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A Report on Visits to Internment Camps for Aliens

Report issued by the Chief Rabbi’s religious emergency council.

In May 1940, the British Government introduced a policy of mass internment of refugees. For several months, an intense newspaper campaign had been trying to mobilize public opinion against the German and Austrian refugees, branding all refugees spies. Up until April, this campaign had apparently little effect; it was the fear and shock of the German military victories in May and June of 1940 that created a hostile atmosphere of panic and suspicion, leading to a flurry of Government anti-refugee measures. Jewish refugees were now viewed as “enemy aliens” and interned as such, with the prospect of being deported to Canada or Australia, along with enemy prisoners of war.

On July 16th and 17th, I [Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld] visited the camp at Prees Heath, near Whitchurch, Salop. The Commandant was very concerned about the welfare of the men. Conditions were rather primitive. There was no house or hut. Internees of all kinds and ages were living in tents. The camp hospital was also under canvas. Most of the men of over 50 had, after some weeks, been transferred to Huyton because of the difficult conditions prevailing in this camp. The daily sick-parade was considerable. Although in rainy weather there was much hardship, especially during the lengthy roll-call in the open, yet every effort was being made to alleviate suffering. Games and music were encouraged and newspapers were provided. The officers made earnest requests for books and sporting needs. The camp contained about 1,000 men. The officers themselves often went into the town to purchase requirements for individual internees and a co-operative benevolent fund was run for the benefit of the destitute ones. Some arrangements were made for kosher food for the orthodox Jews and a canteen store where the men could purchase additional food and comforts was arranged.

July 18th I spent in the Huyton camp, Liverpool. It was a pleasure to meet the new Commandant, transferred from the Isle of Man. He was determined to improve both the spirit and equipment of the camp. As yet there was practicably no furniture, although the houses and grounds provided good shelter and recreation. Internees were drawn into the management of affairs and a spirit of comradeship between men and guards was noticeable. I visited the kitchens and dining huts. The Commandant was especially keen on rebuilding the kitchens. There was neither kosher meat nor margarine for the large number of orthodox Jews. The Quartermaster promised to try and obtain some supplies, but so far these have not materialized. There was quite a number of invalids and the Commandant was very keen on their early release. One case of suicide had occurred in the camp. Emigration arrangements were being speeded up with the help of the Huyton C.I.D. I spoke to two inspectors who visited the camp regularly and apparently knew the details of most cases thoroughly. The internees were, however, perturbed over the number of delays after release which involved considerable detentions in police cells. The men expressed concern over the Arandora Star incident [a ship of German and Italian refugees bound for internment in Canada that was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on July 2, 1940] and the later transportations overseas and there existed a great deal of uncertainty and misgiving as to the future policy of this general deportation. Official written statements from the authorities would be helpful in alleviating the tension.

During July 20th-23rd, I visited five camps on the Isle of Man [The Cetral Camp, Dougals; Onchan camp, Douglas; Mooragh Camp, Ramsey; Hutchinson Camp, Douglas; Rushen Camp, Port Erin and Port St. Mary]

[…] In conclusion, it appears that there are two serious complaints: (a) the unprepared rush with which the Home Office ordered the internment, leading to the necessity of using unsuitable accommodation, e.g. tents in Prees Heath and houses without beds at Huyton; (b) the appalling number of invalids interned, even in the C category of friendly aliens. The police seem to have known very little about the exemption of invalids and, where they did know, not to have used their power of discretion in very many cases.

Besides these two facts, all the other complaints dwindle in gravity and extent, leaving out of consideration the general question as to the policy of internment. The organization of the womens' camps, the regularization of transportations overseas, the punctual release for emigration and all consul appointments, and the issuing of clear and reasonable rulings on these two matters, these are points upon which the Home Office will in due course decide. But the first two major problems must be stressed with utmost vehemence for immediate liquidation. Between one and two thousands cases of T.B., diabetes, heart trouble and other serious weaknesses ought to be removed within the next 14 days. This in itself would make room for the better housing of those men at present unsatisfactorily accommodated.

One positive conclusion ought to be drawn from the experiences gained up till now, namely that the military commandants have made every effort to do the best for the men under the given conditions. In all cases the captains are men of understanding who try to treat their charges with intelligence and sympathy. There have been some few cases of hardness from the lower ranks, but the heads have been both efficient and humane. The management of the camps is to be transferred to the Home Office. The military guard is to remain. Could not the commandants be retained as local heads of the camp authority?

During the week following my visit to the Isle of Man, I understand that the commandants of the mens' and womens' camps have arranged for short conversations between interned husbands and wives. This represents a great improvement.

From: Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, "Message to Jewry, Dr. Schonfeld Silver Jubilee Committee," 1958, pp. 146-151.

Yad Vashem