The Diary of Phineas May


Although I am still working on the contextual elements of the presentation for this project, the complete diary of Phineas May has now been uploaded. Rather tantalisingly, the last entry is dated 30st August 1939.

For anyone interested in the narrative of Kitchener camp, Phineas’s diaries are a wonderful addition – informative, thought-provoking, poignant, and at the same time often very funny indeed.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the May family and to Clare Ungerson, who had the diaries transcribed when she was writing her excellent book about Kitchener camp, Four thousand lives (2014). They gave us their kind permission to reproduce the diary transcription here, and I hope they like this new format and contextual additions.

It has been an honour, as well as a lot of fun, to have worked through the diary in detail. I have tried to provide context in the form of timeline extracts and photographs, and I am also starting to add in the names of the men where we know their date of arrival.

From time to time, Phineas mentions that ‘another 80 refugees arrived today’, or something similar, and it is fascinating to be able to cross-reference this with who actually arrived on that date.

So, if you know your father’s, grandfather’s, or uncle’s date of arrival and haven’t yet passed it on, please do let me know and I’ll add it in. If you don’t know but would like to try to find out – may I point you once again to World Jewish Relief, which has many of the arrivals cards and does not charge a fee for giving you copies of your relative’s records. Also, the people at WJR are just a lovely group of people, waiting for you to get in touch with them.

This link tells you why World Jewish Relief is relevant to our history, and this one takes you to their form to fill in:

Please do come back to us if you find new information that is relevant to the Kitchener history – and especially if you get an arrival date.

Best of luck!

The diary can be found in the research section of the menu, or by clicking on the titles (in bold) below:

Kitchener camp diary, Part I

Kitchener camp diary, Part II

Kitchener camp diary, Part III

Kitchener camp diary, Part IV

Once the idea of Kitchener camp was finally, and hurriedly, being brought into physical existence in response to the outcomes of November 1938, the organisers among the CBF committee members needed someone to run the place.

Thus, having previously been Secretary of the Jewish Lads Brigade, Jonas May was now ‘volunteered’ to be the Director of Kitchener camp.

Jonas’s brother Phineas May was also ‘volunteered,’ in this instance by the United Synagogue, where he had previously been working. He was given the title ‘Sports and Recreation Officer,’ but seems in effect to have operated as a co-Director with his brother.

Jonas and Phineas May were only in their early thirties at this time, and Jonas and his wife had a baby to look after that year as well, but when someone needed to step up and take on the running of this extraordinary undertaking, they did so – despite their nearest comparable experience being the running of a summer camp for boys.

As we know from Ungerson’s book on Kitchener camp, Four thousand lives (2014), Phineas arrived in Sandwich on the last Sunday in January 1939; Jonas had arrived a few days before:

“They were the youngest of five siblings, born into an Orthodox Jewish family … Jonas and Phineas were steeped in their family’s religion and Phineas, particularly, spent his subsequent life, until the day he died, working for and with Jewish causes” (pp. 41-42).


One of the many remarkable documents held at the Wiener library is the diary of Phineas May. He stayed for his first week in Sandwich at the Bell Hotel (where a group of Kitchener descendants met for the first time in summer 2017 – an event that gave rise to the idea for the present online project). He was driven down to Sandwich by Michael J Banks, who was about the same age as Phineas and who had been appointed as ‘Assistant Camp Director’ (according to his entry in the 1939 Register).

Ungerson’s book paints a delightful picture of Phineas’s time here and of the early days at Kitchener – and if you haven’t yet read this account I would strongly recommend you do so.

When Professor Ungerson was carrying out research for her book, she drew frequently on the diaries written by Phineas May, on Bell Hotel notepaper. When she realised how much she would want to use this wonderful resource, however, her heart sank because the script is difficult to read, so she arranged for a typed transcription – and both the transcription and the original diary are now held at the Wiener Library.

We are incredibly lucky to count both Professor Ungerson and Adrienne – the daughter of Phineas May – as committee members of the Kitchener Descendants Group, and they have both given their very kind permission for the typescript of Phineas’s diaries to be reproduced here.

I can’t think of another resource that paints such a detailed picture of life in Kitchener. It is obviously a subjective account, created by a man living physically and emotionally at some distance from the experiences of the residents.

However, as noted above, when someone was needed to step up, Jonas and Phineas May stepped up immediately, and they took on, in what appears to be remarkably good spirits, what must have been a daunting task in an atmosphere that at times must have been terrible.

So – Kitchener descendants all – with our heartfelt, sincere thanks to Adrienne and her family, and to Clare Ungerson – may we introduce you to the Kitchener camp diaries of Phineas May.