By Gilly Carr
John Max Finkelstein was a Romanian Jew, born on 12 March 1882 in Galați. After working in Egypt as a government official on the state railways for 20 years from 1905, he retired. He arrived in the UK on 8 April 1927, living for a while in Coventry, before coming to Jersey in January 1931, aged 48. After the Germans occupied the Channel Islands, he was among those who registered as a Jew.
In February 1943, the Germans deported Jews with British nationality to civilian internment camps alongside others from the Channel Islands, including former members of the British armed forces, people who had served time in prison, and some people from the island of Sark. John Finkelstein was among those deported from Jersey at this time. February 1943 was the time of the second wave of mass deportations in the Channel Islands; the first had taken place the previous September, when men aged 16-70 living in the Islands but born in the UK or further afield were deported along with their dependents. In total, 2,200 Islanders were deported.
Finkelstein was deported, aged 60, on 13 February alongside a number of British Jews including Esther Lloyd, and Ruby, Alfred and Michael Still, even though Finkelstein himself did not have British citizenship. Their transport list was headed ‘Camp C’, which tells us that his was the train which divided on its journey, with women, children and older men going to Compiègne transit and internment camp, and the younger men going to Laufen civilian internment camp. The division of this train split families who were not to be reunited for another six months.
Finkelstein narrated his story in his compensation claim in 1964. As he left no diary or memoir, this testimony is the only written statement we have of Finkelstein’s experiences.
Finkelstein begins his story by informing the reader about how he came to be placed onto the transport ship. Whereas other Islanders – at least the non-Jews – received letters requiring them to be at the harbour, Finkelstein says that he was arrested by the Geheime Feldpolizei on the day of the deportation. After only a few days in Laufen camp, near Salzburg, he and ‘several other prisoners including four negroes’ were sent to a camp at Tittmoning (just over ten miles from Laufen), indicating that the Germans were targeting certain people in this transport from the camp. He was at this camp for ‘several months’ and then transferred to an unidentified camp at ‘Hoff’ – for just 48 hours. He was then transported again ‘in a closed train’, by which he presumably meant a cattle truck. After arriving at a large station which he believed was Munich, he was ‘imprisoned in a third floor cell no. 30 in solitary confinement where I stayed for some three weeks.’ His place of incarceration was likely to have been Munich Gestapo Prison. It is possible that, due to the geographical placings and proximities of some of the locations in his testimony, his brief sojourn at ‘Hoff’ was probably after Munich, and mostly likely a forced labour camp in Hof is meant. Finkelstein was over 80 years old when he wrote his testimony and his memory may not have been as fresh as it once was for the recollection of details of camps where he stayed for such brief periods.
He and several other prisoners were then taken to Weimar by train, from where they walked to Buchenwald Concentration Camp – a distance of about four miles. On his arrival, the Gestapo took the possessions, which he had brought with him from Jersey. These included money, two suitcases, three suits, three pairs of shoes, four shirts, a blanket, and a silver watch.
In Buchenwald, which he entered on 29 October 1943 as prisoner number 30364, he was interned in ‘conditions of indescribable horror for about 2 ½ years’, as he described it later.
During my imprisonment I was constantly beaten by the SS guards who beat all of us with heavy sticks and kicked us without provocation. On one occasion about fifteen of us were clearing out a workshop when for no reason the guards set on is and I was hit with a stick in the face knocking out most of my teeth – of the others who were working with me two Russians were dead and their bodies were taken to the Crematorium which went on burning bodies continuously.
Towards the end of his testimony, he stated that his incarceration ended when
… over 2,000 of us were crammed into cattle trucks and told we were being taken to clear debris. This journey lasted several days and many people died on route, their bodies merely being thrown out by the guards.
Finkelstein’s journey ended at Theresienstadt Ghetto, where the guards vanished and he was freed. By this stage he weighed just over eight stone, having lost four and a half stone (or 60 pounds) since he left Jersey. He was flown to Lyon, where he was put in hospital for several weeks before being repatriated to Jersey in January 1946.
Finkelstein applied for naturalisation as a British citizen in 1948, and remained in Jersey. In the mid-1960s, aged 81, John Finkelstein successfully applied for compensation as a victim of Nazi persecution.
John Max Finkelstein records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide, refs. 34436327, 34436328, 108728970.
John Max Finkelstein Alien’s cards and registration form, Jersey Archives ref. Alien 718-722 and D/S/A/25/121.
Transport list for deportation to ‘Camp C’ on 13 February 1943 showing the name of John Max Finkelstein, copyright Jersey Archives ref. B/A/W80/1.
Nazi persecution compensation claim, John Max Finkelstein, TNA FO 950/1563.