Wartime Wednesday: Internment Across the Pond
Much has been made about the U.S. internment camps that housed (imprisoned) thousands of Japanese Americans, and to a lesser degree German Americans and Italian Americans. To put it mildly, it is an unfortunate part of U.S. history. In researching my current manuscript, I discovered that Britain also chose to round up “enemy aliens” and others deemed “undesirable.”
When Jews individuals in Germany and Austria saw the handwriting on the walls in the late 1930s, they began to flee, and by 1939 more than 60,000 had poured into Britain. After the war commenced and Germany began to overrun Europe, others followed-some Jews seeking asylum, some with anti-Nazi sentiments, and some merely seeking safety from starvation and indiscriminate violence.
Hearings were conducted to determine who should be considered an enemy alien, and approximately ninety-nine percent of those screened were classified as posing no threat. Those who were regarded as dangerous were imprisoned, housed in hastily constructed camps, or deported to Canada or Australia. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter feelings of anti-Semitism infiltrated the country, and Churchill issued a decree to round up the Jewish population. They were soon on their way to the Isle of Man alongside enemy aliens such as Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and suspected spies. After England went to war with Italy, Italian resident workers joined them.
Considering the fact that these folks were imprisoned and families broken up as men were sent to one camp, and women and children sent to another, conditions were good. The camps were comprised of either hotels/resorts or vacation homes which featured heat and indoor plumbing. Food supplies were supplemented with local produce, fish, and dairy.
The women were allowed to work and open bank accounts, and later the men were given various responsibilities such as managing inventory, cooking, and working on local farms. Many of the internees were professionals such as doctors, professors, artists, engineers, etc. and used a variety of means to practice their craft. Doctors set up clinics and teachers set up classes and “universities.”
Although they operated through 1945, the camps began to release the Jewish inmates in late 1941 and early 1942. They were offered the opportunity to enlist or work for the war effort. Feelings are mixed with regard to Britain’s decision to intern some of its citizens and residents, but as internee Fred Godshaw said years later, “It is always easy to be wise after the event.”