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The Island of Extraordinary Captives

A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp


About The Book

The “riveting…truly shocking” (The New York Times Book Review) story of a Jewish orphan who fled Nazi Germany for London, only to be arrested and sent to a British internment camp for suspected foreign agents on the Isle of Man, alongside a renowned group of refugee musicians, intellectuals, artists, and—possibly—genuine spies.

Following the events of Kristallnacht in 1938, Peter Fleischmann evaded the Gestapo’s roundups in Berlin by way of a perilous journey to England on a Kindertransport rescue, an effort sanctioned by the UK government to evacuate minors from Nazi-controlled areas.train. But he could not escape the British police, who came for him in the early hours and shipped him off to Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man, under suspicion of being a spy for the very regime he had fled.

During Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, tens of thousands of German and Austrian Jews like Peter escaped and found refuge in Britain. After war broke out and paranoia gripped the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that these innocent asylum seekers—so-called “enemy aliens”—be interned.

When Peter arrived at Hutchinson Camp, he found one of history’s most astounding prison populations: renowned professors, composers, journalists, and artists. Together, they created a thriving cultural community, complete with art exhibitions, lectures, musical performances, and poetry readings. The artists welcomed Peter as their pupil and forever changed the course of his life. Meanwhile, suspicions grew that a real spy was hiding among them—one connected to a vivacious heiress from Peter’s past.

Drawing from unpublished first-person accounts and newly declassified government documents, award-winning journalist Simon Parkin reveals an “extraordinary yet previously untold true story” (Daily Express) that serves as a “testimony to human fortitude despite callous, hypocritical injustice” (The New Yorker) and “an example of how individuals can find joy and meaning in the absurd and mundane” (The Spectator).


Chapter I: Barbed-Wire Matinee I BARBED-WIRE MATINEE

AS THE DAY BEGAN TO gather itself in, Peter Fleischmann watched the musician clamber onto the rostrum in the middle of the lawned square and settle himself at the grand piano. Before Peter fled Berlin, the eighteen-year-old orphan had buried pieces of silverware on the outskirts of the city; his collection of rare stamps had been taken from him by a Nazi inspector on the train that brisked him out of Germany. His only valuable was a silver dragonfly brooch, once owned by the mother he never knew. Peter was destitute. He could not normally have afforded a ticket to a performance by a renowned pianist, a favorite of kings and presidents.

Clear warm air, immense blue skies: the day had been one of the fairest of the century, a shimmering Saturday that evoked the languishing summers of childhood. So fine, in fact, that this was the day Germany chose to send their planes to bomb London for the first time, a blitz that would continue for the next eight months. Still, here on the misted Isle of Man, hundreds of miles from England’s capital city, the audience would have turned out whatever the weather. There was little else to do here in the middle of the Irish Sea.

Behind the pianist Peter saw a backdrop of neat Edwardian boardinghouses. The buildings appeared unremarkable: hotels for middle-class holidaymakers who wanted the frisson of overseas tourism without the effort and expense. Closer inspection revealed unlikely details. Each window was covered in dark film. The polymer material, used as a makeshift solution after a German U-boat had sunk the ship carrying blackout supplies to the island, peeled away when sliced with a razor blade. A fashion for silhouette carvings had spread through the camp: zoo animals, unicorns, characters from Greek myth adorned the ground-floor windows. At night, and viewed from street side, the pictures glowed with the light of the air-raid-safe, brothel-red lightbulbs from inside, a novel backdrop for the celebrated pianist.

In front of the piano, on a crescent of wooden chairs, sat a line of British army officers laughing and smoking next to their wives. Beyond them, beneath the darting midges, sat hundreds of men, mostly refugees, arranged in untidy rows on the grass. From the open windows of the surrounding houses, their bedrooms full of dusk, other men perched and leaned, the glow of their cigarette ends fireflies in the dying light. Peter could turn to see Douglas harbor behind him, where boats pottered and chugged, trailing their wakes on the tinseled sea. A few hundred yards away, somewhere above the frequency of conversation, the waves frothed on the shingle, like a broom sweeping glass from a shattered shop window.

A palisade of barbed wire separated and barred the men from the harbor, a perimeter that marked the boundary of what was officially known as “P” camp, or, to the men, simply, “Hutchinson.” Outside the wire fence, a group of locals had gathered. They peered in, hoping to glimpse and understand what was happening, the only obvious clue that tonight’s was a captive audience.

EIGHT WEEKS EARLIER, ON SATURDAY, July 13, 1940, Captain Hubert Daniel, a kindly, keen-drinking forty-eight-year-old army officer, had declared the camp open. Hutchinson was the seventh of ten internment camps to open on the Isle of Man, an island positioned sufficiently far from the neighboring coasts to be ideally suited for imprisonment.I The island’s boat-owning residents had been instructed to stow the oars and remove the spark plugs from their vessels’ engines at night. Even if an escapee were to board a suitable craft, the journey to the mainland was perilous. If you were here, you were here for good.

Hutchinson was currently home to around twelve hundred prisoners, predominantly refugees from Nazi Germany who had been living peacefully in Britain at the time of their arrest. In recent months rumors abounded that a fifth column—a neologism to Britain, now universally understood to refer to traitors living within their country of asylum—had assisted the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Newspapers had stoked national paranoia with claims that a similar network of spies lurked in Britain.

Even before the outbreak of war, Scotland Yard, working in conjunction with MI5, the British domestic intelligence service, had been deluged with tip-offs about suspicious refugees and foreigners. The police detained one man when investigators found an entry in his diary that read: “Exchange British Queen for Italian Queen.” The detective assumed he had exposed a fascist plot against the crown. In fact, the man was a beekeeper, planning to overthrow only the tiny monarch that ruled his hive.

The police were first alerted to one of Hutchinson camp’s internees, the young art historian Dr. Klaus Hinrichsen, and his fiancée, Gretel, when a neighbor reported hearing the young couple’s lovemaking. The distrustful neighbor suspected the rhythmic knocking of the bed might contain a coded message. It was difficult, Klaus pointed out, to prove that one did not understand Morse code.

The recent German occupation of France meant an invasion attempt seemed not only plausible but imminent. Days after he became prime minister, Winston Churchill authorized the arrest of thousands of so-called “enemy aliens.” In the chaotic roundups that followed, thousands of Jews who had fled Nazi Germany—including some teenagers like Peter who came via the feted Kindertransport trains—were imprisoned by the same people in whom they had staked their trust, a nightmarish betrayal. The refugees that comprised the majority of tonight’s audience had experienced a collective trauma: to be imprisoned by one’s liberator is to endure an injustice of chronology.

Status and class, those twin, usually indefatigable armaments of privilege, had provided no protection. Oxbridge dons, surgeons, dentists, lawyers, and scores of celebrated artists were taken. The police arrested Emil Goldmann, a sixty-seven-year-old professor from the University of Vienna, on the grounds of Eton College, Britain’s most elite school. At Cambridge University dozens of staff and students were detained in the Guildhall, including Friedrich Hohenzollern, also known as Prince Frederick of Prussia, a grandson of Queen Victoria. That year’s law finals were almost canceled because one of the interned professors had the exam papers locked in his desk and had no time to pass someone the key.

The police came for Peter in the early hours of the morning, without prior warning, a manner of detention that had reminded him of the Gestapo’s moonlit roundups and the muggy world of fear and distrust from which he had just fled.

In the weeks that followed its opening, Hutchinson had bristled with a creative energy, its inhabitants organizing events, much like this evening’s, that drew upon the unlikely inmates’ considerable talents. Still, no man could quite escape the demoralizing fact that the terms “internee” and “internment camp”—even “concentration camp,” as Hutchinson and the other island camps were sometimes referred to at the timeII—were euphemistic: Peter and every other man there were, in every way that mattered, captives, arrested without charge or trial, confined without sentence to a prison camp, and forbidden to leave. Regardless of their age or station, geopolitical history, blunt and undiscerning, had visited each man’s life.

Still, Peter was thrilled to be among this crowd. As the men had been imprisoned because of where they were from and not for who they were or what they had done, Hutchinson contained a dazzling cross section of society. It was happenstance, however, that brought so many brilliant achievers to this camp. Together they made up one of history’s unlikeliest and most extraordinary prison populations. While there were no tuxedos or ball gowns, no champagne flutes or chandeliers for tonight’s show, Peter sat among a constellation of brilliant individuals, luminaries from the worlds of art, fashion, media, and academia; an exceptional audience, even discounting the circumstances.

From an early age Peter had aspired to be numbered among the great artists. Events both international and domestic had at first conspired against his ambition, his dream to become an artist exploded by exile. Then the currents of history had carried him into the orbit of his heroes; he shared the camp with a raft of eminent artists, including Kurt Schwitters, the fifty-three-year-old pioneering Dadaist in front of whose “degenerate” work the failed painter Adolf Hitler had sarcastically posed. The artists, in turn, took this skinny, bespectacled outsider into their care.

Since he had arrived at Hutchinson, tonight’s performer Marjan Rawicz had been hounded by depression. Internment had interrupted his packed summer schedule. On May 3, 1940, he and his musical partner, Walter Landauer, played a benefit concert at the London Palladium to raise money for variety artists. Ironically, considering the duo was soon to be arrested on suspicion of being Nazi spies, their performance was broadcast on a radio channel dedicated to the British Armed Forces. Three weeks later, on May 23, at half past three in the afternoon, the pair gave a live demonstration of a Welmar grand piano on the second floor of the consummate British luxury department store Harrods. The police arrested the musicians a few weeks later, in Blackpool, where they had just begun a run of sellout performances.

While his world collapsed, habit held. Rawicz was a performer, and performers must perform. His only stipulation had been that tonight’s show would be a solo concert, that the program would be entirely his choice, and that he could use a grand piano—actually, a Steinway. Captain Daniel had pointed out to the musician that the inventory of houses listed eleven pianos already inside the camp.

“Can’t you use one of them?” the commandant asked, adding that it might prove difficult to secure official sign-off for a hired grand, considering, well, everything.

Reluctantly, Rawicz agreed. A small crowd trailed the musician as he toured the houses, testing each instrument for its suitability. Rawicz, not one to disregard an audience, had amused his trail of followers with sarcastic quips and condemnations.

“Even a deaf man would feel pain from this one,” Rawicz joked as he tested one neglected example. When one hanger-on expressed surprise at the shortness of his fingers, Rawicz shot back: “My friend, I am a pianist, not a gynecologist.”

Under the impact of Rawicz’s forceful playing, one piano collapsed. Onlookers soon dismantled the instrument and removed its keys, planks, and tangles of wire. A wood-carver, Ernst Müller-Blensdorf, took the mahogany sides. The animal trapper Johann “Brick” Neunzer, a lion tamer at Burnt Stub Zoo—later known as Chessington Zoo—pocketed the ivories, hoping to carve them into dentures, while the engineers among the internees collected the wire to make electric fires.

Rawicz had made his point. Captain Daniel relented. The camp’s maintenance department wheeled a hired Steinway onto a sturdy rostrum built for the occasion. A date was set, and the commandant, eager to demonstrate the superiority of his camp, issued invitations to his rival officers on the island.

THERE WAS NO SCORE TO flutter away on the wind when the audience’s applause stilled to intermittent coughs and rustles as Rawicz began to play. The pianist had prepared a wide-ranging program from waltzes to rhapsodies, from the “Radetzky March” to Bach, from show tunes like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to a composition of his own, “Spinning Wheel,” each one played from memory. The crowd greeted each piece with enthusiastic applause; transported to the prewar concert halls of Berlin, Vienna, and Prague—a distraction from the precariousness of the situation, the risk of deportation or of imminent Nazi invasion. The evening’s performance was, as one audience member put it, “unforgettable.”

For the finale, Rawicz had selected two pieces designed to draw a veil of ironic dissonance across the scene. Ignoring classics from the European composers, he opted instead for the sixteenth-century folk tune “Greensleeves”—a quintessentially English melody—before he segued into a rendition of the British national anthem. Peter and the other internees stood to their feet and sang.

May he defend our laws,

And ever give us cause,

To sing with heart and voice,

God save the king.

The square resounded with the chorus, sung in various degrees of accented English, a tribute to the country that had offered each man refuge only to turn against him. Rawicz’s pointed choices highlighted the tortuous absurdity of the situation. Here were hundreds of refugees from Nazi oppression, pledging loyalty to the country and allegiance to the king, under whose authority they had been imprisoned, without charge or trial, on suspicion of being Nazi spies. Still, swept up in the moment, few checked to see if any among them had chosen to remain silent.
  1. I. The others were: Mooragh, Peveril, Onchan, Central, Palace, Metropole, Granville, and Sefton for male internees, and Rushen for women internees and, later, married couples.
  2. II. The terms “internment camp” and “concentration camp” are, strictly, interchangeable. Modern readers associate the latter with atrocity, but neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the Holocaust Museum draw any distinction in their respective definitions.

About The Author

Courtesy of the author

Simon Parkin is an award-winning British journalist and author. A contributing writer for The New Yorker, he has also written for The GuardianThe ObserverThe New York TimesHarper’s MagazineNew Statesmen, the BBC, and other publications. He is the author of The Island of Extraordinary Captives (winner of the Wingate Literary Prize), A Game of Birds and Wolves, and Death by Video Game, and his work has been featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He was named a finalist in the Foreign Press Association Media Awards and is the recipient of two awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. Parkin lives in West Sussex, England.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (November 1, 2022)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982178529

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Raves and Reviews

"Riveting . . . a truly shocking story of what officials are wont to term 'national misjudgment,' is electrifyingly told by the journalist and historian Simon Parkin, whose breadth and depth of original research has produced an account of cinematic vividness.” —The New York Times Book Review

"Parkin’s account, with its well-chosen central figures and attention to the trauma that some of the imprisoned carried for decades, is testimony to human fortitude despite callous, hypocritical injustice." —The New Yorker

“Extraordinary yet previously untold true story . . . meticulously researched . . . it’s also taut, compelling, and impossible to put down.” —Daily Express

“Parkin [has an] inimitable capacity to find the human pulse in the underbelly of Britain’s war. . . . [The Island of Extraordinary Captives is] a reminder that conflict has always been a convenient mask behind which thuggery and xenophobia thrive. Yet, despite the stark injustice it describes, it is a curiously exhilarating read: an example of how individuals can find joy and meaning in the absurd and mundane.” —The Spectator

“Powerful. . . . vivid and moving. . . . spotlights a sorry aspect of Britain's war which deserves to be better known.” —Sir Max Hastings, The Sunday Times

“Compelling. . . . Parkin has unearthed a small and riveting chunk of wartime history, easily overlooked.” —Anne de Courcy, The Telegraph

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