First published in Oxford Menorah, issue No. 153, Autumn 1999. (Updated January 2004)
There was this picture of a churchyard cemetery. It was in a recently-published book of old photographs of the Isle of Man which son Joe had on his bookshelf. I was on holiday there, staying with him and his wife Pat. I knew that in the eyes of the locals they were merely 'comeovers' (although in a year's time they will be 'stopovers'); they will never, though, be Manx people. Yet Joe had acquired a good knowledge of the island and its history, hence the book and others, on the shelf.
On the photograph had been inscribed 'Graves of the Aliens', and an editorial note stated that in the First World War there had been an internment camp for civilian enemy aliens at Knockaloe (pronounced 'Nock-ay-loh'), south of the town of Peel on the west coast. It had been a vast place, holding 23,000 people (another book said there were as many as 24,500 by the end of the war.) That number was about half the total population of the island. It was such a big camp that a branch railway line was built to it for the conveyance of its supplies. Ironically, the site had been used, in the years before the war, for summer camps for the Volunteers and then the Territorial Army (from Liverpool). In fact this had been the location for the second civilian internment camp. The earlier camp, at a holiday camp on the east coast at Douglas, the Island's capital, in the first winter of the war, was smaller and Jews were allocated their own section. It had closed and Knockaloe had taken its place.
What caught my eye in the book was a reference to about 130 of the internees having died 'and most of the graves that appeared in the churchyard were inscribed in German, Turkish or Hebrew.' It stated also that in 1962 the German graves had been removed to a German war cemetery at Cannock Chase and that new headstones were placed on the graves that remained.
So I thought it would be interesting to see what was there at the cemetery at Patrick Church. This was directly opposite Knockaloe Farm, where the internment camp had been. We were slightly put off when we walked through the nearest opening to find ourselves waist-high in grass and weeds which surrounded a number of headstones. whose tops we could see. They looked very old, one to my right gave the date as 1856. Not encouraging. But we could see more headstones nearer the church in a well-kept part where a man was mowing the grass. We went there and could see the location of the 'graves of the aliens', shown in the photograph and removed in 1962. They were not yet occupied by recent burials. The local community is not very large.
I asked the man with the lawn-mower if he knew about the First World War graves. He said he didn't know but pointing vaguely towards the over-grown part, said "There are some Russian ones there." We went back into that section and, this time, came across a row of short headstones. The names on them appeared to be Turkish; these must have been the 'Russians' of the gardener. Then, a short way ahead, were two headstones, each with a Magen David. They appeared to be fairly new. The names were Hermann Jeschke, 31 March 1916 and Heinrich Abraham, 21 July 1917. I was just thinking to myself that we had made a marvellous discovery, being perhaps the first to come across these graves, when Joe pointed out that each had a stone on its narrow top. Perhaps one of the small, resident Jewish community on the Island, or maybe a passing holidaymaker, had left them.
It was just another little mystery. If, as the book stated, the German graves - the great majority of all the camp's deceased - had been moved to Staffordshire - why were those two still at Patrick Church? Were they perhaps Austrian (and did that make a difference?) And, if they were the only Jews, how odd that they should have been left behind in a churchyard; they could have been transferred to the Jewish section of the main cemetery at Douglas. I wrote to the German equivalent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ask if they knew the answer. They replied that no permission was given for their burial at Cannock Chase. In the case of Hermann Jeschke they did not understand why the local authorities had not arranged for the burial in the Douglas cemetery and for Heinrich Abraham 'no burial place was communicated by the reburial service in 1962.'
Whatever the real answer, Joe took photographs of the two graves. It was just as well he had the camera in the car. I had used up the films in my Boots one-use camera, taking photos of the Jewish graves at Douglas cemetery. These began in the Second World War, the earliest burials including some of the internees of that war.
A bit strange for holiday tasks, but the weather was good and I got some fresh air and exercise.
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