Arts & Education: Introduction
With their bodies challenged and spirits revived through sports, the Ruhleben internees turned to a cultural life consisting of education and entertainment to keep their minds in top form. And, once again, the entire educational and entertainment system was created and run by the internees themselves. Camp cultural activities had become not just ways to pass the time, but activities pursued with vigor and a commitment that lasted the duration of the Camp.
December 1914, just a month after the internees arrived at Ruhleben, saw the founding of the Arts and Science Union (ASU), a group of university-trained men brought together for the purpose of organizing public lectures and the promotion of individual study. In addition to the ASU, there was the Ruhleben Camp School, an organization that touched more prisoners than any other. Originally an offshoot of the ASU, the Camp School organized classes, lectures, reading circles, debates and conversations at Ruhleben on a wide range of subjects.
Organized in January 1915, the Camp School started with a questionnaire addressed to the internees to gather the topics they would like to study. 1,100 forms were returned and pointed to a wide variety of educational interests. The resulting curriculum ranged from elementary level education to university work and beyond. Within six months of its founding, some 500 men were taking some 50 classes. The school grew quickly with over 200 teachers and an estimated enrollment between 1,000 to 1,400 students in 1916. A camp lending library supported the students’ study and by the fall of 1915 included 2,000 volumes.
Even with all their studying, the Ruhleben internees also found time to enjoy the arts in the forms of drama, literature, art, and music. The Ruhleben Dramatic Society mounted its first production—George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion—in March 1915. Internees acted in and directed the shows, built the sets, sewed or rented the costumes, and advertised the performances. Camp musicians provided the instrumental accompaniment.
The visual arts were also strong at Ruhleben with a group of artists producing paintings, prints, and drawings of Ruhleben life and its residents. The Camp’s first art exhibition was held in July 1915 and featured about 150 exhibits. Internees purchased many items to have as souvenirs of their time at Ruhleben. The visual arts also played an important part in the journalism coming out of Ruhleben by providing illustrations for the major publications such as In Ruhleben Camp and the Ruhleben Camp Magazine. These periodicals, and others, kept the internees informed about goings-on in camp and provided war news translated from approved German papers and relayed from smuggled-in English-language newspapers.