LONDON — When the Germans invaded the Channel Islands in June 1940, at least one resident was determined to show that she would not be intimidated. The ruler of Sark, Dame Sibyl Hathaway, received two German officers at her residence, making them walk the length of a long drawing room to greet her.
“You are not afraid?” one of them asked.
“Is there any need to be afraid of German officers?” she responded in perfect German.
Sark is one of the small cluster of islands — an archipelago which includes Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney — which lie in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. Semi-independent, they were nonetheless the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Nazis.
Hathaway’s actions appeared to encapsulate what one observer later termed the “icy contempt” shown by the Channel Islanders towards their occupiers. She served as an example of the indomitable British spirit which led the country to stand alone against Hitler in the summer of 1940.
Some of the islanders paid a high price for their refusal to buckle under the Nazi jackboot. Few more so than Louisa Gould, a Jersey shopkeeper who perished in the gas chambers at Ravensbruck after the Germans discovered she had been sheltering an escaped Russian prisoner of war, one of the thousands forced to work in slave labor camps building concrete fortifications which still stand today.
Last week, “Another Mother’s Son,” which tells the story of Gould’s heroism, opened in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom. Her motivations for helping Feodor Burriy, a young man in his 20s, were simple.
Having lost one of her sons serving in the Royal Navy, she explained to a friend, “I had to do something for another mother’s son.”
But while Gould’s bravery was not unique, there is another, darker side to the story of the occupation, one in which the fate of the islands’ small Jewish population figures prominently. It is a story, moreover, which presents possibly uncomfortable answers to one of the great “what ifs” of Britain’s recent past: How would its people have behaved had the Swastika flown over London?
It is a subject which intrigues the media and historians. Last month, the BBC screened a five-part television adaptation of Len Deighton’s dystopian novel “SS-GB.” The Channel Islands’ experience suggests Britain may have displayed the same messy attributes — sullen acceptance by the majority, collaboration and courageous resistance by others — as their continental neighbors.
Much of the Channel Islands’ Jewish population had left for the British mainland prior to the Germans’ arrival. With Churchill’s war cabinet having decided that they were both indefensible and strategically unimportant, the islands had been demilitarized and a voluntary evacuation carried out in the fortnight before the first Luftwaffe planes landed on June 30, 1940.
Not a shot was fired and there were none of the atrocities which accompanied the Nazis’ march through Eastern Europe. Instead, as in France, the Germans sought to co-opt the assistance of the existing island authorities to help oil the wheels of the occupation. They were to find willing accomplices.
But while Hathaway found the sound of the Germans wiping their feet on her doormat reassuring — a possible indication of their civility, she later recalled thinking — the Jews of Guernsey and Jersey soon found their fears about the islands’ new masters amply justified.
Barely three months after the onset of the occupation, the Nazis demanded the first anti-Jewish measures: anybody with more than two Jewish grandparents was defined as a Jew; all Jews were to be registered; and businesses owned by Jews were to be clearly marked as a “Jewish undertaking.”
None of that was surprising; more so was the manner in which the Channel Island authorities raised no objections. There was but one honorable exception. Sir Abraham Lainé, a member of the Guernsey parliament, refused to vote for the measures when they were presented to the Royal Court. Ambrose Sherwill, the island’s bailiff and president of the Controlling Committee which was the main point of contact between the Germans and the Channel Islands’ governments, later wrote of his shame at his failure to object, while defending his inaction on the basis that he believed all the Jews had already been evacuated.
Some Jews correctly sensed the impending danger and decided not to register. Others complied. Twelve Jews registered in Jersey, and a further five in Guernsey. As Madeline Bunting — whose 1995 book, “The Model Occupation,” delved into the murky story — suggested, “Their trust in the island authorities and their desire to be law abiding unwittingly led them into a noose which grew tighter.”
Further measures were soon announced. Businesses owned by Jews — including those who had already left the islands — were “Aryanized” and sold to non-Jews. Jews were barred from many jobs, had their radios confiscated, were banned from entering public buildings and were only allowed into shops for an hour in the afternoon.
At each stage, the Channel Islands’ leaders received the Germans’ orders without protest, passed them down the chain of command, and then faithfully reported back once they had been implemented. Indeed, as one expert on the occupation has argued, the official in Jersey who was chiefly responsible for enforcing the anti-Jewish measures, Chief Aliens Officer Clifford Orange, displayed “a troubling tendency… to overdo his job.”
Tragedy inevitably followed. In the spring of 1942, the Germans demanded the Guernsey government hand over three foreign Jews on the island: Therese Steiner and Auguste Spitz, who were born in Austria, and Marianne Grunfeld, who was Polish.
Delivered to the Nazis by the local Guernsey police, the three women were taken to France and murdered at Auschwitz within weeks.
The following year, many of the remaining Jews were deported as part of a wider transportation ordered by Hitler in revenge for a British commando raid on Sark.
With one exception, these Jews were not separated from their fellow Channel Islanders and spent the rest of the war in internment camps in France and Germany, thus allowing them to escape the fate of Steiner, Spitz and Grunfeld. Nonetheless, the persecution of the Channel Island Jews exacted a heavy toll. Victor Emmanuel committed suicide during the war; Nathan Davidson was admitted to a Jersey mental hospital in 1943 and died shortly afterwards; Samuel Simon was found dead of a suspected heart attack the night before he was due to be deported.
After their liberation in 1945, a silence fell over the islands about many of the inconvenient truths of the occupation. That silence lasted decades. Not until the early 1990s were files in London and Guernsey about the events of the war years finally opened.
In 1995, documents belonging to Clifford Orange were discovered in Jersey’s state archives and released. However, the grim realities were known to the government in London soon after the islands’ liberation.
In August 1945, a British intelligence report stated, “When the Germans proposed to put their anti-Jewish measures into force, no protest whatever was raised by any of the Guernsey officials and they hastened to give the Germans every assistance.” The author went on to note that, by contrast, there were considerable efforts made to protect the islands’ Freemasons.
No Channel Islanders were prosecuted for collaboration. Not Victor Carey, the baliff of Guernsey, who described the British military as “enemy forces” and offered £25 rewards to informers who betrayed those who daubed the V sign — a symbol of resistance — on buildings. Not John Leale, a Methodist minister who succeeded Sherwill as president of the Controlling Committee, and passed along the names of Jews collected by Carey’s police to the Germans. Nor Alexander Coutanche, Carey’s opposite number in Jersey, who claimed for years that the Channel Islands’ Jews had not suffered, but whose annotations on the Germans’ orders indicated his complicity.
No Channel Islanders were prosecuted for collaboration
“At the liberation,” believed Carey’s grandson, “the government didn’t know whether to hang my grandfather for treason, or knight him.”
It soon came to a decision. Carey, Coutanche and Jersey’s attorney general, Duret Aubin, all received honors. Their defenders claimed the authorities acted as a “buffer” between the Germans and the local population, but it was a buffer which was to offer little protection to Jews or, indeed, the 1,200 English-born islanders who were deported to internment camps.
Resistance was not easy. There was one German soldier for every three inhabitants, but small, unorganized and often symbolic acts of opposition to the Nazis did occur.
Some were more significant than others. Albert Bedane was honored by Yad Vashem in 2000 for sheltering a Dutch Jew, Mary Richardson, in the cellar of his home in St. Helier for over two years.
Last year, Dorothea Weber, was similarly honored. Hedwig Bercu, a Jewish Austrian who faked her own death, secretly lived with Weber from 1943 until the islands’ liberation. Their story has two curious twists. Weber was married to an Austrian refugee who was conscripted into the German army. The two women were aided by a German soldier, Kurt Ruemmele, who smuggled food to them. After the war, Bercu followed Ruemmele to Britain where he was interned as a prisoner of war. They later married and raised a family in Germany.
Many islanders, of course, could not conceive of the Nazis’ murderous intentions towards the Jews.
As Barbara Newman, who walked with Therese Steiner to Guernsey’s capital on the day of her deportation, later remarked, “Things like that don’t happen in England.”