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Gallery: A prisoner in the palace… and the brave teenager who didn’t come back - the Holzer family’s war stories

08:00 30 March 2014

Albert Collett/Albert Friederick Theodore Collatz - the teenager who went to war, under age, and lost his life.

Albert Collett/Albert Friederick Theodore Collatz - the teenager who went to war, under age, and lost his life.

Here’s an unusual one: about two men from immigrant families who considered themselves Brits but found themselves in the wrong places at the wrong times – with sad consequences. Steven Russell reports

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The Holzer family in Vienna in the late 1800s, with Carl on the left.The Holzer family in Vienna in the late 1800s, with Carl on the left.

Carl Holzer had the soul of an artist. He served a long apprenticeship as a lithographic printer with a Viennese firm run by monks and then worked in Berlin and Paris. In 1902 he made his home in England. His roots might have lain in Austria, but Carl thought of himself as British and his colleagues called him Charles or Charlie. He got married in 1905, fathered three children, and life was good.

Charles worked for Hübner’s, a prosperous London design house that helped produce stylish (often art deco) artwork to sell products such as Euthymol toothpaste. He rose up the ranks nicely.

And then war broke out.

Unfortunately, Charles had never made the effort to become a naturalised citizen, and in the eyes of the authorities was a foreign alien who needed to be taken out of circulation in these dangerous times.

He found himself one of numerous folk of German and Austrian descent interned in Alexandra Palace – the ornate leisure complex built in north London by the Victorians.

It wasn’t palatial, but it wasn’t Colditz, either. Photographs 
show the inmates running workshops of different kinds, such as printing and art classes, and staging musical concerts in a kind of “winter gardens” setting.

They even produced poignant Christmas cards wishing the recipients Herzliche Weihnachts und Neujahrs from Kriegsgefangenshaft Alexandra Palace – Hearty Christmas and New Year from PoW detention, near enough.

His grandson, Alan Holzer, is a retired history teacher who lives in Halesworth. He says there’s an unproven story that the internees even made Queen Mary a dolls’ house. If you looked inside, you could see the larder had tiny tins with the names of real firms painted on them, such as Cadbury’s Bourneville cocoa. “My grandfather would have done that with a single-hair brush.”

Charles was interned in 1914 and spent four years away from his home. It did take its toll on his health. Apparently, herring formed the staple diet, and he also smoked heavily. Hübner’s advanced money to buy food for the family and wife Carrie smuggled in some under her skirt for her husband.

“They were never ill-treated,” says Alan Holzer, 76. “They called themselves prisoners of war; they were never prisoners of war. They were internees. They weren’t stuck behind barbed wire.

“I think probably granddad saw himself as British – he was Charlie – and was a bit indignant. Given the hostility to all things German, I think they got away with it pretty well!”

He says little else is know about his grandfather’s time in Alexandra Palace. The experience did, though, scar his own father – Henry – who was about seven years old when Charles was taken away. Not that Henry ever spoke much about it in later life.

It must have been a difficult time for him, though, as at one point he developed double pneumonia and was on the danger list.

When Charles was released there was some bitterness, apparently, with the firm, for he was obliged to give up a stake in the company in return for the money and food he’d had during incarceration. Nevertheless, Charles returned to work for Hübner, finally became a British citizen in 1926, and did well. “By the ’30s, my grandfather had a car. They had property.”

Henry inherited the artistic gene and became an apprentice with the company. “What my father didn’t know about lithography wasn’t worth knowing. He pushed lithography about as far as it would go.”

Deciding later that he wanted to teach, Henry studied fine art at Regent Street Polytechnic and Central School of Arts and Crafts, and then landed a teaching job at Hornsey College of Art. In the 1930s he married Helen – Alan’s mother. She sounds a character: born in the East End of Irish/Scottish stock and becoming a committed member of the Communist Party. The marriage didn’t last and they divorced in the 1940s.

It was his time with the Royal Artillery during the Second World War that established a link with Suffolk. Henry did camouflage work up here and, following the victory in Europe, made lithographs of anti-doodlebug defences on the coast.

There’s also a story about his murals on the walls of the officers’ mess in Southwold, which apparently offended local women who decided his mermaids and nymphs were akin to pornography… He was told to paint over them.

In the late 1950s Henry married again, to Pam. They had seven children.

Alan thinks his father grew keen to get out of London and into the countryside, so in 1966 the family uprooted to the Norfolk village of Thurlton, north of Beccles.

Alan moved to East Anglia a couple of years later, to be closer to his father, and spent many years as a local councillor in Halesworth.

Henry died in the summer of 2007, about six months shy of his 100th birthday. Charles Holzer had died of heart failure in 1943.

How does Alan think his grandfather reflected on the spell of internment in his adopted country?

“I think he probably thought of it as a waste of four years. He was patriotic. He had to leave three children and a wife to their own devices.

“My father seems to be the one who was most affected by the absence; the one who missed his father most. But, then, they got together again and didn’t really look back. In the inter-war period, bearing in mind what the country was going through, they didn’t do too badly.”

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