‘Stitched Memories’: a 1943 sampler, a Nazi camp and thoughts about identity and belonging

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©Gabriele Neher, 2015


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Chicken sitting on a fence at Hampton, Jersey ©Gabriele Neher, 2015

On a recent family holiday to Jersey, I encountered a very unexpected reminder of my childhood in Germany. We went to Hamptonne , the Country Life Museum, and while my daughter went straight to the farmyard to coo over chicken, pigs and the exceptionally cute calves, I went to see the ‘Stitched Memories’ exhibition whch brings together a range of samplers stitched between the 18th and 20th centuries. I loved the exhibition, marvelling at the needlework skills of some very young girls when one of the final pieces in the exhibition caught my eye and pulled me up short. The sampler itself is a rather modest affair, and certainly no match in complexity or skill to some of the other pieces shown, but what catches the eye is the maker’s signature: she signs herself as ‘Patricia Bell, Internee No. 51’, and the location is given as ‘Biberach, 1943’.

Biberach an der Riss, to give it its proper name, is where I went to secondary school, and where I studied History as one of the subjects for my Abitur. We actually spent a lot of time studying German Twentieth Century history, and our look at National Socialism and its legacy was pretty rigorous and did not shirk a look at the atrocities commiotted under that regime. But we certainly did not look at the existence of Nazi camps in Biberach, and to come across a reference to my home town while on holiday in the Channel Islands was a bit of a surprise. But, as an art historian, the one thing that will catch my interest for sure is a piece of material culture with a story to tell, and this little sampler in Jersey provides a physical, tangible bit of evidence to unlock a piece of local history I never knew of. Clearly, a bit of digging was required to unpick some of the narratives behind this intriguing sampler.

There is little to its visual analysis: its quite a small sampler, and stitched on quite a rough piece of backing. It has clearly been folded for a while, as the top half of the piece has faded more than the bottom half, so it shows both its age and the fact that the material available to the maker were not great. Patricia Bell also worked with quite a limited range of colours, and one assumes, limited supplies of silk, so the design is simple and in comparison to older samplers, actually very sparse.  Bell depicts a rural idyll, of birds, deer and horses, a hunt in progress, and evokes, arguably, quite an ‘English’ landscape, context and environment. There are baskets of flowers, a dovecote, and the simple inscription: Patricia Bell, Internee No. 51.  The imagery speaks of a longing for freedom, and maybe  homesickness as it recalls a landscape and activities not accessible and open to the interned maker of this piece of embroidery. It speaks of the peaceful pursuits of rural leisure, and the more one lingers over the imagery of this simple piece, the starker the contrats between the maker’s situation in the camp, and the idyll evoked in the image becomes.

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Label at Hamptonne’s ‘Stitched Memories’ exhibition

I know much less about this piece than I am comfortable with; I dont know, for example, where and when the sampler was made. Did Patricia Bell stitch this while in Biberach as an Internee? If so, how did she gain access to the necessary materials? Are there more, comparable pieces? Was this quite common as an activity for internees? Or did the maker stitch this sampler on her return home to the Channel Islands as a commemorative piece and a reaction to her ordeal? I simply don’t know (certainly not without having access to more information about the piece)  and maybe part of the fascination of this little sampler lies in the fact that it does not tell us its secrets. It certainly does not give a clue as to when this was made- Biberach 1943 may be when it was made, or a time it might want to recall. I like this sort of ambiguity about viusal works, becaue seeing them, looking at them, means thinking about them and making the piece come alive. In the case of this sampler, it also recalls the maker and her story, all of which remains unknown to me.

But a look at the actual, material dimensions of this little sampler are only the beginning of thinking more closely about this piece, because there is a bigger story to tell. 70 years ago, in May 1945, The Channel Isalnds, notably Jersey and Guernsey, were liberated after 5 years of increasingly harsh German Occupation. The  Channel Islands had been occupied for their perceived strategic value by the German Army in June 1940 and were the only occupied part of the British Isles. Much has been written about the German occupation of the Channel Islands, but  the sampler is evidence of a different kind of story, a more human story hidden in the maelstrom of bigger events. How did Patricia Bell, who has left no digital footprint I can find on history, end up as Internee No 51 in sleepy, picturesque Biberach? In 1942, an order was issued by the German occupying forces for the deportation of all inhabitants of the Channel Islands to Germany who were either not born on the Channel Islands originally (clearly, this is how  English-born Patricia Bell found herself in Biberach) or who had served as officers in World War I. The camp at Biberach, ILAG V-B to give it its proper designation, largely housed deportees from the Channel Islands without a criminal record, was home to as many as 1000 occupants, including in excess of 100 children.  Biberach wasn’t an extermination camp but an internment camp; it looks as if only one of the Channel Islands’ internees died between 1942 and 1945 ; it was administered by the German Army and regularly inspected by the Red Cross who described conditions as ‘tolerable’; certainly its mortality rates were low, so Patricia Bell and most of her fellow internees returned home where she for one may, or may not, have stitched the sampler now displayed at Hamptonne.

Still, what about ILAG V-B and how about the fac that by the 1980s, when I went to secondary school, a camp housing 1000 people over several years seemed to have disappeared from the collective memory of a small town? Biberach is a picture-book pretty Southern German town with a distinguished history as an Imperial Free City. It traded extensively with Venice (maybe this is where my research interests in Venice actually come from!), and belonged within the circle of cities including Augsburg and Ulm that were rich and propserous due to their textile trade. With propserity came humanism and scholarship, and Biberach, notably, produced some fabulous writers, such as Christoph Martin Wieland, and staged the first German performance of the Tempest as early as 1616. Biberach was a town remarkably free of religious strife during the troubled 16th and 17th centuries when all civic positions were occupied by both a Catholic and a Protestant; this worked exceptionally well and arguably produced the twon’s rich and distinguished intellectual history. The spaces and architecture and structures of the past are everywhere in Biberach- but where was the Camp? It turns out that the site of the Camp is still there, and remains in use as a school/ training facility for police officers. In fact, I know the site of the camp really well because for nine years my school bus drove past it every day. The key to the site lies in its German, local name, because  ILAG V-B was known as Lager Lindele (Limetree Camp) and there is only one lime tree  in Biberach that  gets called by the petname of ‘ Lindele (Lindele means ‘little’ lime tree which certainly belies the age and size of the tree in question!). It seems almost ironic that the marker for the camp is a tree as much-loved and well known as Nottingham’s Major Oak, but there it is, and clearly, the Lindele was still standing when I left Biberach in 1989 to spend ‘a few months’ in London before going to University in Germany and studying Biochemistry. That plan changed a bit and 26 years later, i am still here and maybe more at home than I ever was in my native country.

Thinking about Patricia Bell and her sampler though has raised all sorts of questions for me. It took until 2002, by the looks of it, for an ‘official’ history of ILAG V-B  to be written. It’s certainly an uncompromising account that offers no apologies, so Biberach’s history now has a chapter added that will recall the town’s part in a past more recent than the annual pageantry of the great Schuetzenfest that commemorates  the 30-years War. ILAG V-B needs to be remembered as an instrument of Nazi ideology and recall the 1000+ displaced internees from the Channel Islands whose only crime was being caught in a war and being of the ‘wrong’ nationality, which seemingly made them pawns in a cruel political game. English-born Patricia Bell, with her little sampler that talks of homesickness and depicts the most English symbols she could think of without crossing a real or imagined line of treason and nationalism has left a touching reminder that ordinary people matter and that everybody belongs somewhere and has a story to tell. It also makes me wonder where I belong? 70 years ago, I could have been in the same position as Patricia Bell and end up deported, in my case as an intern to the Isle of Man, simply for being German and thus inherently alien and suspicious. My heart, my family, my job, my entire life are here but do I continue to remain an outsider because I continue to hold a German passport? Where do the refugees belong who are displaced by war, the people  we read of in the newspapers every day? It’s easy to think of ‘groups of people’ and remain detached, but about the individuals and their stories that make up that group? 70 years ago Patricia Bell was just another anonymous face in a crowd of deported islanders but such is the power of a simple piece of art that she at least no longer remains as an invisiable face in the crowd because now there is a story to tell that speaks of the loneliness of a single human being. Patricia Bell has a story- even though her image eludes me, through her sampler, she has a voice.

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