Simon Parkin’s long read (“I remember the feeling of insult”: when Britain imprisoned its wartime refugees, February 1) rightly reminds us how easy it is for the popular press to to stir up hysteria and hatred against immigrants and influence government policy.
Hitler’s victory in 1933 forced thousands to flee Nazi persecution. It would have been relatively easy to separate the very few imposters from the thousands of Jews, Communists and other persecuted minorities who would hardly work for the Nazis. MI5 itself had files on many Communists, and most of those of Jewish origin could be easily identified. In my book (A Political Family – The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War) about a German Jewish family that escaped Hitler’s Germany, Jürgen Kuczynski explains how he was interned at the Seaton camp in the Devon, alongside those who were Nazis, but no distinction was made. In fact, the Nazis often received preferential treatment. Other less fortunate internees were shipped to Canada and had to run the gauntlet of Nazi submarines; dozens lost their lives as a result.
This period was not only traumatic for refugees, as Parkin notes, but it also tarnished Britain’s reputation as a haven for those fleeing persecution. We should learn from this experience.
Simon Parkin’s long read is a timely reminder of what happened to those who sought to escape conflict and death during World War II. Mr Parkin knows that the hardship and deprivation suffered by refugees and asylum seekers continued after 1945. Many of those who had been interned on the Isle of Man and elsewhere were classified post-war as persons Displaced Persons (DP), for which the policy of the British and other Allied governments was ‘repatriation’, often to the very places of oppression, torture and death from which people had fled in the first place. For example, the former Belsen concentration camp was used to house 12,500 displaced people. Conditions there and elsewhere were miserable and dangerous.
Now we see the horrors of Afghanistan, to name just one of many humanitarian tragedies (an overused phrase, perhaps, but terribly poignant here) with us around the world, with millions and millions of people displaced persons who will not receive any kind of aid or relief. Do we live in a better world than in 1945? For some of us, yes; for many of our fellow human beings, certainly not.
Bruce Ross Smith
My parents were interned too early to qualify for the Isle of Man Married Couples Internment Camp. My mother, a political refugee but not a Jew, was first arrested in September 1939 and spent nearly four months in Holloway Prison, some in solitary confinement. She was never charged or tried and was only released because her fiancé, my Jewish father, asked for help from Fenner Brockway, an MP who, unlike their local MP, did not reject all the Germans without knowing more about them. When he was released in March 1940, my parents married, but in May they were both interned in separate camps on the Isle of Man. They didn’t see each other for a year. They made the most of their time there and my mother even started a school in Port Erin.
Of course, their gratitude at their release and their relief at having survived, unlike many friends and family members, outweighed any feelings of anger at not being able to fight the Nazis and the fear they felt of being perfect targets for any potential invasion. The dangers of propaganda highlighted in Simon Parkin’s article are clear and cause long-term damage.
My father, Josef, was one of those Germans interned on the Isle of Man in 1940, who arrived in Britain in the 1930s. By all accounts, although he lost his freedom, he was having a better most working in the fields to produce food. My mother, on the other hand, a young girl from Bradford, was not so lucky. Having married a German, she was considered an “enemy alien” and shortly after giving birth to my brother, Dennis was taken to the police station with her two other children – four-year-old Peter and Geoffrey, two years old – and forced to sign a “naturalization” declaration. It didn’t help when it came to hating and vilifying his fellow Bradforders.
Worthing, West Sussex
Simon Parkin’s excellent article summed up the terrible treatment of innocent immigrants from Italy and Germany at the start of World War II. He could have mentioned, in addition, the tragedy of July 1940 when the SS Arandora Star sailed from Liverpool, taking with it more than 1,200 Italian and German internees for deportation to camps in Canada. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland and sank, killing over 800 people. This tragedy is today commemorated in the memorials of many British and Italian cities.
The use of internment can be said to have started earlier, during the First World War, with the imprisonment during the 1916 Easter Rising of 18,000 Irishmen in the wilds of North Wales at Frongoch near Bala. A former whiskey distillery site was chosen to house them. Notable among them was Michael Collins. It has been argued that the IRA originated there under his tutelage and that the camp was nicknamed “Ollscoil na Réabhlóide” – “the University of the Revolution” – by its inmates.
Similar internment camps for Japanese American citizens were set up by the federal government – for their own protection rather than active combatants – following the Pearl Harbor attack on the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. .