Channel Islands held Nazi concentration camps that Britain will review

John Max Finkelstein got 12 years on the Channel Islands before the Nazis deported him and knocked out most of his teeth.

Finkelstein, a Romanian Jew, spent most of his imprisonment at the Buchenwald concentration camp — the same camp that Elie Wiesel survived — arriving on Oct. 29, 1943, as prisoner 30364. He would experience “conditions of indescribable horror for about 2½ years,” according to a post-captivity accounting of Nazi torture.

Finkelstein’s story is one of several that catalogue the horrors endured by residents of the Channel Islands, the site of the Nazis’ only concentration camps on British soil.

There are, even after eight decades, unanswered questions about the camps in the British Isles — a crucial part of Holocaust history in one of the world’s most developed empires. But a new review is looking to fill in the record.

The British government will soon review the Nazis’ 1940s concentration camps on the Channel Islands, said U.K. Holocaust issues official Lord Eric Pickles, in an effort to clarify the number of lives lost in the most westerly work camps.

“Some people don’t want to believe anything happened, and some believe thousands and thousands died,” he said. “I don’t think the truth can ever hurt us.”

Archaeological digs show that Nazis built work camps and death camps on the islands near the northwestern coast of France, but records from the occupation are far-flung.

Gilly Carr, a British archaeologist who wrote the book “Victims of Nazi Persecution in the Channel Islands,” said that some think tens of thousands of people died in the camps, while others say 7,000 people entered them.

She started a website to tell islanders’ stories, including Finkelstein’s.

According to Carr’s biography, Finkelstein had retired in about 1925 to the Channel Islands, which comprise an archipelago of two British Crown dependencies: the mostly self-governed bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey.

When Finkelstein was 48, the Nazis registered him as a Jew.

He and 2,000 other Jews were taken by cattle car through Nazi-occupied territory in April 1945 before ending up at the Theresienstadt camp, according to Holocaust survivor records. Finkelstein was roughly 112 pounds, down from 175 before his imprisonment, when Allied forces rescued the camp.

It had been three years since Finkelstein had seen his home on the island of Jersey.

Those who didn’t survive the archipelago’s two death camps and two labor camps — a goal of which was death through work — are crucial to count because they deserve the respect of an accurate tally, Carr said.

She pushed back on the idea that there is little known about the Nazi occupation of the islands, saying there is lots of academic research about the imprisonment on British soil. But some researchers say few people know about the camps.

“Despite investigations led by the British Government immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War, knowledge of the history and architecture of these camps remained limited,” according to a March 2020 study published in the Antiquity journal about archaeological research of the former camps.

Pickles said his office will lead the review of accounts “hidden in plain sight” in archives around the world.

Some of the Channel Island prisoners were Jews and European political dissidents, Pickles said, but because some were Russian prisoners of war, their records were given to the Russians. Getting those documents back now may be more difficult because of the war in Ukraine.

Still, he said, it is crucial the board does all it can to correct the record.

“If we overexaggerate we become guilty of Holocaust extortion; if we underestimate, we also cause a problem,” he said. “Those who want to remember Holocaust through truth have to get it right every day.”

The world knows the truth about the Holocaust because of survivors like Finkelstein.

After he was freed, Finkelstein was flown to Lyon in France, where he recuperated in a hospital for several weeks before he went back to Jersey in January 1946.

He applied for naturalization as a British citizen in 1948 and remained in Jersey, Carr wrote. In the mid-1960s, at age 81, Finkelstein successfully applied for compensation as a survivor of the Nazis.

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