Photo courtesy National Archives, Kew - War Cabinet Memoranda
"Many intellectuals, scientists and professionals, particularly those with Jewish backgrounds, or whose thinking did not agree with Nazi policies left for the United States and Great Britain... By the outbreak of the War, these men and women would feel their primary allegiances lay with the Allies, not their native lands. They trusted that any suspicion or abuse they encountered in England would be mild compared to the tortures inflicted by the Nazis. Because of Great Britain’s tough stance on immigration, most refugees were young, educated and productive members of society. In general, they assumed that they would continue to perform their daily occupations, or would be allowed to aid the war effort. They certainly did not expect the widespread distrust that surrounded anyone with a foreign accent as soon as the country was at war." - Elizabeth A. Atkins, "The Gettysburg Historical Journal", 2005
When Great Britain declared War on Nazi Germany in September of 1939, over seventy three thousand Germans and Austrians living in Great Britain were deemed 'enemy aliens' and asked to leave the country. Only two thousand did. After the fall of France and an invasion scare, Winston Churchill famously issued the order "Collar The Lot!" Men over the age of sixteen who chose to remain in England were ordered to surrender their cameras, weapons, maps and bicycles. They were subjected to curfews and required to obtain police permission to travel short distances from their homes for business. The Home Office established internment tribunals to decide whether 'enemy aliens' would be A) sent to internment camps, B) exempted from internment but subject to restrictions or C) exempted from both.
But what does all this have to with figure skating? Well, in the thirties a not insignificant number of Germans and Austrians came to Great Britain to teach skating or perform in ice pantomimes and revues. A precious few of these skaters, among them Elsie (Derksen) and Rudy Angola and the Baron von Petersdorff, managed to get out of England just before the War began. The fates of those that stayed varied greatly.
Ernst Friedrich Ludwig Nikolaus Hartung came to England to teach lawn tennis and figure skating in the early thirties. Born in Munich, he had served in the Deutsches Heer (Imperial German Army) during the Great War. He met his wife Eileen, a domestic science student, at the short-lived Golders Green Ice Rink in London. Ernst was able to avoid being labelled an 'enemy alien' because his naturalization certificate came through in May of 1938. Ernst and Eileen went on to become highly respected skating instructors at Westminster, Liverpool and Birmingham. Both of their children were born during the War. Ernst passed away in Feniscowles, Blackburn on July 26, 1978.
Viennese born Adolf Obst Vulgo Schima came to England in 1937 after managing a skating school in Adelboden, Switzerland. An exceptional stilt skater, he gave a series of exhibitions in Scotland before taking a job teaching at the Manchester Ice Palace. He was one of the lucky ones to be given a 'special case' exemption from both restrictions and internment. He married in 1943, was hired to teach skating at the Perth Ice Rink in 1947 and received his naturalization in 1948. He later taught at the Durham Ice Rink. He lived out his days in England, passing away on September 18, 1987 at the age of seventy eight.
Paul Kreckow performing at the Admiralspast prior to the Great War
Melitta Brunner and Paul Kreckow
The following year, Paul married Olympic Bronze Medallist Melitta Brunner in London. Their marriage was short-lived; she petitioned for a divorce in 1933. British Champion Michael Booker, who trained under Madge Austin who competed against Paul and Trudy at the Open Professional Championships, shared this story: "A member of the new Richmond staff was a fellow who appeared from nowhere by the name of Paul Kreckow. He had one solitary pupil, a married lady with whom he was having an affair, Trudy Harris. They skated for hours snuggled up to each other, supposedly nobody was to know of the affair, out of which came the 'Harris Tango.' Neither had any knowledge of music thus the dance really does not fit the tempo of a tango and ends up mid-bar and on the off beat. It is for this reason that the ladies inside three at the end of the dance is either performed on the off beat with a longer number of beats for the continuous back outside edge that follows, or is done the other way around with a shorter B.O. edge; I think the former is the 'official one. Anyway, one day some plain clothes cops turned up at the rink and carted off Mr. Kreckow; he has never been seen since, might be at Guantanamo, for it turned out he was a German spy. Those were the days when traitors, murderers and the like forfeited their human rights!"
So what did become of Paul? No one really knows. We do know he sailed from Berlin to Southampton in March of 1935 and appeared in the ice revue "Marina" at the S.S. Brighton in 1936. Beyond that, he vanishes off the face of the earth. Was he an agent of the Abwehr, the German military service? Was he deported or hauled out back and shot? It's hard to say... he doesn't show up in the records of 'alien internees'.
Helmut Rolle, a native of Oberstdorf, came to England in the early thirties and married an English woman in Bournemouth in 1933. He was the runner-up at the Open Professional Championships in 1936 and 1937 and taught at both the Streatham and Richmond Ice Rinks. Viennese born Erich Erdös was the bronze medallist at the 1934 World Championships and the 1932 and 1933 European Championships. He turned professional after a disappointing showing at the 1935 World Championships and came to England to teach at Queen's Ice Club and perform in the "St. Moritz" ice show at the London Coliseum. Both Helmut and Erich were deemed 'security risks' and on July 10, 1940, were among the over two thousand, five hundred 'enemy aliens' that sailed from Liverpool to Australia aboard the S.S. Dunera. These men spent an incredible fifty seven days a sea and were kept below deck the entire time, except for a daily ten-minute exercise period... where they had to walk across shards of glass from beer bottles intentionally smashed by guards. They were subject to frequent beatings and robberies by the guards. Alan Parkinson recounted the terrible conditions aboard thusly: "As passengers embarked on the Dunera, their possessions were taken and thrown into a heap on the dockside. Pilfering by the soldiers was rife even before the journey started. One soldier tried to pocket a small box of jewels taken from one of the men. An officer was called, and he said he would look after them - they were never seen again. The 'guards' were nothing better than looters and this went on in front of officers, even with participation by the officers. The ship was an overcrowded Hell-hole. Hammocks almost touched, many men had to sleep on the floor or on tables. There was only one piece of soap for twenty men, and one towel for ten men, water was rationed, and luggage was stowed away so there was no change of clothing. As a consequence, skin diseases were common. There was a hospital on board but no operating theatre. Toilet facilities were far from adequate, even with makeshift latrines erected on the deck and sewage flooded the decks. Dysentery ran through the ship. Blows with rifle butts and beatings from the soldiers were daily occurrences. One refugee tried to go to the latrines on deck during the night – which was out-of-bounds. He was bayoneted in the stomach by one of the guards and spent the rest of the voyage in the hospital. Food was bad, maggots in the bread and the butter and margarine was rancid. The guards however were well enough fed and even threw some of their food overboard in front of the refugees. The passengers were not told where they were going until they had been at sea for a week, and then they were told their destination was Australia."
After arriving in Australia, Erich and Helmut were put on a night train and transported to an internment camp in the town of Hay, New South Wales. When word got back to England of the atrocities that took place aboard the S.S. Dunera, Erich and the other internees were released. Erich returned to England in 1943, married the following year and went on to teach skating at Empress Hall, Earl's Court and Liverpool and perform in Bournemouth, Blackpool, Belgium, the Casa Carioca nightclub in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the Holiday On Ice tour in America. He passed away in Somerset, England in May of 2000. Helmut returned to England with another group of internees of 1945, but little is known about his fate afterwards.
Perhaps even sadder was the story of Kurt Ernst Schier, who came to England from Hamburg, Germany in the mid-thirties. He starred in Tom Arnold's touring ice revues "Revelry On The Ice" and "Switzerland" with Melitta Brunner, where he met his wife Olive Goater, who performed in the show as part of a twin sister act. He taught at Southampton's first ice rink, which was later destroyed during the Blitz, and the ice rink at Blackpool.
Kurt was soon separated from his wife and sent to one of the overcrowded internment camps in Douglas, on the Isle Of Man, where on July 11, 1943 he hung himself in a shower bath at the age of forty four. An inquest after his death revealed that he had threatened to commit suicide for weeks after an unsuccessful appeal for release from internment, and that no one had reported this to the camp leaders or taken any steps to stop him from harming himself. Home Secretary Herbert Morrison was questioned about Kurt's sad case in the House Of Commons and responded, "This man was not a refugee, and there should be no misunderstanding on that point. Clearly I must do my duty by what I conceive to be the security of the State, and I cannot be deterred by the possibility of suicide."
When we take history and spin it around from a different angle, we come to appreciate that the lines between 'the good guys' and 'the bad guys' were at times blurry. In exploring the figure skating's history, it's so important that difficult stories like these are told. Behind every black and white picture and grainy video is a person - and behind every person is a story that's usually pretty complicated.
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