Gwendoline Bisson's story of internment camps
This article by Andy Sibcy, was first published in the Jersey Evening Post
For centuries the narrative of war has celebrated the bravery of warriors who found glory on the battlefield. Far less well documented are the heroic fights of those who never picked up a gun. It is these struggles against terrible adversity which punctuate the history of Jersey’s Occupation experience.
Sadly too many of these stories will never be written, leaving memories of the courage of countless ordinary islanders to fade and die. Luckily Gwendoline Bisson is one of the many islanders over the decades who have been willing to talk about life under the Nazis. And the herores of the story are not decorated soldiers, but Walter and Mary Gunner, her father and mother.
Despite living through two years of Occupation and being incarcerated in an internment camp in the German village of Bad Wurzach for more than two years, they managed to shield their two children from the often terrifying evils of the world around them.
The plot might not be as dramatic as the multi-Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful, in which a Jewish father turns concentration camp life into a game to protect his young son from their awful reality, but it is no less moving.
‘The anniversary of the camp’s liberation on 28 April brings it all back every year, it really does,’ Mrs Bisson, now aged 81, says. ‘My mother never wanted to be reminded of it. It was so worrying for them. Towards the end they knew about the gas chambers, but we didn’t know that.
‘A number of Dutch Jews were brought to the camp from Belsen and they were in a very sorry state. They were very, very thin. I remember one boy who had a job to walk. He had been kicked. When we had our twinning, I saw him again. It was so emotional meeting him after all those years.
‘I remember it all, and visit it in my mind as if it was yesterday. It was one of those things, but I always say that we went as a family and we came back as a family. That was very important. It would have been dreadful to be like Mrs Barnes, who had to leave her daughter who died in the camp.
‘We must never forget what happened.’
In the home in St Saviour in which she has lived since the early 1950s, Mrs Bisson keeps a folder which will no doubt intrigue many generations of her family to come. It contains several sketches by her father and other internees of the camp. There are drawings of the rooms in which they were forced to live, a window into the spartan existence they endured, but there is one image in particular which holds her attention.
At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that the simple pencil drawing is an old image of the Hotel de France. However, the imposing building drawn by her father is the German Schloss in which her family was imprisoned for those long years.
She points to a window on the first floor to the right of the front door. ‘That was our room’, she says, ‘Room 50’.
It was at one of those windows 66 years ago this week that she stood with her father as the camp was liberated. As she remembers that momentous day, for the first time Mrs Bisson’s seemingly irrepressible smile dissolves and tears fillher eyes.
‘The first tank came in and my father had tears running down his cheeks,’ she remembers. ‘It was the first time I had ever seen him cry. They were tears of joy.’
Admiration for parents
Since becoming a parent herself, Mrs Bisson has realised just how hard those years were for her mother and father. And as she talks, it becomes clear that her tears are as much about admiration for them as they are about recalling the emotion of Liberation itself.
The mood quickly lifts as she talks about this week’s anniversary celebrations that saw a party from Bad Wurzach joining Islanders to celebrate friendships fostered through the twinning of St Helier with the Baden-Wurttembery village. ‘It makes me feel so much better that something positive has come out of it’, she says.
She has become good friends with a Catholic priest who trained in the Schloss, which became a seminary after the war. She met Father Herbert at a dinner and they realised they had both lived in Room 50. They now write regularly to each other and met again in Jersey this week. She has always wanted to show him her island and in some ways his first visit brings her story full circle.
List of deportees
Gwendoline Gunner was 12 when, in 1942, two years after the Germans had arrived, her family’s name was placed on a list of islanders not born in Jersey who were to be deported. The order from Hitler himself was a tit-for-tat response to the deporting and interning by the British of German civilians from Iran.
She was in her first year at the Intermediate School in Brighton Road, to where she had won a scholarship from Grouville School. She lived with her parents and younger sister, Jean, in Fauvic. Their mother looked after them at home while their father worked form P J Woodman, a tea and coffee merchant in Peter Street.
In September 1942 the family’s already uncertain existence under German rule was thrown into turmoil.
‘There was a notice in the Evening Post saying that all the English-born were going to be deported’, she says. ‘We had to assemble in Grouville where there would be a bus to taks us to the terminus at the Weighbridge. We went to the Weighbridge and stayed there for many hours, but in the end we were told to go back home and come back the following day because the boats were full. We had to go through the performance all over again the next day.’
‘You can only imagine how my parents must have been feeling. My father was a very cheerful type of person and he kept us all up. I thought going to a foreign country would be quite an adventure. We were never made aware of how worrying the whole situation was.
‘We left Jersey and it took a long time to get to St Malo. It was a grey boat and not very big. I think we were on the deck and we had a case each. We ftook as much as we could carry. We were told to pack warm clothing, but it was very hot.
‘We disembarked and walked to the train station. I remember there were some very kind French people dishing out bowls of soup. The German soldiers gave us smoked sausage and brown bread. We were in the train for two days and two nights. At one point the train was split into two and we later found out that the people on the other part of the train were sent to Dorsten. We were sent to Biberach. It was a camp that had a guard post like in the films, with soldiers on the top and barbed wire.’
The women and children were separated from the men and sent to concrete barracks at opposite ends of the camp. The families could get together during the day, but the women could not see their husbands at night, when the barracks were locked.
‘There were probably about ten or 12 people in a dormitory,’ says Mrs Bisson. ‘There was nopt much homely about it. There were bunk beds. I think the women were in shock when they realised they were in a prison. We got hungry because we did not have much to eat.
We had bread in the morning and then soup and a potato at lunch and bread again at night.’
Mrs Bisson and her family were in the camp six weeks before they were moved by train to Bad Wurzach. The women and children were put in large dormitories on the first floor and the men were on the ground and second floors. There were 38 people in Room 50 where Mrs Bisson, her mother and sister were sent.
Life in captivity
Soon the internees, who were initially only from Jersey and Guernsey, set about building a new life in captivity. ‘A school was started for the children,’ Mrs Bisson recalls. ‘Mr Green taught arithmetic and miss Grimshaw French.
‘We had a camp senior. It was Captain Hilton, and after him Captain Ray. Then there was the hospital run by Nurse Ginns, Michael’s mother. Nurse Ginns was wonderful.
‘It was very well organised. The guards were elderly. They were too old to fight. I think mostly people did what they were supposed to do. As long as you did that, there was no problem.
‘We could sing when we had concerts and eventually dances, but we were not allowed to sing God Save the King. We sang Land of Hope and Glory instead.
‘We were allowed outside in the compound. They organised sports days and eventually, as time went on, they extended the perimeter over the bridge over the moat. There was a football field as well.
Red Cross parcels
‘We could send Red Cross letters to Jersey, and to my grandparents in England as well. The Red Cross undoubtedly saved our lives. Without those parcels, I just don’t know how people would have survived.
‘The men made the best of it. I think people had their ups and downs, like anywhere. As children we wre not really aware of it. My father was always cheerful. He would not have frightened us.
‘I have five children and I often used to think what I would have felt if there had been a knock on the door and I was told that I had to take my children away. That is what my parents went through. We had a very carefree time really and that is down to them.
‘Eventually the tanks cam in and knocked down the gates and we walked out among the tanks. We were liberated by7 French soldiers and we told them we were prisoners of war. They didn’t know what to do with us because no one really knew we were there.
‘I think they gave out sweets to the children. The Germans were taken away. The ones who guarded us were never cruel. There was never any cruelty.’
Finally the Gunner family made it back to England and then home to Jersey. Life slowly returned to normal. Miss Gunner met her future husband, Gordon Bisson, a well respected motorbike racer, and they went on to have five children – Bryan, Ian, Marcus, Yvette and Dione.
More recently Mrs Bisson has been involved in both the twinning of St Helier and Bad Wurzach and the Bad Wurzach Partnership Committee, which promote reconciliation and friendship.
‘One of the most amazing things was going back to Grouville School to talk to the children in the same classrooms as I had been taught in,’ she says. ‘It was upstairs and it had been changed quite a lot, but it was amazing. I thought that was where I was all those years ago.’