Kitchener Camp refugees… oh, the irony

The title of an article in today’s Sunday Telegraph caught my eye, ‘Kitchener camp refugees remembered’.

Interestingly, however, the article was not yet another rehash of the tired old myths about ‘the camps’ of the Boer War, but rather an account of one established to house Jewish refugees who had escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany and been taken in by Great Britain just prior to WW2. It is noteworthy that the camp was named in honour of one of Britain’s most famous Generals, thus rather suggesting that the demonisation of Lord Kitchener had not yet begun in 1939. Instead, he was considered a perfectly suitable hero to have a refugee camp named after him – that many would now vehemently disagree with this shows the power of the propaganda that the Apartheid regime started spewing out a few years later.

The article itself is well worth a read:

For thousands of Jews who escaped the Nazis just months before the outbreak of the Second World War, its wooden huts were an unlikely place of salvation on British soil.

Now, 85 years on from its founding in January 1939, the Kitchener camp that housed refugees on the Kent coast is being remembered by the families it kept alive in this weekend of Holocaust Memorial Day.

The emotive chapter of history has been otherwise all but forgotten, even as the separate Kindertransport scheme to rescue 10,000 Jewish children is celebrated in the new film One Life.

Formerly a First World War army barracks near the town of Sandwich, the Kitchener camp became a haven for teenage and adult refugees fleeing persecution in Germany and Austria.

The camp was set up after the Nazis destroyed numberless Jewish properties in what became known as Kristallnacht in November 1938.

As well as sacking synagogues, schools and shops, Hitler’s thugs also rounded up hundreds of Jewish men, most of whom were sent to the concentration camps of Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald.

Frantic efforts ensued as German Jewish leaders negotiated with a British charity, the Central British Fund for German Jewish Relief, with Nazi authorities for permits to leave Europe and with Britain’s Home Office for entry visas to the UK.

There were strict conditions as to who was allowed into Britain and for how long. The Home Office viewed Kitchener as a transit camp with the idea that all the men would eventually move elsewhere, and priority places were given to those who had entry papers for other countries, or transferable skills.

First, Kitchener – one of four such abandoned barracks, each named after a First World War general – had to be made habitable. By the end of 1938 Britain granted the first of 100 entry visas for Jews who had skills as bricklayers, electricians, carpenters, to come and renovate the camp from scratch. A group of master craftsmen and teenagers from a vocational training school in Berlin were among this first group.

Dr Clare Weissenberg’s father, Werner, arrived in Kitchener after having been imprisoned for some months in Dachau. She has put together a meticulously researched account of the camp, and all the material is now housed in London’s Wiener Holocaust Library.

She says: “The census for September 1939 shows about 3,500 at Kitchener. Our best ‘guesstimate’ is around 4,000.” That is a rolling total, as men arrived and left during the tenure of Kitchener, from January 1939 until May 1940.

The camp was managed and run by Phineas and Jonas May, two Jewish brothers closely involved in a youth movement, the Jewish Lads’ Brigade (JLB). Modelled on the Boys’ Brigade, the JLB had run well-attended summer youth camps in the Deal and Sandwich area every year. On the basis of this experience, the May brothers, then in their early 30s, were drafted in to be co-directors of Kitchener.

Phineas May’s diary, together with the camp’s newspaper which he edited, offers a fascinating picture of Kitchener, which featured mandatory daily English lessons, a hospital, a post office, had its own orchestra and football team and even a 1,000-seater cinema, built with money donated by the Odeon cinema tycoon, Oscar Deutsch. Visitors included the Duke of Kent and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang.

Some wives, like Gretchen Herman, from Kaliningrad, came to Britain on a domestic service visa. She was reunited in Kitchener with her husband, Siegie, two months after he had arrived in the camp in mid-July 1939.

The Hermans’ son, Danny, now 88 and living in Manchester, spent his fourth birthday, Sept 15, 1939, in Kitchener. Danny, who was awarded the BEM in this year’s New Year honours list for his services to Holocaust education, admits ruefully that he remembers nothing of the camp or his journey to Britain. He said: “Though I was told that I lost my teddy bear overboard on the ship from Hamburg.” His father, who had run a wholesale hosiery company in Germany, became a navvy in Kitchener, re-laying the camp roads.

There was even a Kitchener baby – born in safety to German Jewish refugees Walter and Irmgard Brill. They named him Winston Jonas – the first name in honour of Churchill, and the second name to remember Kitchener director Jonas May.

Walter Brill, who supervised renovations, later recalled: “For every hut we completed, we knew another 72 men could be rescued from the concentration camps.”

Cardiff businessman Steven Salamon’s grandfather Ignatz was living in Rohrbach, in the Austrian province of Burgenland, when the Anschluss – the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938 – took place. “My father, Wally, was born in 1936. Burgenland was the first place that the Nazis ethnically cleansed in the whole of the Reich.” The family‚ Ignatz, his wife Freda, and sons Ziggy, Otto and Wally, were moved to Vienna.

“In April 1939 Ignatz got a place in Kitchener. He was on the waiting list at the US embassy in Vienna for a visa to the States – so he was able to show that he had a reasonable prospect of onward emigration.”

Salamon’s research suggests that Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, of the Jewish community centre in Vienna, told Ignatz and others that “the best prospect of getting out and getting their wives out was to go to the UK – where they could try to get their wives out on domestic service visas”. Salamon’s grandmother, together with the three little boys, arrived in Britain in this way in August 1939.

After a brief Kitchener reunion, Freda went to an aristocratic household in domestic service, while the three boys were fostered out to a railway worker in Sandwich. But two weeks after their arrival, war broke out and Ignatz Salomon was told America would no longer consider his application to emigrate there.

Instead, in November 1939, Ignatz Salamon, like 887 others in Kitchener, joined the Pioneer Corps – the camp had become a military training base for Pioneer Corps No.3.

Clare Weissenberg says: “Following the Dunkirk retreat [at the end of May 1940], any refugees who hadn’t enlisted and were still at the camp were rounded up in trucks one morning at dawn – and interned.”

About 1,300 to 1,500 Kitchener men were sent to the Isle of Man, deemed “enemy aliens” – Churchill is infamously supposed to have said: “Collar the lot!”

The story of Kitchener is still being pieced together as new information arrives from the families of men who successfully emigrated from Britain.

Some of the refugees were deployed by Britain as “secret listeners” to German broadcasts or PoWs; some entered regular military service after internment; and some, like the Salamon, Herman and Weissenberg families, settled in Britain.

Kitchener provided refuge to thousands of Jewish men in one of history’s darkest periods. Nothing is physically left of the camp today, but the story of the rescue, now marked in the 85th anniversary of its opening, recalls a remarkable endeavour.

1 Comment

  • Chris Posted February 1, 2024 9:11 am

    THIS is the real Britain
    How many German and Austrian jews were granted asylum in the US in the same period ?
    ( Apart from Einstein and other scientists )

    Sadly these lessons have NOT been rememebred or emulated
    But rather those of – ethnic cleansing

    Please see below

    Daniella WEISS ( conference organiser ) calling – in public – in the modern state of Israel for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza.

    Is this Irony – or – Tragedy ?

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