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Jews interned during the First World War

On August 5, 1914, immediately after the declaration of the First World War, the British Government passed the Aliens Restriction Act. The Act changed the status of citizens of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were living in, or even only visiting the UK, to Enemy Alien and designated them potential spies. For some, unless they had police permission, the Act resulted in restriction of movement, for others it was far more serious. 

Men of fighting age were interned for the whole duration of the war in special camps for civilian detainees. Camps were created at sites across the UK, including Alexandra Palace in North London (which also housed Belgian refugees at the start of the war), Lofthouse Park in Wakefield (near Leeds) and Castle Green in York. 

As the war progressed, Prisoners of War (POWs) were also put into the camps so that, eventually, the civilian detainees were concentrated into just three camps – in London, The Isle of Man and Lofthouse Park. Over 32,000 civilian men were interned for some or all of the war.

All the camps were inspected regularly and were provided with good facilities. While privacy was restricted as the men slept in large dormitories, space was provided for exercise, interest clubs were allowed, and the men organised their own activities and committees. Nevertheless, many of the interned wrote letters of complaint to the British Home Office and to the Embassies of their countries, complaining of their imprisonment.

The Jewish Chronicle has archive evidence of the role that local British Jewish communities took on in support of some of the interned. The Leeds Jewish community, for instance, helped to provide Kosher food and religious support for the Lofthouse Park internees during the key religious holidays. To the British authorities, there was no distinction between Jewish or non-Jewish enemy aliens, it was nationality that mattered. 

On the other side, British civilians in Germany and Austro-Hungary were also interned in camps during the First World War. Once again, letters and articles in the Jewish Chronicle archive indicate that some of those interned were Jewish. A key centre of internment was Ruhleben camp, west of Berlin. The Jewish men in Hut 6 worked together to form a committee to provide support and structure to their internment.

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