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Honouring the Heroes: 85 Years Since the Kitchener Camp Rescue

On January 20th, 85 years ago, the then Jewish Lads’ Brigade (now known as the JLGB), a youth organisation known for running summer camps, embarked on a historic mission. They opened the Kitchener Camp, a landmark initiative that would save the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. 
In 1939, amid the darkening shadow of Nazi persecution, a beacon of hope shone brightly on the Kentish coast of England - the Kitchener Camp. The genesis of the Kitchener Camp, alongside the much wider known Kindertransport rescue, was driven by the Central British Fund for German Jewry, now known as World Jewish Relief. Their vision and determination in the face of a humanitarian crisis were crucial in persuading the British government to permit these life-saving initiatives. 
The Jewish Lads’ Brigade offered to manage the Kitchener Camp, and the Home Office granted the first 100 visas for men to begin preparing the camp.
Transformed from a desolate First World War army base, the Kitchener Camp would quickly become a sanctuary for nearly 4,000 Jewish men from Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. 
These men, many of whom had suffered in concentration camps, found not just shelter but a semblance of normal life. The camp featured a hospital, a post office, had its own orchestra and football team and even a 1000-seater cinema built with money donated by the Odeon Cinema tycoon, Oscar Deutsch. Operating as a self-contained community, the Kitchener Camp offered both respite and dignity to its residents.
The JLGB took charge of logistics at the camp. It also provided the key personnel to manage the day-to-day, including the two Jewish brothers — Jonas and Phineas May who ran it.  Jonas the former JLGB Secretary as Camp Director, and Phineas as Welfare and Entertainment Officer. Phineas May’s diary, as well as the camp newspaper he helped produce, “The Kitchener Camp Review,” both preserved and housed at the Wiener Library in London, provides an invaluable record of life at the camp.
From the outset, the refugees themselves played a pivotal role in renovating and rebuilding the camp. Many of them had been through Jewish training schools, such as ORT in Germany and were skilled in carpentry, plumbing, joinery and bricklaying. This was both a necessity and a conscious choice — “helping men to help themselves,” as Ernest Joseph, architect and then JLGB Chief Staff Officer, who helped organise the rescue and secured the site, put it.
During these crucial months, it became more than a shelter; it was a springboard to a new life. Many of its residents joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, contributing valiantly to the British war effort and solidifying the bond between the refugees and their host nation.
After the Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland, Belgium and France in May 1940, public opinion towards the camp soured. Governmental fears about Nazi spies meant that all male refugees (who were now termed ‘enemy aliens’) that were not involved in the military or had not already emigrated, were interned on the Isle of Man. After just sixteen months, the thriving camp, which had been a haven to so many, was disbanded.
In 2022, the UK government posthumously honoured Jonas and Phineas May, and Ernest Joseph, with the British Heroes of The Holocaust medals. These three JLGB Leaders played pivotal roles in establishing and operating the Kitchener Camp. Their extraordinary humanity and resilience provided refuge to thousands of Jewish men in one of history’s darkest periods. The medals, awarded to their descendants, are a powerful reminder of the significant impact individuals can have in times of crisis.
Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the Kitchener Rescue, it is thought over 15,000 Jews who passed through the camp were saved from Nazi persecution. This remarkable chapter in history is a testament to the enduring power of courage, compassion, and community in the face of unimaginable adversity.
As we commemorate this 85th anniversary of the opening of the Kitchener Camp, it is crucial to remember the collaborative spirit that made the camp and rescue a success. The legacy of the camp, born from the collaboration between World Jewish Relief and the JLGB, continues to remind and guide both organisations in their commitment to helping those in need.

About JLGB:

JLGB is a modern, thriving, innovative, and award-winning organisation, actively creating a positive future for Jewish youth in the UK. Building on a heritage of almost 130 years, JLGB focuses on the individual and aims to provide every Jewish young person with the opportunity to develop their identity, knowledge and skills within a safe, fun, and caring environment empowering them become active citizens within society and the leaders of tomorrow, today!

For over 125 years, young Jewish people have been discovering just how brilliant they can be and how they can make the world a better place through JLGB. Whether you're 8 or 18, whatever you want to be, join in and be your best self with us! 

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