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A thought for Holocaust Memorial Day–The Kitchener Camp, Richborough

Sent in by top jotter Robin Healey who asked me to post this on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Dilapidated training buildings left over from the First World War, on a site just outside Sandwich in Kent, were requisitioned early in 1939 to accommodate thousands of Jewish male refugees fleeing from Hitler. The operation, financed by the Balfour Fund, was designed to give these refugees—who ranged from skilled manual workers to University professors—the chance to train for a new life outside continental Europe. Within a few weeks of the camp opening for business, a magazine, the Kitchener Camp Review had been established to publish the opinions, life stories and impressions of these refugees from Nazi oppression.

I own a full run (nine issues) of this exceedingly  scarce publication, which rarely ran to more than eighteen, sometimes very feint, pages, which were mimeographed on good quality foolscap, and stapled to a printed cover of light crimson coloured paper. Although almost all inmates were German speakers, the journal was published in English, principally because the editor, Phineas L.May, wanted to encourage the refugees to be fluent in the language. So, he either published a translation of the contributions, or occasionally invited those with good English to write in the language of their adopted country without editorial intervention. When we consider how good the language skills were of a refugee like Nikolaus Pevsner, who had fled Germany years before, we should assume that the English of some of his fellow, highly educated, Jewish compatriots at the Camp, probably needed very little correcting. Indeed many of those who wrote for the Review, had previously held high academic posts in Germany, and after the War went on, like Pevsner himself,  to pursue  illustrious careers in the English speaking world. Indeed, I have reasons to suspect that one of these academics, a geophysicist, was the father of an old girlfriend of mine.

Kitchener Camp- occupants of Hut 33

In the first issue of the Review, ‘Sonnyboy’, who later became a frequent contributor, writes of his passage to the Camp.

My First Impressions in England and the Kitchener Camp by ‘Sonnyboy’ (Foreign Editor) 

Being over in this country since a few weeks, I feel the desire to give my first impressions of the English mentality which struck me most from the very first moment of my arrival.

After having passed the frontier of the land which I had to leave, as so many thousands of my fellow Germans, the first Englishmen I met were the crew of the steamer which brought me over with my wife and my daughter one stormy night from the Hook of Holland to Harwich.

The landing officer was the first official I had to do with, and the gentle way he held his necessary enquiry was something entirely new for all of us; he noticed my surprise and, with a gentle smile—which expressed more than words could do –he handed the passports back to me , after having stamped them with the precious stamp regarding the ‘ permit’. 

A few hours later, having enjoyed the first English breakfast in the train bringing us down to London, we arrived at Liverpool Street Station, where friends awaited us, and shortly afterwards we felt the new atmosphere of kindness and helpful humanity we were going to live in.

‘ Humanity’ and Gentlemanliness’—those two words in their full and deep sense are for me the representatives of the British character. Whoever I spoke to since coming here, has showed such a sincere will to help me and all fellow-countrymen and their families in the same situation, and this gave to me quite a new feeling of hope for a new start of  life, after all the bitter experiences we had to pass through.

After a short stay in London, I received by a singular chance, the opportunity to do voluntary work at the Kitchener Camp at Richborough. It is rather difficult for me to describe the overwhelming impression I got when I saw for the first time this vast area covered with so many stone huts, which was being prepared to be soon populated by thousands of young Jewish men who were to be trained to be able to start their lives over again with a handcraft occupation, or as farmer in any country they would be admitted to…

Kitchener Camp Review, issue no 1, March 1939, pp2 -3.

For nearly sixty years the site of the Kitchener Camp, which lies off the coast road northeast out of Sandwich, was occupied by the Pfizer pharmaceutical works, best  known recently  for producing Viagra. Three years ago, the company withdrew its operations here, leaving behind futuristic constructions that today contrast rather bizarrely with the few remaining buildings of the 1939 Camp. [RMH]

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