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‘Eminent Distinction’: Refugees and Internees in Wartime Britain

At the end of January 1937, Ralph Vaughan Williams sent a letter to Frau Stephanie Pinthus in Nordhausen am Harz in Germany, stating that ‘I herewith declare that I am prepared to make myself responsible for the whole financial support necessary to enable your son, Dr Gerhard Pinthus, to take a two years course at a music teacher’s training college in London.’ Pinthus, a noted musicologist, had endured years of persecution under the Nazi regime on account of his Jewish faith and communist principles. Having been arrested in 1933, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment only to then be handed over to the Gestapo in July 1936. His mother, Stephanie, was informed that he had been sent to Lichtenburg Concentration Camp, and it was hoped that a letter of guarantee from the renowned British composer Vaughan Williams offering Pinthus asylum outside Germany would persuade the Nazi regime to sanction his release.

Remarkably, it worked. Vaughan Williams had been alerted to the case of Gerhard Pinthus by the composer and political activist Alan Bush, and in December 1938 Bush was delighted to write to VW that the Gestapo had announced that ‘they are willing to release [Pinthus] from the concentration camp at Dachau’, provided that he leave Germany permanently.1

The pursuit of Pinthus’s cause may have been instrumental in suggesting a role to Vaughan Williams that he could play, initially in the turbulent years of the late 1930s and then, as it turned out, during the whole of the Second World War. In that same month of Pinthus’s release, VW and his neighbour the novelist E. M. Forster set up the Dorking and District Refugee Committee with the express purpose of providing assistance to those people who had been compelled to flee from Nazi persecution in central Europe.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, E. M. Forster’s collaborator with the Dorking Refugee Society, in the garden at his Dorking home. © Dorking Museum. Reproduced with permission.

The nature of the Committee’s work initially focussed on local matters, including organising financial assistance and supplies for new arrivals in the Surrey Hills area. However, within months of the outbreak of war, an insidious threat to freedom emerged from within Britain through the creation of internment camps designed to house Germans and Austrians considered to be ‘enemy aliens’. Tribunals were convened around the country to determine which refugees, including many who had already been in Britain for some years, should be detained; theoretically, the list should have consisted simply of known Nazi sympathisers, and yet it soon became apparent that the net would be cast much wider. A letter to The Times written by Vaughan Williams and co-signed by fellow Committee members in July 1940 politely but pointedly identified ‘certain hardships’ that would inevitably follow for internees, requesting that ‘Jewish and other refugees from Nazi oppression should not be interned with Nazi sympathisers’, and that ‘Refugee husbands and wives, especially those between 50 and 70, should not be separated.’ The plea fell on deaf ears, however, with many individuals and families being transported to internment camps around the UK – notably on the Isle of Man – while others were shipped to Canada and Australia.

Sudeten Czech Refugees. Cat No. D076-4 © Dorking Museum. Reproduced with permission.

The main catalyst for a change in policy came not with the pressure from Vaughan Williams and other campaigners, but with the tragic sinking by a German U-boat on 2nd July 1940 of the SS Arandora Star – the fourth in a series of ships that had been transporting 7,500 internees to Canada. Around half of the 712 Italians, 438 Germans (including both Nazi sympathisers and Jewish refugees) and 374 British seamen and soldiers on board lost their lives, and the outpouring of public sympathy for refugees demanded and achieved a shift in the government’s position. This was detailed in a White Paper that listed 18 categories of internees who could safely be released, and who would then contribute ‘work of national importance’; but, to the great dismay of Vaughan Williams and his friends, musicians were not included in the list.

In a letter to the composer Granville Bantock the following month, copied to distinguished colleagues including Adrian Boult, Constant Lambert and William Walton, Vaughan Williams urged British musicians to come together to ‘persuade the authorities to broaden their interpretation of ‘work of national importance’ and to point out that to fructify the life of the country is of national importance and the fact that artistic and intelligent people who will spread the gospel of anti-Nazism are an asset to the country’. This rallying cry evidently had an effect, and at the end of the month VW was invited to lead a committee that would recommend ‘musicians of eminent distinction who have made outstanding contributions to their art for release’. It was a victory of sorts, even though he soon expressed severe reservations about the whole process and, specifically, about how the term ‘eminent distinction’ should be defined. As he wrote to Professor Edward Dent in Cambridge in a letter of 3 December 1940:

Many thanks for Kazuczerbs’2 scores. We have already sent his name in on a sort of ‘second eleven’ – not as entirely fulfilling the conditions of the white paper – but as being a sound musician & worthy of release. I do not suppose that the Home Office  will pay any attention – many people seem to think that it’s my committee which has made this stipulation about ‘eminent distinction’ – we all think it is absurd and have told the H.O. so – but those are our instructions and it is always being rammed home to us – we thought at one time of secretly ignoring it and calling everyone distinguished’ – But we realized that they would then smell a rat and pay even less attention to our recommendations than they do at present.

Vaughan Williams continued to work tirelessly in seeking letters of recommendation from established British musicians on behalf of internees who could then be nominated for release. The campaign gradually yielded results even if the pace of progress was slow – as VW wrote, ‘I do not in the least know if any attention is paid to our recommendations’ – and some decisions appeared to be inexplicable. On one such occasion, the Committee for Release decided to free one half of the Rawicz and Landauer Piano Duo from their incarceration in the Isle of Man Internment Camps (Rawicz) but not the other.3 However, by summer 1941, eminent musicians had officially become eligible for release under a new ‘Category 20’ clause, also with additional consideration being given to young musicians of ‘decided talent or promise’. Taking no chances, however, VW and colleagues continued their advocacy well into 1942 and succeeded in securing further releases.

Sudeten Czech Refugees Cat. No. D076-2 © Dorking Museum. Reproduced with permission.

While Vaughan Williams was happy to lend his reputation and status to a moral and national cause in which he believed so fervently, his enthusiastic engagement in work on a more local platform says just as much about his character. VW was just a few weeks short of his sixty-seventh birthday at the outbreak of the war and yet, as recorded by Adrian Boult, in addition to rehearsing village choirs weekly and organising concerts for troops, he took on fire-watching duties, collected salvage and energetically stepped up his gardening activities, all the while continuing his role as Chairman of the Refugee Committee. No task appears to have been beneath him, and in one letter VW writes, with apologies, of how he will need to sign off early as he has to visit a fellow Committee member, the Duke of Newcastle, to persuade him to give some dung for the local refugee hostel garden.

Some of those musicians who were interned after fleeing the Nazis went on to have prominent careers as composers, performers and musicologists – including Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus String Quartet, Egon Wellesz, and Hans Keller – and others went on to inspire future generations through their teaching. (I would like to take this chance to record my personal debt, as a former conservatoire student, to the wonderfully stimulating and inspiring repertoire coaching I received from two former Isle of Man internees, Paul Hamburger and Peter Gellhorn.) Moreover, and thanks to the fascinating Letters of Vaughan Williams’s online resource, the names of so many others that VW and his colleagues tried to support are a matter of public record. However, we must also continue to acknowledge and honour the many thousands who died nameless.

The spirit in which VW worked in the war years is surely an enduring lesson for us all. We might think that there has been a developing refugee crisis in the last few years with the growth of displaced populations across the globe. The truth is that it is a crisis that has never gone away. In my reading for this blog, I came across a photo from 2016 – a year when over one million refugees are estimated to have arrived in Europe – of the statue of Vaughan Williams in Dorking town centre with an added placard placed in his hands proclaiming, ‘I welcomed refugees during WW2’. It is only a personal guess, but my hunch is that VW would have been pleased to be seen carrying this message.

Reproduced with permission of Constance Nash.

Angus Smith
© 2022 Stainer & Bell Ltd

I am greatly indebted to the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust and its ‘Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ database for much of the information in this blog. All quotations from the Vaughan Williams letters are copyright The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

1 It appears that Gerhard in fact went to Palestine immediately on his release and he died in Israel in 1955 at the age of 47. Tragically, Stephanie Pinthus died in Belzyce Ghetto in Poland in 1942.

2 Identity currently unknown

3 The Duo enjoyed huge popularity in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, earning the rare double of an appearance on both This is Your Life and Desert Island Discs!


The Royal College of Music has created a wonderful Oral History Project, entitled ‘Singing a song in a Foreign Land’, which focuses on musicians who emigrated from Central Europe owing to Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s, curated by Professor Norbert Meyn.

Watch a video interview with Peter Gellhorn, whose release from internment was supported by Vaughan Williams, on his pre-war and wartime experiences.

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