By Gilly Carr
Note to readers: a longer version of Julia Brichta’s story is being prepared for publication for an academic journal; the summary of her story is presented here.
The story of Julia Brichta is a complicated one to unravel due to conflicting sources, especially those which relate to her activities during the German Occupation.
Julia Brichta was born in Mako, Hungary on 28 November 1895 to a Jewish family. Her parents were Rudolph Brichta (a factory proprietor) and Amalia Irriz. She later wrote that her mother was Hungarian and that her father was American, and that about 20 other members of her family served in various American military units, including a nephew who was sometimes in England.[i] Whether this was the truth, we cannot say. Julia herself grew up in Hungary.
It seems that Julia first came to the UK in 1931 to work as a cook for a Dutch family in London, but when, in 1932, she travelled with a member of the family to Brussels, she was not allowed back in the UK and was placed, instead, on a black list of ‘undesirable aliens’ by the Ministry of Labour.
Little is known about her life before the war, although she was supposedly in a common-law marriage in Hungary before coming to Guernsey as a cook, a position organised through an advertising bureau.
Julia came to Guernsey on 7 July 1939, most likely because of increasing antisemitism in Hungary. An informant in Guernsey accused her of being Jewish, but her occupation identity card did not mark her as Jewish and neither was she placed on any list of Jews in the Channel Islands, although she was questioned about her heritage and said she was a Protestant.
Julia was initially employed as a cook in St Peter Port when she first came to Guernsey. At one point she went on hunger strike and refused to work after her employer prevented her from leaving the house and accused her of being a spy. She was taken to hospital briefly and then moved to new employers, finding work as a maid in a hotel. However, the owners evacuated before the Germans arrived. In September 1940, Julia was reported to the police for having been seen, with a German sailor, forcing entry into the hotel, apparently with authorization. She allegedly left with a ‘silver-plated tray, two rugs, a bedspread, and bottles from a cupboard’. She left her gas mask behind, which was discovered by the police.[ii] By October 1940 she was employed as a cook by the German authorities. She was interviewed by police inspector and Aliens Officer, William Sculpher, on 7 November 1940 about her heritage. She replied that her mother died when she was a baby and her father, soon after, and that she never knew anything of her grandparents.
On 27 April 1942, Julia married Irish labourer Jeremiah Barry, who himself had come to Guernsey only in September 1938. Whether or not it was a coincidence, the marriage took place just six days after the deportation from Guernsey of three Jewish women without British nationality. Julia knew that she was suspected of being Jewish and that may have been enough to fuel her fear. Jeremiah Barry was born 15 July 1913, and was 18 years younger than Julia; it was a marriage of convenience. Later, Julia wrote that the two of them ‘worked together against the Germans’, and that Barry became her husband ‘for the only reason’ that they could, together, ‘carry out our underground work’.[iii] Whether or not this ‘underground work’ was actually black market trading is unknown, but informers certainly claimed that this was what she was doing.
On 5 June 1943, Julia started work as a teacher at St Martin’s school, teaching English and German, but just over three months later, the Feldkommandantur received an anonymous letter denouncing her. ‘Mrs Barry, a Hungarian Jew, just married for a business affair to escape your jurisdiction on Jews, carries on a very large bartering trade at her house … she sells butter, sugar, white flour, honey, ham, eggs and sausages.’ The Germans also received a post-card advising them to ‘keep a watch on the Black Market activities of Mrs Barry’. On 30 September 1943, the same informer wrote to the Germans, saying ‘Sir, thank you for having acted about Mrs Barry and her Black Marketeering and Barter but now she is bragging she has caught you out. Your men could find nothing – but she gave the Gendarme smokes and other things for himself … When she married Barry she paid him £100 for his name … now she has over £500 in the bank and brags about her good business … she … gets all her things from the OT and German sailors to barter with. She is truly a bad tongued Jew and an awful cheat.’[iv] Julia herself wrote in her 1965 compensation testimony that she ‘was working for the Germans and was “friendly” with them’, and perhaps this enabled her to carry out her activities for a period before her eventual arrest.[v]
On 29 November 1943, Julia was questioned by the German authorities about black market activities. These records indicate that Julia spent the period from 12-28 January 1944 in prison in Jersey and was fined RM 200 for black market offences; however, no record of this imprisonment can be found in Jersey. In her compensation testimony she wrote that she was arrested for the second time on 10 February 1944 and put in Guernsey prison for 6 weeks, although no record has yet been found detailing the grounds for her arrest, nor with what (or whether) she was charged. Records from Jersey Prison suggest that she was placed there on 30 March 1944 and was deported from the island on 31 March 1944. After Julia left Guernsey, her flat was taken over by the States Billeting Officer and her personal possessions collected and passed to the States Supervisor for ‘safe keeping’.
The rest of Julia’s wartime experiences can be learned, for the most part, from her own testimonies. In her compensation testimony of 1965, she stated incorrectly that she passed through ‘ten other prisons in France and Germany’ and was in Ravensbrück for 18 months. She had, however, given a series of newspaper interviews in July and August 1945 after her return to Guernsey, and in these she records that she was taken first briefly to St-Malo Prison, then a spent a month in Rennes Prison, which she described as a ‘nice place with plenty of food but no air’ and where she said that she was fed by the French Red Cross. She then said that she was in Romainville Prison in Paris for 2 weeks, and where she was given a French Red Cross parcel. Then, on 18 May 1944, she was taken from Romainville to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, travelling in a cattle wagon for five days. Six hundred women were, she said, in the same transport.
She said that for the first three days they were given soup and coffee, but no water. When in the camp they were registered and any food parcels or possessions were confiscated by female SS guards. Julia had 200 RM and gold taken from her. The women’s clothes were taken away and they were given ‘short sleeved rags’, no underwear, and wooden clogs to wear instead. Julia shared her bed with three other women and the camp was badly overcrowded. For the first month, she and the women she was with were kept in quarantine, and at 4.30am they stood outside for three hours for roll-call. After this period they were sent to work in munitions factories, but the British women were spared this work. Instead they did different sorts of manual work.
The details of Julia’s experiences in Ravensbrück are known through her newspaper articles and her post-war affidavits and statements to the war crimes commission about the camp, all written in 1945 when the events were fresh. In both, Julia wrote that because she spoke German, Hungarian, French and English, she was made a ‘Lager policewoman’ in the camp, and held that role for 8 months. It was a position that came with a truncheon and a whip. A ‘Lager policewoman’ or kapo was in a position of authority over other prisoners and answered to the SS. It was a perpetrator role.
For three of those months in the position, Julia worked in the Straflager or punishment camp, and for the rest of the time she was ‘given general duties to perform, particularly receiving new arrivals at the camp’. In the Straflager, to where prisoners were taken for ‘the slightest infringement of the rules and for a minimum period of two months’, women had to work harder for less food and received beatings at the hand of a female guard. 1500 women were placed in this hut and each bed was occupied by five people. Julia was allowed by the guard in charge to sometimes give extra food to the women in the barrack.
Food rations at the camp as a whole were ‘a bowl of soup, some ersatz coffee and a piece of each day’. She also wrote that ‘it is true to say that nearly everybody in the camp was sick. If a new arrival was in reasonably good health, she very soon became a sick woman because of the conditions.’ She testified that sick women were made to work outside during the winter months, in appalling wintry conditions, with no protection against the weather.
Julia also witnessed women being thrown naked out of their beds, herded onto a lorry, and taken to gas chambers near the camp after January 1945. She witnessed many examples of atrocity, brutality and death at the hands of the SS, and spoke to other women who had been experimented upon in the camp. She was also able to testify to poisonings, sterilisation and forced abortions of women. In her testimony to the war crimes commission, she said that she tried to help the English women in the camp by giving them food and soap.
Julia wrote that, as a camp policewoman, her
… duty was looking after the women … my work was the most important job in the camp, and I had the same privileges as the SS women or men, only they had the right to kick me and I couldn’t kick them back … My red ribbon on my arm … gave me the right to go everywhere, night and day, see everything that was going on it the huts or hospitals, and I had the opportunity of saving many men and women from gas chambers or the furnace, and even those who were burned alive or eaten up by rats knew I tried everything to save them.
Julia also wrote that she asked new prisoners for their medicines and to come to her when they were sick so she could help them.
Other women in the camp said that she tried to help them. She was ‘well liked and said by the others to be cheerful’ and was ‘immensely patriotic about Guernsey.’[vi] Author Sarah Helm, who had recently written about the women of Ravensbrück, described Julia as ‘the only one of the group [of British prisoners] who tried to keep an eye out for the rest’ and that she was the only one to have displayed ‘British solidarity’ and ‘tried to follow what happened to them all.’[vii] She also wrote that while Julia may have faced accusations of collaboration with the SS, she used her position to get around the camp, gathering vital information as she went. In her post-war newspaper article, she recorded that her notes on the camp (written in shorthand and hidden in her bed) were confiscated by a female member of the SS, who beat her up after this discovery.
In April 1945, buses and food parcels from the Swedish Red Cross arrived. On 25 April, the British and American prisoners boarded the buses and were driven through Germany with a Gestapo escort, who left when they entered Denmark. The following morning they were taken to Gothenburg in Sweden by boat. At Malmö Harbour they were welcomed by the British consulate who gave the women gifts of make-up and perfume. They were disinfected, given overalls to wear, and taken to a museum to lodge for a month during a period of quarantine. They were very well looked after – ‘before we could ask for anything – we got it! Newspapers, chocolates, cigarettes every day; even a Red Cross parcel’, wrote Julia. During her seven weeks in Sweden, she put on two stones in weight. After this she was flown to Prestwick in Scotland, where she stayed for three weeks. ‘I’m proud to have been there, as I’m proud of the reason for which they sent me to the camp’, wrote Julia of Ravensbrück on her return to Guernsey.
Julia returned to Guernsey on 5 July 1945. She found that her clothing had been given away by the billeting officer, who had seemingly been informed that she would be shot. Her flat had been passed to a 20 year old woman who sold Julia’s possessions for a profit. Julia returned to find that she was penniless and without possessions. Almost all Jewish people throughout Europe who survived the camps to return to their homes found that their possessions and, indeed, their property had been taken by others.
William Bell reports that Julia moved to London and that, when Jeremiah Barry asked for a divorce not long after, her husband had to pay all the costs, although the source of this information is unknown.[viii]
Julia’s compensation claim file showed that she married again and became Julia Chapman in 1951, by which time she was still living in London.
By 1965, according to her compensation testimony, Julia was suffering from disabilities which she said were the direct result of her period of incarceration: deafness, insomnia, and constant diarrhoea since 1944, caused ‘in Ravensbrück by kicking, beating and torturing’, but which ‘started with the first beating in Guernsey’. Elsewhere in her statement, she said that the torturing also took place in Rennes.
Hungarian archival records show that Julia was Jewish; this was only uncovered definitively in 2017, although Julia herself always denied having Jewish ancestry. While the reasons for this during the Occupation are obvious, it is unclear why she did not reveal this information at the time that she was testifying about war crimes in Ravensbrück in 1945 and 1946, nor in 1965, when she was applying for compensation. It seems likely that a Jewish identity would have helped her case for compensation, but this was not mentioned.
Whether or not Julia was also a black marketeer, working alongside Jeremiah Barry, who acquired goods from the Germans and the Organisation Todt (OT), or whether there was more to her activities than this, is unknown. In 1965 she claimed that her ‘underground work’, with Jeremiah Barry, included listening to the radio and spreading the news, and passing it to Jeremiah to also spread, and that she ‘made every sabotage’ that she could, and that two pro-British German soldiers helped her. The Foreign Office (FO) took her at her word and she received a high level of compensation. Without any other source of evidence, it is impossible to say whether Julia changed her story to endear herself to the FO. However, in a post-war affidavit about war crimes in Ravensbrück, she testified that her original offence was endeavouring ‘to pass messages to the English and to relay news’ and that she was ‘charged for these actions and for being in possession of a wireless set, also for acts of sabotage.’[ix] In a recent book on the women of Ravensbrück, Sarah Helm claims that Julia ‘helped British intelligence by sending signals to London about German shipping movements in the Channel’. Although the source of this information is unknown, it seems a dubious claim given that the Channel Islands were entirely cut off from the UK during the Occupation.[x]
Nothing further is known about Julia’s life after 1965. At the time of the compensation claims she was 70 years of age. A single record exists of the death of a woman named Julia Chapman with the same birth year as Julia Brichta: this woman died in March 1981 in Worthing, West Sussex.
Bell, W. 1995. I Beg To Report: Policing in Guernsey during the German Occupation. Guernsey: Guernsey Press Ltd.
Bunting, M. 1995. A Model Occupation. London: BCA Ltd.
Helm, S. 2015. If This is a Woman. London: Little, Brown.
Guernsey Evening Press, 18, 20, 25, 27 July and 17 August 1945.
Julia Brichta’s occupation registration form, Guernsey Archives.
Police files, note about Julia Brichta, Guernsey Archives ref. CC 30/20
Julia Brichta’s name in political prisoner register, Jersey, ref. D/AG/B7/7
Details of Julia Brichta’s story, Guernsey Archives Service ref FK 11-7 and 11-6.
Julia Brichta’s compensation claim for Nazi persecution, copyright The National Archives ref. FO 950/999.
Affidavit by Julia Barry to war crimes investigators, copyright TNA ref. RW 2/7/3.
Julia Barry’s statement about Ravensbrück concentration camp, TNA ref WO 309/417
Julia Barry’s statement about Ravensbrück concentration camp, TNA WO 235/318
Statement about Julia Brichta, TNA ref. LAB2/2081/ETAR 99191932
Julia Brichta’s records, Wiener Library, copyright International Tracing Service ref. 3935211 and 13944002/0/1.
[i] TNA ref. FO 950/999, Nazi persecution compensation claim.
[ii] Bell 1995, 69.
[iii] TNA ref FO 950/999, Nazi persecution compensation claim.
[iv] Bell 1995, 373.
[v] TNA ref. FO 950/999, Nazi persecution compensation claim.
[vi] Helm 2015, 430.
[vii] Helm 2015, 431.
[viii] Bell 1995, 373.
[ix] TNA ref. RW 2/7/3.
[x] Helm 2015, 431.