Hans Gal’s time in the British internment camps during World War II

Whenever I play or conduct the music of Hans Gal, I get asked a lot of questions about his experiences during World War II. As part of the Bobby and Hans project, we thought it would be good to gather some of the excellent web resources in one place to help readers understand more about Gal’s time in internment. The Gal family escaped to the UK in 1938, and moved several times within the country over the next 20 or so months, settling finally in Edinburgh, where Gal was arrested in 1940 as part of the UK government’s rounding up of all German-born males.

Of course, the official Hans Gal Society website is the best place to start when looking for biographical information on the composer. Gal’s internment experience is covered in a dedicated page of his biography here.


In all about 27,000 ‘enemy aliens’ were interned, including Jewish refugees, the group who, ironically, had the most reason to be on the side of the allies against Nazi Germany. The policy was, of course, motivated by the desire to control potentially dangerous enemies, but that it affected not just genuine Nazis but also those who were fleeing from them, and indeed incarcerated both together indiscriminately, can only be seen as not merely unwarranted, but also a serious misjudgement.

The camp on the Isle of Man where Gal was interred

Gál, along with all the other Edinburgh refugees, was arrested on Whit Sunday, in May, 1940, and first accommodated in a disused hospital. After an uncomfortable few days, they were transferred to a camp at Huyton near Liverpool. A month later they were moved to Douglas, on the Isle of Man. The company included many of the most distinguished intellectuals, and it did not take long for a camp ‘university’ to be established, with lectures, study groups, and the like. Some of the internees thrived on the rich intellectual diet; Gál, too, found the company stimulating, but the experience was far from pleasant, given the deprivations of life as an internee and above all their total powerlessness in the face of mindless and petty bureaucracy, that appeared not to have understood the difference between Nazis and ‘refugees from Nazi oppression’. He was also cut off from news of the war, and for weeks on end had no idea of the fate of his eldest son Franz, who had been taken into internment at the same time, but then immediately separated from him. His anxiety became panic with the torpedoing in the Irish Sea of the SS Arandora Stara ship carrying refugees, which was en route for Canada, as it was possible that Franz might be aboard. He also contracted a skin disease in the camp, which became so bad that he had to spend several weeks in the camp hospital and was eventually released early.


(A performance of the Huyton Suite, written during Gal’s incarceration in 1940)

There are also a variety of websites and foundations that have begun the work of chronicling the lives and works of the generation of composers, including Gal, who were seriously affected by the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. A major resource is the Orel Foundation website, with its own section on Gal here. One of the most interesting accounts of Gal’s experience in the internment camps is from the ORT site “Music and the Holocaust,” where the essay “Music in British Internment Camps” by Suzanne Snizek paints a vivid portrait of Gal’s time in Huyton and the Isle of Man.

Hans Gál was an Austrian composer who had enjoyed great professional success prior to 1933. When the Nazis came to power, Gál was serving as director of the Mainz Conservatory.  Because he was Jewish, he was dismissed from his post and his work was banned from both performance and publication.  He returned to Austria, finally immigrating to Britain shortly after the Nazi Anschluss (annexation) of Austria in 1938. 

Gál had just begun to reestablish himself as a composer in Edinburgh when he was abruptly interned. The Gál family had chosen to settle in Britain, voluntarily allowing their US visa to expire; this internment, carried out as it was by a country they trusted and had come to love, was a major psychological blow.

Gál was arrested by a civilian police officer and was first sent to Huyton (a transit camp near Liverpool which served as a ‘sorting place’) and then to ‘Central Promenade Camp’, also known as Central. Both Huyton and Central appear to be amongst the worse internment camps.

The Huyton internment camp

Physical conditions in the so-called transit camps, including Huyton, were inadequate. Food was bad, and there was very little of it. Men initially slept on the floor on straw sacks. However, the camp was so overcrowded there was not even enough straw, and many men slept directly on a filthy floor. The attitude of the Huyton administration could be hostile. Gál describes an officer who, after suddenly confiscating internee musical instruments, then takes an umbrella away from an internee: it was raining heavily at the time.

Not that Central was much better, especially at first. The internees quickly dubbed the mess hall ‘Starvation Hall’. Visiting relief workers described Central’s administration as ‘strict and unsympathetic’. Privacy was non-existent. Nazis made up approximately ten to fifteen percent of the inmate population in Central: Nazis were not separated from anti-Nazi and Jewish internees (despite the 1939 tribunal determinations everyone was essentially thrown together, and this was generally true in all of these camps). As releases began, the percentage of Nazis to non-Nazis necessarily increased. It should further be remembered that there were also German concentration camp survivors in these camps, about one hundred and fifty in Central alone. One of these was the lawyer and gifted cellist Dr. Fritz Ball from Berlin, who played chamber music with composer (and pianist) Gál. Ball’s bow hand had been terribly damaged by frost bite while he was earlier imprisoned in Sachsenhausen.

Despite this reality, the internees created a remarkably active musical life. Lack of meaningful occupation is a primary psychological challenge of any prisoner, yet artists—including musicians—were able to continue working even if under these challenging circumstances. This was a psychological advantage. Music also lifted the spirits of the internee audience.

‘House concerts’ soon became the norm. These typically free concerts were organized by the internees themselves; tickets were made to ensure seating. These concerts were extremely popular and programmes were repeated to meet demand. Sometimes newly composed music was played, such as Gál’s Huyton Suite. This little gem is scored for a flute and two violins, an unusual combination chosen because of what Gál had available in the camp.

Soon internees began to be deported to Canada and Australia. Huyton Suite rehearsals were disrupted when two players were sent to Canada. The newly formed trio was broken up again when some of the players were transferred to the Isle of Man. No one could predict how long one would be held in a certain camp.

Ultimately Huyton Suite was successfully performed in Central Camp. Gál indicates the work was ‘tailor made’ for its audience.  In the music there is even the ‘roll call’, a daily feature of internment life, as played by the flute. Ironically enough, the premiere performance in Central was interrupted by the ‘real world’ roll call.

Another original musical work was the revue What A Life. This enterprise took place in September 1940 and completely absorbed Central’s artistic community including Gál, who wrote the music. Although the work was primarily intended as entertainment, it also made deeper observations on the refugee experience itself, particularly in two serious sections: ‘Ballad of Poor Jakob’ and the ‘Ballad of the German Refugee’. Other movements represent specific aspects of internment: ‘Barbed Wire Song’, ‘The Song of the Double Bed’, and so on.  Even the noise of musicians practicing is represented in a movement comprised of an amusing mixture of quotes from famous classical pieces.

Internees were finally released through the so-called ‘White Papers’. However, these did not address the inherent injustice of mass internment, and instead focused on each applicant’s pragmatic usefulness in the ongoing war effort. There were eighteen categories listed in the first White Paper (issued in July 1940), and releases were determined on strictly utilitarian grounds. Under these narrow categories, critics pointed out that even individuals like Thomas Mann and Einstein would have remained interned. In response to considerable political pressure, categories for release were gradually widened and the second White Paper was issued in August 1940. However, the majority of the interned still were not considered even under these expanded conditions. By the third White Paper (October 1940) there was a specific category which finally considered artists. By November 1940, release conditions were widened even further, by virtue of a simple statement drawn up in the House of Commons…

Hans Gál was released early, under a medical hardship category: he had been suffering from a skin disease. In fact he had written the music for What A Life from his hospital bed. It gives one pause to consider that, despite the considerable hardships he had experienced—losing his directorship at the Mainz Conservatory, being forced to leave Germany and then the country of his birth, having his music banned—Gál ultimately viewed his British internment as the ‘worst period of his life’. Despite this, he stayed a day beyond his official release in order to give the final performance of this revue, which portrayed, through music, the essence of this British internment period.

The original program for "What a Life"

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Hans Gal’s time in the British internment camps during World War II”

  1. Daniel Wolf

    Interesting to consider the possibility that Gál, stuck in Douglas, might have met Kurt Schwitters, who was there making sculpture out of porridge, the only available material.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    I can probably find out, but it seems very likely they would have known each other there. It was not a big place, and the creative communities seemed to have a lot of overlap

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