We heard recently from an American gentleman whose father and uncle were in Kitchener. He has sent in a remarkable set of materials, including a diary account of Peter Weiss’s escape to Belgium, Kitchener, and the USA.
Trying to find some records for the family at the UK end of things, I looked up the ship list of names for the men’s sailing to Canada in 1940, when I realised just how many other Kitchener men were sailing on the same ship – the Cunard White Star – Antonia. In fact, the father of a family from whom we have already heard was on the same ship.
In turn, this led me to wondering whether it might be possible to establish some clearer idea of how many Kitchener men actually made it to Canada and the USA – using these ship lists.
It’s not going to be quick or straightforward, because the transcriber of these lists has obviously not regarded ‘Kitchener’ as being of sufficient significance to digitise the place name, so it will be a matter of going through many lists by hand.
However, this will provide an interesting means to cross-check the Kitchener list that we have – the 1939 Register. The Register is the closest thing we have to a list of (what we assume is) a majority of Kitchener names – although we know it is incomplete because families have got in touch with documentation, asking why their fathers, uncles, or grandfathers are not on ‘the list’.
It’s all fascinating stuff and – once again – this is history in the making: made possible by the many Kitchener descendants who are getting in touch.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, all Germans and Austrians resident in Great Britain became ‘enemy aliens’. Initially reluctant to intern these individuals, the British government instituted a series of tribunals in order to ascertain which enemy aliens were truly ‘dangerous’, and which of them were genuine refugees.
With the swift fall of France and the Low Countries in May 1940, public hysteria led to calls for mass internment in case there was secretly a ‘Fifth Column’ of foreign spies and saboteurs. The vast majority of those interned in Great Britain during the Second World War were refugees who had fled religious or political persecution before the war.
Arrested by the police, sent to hastily constructed transit camps at racecourses, unfinished housing estates, or in one case an abandoned factory, and then moved to the Isle of Man, Australia, or Canada, internment was a traumatic experience for those involved. Additionally, those who wanted to fight against Nazism were initially denied this opportunity, leading to much frustration, as well as unnecessary hardships caused to individuals and families already suffering displacement because of Nazism.
Almost as soon as the policy of mass internment was instituted, it was decided to reverse the policy because of the numbers of refugees involved. Campaigns by refugee charities, prominent MPs, and public discovery of the most controversial aspect of internment – transport abroad – led to the start of the release process. Release was often slowed down due to bureaucracy and was significantly more challenging for those internees who had been deported to Canada and Australia.
Despite all these trials and tribulations, the internees made the most of their situations and created thriving environments despite their lack of resources.
This talk will explain the policy of Second World War internment in Britain, life in the camps, and the experiences and memories of former internees.
A talk for the Kitchener camp series by Rachel Pistol at the Wiener library on Wed, 20 March 2019, from 6pm
Sometimes, the emotional impact of our shared context hits all over again when working in this area – however long one works at it …
One of the most saddening documents I have encountered is a list of Kitchener men’s wives and children – those whom the organisations had still not managed to rescue when war broke out.
I think there were over 600 names on that list.
The pencil marks on the document show the painstaking work of the researcher who found this – who must have worked for a long time to try to discern who was still alive at the end of the war.
The dreadful reality is that few of these women and children survived the Shoah.
Most of us, myself included, will have grown up without grandparents, but seeing a long list of hundreds of children’s names was something else again – reminding us of why this commemoration is so very important.
I was recently doing some more work on our various lists of names that are coming to light in the course of the Kitchener project, one of which was sent in by a Berlin ORT family.
We have had several families get in touch whose relatives were at the ORT. And I gradually realised that a couple of these had also been on HMT Dunera.
One day, just out of curiosity, I started what I assumed would be a fairly quick task – to compare the list of ORT boys’ names we had been given with the National Archives records of who was deported to Australia on the Dunera.
My apologies, but I can’t reproduce the list of names on the website because of data protection issues, given the boys’ years of birth.
Many hours later, I finally looked up – immensely saddened again by what I had learned. That of the 98 names listed for this photograph, almost unbelievably, over 30 of these youngsters were deported on that hellish voyage in summer 1940.
This is a post for Kitchener descendants in the USA.
A number of you have asked whether I can put you in touch with each other – so you can perhaps organise a meet up of some kind.
I have gone through many emails, and done a search for some basic terms, such as US, New York, and so on, but my email search isn’t terribly sophisticated and, in any case, not everyone tells me what country they live in.
I am about to send out an email to those I have located in this fairly quick email search, but my sincere apologies if I miss you out – it won’t be intentional.
If you live in the USA and would like to be able to make contact with other Kitchener folk there – perhaps with a view to meeting up in some form – please email me to let me know – and I will add you to the list for you to circulate amongst yourselves.
I will then distribute email addresses and names only among those who have emailed to say they would like to do this, and I will then leave you to it from there.
If there are a few of you, you might want to get in touch with somewhere like Leo Baeck or USHMM (depending on where most folk live) – they may have a space they would let you use that might feel appropriate to the topic.
That brief suggestion aside, I’ll otherwise leave you to it – because, as you will know – we’re not a formal (or funded!) group in any way, shape, or form.
We thought you might like to see this image – a screenshot from the website of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen – please click to enlarge.
A lovely mention for our Kitchener Camp project! Congratulations to everyone involved.
We know it takes a lot to put your trust in the project and to send in family materials and narratives. But, as this shows, it is starting to get the Kitchener history better known, and we hope that helps to make it feel worth the effort.
Dr Helen Fry’s talk on the Pioneer Corps is now available on the Wiener library’s YouTube channel.
The London Cage
Kitchener families – especially those with relatives involved in military intelligence operations in the UK and overseas – may want to take a look at Helen Fry’s The London Cage
“In 1940, behind locked doors on one of London’s most exclusive streets, British intelligence discreetly established a clandestine prison. It was called the London Cage, and was run by military intelligence officer Colonel Alexander Scotland whose home was at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire.
At the London Cage, German prisoners of war, including top-ranking Nazis, were subjected to ‘special intelligence treatment’ designed to break their will and make them spill their secrets. The stakes could hardly be higher: the very outcome of the Second World War might hinge on obtaining information that the detainees were determined to withhold. At the end of the war, the interrogators turned to the grim task of uncovering the truth about German war crimes, and the cage was transformed into a crucial centre for gathering evidence against those who had perpetrated atrocities. Until now, what happened there has remained a closely guarded secret. Helen’s book reveals the full details of life inside the cage as well as the subsequent efforts to hide them.”
Trent Park Museum: Home of the Secret Listeners
Trent Park at Cockfosters, North London, has been formally recognised by Historic England as ‘of considerable national and international historical interest which bears comparison to the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park.’
However, Trent Park’s secrets have remained hidden in the former home of Sir Philip Sassoon for over 70 years.
During World War II, British intelligence housed captured German generals and senior officers at Trent Park. In a technological first, this vast mansion was bugged and an army of ‘secret listeners’ recorded the private conversations of top-ranking Nazis. These secret listeners were German-Jewish refugees who had fled Hitler and were now working for British intelligence. The majority of them, like Fritz Lustig and Eric Mark, had started out in the Pioneer Corps, “digging for victory”. Their chance to make a difference began in 1943, when 103 refugee Pioneer soldiers transferred to the Intelligence Corps and to the clandestine bugging operation.
“So much progress has already been made towards realising this new museum. And it is beholden on us to provide a lasting tribute to the men and women who worked here in the utmost secrecy. Now the nation can honour their legacy and never forget.”
Dr Helen Fry, historian and Deputy Chair of the Trust
The Grade II mansion house at Trent Park is now being transformed into a museum to honour the work of the secret listeners.
Rachel Pistol is based in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, working on the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI). Prior to this, she was at the University of Exeter, where she remains an Honorary Research Fellow, and Royal Holloway, University of London. Her first book, Second World War Internment: A Comparative Study of Great Britain and the USA, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. She completed her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at Royal Holloway under the supervision of the late David Cesarani OBE. Rachel has appeared on TV and radio for the BBC and Sky News and has been interviewed for various television documentaries on Second World War history. She has written articles for The Conversation that have been reprinted in Newsweek and The Independent, and blogs for Huffington Post.
Wartime experiences of Jewish refugees in Great Britain: The internment of ‘enemy aliens’ during the Second World War
With the outbreak of war in 1939, all Germans and Austrians resident in Great Britain became ‘enemy aliens’. Initially reluctant to intern these individuals, the British government instituted a series of tribunals in order to ascertain which enemy aliens were truly ‘dangerous’, and which of them were genuine refugees. With the swift fall of France and the Low Countries in May 1940, public hysteria led to calls for mass internment in case there was secretly a ‘Fifth Column’ of foreign spies and saboteurs. The vast majority of those interned in Great Britain during the Second World War were refugees who had fled religious or political persecution before the war. Arrested by the police, sent to hastily constructed transit camps at racecourses, unfinished housing estates, or in one case an abandoned factory, and then moved to the Isle of Man, Australia, or Canada, internment was a traumatic experience for those involved. Additionally, those who wanted to fight against Nazism were initially denied this opportunity, leading to much frustration, as well as unnecessary hardships caused to individuals and families already suffering displacement because of Nazism.
Almost as soon as the policy of mass internment was instituted, it was decided to reverse the policy because of the numbers of refugees involved. Campaigns by refugee charities, prominent MPs, and public discovery of the most controversial aspect of internment – transport abroad – led to the start of the release process. Release was often slowed down due to bureaucracy and was significantly more challenging for those internees who had been deported to Canada and Australia. Yet, despite all these trials and tribulations, the internees made the most of their situations and created thriving environments despite their lack of resources. This talk will explain the policy of Second World War internment in Britain, life in the camps, and the experiences and memories of former internees.
Published in 1944, Alfred Perlès’s Alien Corn gives a fascinating account of joining and serving in the Pioneer Corps. It also provides an outsider’s view of Kitchener camp and its refugees. While it is one man’s view and of course subjective, and the views expressed are sometimes problematic in their depiction of those from ‘other’ countries and religions, it is nevertheless interesting to have a contemporary perspective.
I would recommend that anyone interested in this part of the Kitchener history tries to get hold of a copy, although it isn’t easy to do so because it is out of print.
Some extracts relevant to our Kitchener context are reproduced below.
“The signing up was easy enough. I did not think it would be, but I was wrong. Very few questions were asked, red tape being reduced to the minimum. It took the recruiting sergeant less than ten minutes to get my signature on the dotted line, and, after all, why should it have been otherwise? …
At the “medical” they were a bit fussier. To begin with, they made us undress in a vast, overheated room, empty except for some forms along the walls. There we sat, some eighty or ninety men, naked, hot, yet shivering with nudity and self-consciousness, waiting to be ushered into the next room, where the Medical Board were working overtime getting new recruits into the ranks of H.M.’s Forces.
By my side sat an elderly bloke, forty-five or fifty years of age, who kept scratching his back with great nonchalance. He looked as though he had not been naked like that for a long time. … He had been in the last war, and lost no time telling me all about his four years in the trenches. He seemed quite happy at the prospect of getting back into the army, as though one world war were not enough for one short life.
From the waiting-room we passed, one by one, into the Medical Board Room. Each time the turn of the man nearest the door came, the next man would get into the latter’s place, the rest if us moving one seat up. Needless to say, the seats were kept warm.
Frankly, I did not like it at all; I felt nervous, ill at ease, and slightly disheartened. I had forgotten where I had left my clothes, else I might have attempted a last-minute get-away, even though I had already signed on the dotted line. …
When at last, after a couple of hours or so, my turn came, I walked into the adjacent room with as much ease and assurance as I could muster, but I very much doubt that I cut a good figure. There is something galling and humiliating about being compelled to appear naked in front of others who are dressed; I could not help feeling at a disadvantage.
I forget exactly how many M.O.s there were in that room, but I have the vivid recollection that they were numerous; one, perhaps, for every vital organ. Some wore civilian clothes, others were in army uniforms, and they examined me thoroughly, painstakingly, conscientiously. I smiled at the idea flitting through my mind that, had I called on all those specialists, individually, in their Harley Street consulting rooms, the fees would have added up to a handsome total. As it was, I got everything free of charge. It was a real service! …
They kept making notes, and comparing them, and adding them up; and when there were no more specialists, and I was through with the rigmarole, the head doctor gave me an encouraging look and a foolscap sheet: my medical-history sheet. In the left-hand corner, in red ink, I read, “A 1”.
C.O.E.s, R.C.s, and J.s were sworn in simultaneously. All we had to do was to place our left hand on the Bible and, right hand raised, repeat the words of the officer. Strictly speaking, the R.C.s ought to have been sworn in by the crucifix, but there was no crucifix, and nobody raised any objections. The Lieutenant-Colonel gave us the oath of allegiance in small doses, a few words at a time, like a stage prompter, and we repeated them, like ham actors. I forget the exact wording of the oath by which we swore allegiance to H.M. King George VI, but I remember it sounded rather solemn, and we felt quite elated, especially when the officer presented each of us with the King’s Shilling. The King’s Shilling, together with the first day’s ration money, amounted to three shillings and sixpence. … That was that. It was late in the afternoon when we were through, and we were to report on the following morning, at nine, at the recruiting station, to be taken to our respective depots. We had one more night to spend in Civvie Street, and we were determined to make a success of it.
Bright and early next morning I reported back to the recruiting office. All I knew was that I had been drafted to No.3 Training Centre, A.M.P.C., Kitchener Camp, Richborough, near Sandwich, Kent. That much I was told beforehand. In the British Army an alien could be but a Pioneer, and being an alien I was to be a Pioneer.
Incidentally, I do not like that word, alien; the word has a derogatory, hostile, almost cruel ring. I should have much preferred being called a stranger. But stranger was, perhaps, too vague a term; anybody from Yorkshire, or Dorset, would be a stranger in Kent, without being an alien. Why, then, couldn’t we just be foreigners? It would have sounded less humiliating than alien.
We were all present, the whole batch of us destined for Richborough. I gave my comrades-to-be the once-over. Somehow they struck me as a rather queer lot – not at all like soldiers, nor even what I should have thought to be the raw material of soldiers. What struck me particularly was the fact that nearly all seemed extremely well dressed. It was not that they wore new suits: but their clothes bore the unmistakable cachet of expensive tailors. Soldiers, as a rule, do not turn up like that.
The suitcases, too, looked far too elegant for soldiers; some carried smart pigskin valises stuck with labels of famous hotels. At random I read: Hôtel Continental Paris -Villa d’Este – Hôtel Pupp Carlsbad – Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Munchen – Plaza New York – Hotel Bristol Wien, and so on. … [A] somewhat “ritzy crowd”.
“We’re in for it,” I said, starting the conversation. “I wonder what Richborough’s like.”
“Should be quite all right,” he answered. “They began building Kitchener Camp during the last war. I understand it’s full of refugees now.”
“All Germans, I suppose?”
“Yes, and Austrians … mostly Jews,” he said. His English sounded perfect – too perfect, in fact, for an Englishman; no native could have such a clear and distinct enunciation unless he was a B.B.C. announcer.
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“From Cologne,” he smiled. … he had been living in England since 1929.
From Dover to Sandwich the journey was short and uneventful. The German was fast asleep and snoring loudly. … We drank whiskey and ate the few sandwiches I had brought with me.
At Sandwich, a corporal from the centre took charge of us. It was early afternoon. I could not actually see the sea, but could smell its nearness. It was lovely, exhilarating spring, the air as clear as a bell, full of sun, and youth, and salt.
It would be a gross overstatement of facts if I said that I was thrilled by my first contact with the A.M.P.C. and the Pioneers. To tell the truth, I was at first confused and baffled, and it took me days, nay, weeks, to overcome my bewilderment and find my bearings among that queer set of people, and to fit myself, tentatively at least, to the new surroundings. And to strip Truth of her last shreds of raiment I might as well confess that even now – that is, a little over three years after my first impact with the alien Pioneers – I at times am still puzzled and vaguely incommoded by certain to me incomprehensible traits in the psycho-spiritual make-up of my comrades.
Upon arrival at Richborough, I at once became aware of a bizarre atmosphere that seemed to pervade the length and breadth of Kitchener Camp; an atmosphere made up, I felt, of a series of contradictory emotional currents: of psychological stress and psychological relief; of mental strain and mental exuberance; of physical well-being and the dread of physical suffering.
As I was soon to learn, most of the men gathered together at Kitchener Camp had only quite recently reached the friendly shores of this island, coming from Nazi-ridden Central Europe; and they had not yet been able to free their minds and souls from the miscellaneous horrors they had barely escaped. Kitchener Camp, to the great majority, was a kind of purgatory – an ante-room to either heaven or hell. It was, of course, heaven, but the refugees could not yet see it in that light; they could not believe the evidence of the mere fact of escape. Accustomed to think of their lives in terms of hell on earth, the heaven of the south-east coast of England was too bright to be true. There had been no transition from one form of existence to the other. Thus, although their troubles were over, they continued out of habit to worry and fret, their keyed-up intelligences always open to the possible contingency of some new disaster
It was about two in the afternoon when we reached camp. We were shown to our huts and offered food, but none of us newcomers had much desire to eat; we were too nervous for that, and nervousness is the enemy of appetite. So instead of proceeding to the cookhouse we took a look round the camp, trying to familiarise ourselves with the topography of the place. The next day we were to be interviewed individually, by the O.C., and issued with our uniforms and army kit. In the meantime there was nothing for us to do except take in the picture.
The camp proper, about two miles from Sandwich, was situated to the right and left of the main road between Deal and Ramsgate, and was divided into two parts; the one the military camp of the A.M.P.C., the other part being reserved for the civilian refugees. But there was apparently no strictly delineated borderline between the two camps, with the result that soldiers and civilians mixed freely. The canteen, especially, though nominally run on Army lines, was frequented by Pioneers and civilians alike. The latter, for the greater part German and Austrian Jews, with a sprinkling of Czechs and Sudeten Germans, had arrived in organised refugee transports shortly before the outbreak of war. Sent directly to Richborough they were not supposed to scatter over the British Isles; pending obtention of emigration visas to the Dominions and the U.S.A., they were lodged and fed in Kitchener Camp. It was, in fact, from amongst them that the alien Pioneer Corps, when instituted in November 1939, recruited its first volunteer members.
The dreary sight of the camp and the multitudes of unknown men gave me a sensation of utter loneliness. Never before had I felt so lonely and forlorn as on that first afternoon in the Army. There must have been some two or three thousand men in camp, and in their midst I was as isolated as a cable sunk at the bottom of the sea. They were all foreigners, “aliens” to the British, but no less alien to me who was myself an alien. I felt ill at ease, unhappy, a stranger lost in a strange land, and without hope of escape. All of them were refugees from the most horrible oppression of modern history, and hence, I strove to convince myself, worth of sympathy and compassion. My heart should have gone out to them, but it did not. I had never been able to thrive in an atmosphere of misery and mental stress. I felt quite desperate and lost, unable to fund refuge amongst the refugees. …
Hut No. 37, which was to be our abode for nearly a month, was a longish wooden structure, divided by a wall in the middle into two parts. Each part contained two rows of double bunks, a long table and two forms, and an iron stove. Now, in retrospect, that clean and spacious hut, with clean sheets and blankets on the beds, seems to me the most comfortable hut I have lived in in the three years of my Army life. But at the time I moved into it I thought it impossible to live in such a place, let alone sleep. If only one among us twenty were in the habit of snoring, which was more than likely, how on earth could the remaining nineteen sleep, I wondered.
Together with Kaye I investigated the washing and toilet accommodation. There were a number of ablution huts, quite well appointed by military standards, but utterly inadequate for people used to private bathrooms. There was about enough room in the ablution hut for a dozen men to wash simultaneously … “Perhaps we can arrange for an occasional bath at one of the Sandwich hotels.”
Our next visit was to the toilets. Strictly speaking, latrine would be a more correct term for the accommodation we found in the place of toilets: a row of seats in a brick-enclosed réduit, the seats partitioned off by flimsy, transparent-canvas hangings; needless to say that there were no doors to ensure a semblance of privacy. …
We went back to our hut and began making our beds. The hut was crowded with new recruits, all smoking and talking together excitedly. …
There was a dismissal parade at four o’cock, and soon afterwards a bugle call summoned the troops to tea. … I seconded the motion to have a last, luxurious farewell meal in Civvie Street, followed by a few rounds of drinks.
Sandwich was within easy walking distance. The road to town was straight and slightly uphill, which was all to the good, Gorloff commented, as it naturally followed that the way back to camp must be downhill. … “A hangover in Kitchener Camp must be the most frightful thing imaginable.” …
It was a little after five when we arrived at Sandwich, a bit too early for dinner, but the pubs were about to open. For a while we walked about the streets, taking in the scene. The sun had been shining all day long, the air warm and fragrant of spring; the trees were in full leaf, and the birds insane with some inexplicable joy. So far as I could make out, Sandwich was an agreeable little town, half asleep with peace and opulence, and there was a certain old-world charm about some of the Tudor houses, especially around the market place.
There were a number of pubs, two picture palaces, and two or three hotels in the town, the best of the latter being out of bounds to O.R.s. …
The next day was a busy one. All the newly arrived recruits were to be interviewed by the O.C., and drafted to the various companies in training. We were also to be issued with our army kit.
The interview did not take much time. We were lined up in strictly alphabetical order outside the Company office. Lieutenant-Colonel the Marquess of Reading was at the time Officer Commanding No.3 Training centre A.M.P.C. As a matter of fact, it was he who, a few months previously, had been entrusted with the task of forming the No.3 Centre, which was exclusively composed of aliens. Lord Reading was assisted by a number of officers who, for some reason or other, were considered particularly suitable for dealing with the alien personnel. I remember Captain Birrell, Lord Reading’s adjutant, a tall, military figure, who impressed me so much that it took me several days to find out that he was not the O.C. himself but merely his adjutant. There were Major Chauncey, O.C. No. 1 Training Company, to which I was to be drafted, almost as short as Captain Birrell was tall, but whose voice on the parade ground sounded like trumpet-blasts; Major Stork, then O.C. No. 2 Training Company … a man in the middle forties, worldly, suave, friendly …
Outside, several clerks took down my particulars for the nth time. When they were satisfied at last, I received, in exchange for my passport, registration papers, and civilian ration card, a number which henceforth was to be my Army number, 13802023.
I remember, too, that as soon as we had our army outfit, we were assailed by a swarm of second-hand clothes dealers eager to acquire our civilian suits for next to nothing. Hoping that we were hard up for money, they offered something like three or five shillings for a suit of clothes. I was disgusted by this trade, the more so as the traders were no outsiders but refugees from the adjacent camp. These vultures, trying to make a profit out of their fellow-refugees, were not easily discouraged: they insisted, and on being told to go to hell, increased their offer by sixpence. I had intended to give my clothes away, but under the circumstances I made a bundle of the stuff and dispatched it to London.
Early in May the war started with a bang. Up until then, and with the exception of Poland’s subjugation by the German hordes, it had all been a matter of skirmishes, patrol duels, and nerve warfare: the British dropping leaflets on Germany, telling the Germans what a scoundrel Hitler was, and the Germans dropping leaflets on France, telling our allies what our (British) intention was: namely, to fight to the last Frenchman.
It was radiant spring in Kent, and the war – the reality of war – seemed far, very far removed. …
An enormous pincer movement threatened Paris. The capital was declared an open town, and surrendered away or two later. the germans were fanning out in Normandy … And a few weeks later came the grand finale Dunkirk.
Long before it came to Dunkirk, the events were viewed with great concern in my Company. the alien Pioneers were clearly pessimistic about the course of the war; more than pessimistic – they were panic-stricken, scared to death. Germany was on the march, and they knew that no power on earth could stop her. They knew that Germany would be in possession of the whole of Europe before the summer was over. They knew that Britain was doomed, the country invaded and subjugated, like the rest of Europe – and the world. And knowing that the war was practically over, and lost, they naturally enough trembled for their lives.
From the refugees’ point of view the worst apprehensions seemed justified. They had lived all their lives in Germany, and knew the ruthless force of the German military machine, the admirable organisation of the Wehrmacht, and the powerful Luftwaffe, built up over a number of years while Britain was asleep, or just rolling over in bed, yawning. … The refugees did not believe in miracles; they believed in the might of hammer-blows. They had all suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and now they were horrified at the prospect of again falling into their enemy’s hands. This time it meant certain death; there was no escape possible. …
“The trouble with the British is that they haven’t the faintest idea what they’re up against,” said someone else. “They know the Nazis by hearsay only … they’ve read about them in the papers and in books, but they don’t realise how efficient the devils really are!”
There was some truth in that. The fears that obscured the minds of the Pioneers were well founded in fact. These men were desperate, because they knew, from their own experience, all the atrocities of the which the Nazis, unloosed, were capable. Nearly every one of them had been subjected to the cruelty and brutality of the Hitlerites. Had they actually been captured – or rather recaptured – by their oppressors, their worst fears would indeed have come true.
The English, on the other hand, had never experienced this fear. They were apprehensive, of course, of the war situation in general, but they were not really afraid … not physically so, anyhow. Their nerves were not rattled. Their very ignorance of the thoroughness of German native brutality, which none of them had experienced in the flesh, as it were, saved them from the panic with which the victims of Nazi oppression seemed to be seized. For the refugees, fight was out of the question: in their hearts they declared themselves beaten, and their sombre speculations as to the fate that awaited them were of a purely technical nature: by what means were they going to be exterminated – by hanging – shooting – or being whipped to death. …
Had the English actually known, as the refugees did, the terrible tortures and ordeals in store for them should the Germans be able to get a foothold in these islands, they too might have lost their heads and given in before the struggle for life and death was actually to take place. .. England could resist only because the English had no idea what they were in reality resisting, nor how heavily the dice were loaded against them.
The general outlook in the camp was distinctly black, the attitude of the Pioneers clearly desperate and defeatist. And although I could not share their pessimism I somehow could not blame them for it. That fellow, for instance, who resembled a gargoyle had only become a gargoyle in a concentration camp. Before Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia he was an engineer, and probably as normal as you or I, thought it is difficult to imagine the tortures which could change an ordinary human being into a crushed worm.
There was another former inmate of a concentration camp in the Company, Achatpart by name [editor: all names were changed in the book]. He had been a lawyer or solicitor in Vienna, and was arrested and thrown into a concentration camp as reprisal for the assassination of some attaché at the Paris German Embassy in 1938. Achatpart had lost his humanity in Dachau and become an insensate brute. I often observed him at a distance. He rarely talked to anybody, standing apart from the others, brooding and ruminating the past. … He was a hard worker, too, working even when no NCO was near by, for he had been nine months in a Dachau working party. I believe his mind was a bit muddled, and he was clearly suffering from a fear-complex. He gave the impression of a haunted shadow. When he worked he did so feverishly, as though he felt an SS man was standing behind him, whip in hand. When spoken to abruptly he would jump to attention, even though his interlocutor were a simple recruit. Often he would go for little walks, hiding himself from the crowder he would just stand and stare in front of him for hours on end. He never laughed or smiled. Achatpart was a man from whom all joy of living had been whipped out; he was sensitive only to shouts and blows. A good enough corpse alive as any.
To people like these it as natural that things looked hopeless. it would have been useless to argue with them; I could never have given them courage. Besides, never having been in a concentration camp myself, I had no say whatever. I was as daft and as ignorant as the English.
“Why should you worry, anyhow?” Gertenzahn, who was later drafted to Section 5, would often say to me when I made fun of the prevailing pessimism. “Nothing is going to happen to you; they won’t kill you. Why, you’re not even a Jew! You’re like the English. You’ll lose the war all right, but what of it? Can happen to any country. But what shall I do? There’s no way out for me.” …
There was a wireless in the hut, and three times a day the section listened to the news in church like silence. A man risking a cough while the news was on got poisonous glances from the whole section. Needless to say, they did not listen only to the BBC, but to enemy stations as well. To Lord Haw-Haw they listened with consternation, feeling that every word he said was not only true, but a menace to them personally. The alien pioneers could never understand the nonchalance with which British soldiers kept laughing, chattering, or playing darts or ping-pong while the news was on in the naïf canteen. It was shocking to them – shocking and stupid. …
If the civilised man does not precisely live to eat, he enjoys good food all the same. And a man used to cuisine, especially cuisine française, must view the prospect of Army food with some concern. As everybody knows, the Army rations are plentiful, and, generally speaking, of good quality; and if the stuff gets spoiled, as a matter of routine, in the cookhouse, what’s the use of blaming the cooks? No one expects them to produce particularly refined dishes. Cooking for a company of some 300 men is like cooking for a soup-kitchen. From the Army point of view, the essential is that the men get enough to eat, and no one asks what it tastes like. That, at least, was what I anticipated when I enlisted, and I was resigned to the worst. I was greatly surprised to find the food excellent. …
None of the Company cooks were professionals, but they were Continentals with an innate taste for food. Our menus were strongly reminiscent of those of the various Hungarian, Czech, or Austrian restaurants of Soho. I have subsequently been attached to British units, and I will truthfully say that our own cuisine compared rather favourably with that produced by the natives of these islands. There was one item, though, in which our cooks nearly always failed: tea. Tea is invariably better in British companies. …
We had had our inoculation, followed by a couple of days off duty, and we were impatiently expecting embarkation leave prior to leaving for France. It was then that the Germans began their offensive against the Low Countries and France. Things happened in such rapid succession, as everybody remembers, and within a few weeks the situation became so grave that it seems pointless to dispatch any more AMPC companies to France at a time when our troops were already retreating towards Dunkirk. …
The invasion danger, up to then purely theoretical, suddenly became acute. Were the Germans to gain a foothold along the coast across the Channel, it seemed a safe bet that they would attempt the invasion Britain. All Army leaves were stopped. Richborough, being such a short distance from Dover, had almost become front-line; it was no longer a suitable place for a Training Centre. Within a few days of the German onslaught we left.
There was another NCO in my working party, a lance-corporal, Ison Kepler by name. From East Prussia, he was tall, athletic, and of considerable muscular strength. A dental mechanic by profession, he had made a comfortable living in Königsberg until the Nazis, on coming to power, drove him away, on racial grounds. Kepler was soon to become a full corporal, and he was liked by everybody in Section 5. He was just and kind-hearted, and it was easy to get along with him. He had no rancour or resentment against anybody, treating us all alike, with sympathy and understanding; he was the ideal link between us privates and Sergeant Whiting.
Unfortunately, he knew hardly any English; he was one of the earliest volunteers to the AMPC, having enlisted in Richborough, were he had been in the civilian refugee camp. Naturally, he did not learn much English there, but he was now picking it up fast. Although his accent was atrocious, he refused to speak German.
There were already symptoms pointing to a break-up of the Company in the near future. For some reason or other, the 137 Coy. was considered – or perhaps, merely considered itself – as an élite company, and the men began to resent being Pioneers – just navvies. They were far too good for that, they imagined. They had all volunteered for the Pioneer Corps, of course, but as time wore on their vanity was aroused. Why couldn’t they be in the RAF, the Navy, or the Intelligence Corps, they asked themselves, more loudly every day. They considered the Pioneer Corps an inferior branch of the Army … and they increasingly applied for transfer to other Army units. Nearly all were impatient to get out of the Pioneer Corps, and they could not understand why, despite their high educational standard and evident qualifications, the War Office should be so reluctant to grant them transfers to other units, where, they felt sure, their special knowledge could be used to far greater advantage in the war effort.
The reason for the War Office’s reluctance to grant those transfers was, of course, rather obvious. Why should the War Office trust the alien Pioneers? After all, most of them were Germans, or of other enemy alien origin. They called themselves “refugees from Nazi oppression,” and that’s what they were. But how were the authorities to check up on each individual case? What would deter an enemy agent from masquerading as a “refugee from Nazi oppression”? Nothing would have been easier for the German Intelligence Service than to make some of their crack spies pass as oppressed refugees. In the Pioneer Corps they could not do much harm, the most dangerous spy being harmless as long as his activities are reduced to digging holes in the soft soil of Somerset. But to use them, say, in the British Intelligence Corps, would have been an altogether different matter.
It was drawing towards the midday interval. The sun stood almost in the zenith. I was stripped to the waist, rubbing Nivea cream into my skin. The sun gets pretty hot in Somerset in June. Our tan was turning chocolate-brown and the legs of those working in shorts were the colour of Havana cigars.
My working partner happened to be Achatpart, the ex-inmate of Dachau. We were supposed to pump water to a distant concrete mixer, which was an easy job, as the pump was a semi-mechanical one.
Achatpart was apparently still under the spell of the Gestapo treatment he had to endure in the concentration camp. A hard worker, he never hesitated to obey an order, but carried it out instantly, as though he were still afraid of the SS whip. He had been told to pump water, so he pumped water, regardless of the fact that the water tank at the other end of the hose was full up. No one had given a counter-order, so he kept on pumping. Nor did he take off his fatigue blouse and shirt. He sweated like a horse, but kept on working fully dressed. I asked him if he was hot, and he admitted that he was.
“Why, then, don’t you take off your shirt?” I asked.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to,” he answered. … “I don’t want to get in any trouble,” Achatpart said. “I’ve had all the troubles I want. Doesn’t pay not to obey orders.”
He kept on pumping assiduously, and I watched him for a while. He was intent on his work, but it was quite evident that he was not working for the sake of work, but merely to avoid the punishment which, to his distorted mind, would be forthcoming the moment he relaxed. …
“Relax, Achatpart, it’s an order,” I said. “And for heaven’s sake, take that persecution-complex look off your face. No-one is going to hurt you here.” No answer, but he took a huge khaki handkerchief out of his pocket and began mopping his brow. “Look here, Achatpart, I want to talk with you. You haven’t spoken to a soul for over a year now. I know, I’ve watched you. You work like a madman and you act as if the whole world were in conspiracy against you.”
Achatpart apparently failed to understand what I was talking about. But he realised that I was not a fiend waiting for the appropriate moment to fall upon him with a club. …
“What do you want?”
“Nothing. I just want to be friendly with you. … You’ll go mad if you keep this up much longer. In your mind, you’re still in Dachau. Don’t you realise this place is miles and miles away?”
Achatpart gave a shrill laugh. He was not used to laughing. This was the first time I heard him laugh, and his laugh frightened me. …
There was no good answer. Achatpart was a man possessed … How indeed was he to cast the devil out of his body? It was hopeless without outside help. But what could I do? … I had read a lot about psychoanalysis, but perhaps he was too far gone for psychoanalytical treatment. I decided the best thing was to make him talk. …
“The moment you talk about it with someone, the load comes off your chest. And that’s what you want, don’t you? Get it off your chest.”
“Surely you don’t want me to talk about these things. … Don’t make me talk … please don’t. I promised not to. If they ever found out I’d been talking, they’d kill me. They said they would. You don’t know them.”
“Never mind those rats. You’ve nothing to fear. Their reign is over. Soon they’ll be worse off than you ever were. They’re already trembling … Tell me all about it, Achatpart. I promise you’ll feel heaps better afterwards.”
“Even if I wanted to talk about it, how could I? It isn’t a story I have to tell, with a beginning and an end. It’s all so confused and disconnected, like a nightmare. It wouldn’t make sense to you. It only makes sense to me as long as I don’t try putting it into words. The moment I do, the whole thing becomes unintelligible and nonsensical. There are certain things one just can’t talk about. … Perhaps some day … I’ve got to think it over. Not right now.”
This time, Achatpart began talking all by himself. No coaxing was required. …
“You worry about my health, don’t you?” he said, with the beginning of a grin. “There was that fellow who used to worry about out cleanliness. Bathing parade twice a week, and what a bathing parade that was! The rat regulated the water to the temperature he thought was best for us. You stood under the shower to attention. You always stood to attention before those rats. He let the water go either icy or scalding, according to the mood he was in. If he didn’t like your face, you could consider yourself happy if you came out of the cubicle with the skin over your flesh.” …
“I shall remember the winter ’38 for some time … I was a freshman in Dachau then – had only just arrived. You want to know why? But there is no why – no reason. I was walking to my office one morning, as I had done for the last twenty years. I was stopped in the middle of the street by two Gestapo dogs. … They took me straight to the station – the railway station, not the police station – and I was thrown into a cattle truck. I wasn’t the only one. There was a long goods train, all loaded with Jews. We were eighty or a hundred to each truck, and the bastards locked us up, worse than cattle. There was no room to stand, or move, or breathe; we were just lying on top of one another, bruised and half choking. It’s a long journey from Vienna to Dachau, and never once was the truck opened! Never once were we given a crust of bread or a drink of water, or a breath of air. … I don’t know how many of us survived the journey, but those who did were dumped outside the camp gates, all in one heap, like so much stinking refuse. Naturally we were all dazed, numbed … too sick to get up. What a feast that was for the dirty SS hounds! They fell upon us with rubber sticks, clubs, and whips, and they made us get up. Individually, we were made to run through a double row two hundred yards long of SS swine armed with heavy sticks, and we had to run for our lives: the quicker we ran the fewer strokes we received. Only the young and tough ones got out of the ordeal alive – the others were beaten to pulp before they got inside the gate with that noble inscription: ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI.’ That was our initiation, and the beginning of a life of hell.”
“Nine months. But that again doesn’t mean anything. I might as well have been there nine years, or nine hours, or ninety years. This is something you can’t understand. You don’t measure time in a concentration camp by normal standards of measurement. In Dachau time was measured by the intensity of suffering. Every minute was an eternity. It’s meaningless and tragic. … One night, I remember, we had just gone to bed when the whistle summoned us to the courtyard on parade. The whole camp had to parade. I don’t know how many thousands. … we had to stand to attention till the following morning. Hundreds of searchlights were trained on us – and a few machine-guns as well. It was January, in sub-zero temperature. The SS dogs, clad in heavy, fur-lined coats and snow boots, were running up and down to keep warm. As for us, we stood to attention all night in shorts and shirt-sleeves. If you made the least move, one of the SS swine knocked you down with his fist or pistol-butt. Those dogs didn’t require much encouragement to kill you. If the poor devil next to you collapsed in a faint or dropped dead, you were not allowed to help him.” …
“Escape was out of the question. The barbed wire around the camp was electrically charged, and touching it would have meant instant death. But you never got as far as the barbed wire; the machine-guns got you first … Life in Dachau wasn’t worth living, but men cling to life no matter how miserable.”
“Any one of those swine had a perfect right to kill us, without any questions being asked. Killing a Jew was no more reprehensible an act than crushing a louse between the fingers. … The camp crematorium was always at work. One day your mother, your wife, or sister received a post card with the laconic message that Jew So-and-so was dead and that his ashes were obtainable for the modest price of ten marks.”
“How did you get out of Dachau? When were you released?”
“Just a week before the outbreak of war. I know I am lucky. I had some relatives in England who obtained a visa for me. I got out of it in the nick of time. I dare say those who remained are dead by now.”
But to come back to the alien Pioneers, gentlemen. They have changed a good deal since the early days of Richborough. For one thing, they speak English now. Even the most inveterate ‘Balkanese’ have a smattering of English. Naturally, they still fall down on the tenses and the subjunctives, but so do our British sergeants. They know all the more important albeit unprintable, one-syllable words, and they make liberal use of them.
What is more important still is that they are no longer a cowed and hopelessly despondent lot: they have at last conquered their fear of the Nazis: they no longer believe that Hitler can win the War: they have a hunch that their plight is over. No more pessimism on the part of the alien Pioneers! On the contrary, they are almost lunatic with optimism: there are a few who think the War will last another six months: some swear Jerry will crack up in March or April ’44, at the latest. My old friend Gertenzahn, who four years ago was convinced that Hitler would come to Richborough personally, for the sole purpose of cutting off his ears, gives the Führer till Christmas to do a spot of hara-kiri. Sein Mund zu Gottes Ohr, gentlemen, what? Naturally, I do not share their optimism any more than I did their erstwhile pessimism. … No, gentlemen, your alien Pioneers no longer worry about the outcome of the war; but since worry they must, they worry what will be their fate after the war. Will they get British citizenship? Will they be allowed to take up residence in this country? Will they be permitted to work? …
They do seem to want these things badly. If you listen to them, their very lives depend upon British citizenship. Throughout their existence they have been worrying about nationality and passports, or lack of nationality and lack of passports. Some have become nervous wrecks … Why don’t you give them what they are convinced would make them happy? It wouldn’t cost you much, and I believe they deserve it. … I don’t think you will get rid of your aliens easily: they are going to cling to you. They have struck root in your fair island: they are yours for keeps. … Let them have those bloody passports for which they are clamouring: it’s the second best thing you can do: the best would be to do away with passports altogether. You have already given them Registration Books and AB 64’s (Parts I and II); you have even permitted them to change their names for wonderfully-sounding British equivalents! Believe me, gentlemen, they have taken advantage of it! …
Of course, the war is not over yet. The alien Pioneers, many of whom are already in various eminently combatant units, may still have the chance for which they have been waiting for years – namely, to show their mettle in combat. … You cannot loathe the Nazis as much as they do. They are intelligent, exalted, and replete with fanatical hatred for Hitler. They will put up a good show.
Eighty years ago this month, the Council for German Jewry met - as they did twice a month throughout 1938 - to discuss the plight of Jews in Germany and Austria. These meetings were especially crucial now because so many Jewish men had been imprisoned in German concentration camps during November 1938. The Council was determined to find a way to rescue as many of these men as possible.
The Minutes of the Council's meeting on 12th December outline the ambition to provide a place of safety in the form of refugee camps in Britain, and thus a way out of imprisonment and the terror of fascism for tens of thousands of people - as can be seen in the extract below.
Even by this stage, however, the Council was struggling to fund refugees' onward migration costs, let alone taking on further vast expenses for visas, travel arrangements, food, and housing for tens of thousands more: indeed, "at the present time there was no liquid cash which would enable the work of the Hilfsverein to be carried on. That body owed Rm 500,000 to the shipping Companies, and this sum had been provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee. The ICA had placed at the disposal of the Reichsvertretung the sum of Rm 1,000,000 out of the investments which it had in Germany, which would last the Hilfsverein about 6 weeks" (Minutes, 12th December 1938).
The next few items discussed at the meeting relate to the distribution of further sums for the Kultusgemeinde, Vienna, and for other costs of emigration to be disbursed by the Reichsvertretung.
The meeting then turned to the establishment of refugee camps in Britain.
"The Chairman reported that a deputation of members of the Council had been received by Lord Winterton on the 7th December, but that the result was a statement to the effect that the Government would not be prepared to establish camps or to contribute towards the cost of such. It was decided that, in view of the statement made by Dr Baeck, the emigration of 30,000 Jews from Germany into different countries should be considered. A sub-Committee was appointed to inquire into the steps which were being taken by the refugee countries, such as Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, France, etc., to place German refugees in camps, and to report what similar action could be taken in this country (Minutes, 12th December 1938).
[Editor: Lord Winterton was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster - a key office in the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain]
This sub-committee was to include two names well known to readers of Professor Ungerson's book on Kitchener, Four Thousand Lives (2014) - Sir Robert Waley-Cohn and Professor Norman Bentwich.
The next Council meeting was held on 29th December 1938, by which time the sub-committee was to report back. Time was very much of the essence because many thousands remained imprisoned in appalling conditions in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. They desperately needed a place of safety to which they could emigrate in order to obtain release from the camps.
"Dr Hirsch of the Reichsvertretung, who was present at the Meeting, stated that, in his view, the establishment of such camps was the most urgent thing which could be done at the present moment, as people could only be got, and kept, out of concentration camps in Germany if the authorities were satisfied that an effort to arrange for their emigration was being made. The Chairman reported that he understood that the Home Office were rather uneasy regarding the suggestion of the establishment of transit camps in this country, as they feared that a pool of refugees might be formed in England. ... After further discussion it was decided that the principle of the establishment of transit camps be accepted, subject to the approval of the Home Office. The Committee was authorised to proceed with the preliminary investigations after having ascertained that the Home Office did not object, and provided also that the selection of the persons to be received in such transit camps should be in the hands of the Officials of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland. It was also decided to ask the American Joint Distribution Committee to join the cost of maintaining these camps" (Minutes, 28th December 1938).
The next instalment about the establishment of a refugee camp in Britain is to be found in the Council for German Jewry Minutes for 5th January 1939 - taking us to the crucial year in which the Kitchener camp rescue got underway. More of that in 2019 ...
For now, it is worth bearing in mind the time-scale from this point onwards: that is, from this decision to establish a sub-committee to look into the practicalities and the political difficulties, to the first refugees arriving at Kitchener, was only a matter of a few weeks.
Although with the benefit of hindsight we now know that the Kitchener rescue was in some respects 'too little, too late', it was nevertheless also an extraordinary achievement in terms of the time and funds available, its eventual scope, and its ambition to help when no-one else was prepared to intervene.
On being offered a means to leave the country - a condition of their release from the German camps - several thousand men gradually arrived at Kitchener camp throughout 1939. Although many of the men had injuries and ongoing poor health resulting from their incarceration, the hard physical labour required to refurbish Kitchener got underway immediately, despite the cold and muddy winter weather.
This work was carried out by the refugees themselves in the knowledge that for each hut made safe and habitable another 72 could be rescued.
World Jewish Relief commemoration
This Kitchener rescue saved the lives of our fathers and our grandfathers, our uncles and our cousins - and it is the reason many tens of thousands of descendants are alive today to commemorate this history together.
An interesting suggestion for commemoration of the rescue has arrived from one of our many well-wishers for the Kitchener project.
World Jewish Relief has been holding a series of events to commemorate 80 years since the Kindertransport and there is more to come.
After the success of last year’s event, we will be running one more Berlin to London Kindertransport Bike Ride on 16-21 June 2019, which emulates the 600-mile route that was taken by the children.
We will be matching each rider to a kinder so that they can ride in commemoration of that person’s unique journey. The certificate below is an example of how their story will be represented. If you would be happy for one of our riders to cycle in honour of your family member, please do let me know.
Additionally, if you are interested in taking part and would like to ride to commemorate the journey made by your own family member, we would be extremely happy for you to join us!
According to one of last year’s riders “It was a magnificent and unforgettable experience, bringing this important historical event to life through the ride and the stories it revealed”.
To learn more about this emotional and exhilarating challenge event, or to register, please visit www.worldjewishrelief.org/berlin2london.
Please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to your response.
Kay's suggestion is that someone might like to offer to undertake this amazing commemorative cycle ride for one of our Kitchener men or boys. As has been outlined on this website in a number of places, there were boys under the age of 18 in Kitchener - from the Berlin ORT and other German Jewish training schools, and from the Kindertransport as part of the group of 'Dovercourt Boys'. I'm sure, if anyone is interested and able (!), that WJR would be happy to hear from you and to give you further information.
If someone does decide to volunteer to ride for a young Kitchener campman, please let us know and we will of course help you fundraise!
Kitchener Camp in 2019
The committee of the Kitchener Descendants Group is working hard to arrange an exhibition for 2019 to mark the handover of these materials and history to London's Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust. The committee is continuing to explore options and promises to let you know the date as soon as a space is confirmed.
We are acutely aware that families living overseas would like to get flights booked: please bear with us. Finding a large enough 'free' space in London is proving to be something of a challenge!
We'll get there.
There should also be some announcements over the course of next year about ongoing efforts for a new public memorial to commemorate the Kitchener Camp rescue, as well as information about other public acknowledgements of the Kitchener rescue in its 80th year.
We Remember campaign
You may have heard about a World Jewish Congress campaign - #WeRemember.
Most - probably all - Kitchener families lost close family members in the Shoah. In some cases, the male relative rescued at Kitchener was the only survivor.
Because of the scale of this loss among Kitchener families, we thought you might like to participate in the #WeRemember campaign as part of a Kitchener group. It will also help raise much-needed awareness of our history - as the rescue remains largely unknown across the world.
I am mentioning this now because families often come together at this time of year, and it would be wonderful to have some photographs of Kitchener family groups - although feel free to take a 'selfie' if that's more your thing.
It doesn't need to be anything fancy - just you / your family holding up a hand-made sign with the #WeRemember logo and some wording about our project: 'Kitchener camp, 1939' or the website address, www.kitchenercamp.co.uk. If you send the photo to me in the usual way (Contact), we will find a way to put them all together to send to WJC.
"In 2018, the #WeRemember campaign reached 650 million people in 155 countries. In 2019, with your organization's participation, we will educate more people and inspire new generations."
As our first full year of the online Kitchener project draws to a close, this seems a good time to say that without Professor Clare Ungerson's diligent research - in Four Thousand Lives: The Rescue of German Jewish Men to Britain, 1939 - we would not be where we are today.
Clare's much-needed narrative of this important rescue has clarified this history for many families.
Without Clare's book, I would not have found out much about the Kitchener rescue - which included the rescue of my own dad - and my imagination may never have been fired to design the online Kitchener project.
Simply put, we would not be where we are today without Four Thousand Lives - collecting an extraordinary amount of material among us, building this important research base for the future, and in the process bringing about the peace of mind that a fuller understanding of these events instils.
People sometimes ask me what my dad would have thought of all this.
At first, I was unsure - and did not know what to reply. But over the months, having had time to consider, I like to think he would have felt, as I do, that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and that this supportive community with its shared history is far, far better than the silence, absence, and trauma that went before.
We all have Clare Ungerson to thank for starting us off on this journey towards the discoveries, the realisations, and the peace of mind that flows from this better understanding of the history that has had such a profound influence on all our lives.
This is my last Kitchener post for 2018, which just leaves me to wish all Kitchener families and supporters a peaceful holiday period and a very happy 2019.
It’s fascinating to be able to bring together all kinds of pieces of information, because it is being collected in this one place.
One item begins to illuminate another…
For instance, take the Kitchener Camp Review magazines that have been gradually uploaded. The articles and sketches are mostly anonymised, but the first and last letters of names are often given, as are initials. If we compare these clues to the names and occupations in the 1939 Register, it is possible to start to make an intelligent guess at who the writers and artists were, in many cases.
Some examples follow.
Were any of these people related to you? Or were they friends of the family, perhaps? If so, please let us know!
Add type of item + initials ‘GH’ +39 Register = very likely Gunter Heymann, Teacher Lithograph Drawing And Painting (1939 Register entry).
Born in Berlin in 1908, we can see from British National Archives documents that Heymann was interned in the UK 1940. It looks like he should have sailed on the SS Duchess of York, but was finally deported to Canada on board SS Sobricki on 4th July 1940. He was then interned in Camp I on arrival in Canada.
Looking at the 1939 Register, the article above would seem to have been written by Paul Loewy – the only name that fits these initials. Born in May 1913, Paul is listed in the 1939 Register as a musician (pianist).
British National Archives records add the information that Paul was born in Vienna, and that his usual occupation was ‘Lawyer’. He was later interned, and then released in October 1940
The only doctor in the 1939 Register with these initials was Dr Ahron Koch, physician, born April 1912.
The 1939 Register gives us Rabbi Karl Rautenberg, born 1911, with these initials, writing on a religious subject …
I will be going through the various issues of the Review, working out as many of these names as I can, and adding them into the associated pages. It isn’t always possible to reach a satisfactory conclusion with every one of these, but quite a few should be possible.
All issues of the Kitchener Camp Review are now online and, like Phineas May’s diaries, these are a wonderful read for the detail of what was going on in the camp over these months in 1939.
There are some great sketches in the reviews – including some identifiable camp characters.
The next image is referred to as the ‘expert agriculturalist’ – and we’d be very happy to hear about it if anyone knows who this is (below).
I have finally had the time today to sit down with someone who is rather better than I am with MS Excel, and we have got quite a long way with resolving one of the ‘legacy’ issues on the website that has been causing a bit of confusion for newer users to the site.
When we began the project, we had no idea of who had been in Kitchener camp beyond our own families, and I started to construct a list (the ‘List of Names’) from whatever information was being sent in or could otherwise be found. Then we were incredibly fortunate in the timing of the British National Archives’ release of the 1939 Register this year, so we gained 3,500 Kitchener names from that, but it is an incomplete list, as a census often is.
Gradually, we are sifting out the names that are in both lists, which will leave the ‘List of Names’ with only those who are not in the 1939 Register – thus giving us a more complete list across the two documents of who was in the camp.
We have some more information coming in at the moment about the German Jewish training camps of the 1930s.
These were often established and run by the same philanthropistgroups that organised and funded Kitchener Camp. The idea was to give Jewish young people a practical skill-set – in industry or agriculture – to enable them to set up new lives elsewhere.
We believe that about half the Berlin ORT got out to safety, right at the last minute – having been delayed and delayed for administrative reasons throughout 1939. Following these delays in the Minutes of the Council for German Jewry is unnerving, to say the least. The half that didn’t make it out to Kitchener did not survive the Holocaust, as far as we know.
In due course the young men moved to Leeds to continue their training, but they did stay in Kitchener for some time before moving on when the building in Leeds was finally completed.
I received a list of names of the Berlin ORT youngsters some time ago, and have only just had time this afternoon to go through it, comparing it to other records available online.
After quite a few hours of work, it looks as though around 32 of the 96 names listed were interned in early summer 1940 and deported to Australia on the notorious HMT Dunera voyage – and then interned again in Australia. Most of these young men seem subsequently to have joined the Australian Pioneer Corps.
Some of the others were interned under Leeds and Bradford police jurisdictions, and a few were deported to Canada on the same ship as some of the Kitchener men. Some, at least, were not interned.
As many kitchens are no doubt being stacked with the wherewithal for doughnuts and latkes, and as extra beds are being found for family and friends, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on what the move to Britain must have meant for our fathers and grandfathers in terms of the friendships and connections they encountered in and around the small, historic town of Sandwich.
One local family who welcomed our families to Britain has been in touch recently with some reminiscences from an uncle, who is approaching 100 years of age, and thinking back to his family’s part in the remarkable histories we have been commemorating over the last year.
"I spoke to my uncle who is 97 now; he remembers my father Jim and his sister June - who lived on the High St, Sandwich, Kent - regularly walking up the Ramsgate road with food parcels, and coming back with small toys carved from wood sometimes.
I also spoke to my Auntie June who said 'Talk to Uncle Edwin, as he has some of the items from the camp', but he can't remember that - apart from finding a hand grenade on the nearby beach and bringing it home to dry out on the fireplace until the police arrived!
You may also be interested to know we lived on Ramsgate Road, Sandwich, on the Stonar estate. My father was a manager who ran the Stonar lake dredging for sand and stones for concrete.
Our bungalow (the old Officer's Mess from World War I) was on the road in front of the Kitchener camp; my Father's garage was one of the camp's long buildings."
"When his company was dredging the lake you would be amazed what was found. Once, over 200 skulls were found and dredging stopped for two months for closer examination (I think they were from a Roman fort). And many other times, hoards of guns and bullets in big cases from the World War I era.
His company came to the conclusion if they had to stop dredging every time something interesting came up they would be all out of business, so you could see lorries with skulls on the wing mirrors, and the dredging continued."
One of the sets of letters that are gradually being uploaded with the kind permission of the Gamby family and the Leo Baeck Institute – where the original letters are archived – also speaks to the welcome our families received from the local community.
This warm reception must have been especially welcome by the time the following letter was written home to Werner’s wife in January 1940: she had successfully emigrated to New York by this time. She and their son Peter were anxiously awaiting Werner’s visa number to come up, so he could join them, which he eventually managed to do in summer 1940.
Kitchener Camp, Werner Gembicki, Letter, Extract, 16 January 1940, page 4
It is impossible indeed to describe how nice these people are. They speak a very good and distinct English and I have a good profit of it. In the course of our conversation Maud asked me whether I had a mind to come with them to Canterbury next day to visit friends there. Of course, I had and so I got with two other boys who had known Maud and Edgar at first, to Ash, and from there we went to Canterbury by bus. Edgar paid for the fares for us (about 6 shillings together) and then … then we came into a house I have never seen before in England or even in (?). A sweet little cottage with one living room, both small walls of glass. The room was very new (?)-fashioned and wonderfully equipped. I called it “Symphony in Green” … Our hosts (?) a young couple, he designs furniture, that’s why the room was so (?) quite contrary to the usual furniture here which is awful. The man had just bought a new table-tennis table and I had, of course, no adversaries. Then we had tea, consisting of bread, jam, honey, cress, cakes, (?), mince pies! Like in paradise! We stayed there til 8pm (from around 3pm) and had a wonderful afternoon. Further, we were asked to drop in whenever we were in Canterbury.
You can scarcely imagine what it means to me, under normal conditions, and therefore, this afternoon was grand. But, the afternoons with Maud and Edgar are very nice, and I am probably going to see them this week. I believe Maud likes me and wherever I am, she always makes me show your pictures. We call her always: little mother with the big heart, because she is only 1.60m high. I am really happy that I found such good friends, because it does me a lot of good to speak English. We feel there like at home; we help cleaning the plates and dishes, Herbert makes tea. They are so hearty (?) and not a bit stiff. I promised her to show you new pictures of (?); haven’t you any from NY [New York]? She always asks: any news from you wife or mother? Really, you can’t imagine such kindness. They invited Ernst [Levy’s] wife, too, as I told you, although they are far from being rich. Real middle-class.”
The evening will begin with a drinks reception at 7pm. The official programme will begin at 7.30pm, introduced by special guest Dame Esther Rantzen. The concert will begin with a candle-lighting by Kinder.
The music will consist of an exclusive, one-off performance by two acclaimed German musicians who have come specially for this occasion: cellist Friederike Fechner, and composer, conductor and pianist Mathias Husmann.
Double Olivier ‘Best Actor’ Award winner Roger Allam and RSC star Mariah Gale are also going to perform readings.
The musical performance promises to be particularly poignant: Friederike Fechner recently helped to unite descendants of the Blach family, originally of Stralsund, through her research. Multiple branches of the Blach family were torn apart by Nazi persecution, and many members of the family did not survive the Holocaust. Two of the children survived by coming to Britain on the Kindertransport. Another descendant, AJR trustee Gaby Glassman, is co-organising this special evening.
Tickets are £30
All proceeds from ticket sales, with the exception of a small booking fee, will go directly towards The Wiener Library’s work to collect, preserve and share evidence of the Holocaust. The Library depends on donations for support and we would welcome any additional support.
This event has been organised with the kind support of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London. We are grateful to the musicians for performing pro bono and to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue for donating the use of its hall.
The programme will include compositions by Maurice Ravel, Felix Mendelssohn, Max Bruch and Ernest Bloch alongside select readings. The full programme will be announced closer to the date of the event.
For further information, please see ‘Further Information for Guests’, below.
You will receive a printable e-ticket via email when you book for the concert. For security reasons each guest must have their full name on their e-ticketmatching the name on their photo ID. Please double check that your full name, and the full name of any guests booked by you, appears correctly on your e- tickets.
You will need to either print out and bring your e-ticket or, alternatively, show your e-ticket on a mobile device when you arrive at the synagogue. In both cases, you must bring photo ID on the night and ensure that the name on your e-ticket must match your photo ID.
When to arrive
Doors will open for the concert at 6.45pm. The drinks reception and the Sanctuary (where the concert will take place) open at 7pm. The official programme of the concert will begin at 7.30pm, so everyone will need to have taken their seats by then.
Seating is unallocated for the concert with the exception of a reserved area at the very front for Kinder, accompanying family, performers and official guests of the Library, so you may wish to arrive and take your seats promptly. All seats will have a good view of the stage.
The concert will be held at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London. Our recommendations for travel are below:
The nearest bus stop is a 5-7 minute walk from the synagogue. Buses run frequently and include routes 13, 82, 46, 113, 139, 187, 189 and 274.
The nearest underground stations are St John’s Wood (Jubilee Line),a 12-15 minute walk from The LJS, and Baker Street (Jubilee, Central, Metropolitan, Bakerloo), a 15-20 minute walk.
There is limited parking on St John’s Wood Road and the adjoining side roads, with pay-by-phone parking bay restrictions ending at 6.30pm. There is a car park situated a 10 minute walk from the synagogue on Lanark Road, W9 1UB.