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Occupied Behind Barbed Wire

Exhibition by Dr Gilly Carr, Jersey Museum

31 March – December 30 2012

Occupied Behind Barbed Wire, an exhibition by Gilly Carr, gives a fascinating and rarely-glimpsed insight into the experiences of deportation and internment to German civilian internment camps. This exhibition focuses on the 2,200 Channel Islanders who were forcibly deported in September 1942 and February 1943 in retaliation for the British invasion of Iran and subsequent deportation of German citizens working in that country.

The first wave of deportations targeted men between the ages of 16 and 70, who were not born in the Channel Islands, and their dependents regardless of their place of birth. This group were sent from Jersey to Biberach in southern Germany. Those from Guernsey were sent to the transit camp of Dorsten in northern Germany and then on to Biberach, at which point the Jersey families were sent to the nearby town of Wurzach. Single men from both islands were sent to the male camp of Laufen. A number of people were sent to camps further afield.

Those deported in 1943 were a different segment of the population. While some were those who avoided deportation the previous September, others were put on the deportation list for being British Jews, for having served in the British armed forces, or for being ‘undesirable’, i.e., anyone who had spent time in prison for acts of resistance. A number of people from Sark were also deported in retaliation for a commando raid which landed in the island the previous autumn.

This group were sent to the camps in southern Germany via the transit camp of Compiègne, just outside Paris. They shared this camp with French Jews, who were en route to Auschwitz, and the Channel Islanders witnessed acts of cruelty committed by the guards.

From December 1942 onwards, after a few months of increasing malnutrition, the Islanders began to receive Red Cross parcels. These were a life-line, saving not just the bodies but also the minds of the internees. While boredom, inactivity, anxiety and fear are well-known triggers of depression and mental illness in internment camps, the islanders spent a good part of their time recycling the contents of their Red Cross parcels. The parcel string was woven in hats, handbags and shoes; the food tins were made into mugs, trays, teapots and sports trophies. The cardboard parcels were turned into dolls’ beds and homes for insects by the children, and the wooden parcel crates were fashioned into arm chairs, coffee tables and board games by the men. Nothing was wasted. Even the labels on the food tins were used in greetings card designs.

Today a rich collection of these items survives in private homes, museums and archives in the Channel Islands and in the UK. When viewed together, a number of themes emerge, such as identity, resistance, childhood, gift exchange, camp fashion, hunger, a lack of privacy, and daily life, as explored in this exhibition. As internees could not voice their anger and frustration and anxiety at their internment, they poured their emotions into the objects they made, something which is visible today.

Gilly Carr has worked with former internees, designers, and museum staff to create this exhibition, the result of five years of research with former internees in the Channel Islands.

A copy of the museum catalogue, by Gilly Carr, is for sale at the exhibition and through Amazon.

Gilly Carr's latest book, Creativity Behind Barbed Wire, is available from Routledge.

Further information about the exhibition can be found on the University of Cambridge research news page.