Refugee Week

Holloway Prison

Holloway Prison operated from 1852-2016, exclusively holding female and young offenders from 1903. Thousands of women were imprisoned there over its history. The story of women behind bars has long held the public imagination and many well-known prisoners have passed through Holloway’s doors. A vast array of experiences from Holloway were captured in Islington Museum’s 2018 project Echoes of Holloway Prison, including that of German Jewish refugees interned by the British government as ‘enemy aliens’. Eva Holmes was a small child when this happened to her family. They had sought a refuge and a new life in England, but the tense political climate ended up working against them. The diary of Eva’s mother and Eva’s letters help us to understand the hardships they faced.

Stop 7: Holloway Prison, Parkhurst Rd, N7 0NU

At the beginning of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution in their homelands arrived in Britain. Anti-immigration and anti-Semitic feelings towards these new arrivals grew. In 1902 the Bishop of Stepney said Jews were ‘swamping whole areas once populated by English people’ and an editorial in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1905 proposed ‘that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land.’ The government’s response to this was to enact Aliens Act (1905). This was the first time legislation had been passed to restrict immigration into Britain.

Nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments grew with the outbreak of World War One. This was fuelled by the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania on 7 May 1915. Anti-German protests and riots erupted across Britain, with anger and violence were directed towards German and Austrian residents. German owned businesses and shops were attacked. The government responded on 12 May forcing the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ under the Aliens Restriction Act (1914). By November 1915, over 32,000 people had been interned, though those who had become naturalised citizens were exempted.  Following the end of World War One, this legislation was not repealed, rather a new piece of legislation was enacted, the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act which extended the powers of the wartime Aliens Restriction Act into peacetime; obliging foreign nationals to register with the police, enabling their deportation and restricting where they could live.

Following their defeat in World War One, Germany suffered harsh economic penalties, set out in the Treaty of Versailles; the peace treaty that officially ended the war. Many felt shame in Germany for losing the war and many citizens struggled to adapt to the Weimar Republic; the new democratic state established following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This period of upheaval allowed many radical groups across the political spectrum to blossom. One such group was the National Socialist Party, or Nazi Party, which blamed communists, socialists and Jewish people for Germany’s economic and social problems. In 1929, Germany experienced a period of severe economic difficulty and unemployment, following the global great depression that started in the USA. The Nazis capitalised on this situation, scapegoating Jews for the crisis, and quickly began to win elections. By 1933 Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, was appointed Chancellor and all political parties banned and opposition politicians imprisoned. A general boycott against Jews and Jewish businesses was quickly established, and by 1935 new laws came into force which stripped Jews of their German nationality, banned Jews from universities and key professions and public roles and forbade marriage with non-Jewish citizens. In 1938, Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany meaning the same anti-Semitic measures were introduced there.

As a result of this persecution, many Jews attempted to leave Germany and Austria from 1935 onwards. Leaving was not that easy, however, due to tighter immigration controls and difficulties in obtaining visas for many countries including Canada and the United States. In 1937, Britain introduced stricter immigrations controls in response to the increased demand of people wanting to enter the country. Despite this, around 74,000 German and Austrian refugees settled in the UK prior to start of World War Two in 1939. Shortly after the outbreak of war, all Germans and Austrians living in the UK were classed as enemy aliens and required to register their details with the authorities. The Home Office set up Alien Tribunals to examine the case of every registered alien and place them within one of three categories:

  • Category A – high security risk and interned
  • Category B – doubtful and subject to restrictions
  • Category C – ‘loyal to the British cause’ – free

The vast majority were initially classified as Category C. Category A aliens were interned in camps throughout the country, including the Isle of Man. Initially 500 people deemed high risk by the authorities were arrested; However, as the threat of invasion intensified, an additional 25,000 men and 4,000 women were interned between May and June 1940. This included many Jewish refugees escaping Nazi oppression. 

Susi and Ludwig Liebermann, and their children Eva and Albert, were a German Jewish family who relocated to England in 1937, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In his native Germany, Ludwig worked as an industrial chemist but obtained employment at Fishers Foils, an aluminium foil factory in Wembley, on the advice of his German Jewish employer. In November 1939, Susanna and Ludwig appeared before the Aliens Tribunal and were subsequently classified as Category B aliens. Ludwig was immediately dispatched to a men’s internment camp on the Isle of Man. 

Entrance to HMP Holloway, circa 1860’s

Susi, Eva and Albert were interned in HM Prison Holloway in June 1940. Eva shared her memories of Holloway Prison with Islington Museum in 2018; “…the only thing [I remember is] a sort of recreation space, there was a kind of closed in space…where we were allowed to spend some time during the day…it was rather bleak, I remember that, and there was no grass or anything, it was just a kind of exercise yard….” Mothers and their children were held together in the prison’s hospital wing; However, the prison was quickly deemed an unsuitable environment for children, who were taken away from their mothers and sent to alternative locations. Eva wrote of her wartime experiences on 8 June 1940, “On Saturday afternoon the (Principal) Sister said to mummy that my brother and I were going to a home. I cried a lot and so did mummy…”

Eva’s recollections on 8 June 1940

Eva and Albert were taken temporarily to the Ladywell Institute in Lewisham, then on to a children’s home in Kent. Susi was subsequently moved from the hospital wing to a cell within Holloway Prison, where she wrote a diary documenting her experiences. Susi’s diary only came to light after she had died. In it she notes her shock at the contact she had with the ordinary prisoners along with their language and their general attitude. These were people she would never normally have met or interacted with in her everyday life. She also feared, quite rightly, that some of the people she was incarcerated with were actually Nazis or Nazi sympathisers. 

Prison and grounds at HMP Holloway.

3,600 women, half of whom were officially classified as refugees, were sent to Holloway Prison before being dispatched to special internment camps on the Isle of Man. Some were initially sent with their children; others were separated beforehand. Author and journalist Caitlin Davies in her book Bad Girls, A History of Rebels and Renegades describes this as “a shameful period of Holloway’s past. Thousands of women who had escaped persecution in Germany were labelled the enemy and separated from their children, not because of what they had done but because of who they were.”

Susi was able to write to her children, but with the family separated and held in different locations across the country, this offered little comfort. This changed in June 1940 when Susi and her children were sent to the same internment camp in the Isle of Man. Eva notes that “we were both on the Isle of Man together but [our father] was in a different place, the men and women were kept in separate camps.” She recalls seeing him only once during their time there. 

By March 1941 the family was reunited and sent back to their home in Wembley. Eva said that she gets “very distressed when I see children in England put in refugee centres today, it seems to me we’ve learned nothing. My parents were aliens – enemy aliens. It’s the same now, when you’re at war you assume everyone is the enemy; it’s like the Middle East today and discrimination against Muslims. When there is such a degree of ignorance, then there is paranoia and people end up in prison.”

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

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