71 years after the end of the Second World War the collective story of the millions of victims of Nazism and genocide is well known, but as survivors become fewer, first hand accounts are shifting from the spoken to the written word.
New files released today at The National Archives are the latest documentary evidence to shed new light on this history, in this case by offering a glimpse into how West Germany compensated – in monetary terms – British victims of Nazi persecution.
After a period of negotiation beginning in the mid-1950s, the West German state agreed in 1964 to provide the British government with £1 million to distribute as compensation among British victims of National Socialism. After making a call for applicants via newspapers, the radio and television, the Foreign Office received over 4,000 forms from individuals who claimed to have been victims of Nazi persecution.
However, by the end of the process the Foreign Office was only able to accept 1,015 of these claims; the reasons behind the refusal of the other 3,000 applicants rested largely on different definitions of the term ‘persecution’. In their attempt to reach and compensate with the limited funds available those who had suffered the most, the Foreign Office applied relatively narrow criteria of eligibility for what constituted persecution. Though there were exceptions throughout the process, this typically meant having been interred in a ‘concentration camp or comparable institution’ (PIN 76/3).
The case files from this process – of which the first tranche are released today – provide details of these claims for compensation made between 1964 and the closure of the scheme in March 1966.
Many of these files contain first-hand accounts written by Jewish and non-Jewish victims that may otherwise have been forgotten. A number of names, however, will likely be familiar to some. One of these is Bertram Arthur ‘Jimmy’ James (FO 950/1327). James was an RAF Officer captured by the Germans in 1940 and held in various camps over the course of the next five years. It was from one of the camps, Stalag Luft III, that James, along with 75 other men, attempted the much-celebrated Great Escape. It was the getaway via the three secretly dug tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry – that was immortalised by the 1963 film and this act of ingenuity has captured the British public’s imagination ever since. Of the 76 who escaped, 73 were recaptured. Over half of these men were executed, although James was one of those spared and sent instead to Sonderlager A at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
James’ application contains his lengthy account of what happened next and describes how he was ‘kept for 5 months in solitary confinement under harrowing mental and physical conditions, not knowing when [his] turn for the firing squad might be’.
Despite the harrowing details, his application was initially rejected by the Foreign Office because he was not ‘subjected to the now well-known inhuman and degrading treatment of a concentration camp proper’. The British press were so outraged by James’ treatment – as well as that of the 10 other Great Escapers who had had their claim refused – that a Parliamentary Enquiry eventually overturned the decision in 1967. A sum outside the allocated £1 million of £20,515 was divided equally amongst the 11 (FCO 64/59).
The Foreign Office’s requirement for an individual to have been confined to a concentration camp or comparable institution also caused tensions among Channel Islanders. As the only British soil occupied by Nazi forces during the war, they naturally produced a large number of applications to the scheme. Being interned in a civilian camp did not lead to compensation, as it was essentially legal under the rules of war; those who engaged in resistance efforts, however, often did not receive the same treatment. Many were transferred to Gestapo prisons and in some cases concentration camps.
One such example is Frank Hubert Tuck, whose file provides a fascinating insight into the kinds of small – albeit effective – acts of anti-Nazi resistance on the islands. Tuck was one of 17 police officers in Guernsey, arrested for pilfering German stores which he did ‘to sabotage the enemy’s [position all [they] could’. Tuck and his compatriots claimed to have been taken to various camps including a forced labour camp in Neuoffingen in 1942. He was later moved to the outskirts of Landsberg and finally Dachau concentration camp. He details in depth his treatment and that of others such as Police Sergeant Harper who was ‘beaten with a pick and shovel, kicked and trampled’. Also within his file is a claim for permanent medical disability, and the usual correspondence between the applicant and the Foreign Office. In spite of the Foreign Office criteria, Tuck was awarded the maximum payment of £4,000 for the ill-treatment he suffered. Efforts were also made to find and compensate his colleagues.
Naturally, of course, there are also a large number of files that relate to the particularly harrowing tales of Jewish suffering. One such story is that of Leon Greenman. Greenman was a Dutch-British Jewish man, who lived in the Netherlands with his wife and son. Along with the other Jewish inhabitants of his town, the Greenman family were rounded up and, despite protestations that they were British (and should be treated better than Jewish people of occupied counties) were treated as ‘Dutch Jews’. They were therefore sent to Auschwitz. His wife and young son met the same fate as millions of Jewish victims who passed through the gates of this infamous extermination camp; they were sent to the gas chambers on arrival. Leon Greenman, however, survived, and was part of the death march to Buchenwald, where he was later liberated. His personal account reveals the anguish he experienced at losing his family in Auschwitz, and the extent to which he wished to pursue justice against the Dutch officials who ignored his British citizenship and ultimately – he argued – led to the death of his family. Unfortunately, he was refused compensation on the grounds that he was eligible under the Dutch scheme. His account, of course, is only one of many. However, as first-hand oral testimony become rarer, examples of written, personal accounts of the Holocaust – such as this one- are increasingly valuable.
These documents offer not only a rare insight into the personal experiences of men and women who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but also the conflicting needs and memories of the groups who sought compensation. Though the British government had predicted a flood of applications from people recently naturalised who sought refuge in Britain during or after the war, they also found those who had fought in British uniform or lived in outlying occupied lands expected their share of the compensation.
The policy files and now these personal accounts help tell how these differing demands were dealt with by the Foreign Office. They also act as reminder that, for those who experienced suffering at the hands of the Nazis, the effects and memory of this persecution lasted far beyond the end of the war.