Music in British Internment Camps

When war broke out in September 1939, the British government established tribunals to evaluate the potential security risk of all resident German and Austrian nationals. Of the 73,000 cases heard, only 569 were deemed ‘significant risk’ (known as ‘Category A’). Minimal risk cases were deemed ‘Category B’. The vast majority, about 66,000, were classified ‘Category C’ (no risk whatsoever). About 55,000 of those classified ‘Category C’ were refugees from Nazi oppression; of those, about 49,500 were Jewish refugees.

By May 1940 the war had reached a critical point and Britain was vulnerable to invasion. In response to public pressure, and despite the earlier tribunal results, the British government began to intern all male Germans and Austrians between the ages of 16 and 60, including the ‘Category C’ refugees. Internment camps were located throughout the UK, but many were located on the Isle Of Man, in the Irish Sea. Ultimately there would be about 25,000 German and Austrian men, and 3,000 women, who would be interned. Additionally, by August 1940 about 4,000 men would be deported to Canada, and 2,000 to Australia.

Statistics reflecting exactly who the internees were do not survive. Twice a day roll calls gave inconsistent results; internees sometimes swapped identities when transports were at hand; official records were sloppy, or were lost. Any discussion of collective identity is instead based on a plentiful anecdotal history which is consistent, though admittedly unscientific.

Despite great diversity, a disproportionate number of refugees were established professionals and academics. These individuals were often able to immigrate to Britain in the first place through their professional or personal connections. Most of the refugees were thoroughly assimilated middle class German and Austrian Jews, sometimes describing themselves as ‘more German than Jewish’. Many had come of age either just prior to or during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). As historian Peter Gay notes in his classic text Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider,

The Weimar Republic, though it gave Jews unprecedented prominence across a wide scope, was not a ‘Jewish’ republic, as its enemies have so often proclaimed it to be. It would not have been worse if it had been, but Jews taking a significant part in German culture were wholly assimilated. They were Germans. Ernst Cassirer’s work on Kant was not a ‘Jewish Kant’, Bruno Walter’s Beethoven was not a ‘Jewish Beethoven’.

Overall physical conditions in the internment camps ranged widely. The camp in Bury was one of the worst: no toilets were provided (internees were expected to use buckets); the roof was leaking and there was no furniture. By contrast, physical conditions at Hutchinson Camp (in the town of Douglas, on the Isle Of Man), were widely regarded as decent. The administrative head of this camp, Captain H.O. Daniel, also generously provided materials and artist space, finally even arranging to have a large hall built which could serve as both meeting place and concert hall.

Despite the wide range of conditions, a few facts remain in common for every internee. First, the internee – unlike the criminal, who is given a release date – has no idea when he or she might finally be released. This uncertainty is inherently psychologically oppressive. Second, the constant view of barbed wire creates significant psychological stress. Family separation further compounds that stress (and in 1940, most families of the interned were in grave danger: on the Continent from fascism, or in London, where bombing was a risk).  Third, this population had often endured recent and severe suffering under the Nazis; the additional stress of this British internment was therefore often magnified.  However, the British administration of that era typically lacked understanding of the political reality faced by these internees, and this lack of empathy was additionally frustrating and depressing for the internees. Finally, and most importantly, internment means a total loss of individual freedom.

Books, sheet music, musical instruments and so on were initially confiscated. However, after conditions relaxed, these camps filled with cultural pursuits of all kinds, particularly classical music making. Not surprisingly, small groups (duos or trios) were common, as they were easiest to organise. However, in Hutchinson there was an amateur chamber orchestra, led by a certain Professor Kästner. The concertmaster, or leading violin player, was reportedly a nephew of Thomas Mann. In general, works by renowned German and Austrian composers such as Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms were especially popular. Since this style of classical music had been a prominent feature in the pre-war lives of these refugees, it was natural that their internment camp culture reflected this prominence.

Hans Gál was an Austrian composer who had enjoyed great professional success prior to 1933. When the Nazis came to power, Gál was serving as director of the Mainz Conservatory.  Because he was Jewish, he was dismissed from his post and his work was banned from both performance and publication.  He returned to Austria, finally immigrating to Britain shortly after the Nazi Anschluss (annexation) of Austria in 1938.  

Gál had just begun to reestablish himself as a composer in Edinburgh when he was abruptly interned. The Gál family had chosen to settle in Britain, voluntarily allowing their US visa to expire; this internment, carried out as it was by a country they trusted and had come to love, was a major psychological blow.

Gál was arrested by a civilian police officer and was first sent to Huyton (a transit camp near Liverpool which served as a ‘sorting place’) and then to ‘Central Promenade Camp’, also known as 'Central'. Both Huyton and Central appear to be amongst the worse internment camps.

Physical conditions in the so-called transit camps, including Huyton, were inadequate. Food was bad, and there was very little of it. Men initially slept on the floor on straw sacks. However, the camp was so overcrowded there was not even enough straw, and many men slept directly on a filthy floor. The attitude of the Huyton administration could be hostile. Gál describes an officer who, after suddenly confiscating internee musical instruments, then takes an umbrella away from an internee: it was raining heavily at the time.  

Not that Central was much better, especially at first. The internees quickly dubbed the mess hall ‘Starvation Hall’. Visiting relief workers described Central’s administration as ‘strict and unsympathetic’. Privacy was non-existent. Nazis made up approximately 10 to 15 percent of the inmate population in Central: Nazis were not separated from anti-Nazi and Jewish internees (despite the 1939 tribunal determinations, everyone was essentially thrown together, and this was generally true in all of these camps). As releases began, the percentage of Nazis to non-Nazis necessarily increased. It should further be remembered that there were also German concentration camp survivors in these camps: about 150 in Central alone. One of these was the lawyer and gifted cellist Dr. Fritz Ball from Berlin, who played chamber music with composer (and pianist) Gál. Ball’s bow hand had been terribly damaged by frost bite while he was earlier imprisoned in Sachsenhausen.

Despite this reality, the internees created a remarkably active musical life. Lack of meaningful occupation is a primary psychological challenge of any prisoner, yet artists – including musicians – were able to continue working even under these challenging circumstances. This was a psychological advantage. Music also lifted the spirits of the internee audience.

‘House concerts’ soon became the norm. These typically free concerts were organised by the internees themselves; tickets were made to ensure seating. The concerts were extremely popular and programmes were repeated to meet demand. Sometimes newly composed music was played, such as Gál’s Huyton Suite. This little gem is scored for a flute and two violins, an unusual combination chosen because of what Gál had available in the camp.

Soon internees began to be deported to Canada and Australia. Huyton Suite rehearsals were disrupted when two players were sent to Canada. The newly formed trio was broken up again when some of the players were transferred to the Isle of Man. No one could predict how long one would be held in a certain camp.

Ultimately Huyton Suite was successfully performed in Central Camp. Gál indicates the work was ‘tailor made’ for its audience.  In the music there is even the ‘roll call’, a daily feature of internment life, as played by the flute. Ironically enough, the premiere performance in Central was interrupted by the ‘real world’ roll call.

Another original musical work was the revue What A Life. This enterprise took place in September 1940 and completely absorbed Central’s artistic community including Gál, who wrote the music. Although the work was primarily intended as entertainment, it also made deeper observations on the refugee experience itself, particularly in two serious sections: ‘Ballad of Poor Jakob’ and the ‘Ballad of the German Refugee’. Other movements represent specific aspects of internment: ‘Barbed Wire Song’, ‘The Song of the Double Bed’, and so on.  Even the noise of musicians practicing is represented in a movement comprised of an amusing mixture of quotes from famous classical pieces.

Internees were finally released through the so-called ‘White Papers’. However, these did not address the inherent injustice of mass internment, and instead focused on each applicant’s pragmatic usefulness in the ongoing war effort. There were eighteen categories listed in the first White Paper (issued in July 1940), and releases were determined on strictly utilitarian grounds. Under these narrow categories, critics pointed out that even individuals like Thomas Mann and Einstein would have remained interned. In response to considerable political pressure, categories for release were gradually widened and the second White Paper was issued in August 1940. However, the majority of the interned still were not considered even under these expanded conditions. By the third White Paper (October 1940) there was a specific category which finally considered artists. By November 1940, release conditions were widened even further, by virtue of a simple statement drawn up in the House of Commons.

In 1940, Hans G. Furth was a young pianist who was interned in Hutchinson. Furth felt he benefitted from the mentorship provided by both the older interned musicians and a group of interned Carthusian monks. Years later he recalled his release:

The British issued a White Paper, according to various rubrics you could be released. If you were an Anti-Nazi fighter, if you had a job indispensable for the war effort … all sorts of reasons. But I didn't fall under any of them! And I didn't feel like going out … I was quite comfortable … So the Commandant called me in and said, 'What are you still doing here?'

'Well, Sir, I didn't fall under any of the rubric.'

'What do you mean; you don't fall under the rubric? You are an excellent pianist!'

And so I looked at the rubric: 'World Famous Musicians, Recommended by the Penn Club…'

So he said, 'Why don't you apply?'

I said, 'But I am not world famous!'

He said, 'We-l-l-l ... you can say you HOPE to be world famous!'

So I applied and said, 'Will you release me on the hope of my becoming world famous?' And they did (release me). Vaughan Williams was the one who signed it...

Hans Gál was released early, under a medical hardship category: he had been suffering from a skin disease. In fact, he had written the music for What A Life from his hospital bed. It gives one pause to consider that, despite the considerable hardships he had experienced – losing his directorship at the Mainz Conservatory, being forced to leave Germany and then the country of his birth, having his music banned – Gál ultimately viewed his British internment as the ‘worst period of his life’. Despite this, he stayed a day beyond his official release in order to give the final performance of this revue, which portrayed, through music, the essence of this British internment period.

By Suzanne Snizek




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