In the summer of 1940, in the face of what seemed the inexorable advance of Nazi Germany across Europe towards English shores, bringing with it the fear of imminent invasion, the British Government decided that it would be expedient to arrest and intern in special camps all “Enemy Aliens”. “Collar the lot!” declared Churchill – never mind that many of them had been settled in the country for years, never mind that many had just escaped unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Nazis. Hans Keller was one of those rounded up, and in the Keller Archive here at the University Library, we hold the Internment Letters he wrote to his mother and other family members which provide a tantalising glimpse into this regrettable episode.
Keller was arrested towards the end of June 1940 and taken, along with his uncle Hans Grotte, his cousin Rudi Kompfner and the musician and astrologer Oskar Adler, to a “collecting station” at Kempton Park (race courses were used as they offered immediate large spaces) and thence to the internment camp at Huyton where he was allocated to tent 220 (groundsheets on damp, bare earth), quickly moved to 138 Parbrook Road, a house on the requisitioned Woolfall Heath Estate, into what proved to be desperately cramped, primitive, conditions.
Internees were allowed to write letters twice a week, restricted to 24 lines only, on special letter forms, routinely read by a censor before being sent on. Sensitive to this, Keller wrote – for the most part in German – in clear, but small, print to pack as much into his allocation of lines as possible. The three topics which run throughout are requests for food and clothing to ameliorate living conditions, his music-making with other internees, and instructions to his family on how to progress and support his various applications for release. Naturally, as letters were both censored and restricted in length, it was impossible to share his innermost thoughts, but they do give a tantalising, if sanitised, glimpse into what daily life must have been like.
27 July 1940: Huyton Camp: “…Today we make, once again, an application for release to the Under Secretary of State, Home Office. Please send me an adjuster for the steel A-string, which I am waiting for. I shall soon play String Quartets with Oskar [Adler] (violin) and [Otto] Hüttenbach (‘cello). Is there any news about our release? Recently Miss Rathbone, MP, delivered a consolatory speech here.” (Eleanor Rathbone, MP for the Combined English Universities took up the cause of those interned).
10 Sep 1940: Huyton Camp: “Dearest Mutschili. Received the parcel with the lovely slippers and even more lovely cake. You don’t need to send tins any more, as one can get them here for 8 or 9d. Nor should you save any more sugar, as we have enough for the time being…Tomatoes can’t be got here, fruit rarely, everything else sporadically and very expensive….Recently the “Internee Art Exhibition, Art behind Barbed Wire” opened here; among other things there is a painting of the Adler Quartet, composed of Adler, Keller, Grünbaum, Hüttenbach….How are you faring during the bombing? [The Blitz had begun in London] Do you not get much sleep? How does it affect the children? And the Adlers?… Kisses, Hans.”
Somehow, there is mental space to give detailed advice to his cousin Inge Kompfner, on violin practice: 13 Sep 1940: “She should treat the 2nd and 4th positions with the same intensity; many an excellent violinist is scared of these two positions, because when he first started playing he neglected them in favour of first and third…Please send a small comb for my beard (I sleep with the beard under the blanket)….Sandwich spread and bread are excellent…”
Gradually, as the Government in the face of public outcry, began a painfully slow programme of release, his housemates were freed and they went from being five in one room to a luxurious two to a room. Then in October of 1940 came the news that they were to be transferred to the Isle of Man: 4 Oct 1940 “Received: collapsible chair with armrests, cooker, all Cowling System courses [hand-strengthening exercises for musicians], pyjamas, 2 Jewish Chronicles…Uncle Hans is a first class and enthusiastic sock darner. It is said here officially that next week on Wednesday at the earliest, most of the camp (including Uncle Hans and me) will be transported to the Isle of Man. We shall of course do our best to join Rudi [Kompfner]…”.
8 Oct 1940: “…I’m writing before our transfer to the Isle of Man tomorrow…we haven’t succeeded in being allocated to where Rudi is living, we’re going to Ramsey, but possibly we shall be able to apply from there for a transfer to Douglas…Our luggage is nine pieces, (the packing of which we have worked on for the last two days) and has already been taken away. Uncle Hans will travel with a little hand case, me just with violin case and music stand: the violin is wrapped in the towel and pyjama trousers, soap is in the rosin compartment, cigarettes in the same place…”
He and his Uncle Hans left Huyton for Mooragh Internment Camp in Ramsey on the Isle of Man on 9th October 1940. The camp was a distinct improvement on the conditions endured at Huyton, consisting of requisitioned seaside boarding houses and Keller was housed with his Uncle in a house they shared with East European orthodox Jews. We will gloss over the stomach-churning detail of the journey by sea on a grossly overcrowded ship in the grip of high winds and huge waves which Hans all-too-graphically portrays in his letter to his mother on arrival on 10 October. “It’s quite nice here”, he summed up, “hotels by the sea and no air raids.”
That November his application for release on the grounds of hardship was refused and he decided that, after all, he would enlist and secure release that way. He slips in his decision – which he knew would upset his mother – at the end of a letter to her of 16 November which begins by describing his day: “8:30 roll-call, followed by breakfast. Make beds, tidy room. Practice or rehearsal. 12:30 lunch. Twice a week carry coal. 2 o’clock fetch rations for our house. Practice or rehearsal. 4pm afternoon tea. Practice or rehearsal. 5pm Roll-call. 7pm evening meal and washing up afterwards. Then performance or socialising. – Today I joined the AMPC [Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps], which I would have done weeks ago if I hadn’t been put off by the circumstances and recruiting methods…” He was, however rejected on medical grounds.
This setback, did, eventually prove to be a silver lining (if there can ever be such a thing in these circumstances) in that it enabled him to apply for release under a new ‘Category 23’ introduced by the Government: persons volunteering for the Pioneer Corps rejected on grounds of ill-health. In the early weeks of 1941, as his application was being processed, he was, astonishingly, able to reflect in a letter of 2 January 1941 “Never again will I have the opportunity to gather so much insight into human nature as I have here, and in this respect internment was useful”. He would build on this in his work on the psychology of small social groups undertaken after the War with Margaret Phillips.
It took a further two months for the most intractably tangled red tape to unravel itself: nonetheless, his remaining letters are full of hope that arrangements will soon be made. 8 Feb 1941 “Dr. Roll has just told me that Col. Baker confirmed my positive medical report and sent it to the Home Office (About a fortnight ago)…so with God’s help, the medical report will meet up at some stage with my Home Office file, & I shall be released…By the way, are both violins in Bowness?…The eggs are excellent and a great pleasure…”. Eventually, on 20th March his release was authorised “I am so happy that I can’t really write about it” he tells his mother in a letter of 19 – 20 March “Today was given over to the strenuous occupation of eating up all my stock of food.”
He left the camp on 23rd March 1941 and travelled to join his mother in Bowness, where the family had moved to escape the Blitz. The reunion must have been joyous.
Acknowledgements: The story of Keller’s period of internment, together with translations of all but a handful of the letters, is told in A. M. Garnham’s compelling monograph Hans Keller and Internment. London, Plumbago Books, 2011. [M515.c.201.13] All quotations from letters are taken from these translations. The collection of letters from Keller’s internment was donated to the archive by Inge Trott (née Kompfner).