Remembering Kitchener Camp

A memorial concert is taking place at Wigmore Hall this month on Yom Hashoah

April 11, 2022 15:14

Seder night 1939 in Sandwich, Kent. Forty bewildered Berliners disembark from the coach that collected them from Dover docks and make their way to the truck parked alongside, piled to the brim with their luggage. A chirpy man, in school-boy German, instructs them to collect their suitcases, which contain all their worldly goods, and directs them towards two large wooden gates, swung wide open in welcoming embrace; the entrance of their new home.

Six months earlier, in another life, many of these men had passed through similarly imposing gates, but few would have made the connection. This camp had no sneering guards or snarling dogs, just cheerful faces, helping hands and, as this night was different from all other nights, the muffled distant sound of young voices singing the ma’nistanah. And it was to the hut where those voices were coming from that these men, the most recent arrivals at Kitchener Camp, were led. 

Set up by the Central British Fund for German Jewry and managed by the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, in an abandoned World War One army base, the Kitchener Camp scheme was British Jewry’s reaction to the desperate plight of the thousands of men languishing in concentration camps after the November ‘38 pogroms. The derelict site on the Kent coast was effectively rebuilt by its first wave of refugees, over the harshest of winters, to accommodate stateless Jews in Germany and Austria who could prove they were planning to move on to third countries.

This remarkable rescue mission deserves rightful acclaim, but it was not an act of resettlement. While it was only made possible by the same loosened visa restrictions that enabled the Kindertransport, official permission to establish the camp was only obtained on condition it would become a place of transit. “We sincerely hope,” proclaimed Lord Winterton, Britain’s representative at the Evian Conference, on a visit to the camp, “that it may be soon possible to find permanent homes for all, not in this country”.  

By Pesach about 500 of the 4000 refugees who would eventual find sanctuary in this sleepy corner of Britain had arrived. Five months before the outbreak of war, and with the atrocities that would decimate their communities as yet unthinkable, these traumatised men still clung to the hope that their loved ones would also escape the clutches of Nazism. As one refugee wrote of that Seder night in the camp monthly magazine:

"Our ancestors were forced to build pyramids as guards beat them continually, yet here we build new huts, paint walls and repair streets. Manischtannah ha-leilah ha-seh? Well, the difference is that we are building homes for ourselves and those of our brethren who are able to escape the Egypt of our days. Imagine the excitement of those new comrades from Berlin who had entered the camp barely half an hour earlier, as they sense our aims and desires! If only there was space at those tables for all who cry out for freedom.

"As we stained the table cloth with tears of wine, thoughts of relatives, separated by miles of mountains and hostility, filled the room with the scent of melancholy. Our ancestors left Egypt, man and wife, old and young, wealthy and poor – but we had to say farewell to our well-beloved, not knowing when we should be allowed to embrace them again. Indeed, we tasted more the bitterness of the Herb than the sweetness of the Charoseth."

On Yom HaShoah this year, as conflict in Europe fuels the biggest refugee crisis this continent has seen since those words were written, the story of this little-known aspect of Britain’s response to Nazism is being told in a special memorial concert at Wigmore Hall. Remembering Kitchener Camp, coordinated by Holocaust Education charity Learning from the Righteous, will feature narration by Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis, with music from the Ensemble 360 String Quartet and the London Cantorial Singers.

The carefully chosen programme will reflect the importance that music came to play at the camp. For the refugees, the sounds of Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss were fond cultural remnants of the homelands that had rejected them, and as the camp population expanded, so too did the number of refugee musicians. Eventually, with many of its instruments donated by the locals, an official camp orchestra formed, giving its first public performance on the second day of Pesach, attracting an audience of 700 Sandwich residents.

In fact the orchestra’s reputation travelled far beyond Sandwich and arrangements were even set in place for the BBC to broadcast a live recital from the camp. Alas, these plans were scuppered by the outbreak of war; the proximity of Wigmore Hall to Broadcasting House means that, after 83 years, this event symbolically stages the concert that never took place

The commemorations will conclude with the awarding of British Heroes of The Holocaust medals to descendants of brothers Jonas and Phineas May and Ernest Joseph – three JLGB stalwarts who played pivotal roles in the life of the camp. The award is the UK Government’s recognition of British citizens who helped or rescued Jews or others in the Holocaust; either through extraordinary acts of courage, or by going above and beyond the call of duty in the most difficult circumstances. To date it has been award to 41 individuals.

The timing of this recognition could not be more apt. The Kitchener Camp and Kindertransport rescue schemes succeeded because activism and compassion of civic society persuaded officialdom to oil the bureaucratic cogs to better help those who had been forcibly displaced by the ravages of war. This is a timeless story that poses the question at the heart of our common humanity – how can we remain passive bystanders in the face of suffering?

Tickets for the concert on 28 April can be booked here

April 11, 2022 15:14

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive