Friday, 11 November 2016

Uncle Vince's letter from Belsen

My great Uncle Vince Spowart lives on in memory as one of my favourite people. He was the brother of my maternal Grandfather (who I was never fortunate enough to meet) and was about the steadiest and most content person you could ever hope to meet. He carried with him a strength and grace I can only hope to grow into …… I’m not sure it’s in me.

George Vince Spowart served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He became a highly skilled airplane mechanic and spent much of the war working on Lancasters, Halifax, and Wellington bombers, Typhoon, and Mustang fighter planes. He was stationed in England, France, Belgium, Holland, and finally in Germany. A few weeks after the liberation of Belsen prison in April, 1945 he drove with a few fellow soldiers to the camp to see it. I’m not sure he was prepared for what he saw and wrote a letter home to his parents detailing the experience. By the Fall of 1945 he was home, in Canada, and soon to be married to his true love. As a child, I often heard of the pictures he took, the experiences he had, and the letter he wrote. I never saw them then, and I have no recollection of him talking to us about his time during the war. He was a happy, gentle person, and very rooted in the present, in the positive, and in the small joys of life. He lost his wife young and spoke often of his enduring love for her, he baked his own bread, he wore an infectious smile, and he fiercely loved his kids and family. That’s what I remember. But still I come back to this letter …… it sticks. And it deserves to be shared. But it is a hard read, heartbreaking in it’s wide eyed naivety, and touching in it’s tenderness and shock. It may trigger much so please read only when prepared. And for the love of Pete, please remember it when it comes time to vote …….. it is a slippery slope from talk of hate, to acts of hate.

I should also add that one of my other favourite people was German and immigrated to Canada after the War. He was a “Nazi” in the sense that every young man had to serve and was a “Nazi”, he was a gentle and kind soul. War is complicated …… a game of twisted ideals played by men safe in warm, plush seats. The horrors of war do not ever just belong to the victors. Remember. We, as humans, can all do terribly human things if we fail to uphold beautiful human ideals.

Uncle Vince’s letter was published in the ‘Cumberland Gazette’ on June 28, 1945. Some of the attitudes may seem a little dated but please know how progressive he always was for his time. 

Dear Mom and Dad,

Here’s that son of yours again. I was going to write you the night before last, but had nothing to say. I now have plenty to say.

I went yesterday to the Belsen prison camp, the most horrible sight in Germany. This time I was lucky enough to meet a few people who could speak English, but I’ll start from the beginning.

Three of us left camp early in the morning on a 35 mile trip to the camp. We caught a truck going out of the gate that took us within 2 ½ miles of the camp. We walked for about half a mile and decided there was no future in that so we decided to just take over the first German car that came along. One came and we stopped it. I had a bid wicked looking .45 revolver at my hip and the other two boys were packing German Lugers so it was quite easy to talk to the driver and we had no trouble getting him to see things our way- hence, in due time a relieved driver ejected three airmen at the Belsen camp.

As we came through the camp gate there was nothing out of the ordinary to meet the eye, a gay splash of bright coloured dresses of the women was brought out in contrast to the dull, drab, shabby dress of the men. They did not look too bad but a good meal would have filled them out a little better, I thought ‘poor devils’. I found out later that their stomachs were in such shape that a good meal would have killed them.

One of my friends had contacted an interpreter there and we were to find him first. He was a Romanian lieutenant and had been a prisoner before the camp was liberated by the British. He was a sharp looking man in his thirties, a man that you like at first sight before he says a word. Introductions were made and he spoke good basic English with an accent that added more colour to his winning personality.
We inquired about the burial grounds, explaining that we wanted to take pictures. He grabbed three bicycles for us, then decided it would be a little hard to give directions so he grabbed his Major’s car and took us down to the graves himself. We were very fortunate to land there in time for the 10:30 burial.

It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was one which held your gaze as though under a hypnotic spell. Every once in a while, I would snap out it long enough to take a picture. The grave was about six-foot-wide, six-foot-deep and about 100 feet long. The bodies were laid in layers in much the same manner as sardines in a can. This has been going on for months but now it is a little more like a funeral. An army Padre says a service. A huge army truck pulls up at the end of the grave and eight or ten big Germans start pulling corpses roughly from the truck. Every fourth or fifth is naked. It is just the last day or so that the number of dead has been low enough to cover them up in sacking for burial.
One pathetic sight was that of a baby wrapped in a cloth no larger than a towel. This they laid beside the body of a woman that I was told was the Mother. No wonder they died, her legs were no thicker than my wrist at any part. Those that were naked, all the bones of the body were in plain sight. The skeleton at St. John’s Ambulance Hall in Nanaimo looked in better shape, and at least it looked happier.

I have had reason to tell you little white lies in my life Mom – such as the answer to “who took half that cake I was saving for supper”. I have nothing to gain by telling lies in this letter. But to go on with my story ….
The lieutenant was waiting for me to make some comments and I could find no words other than “my God, what a grim sight!” He just smiled and said “it isn’t so hard now, they have it more or less under control now. In the days when the Germans were running the camps, they buried both the dead and those who were not quite dead”. He said he had seen the ground moving as they covered the bodies, some of them were not quite dead are were putting up a feeble fight to get out.
The three of us climbed into the car with the officer and drove off towards his office not saying a word the whole trip. We were in no mood to make conversation.

Just about that time the old clock on the wall showed 12:00 noon, which is the time to eat, but I just could not. I am just not the type Mom, I’ve seen death from the shores of Normandy a few days after D-Day all the way through to Germany. We have been bombed, shelled, strafed, during which death came in many different forms, to say nothing of pilots burned alive in aircrafts, and it did not affect my appetite one way or the other. But this “go” at Belsen was just more than I could handle. I was not sick, but just had no desire to eat.

The people are a little crowded in the large brick buildings, but they try to keep them clean since they were moved into them. They were the barrack blocks for the guards. The buildings in which the prisoners used to live were all burned down to prevent the spread of Typhus. Flame throwers burned them down and did a good job. Any germs that lived through that will be too weak to do any damage.

I wanted to see this part of the camp so I used it as an excuse to get out of eating. It was a good mile to walk as the camp is a huge place, but fortunately I got a lift with a visiting army Padre. His uniform was good to get me in any place so I stuck by him all the way there.
There is a large sign at the gate of this section of the camp, I took a picture of it. It states that 100 000 people died in there and other things not very nice to think about. The place was burned flat but there were graves all over and we looked at them all. They are not the kind of graves you know. It was earth piled about three feet high in an oblong about the size of one of our lots. Besides these neatly piled huge mounds were signs in English. Some of them had 5000 buried in a grave no larger than a city lot. I don’t know how deep the grave is but by the smell of the place it wouldn’t take much digging to strike the bodies. All these graves had 500 to 5000 each.

The German inventive genius had manufactured another little plaything for burning bodies. This was placed in a handy spot where it wouldn’t be too far to drag the dead. They had some nice gas chambers there too, I am told, but they were all destroyed before I got there.
The German’s are a sports-minded race as you know, so they made a point of putting whipping posts about the place just for the soldier’s exercise, of course.

I was to be back at the officer’s office at 2:30 so I had lots of time to spare and walked through the woods around the edge of the camp.
It seems the prisoners have been told to get all the sun treatment they could, so they strip down and lay in the sun. The life these poor people have been leading the last few months has left a large percentage of them either a little mentally unbalanced or unmoved by sights out of the ordinary, so a little thing like laying out in the sun naked meant nothing to them. I didn’t see it quite that way, however, so I walked through the field of naked men and women in much the same manner as you would look through Esquire with sunglasses on.

When I reached the office, there was my chum, Johnny, and his lieutenant waiting for me. From there we whistled down the road to one of the large brick buildings and we began to see the brighter side of the camp.

We went through a door on which there was a sign that said “Recreation Room” in about six languages. The room was quite large and furnished to suit the taste of the Germans, who could no longer use it. Large easy chairs, writing tables, and two nice pianos gave it a comfortable appearance, and the presence of five good-looking young women made me quite happy that I had gone there. This had all been pre-arranged by the Lieutenant. I knew when he told me that they could all speak some English. Introductions were made and we began to take stock. We had to watch what we said as they all spoke English so we had to revert to good old Canadian slang. Johnny’s description seems to fit as well as any, and I quote “Dat ain’t de type of babe you snag on Tony’s Corner, dat’s da stuff of the higher brackets”.

Two of the girls, like the lieutenant were Romanians, one was a Gypsy, and the other two were Hungarian and Dutch. One of the Romanian girls was very pretty, with dark skin, black hair and dark eyes. Me, being a man, noticed she had a very nice figure too. You, Mom, being a woman, will want to know what she wore. She had a neat white skirt on and a brilliant red blouse. These stood out against her dark hair and skin and she wore it well. The others were dressed in a similar manner and they looked quite healthy and none the worse for their experiences.
I had been told that she could sing so I coaxed her to sing for us, which she did, aided by the Gypsy who did not surprise me by wielding a wicked bow on a violin. Her voice was, without a doubt, the best I have ever heard. I have heard plenty of singers since I joined the service, from top-notch singers to rock-bottom bores and never have I heard anything to equal this girl. Music took up the best part of the two hours, and we got back to talking again. The Dutch girl, it seems, is of Dutch nobility, and certainly looked the part.

When Johnny had a go at speaking French to me to try and slip one over on them, they shot French from all angles at us. One, two, even three languages – I can understand them speaking that many- but they could all speak six! Three Canuck Airmen were feeling quite foolish for a while.

The girls told us more stories of cruel treatment at the hands of the Germans. Johnny offered his sympathy and said soon they would be able to go home and take up wherever they left off. The answer to that stunned the three of us when they said they no longer had homes and most of them think they have no family left. It kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?

I wish I could tell what I have written to you, to every person I know. It would give them a little to think about. Good Canadian blood was shed to put an end to places such as Belsen camp. Let’s hope it wasn’t shed in vain.

Time to go and eat Mom, and this time I’m sure I can handle it.

Your loving son,

The afterthought to this may be to think it takes someone especially evil to partake in such cruelty. To believe such horrors could only be perpetrated by a monster. But I think the point is that anyone, everyone is capable of all the best and all the very worst of what it means to be human. And I don’t think it is the loss of the human ideal of kindness and compassion that first sparks such dark times. I think it is the loss of the human ideal of equality.

I believe Equality is the highest human ideal. The moment we see anyone as anything other than our equal, the moment we draw a circle around a person or group and call them ‘other’, the moment we fall into ‘we’ versus ‘them’ thinking, we leave the door open for small cruelties and tiny humiliations. Each small unkindness emboldens and strengthens the next, makes it easier. Do we really think we are so different? Do we truly feel we are so incapable of sinking to such depths? Because we shouldn’t.

The ideal of Equality is undermined every time we break a rule based on fairness because we decided it wasn’t for us, every time we demand a right without returning the corresponding responsibility, every time we hurl heartless words and judgements and punishments at any harmless soul we view as different, every time we profit from the vulnerability of others, ever time we stand silent when we should speak, every time we turn away when we should witness, every time we allow power to stand in place of wisdom, every time we let money stand in place of honour, every single time we forget all the things that make us so terribly and beautifully human dwell in each of us.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Lita. So very relevant for this week. ~K