[From Time Stood Still by Paul Cohen-Portheim]
IT was a strange voyage and it seemed endless. Fortunately the sea was quite calm, for I am a bad sailor and think sea-sickness one of the worst evils. All day long we kept near the coast, all other shipping apparently did the same. There was a great deal of it, and it looked very odd, nearly all steamers being 'camouflaged', which made them look as if cubist painters had been busy on them or natives of Africa had done their worst ; it also made them look curiously decrepit as they crawled along as slowly as we did ourselves. We also saw a convoy or two, all in dark-grey paint and suggestive of a funeral. We were presented with life-belts or jackets and shown how to put them on, which made all one had read about mines and submarines seem very vivid. At night we anchored somewhere near the coast, I do not know where, and one had to go below deck.
I need not have worried about doctors and nurses, for if there were any I certainly never saw them or anybody else at all anxious about one's state of health. Why this steamer was labelled a hospital-ship I cannot imagine ; it was just like the steamers which ran between England and Holland in the days of peace. The only difference was that there were far too many passengers on board and that people slept all over the place. The next day the voyage continued. I suppose that for some reason or other it lasted much longer than had been supposed, because food became very scanty and washing water was at at a premium, which was worse. I think it was the second night we reached Holland, possibly it was the third, it seemed about the tenth, for voyages have that in common with prison life that one loses count of time, and this was a combination of the two. We were to land at Rotterdam eventually, but that night we anchored at the Hook and so there was one more night to be passed on board before one could know one's future fate.
I knew hardly any of my fellow-passengers except the few that had come with me from Wakefield. The majority were to go on to Germany in exchange for British prisoners, the others were to stay in. Holland. It was a curiously subdued crowd, and all that voyage has remained in my memory as something silent and ghostly and grey. Grey waters and sky, a lifeless sea, a creeping steamer and grey and tired-looking, silent men on it. One felt one ought to talk in whispers. On that first evening nothing happened at all ; one stood about an deck and gazed at a deserted quay and all seemed dead, but in the early morning the boat began to move on and soon reached Rotterdam, or at least a remote quay with a station building on it.
There was no joyous reception awaiting us ; there was, in fact, no one to receive us at all. On this side of the water things were exactly the same as on the other, and this was the first evidence. Neither the Dutch nor the German authorities had been warned in time of our coming, it appeared, and as most of them had to come from the Hague, several hours passed before they arrived. It was then discovered that they were not expecting exchange-prisoners at all, but a batch of women and children, and so all arrangements had to be modified. In the meantime they held a roll-call and found all correct except that one man — the famous revolutionary doctor — had disappeared. When I say that they found all correct I must qualify this statement. The lists were found correct, the men inscribed on them all but one answered to their names when called, and it was easy to sort those to go on to Germany from those to stay on in Holland. But this did not satisfy the authorities at all, for what was there to prove that these people were really what they pretended to be ? There was nothing, and they looked on each one of us with the greatest suspicion. This was quite a new aspect of the problem to me, a ludicrous reversion of the situation. For four years I and all the others had been looked on and treated as dangerous to England and as potential German spies, and now suddenly we were suspected of being potential English spies and dangerous to Germany ! Really this story was to continue half tragic, half absurd to the end, and this was quite a new version of the return of the long-lost sons. Reflection showed me, however, that that surprising attitude of suspicion might have been expected if one had thought of it. It must be remembered that we had not been allowed to take any paper of any description with us, so it was completely impossible to prove one's identity by passports or other documents. We might certainly be somebody quite different from the man whose name we were inscribed by, and it was an excellent opportunity for the warring governments to smuggle through a number of master-spies, and they might be tempted to break this convention as others had been broken. Particularly those to go on to Germany were suspect, but those for Holland were also asked innumerable questions, and their cases were, I suppose, thoroughly investigated. This was my first experience of what made one's existence in a neutral country a burden : the spy-mania ; and I gained it before I had even set foot on its soil. All foreigners were suspect of working for the cause of one of the governments at war, as no doubt many of them were, and there was an unlimited variety of possibilities about this, for did not each government employ spies of enemy-nationality? If you were French you might be spying for France, but if you evidently were not, then you were probably spying for Germany instead ; if you were a neutral, Spanish or Scandinavian, you were probably combining the two, and so all foreigners were suspect to all other foreigners, and to the Dutch as well, for they might be doing a little spying about the Dutch army and defences into the bargain, and in any case they were uncomfortable and unwelcome visitors for more reasons than one.
All of this, of course, I only discovered gradually ; at the moment there was but the shock of this cool and unfriendly reception. But a worse shock was to follow. We were informed that a camp was being prepared for the civilians. It was not to be an internment camp in the strict sense of the word ; that is to say, there would be liberty of movement outside the camp and within a certain radius. One would sleep and take one's meals in camp, that was all, and it would all be most comfortable and friendly. Only, unfortunately, that camp was not ready and one could not say for certain when it would be ready, and meanwhile we were to go to a military camp.
At that the patience of a few, amongst whom I was, gave way. Really this was too much to expect of anybody in the fourth year of the war. To be taken from a camp where after years of effort one had managed to create tolerable surroundings for oneself, to pass through the bad dream of workhouse and voyage, and then, on arrival in a neutral country, to let oneself be locked up in a soldiers' camp where one would be worse off than where one had come from. And all that to people supposed to be exchanged for reasons of health ! It was too much, and we were not going to stand it. This we explained to the. German representative who was a very pleasant man and quite sympathetic. Only he did not see what he could do about it as it depended on the Dutch authorities. He promised, however, to do his best. People were leaving the ship and being entrained. One long train was going to Germany, a second to where the military camp was. The people had all taken their seats, their luggage followed them. The German attaché was still talking to the Dutch representative, a corpulent elderly officer. I don't know what arguments he used, but certainly the Dutchman seemed to be very furious and kept shaking his head. This went on for a very Iong time while we, I think there were no more than five or six of us, stood, a disconsolate little group, round our piled-up luggage. Then suddenly one train moved off, and the second train followed soon after. Perhaps that was why the Dutchman gave way at last ; we saw him shrug his shoulders and walk away. The German attach approached smiling broadly and informed us that for the present we were allowed to stay in Rotterdam, after which he too departed. Incidentally, this created a precedent, and all the prisoners of later transports were allowed to stay in Rotterdam if they wished to.
Of all my experiences I remember that as the most curious. There we sat or stood near our luggage on a deserted quay in an unknown country. The authorities had frowningly departed and left us to our own devices, and we had none. For years one had been ordered about and disposed of and directed, and one had lost all initiative of one's own ; now all of a sudden there was no one to tell one what to do, one was all alone and left strandedvvith one's belongings-as if one had been shipwrecked. It was very alarming and very uncanny too ; there was no precedent for such a situation, and what was one to do ? Obviously we could not remain standing on that deserted quay, and it was equally obvious that we could not leave our luggage standing there. The only thing to do was to leave some men to guard our belongings while the others would explore the possibilities, and this we decided to do. I was one of the three explorers and we promised to be back as soon as possible and departed on our errand.
We walked along quays and across rails and through a gate which fortunately was unlocked, and on to a road. There was no town in sight, nor buildings of any sort, but there were tram-rails, and after a while a tram came along. We could not tell whether it went in the right direction and we could not ask as none of us spoke Dutch, but surely it must go to some inhabited place. The conductor, after some arguments and some shaking of heads, accepted English money, which was all we had, and we were lucky, for the tram went to what I afterwards learnt was the central square of the city. At that terminus we got out and fell from grace at once, for instead of trying to find a hotel as we had promised to do, we went into a large cafe facing us, for we were immensely hungry. We did not want a huge meal and we did not want to stay long, but it was impossible to resist this temptation : to order food in a gorgeous cafe just as if one was really a free man allowed to do such a thing ! Our imagination did not soar too high, we decided on tea, cold ham, and bread and butter for this belated breakfast, and with some difficulty and a little German and a little English we managed to make the waiter understand. Then he said something incomprehensible in Dutch and we could not think what he wanted until a man at a table close by interpreted it for us :'He wants your bread-cards and your butter-cards and your meatcards and your sugar-cards.' We were horrified and dumbfounded ! No cards, no food ; and how and when should we outcasts ever get cards ! The waiter and the other people looked on us with grave suspicion. We got up and walked out, followed by stares and indignant muttering.
This was not going to be an easy task. Food we could not get ; would we get lodgings ? We tried one hotel which looked nice, we tried some others which looked less nice, without success. We had to explain : no passports, no luggage, interned German civilians from England — no, they did not like the look of that at all. We were extremely suspect, there was no room for us, all the hotels were full up. At last a very shady and unclean-looking small hotel, a horrible place it was, like the low-class hotels of all ports, condescended to accept us. The fat and squinting and unpleasant-looking proprietor said we could spend the night there if we paid in advance. This we did with a heavy heart, for added to all other terrors there was that of poverty. We had each been allowed to take ten pounds with us from Wakefield, but a good deal of that money had melted away during the unforeseen stay at Boston and on the ship, and God knew when one would get more, but there was no way out. We paid. One man was despatched to fetch the others, and they and our luggage eventually arrived. Meanwhile we held council with our amiable host about the problem of food-cards. We must get them at the Town Hall he said. We went and were refused ; they would not give cards to people who had no identification papers and could not show permits of sojourn in the city. They were not rude or unpleasant, but quite firm. They would do nothing for us unless we had the proper documents. There was, they said, a Commission for the interned, and we had better go and see what they would do for us there
What a nightmare all that day was, and how I wished I had remained at Wakefield ! Even the military camp would have been better perhaps, and best of all it would have been to have struck a mine on the voyage. One was hungry and tired out and weak, and everyone looked on one as a probable criminal, and one could get no food and one had next to no money, and that was how one was welcomed after all one had gone through. It was a horrible situation:
An endless tramride took us to a brand-new building right out of the city. That was the office of the Commission We were received by a very amiable and charming man, but he got less and less amiable and charming as we tried to explain what we had come for. He quite refused to admit that such people as we pretended to be existed ; he had never heard of interned civilians, he said, there was no such thing as an exchange of civilians, there was no room for them in Holland and certainly not in Rotterdam. First of all he insisted on it that we must be soldiers, and when we had patiently explained that we were not, his face lit up and he became very amiable again. ' I understand,' he said beamingly, ' you are deserters.' But when we had. to tell him we were not, he lost all interest and said curtly and crossly 'If you are not deserters I can't do anything for you.' Apparently deserters were of much higher standing and more deserving of sympathy than we were.
There was more talk, mostly from our side, and one man had a brainwave. 'If we asked you to sign a paper just to say that we had presented ourselves here, could you not sign that ? ' This he agreed to do, probably in order to get rid of us at last. Such is the magic of stamped paper that this rag sufficed to get us the coveted cards ! I like to think that there was goodwill as well at the Mayor's office ; anyway, they expressed themselves satisfied with that document and we got our ration-cards for a week, nor was there ever any difficulty after, for, as I have already said, after our precedent the status of civilians interned in Rotterdam got legalized, internment meaning that one must not leave that city. This accomplished, we had lunch at the hotel at last, and then I sent a wire to my mother to tell her where I was and to ask her to send money at once ; it seemed miraculous that one could just walk into a post office and send off a wire. Then I went back to the hotel, lay down and slept fast till the evening. I woke with a start and when I had become fully conscious I suddenly realized that my captivity had come to an end, that I was free — after a manner; that, at any rate, there would be no more barbed wire.
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