Life in Wire: Jewish Women and the British Detention System

15 Jun, 2021 | Blogs, Latest, Refugee Week 2021

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By Edie Martin, Intern, René Cassin

The view of Port Erin, drawn by a male internee on the Isle of Man for the Onchan Pioneer

When the events of the Second World War are retold, Britain’s decision to intern thousands of Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man, of whom 3500 were women or children, is scarcely mentioned. In celebration of this year’s Refugee Week, I set out to detail this forgotten history of female internment, and in turn explore women’s unique experiences of immigration detention.

Archival testimonies from surviving internees narrate how greatly their experiences of internment were shaped by the Second World War, intensifying both gratitude for their safety and the trauma of further family separation and exclusion. To do justice to the complex and personal nature of these accounts, I resist articulating a singular narrative of life in the camp and instead explore several ways the women’s lives were shaped by internment during this period.

Outside the camp, archive from the Wiener Library exposes the widespread, non-partisan uproar from MPs and constituents towards the ‘Un-Britishness’ of detaining refugees. Despite the genuine threat of invasion, war-time politicians seemed far less preoccupied with detention as a way of preserving national security and reducing immigration than our current Home Office. As the government moves forward with its plans to build new immigration detention sites for women, I grapple with how the landscape of detention has changed so drastically in the last eighty years, leading to its current normalisation in contemporary British policy and discourse.

Within the Camp: Life in Port Erin

When World War Two first broke out, internment camps were only used to hold those classified as high-risk ‘enemy aliens’ by legal tribunals. However, by 1940 the growing fear of invasion lead the government to detain all German and Italian immigrants to the UK, regardless of gender, refugee status, or the date of their arrival into the country.

Female internees were separated from their families and transported en-masse to Rushen Camp, a civilian-run internment facility on the Isle of Man. Rather than build a new facility, the government adopted the village of Port Erin as the site of internment with ‘all spare bedrooms …requisitioned to house the thousands of women that arrived.” The camp itself may have appeared like an ordinary village if it was not for the barbed wire that surrounded its borders, insulating Port Erin’s fields and coastline from the rest of the island.

As a new arrival, Ellen Shiffman was surprised to find that the camp’s remote landscape offered the women relative mobility, releasing them from the claustrophobia of war-time London. Some even recalled that a hot summer could transform the camp into a pseudo-holiday destination. As well as offering space for physical exploration, the camp provided room for integration and innovation between the women. The internees created a ‘service exchange’ in place of money, where they facilitated seminars and workshops sharing knowledge from their professions and interests.

Despite these academic opportunities, the women’s camp had significantly less freedom than their male counterparts, who ran their camp independently rather than being managed by residents of the town. And, whilst the male camps released multiple bi-monthly journals which offered them the platform to advocate for their own release, the Rushen Camp’s journal was routinely monitored and quickly discontinued.

Given the wholesale detention of immigrants regardless of their categorisation, the Rushen camp also became notorious for holding Jewish refugees alongside women who remained ‘loyal to the Reich’. This arrangement meant the Jewish community continued to experience rampant antisemitism within the camp, unsupported by those in charge of protecting them. In one horrifying safeguarding breach, a Jewish girl was forced to share a double bed with a Nazi loyalist for many months. A Jewish internee named Erna Nelki wrote in the Rushen Journal of the misery of these living quarters, ‘to me and many other women who have suffered under the Nazi Regime in Germany as Jews or political opponents, it is difficult to understand that Nazis who are still in the Camp are able to torture those they choose as their victims.’[1]

These conditions exposed the British government’s inability to distinguish refugees from genuine potential threats to national security. They also reveal a familiar tendency to treat all foreigners with suspicion and an intrinsic otherness. For example, upon arriving on the island, detainees were assigned prison numbers, which created intense fear among the internees, failing to recognise, or be sensitive to, their experience as victims of the Nazis. Today’s government repeats similar failures. By detaining female asylum seekers who have been victims of sexual trauma or trafficking, the system routinely re-traumatises victims of violence and torture.

The camp’s inability to separate victims from perpetrators was just one way the women were troubled by life ‘within the wire’. Many felt that the superficial concessions offered by the camp were designed to obscure the fact that refugees were being held as prisoners of war. In Livia Laurent’s autobiography she captures how the internees’ limited access to physical freedom could intensify internalised feelings of entrapment, writing, ‘if one is a prisoner, one should be in prison… it is worse than a prison. There you don’t see what you are missing. The walls shut you in. The world is far way’.[1] This sense of claustrophobia was only increased by indefinite periods of interment. Not knowing when they might be released was their greatest preoccupation. Despite their fears, the majority of women only stayed within the camp for six months, which was a far shorter period than some male internees.

When compared to Britain’s current immigration detention system, the internment camps of the Isle of Man are both uncannily familiar and radically different. Both periods have seen women subject to violence and trauma, detained indefinitely due to bureaucratic failures. Barracks-style accommodation, like civilian camps, offer superficial freedom, whilst cutting their residents off from their families, a community and a sense of normality. However, contemporary detention centers offer female detainees far less autonomy over their own lives than the women interned in the camp. Compare the open sea to the structure of Yarls Wood immigration removal center, separated from the community by an ‘iron gate, which can only be opened by a staff member carrying keys.’[2] Compare the service exchange to the ‘carefully choreographed levels of freedom within constraints’ described within Yarl’s Wood: women allowed ‘to wander, but not everywhere; free to cook, but not to share their meal; encouraged to speak English, but not to learn it.’[3] Women with histories of domestic abuse and trafficking micro-managed and their privacy invaded at every turn.[4] Compare the journals released from the camps to the chilling silence we hear from within detention centers.

Beyond the camps: 1940’s society’s response to the internment of refugees

Similarly unrecognisable was the bipartisan uproar from parliament concerning the ‘Un-British’ act of detaining refugees, especially women and children. Media coverage on the internment of refugees framed the policy as ‘an intolerant act’, ‘monstrously unjust’ and a ‘disreputable story’ for the nation.[5] This reaction came from across the political spectrum, with Conservative MP Major Victor Cazalet providing one of the period’s most damning critiques of internment, calling its initiation ‘totally un-English’, and ‘a matter which touches the good name of this country’.[6] Conservative Peers were known to raise questions on camp conditions to the Lords. Outside Parliament, a letter from the Times, with notable signatories such as E.M Forster, declared that ‘Jewish and other refugees from Nazi oppression should not be interned with Nazi sympathisers.’[7] This is not to say there was no moral panic in the press about what the influx of Jewish refugees would mean for the preservation of ‘Britishness’. This attitude was as prevalent for Jewish refugees in the 1930s as it is today for those fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Asia. For example, an Observer article in 1938 posed the question, ‘If a further accretion of, say, 100,000 [Jewish refugees] come into the country, how could the danger be averted of an anti-Jewish feeling here?’[8] Despite the inflammatory and xenophobic nature of this rhetoric, detention was never presumed to be the answer.

Tragically, in 2021, it seems remarkable that the 20th century threat of invasion did not dampen calls for dignity and respect for our fellow human beings fleeing persecution, conflict and war. This alternative narrative offers us the space to rethink detention’s necessity as a means of security and control and show us how far the British system has strayed from the principles of dignity, morality and human rights in its pursuit of immigration control.

With special thanks to The Wiener Library’s Barbara Warnock

[1] Livia Laurent, ‘A Tale of Internment’, 1942

[2] Mary Bosworth  and Blerina Kellezi, ‘Citizenship and belonging in a women’s immigration detention centre’ Kellezi (2014)m p. 4. Available at: in Philips and C. Webster (Eds.). (2014). New Directions in Race and Ethnicity. Abingdon: Routledge.

[3] Mary Bosworth  and Blerina Kellezi, ‘Citizenship and belonging in a women’s immigration detention centre’ Kellezi (2014)m p. 4. Available at: in Philips and C. Webster (Eds.). (2014). New Directions in Race and Ethnicity. Abingdon: Routledge.

[4] Mary Bosworth  and Blerina Kellezi, ‘Citizenship and belonging in a women’s immigration detention centre’ Kellezi (2014)m p. 4. Available at: in Philips and C. Webster (Eds.). (2014). New Directions in Race and Ethnicity. Abingdon: Routledge.

[5] Richard Dove  Introduction: ‘Totally Un-English’? Britain’s Internment of ‘Enemy Aliens’ in Two World Wars’

[6]  Richard Dove  Introduction: ‘Totally Un-English’? Britain’s Internment of ‘Enemy Aliens’ in Two World Wars’

[7] Richard Dove  Introduction: ‘Totally Un-English’? Britain’s Internment of ‘Enemy Aliens’ in Two World Wars’

[8] Anne Karpf, ‘We’ve been here before’, The Guardian, 2002

[1] ‘Totally Un-English’? Britain’s Internment of ‘Enemy Aliens’ in Two World Wars’

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