Shiela Lahr's Story
This article is a reprint from http://www.militantesthetix.co.uk/yealm/yealm17.htm which seems to have gone down permanently.
THE GREAT ALIEN SCANDAL - OUR MONEY FOR COMMUNIST PROPAGANDA screams the Dispatch, followed by RED CELLS FORMED BY SUBSIDIZED REFUGEES: Both stories attacking Czech refugees in Britain. "Hitler" blares the Dispatch has a Fifth Column in Britain: "made up of Fascists, Communists, peace fanatics and alien refugees in league with Berlin and Moscow..." The Peace Pledge Union (a pacifist organisation) is presented as an underground political force "which endangers the very life of the nation." The Daily Mail, The Yorkshire Post and The Daily Express take up the cry, the Daily Mail headline blazoning:
DISQUIET ABOUT BRITAIN?S FIFTH COLUMN IS GROWING
However, for a short time, while Lord Beaverbrook is having a loveaffair with a Jewish woman regugee, the Daily Express back-tracks a little by publishing an editorial against a witch-hunt. How often does policy depend upon the itching of the genitals? At last, the politicians, who for the most part take their remit from the mood of the press, join in. Tory MPs complain about aliens, communists and pacifists. Labour MPs concentrate upon Oswald Mosley and fringe movements on the far right.
On the outbreak of war, the government had been faced with the question of what to do with non-British residents dubbed ?enemy aliens?, especially having regard to the fact that so many Germans and Austrians in the UK were Jewish refugees from Nazism. On 24 October, 1939, Viscount Cobham, Parliamentary Secretary of State for War, in answering a question in the House of Lords on internment says that the government had decided not to indulge in mass internment. He deplored the ?spy fever? of the First World War which had gained momentum following the sinking of the Lusitania. Viscount Cobham concludes that no more than 1,000 to 1,500 enemy aliens should be interned in this war, as against 29,000 in the last war. He reckoned without ?campaigning? newspapers and the military reverses which made it necessary for the government to be seen to be doing something.,
As it happens, internees during WW1 had been divided into camps by social status. Class ?A? denoting past or present Army Officers, senior government officials and others of ?good social and financial standing?. Those dubbed ?A? had been permitted to pay 4s.6d. per day for high-class food and accommodation. The rest - A.N. Other - had been placed in Class ?B? and allowed to work as Batmen for those in Class A. WW2 ?enemy aliens? are a different matter for there are few Officers and it is not easy to identify gentlemen in the 55,000 refugees forced out of Germany and Austria. The men from the Ministries deliberate and at last agree to set up two types of camps, the one divided by social status, the other for refugees. Tribunals were set up to decide the relative danger each individual ?enemy alien? posed to British security. Those dubbed:
?A? - to be interned.
?B? - to have restrictions placed upon their freedom
(a ban on travelling more than five miles, owning cameras
or large-scale maps)
?C? - dubbed friendly and to remain at liberty.
The Tribunals to be held in secret and its members drawn from the legal professiion - Barristers, JPs, the occasional Judge. The aliens not to be allowed a solicitor, but able to bring a ?Friend?. TheWar Office had warned that the categories should not be applied too vigorously although a refugee classed ?C? could be interned because he, or she, was of ?bad or dubious characater or repute?.
Other Tribunals place a political interpretation upon the clause ?dubious character and repute? and intern refugees who are socialists and communists, including veterans from the International Brigade in Spain. And it was this last interpretation which did ultimately for my father, my mother, and Renate Scholem.
The Sunday Dispatch and the Daily Mail, both owned by Lord Rothermere, had in the 1930s openly supported Hitler, Mussolini and Oswald Mosley as ?bulwarks? against Bolshevism. Now the Hitler-Stalin pact of 23 August 1939 enables them to continue to present extreme right-wing opinion as patriotism. In the process muddying the waters by confusing all strands of liberalism and socialism with Stalinism.
In the month of May 1940 the knock at the door comes very early in the morning and my father is taken. A month in which we sing at the Convent:
This is the image of the Queen
who reigns in bliss above;
of her who is the hope of men
whom men and angels love.
Most holy Mary, at thy feet
I bend a suppliant knee;
in this thy own sweet month of May,
do thou remember me......
On that morning when I at last open my eyes it is as if our home has been touched by a cold draught which moves about the house until it gains the momentum of a whirlwind which takes us into its centre, twisting and turning our everyday lives and our perceptions inside out and threatening to let us fall. The four walls, at times so hated by my mother, now join her in shouting out their misery and outrage. For my mother, once again there looms the prospect of stepping in as breadwinner, and this following a break from the bookshop during which she has lost all contact with the book trade. But she sends Oonagh and me to school as usual. She has much to do. "My father?s been interned" I tell Colleen and the other girls assembled in the dining-room. It is as if by saying these words I can really believe in what has happened., I am not proud that my father has been taken away for internment, and yet I am not ashamed. Unlike his prison sentence, this imprisonment is not for what he has allegedly done, but for what he is - a man born in Germany. What could he have done about that? My anger and disgust is reserved for the government. "My father?s friend was interned last week!" says Pearl Bangerter off-handedly. My news is old hat!
Worse is to come. "The wives of aliens are being interned" my mother tells me glumly. In those days British women married to foreigners lost their own nationality. This because women were regarded as their husband?s property. "They?re being sent to the Isle of Man, but children under sixteen can go with their mothers." "I?m not being interned" I retort angrily. No government was going to decide my fate. "I?m British!" I surprise myself, for here I am for the first time agreeing to be parted from my mother! My mother broaches the question once or twice more and again I am adamant. "I will not be interned!" My sister is not asked. It is taken for granted that I make the decision for both of us.
ACT! ACT! ACT! DO IT NOW! screeches a hedline in the Daily Mail above an article by G. Ward Price:
"Arrests should be carried out as a rule in the early morning" state Home Office guidelines, announcing the decision to intern ?enemy? alien women. The only women to be spared were those who were invalid, infirm or in advanced pregnancy, or mothers with children who were dangerously ill.....the police to search the women?s homes and tell M15 of ?any information suggesting the existence of plans for assisting the enemy.?
My mother approaches the Catholic Church to enquire about the Father Craven Homes, for she realises that our care could be long-term. With must hesitation, the priest tells her that he would not recommend them for the children of educated persons. They were for the children of ?poor? people and the girls were trained for domestic service. My mother in great distress calls at a Citizens? Advice Bureau, recently set up to present government information to the public. A Mrs. Shillan listens sympathetically to my mother?s tale and promises to take my sister and me into her own home should my mother be interned. She had listened forbearingly while my mother poured out her fears and anxieties and she must have been impressed by my mother, or perhaps something in her despair touched Mrs. Shillan?s heart. The Shillans were living in Hampstead Garden Suburb, but within the next week they would be moving to Gloucestershire.
The knock at the door comes before 6 a.m. Two male detectives stand to watch my mother as she runs to and fro agitatedly, collecting together clothing:
Oonagh and I dress ourselves. My sister had been reading a Billy Bunter book when the detectives come for us, and now she places it under her pillow, in the belief that it will remain there until our return. The cases packed, my mother runs upstairs to speak to our tenants, a young couple named Rowley who have occupied the upstairs flat for weeks only. For while I was at Preston Park, the Dawsons, whose name had been on the Council list for fifteen years had been rehoused and now lived in a self-contained maisonette in Alexandra Road. These Rowleys, husband and wife, are ex-pupils of our local Grammar School, Tollington (known as Tolly) and have pretensions. He, a tall well-built ruddy-faced man - later to join the Grenadier Guards - she, almost the twin sister of her husband. Now, my mother dependent upon her nearest neighbour, rouses the Rowleys to give them the keys to the bookshop and addresses of people to contact. The rent to be paid into my father?s bank account.
While my mother is so occupied, I scribble a note to Colleen to say "my mother is being interned and I, and Oonagh, are going to stay with people in Gloucestershire. I?ll write you." Then, murmuring to the detectives that I am going to the outside lavatory, I duck down past the kitchen window and run out of the side door and into the street, up to Colney Hatch Lane, along to Greenham Road, up to the top and push the note through the letter-box of No. 91 and dash home again. One of the detectives and my mother are out in Wilton Road searching for me. "Where have you been!" my mother cries as I come into view and I mumble that I went to put a note through Colleen?s door. The detective says nothing, but it must have been this fear that given a chance I, and perhaps Oonagh and my mother, will abscond, that results in a detective shadowing all three of us at the police station whenever the cell door opens in answer to our ring, and we make our way to the WC.
However, at last we are ready to leave the house and it is only when we are in the police car and half-way up the road that my mother remembers that she has left her hand-bag on the kitchen table. A bag holding money and keys to the house. But the detectives refuse to return. Neither gas nor electricity have been disconnected and the flat is wide open.
Unknown to me, at about the same time on 27 May, 1940 Renate Scholem, seventeen years old and dressed in school uniform, opens the front door of her lodgings to find standing on the step a policeman and policewoman. She must pack a suitcase and go with them. Renate, who has been in England since the age of eleven, is confused. Why are they taking her? And the reply given is that she has been reading left-wing literature - The New Statesman and the Left Book Club. Renate Scholem is the daughter of Werner Scholem, one of the founders of a breakaway socialist party, the USPD, and was among the revolutionaries who formed the Spartakus League. He had edited the Communist Party paper Die Rote Kapelle and at one time sat in the Reichstag. However, he had returned disillusioned from a visit to Moscow in 1925, which had turned him away from active politics. Instead, he had put his energies into private living and into studying to become a lawyer. Of course, Werner?s past political history and the fact that he was Jewish made him ?an enemy of the Reich?. Therefore, barely a week after the burning of the Reichstag, a gang of men in brown shirts burst into the Berlin apartment and took both Renate?s parents away. Renate, who had been largely brought up by her non-Jewish grandparents in Hanover, once again lived with them until her mother was released. Eventually, both she and her mother escaped to England to join an older sister in north London. On leaving the Convent, where Renate passed by me briefly, she went to live at Carmel Court with Naomi Bentwich, the sister of Norman Bentwich, a leading figure of the Jewish refugee and welfare movement. Renate?s mother remaining in north London and disappearing for a time to fight with the International Brigade in Spain. On the outbreak of war, Naomi Bentwich decides to move to Devon, but Renate, intent upon finishing her schooling, stays in Kent and lodges with a local family. Now Renate, dressed in green school uniform, is taken to the local police station and then by car to Holloway prison in London:
"Don?t worry" she is advised by Minna who had been a teacher at Carmel Court. "The British aren?t Fascists, it will all be cleared up." But, it is here, in Holloway, that Renate comes to understand that she must shed the Englishness learned during the past years and for her own survival accept that she is a German, a prisoner and an enemy alien.
ALIEN WOMEN IN LUXURY
proclaims a headline in the Sunday Dispatch on 7 January 1940, above a story about internees in Holloway prison:
"The alien women, Germans, Austrians, some of them Jewesses, used to march round the exercise yaard singing German songs......"
While our lives are being disrupted at Muswell Hill, my father is on his journey to the Isle of Man. First to Kempton Park race course where he sleeps in a stable, drawing into his lungs the smell of horses and manure. Then onto a derelict old mill in Bury, Lancashire, described by Peter and Leni Gillman in Collar the Lot:
Interned Italian doctors lead a protest to the Commander, Major Braybrook, who calls the prisoners together. Climbing onto a wooden box he addresses his audience. "It is not so bad here" he thunders "There are much worse conditions in other places." He emphasises his words with gesticulation of hands, arms, body and the prisoners watch his movements, his mouth opening and shutting, hear his voice hitting and bouncing off the mouldering walls and pitted floor. Suddenly, behind him a water-pipe bursts, knocking him from his perch and almost burying him under a weight of water!
This incident, and the lack of hygiene, reminds my father that in the shock of his arrest he has come away from 9 Wilton Road without a towel. Malachi Whittaker lives in Yorkshire, the neighbouring County, and so he writes to explain his predicament and to ask that she send him a towel. Malachi responds immediately, but held up by bureaucratic procedures, it is several months before the towel comes into my father?s hands!
My mother, my sister and I sit in a cell in Fortis Green Road police station. My mother sits slumped on a red shelf-like bench against the wall. Her face bleak. She is despairing for her life has once more been snatched away. There is nothing she can do. She must resign herself to being at the disposal of blind authority. We watch her crying, aware that we must soon leave her and in an attempt to make her happy, I begin to sing the Vera Lynn favourite: (52)
We?ll meet again,
Don?t know where, down?t know when,
But I know we?ll meet again,
Some sunny day,
Keep smiling through
Just as you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the darkness
Please say hallo to the folks that I know
Tell them I won?t be long,
They?ll be happy to know that as you saw me go,
I was singing this song....
My sister joins in and we tap dance in the confined space as if we are performing in a Hollywood film, or a latter half of the 20th century song and dance routine in a Dennis Potter play. My mother at last begins to smile and then to laugh. For a short while she has forgotten our parlous situatiion and sees only its.
A policeman opens the cell door. The Shillans have been contacted. They are about to leave for Gloucestershire and we should join them immediately. A detective drives us to Hampstead Garden Suburb where we find Mr. and Mrs. Shillan waiting with two cars, a large Wolseley and a small Fiat. Now everything happens at breakneck speed, there is barely time for greetings or to effect introductions. Our luggage is placed into the boot of the Wolseley driven by Mr. Shillan and my sister and I climb into the back seat of the Fiat. Mrs. Shillan drives, her maid Dorothy sitting next to her.
By that time, my father has crossed on the boat to the Isle of Man and as he gazes over the side of the churning water, he remembers his crossing from Germany to England thirty-five years before. In fact, if anyone should ask him his age, he would reply "thirty-five" for he considers that he remained unborn until he settled in London. Then it was to escape the confinement of military conscription, now he crosses the water as a prisoner of the military. But, what worries him most is that he does not know what has happened to my mother or his daughters. He has heard that the women, including the wives of ?enemy? aliens are being interned, but whenever he makes enquiries from the Officer in charge, he receives the stock reply "you will be informed in due course." Tough measures are required and so once on the Island, my father declares a hunger strike. In my mind?s eye, I see my father lying out on the grass in front of the small boarding-houses requisitioned for an internment camp and surrounded by barbedwire. There he lies, stiff-faced, his teeth clenched, his limbs tense, refusing to reply to commands or entreaties from faceless authority which requires him to eat. But he could equally have declared this hunger strike while lying on his bed in one of the boarding-houses, or sitting in the dining-room and refusing to look at the food laid before him.
Maybe I think of my father and grass because he told me that when he and the other internees arrived and were led into the compound around the boarding-houses, local Manx people gathered together on the other side of the wire to gaze at the prisoners as if they were strange creatures, or aliens from another planet. My father feels it incumbent upon himself to put on a show. Therefore, he bends down, yanks out of the ground a large tusk of grass and chews it voraciously as if he were a ruminant! But, of course, these surprised spectators of my father?s antics must themselves have been disconcerted at this invasion of their island, for the Isle of Man had not been included in the list of camps drawn up by the War Office in August 1939. And yet, on 12 May 1940 the boarding-house keepers receive a letter from B.E. Sergeaunt, Secretary to the Island government, on behalf of the Lieutenant Governor, acting on instructions from the British War Office, ordering them from their premises within six days. They must leave behind ?all furniture, bedding, linen, cutlery, crockery and utensils?. This order being first given to boarding-housse keepers in Ramsay and soon afterwards to those in Onchan, north of the main town of Douglas, Isle of Man:
writes my father to my Aunt Mary. He continues by asking her to contact several of his friends - Dr. Sekar, Mr. Chapman, a retired School Inspector and John Amphlett, his solicitor and friend. At one time, Dr. Sekar had owed my father money. Unable to pay, he had sent a friend into the bookshop to inform my father that Sekar had died of TB. When Dr. Sekar reappears in the shop at the beginning of the war, my father growls at him "you?re a very substantial ghost!" My father concludes his letter to my Aunt Mary:
Within the boarding-house, my father, his hunger strike behind him, has taken on the job of Cook, feeding each day 26 men. The weeks pass, and at last my parents are able to write to one another. Two letters per week each one of no more than 24 lines. But there is no restriction upon letters received from outside. Letters show my parents as worried, for Aunt Mary has said that she is closing down the bookshop. This is not only their life?s work, but their living. My father writes:
A letter from John Amphlett, Solicitor, to my Aunt Mary:
With such friends, who needs enemies!
A letter from my mother to my Aunt Maary sets out money owed, payments to be made, incomings expected. My father?s life policy for ?400 is held by the bank as a security for an overdraft of ?78, the Manager advising that the policy be not surrendered as to do so would raise only ?160 minus the overdraft. Two quinquennial bonuses from the policy would, however, cover about three years payments so that there were now only seven more quarterly payments to be met. My mother continues:
The above letters from which I quote, I picked up from the floor of my Aunt?s house at 3 Leathwaite Road, Battersea, following her death. A place where she lie, aged almost eighty, surrounded by mouldering and stained papers, newspapers, fallen books, torn rags, scraps of rotting food, dirty crockery, stained cutlery, crumpled religious pictures, broken ornaments and these letters. As if Cecil were intent upon showing his mother a prevision of the heights of past history onto which her earthly remains would soon fall.
However, in internment my mother does not allow depression to immerse her for too long. She remembers the words of Joe Hill, the American Syndicalist framed and executed for murder - "Don?t mourn - organise!" She remembers her days as a suffragette working alongside Sylvia Pankhurst. She remembers her days as a union organiser. She remembers her days as a socialist agitator. And so she contacts other interned British wives to present a petition demanding their release and for the return of their lost British nationality. My mother opens also a class to teach English, a continuation of the teaching she had undertaken in Berlin for six months during the 1920s.
Renate Scholem, whom I had last seen at St. Martin?s Convent, imprisoned also in the women?s camp, makes a fiery speech outside the recruiting room run by the Women?s Army Corps. Freedom being offered to those ?enemy? aliens enlisting in the armed forces. "Freedom must be enlisting from our own choice, not as a condition of release" she thunders. Hauled before the Camp Commander, Dame Joanna Cruikshank, Renate is threatened with reclassification from ?B? to ?A? and imkprisonment on the Island for the duration of the war. Soon afterwards, the Red Cross tell Renate that her father has been shot in Buchenwald for leading a protest against food racketeering. (37)
On 10 May, following Dunkirk, Churchill had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister and set up the Home Defence (Security) Executive. This had a remit to act on the prediction made by the Chiefs of Staff that ?Alien refugees? were a most dangerous source of subversive activity and recommended that they all be interned. In consequence a terse note sent to Chief Constables requested them to intern any German and Austrian men and women of Category ?C? where they had grounds for doubting the reliability of an individual. This meant that M15 were able to nominate its own arrests and local forces follow their own initiatives and prejudices. No one was safe. Maybe it was this blanket internment and the crowded camps which decided the government upon deporting internees to the new world. A policy always favoured by Churchill who would have preferred no aliens to remain within the UK. As early as November 1938 government had proposed settling refugees in the Empire. Now, into the camps, news seeps of the sinking of the Arandora Star on its way to Canada, loaded with 1,700 internees and guards in addition to the normal ship?s crew. 374 British men, 712 italians, 478 Germans, 1,864 souls compressed into a ship built to take 250 passengers and extended to take 200 more. The majority of the Italian expatriates who had lived in Britain most of their lives, the Germans a mixed group of Jews, Nazis and merchant seamen.
The Arandora Star on its second day out from Liverpool, somewhere off the west coast of Ireland, slowly swims into view and frames itself on the crossed hairs of the periscope sights of a German U-boat?s Captain:
Not enough life-jackets had been provided, the rafts were lashed immovably to the ship, there had been no life-boat drill and all decks were partitioned by impenetrable barbed wire, cutting off access to the life-boats. The Captain, named Moulton, had protested resolutely against the erection of this wire:
The Captain?s plea is ignored. The government knows better. Prisoners must be surrounded by barbed wire at all times, even when on the ocean! Therefore, 1,000 men drown, including brave Captain Moulton who goes down with his ship together with Second Officer Stanley Ransom and Fourth Officer Ralph Liddle. The three Officers standing together on the sinking bridge-wing to await death. At last the Arandora Star was gone, "but almost a thousand of its passengers, guards and crew...still lived, scattered in groups or singly over several square miles of the Atlantic...but the sea was bitterly cold. Before long the number of swimmers and those supported only by planks and benches became pitifully fewer and fewer...Their pathetic cries of ?Mother?, repeated over and over again in three or four languages, grew fainter and fainter and gradually faded away altogether...." The Lonely Sea.
That evening the first news of the sinking is broadcast on BBC?s nine o?clock news, the number of dead explained away by a claim that the Nazis on board had swept everyone aside in their rush for the lifeboats. The Daily Express states that "the scramble for the boats was sickening". All reports give the impression that the Arandora Star had carried only Nazis and Italian Fascists, there was no suggestion that there were refugees on board the liner. And for the population as a whole and for the families of internees, this was the first intimation by the authorities of the deportations.
Most of the 800 survivors picked up out of the ocean by the St. Laurent are to spend two nights in a draughty warehouse where for almost 24 hours they stand and sleep barefoot on cold concrete. A local priest in Greenock hearing of their plight, brings to them buckets and soap and towels and on each subsequent trip he carries buckets filled with hot water supplied by local housewives. This priest and local clergyman assisted by Salvation Army workers and Red Cross officials. After that, still numbed by shock, the prisoners are taken to Edinburgh where they are shipped aboard the Dunera sailing with internees to Australia.
"The whole camp grieved" says my mother. Each woman mourns for a husband or son, or both, she sees as drowned. A pall settles over the camp, the houses and streets falling into an unnatural silence and the women go about their daily tasks heavily and with bowed heads. A verse of chilling beauty from Shakespeare?s Tempest runs continually through my mother?s head:
Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them - ding-dong bell.