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The Secret Purposes

Last updated: 2004-08-05

David Baddiel

David Baddiel

SJ offers an extract from David Baddiel's third novel, The Secret Purposes which takes us into a little-known and still somewhat submerged area of British history, the internment of German Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.

Isaac Fabian, on the run with his young family from Nazism in East Prussia, comes to Britain assuming he has found asylum, but instead finds himself drowning in the morass of ignorance, half-truth, prejudice, and suspicion that makes up government attitudes to German Jews in 1940. One woman, June Murray, a translator from the Ministry of Information, stands out - and when she comes to the island on a personal mission to uncover solid evidence of Nazi atrocities, her meeting with Isaac will have far-reaching consequences for both of them.

The Secret Purposes (Little, Brown £16.99) by David Baddiel

Isaac was not allowed to own a bicycle. He needed a police permit to travel beyond the boundaries of Cambridge. He had only been able to listen to Lord Haw-Haw's broadcast at the college, as personally he was not allowed to own a radio. In bed, two nights after that broadcast, he remembered that he was also not permitted to possess a map, and wondered whether the pyjamas counted.

He knew these things from a Home Office pamphlet, delivered through the door and handed with some ceremony to him by Mrs Fricker, entitled Information for Aliens. It also informed him, in an accompanying official letter, of the date on which he and his family were to attend one of a series of nationwide tribunals, set up to assess whether they, as Germans presently resident in the United Kingdom, posed a threat to national security.

The tribunal met in the Cambridge Corn Exchange, a cavernous hall used occasionally before the war for concerts, but now only for various forms of civic meetings. Behind a wooden table in the centre of its wide stage, holding four clipboards like black shields against possible alien contamination, sat four men: Sir Stanley Farrow, a decorated First World War veteran and High Court judge, Rear-Admiral Charles L. Holloway (retired), presently chairman of the Cambridge & District Civil Defence Committee, Superintendent Peter Grout, head of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, and the Very Reverend Christopher Chamberlain, Bishop of Ely. At the side of the stage sat an elderly woman at another table, piled high with paperwork. When Isaac, Lulu and Rebekka arrived, the committee was in the process of interviewing a young man wearing elegant slacks and a college scarf. They were told to hand in their passports to the elderly woman, and then directed to some seats in the hall, where a number of others were waiting, watching the proceedings onstage, like an audience.

'And what college are you at?' the centrally seated Sir Stanley Farrow, his eyes on his clipboard, was saying.

'Corpus, sir,' replied the man, in what sounded to Isaac like a cut-glass English accent. Sir Stanley looked back from his clipboard; a small, knowing smile curved his thin moustache upwards.

'Enjoying it?'

'I should say so, sir. Best college in the varsity!'

'Good man.'

'Studying?' said Superintendent Grout.

'Classics, sir.'

'Excellent,' said Superintendent Grout, with just the merest sense that he wasn't entirely clear what kind of studying that might involve.

'Where did you go to school?' said Rear-Admiral Holloway.

'Ampleforth, sir.'

'Really?' said the Reverend Chamberlain. 'That's a Roman Catholic school, is it not?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Are you a practising Catholic?'

'Most of the time, yes, sir.'

Sir Stanley smiled again at this. He scanned his notes, breezily: 'So your father was the German Ambassador to Dublin between . . . ?'

'1921 and 1927, sir. At which point he retired from public service.'

'And the family settled in Ireland?'

'Yes, sir. Although I was born in Germany.'

'Yes.'

'Hmm. One imagines the maternity hospitals are rather more modern there than in the Emerald Isle, don't you, Sir Stanley?'

'No doubt, Charles. Well.' He checked his clipboard again. 'Max. Do you feel any sympathy with the present regime in Germany?'

'No, sir.'

Sir Stanley leant forward, threading together his fingers. 'Do you feel any sympathy with Germany . . . at all?'

For the first time, the young man appeared to falter. 'Er . . .'

'Be honest with us now.'

'Well . . .' He looked at the floor, and then up again. 'My aunt and uncle still live in Germany. And I have some other relatives there. So sometimes I do feel sorry for ordinary Germans, yes. Living under the yoke of National Socialism and all that . . .'

Max halted at this. He had gone very red: to Isaac's eyes it looked as though he was trying not to cry. Sir Stanley nodded, his face a mixture of gravity and friendly condescension. The four interviewers moved together to confer, at which point the young man coughed.

Sir Stanley looked up. 'Yes?'

'Excuse me, sir. I . . . I have a letter. A reference. From a friend of my father's.'

Sir Stanley beckoned him forward; Max came, holding the letter in front of him. During the reading of it, Sir Stanley's face appeared to clear. He passed it on to Rear-Admiral Charles L. Holloway, who took one look at it and nodded approvingly. The others followed suit. The committee seemed to take a breath.

'Well, Max, I think if you'd said earlier that you had a personal recommendation from Lord Carnegie, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time,' said Sir Stanley, handing back the letter. He turned to the elderly woman to his right: 'Category C.'

She began stamping some papers.

'Sir?' said Max. 'What does that mean?'

Sir Stanley turned back to him with a munificent air. 'That puts you in our lowest category, danger-wise. It means you hardly have to put up with any restrictions.'

'Thank you, sir,' said Max, beaming.

'Don't mention it, young man,' said Sir Stanley, extending a hand. Max shook it vigorously. 'If it were up to me,' Sir Stanley added, sotto voce, 'you wouldn't be categorised at all. Now, be off with you.'

Max continued to beam as he took his papers from the elderly lady and left the stage. The lady stood, holding a roll of paper. 'Mr and Mrs Fabian,' she read out.

Isaac and Lulu glanced at each other nervously; Lulu gathered Rebekka, who had fallen asleep on her lap, into her arms. They walked up some stairs by the side of the stage, and towards the committee's table, haltingly, uncertain where to stop and stand.

'That'll do,' said Sir Stanley. 'Now: do you speak English?'

'A little. Not very well,' said Lulu.

'Charles?' said Sir Stanley.

'I'll have another stab,' replied Read-Admiral Holloway. 'Meine man. Was gibt du für seine . . . oh, what's the word . . . job?'

Lulu and Isaac looked confused.

'You know.' He coughed. 'Was hat du in Deutschland ge ... fahrt? Für Geld?'

Sir Stanley gave him a heavy stare. 'Why did you tell this committe that you could speak German?'

'Well, I used to be able to. I cracked a number of Boche codes during the Great War.'

'That was a long time ago, Charles.'

'Just like riding a bicycle, I thought.'

'Sir . . .' said Lulu. 'I think I speak enough . . . to understand.

'Right. Well. Good. I shall speak slowly for you.' Sir Stanley consulted his clipboard. He made to address Lulu, then turned back to Rear-Admiral Holloway. 'The Boche codes . . . were they in German?'

Rear-Admiral Holloway blinked. 'How do you mean?'

'Well, surely they were in code?' Rear-Admiral Holloway opened his mouth to reply, and then shut it again, stumped. Sir Stanley sniffed, and turned to face Lulu once more. 'So: you are Isaac and Lulu Fabian, correct? And this is your daughter Rebekka?' Lulu nodded. 'You travelled here on the SS Bodegraven from Königsberg in August of last year. You resided at the Jewish Temporary Shelter in Whitechapel for two weeks before being transferred to a residential address here in Cambridge, where you still ... are. Yes?'

'Yes, sir,' said Lulu, a little uncertainly.

'In Germany, you worked for some time as a laboratory assitant, and Mr Fabian . . . he has worked part time in a bookshop?'

'Yes. But Isaac - Mr Fabian - he has enough qualification to be - I don't know the word - someone who works at the university -'

'A don. An academic.'

'Yes, in political science. But Jews are not allowed to work . . .' She concentrated hard, squeezing out the words, 'to hold - hold? - university posts in Germany now.'

'I see. Meanwhile, here you have been given a domestic cleaning and housekeeping position at . . . Mr and Mrs Lambert's, 56 Hamilton Road, while your husband has been given work in the kitchens at King's College.' Lulu nodded; Sir Stanley's eyes scanned the rest of the page quickly. 'Blah blah . . . You have been granted a visa to emigrate from this country to the United States . . . ?'

'Yes. But yet we do not have the money to go. And with the war there are no boats . . .'

Sir Stanley nodded, and dismissed the need for the rest of the sentence with a slightly fey wave. He turned to the other members of the committee, with a sense of opening out the discussion.

'Can I just clarify something?' said the Reverend Chamberlain, looking up from his clipboard. 'The lady. You are not Jewish?'

'No.'

'So you yourself were not subject to the racial laws passed by the Nazis?'

'Sorry, sir . . . I do not understand - not subject to?'

'You yourself are not affected by the laws. Just your husband.'

Lulu looked to Isaac, uncertain as to how to answer.

'Ah . . . it's difficult. Yes, I am. By the new laws the marriage of myself and Isaac is not legal. We are forced - they would force us, the laws, to - how do you say? - scheiden lassen. When a husband and wife go apart.'

'Divorce.'

'Yes. To divorce.'

'And . . . you were not prepared to do that?'

There was a pause; Lulu looked taken aback. 'No . . . ' she said, eventually. 'We . . . no.'

'What's happening?' said Isaac, to her.

'Perhaps we can cut through all this, Reverend,' said Stanley. 'Save us all a bit of time.' He turned back to Lulu. 'Just tell us exactly: why did you leave Germany?'

'What are they asking?' said Isaac.

'They want to know why we left,' said Lulu.

Isaac looked perplexed. 'Don't they know that?'

'Could you answer the question, please?' said Sir Stanley.

'Yes . . . Entschuldigung . . . sorry . . .' said Lulu, struggling. 'We left because the Nazi Party and the . . . new laws . . . have made life in Germany . . . too hard for me and my husband.'

'In what way?'

Lulu looked blank. 'In what way?'

'Yes. Apart from the difficulty for your husband of getting an academic post that you have already told us about. You see, we have heard so many different stories from all the Jewish refugees that we're just trying to form a realistic picture of what's going on there.'

'Absolutely. You can't believe everything,' said Superintendent Grout.

Lulu shook her head, not knowing where to start. 'Our home. The windows are smashed. Men shout at me in the street. Women too. Pig. Whore. Isaac is arrested, last year. For no reason. The police, they hit him, they give him no food for three days. They burn down his father's synagogue, and then his father, he is sixty-seven, he must clean it up. On his hands and knees, he must clean it up. My family, they are too afraid to speak to us . . .'

'What are you saying?' said Isaac. 'Why do they need all this information?'

'I don't know. I think it's because they think we might not be genuine refugees. That perhaps we're secretly Nazis.'

'How can they think that? What do they need to know? I am a Jew. I am a communist. How much more of an enemy of fascism do I need to -'

'Excuse me,' interrupted Sir Stanley, sternly. 'What did you say? What was that about communism?'

'Yes, he said he was a communist. Definitely.'

'Yes, thank you, Charles. Even without your command of the language, I can make out "Ich bin Kommunist."' He turned back to the couple. Rebekka woke up and immediately started to cry. 'Now, Herr Fabian. I know you don't speak much English, but you can understand me well enough to tell me this: are you a communist?'

Isaac knew that this question was being asked threateningly; he knew, from the man's tone, that the safest answer was no. But he didn't want to say no: he followed his godless creed with all the fervour of a man inculcated with religion. He didn't, though, just want to say yes. He wanted to say that although, yes, he was a communist, he did not support Stalin, the Borgia in the Kremlin who had betrayed the revolution and, incredibly, signed a pact with Hitler, but Trotsky, the poet of Marxism, preaching permanent revolution while waiting for death in Mexico City. But he knew that such complexities were beyond his linguistic capabilities, and besides, Rebekka's crying was cutting his mind in two. And so, in English, he said: 'Yes. I am a communist.'

The Secret Purposes is published by Little, Brown £16.99
Reprinted with permission