My father, Joachim Lambek, and his sister Sonja arrived in England in 1939, having been delivered by the Kindertransport from their hometown of Leipzig. He was 16; she was 12. Their parents, my grandparents, managed to get to England some months later.
In the spring of 1940, German troops invaded Holland and Belgium. The news media conjectured that the Germans were aided by a fifth column made up of refugees. The new Churchill government responded by rounding up aliens and classifying them based on perceived risk.
My father, a young Jewish man with a German passport, was placed in high-risk Category A.
A police officer showed up at my grandparents’ London apartment and told my father to pack a small suitcase for an overnight stay. My father didn’t know that he was to spend the next two years behind barbed wire.
He was taken, with others, to the Kempton Park Racecourse in Surrey, west of London. Years later, he wrote that he remembered lying under a tree in a secluded spot behind the stalls and studying a German textbook on elementary calculus.
The prisoners were moved around. They spent time in Huyton, near Liverpool, and on the Isle of Man. He recalled that the food supply was meager; the prisoners had to stand in a long queue to obtain a bowl of thin soup. After a few days, the soup was replaced by boiled herring.
My father was then placed on a Polish ship called the Sobieski for a journey overseas, but the prisoners did not know whether they were heading to Australia or Canada. He slept on a table in the dining room.
He learned later, he wrote, “how lucky I was to be on the Sobieski and not on one of the other boats. One, containing mostly German prisoners of war, was sunk by a German U-boat. The other, like the Sobieski, carrying mostly civilian internees, was struck by an epidemic of diarrhea.”
My grandparents learned that one of the “enemy alien” ships had been sunk, but they were not told which ship my father was on. They did not learn he was alive until weeks later.
Ultimately, the Sobieski pulled into the St. Lawrence River and they disembarked at Quebec City. They took a train to Trois Rivières, where they were put up in an abandoned factory that they shared with German prisoners of war. My father later wrote:
“I recall one incident above all others. I was lying on a strip of grass outside the factory building and admiring a caterpillar crawling along, contracting and extending its body. As it crawled under the barbed wire, I stretched out my hand to get a closer look, ignoring a distant whistle. Suddenly, somebody grabbed me and pulled me back. Only then did I realize that a guard on a watchtower had his rifle aimed at me.”
After a few weeks, the prisoners traveled by train to Camp B in New Brunswick. The inhabitants of the camp, my father wrote, were “a curious mixture of different people. I found myself in a group of young men, half of them students, in one arm of a barrack shaped like an H. There were other groups: Hassidic Jews, Catholic priests, Austrian aristocrats, and communist German sailors. The last mentioned had surrendered their ships to the allies, hoping to help defeat the Nazis.”
My father recalled attending a lecture on dialectic materialism in the neighboring communist barrack: “When I learned that ‘a was not always equal to a,’ I decided that this doctrine was not compatible with my mathematical interests.”
The prisoners in Camp B worked as lumberjacks in the surrounding forest. My father belonged to a work gang; he recalled the gang included a psychoanalyst and an art expert, who was later to open the Dominion Gallery in Montreal. Outside the Museum of Fine Arts on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal, you can see Rodin’s statue “The Prisoner,” which was donated by my father’s fellow internee.
On the few occasions when my father spoke about these events, it always struck me that he seemed to have no bitterness or even sadness. His internment experience, rather, felt like an adventure. My father’s peculiar and delightful sense of humor was evident even then:
“One day I did not feel like working and stayed behind in the deserted camp. I was caught by the Sergeant Major, who demanded to know my number. I said ‘three times eleven squared,’ which was correct, but caused him to scratch his head and to let me go.”
May we all strive to keep our humor and humanity, even in the darkest times.
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