Reviewed by Jean Morris
The media were full of the D-Day commemorations as I read this book – stories of wartime fear and bravery that I’d been hearing my whole life. And here was a story of the same conflict, of my own country, that I’d never heard before.
Born in 1943 in St Albans, Erica Fischer is the child of a Polish, Jewish mother and an Austrian father, left-wing activists imprisoned by the Nazi regime in Vienna, who after their release came as refugees to England. So they were among the lucky ones. Theirs was a happy ending, their daughter’s long, full, writer’s life and their wartime reminiscences and letters that gave rise to this book the living proof of it. But their story, which she recounts here, supplementing personal knowledge with extensive research, was rather a shock.
The book opens with a happy scene of Erich and Irena Fischer enjoying Hyde Park on a sunny afternoon in June 1940. Erich, an accountant before he lost his job because of his political activism and became a tourist guide, is handsome, clever, idealistic, eager for opportunities beyond his lower middle-class origins. Irena, who shares his ideals, is a chic, fiery artist from an affluent, cultured Jewish family in Warsaw, whom he met while she was studying to be a goldsmith at the famed Vienna School of Applied Arts. They ask a passer-by to take their photo – a photo their daughter, perhaps, will come to know well. They savour their summer afternoon of leisure, all too aware of what is happening in mainland Europe, and of a closer threat: that of their own, or at least Erich’s, increasingly likely internment as ‘enemy aliens’.
There are some well-known memoirs and novels of Japanese-Americans interned by the US government during World War II. But I’d never read a word about wartime internment in the UK. Perhaps I knew that the Isle of Man had served as one convenient natural place of detention, but not that the Germans, Austrians and Italians interned included such long-time British residents as the proprietors and staff of numerous Italian restaurants, as well as many refugees – Jewish, left-wing, intellectuals, victims and opponents of Nazism.
A few days after that sunny scene, there was a knock on this refugee couple’s door, and Erich Fischer was given a few minutes to pack some belongings and taken away to Huyton Alien Internment Camp near Liverpool. He and Irena would not see each other again for eighteen months, and were often to wonder if they ever would, for he was soon caught up in a bizarre, misguided episode. Citizens of enemy countries living in the UK had been classified according to the risk they were perceived to pose, with those who were Jewish or, like Erich, known opponents of Nazism in a low-risk category. We can only imagine the chaos and terror of war, the mounting, unprecedented fear of invasion, the perennial search of some sections of the press for scapegoats (some things don’t change), the growing agitation for all to be viewed as high-risk and interned. This was how Erich and several thousand others – a most unlikely crew of surgeons and professors, artists, formerly wealthy businessmen and dispossessed aristocrats, devout Talmudic scholars, left-wing intellectuals and trade unionists – began crowding out the few hastily prepared internment camps and in a great rush and panic the idea was conceived of transporting them to Canada or Australia.
Just weeks later, the policy was reversed. In the months that followed, the classifications were rethought again and refugee opponents of Nazism encouraged to join the British forces or otherwise contribute to the war effort. By the time this happened, Erich Fischer and some 2,500 other men were in a ship on the high seas, packed into the most stifling and squalid of quarters below decks, in fear of torpedo attack, treated brutally, their belongings looted by their British army custodians who suddenly found themselves with total power over a large group of assertive, argumentative men with German accents.
Erica Fischer is best known for her best-selling earlier book, Aimée and Jaguar, a tense, sensational true story of life in wartime Berlin and an old woman’s memories of her Jewish woman lover, eventually caught by the Gestapo. Her latest work is no less compelling. This is journalistic writing, not lyrically or rhythmically structured, but it has its own force and lingering effect in the choice of details and their powerful piling one upon another. There are many small character sketches of the men interned and transported, and depictions of how both individuals and the group react to suffering and hardship. Equally telling are the vignettes of English temperament, family life and class structure as seen through the eyes of newly arrived refugees. Memorably reproduced in full, and ringing with a psychological truth we can all recognise, is the final torrent of Irena’s letters to Erich as – after the worst is over, really, when he is safe though not yet free – her hope and resilience start to run out. It adds up to an eye-opening, many-layered piece of living history. There are resonances with today’s wars and the continuing plight of asylum seekers. Translated from the German by Andrew Brown, publishers Hesperus Press have done something significant in bringing this to an English readership and I hope many will find it and be as gripped as I was.
Jean Morris is a translator who would like to see a lot more books translated into English, and a long-time blogger, but between blogs at the moment.
Erica Fischer. Over the Ocean. Translated by Andrew Brown. London: Hesperus Press, 2014. 978-1843915041, 304 pp., paperback.