The refugees from Hitler’s Germany interned by Churchill

Dave Hannigan, author of Barbed Wire University, on a remarkable WWII story

Klaus Hinrichsen held the wood panel in his hands, eyed the engraving of a nude woman and smiled at the art dealer. He ran his fingers along the edges, inspecting the familiar grain, and recognised that this swatch of mahogany had belonged to a piano played by the more musically gifted residents with whom he once shared an internment camp. Until the day it was deemed broken beyond repair and then the artistic inmates set about it, plundering whatever they might be able to deploy in their work.

That was 1940. Now, nearly half a century later, in his mid-seventies, Hinrichsen stood in a showroom in London, recalling the time when some of the most gifted German and Austrian sculptors and painters of their generation were reduced to cannibalising a defunct instrument. Deprived of proper materials, men such as Kurt Schwitters, Siegfried Charoux and Hermann Fechenbach regarded every found object as a challenge to their ingenuity and an opportunity to showcase their talent.

The moment he traced the outline of the portrait, Hinrichsen recognised the handiwork. The depth of the cut gave it away. This was unmistakably a piece by Ernst Müller Blensdorf, carved with his unique style, during that part of the second World War when the British government deemed them all to be enemy aliens. They were among 70,000 refugees, many of them Jewish, most of them having recently fled Hitler, who were arrested on Winston Churchill’s infamous order to “Collar the lot!”

Hinrichsen’s good fortune was to be placed with more than a thousand others in a camp at the top of a hill in Douglas on the Isle of Man. Made up of four streets, three of which consisted of bow-fronted Edwardian boarding houses surrounding a rectangular patch of perfectly-manicured lawn, it was a rather quaint setting in ordinary circumstances, much less so after it had been pockmarked with double rows of barbed wire fencing, and gated off by armed guards.


The authorities called the place “Hutchinson Internment Camp”. History would come to know it, with good reason, as “the artists’ camp” or the “Barbed Wire University”. Whether by accident or design, in the summer of 1940, it welcomed acclaimed writers, actors, artists, musicians, professors and one circus lion-tamer. A cross-section that ensured their time behind bars would not be entirely wasted. There were daily concerts, art exhibitions, plays, a library, a camp newspaper and, within 48 hours of the gates opening, an education system.

Aside from a roster of science lectures, among the subjects taught were English, French, Spanish, Russian and Italian, comparative religions, geography, music, law, medieval history, engineering and architecture. Most of the teachers just happened to be drawn from Oxford and Cambridge, where they had been picked up by the authorities. Some of the dons were literally sitting at their desks working when the police knocked at the door.

More than 150 different men taught more than 600 separate classes in the first six months. A remarkable number given how, at the beginning, there were serious issues concerning space. To cater for the demand many lectures had to be repeated for those who couldn’t squeeze into improvised classrooms. In the first few weeks of that balmy summer, the lack of suitable venues was also solved by everybody crowding outside on different corners of the lawn, lecturers often perched on stone walls in front of their acolytes.

“We used to have a great many learned men in this camp, a few very important ones among them,” wrote Heinrich Fraenkel. “The only difference being there are no Oxford undergraduates in the audience; there are mostly the kind of men described before, men, who used to earn their living with the same horny hands now scribbling notes on Greek philosophy, or on political economics for that matter.”

A former screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fraenkel fled the Nazis in 1933, and fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War before being interned at Hutchinson. On his first day, he walked into the office of Commander Hubert Daniel with a very specific set of demands that included a small private room for writing. He needed this and more if he were to submit the manuscript of his latest book to Victor Gollancz in London on time.

“What is your book called?” asked Daniel.

“’Help us Germans to beat the Nazis!’” replied Fraenkel.

Many internees had been thorns in Hitler’s side for years, their professional and personal lives suffering accordingly once he came to power. Almost all lost family in the Holocaust. As a lawyer and journalist, 48-year-old Rudolf Olden went toe to toe with the Nazis constantly until he received warning on the night the Reichstag burned that he was about to be arrested. He headed for the Zittau Mountains, put on a pair of wooden skis and slipped over the border into Czechoslovakia.

In exile, he continued the fight, publishing the damning pamphlet, Hitler the Conqueror: the Exposure of a Legend, and other works about the plight of the Jews in Germany. All of that counted for naught once paranoid, right-wing voices in the English press (sound familiar?) reckoned every German or Austrian was a fifth columnist, preparing to assist an invasion and therefore needed to be locked up. Like so many of his confreres at the camp, Olden was arrested while teaching at Oxford. Later deported, he was killed when the City of Benares, the ship carrying him to Canada, was torpedoed just north of Donegal.

A huge figure in the Dadaist movement (a classification he railed against), Kurt Schwitters featured prominently in Entartete Kunst, the 1937 exhibition of “Degenerate Art”, handpicked by the Nazis as works deemed offensive to the Third Reich. By then, Schwitters had already fled to Norway. When the Germans invaded there, he headed north to the Arctic Circle, got on the last ice-breaker out of Tromso and eventually reached Scotland. There, he was arrested and soon became the most entertaining inmate at Hutchinson, famous for, among other pursuits, making sculptures out of everybody else’s leftover porridge in the mornings.

Renowned enough to later feature in a Monty Python sketch where great artists participate in a cycling race, Schwitters wasn’t the biggest celebrity in the camp. That honour fell to Maryan Rawicz, one half of Rawicz and Landauer, a popular piano duo, regulars on BBC radio and such music hall stalwarts that they later featured on an early episode of Eamon Andrews’ This is Your Life.

The pair had come to London in the mid-thirties on the advice of the Prince of Wales, a huge fan. When Commander Daniel recognised the celebrated pianist, he managed to rent two Steinway baby grands and to reunite him with Landauer (imprisoned elsewhere on the island) for a one-night only concert at Hutchinson, attended by officers and inmates.

“Pleasanter and more important for the morale of the internees was the highly respectable musical life,” wrote Prof Paul Jacobstahl. “It was moving when fifty unhappy men gathered in one of the narrow shabby rooms and listened to Professor Glas playing Bach, Mozart or Schubert on a worn-out piano or to Rawicz’ masterly melancholy jazz improvizations.”

The fortunes of the painters and sculptors billeted at Hutchinson were greatly improved by a sporting event. Following the camp’s defeat by nearby Onchan on the football field, the ridiculously competitive Commander Daniel was persuaded by Siegfried Oppenheimer, a loquacious art dealer in civilian life, that the quality of artists living in the square merited the holding of an exhibition to showcase their works.

They held two and most internees who contributed to those events spent their days in a co-opted laundry room they pretended was the Café Dome in Paris, storied hang-out of artists, writers and bohemians, a place some of them frequented in their previous lives. The only rule in there was nobody could talk of “release”, the one topic that dominated all other conversations in camp.

Credited with creating “The Artists’ Café”, Fred Uhlman’s journey to the Isle of Man was faintly ridiculous. A prominent Social Democrat opponent of Hitler in Germany, he’d gone on the run in Paris then Spain. It was there he met and married Diana Croft, whose father, Brigadier-General Sir Henry Page Croft, was under-secretary of state for war. That connection or the fact Uhlman served as a warden in London’s Air Raid Precautions didn’t save him from being interned when the time came.

"Why then do I want to tell the story of my internment, if it was such a non-event in the middle of a most horrible war?" asked Uhlman later, as he justified writing about Hutchinson, a bizarre interlude the world mostly forgot. "My answer is that, however small, it is part of the English history of the war, that for me and almost all of my friends it was not a trivial affair but a traumatic experience. The fact that millions suffered far more is no more relevant than to tell a man who lost one hand that others lost both arms and legs."
Dave Hannigan's Barbed Wire University: The Untold Story of the Interned Jewish Intellectuals Who Turned an Island Prison into the most Most Remarkable School in the World is available now.