The year was 1940, and Germany had just occupied the Netherlands and France. England feared it would be next. So the country’s new prime minister, Winston Churchill, ordered the roundup and internment of thousands of Jewish refugees, who were under suspicion as possible spies. Fortunate to have escaped the Nazis, and having found what they believed to be a safe haven in England, they were now deemed “enemy aliens.”
In The Island of Extraordinary Captives, journalist Simon Parkin recounts the story of one such internment camp. He writes of some of the men who were separated from their wives and children and incarcerated at a camp called Hutchinson, on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. The camps were not concentration camps, but more like holding pens. The internees were housed, fed, and even allowed a certain amount of freedom. At Hutchinson, one of ten internment camps on the Isle of Man, the 1,200 internees were mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. They comprised, as the book’s title indicates, an extraordinary collection of individuals, with resident musicians, artists, writers, and scholars.
The result was that the camp became a kind of artists’ colony, albeit one that the artists could not leave. But incarceration did not thwart their creativity; on the contrary, life at Hutchinson included lectures, exhibitions, concerts, a newspaper, poetry readings, lessons, and workshops, all offered by the internees.
Parkin focuses on several of the internees, one of whom was Peter Fleischmann, an eighteen-year-old orphan who was brought to England on the Kindertransport and then interned for sixteen months at Hutchinson. An aspiring artist, he found mentors, support, and training among the men at Hutchinson. Such activities and relationships seemed to lessen the trauma that he and the other internees experienced. Yet just beneath the surface, notes Parkin, was “a seething sense of fear, betrayal, hurt, and anger.” Internment by the British government was, Parkin writes, “the punishment for exile” for these asylum seekers.
As for Peter Fleischmann, after his release from Hutchinson, he joined the British Army and was with British troops at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. He served as a translator at Nuremberg, and, following his return to England, he attended art school — becoming the artist he had always dreamed of. Like many refugees, he discarded his German-sounding surname and built a new identity as Peter Midgley. For all intents and purposes, he left his past behind — outwardly, at least.