily out of anti-semitism, but those Colonels who refused to certify my father Category C, they wouldn’t have cared less, to say the least.
The ship we set sail in was the Dunera. It was staffed by a contingent of soldiers – we heard afterwards – who were being sent out to the Far East as a punitive action. They were crotchety soldiers who weren’t much good. They had been told we were Fifth Columnists and Parachutists. The people actually sent to the Dunera were a mixture from Huyton whose passports had been stamped C, a smaller number of B’s and some A’s. The A’s were supposed to be Nazis. Some of them may have been fascists, and some of them were just very good social democrats or communists, who’s passports were stamped A because of the Lordships, the Chairman of the Tribunal, who thought they were more dangerous than any Nazi due to the Molotov Pact. This was before Russia had entered the war, and had done a deal with Germany. (5). So there was some method in their madness.
When we arrived we were downstairs in the bunk. Somebody said to me that they were going to strip us of all our belongings
The Dunera was divided into various decks and each deck was divided up into large numbers of tables, organised along military lines. We had table captains who were in charge of each table. I was selected to be one of the table captains. I was one of the oldest at 26, you see. All the contingents on the boat had volunteered. None had come against their will. Besides the Category A’s and B’s there were perhaps two or three hundred Orthodox Jews, and then there was a vast number of youngsters from 14 to 28. (6) We had to organise the washing up and the food, and we had to organise negotiations with the Orthodox Jews because they wouldn’t eat any meat and they expected us to give them their jam. They wouldn’t eat the cheese, so one of the rabbis had to stand in front of them and put a piece of cheese in his mouth to tell them it was alright. There were tremendous fights because we were expected to give up our jam rations. We did eventually give it up, so that we had very little jam and lots of meat. The Dunera was not equipped to carry the numbers that it carried. It was short of food and water. As time went on it got less and less and we got undernourished – not because of anyone’s malice – it was simply mismanagement.
The night before we left Britain I spoke to somebody who’d heard a rumour that maybe we were going to Sydney. I said “Maybe, maybe not, but I’m not going to pass it on.” After three days the news was passed round that the ship was going to turn around; that we were not going to Canada. The Canadians didn’t want any more internees. We were going to Sydney. My brother wept at the thought. There were a lot of hysterical outbreaks and I had to pacify half the people who were having fainting fits at our table. People were upset because Australia seemed so far away and the war didn’t look like ever going to end. We thought that out there we would forever be living behind barbed wire in the desert. And as I say, it was so far away. They were only 14 years of age, a lot of these children. It’s not very nice being torn away and not knowing what you are going to. These 14 year old children weren’t accompanied by brothers or fathers. I don’t know how they got there, but they were there alright. There wasn’t any malice behind this. It was just chaos because of Dunkirk and Churchill had just taken over. Churchill had the right kind of instincts. “We’ve got to do something.” And like in Germany, you immediately turn on the Jews in your midst, because then you can be seen to be doing something. That’s why they interned all these people, not because they thought we were going to stab them in the back, but because it looked good.
When we arrived on the Dunera the soldiers were both frightened and angry – there was Dunkirk, there was menace, there were the Germans and here were these parachutists arriving with their suitcases stuffed with goods, apparently. All they’d brought with them. The soldiers were pretty cruel – “Come on” – and kicked our behinds. All the first lot of internees going on board had their suitcases taken from them. I saw, looking through one of the holds that was still open, these suitcases being sliced open with bayonets and their contents thrown overboard. Others were luckier and managed to hold onto their suitcases. When we arrived we were downstairs in the bunk. Somebody said to me that they were going to strip us of all our belongings. I had a watch so I quickly took it off and put it in my pocket. Well, those who were carrying their watches had them taken off them by the soldiers. There wasn’t much you could do about it. I later put my watch under my mattress. One of the senior British captains persuaded the deck captains (the table captains were grouped under a deck captain) that he should look after the all valuables. “These soldiers are quite untrustworthy. Collect all your belongings and I’ll put them in a suitcase under my bunk and when we arrive at the other end you can have them back.” Well, we never got them back. They disappeared. The British Government subsequently paid compensation, very fairly, and I think the Captain was court-martialled.
Eden showed himself in his truest colours. He said there had been no further shipping of internees out. He knew only too well there were!
The journey took eight weeks. On the third day out we were torpedoed. The torpedo just missed. It grazed the hull. All the lights went out and there was a tremendous banging. Depth charges were dropped. A pack of U Boats were about. After that it was quite peaceful. Later we sat around the latitude of Cape Town whilst constant dispatches were sent between the British and the Australian governments. The Australian government refused to accept us at first, saying “You send that ship back to England, we don’t want them. We know what it means – they’ll want to be released.” The Australians were very tough on immigration. Before the war you needed something like a £1000 to emigrate to Australia, before they’d let you in. They eventually relented. “Alright, as long as they’re treated as prisoners of war and it’s understood they go back again, they can come.” Those were the conditions.
On the boat we had half an hour’s exercise during the day – and they had machine- gunners up there on top. That’s all we had – half an hour. Otherwise we were always under deck, without daylight. At first the guards were pretty bloody-minded. When we had the exercises, for instance, they used to hurry us along with their bayonets and keep us on the double. There were constant attempts on the part of the leadership among the internees to persuade the Captain that we were what we purported to be and not Fifth Columnists, parachutists or Nazis.
At first we talked English because we refused to talk German, partly as a demonstration for the soldiers. We wanted them to feel we had nothing in common with Germans. Then there was a big movement among the inmates – “Why should we speak English? Look how they treat us. We can’t speak English very well.” I put up a violenye defence of the English language. However, it was voted we should not speak English henceforth. Gradually we managed to persuade the Captain that we weren’t Nazis and slowly treatment got a bit better. At the same time things got worse because of the shortage of rations, and tempers got worse and worse.
I looked at the thing as a perfectly understandable bloody-minded exercise in confusion. The young ones, on the whole, saw it like that. The older ones had persecution mania, naturally. Armed with paranoia from the Nazis it was the same old persecution again, but if you had your eyes open you could see it was a totally different syndrome. It was mostly bungling – bungling with individual maliciousness.
We sent telegrams from the ship to the representatives in Britain of the British Jewry and the Home Office. There were also various people in Britain who kept on badgering away at Anderson and the others such as Eden, about what had happened to all those internees who were at that time on the water. At first – particularly Eden – they said they knew nothing. Eden said nothing had happened at all. Everything was fine! He knew nothing apart from the Arandora Star. He was very sorry about that, he said. There had been no further shipping of internees out. He knew only too well there were! It was Peake (7) who three weeks after we left said “Yes, mistakes have been made”, and that it would take months to rectify them. “You can’t possibly release everybody”, he said, “because quite clearly there were some dangerous people amongst them.” Well as you know, not a single person was found to have been a parachutist. And there we were, in Australia for the duration of the war.
1. Jack: possibly Giacomo
2. Home Secretary in the wartime Coalition Government
3. Huyton, near Liverpool.
4. The Arandora Star was torpedoed and sunk on July 2nd, 1940 with the loss of 630 internees out of a total of 1216.
5. The USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. The pact created areas of non-aggression on both sides. The Germans could attack Poland without concern that the USSR would mobilise their forces against them. In turn, part of Poland was designated part of USSR control, leading to what became known later as the Katyn massacre: the execution by the NKVD of “class enemies”: Polish Army Officers, police officers and members of the intelligentsia, and the forcible removal of tens of thousands of Polish families, also designated as “Class Enemies” to the Gulags in Siberia. These were the first mass killings of the war, flowing from ideological beliefs and preceded Nazi mass killings of Jews. The Pact also allowed the USSR to invade Finland. The pact held until the Germans attacked the USSR in June, 1941.
6. The Dunera was a troopship, that had been built for a maximum capacity of 1600. When it sailed from Liverpool it was carrying 2542 internees and approximately 320 soldiers and crew.
7. Anthony Eden, Secretary of War; Osbert Peake, Under-Secretary, Home Affairs.