CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 5 . . . . October 29, 2004
A ship in a bottle used to rest on my grandparents' window when I was a child. Painted on the ship was the name Rose and towing behind it was a smaller boat named Harry. I was intrigued, not only because I could never figure out how the boat got in the bottle, but also because the bottled boat was a gift from a German prisoner of war. Harry is my father's cousin, Rose was his fiancee. During World War II, Harry was a guard in a prisoner of war camp near Timmins, ON. I could never understand that, if the Germans were the enemy, why would one take the time to make such a special gift?
This question was finally answered in The Enemy Within.
Filmmaker Eva Colmers looks at the German prisoner of war experience through the eyes of her father, Theo Melzer. She admits early in the film that she came to live in Canada because her father spoke so kindly of his time here as a German POW.
Theo, like many of his contemporaries, fought in the war because they had been drafted into service. Fresh out of high school, they entered the war only to be captured by the British forces and imprisoned. Before telling her father's story, Colmers interviews her uncle who had also been captured. Uncle Rolf had the misfortune of being captured by the Russian forces. He recalls how it was not uncommon that 40 to 50 German prisoners died each day. He states tearfully that he had to will himself to survive: "Don't get sick. Make it home." Many others were not so lucky. Germany lost 1.1 million soldiers in Russian captivity. Theo remembers only a few deaths from illness in his camp in Canada.
After Britain asked for our assistance, 38,000 German soldiers were taken in by Canada. Far from home and scattered across the country, the German POWs were established in 25 camps. Some camps held as many as 12,500 prisoners. While the guards were clearly outnumbered, Theo states, "Any camp could have planned a revolt as there weren't many guards, but that never really crossed our minds."
Other former POWs recall their arrival in Canada. On the train ride west, they were fed a full course meals complete with dessert. They could not believe it. Already established in the camps, the new arrivals met the more hardened Nazi prisoners. While they fought for the same country, the draftees were not necessarily of the same ideology. As a result, the camps were segregated into those who were pro-Nazi, moderate, and anti-Nazi. The prisoners were treated according to their willingness to co-operate.
Canada followed the Geneva Convention which meant that the prisoners were allowed to wear their uniforms, they could wear their medals, they were to be housed and fed, and the International Red Cross delivered mail between Canada and Germany. Colmers reads a number of letters that her father sent home during his time in Canada.
The camps were inspected regularly by Swiss officials. Germany was aware of the Canadian camp standards and reciprocated to some degree. Of the 8,000 Canadian POWs in Germany, 380 died. Of the 5.7 million Russian POWs, 3.3 million died. Granted, some prisoners tried to escape, but a Canadian guard interviewed says, "That was their job to try and escape." Escaping the camp would be a minor part of the plan. There was no place to go, and so why try to escape? While in the camps, the prisoners had the opportunity to take university courses in Law, Medicine and Bookkeeping. Camps had their own symphonies, choirs and theatre groups. Once a week, they were treated to a Hollywood movie. Once trust was established, some POWs were allowed to walk outside the camp fence as long as they promised to return-which they did.
In 1943, due to a severe labour shortage in the West, some men were allowed to work for pay. They filled a real need on farms, at times living with the farm family for the threshing time. They no longer saw Canadians as the enemy. One woman interviewed tells how a POW from a neighboring farm had heard that in her house there was a three-year-old girl. Since he had a daughter of the same age in Germany, he wondered if he could be allowed to play with the child so he would know what to do when he would be reunited with his own child. The woman interviewed was that child.
After the German surrender and the revelation of the atrocities committed, many of the men felt betrayed by Germany. They had to watch film footage of the concentration camps. They had great difficulty believing what they saw.
Even though they were held until 1947, 6,000 former POWs applied to stay in Canada. Their return home brought them to a place of no jobs and in many cases no home or family anymore. One man states that of his 30 classmates only three came through the war alive.
This is truly a moving presentation. The men, older now, still feel that Canada had treated them very well. Many of those interviewed were successful in emigrating to Canada and have lived here for decades. At the end of the film, the Canadian guard asks, "Who was the enemy? Not the German people, but the Nazi ideology. We were enemies and we didn't even know it."
The Enemy Within can be used in Canadian History of course, but it could also be used in Politics, Ethics, World History, or Law.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.