We’re outraged by Donald Trump’s demanding databases and I.D. cards to protect America from the super-hyped threat of Syrian refugees. We’re ashamed by the memory of Roosevelt’s interning more than 100,000 Japanese American residents and citizens during World War II. But Winston Churchill went even farther. He ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in England, labeling them dangerous enemy aliens.
It’s a “distant mirror” to the mounting hysteria in the United States today.
Nationals from Germany and Austria who were living in England when World War II broke out, had already been assigned to different groupings based on their apparent threat to the UK. Category A were the “high security risks.” All 600 of them were immediately interned. Those deemed “no-security risk” in Class C, included 55,000 refugees from Nazi oppression. The great majority of them were Jewish. They were left free–at first.
But then, in the Spring of 1940, with the fall of France, the fear of a German invasion, the entry of Italy into the war, there was an outbreak of spy fever in England, a demand that more be done about the thousands of “dangerous aliens” living there. Unwilling to consider which of those foreigners might actually be dangerous, Churchill commanded “Collar them all.”
Brushed aside were objections that huge numbers of those ordered interned were Jews who had fled for their lives from the Nazis. The irrational fear was that they might still somehow become a dangerous Fifth Column, they could be blackmailed to engage in espionage or whatever.
The frenzy was fed by the groundless alarms of MI 5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service. They were amplified by a totally irresponsible media. The rightist Daily Mail, which had supported the Fascists in the 1930’s, led a campaign to have all aliens in Britain interned. Some employers began to fire all foreigners. Other workers were sacked just because they had foreign ancestors. There were calls to deport all of them. In that case, some calmer souls tried to point out, the British Royal Family should be deported as well, since their ancestors had originally come from Germany.
Pleas for more nuanced rational measures were ignored in the madness.
Whether Jewish or not, all men between 16 and 60 from Austria, Germany and Italy were to be interned.
One young sixteen-year-old Jew from Austria, Fred Stern, recounted how he was interrogated, his belongings searched. His Austrian passport was stamped with a symbol denoting he was a Jew. “Israel” was also written after his name. The police impounded it.
Their suspicions were confirmed when they discovered a Morse code set Stern had used as a Boy Scout in Vienna. That set was confiscated along with a map of Switzerland on which Stern had marked the route taken by the bus during his vacation there with the Scouts.
Conditions in the internment camps were often appalling, the prisoners at first held in tents without mattress. Some had proper toilets facilities. Others had buckets or pits.
The majority were interned on the bleak Isle of Mann off the coast of Scotland. In one of the camps more than 80% of those interned were Jewish. Wives were separated from their husbands. Internees were also forbidden newspapers, to listen to the radio, or receive letters. Many were prevented from finding out what had happened to family members trapped in Nazi Europe. Several refugees who had fled to England to avoid persecution committed suicide in these camps.
To relieve the pressure on England, more than 7,000 of the internees were deported to Canada and Australia. One of the passenger liners transporting them, the Andorra Star, was sunk by a German U Boat. 714 persons drowned, must of them internees. Others carried in an overcrowded ship to Australia later wrote of the dreadful conditions on the two-month trip; many had their belongings thrown overboard or stolen by their British military guard.
Even in far off Canada and Australia they were still treated as a dangerous threat, dispatched to hastily prepared camps, guarded by armed soldiers, surrounded by barbedwire. They were allowed two censored letters a week, ‘Prisoner of War’ embossed on the envelopes
There were 26 camps in Canada, including the horrific Camp I in Ile-aux-Noix, Quebec, where Austrian and German Jews who thought they had escaped Nazism by fleeing to Britain during the 1930s found themselves interred in camps with the same Nazis they had escaped.
One internee wrote that at another Canadian camp, “we were welcomed by German PoWs singing the Horst Wessel Song. It was most grueling to hear the words ‘Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt’ (When Jewish blood sprays from the knife)”
Rampant anti-Semitism in England and Canada also played a role in internment policies. Canada’s immigration minister at the time, Frederick Charles Blair, believed “an international Jewish conspiracy was trying to skirt Canadian immigration policies by sneaking the refugees into the country,”
Fred Stern’s father escaped, but the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. After more than a year, his parents in England finally managed to obtain his release and return.
Later, when the hysteria had somewhat subsided, there was an official inquiry, but the British government, remained unrepentant. The Duke of Devonshire, justified the decision to deport the refugees to Canada and Australia with the words: “It seemed desirable both to husband our resources and get rid of useless mouths and so forth.”