• language and captivity

    As Henry Faulk wrote in his account of German prisoners in England,

    'All PoW are interested in the language of their Holding Power.'

    Many of the German refugees who were interned as 'enemy aliens' by the British in the early months of the Second World War recognised this. Their petitions for release had to be written in English, and they also wanted to understand the news in the English newspapers. As Beate Sulzbach wrote to her husband in October 1940,

    'I am busy the whole day with lessons, reading, and writing. I wrote a petition for my release. Did you read the eighteen categories in the White Paper from Anderson?'

    Both of them were eventually released from internment, and Herbert Sulzbach joined the British army. In April 1944 he was interviewed about his knowledge of languages and subsequently posted as an Interpreter Officer to German PoW camps.

    Interest in learning English was high amongst the prisoners. Even before the end of the war, they were organising classes amongst themselves in order to improve their language skills. For one PoW, Kurt Schwedersky, at Featherstone Park camp,

    'I was so happy to be in possession of a small dictionary when I became a PoW. The inmates of my hut made me their 'press-officer'. Each hut used to get English papers every day so I was busy translating them, improving my vocabulary, and reporting the news of the day at night - when my fellow prisoners were already lying on their straw mattresses.'

    After the end of the war, English instruction was part of the re-education programme in PoW camps so that prisoners could have access to English newspapers and books, and to enable them to attend meetings of local government and other organised bodies.

    Attending such meetings was not possible until fraternisation restrictions were lifted. Once prisoners were allowed out of the camps, a command of English also facilitated conversation and friendship between former enemies. Schwedersky commented that one day, in the spring of 1947, he was resting in a country lane when,

    'I was addressed by an old man behind me in a garden. He said I should wait before eating my bread because his wife was going to make me a cup of coffee. This friendly gesture of humanity will stand in my memory until the last day of my life.

    (photo: timetable, Featherstone Park PoW camp – English lessons at the beginning of the day, Mon - Sat)


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On my blog I write about biography, Anglo-German reconciliation, and the life of Herbert Sulzbach.


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