Weaving Many Voices into a Single, Nuanced Narrative: An Interview with Simon Parkin

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Let’s be honest: Britain during World War II is well-trod literary territory. I read a lot and I studied in European history in college; I thought I’d learned everything I needed to know about it. But Simon Parkin’s The Island of Extraordinary Captives truly delivers as an untold—or at least under-told—story from this time and place.

Even as Britain welcomed nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish child refugees at the beginning of the war, a xenophobic paranoia also swept across the country. German, Austrian, and Italian exiles—many refugees, many Jewish—were suddenly feared as potential spies. Most of them were never even charged or made to stand trial before getting interned on the Isle of Man and held indefinitely.

But at one of the camps, Hutchinson, the gathered captives included a cohort of highly distinguished artists, intellectuals, and professionals. The camp directors, knowing full well that the vast majority of their internees weren’t dangerous, allowed them to pursue intellectual and artistic pursuits. The result was “Hutchinson University,” where internees lectured on their diverse areas of expertise; a Technical School; an artists’ café; a camp-wide periodical, and many unofficial mentorships. As Simon writes, “To an outsider, Hutchinson camp appeared to be a modest utopia.”

Of course, it was also a major injustice inflicted on an already vulnerable population: hearing about the internments, Hitler himself commented that “The enemies of Germany are now the enemies of Britain too. The British have detained in concentration camps the very people we found it necessary to detain.”

Simon’s protagonist—an orphan brought to Britain through the Kindertransport program, only to be interned at Hutchinson soon after—perfectly encapsulates the push-and-pull of British attitudes toward Germans, Jews, and refugees during the war. I was honored to speak to Simon about how he crafted this highly readable book: how he wrangled the many voices of this story, how Hutchinson fits into the broader narrative about Britain during World War II, and why we haven’t heard this story before.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


TriQuarterly: For some men, Hutchinson was an artistic or academic haven, where they could learn from some of the brightest men of their age. For others, it was a brutal interruption of their lives—a trauma, as well as a miscarriage of justice. There were as many different feelings about the camp as there were internees—even more, since many of their attitudes shifted over time, and with historical perspective. How did you approach depicting all the contradictions and nuances of Hutchinson?

Simon Parkin: I think it was important to represent that diversity of perspectives and views. With a project like this, I’m against the government's policy; I think they overstepped the mark with the decisions that they made at the time. So the temptation is to center the viewpoints of internees that back that up, who also felt that it was a grave injustice. One intern even once so far as to describe it as a war crime, which I think is probably too far.

But when you read both the diaries and the letters written at that time, as well as memoirs that were written with perspective, in reality there will all kinds of different views about the internment. It often depended on how old they were. In many cases, the young internees had a much easier time of it; it was more like a grand adventure for them. If you were older—particularly if you had a wife and a family in London, which you knew were in the midst of the blitz—then you were much more stressed. Perhaps you had a business that you'd set up in the short period since you fled Nazi-controlled Europe and arrived in Britain. So, you would have been worried about that: how is my family going to feed itself? It was important to also represent those viewpoints.

There was also generalized anxiety at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that internees on the Isle of Man were essentially going to be safe, and well looked after, and fed. We know that the Germans were not going to invade Britain, and weren't going to overtake the islands. But that was not the feeling in May or June 1940. There was a huge amount of anxiety that the German forces, which had now occupied France, were about to invade Britain. The government was handing out leaflets on “what to do when the enemy arrives,”—you can imagine how stressful that would have been. There is a protagonist in the book—I follow the story of one particular young internee—but it's also an ensemble cast, and I'm trying to highlight loads of different stories of key people. As a non-fiction author, I have the benefit of being able to quote people with varying perspectives and try to build up that complex, nuanced picture.

TQ: That actually leads right into my next question. This book is full of distinctive characters: a Dadaist artist, a Quaker charity worker, an orphaned refugee—your protagonist—and a spy, just to name a few. But as the narrator and guide through this book, your opinions and feelings do also come through, although they never overshadow the historical figures. How did you go about layering in your own voice? And, with such a wide-ranging cast, how did you strike the right balance of voices throughout the narrative?

SP: I definitely wanted to keep the first-person author take on everything separate to the main narrative thrust of the book. So, most of where I’m talking as me, the author, happens in the postscript and the afterword. That said, the way you arrange facts and which quotations you choose—those moral and aesthetic choices do present a kind of argument to the reader. But I’m glad you thought it was done with the light touch, because that was certainly my goal. I don't want to but in and make a forceful argument in the middle of the text.

The defense of a country during wartime is a very serious, difficult topic for politicians to wrestle with. The people who decided to set up internment camps for German, Austrian, and Italian citizens living in Britain—they thought they were doing the right thing for the greater good of the country. So, it's relatively easy for me, writing eighty or ninety years later, to say, “Well, you know, these were obviously the wrong decisions,” with the benefit of hindsight, and without those particular pressures around me. Where possible, I want to allow the main players in that narrative to make their arguments, and allow the reader to draw conclusions from that.

The good thing about history is that if you open the net broadly enough to listen to enough sources, you’re always going to find people on every side—people who are urging the Government to act out of fear and anxiety, people who are urging the Government to be more magnanimous and welcoming. If you include all of those voices, I think readers, hopefully, have enough information to draw meaningful conclusions themselves.

TQ: Absolutely. I also wanted to ask about all those sources, because I found this book to be a feat of historical research. You cite hundreds of published sources, but you also relied a lot on unpublished journals and letters. How did you go about tracking down sources like these? Were family members eager or reluctant to share to dredge up these personal histories?

SP: I placed some adverts in Jewish refugee journals in the UK, asking for anyone who’d had family members interned at Hutchinson to contact me, and a few did. The Government also kept a database of records—some of which have been lost, but many are still intact—where you could find the names of internees. I also used heritage sites to look for relatives of people whom I knew had been interned. It was a case of following as many leads as I could. And considering that at least two thousand people were interned at Hutchinson, there were substantial amount of leads to follow.

I was fortunate that fairly early in the process, I got in contact with Klaus Hinrichsen’s family. Klaus was a young art historian, in his late twenties at the time of the camp. Because he had that art history training, he was constantly making notes, jotting down names, eagerly collating his own memoirs—which were unpublished—and his family were kind enough to share those with me.

In general, there was an eagerness to share that material that perhaps there wouldn't have been had I been doing this work thirty years ago, talking to the individuals who were interned. In my experience, they might have been more eager to hang on to those and try and get them published themselves. Klaus Hinrichsen was trying to get that memoir published; he wrote to lots of publishers. He also had some animosity with other internees who had written up their memoirs, who, he thought, had misremembered certain details. There was all sorts of behind-the-scenes wrangling over particular details: who was in the camp, who wasn't, that kind of thing. In a way, coming to it right now is a disadvantage—there are fewer people alive to ask for that first-hand evidence—but in another sense it's beneficial, because there are fewer egos involved. There's less of an eagerness to be the definitive account, which you sometimes get when you speak to people who were there at the time. They want their version of events to be “the one,” and you have to negotiate that as you're writing, which can be quite difficult—that happened before in my previous book.

Because this is a story fundamentally about injustice to one degree or another, that makes people eager to share their story and get it out further. In my experience, when you're telling a story about heroism, there can be more reticence to share that story, because individuals want to maintain ownership of it in different ways.

TQ: Instead of telling this story in chronological order, you go back and forth in time. That creates a lot of suspense and anticipation, even though readers know the eventual outcome of the war, if not the outcomes of individual internees. I was wondering how you made those choices to shape the chronology of the narrative.

SP: I didn't want to mess around too much with the chronology. There can be a temptation to overdo that, which can sometimes get confusing. That’s particularly true with a book like this, which has such a large cast that I'm asking readers to hold in their heads. That said, I did want to start with a scene within the camp, which means that the first chapter of the book is a flash forward. There were a couple of reasons for that. After the first chapter, we go to Berlin, and we follow the events of the November pogroms against the Jews in Berlin and across Germany. Then we meet Peter Fleischmann, this teenager who escapes his Berlin orphanage and comes to Britain, and eventually ends up in the camp.

But the story of refugees fleeing Germany and coming to Britain—it can be cliched. Obviously, they’re hugely important stories, and sharing and maintaining them is hugely important. I'm not dismissing that as cliche. But starting a book with a refugee fleeing for Britain is something that perhaps readers have seen before.

It would also have centered the injustice of the German experience at that time, which of course is a major part of this story. But this book is actually about the fact that the things happening in Germany were also happening in Britain. There was widespread antisemitism; the British government imprisoned loads of German and Austrian refugees, many of whom were Jews, suspecting them of being Nazi spies. These are all quite surprising ideas, and because they're novel, they’re not cliched. That's why I wanted to start with that kind of scene. As a reader, we're all very familiar with refugee stories from Nazi Germany. This was just a way to go, “Wait! Where are we? Hang on, we're in Britain, and this sort of thing is happening.”

TQ: Speaking of public awareness and interest, as you mention in the book, the internments on the Isle of Man have received a lot less attention than, for example, American internments of the Japanese at the same time. Of course, I’m coming at this from an American perspective. But I was wondering, how do the British internments complement or clash with the British World War II story that you learned in school? Why do you think the government has still never issued a public apology?

SP: Well, it certainly jars with what we're taught in school—nobody's learning about internments in history class in the UK. The story appealed to me because it’s sort of a counter narrative to the typical British story about its own wartime character. The usual story is that were this righteous nation, fighting a great evil—all of which is true, but it's not the whole story, and I think it's important to also highlight the stories of individuals for whom Britain was not this uncomplicated, benevolent force.

This is a moment in history—in Britain, particularly—where people are starting to reckon with Britain's past, parts that have been swept under the carpet. There are statues being taken down; I know similar things are happening in in America. But that story—about Britain being a righteous nation, benefiting the world wherever we went—is very, very deeply ingrained here over many, many centuries. So, it's a very slow process: starting to tell these stories, recognizing them and changing the story, and not being afraid of that change.

History is complicated. Governments make good, bad, and morally neutral choices that can help and also hurt people. It's important to examine those holistically and honestly.

As to why the British Government has never apologized: perhaps there just haven't been calls to do so from the community that was most penalized by this policy. The reasons for that are complex, but I think it has to do with the post-war revelations about the Holocaust. When those came out, I suppose they set what had happened to Jews who came to Britain—who were interned for a few months, or up to two or three years in the most extreme cases—it set that in a certain context and a certain light, that perhaps made individuals less likely to clamor for an apology.

Many of them were refugees—they’d gotten through the war; they're now free, living in Britain; they're changing their names to more English-sounding surnames. They tried to move on, to build their lives here for their families. That's part of it. But does that mean that there should not have been an apology? I don't think so. I think there is certainly grounds for an apology here, or at least a public recognition for the decisions that were made, something that goes beyond the statements made by the Home Secretary at the time, which didn't go nearly far enough.