Peter Midgley

Peter Midgley

Berlin – London
1921 – 1991
Origin: Germany

Peter’s Early Life

Peter was born Peter Fleischmann in Berlin in 1921. His father was a socialist writer and the family ran a newspaper looked upon unfavourably by the Nazi regime. Following the deaths of his parents in mysterious circumstances, Peter grew up in the Auerbach Orphanage for Jewish children. He was a keen painter from an early age.

Peter’s Journey

Aged only 16, Peter discovered he was on a list of names wanted by the Gestapo. For his own safety, he went to stay with a foster mother outside Berlin.

Shortly afterwards, rescue efforts by World Jewish Relief (then the Central British Fund for German Jewry) would start enabling persecuted children to escape Nazi Germany. This would become known as the Kindertransport and Peter would be among the earliest children to come to Britain.

Gestapo

Listen to Peter talk about being wanted by the Gestapo following the death of his family. © IWM, no. 3941

Arriving in England

Listen to Peter talk about arriving in Harwich and his early experiences in Manchester. © IWM, no. 3941

Jewish children arrive at Harwich. Watch this Pathé newsreel describing the first intake of Jewish child refugees to Britain. Peter Midgley can be seen among them, visible at 00:06.

Peter’s Internment

When war broke out in 1939, Peter wanted to sign up with his friend Donald, but he was rejected. Soon after he was brought before the aliens tribunal and was categorised as exempt from internment. When the government policy changed in 1940, Peter was arrested at his home without warning and taken to Warth Mills.

Tribunal and arrest

Listen to Peter talk about what his tribunal was like, and his later arrest. © IWM, no. 3941

Peter had an unhappy time at Warth Mills, describing the camp as “dirty and chaotic”. The compound was surrounded by barbed wire and the floors were greasy from its former life as a cotton mill. Peter was one of the lucky ones – he had a bed. He later described how some of the interned artists used these to create tools for etching.

Art from beds

Listen to Peter talk about how the artists made art tools from the materials around them. © IWM, no. 3941

Peter was eventually transferred to the Isle of Man where he met distinguished artists, including Paul Hamann, Kurt Schwitters and Hellmuth Weissenborn. He was encouraged to take up art again, learning modelling and winning a prize in a camp exhibition.

Life After Internment

When Peter was released from internment, he gained a place at Beckenham School of Art. He joined the British army in 1943 and found himself back at Warth Mills, this time working as an interpreter in the RADC. Now a prisoner of war camp, Peter found conditions at the mill vastly improved.

Warth Mills prisoner of war camp

Listen to Peter talk about his return to Warth Mills and how the PoW camp differed from the internment camp. © IWM, no. 3941

Life After the War

After the war, Peter went back to Beckenham School of Art, then onto the Royal College of Art. He taught at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication and exhibited work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Academy and Camden Arts Centre. In 1955, Peter married fellow artist Doreen Leavey. They had one son, Gerald.

In 1978, Peter had his first solo exhibition in Berlin. He was greeted by the mayor in the city of his birth, returning as a guest of honour. Peter Midgley died in London in 1991.

The Auerbach Orphanage for Jewish children, where Peter had escaped, was dissolved by force by the German government in 1942. A memorial wall is inscribed with over 100 names of orphans removed and murdered by the Nazis.

Thanks to Peter’s family for providing biographical information and archive images. All rights reserved by the Estate of Peter Midgley.

To listen to Peter Midgley’s full oral history, go to the Imperial War Museum website, catalogue number 3941.

Monica Bohm-Duchen presents her talk, ‘Creativity Against the Odds: Art and Internment During World War Two’, at Manchester Art Gallery on Sunday 15 July, 2018. For more information, visit the Events page.

Next Internee

Paul Hamann

Hamburg — London

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