Another story of life in Wurzach

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The castle at Bad Wurzach today

From WW2 People’s War – An archive of World War Two memories, written by the public, gathered by the BBC

People in story: Sylvia Diamond, Patricia Vibert, William and Alice Butler, Edward Helie

Contributed on: 19 January 2005

"On a warm summer's day in 1995, the Mayor of Bad Wurzach, a little town in southern Germany, led my husband and me to the town's imposing Schloss. As we approached the gates I struggled to adjust my fifty-year-old memories of a grim, grey building, surrounded by rolled barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers with guns and fierce Alsatian dogs, to this fine renovated castle, gleaming with fresh paint. Here were colourful, cheerful gardens where I remembered a bare compound, iron-hard from soldiers' boots. My deeply-etched mental picture was of a prison camp, grey and black and hard and bare. This was a grand baroque castle, shining in the August sun. But the same guardhouses were still there at the gates.
"My last view of these gates had been when they were flung open for the American lorries to tear through, throwing up clouds of dust, as they carried the Schloss's inmates out of their prison to the airport. It was a hot day and the American soldiers drove at tremendous speed over bumpy roads; I wasn't the only child being sick over the tailgate. But the speed and the vanishing view of Wurzach could not have been more welcome; after two years and nine months behind barbed wire, these ordinary civilian men, women and children, from babies to teenagers, were at last going home.

Home was Jersey

"Home was the lovely island of Jersey, peaceful and untroubled until the fall of France early in 1940. The British government considered Channel Island defence too costly militarily and in terms of civilian casualties so the islands were de-militarised in June and almost immediately occupied by German forces delighted to be on British soil. Like most islanders my parents' attitude to this hated occupation became one of stoic endurance. Penalties for disobedience to the new regulations were harsh, and some Jersey people died in concentration camps for hiding Russian slave-workers or other brave acts of defiance. But there were opportunities for quiet resistance too. My mother's fierce indignation at ‘foreigners' taking over her beloved island flared out one day when a kindly German soldier put a hand on the pram as she pushed my sister and me along a street in St. Helier. Probably homesick for his own family, he simply wanted to admire the toddler and baby. But this was insupportable to my mother who drew herself up to her full five feet, pushed the pram as hard as possible across his feet and stalked away. My father also had an opportunity for quiet defiance, which would totally alter the course of ‘our' war, but that came later.
"Like most islanders my parents were practical and resourceful and our garden was soon given over to vegetables and rabbit hutches. My mother had bought children's shoes in several larger sizes and was proud to say at the end of the war that her little girls had never worn wooden clogs! We were fortunate too that her brothers and sisters had farms and did their best to supply us with occasional eggs, butter and fresh fruit. The lack of imported food, though, gave rise to ingenious substitutes, such as mashed potatoes instead of flour for making pastry, ground acorns for coffee and, when salt became scarce, sea-water for cooking. There were many hardships but people had to adjust to the resented presence of occupying forces (who generally behaved better than expected) and settled for making life as tolerable as possible.
"However in 1942 Berlin began to fear that an allied invasion of Europe could begin with the Channel Islands and new restrictions were ordered. Some houses overlooking gun batteries were destroyed and wireless sets were confiscated so that the B.B.C. could not broadcast instructions to the residents. Like several others, my Uncle Edward kept his wireless set hidden in a hayloft; so allied news continued to be secretly spread. But then an order was given which did seem intolerable. It came directly from Hitler, probably in retaliation for allied Commando raids and the internment of Germans in Persia.

The Jersey Evening Post published this abrupt German notice:

"Jersey, 15 September, 1942.
"By order of higher authorities the following British subjects will be evacuated and transferred to Germany:
"a) Persons who have their permanent residence not on the Channel Islands, for instance those who have been caught here by the outbreak of the war.
"b) All those men not born on the Channel Islands and 16 to 70 years of age who belong to the English people, together with their families.
"Detailed instructions will be given by the Feldkommandantur 515.
"Der Feldkommandant'
A sketch of a Wurzach dormitory by Walter Gunner
A drawing of the accommodation at Biberach by Mark Townsend
"My father had been born in Hampshire. As soon as he heard the news he rushed home to make sure my mother could hear it from no one else. He knew she would be wheeling the pram down Mont Cochon after spending the afternoon at her elder sister's farm. He was able to break the dreadful news just before a German officer and Jersey policeman came to the door, confirming the decree and telling us to be at the harbour next day
"My mother was distraught and close to collapse when my teenage cousin arrived having cycled furiously from her parents' farm with their offer to care for my sister and me (aged four, and two and a half) if my parents could get permission to leave us behind. Immediately my father cycled to town and up the hill to Victoria College House which the German Kommandant had requisitioned as his headquarters. He gained an interview and made his request. Calmly the Kommandant replied that he could arrange for our whole family to be exempted from the order. The only condition would be that my father should agree to work for the Germans. My father had no words with which to reply. He simply left.
"And so my family was among the deportees at the Harbour next day. Relatives had stayed up all night, helping to pack the suitcases with extra gifts of ill-spared clothing before we had to lock the doors and walk away from our home. Crowds watched, some wearing small Union Jacks and shouting defiance, ‘One, two, three, four! Who the hell are we for?' And deportees joined in yelling back ‘Churchill! England! Jersey!' But close relatives were distraught, not knowing if they would ever see us again as the boats took us away.

Long train journey

"After a long, slow train journey across the continent we arrived at Biberach in Wurtemburg, southern Germany. My parents remembered how hot the day was, especially as everyone was wearing several layers of thick clothing which could not be packed. Exhausted, carrying heavy suitcases and two small children, they only just managed to climb the hill to Biberach camp. We were there for six weeks, in rough conditions, before single young men were sent to Laufen, some families kept at Biberach and the rest of us taken further south to Bad Wurzach. In all, in the three camps, there were 1,200 Jersey people and 800 from Guernsey.
"Built in the 18th century for the local Grand Duke, the castle had been put to many other uses and was now a dirty prison camp, infested with fleas. We were allocated our rooms, the men in one part of the camp, women and children in another. Room 56 contains my earliest memories ~ a long room with high windows down one side, bare wooden floors and a large iron stove in the centre. Close together around the walls were double bunk beds with straw mattresses, a small rough table and a bench in front of each. My mother and sister and I were to share one bottom bunk, with someone else above. This room was home now for 36 of us, 21 women and 15 children, for nearly three years.
"The women immediately began a war of their own, against dirt. With no cleaning materials, they set to work with broken glass, scraping the grime from tables, benches and beds. My mother had had the foresight to bring Jeyes Fluid so germs were soon attacked too. The men also quickly organised a Camp committee and took responsibility for various aspects of camp life, the kitchens, laundry etc.
"At first the worst hardship was lack of good food. The internees were given thin cabbage soup most days, with black bread which my mother examined closely after a few discoveries of splinters of wood and even glass. The German guards fared much better but fortunately they liked to eat peeled potatoes, so the internees queued for the peelings. They seemed poor fare, but added extra nutrients to our meagre diet.
"This situation lasted for several months and families back home in Jersey were alarmed at the news we were able to send in censored letters. The aunt and uncle who had offered to ‘adopt' us quickly made up a huge parcel of good things, including packs of the protein-rich dried beans that would normally be used for a Jersey Bean-Crock, and even butter. All cars had long ago been confiscated so my uncle took his horse and van across the island to the post office in town. There he was told the parcel was too heavy to send. Fortunately he knew a family living nearby, who unpacked it all, repacked it into two parcels and amazingly they both reached us across war-torn Europe a week or so later!
"Our lives and health were saved by Red Cross parcels. They began to arrive regularly and continued till the end of the war. Our parents gave us the best things from them and I remember eating soft cheese with a spoon out of a little tin. Tinned food was heated down in the kitchens and sent up in nets to the rooms, where the men were allowed to join us for meals. I also remember putting potatoes to bake in the ashes in the big stove and my mother then putting a knob of Red Cross margarine in a hole in the top and we would eat these, pretending they were eggs! We could scarcely remember what eggs looked like. The potatoes on this occasion had been ‘acquired' from German stores in the basement. Apparently my father and a young helper were given the job of filling sacks of potatoes for the guards. It was a cold day, he was wearing an overcoat with deep pockets and the guard supervising them seemed unwary. My father's pockets became as heavy as he dared make them. The job finished, he and the helper prepared to slip away, but Dad was stopped by the guard's hand on his shoulder. Certain he was in deep trouble, my father was very surprised to hear the guard, in struggling English, telling him to be sure to share the stolen potatoes with his friend!

Lives at stake

"The imprisoned life was much harder for the adults than for us. Our security was in the presence and care of our parents. They had been torn from home and work and friends and felt real fear for the future, aware that if the war should go badly, our lives could be at stake.
Christmas 1942
Impressions of Biberach camp by Mark Townsend
"We children had plenty of playmates. The long corridor outside Room 56 was lined with doorless cupboards, an ideal place for hide-and-seek. When the thick snow came and fell in huge sheets from the roof, temporarily blocking out the light, it was greeted with delight. I remember us all racing down the ornate staircase and through the grand entrance hall clutching empty food tins, filling them with snow and running back to put them on the hot pipes which ran along the walls of the room, simply to watch the snow melt. Our first science lesson!
"‘School' was arranged by some internees who had been teachers. They had very few materials, provided by the Red Cross, but we children had few other distractions so made good progress. Some of us pre-schoolers were able to read and write well before starting school officially back in Jersey after the war. We were given some books provided by an American Roman Catholic organization which I must have read from cover to cover hundreds of times. I still treasure them, with the Geneva Red Cross stamps inside.
"There was a concert hall too, the scene of many resourceful and enjoyable performances arranged by an Entertainments committee, using all available talent.
"My one clear memory is of my sister Patricia and me being draped in blackout paper with orange beaks stuck on our noses and ushered on stage with several other small children to sing a song about blackbirds!
"Several guards were quite kindly to us; most were elderly or had been wounded and were no longer able to fight at the front. Soon they all had nicknames. I remember one we called Bandy, who used to throw sweets over the wire for the children.
"But we children did not escape from our experiences completely unscathed. In addition to our own anxieties we were bound to pick up the fears and stresses of the adults. Only years later did our parents tell us that the shock of the deportation had caused my four-year-old sister to stop speaking. She remained almost totally silent for the first few months at the Camp. My greatest fear was of the dogs. While in Jersey a German Alsatian had knocked me to the ground. Now they were everywhere and I found them terrifying. Occasionally a few of our men risked going over the wire to barter tinned food for eggs and other fresh produce with some co-operative villagers. My friend's father was delayed in coming back and I remember the quiet in the room and the apprehension as women looked out of the tall windows to the fields beyond, saying, ‘Where are they? What's happened?' and the fear spreading to the children.
"Women and children also watched fearfully from those windows one day towards the end of the War. British and allied bombers were penetrating to Stuttgart, Ulm and other southern towns and the castle could easily have been mistaken for an industrial target. An added danger was the Hitler Youth barracks next door to the camp.

Approaching planes heard

"My father and others had found some large sheets of yellow material and cut out huge P.O.W. letters. They were unrolling them in the compound when suddenly the drone of approaching planes was heard, the sirens sounded and the men were ordered inside. Unwilling to leave till that life-saving message was visible to the planes above, they ignored the order, while women and children at the windows held their breath. One notorious guard at the wire raised his gun to his shoulder. With one last kick at the heavy material my father and the others at last ran for cover.
"The worst time for my family was when some serious infections spread through the camp. My father, among others, became very ill with diphtheria. One three-year-old girl died. He was just pulling through when I went down with scarlet fever. It was a serious illness then and claimed the life of one man, a very well-liked and respected Methodist preacher. As I was whisked off to the 'Hospital' on another floor my sister became ill too. It was little wonder that when the war ended my mother weighed five and a half stone. I well remember the strangeness of the isolation room and being delirious and my parents only allowed to see me through a window, and of a face-to -face encounter with a rat. During recovery I played with little doll's house furniture quickly made for me by my parents from scraps of wood and fabric. They seemed such beautiful possessions but were taken away to be burnt when I was discharged.
"There was a real flowering of creative talent in the camp. Boredom could lead to depression so wise people looked for ways to use their unlooked-for free time creatively, for themselves and others. The Red Cross sent pencils and paints and some fine work was done .Many of us ‘camp children' have always kept the lovely Birthday and Christmas cards painted for us by the artists. A very accurate painting of Room 56 was done by one man whose family lived 'next door' to us (i.e. in the next bed!) and when my father saw it 50 years later he recognised the one homely article in the bare room as one of the a doll's pushchairs he had made for my sister and me! His materials were empty Red Cross boxes and his tools were broken glass and a kitchen knife but he managed to make a sewing-box for my mother with them, painting the lid with a pastoral scene of a very English cottage.
A spartan corridor inside a Biberach hut
"Somehow B.B.C. news was reaching us. I believe someone had made or acquired and hidden a wireless set! So spirits were rising fast after D-Day and the encouraging news of early 1945. Then lines of dishevelled and exhausted soldiers were seen trudging through the town and our hopes and prayers for release took on new expectancy. It was a Free French force which swept into the camp at the end of April. What a welcome! But they were hugely indignant to find civilian families in the prison and immediately lined all the guards against the wall, their rifles at the ready. It took great persuasion from our camp leaders, and assurances that we had not been treated brutally, before they agreed to spare their lives.
"Those huge gates were now open. We were allowed to walk through the village and into the pretty countryside. Our lives had been fairly colourless and the sudden sight of a golden field of king-cups sent my sister and me racing through them, picking as many as we could. But there was danger in our new semi-freedom. I stopped at a garden full of huge red peonies, which I'd never seen before, and the hausfrau rushed out with a broom, as if we were vermin, yelling 'Raus! Raus!' On another occasion a gunshot ran out from nearby woods, my father felt the rush of air just above his head and saw the bullet hole in the barn door just beyond.

Wait for transport

"Everyone was aching to go home. VE day came on 8th May and on the 9th came Churchill's announcement that 'Our dear Channel Islands will be freed today.' But it was another month before safe transport could be arranged for us. Then those American lorries whisked us away to a troop-carrier plane, where my father found an English newspaper of which, he said, he devoured every word, even the advertisements. We were cared for at a reception centre in London ~ I remember how attractive those crisp white beds were, after straw mattresses and grey blankets ~ then spent several months in Hampshire, with my English grandfather. At last, in September, after three years of exile, we were able to go home.
"So we all survived ~ and in addition 'learned a lot' as my mother often said, especially about faith in a personal God who could help in trouble, and patience with others. And gratitude that we had done so, while so many other lives were shattered by the War, buried all the memories, both pleasant and painful.
"This visit fifty years later revived them all, together with some very mixed emotions. But I'd found that Wurzach, which had always been synonymous with 'prison camp,' was now an attractive little spa town where people went to ease their pains in the mineral waters. The grim castle, now refurbished and its fine Baroque murals restored, was now a Jesuit-run home for infirm and handicapped people. It was now a healing place. I was aware of a similar process taking place in me, helped by the understanding and warmth of our welcome.
"One last visit completed the process. We were taken to the fine village church and on leaving I noticed in the porch huge memorial boards recording the names of all the men from Wurzach killed in the War. Then there was another list, almost as long, of those simply missing. Had they disappeared on the Russian front? There were so many names, from such a little place.
"We went on to the cemetery, to visit the graves of the twelve Jersey people who had died in the Camp. They were beautifully kept, with flowers on each grave. All the names were recorded on the same fine, dignified memorial which listed all the lost Wurzach men. Fathers, sons, husbands, brothers. They had probably wanted this war as little as we had and had suffered dreadfully. My heart went out in sympathy and in that peaceful, sunny garden all remembered fears were banished and a weight was lifted, as new understanding came with complete forgiveness.
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