When they put my dad behind barbed wire

In the final stage of his journey, Robin Lustig travels to the Isle of Man where his father was interned as an enemy alien during World War Two


By Robin Lustig, August 22, 2014
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The Isle of Man internment camp in 1941

The Isle of Man internment camp in 1941

It's blowing a gale, and thunderous waves are crashing against the sea wall. I've brought my 95-year-old father to the pretty town of Peel, on the west coast of the Isle of Man, and the weather is not being kind.

We're standing on Marine Parade, in front of nine Victorian red-brick houses, with magnificent views over the water to the ruins of Peel Castle. Houses here sell for up to half a million pounds; a two-bedroom penthouse flat is on the market for £200,000.

But we're not here to buy a holiday home. This is where, in 1940, 10 months after the start of the Second World War, my father was interned, behind high barbed wire fences, after having been officially categorised as a "friendly enemy alien". He had arrived in Britain the previous year, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. And this is the first time, after 74 years, that he has been back.

The summer of 1940 was a scorcher. So much so that my dad and his fellow internees were occasionally allowed down to the beach for a quick dip in the sea. To his amusement, soldiers with fixed bayonets stood guard. What were they frightened of? That a prisoner would make a break for it and swim across the Irish Sea to Ireland?

Marine Parade today surveyed by Robin Lustig's father

Marine Parade today surveyed by Robin Lustig's father

Then, as now, much of Marine Parade was hotels and guest-houses. Their owners had been given seven days' notice to get out -- because with the German army poised to invade, Churchill was taking no chances. He was worried about the Germans and Austrians who were living in the UK, and issued his famous order: "Collar the lot".

And so it was, that on July 4 1940, my father was arrested at the school in Derbyshire where he had been working as a part-time gardener and cello teacher, and carted off. A few weeks later, he was on a ferry to the Isle of Man. With him were a group of fellow-internees made up of young Jewish refugees like himself, German trades unionists who had also fled from the Nazis, and other unfortunates who simply happened to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their world was suddenly restricted to no more than 250 metres of a seafront promenade, each end sealed off.

As my father and I stand on a corner, looking up a side road that leads away from the sea, he says: "I never knew what was up there before. We couldn't even look round the corner".

But it could have been worse. Unexpectedly, my dad's cello turned up, and he discovered he wasn't the only musician behind the wire. Soon, a scratch orchestra had been put together to perform morale-boosting concerts.

At the Manx Museum in Douglas, they have an invaluable archive of material relating to the internment of aliens in both world wars. Government orders specify how much food each internee should receive, and even what contingency plans should be made if not enough kosher meat was available.

But what they can't tell us is exactly how many internees spent time on the island. The records are woefully incomplete, especially from Peveril Camp, where my father was held. After he was freed, the camp housed British Fascists and IRA suspects - but for some reason their records were destroyed, along with those from my dad's time.

So how did he get out? Simple: he enlisted in the British army - and eventually was marched away to board the ferry back to the mainland. He was told that the moment he set foot on the ship, he would be regarded as a member of the British armed forces.

One small step for an internee - from His Majesty's prisoner, to His Majesty's soldier.

Robin Lustig is a journalist and broadcaster. More about his project 'In the Footsteps of Our Families' can be found at www.wanderingscribes.com

    Last updated: 1:45pm, August 22 2014