The Island of Extra­or­di­nary Cap­tives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Intern­ment Camp

  • Review
By – January 23, 2023

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.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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