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Ruhleben internment camp

In autumn 1914, following the outbreak of war, citizens from the different Allied countries who were living, travelling or working in Germany were interned. While women and children from the UK were usually allowed to return home, the men were taken to Ruhleben racecourse just outside Berlin in Spandau. The site was to become a camp and approximately 5,000 predominantly British (though not exclusively) citizens were kept there. The men came from a wide range of backgrounds and professions including merchant seamen, fishermen, musicians, composers, medical experts, scientists, university students, travelling salesmen, ex-servicemen and writers. The camp itself was very basic and some of the first to arrive, in November 1914, wrote of finding horse dung still in the stables that was to become their living quarters. 

The camp was guarded by police rather than the military as the inmates were civilians. Classified as Enemy Aliens rather than Prisoners of War, the men were allowed to organise much of the interior of the camp. In addition to organising the camp for formal roles, such as a management committee, the camp inmates also set up a range of committees for social and sporting activities. There was a regular camp magazine and a yearly Christmas card. The inmates were allowed to correspond to relatives back home and make representations for their release. The range of men inside the camp meant that some were able learn a musical instrument or continue studies from fellow inmates, others were able to set up or continue in their trade. There were a number of tailors, a barber and, at one point, a casino all open in the camp. 

James Chadwick was a student in Germany working with Hans Geiger in 1914 and was interned for the whole of the war. He recorded how cold and cramped the accommodation was in the barracks. Despite that, he converted part of his space into a lab to continue his studies. In 1935, he received the 1935 Nobel Prize for Physics, after discovering the neutron.

In the opening days of the camp, the German authorities offered to provide kosher food for those who identified themselves as Jewish.  Approximately 200 of around 300+ Jewish men chose to do so and were housed by the German authorities in Hut 6 until 1916 when they were split up into the other barracks. Hut 6 was the smallest and dirtiest of the old stables. It was quickly identified as ‘the Ghetto

In a book following the war, one of those interns J Davidson Ketchum (Ruhleben: A prison camp society, by University of Toronto Press 1967) wrote about the emergence of anti-Semitism in the camp tying it directly to the separation of the Jews in Hut 6. He notes how Jews were stereotyped in the camp by the other internees and that Hut 6 inmates experienced prejudice, a lot of which was expressed in the magazine articles and shows. While the prejudice was not violent it was demoralising and divisive.

Ketchum also notes that once Hut 6 was closed down as barrack quarters the anti-Semitism largely disappeared, which he believed was due to the fact that the Jewish inmates were no longer separated off. He also believed that the anti-Semitism in the camp reduced due to increased restraint and the protestations of the Jewish inmates and others. This is probably because the Hut 6 inmates were not afraid to speak about the stereotyping and prejudice.

One inmate in particular, Israel Cohen, stood against any prejudice that he heard about and his popularity as well as strong character was enough to deter some of those who would otherwise have continued the taunting.  Israel Cohen was a journalist who had worked for the Globe and Glasgow Herald newspapers. He was holidaying in Germany when the war broke out. While in Ruhleben he was part of the Debating Society and took an active part in camp life. In July 1915, he and another inmate famously held a mock by-election to present some tongue in cheek political excitement in the camp. Their views, ideas and hustings were all presented in the Ruhleben magazine. He was released from the camp after 19 months as part of a prisoner exchange and went on to write "The Ruhleben Prison Camp: A Record of Nineteen Months' Internment".

Another distinguished Jewish inmate was Charles Adler (F.C. Adler) who was a conductor and musician. He organised an orchestra in the camp as there were many distinguished musicians there (many had been in Germany for a music festival when the war had started, and they had not been able to get home), managing to put on a concert as early as December 1914. He was a resident of Hut 6 and some of the insidious and prejudiced remarks were levied directly at him in the Ruhleben magazine. However, the author of those remarks was rebuked as Adler went on to produce many of the classical concerts in the camp, which appear to be very much appreciated by the majority of those in the camp. 

An article in the Manchester Guardian of March 31st 1915 (p. 3) has the following comments on Adler written by Walter Butterworth:

"Mr. F. C. Adler, a young conductor to whom is due in great measure the success of these concerts, is a man of unusual energy, capacity and enthusiasm. He has had a wide experience as conductor, especially in opera, successively in Mexico, Switzerland, Bavaria and Prussia. He was born in London and was interned at Ruhleben when the general order was issued on November 6th."

After the war Adler continued to conduct in Germany before moving to the States in 1933. 

In July 1916, a letter appeared in the Jewish Chronicle appealing for food and clothing parcels for the inmates of the Ruhleben camp. The conditions in the camp – the cold and damp and, by 1917, the limited food - affected many of the inmates’ health. Sigimund (Sidney) Jacobs, of Bethnal Green, who worked in the family leather business, was holidaying in Germany when the war started. His incarceration affected his health for the rest of his life and contributed to his early death at the age of 37.

Prisoners at Ruhleben, The Times. 23.05.2018


At the end of the war, the camp was closed down with the majority of inmates returning to their pre-war occupations. While the German authorities did not treat the inmates particularly badly the overall experience of being interred during a war along with the poor conditions in the camp led many to not speak of what they had lived through following their release.  

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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