21 March 2012

Behind Barbed Wire

DOCUMENTARY: Film exploring history of Nazi prisoner camp features Saint Andrews veteran.

A documentary about the Allied airmen who were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp "Lost Airmen of Buchenwald" will be shown at the W.C. O'Neill Arena threatre Apr. 1 at 7:30 p.m.

In the summer of 1944, 168 Allied airmen from the U.S., England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were sent by the Gestapo from a prison in Paris to the infamous Koncentration Lager Buchenwald in Germany.

Among them was Hawker Typhoon fighter pilot Jim Stewart of Saint Andrews who will attend the free public screening which is its Canadian premiere. Although he has been given his own copy of the documentary and has watched it, he said he is looking forward to seeing it on the big screen.

An R.A.F. fighter pilot, he was shot down near Rousen, France on May 13, 1944, and managed to evade capture for several months with the help of members of the French resistance movement, who he described as the bravest of the brave who asked so much for him.

"I remember well the shock and utter dismay at being apprehended by the Gestapo, through treachery, to be incarcerated in Fresnes on July 8.

The days that followed until that infamous transport of 15 August were a melange of hope and despair: hope of liberation by the advancing Allies ... despair at such inhuman treatment - little or no food, awareness of shootings and tortures around us, three of us eventually crowded into that miserably filthy cell with thousands of fleas for company.

"Imagine the depth of my misery on the morning of our bus trip (well guarded by machine pistols and grenades) across Paris to the Pantin freight station when, crossing across the lower hall were Ginette Rocher and brother Georges Prevot, with their respective husband and girl friend, who had hidden me for four weeks at their apartment on 20 Boulevard Sebastapol; picked up the day before through the treachery of some infamous traitor."

Stewart, who is now 90 but looks a lot younger, and it is impossible to adequately describe the nightmare of that five day trip to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck (the notorious women's concentration camp).

There were 2,100 men and women on that train with 90 crammed in a box-car in the stifling hot August weather. There was room only to sit or stand and the only ventilation was a small window wired off at the end of each truck with one foul-smelling can in the middle of the floor for toilet purposes.

"The memory of men and women lined along the tracks side by side to relieve themselves still haunts me to this day."

They were stuck gasping for air in a smoke-filled tunnel after the far end was blocked by sabotage and Stewart recalled the resultant brutality of the guards as they marched the prisoners around to another waiting train.

It is also impossible for Stewart to erase the memory of a young French man who was shot down in cold blood and his body left in the ditch - his only crime was placing his hand on the barbed wire on the window.

He also recalled a complete carload of his comrades stripped naked because of escape attempts and finally the welcome party of SS and digs on the siding of their arrival at Buchenwald August 20, 1944, and said he wants Buchenwald-Dora to "stay condemned for all time."

"I am, indeed, one of "The Lucky Ones." I saw for myself, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, 'the depth of human moral degradation, the cruelty and sadism, the moral sloth and inhumanity that it is possible for mankind to fall to - a lower level than anyone would have supposed in recent centuries.'"

Usually airmen who were shot down were taken to the main interrogation centre in Frankfurt then to a prisoner-of-war camp. Stewart said they were initially in a French prison and he feels they just happened to be there at the wrong time.

"The Germans decided to fill up a transport. We didn't know where we were going and it was a shock when we got there."

He has kept in touch with some of the airmen who were in the camp with him and just recently spoke to another prisoner, Phil Lamason, who is featured in the documentary and lives in New Zealand.

"He was my hero. He was a squadron leader and he was pretty well the senior officer of the group and, basically, his leadership was incredible. It was a big thrill for me to talk to him. He had been over to one or two of our conventions but there are not too many of us left."

Buchenwald, said Stewart, was purely slave labour. They was one block which was all Jewish people and he said they were given the most menial tasks of all. The airmen, he said, acted as a military group and refused to work.

"When we refused to work, they took Phil out with a whole bunch of fellows with rifles. He said it takes a lot of you to shoot just one fellow - but they didn't shoot him."

The camp was supervised by the SS who had a training camp alongside and there was also a small arms factory next door and a stone quarry where the prisoners worked. He recalled how the Americans bombed the area Sept. 4, 1944 completely demolishing the factory and hitting the SS barracks, killed a number of troops.

"I will never know how we escaped."

Most of the airmen left Buchenwald Oct. 19, 1944, he said, apart from one or two who were sick and probably left in November. The rumour was that they had been due to be executed four or five days later.

Stewart said they were moved to a regular prisoner of war camp and a bunch of them went over the wire May 8, 1945 and managed to make it to the American lines. He was back home in the U.K. by May 13, 1945 - exactly one year from when he was shot down in France.

Stewart and his wife, Jan, emigrated to Canada in 1952 and lived in Blacks Harbour for 35 years when he worked for Connors Bros., Limited, then moved to Saint Andrews in 1979.

Stewart went back to Buchenwald in 2010 at the invitation of the Buchenwald-Dora Committee on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp. He was also there for the 50th anniversary in 1995.

Five of the surviving airmen are interviewed in the documentary which was produced and directed by Southern California-based producer/ director Mike Dorsey, whose grandfather, E.C. "Easy" Freeman was one of them. Stewart, Freeman and five other Buchenwald airmen appear in the film including Lamason.

The film's production spanned the globe, from the U.S. to Germany, France, and New Zealand, featuring rare Second World War footage and compelling interviews with the survivors.

A controversial moment in history that many western countries refused to admit ever happened, "Lost Airmen of Buchenwald" tells the harrowing story through interviews with seven surviving members of the group.

The film follows them from their days hiding with the French Resistance to the darkest days of the Holocaust, as they struggled inside Germany's most notorious camps as the country collapsed under the weight of the advancing Russian and Allied armies.

Stewart said the documentary will be shown at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for its 20th anniversary and it will also be screened during the GI Film Festival in Washington, DC. The festival, which runs from May 9 to 15, is completely dedicated to military veteran's films.

A favourite withe students at Vincent Massey Elementary School, "Grandad Jim" still goes into the school to read to the students on a regular basis and he also reads at Passamaquoddy Lodge every Thursday.

He said he is hoping some of the young people come along to the documentary screening because this story should not be allowed to die.

SOURCE: The Saint Croix Courier (St. Stephen, NB) - March 20, 2012.