Insiders/Outsiders: New nationwide arts festival to celebrate wartime refugees and their cultural creativity

German and Austrian Jews who created art while being held in British internment camps in the early years of World War Two are to be celebrated in a new festival. Details have been announced in the UK of a new year-long nationwide arts festival, Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Culture, which starts this month and will run until March, 2020.

According to an article by Michael Prodger in the Times newspaper (4th March), one hundred events will be held across the UK in association with the festival, and there will be a new book of the same name by Lund Humphries. There will also be a tie-in website.

Jewish chidren arrive in Britain 1938

More awareness now exists of the number of Jewish children who were able to find sanctuary in Britain in the late 1930s (see photo). But not many people realise that, when war was declared in September, 1939, there were an estimated 70,000 exiled Germans and Austrians in Britain. Many of them were adult Jews who, during the course of the 1930s, had escaped Nazi anti-Semitism, rising persecution and possible internment in camps in Germany and Austria, and had found what they believed was a safe-haven in Britain.

Yet, with the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, many of these refugees, men and women alike, had been classed as ‘enemy aliens’. The British Home Office quickly set up an aliens department and created tribunals to investigate every one of these ‘aliens’ over the age of 16. Over 120 tribunals were set up across the UK in order to process and categorise aliens according to the  ‘threat’ they potentially posed: three categories of threat were created: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. Those in category ‘A’ were to be interned.


By early 1940, the tribunals had processed about 73,000 cases, and about 60,000 were classed as category ‘C’, which meant they were exempted from internment. However, thousands were classed as category ‘A’, and were soon arrested and interned in a variety of emergency camps set up in places such as Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Bury, and even on the racecourse at Kempton Park. The majority of the internees were sent to camps on the Isle of Man (see photo).

The process of arrest and internment was inevitably very traumatic for many of those classed as category ‘A’, especially those who hated the Nazis and had found what they thought was a new and genuine form of freedom in England. In my own research on Kingston and Richmond, for example, I found a number of cases where Jews who had been working as housemaids or in other occupations had committed suicide rather than submit to arrest.

In June, 1940, after Italy entered the war, some 4,000 Italians living in Britain were also classed as ‘enemy aliens’ and a considerable number of them were also placed in the internment camps.

Many of the German and Austrian refugees who were interned were artists, architects, musicians, writers, film-makers and other talented figures from the cultural world and, ironically, had been categorised as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. When they had come to Britain, many had found the freedom and individual liberty to express themselves artistically once again. The shock of internment left many disappointed, angry or simply confused at the attitudes of the British Government.

Interestingly, though, and importantly, when they were interned in the British camps, many held on to their cultural identities and pursued their talents – in so far as they were able to in difficult conditions – in the camps. The new festival aims to reconstruct this relatively under-researched topic.

On the Isle of Man, for example, there were ten camps which held about 14,000 internees, and a significant number of internees became determined to pursue and maintain their creative talents, using whatever materials they could find. The festival will show how, for example, ‘paint’ was created out of soot mixed with condensed milk, with brushes made out of sticks and clipped hair. Wallpaper torn off the internal walls of boarding houses (which had become part of the camp near Douglas on the Isle of Man), or paper napkins, or the pages of newspapers, were all utilised as drawing or painting paper. New forms of communal artistic life developed among the internees, with exhibitions, art classes, music and other cultural events staged within the camps. At Kempton Park, a popular ‘University’ was also created.

The festival aims to re-tell and celebrate all this incredible cultural creativity, and point out and remind us how many of the internees went on to make major contributions to Britain’s post-war cultural, academic and social life.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)


This entry was posted in British history, European History, Events, Fascism, German History, Media history, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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