Kitchener Camp story revealed

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The forgotten story of how the people of Sandwich played a key role in saving thousands of men from certain death at the hands of the Nazis is to be featured in a BBC TV show on Monday evening (January 23).

In recounting the stories of love and loss, the Inside Out programme tracks down men and women of the time to discover how the locals took the people of another country and culture to their hearts.

In November 1938 the Nazi authorities in Germany rounded up more than 30,000 Jewish men and detained them in concentration camps. If the men could get entry visas for foreign countries and emigrate immediately, they would be allowed to leave.

For those without money or connections abroad, it was an impossible race against time. But more than 4,000 of them were saved, thanks to a small group of people - the Central British Fund for German Jewry - doing all they could to enable the men to come to Kent and find refuge at Richborough, near Sandwich.

Between February and September 1939 the men came to Britain on transit visas and were given safe haven at an old and rundown First World War training base, the Kitchener Camp.

The show managed to track down many of the Kitchener Camp veterans who still survive today. Many of the men were skilled: doctors, engineers, builders, writers, musicians, carpenters, university professors and so on. One was a professional photographer. They produced numerous diaries, drawings, plans and photographs of rare quality.

The folk of east Kent knew nothing of coffee, but the men became regular customers, transforming the shop from an English tea-room into a Continental-style coffee house. The contrast between the friendliness of the locals and their treatment back in Germany was stark.

The show also will look at what happened to the men when the camp closed shortly after war broke out. Most, being German, were considered Enemy Aliens but were eventually given the opportunity to join the Pioneer Corp and fight for Britain against Germany. In all, 3,000 of them signed up.

There is, however, a tragic side to this story, as the programme explains.

The men with wives and children expected their families to follow soon after, but circumstances changed quickly. War broke out and most of them could not escape from Germany and ended their lives in concentration camps. So, although the Kitchener Camp saved thousands of lives, it also created circumstances of terrible loss.

Some of these men went on to have second families and for those who had children after the war, the programme tells the younger generation the full story of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ lives and the importance of the Kitchener Camp to their own families’ history.

The show featured Harry Rossney who was one of first to arrive and got the huts ready. He joined the Pioneer Corp after leaving camp and served in the Brit Army for six years. Also on the programme was Hilda Keen, who was a child in Sandwich. Her mother owned a baker’s shop which became a coffee house thanks to the men from the camp.

Mr Rossney, 92, now lives in London with his wife after a successful career as a designer and has family in Cranbrook. He says the camp saved his life.

“I arrived in Kent on March 8, 1939, after I’d been an apprentice in Berlin, at a terrible time as the Nazis took power. Under their laws I couldn’t work for an ‘Aryan’ and the only job I could find was delivering goods on a bicycle,” he said. “I was half-Jewish and didn’t look particularly Semitic, so I didn’t have the problems many people had. I could walk the streets without being beaten up.

“But getting to England saved my life as two weeks later I would have been conscripted into the German army and that would have probably been the end of me.

“I don’t know who put me forward for the camp to this day. All I know is that they saved my life. The area had been acquired by the British Jewish community to house refugees and they had obtained permission to rebuild it. But they needed 200 tradesmen and I was a signwriter, so I was asked to come over. In fact I was number 196.

“When I arrived I was given overalls and rubber boots and we all worked day and night to put up huts, level roads and instal such things as showers. Each hut could take 48 refugees and in the end we provided shelter for 3,600 Jews.

“I came to England and I couldn’t speak a word of the language. But the people and the country were wonderful. Even when at school I had loved the idea of England as a sort of fairyland. England in German translates roughly as Angel-land and that is how I saw it. The land of angels.

“I tried to fit in as quickly as I could. I loved everything about it, the freedom, the laughing faces, the relaxed atmosphere – all the opposite of Germany at the time.”

Mr Rossney joined the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, working in the camp and then further afield constructing roads and installations. Three weeks after D Day, he was in France.

He said: “I was happy with my unit, but orders then came through from General Montgomery’s headquarters reassigning me. I didn’t want it, didn’t ask for it, but couldn’t do anything about it.

“Casualties had been huge and the bodies needed to be buried. I was the only signwriter for a hundred miles, so they wanted me to inscribe the names of the fallen on to the hundreds of crosses which had been taken out to France for the military cemeteries.

“Speaking French, German and English, I ended up in charge of a team with the rank of sergeant, made up of disabled British troops, German prisoners of war and French civilians.”

Other stories of Jews escaping the Holocaust have been well documented: Oscar Schindler - credited with saving 1,500 Jews - and Nicholas Winton - credited with saving 669 - and the famous Kindertransport, which relocated thousands of Jewish children to British foster homes. These stories have been well reported, written about and even portrayed in film. There are commemorative statues paying homage to them in various locations in Europe.

But in spite of the numbers of people saved, the Kitchener Camp, which was unique, is essentially forgotten. Only a few of the men from the camp are alive today, so the BBC felt it was the last chance to tell their story.

• Inside Out South East is to be broadcast on BBC1 at 7.30pm on Monday, January 23

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