Life & Culture

The untold story of the women imprisoned on the Isle of Man


Katherine Hallgarten was just a year old when she became an "enemy alien" in the Second World War. As hysteria against the Germans grew, she and her mother, Ruth Borchard, were removed from London to the Isle of Man. They had no idea when they would return.

It is now 75 years since the two of them, along with 3,500 other women, arrived at Port Erin, on the southern tip of the island, which is located between the mainlands of Britain and Ireland. They reached Rushen women's camp on May 29, 1940.

Their experience is a part of history that has often been overlooked, with far more publicity given to the male internees hosted on the other side of the island. But the women's story is important, too, and a new exhibition, Friend or Foe, which shows this, has just opened in Port Erin. Katherine, who was accompanied by two of her granddaughters, Carla and Lily, for her first return to the island since her internment, says she found the experience "heartwarming".

Before arriving in Port Erin, Ruth had been in Holloway prison for several weeks. Her "crime" was being German and the prison was used to hold female internees, alongside British fascists and "normal" criminals.

The government was initially wary about arresting thousands of women but, as time went by and Belgium and Holland were taken over by the Germans, there were fears that the UK might be overrun by enemies within. It was decided to put these foreigners on an island from which they could not escape.

Unlike the men's camp, Rushen was under civilian control, overseen by the formidable Dame Joanna Cruickshank. She was helped by the landladies of the area, who took the women into their hotels and boarding houses and were paid to look after them. These buildings were not surrounded by barbed wire: instead the two villages had a barbed wire perimeter fence to stop internees getting out of Port Erin village. Locals had to negotiate this on their way in.

Dame Joanna has been criticised for her inability to stop German Nazi sympathisers (of whom there was a fair number) from being billeted with Jewish refugees. Many even had to share beds. But Pamela Crowe, one of the organisers of the exhibition, says Dame Joanna was in an impossible position. "She had no knowledge of who these women were," says Crowe, "but she told everyone to treat the refugees kindly." However, many islanders saw all the women as the same - German. In reality, some were Jewish and had fled persecution, while others still had an allegiance to the Nazi regime. "One lady said she had five Nazis," Pamela Crowe adds. "It turns out that all were Jewish."

Katherine Hallgarten says her mother remembered Nazi anthems being sung vigorously, but that Ruth, her mother, spoke favourably of the experience, not least because she knew her family were safe (her husband, Kurt, was in the men's camp).

She also recalls her mother telling her she had to put a label around her neck saying: "don't feed me and don't hug me" because there was such a shortage of babies to cuddle.

The summer of 1940 was a beautiful one, and the women were happy to relax on the beach.

The exhibition tells the story of 10 women, including Borchard and Dame Joanna, along with others including the educator Minna Specht, and Dwojra Dymant (Dora Diamant), the Jewish lover of Franz Kafka (who left many of his writings to her). Dora was arrested in London, along with her six-year-old daughter Marianne, and also held in Holloway prison before being sent to the Isle of Man, where she organised theatre and poetry readings for the internees. After she was released, she devoted her life to the preservation of Yiddish.

The majority of the women in Rushen, including Katherine and Ruth, were freed within 18 months to two years, although some had to stay until the end of the war. It was an experience none of them would forget.

"The people on the island learnt a lot from the internees," says Pamela Crowe, "from bits of German to different foods."

Katherine is also pleased that they chose to recall a difficult time in Manx history, and would love others to know about it too.

“My mother saw her time on the Isle of Man as a happy time,” she says. “And I came to say thank you to those who supported her – and me.”

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