The Imperial Hotel in Blackpool has a stylish and grand appearance.
It stands proudly overlooking the North Shore and the wide stretch of beach north of the centre of Blackpool. The year 2002 saw Tony Blair and Bill Clinton staying in its splendid rooms for the period of the Labour Party conference. But its history is not totally full of style and glamour. In early 1940 it became, like many Blackpool hotels, a place of residence for transit to the Isle of Man, for a group of people who suffered intolerance and segregation of the worst kind - that of being aliens in the United Kingdom. The sad fact was of course, that most of these aliens had escaped here from the Nazi regime.
I met one elderly and gently spoken lady on a recent visit to the lounge area of the Imperial. It started by my simply asking her if I could sit at her table. We spoke about the view and what a nice hotel the Imperial is. It was when she said it wasn't so nice in the war, and that I got really interested. I got her to say why and this is her story. It made me think of our prejudices and fears. I write it as she spoke to me.
'In 1938 my parents and I had moved to Britain from Germany to get away from the Nazis and the problems Jewish families were having. We landed in London and were sent to a small East End pub, but dad found a job in a city bank, and we moved to a flat near Ealing, but after the outbreak of the war, being from Germany my father had no papers to say that he was a 'friendly' alien. We were 'arrested as potential enemies,' interrogated in a cell by London policemen who were horrible to me. Mum was crying all the time, and once said that the Germans would not have been worse. Like many of our friends from Germany we were considered to be dangerous. Additionally, because my gran and aunts were still in Holland and we had tried to write to them we were even more of a enemy. And so we were eventually taken to the Isle of Man to be interned there in a camp for enemy aliens. '
'I was only eight years old at the time, and it was all very hard to understand. I remember my father being taken away and sent to the men's internment centre Onchan in Douglas. Mum didn't tell me why he had gone or why she was crying all the time. A week later we were also taken by a crowded train at night to a reception centre in Liverpool before being brought here to Blackpool and then taken by ferry from Fleetwood to Port Erin as it now is where women and children were kept.'
'It hurts me to remember hundreds of us being made to walk in a long crocodile from the Fleetwood tram stop down to the docks. The road was closed to let us through, and the streets were lined with home guard soldiers armed with open bayonets - being eight years old, they were right at my eye level. I didn't know why they were pointed at us. I was very frightened. Behind the soldiers local people crowded the pavements and actually jeered us, hurling insults. It was very confusing and frightening. I remember a few Fleetwood fishermen did wave and smile at us. They knew I think what was happening.'
'We took a darkened ferry overnight to get to the island. I remember having to sleep on the steps of the ship, it was so crowded and it smelled of seasick. We hoped it wouldn't get shot at or blown up.'
'At Port Erin the women were boarded with local guesthouses, who were glad of the opportunity to make some extra money. I became friends with the daughter of the woman who ran our boarding house. That's why I am in Blackpool, to meet her and see the lights, Its all different now. I can cope with it.'
'A good thing for me was we didn't have to go to school so I used to accompany her to school as far as the tall, barbed wire fences where she was allowed to continue. But there I was met with soldiers bayonets again. They are the strongest image I retain, German soldiers attacking us Jewish people. They were bad with the children. They were sadists, but then the British soldiers seemed to hate us as well. I was a frightened child simply because I couldn't understand why they were pointing guns at me.'
'Every day mum and the others went to a local cricket pitch where they did agricultural work, turning the pitch into a place to grow carrots, potatoes and turnips. The food I remember from this time was vegetables though we must have received more. We did get bread and we made toast done over an open fire.'
'We were not kept with my father, but once a month the women and children at Port Erin were taken by the strange Isle of Man trains over to connect with a bus to Onchan to visit their men, which I remember as being a return journey full of tears.'
'In the end we were there for 16 months, during which time I developed a very severe illness and fear, from so obviously being viewed as a second class citizen - by the jeering people in Blackpool and Fleetwood as we marched to the ferry, and by the soldiers with their open bayonets who wouldn't let me through the gates where my friend could go. It wasn't fair. But I suppose that we were lucky. We came out as a family and were not hurt. But the letter from the King saying sorry to us was a real joke. I hate war, because of what it does to children.'
I left the hotel - It was a privilege to meet her. She didn't want me to mention her name, other than that it was Rachel.