This weekend we reported in the Observer that Lord Pickles, the UK Special Envoy on Post-Holocaust Issues, had ordered an official inquiry into wartime atrocities committed on the tiny Channel Island of Alderney. An international panel of experts will review evidence of the Holocaust on British soil and determine how many died.
Eighty years on from this dark chapter in British history, this inquiry is long overdue.
Beyond a small group of dedicated journalists, campaigners, and academics, how many in Britain knew that the SS ran at least one concentration camp on an island in the English Channel? How many knew that at least one transport of hundreds of French Jews arrived at Alderney from Drancy, the notorious Paris transit camp used to deport so many Jews to Auschwitz?
Several thousand people were imprisoned on Alderney with the German camps operating under a system of “Vernichtung Durch Arbeit” (Extermination Through Labour), but what happened to them? Forensic archaeology has established there are mass graves on the island. But how many and who is buried there? And why was nobody prosecuted for war crimes committed after the Nazis were defeated?
These questions cry out for answers, but before now, the authorities appear to have been reluctant to scratch too deeply in case something truly disturbing was uncovered.
All those who died and suffered on Alderney deserve to be memorialised: Russians and Ukrainians and also the North Africans, Spanish Republicans and Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned by the Nazi occupiers.
But when the panel begins its deliberations, it will be crucial that the true extent of Jewish suffering on Alderney is finally examined.
The post-war picture of Alderney as simply a labour camp for the Soviet prisoners working on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall has turned out to be a convenient over-simplification. Alderney must now be recognised beyond question as a site of the Holocaust and, quite possibly, Guernsey and Jersey too. Jewish representation on the expert panel will therefore be essential.
Officially, only eight Jews died on Alderney but even the most cautious academics recognise this figure falls a long way short of the number of people murdered on the island or sent on to extermination camps elsewhere.
After more than two decades of investigative journalism, it is rare that a story still has the power to shock us, particularly one that is 80 years old. But the horrors of Alderney and the failure to bring the perpetrators to justice have genuinely stopped us in our tracks.
It is too late for those who suffered and lost their lives on Alderney to find justice, but the very least we can do is recognise the full scale of the atrocities committed on British soil, however painful that may be.
Antony Barnett is a former reporter for Channel 4’s Dispatches and investigations editor of the Observer.
Martin Bright is editor-at-large at Index on Censorship and a former political editor of the Jewish Chronicle.