Kitchener Camp

Kitchener camp Reichsvertretung 17th March 1939, letter heading
Kitchener camp
Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, 17th March 1939
From the family archive of Werner Weissenberg

Was your relative a Jewish refugee to Britain from Germany, Austria, Poland, or Czechoslovakia in 1939?

If so, they may well have found refuge in Kitchener camp near Sandwich, Kent.

The aim of this website is to gather together Kitchener camp documents, letters, photographs, and histories.

We hope to create a better understanding:

  • of how the Kitchener men escaped from Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in 1939
  • of what their lives and routines were like in Kitchener camp
  • and of what they went on to do when the camp closed down

Having this global website presence means that Kitchener descendants who do not live in Britain will also be able to share their materials and histories.

Update 2023

This site with its images of refugee photographs and documents has now been donated to the Wiener Holocaust Library in London, to maintain these items as both materials for education and as an act of commemoration.

The donation took place in 2019, marking the 80th anniversary of the opening of Kitchener camp.

In addition, we created a mobile exhibition from the Kitchener materials, which has also been donated under the care of the Wiener Library.

The exhibition opening took place on 1st September 2019 at the Jewish Museum in London.

Let this be a good time to share our knowledge of these events among us.

In terms of materials/histories on Kitchener camp, we are adding items relating to the following events from around November 1938 to around 1943/45:

November 1938, arrests, and imprisonment

Attempts to leave the ‘Greater Germany’ area

Arrival and stay in Britain/Kitchener camp

The Pioneer Corps or other service experience

Internment experiences

Emigration onwards

Briefly, ‘What happened afterwards’, such as onward migration, or settlement in the U.K.

We’re also interested in what profession the refugees had in Greater Germany: what the patterns are, if any. One of the key questions families ask is, ‘Why did my father get a place at Kitchener?’ We have a few theories, but need more solid information. So, we would welcome any note of professional or other qualifications, as well as membership of professional, technical, or social groups.

Editor: Clare Weissenberg

The long road to Kitchener camp

The persecution of German Jews began as soon as Hitler took power on 30 January 1933. Mainly, the world stood by as, step by step, Jews were stripped of their civil and human rights, their homes, and their means to earn a living. Many Jews left Germany during the 1930s, but their capacity to do so was restricted by other countries’ strict immigration quotas, by the need to demonstrate that they could support themselves in a new country, and by requirements to pay significant leaving and ‘landing fees’.

Less than a year before the start the second world war, from 9–11 November 1938, large groups of National Socialists (‘Nazis’) across German territories attacked synagogues, Jewish commercial premises and homes, and Jewish people. Sometimes referred to as Kristallnacht, but also known as the November pogrom, or November terror, these events finally generated some international sympathy, particularly in Britain.

In the immediate aftermath of November 1938, the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF) (now World Jewish Relief) managed to persuade the British government to allow the CBF to mount rescues of groups of Jews from Greater Germany. The first of these rescues – of 10,000 unaccompanied children – is well known as the Kindertransport. A second rescue, which is less well remembered and documented, was of around 4,000 adult men, many of whom had been arrested during November 1938 and incarcerated in three concentration camps: Sachsenhausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald.

The CBF had to undertake to organize transport and accommodation for the children and for the men, and to support both groups financially. It was on the promise of this financial support – and on condition that neither group would make Britain their permanent home – that the British Home Office finally gave permission for these rescues to take place.

Between February 1939 and the outbreak of World War Two on 3 September 1939, just under four thousand adult Jewish refugees, all of them men, were put on trains from Berlin and Vienna. They travelled via Ostende and Dover to Sandwich in East Kent, where the CBF had rented an old First World War base known as Kitchener camp. This camp was one of seven WWI camps close to Sandwich, known collectively as Richborough Port. The camp itself was sometimes referred to, particularly by the Jewish philanthropists who ran the CBF, as Richborough transit camp.

Kitchener was run by two Jewish brothers, Jonas and Phineas May. They had experience running summer camps for the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, but this must have been a much more demanding task – to run a camp for 4,000 traumatized men, most of whom had had to leave behind their families in the Third Reich. During summer 1939, a few of the men managed to get their wives and children out of German territory using the system of ‘domestic service visas’ for their wives and the Kindertransport for their children. However, most families were not able to get out of Germany in time, and they were killed during the Holocaust.

In December 1939, after the outbreak of war, the Kitchener men were encouraged to join the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps – a labour and logistics section of the British Army. Archives suggest that 887 German and Austrian Kitchener men enlisted, with most forming part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to continental Europe at the start of 1940. They were brought back in unarmed boats from St Malo, about three weeks after the main Dunkirk retreat. Many report having to relinquish their guns before being allowed to board the ‘little boats’ back to Britain.

After the fall of France in May/June 1940, it was thought too risky to keep a group of German-speaking refugees – or ‘aliens’, as they were called – so close to the English Channel and the ports. Subsequently, Kitchener camp – as a refugee camp and as a Pioneer Corps training camp – was closed down. The refugees who had enlisted remained in the British Army, but were moved to Devon; many of those who had not enlisted were sent to internment camps, mostly on the Isle of Man.

This rescue of mostly Jewish men from Germany to Britain was to involve many mixed emotions: joy at survival, guilt at the loss of loved ones, and a wish to forget a time of such fear, anxiety, and enforced migration.

This website has been created for those who want to remember their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and cousins who found refuge – and their chance of life – in Kitchener camp.

It is our opportunity to commemorate, document, and share this little-known Jewish refugee history.

Introduction by Kitchener author Clare Ungerson, Four Thousand Lives: The Rescue of German Jewish Men to Britain, 1939

Editor Clare Weissenberg

Kitchener plaque. Source: Stephen Nelken, 2017
Plaque in Sandwich, Kent, 2017
Photo source: Stephen Nelken – Committee member and Treasurer, Kitchener Descendant Group

Plaque in Sandwich, Kent, 2017
Photo source: Stephen Nelken – Committee member and Treasurer Kitchener Descendant Group