- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Gavin Kirkpatrick
- Location of story:
- Wimborne, Dorset
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 January 2004
HEINZ, THE PRISONER OF WAR
The year was 1944. The climax to the months of preparation and lead-up to D-Day had passed. By late autumn, the fields which had been carpeted with allied military equipment of every de-scription were making their slow recovery.
Throughout the early summer months, my father who commanded the local unit of the Home Guard, entertained and liaised with the Americans billeted in the area. For a few short months, we were able to enjoy luxuries children of my age never knew. Candy, chewing gum and cans of American butter. Bananas, fresh oranges and for the grown-ups the alluring aroma of Bronx cigarettes.
The "Yanks" came to tea and broke precious fresh eggs on their plates and spread the yoke on their bread like jam. Negro sol-diers trooped into the little town and pierced the rural reserve of old and young alike with their southern drawl. Before their departure, the Catholic boys from the school at the bottom of the hill covered their chests with military badges, satisfying their faith's lust for regalia.
And then in one vast convoy which stretched as far as the eye could see, the allied armies were gone, across the sea to France.
The sleepy but solid Dorset yeomanry returned to their wartime existence tending the farms, duty in the Home Guard or Women’s Volunteer Service and work in the munitions factories. Anxiously they monitored the progress of the war in Europe and beyond.
Into this environment arrived the Prisoners of War - Germans, Italians and other nationalities caught up on the side of Hitler, captured as the Allies finally moved into Europe.
In addition to his Home Guard duties, my father taught French and German. This latter language was sought by the military authori-ties to interrogate the German prisoners who had been moved into camps only recently occupied by the invasion forces.
At week-ends, the earlier visits of the American soldiers to our home were supplanted by German prisoners in twos and threes. Initially there was no fraternisation and they came at my father's invitation to work in the garden for the small wage that POWs were allowed to earn.
Heinz was one of these early visitors. He was smaller than the rest of his comrades. Although not so old, his hair and pallor were grey.
Many weeks after the commencement of this new weekend routine, there was a change in the atmosphere. By then, my father had met and interrogated hundreds of POWs. Evidently there were those he liked and trusted like Heinz, and those for whom he did not care so much - particularly the ardent Nazis.
One weekend, after their exertions in the garden, Heinz and another prisoner came into the house and were given beer. There was much conversation in German in which my mother joined in. During the early years of my parents' married life, when my father was a post-graduate student in Germany, they had both lived in Berlin and Freiberg, during which time my mother also became reasonably fluent.
The following week-end the relationship progressed further. Heinz and his companion arrived in their navy surge prison clothes on Sunday after church. There was no gardening required and into the house they came to be made comfortable in the living room.
While lunch was being prepared, beer was brought out - Whitbread pint bottles with screw stoppers. Much laughter and banter, all in German to be followed in the same vein throughout lunch.
After Sunday lunch it was my parents practice to take a nap - my father underneath "The Times" in his study upstairs and my mother on the hard dining room floor with a book. Our German guests were given the run of the living room complete with pre-war German maga-zines, gramophone records, volumes of Goethe measured by the yard - and a small six year old to entertain - myself.
In later years, I have often reflected about Heinz and the rea-sons for remembering him with such clarity. He was different from the other POWs. When I was much older, I learnt that he was from Silesia, then a region of eastern Germany but transferred to Poland in 1945. It was evident that my parents regarded him with much affection.
Looking back, there were few week-ends until well after the end of the war which he did not spend in our home. In some ways he seemed to become almost an extra member of the family. There was another prisoner who visited quite frequently, but mostly it was Heinz alone or with different companions.
Whether it was a genuine interest in young children, out of politeness to my parents or because I filled a gap in his life far from home, he lavished time on me and seemed to have inex-haustible patience enjoying childish pursuits. My efforts to ride a bicycle quickly brought results. We created fresh mili-tary conquests - for which side, I cannot recall - with toy soldiers and "Dinky" military vehicles. Reluctant violin practice produced a ready accompanist at the piano. How we communicated with each other is a puzzle to this day. His command of English was minimal and for me the German language was a guttural babble associated with weekend mealtimes.
Apart from the family atmosphere and relaxed conversation, one feature of our home that our German guests always enjoyed was the gramophone. Although a very musical family, listening was always limited to broadcasts on the wireless or attending live concerts. In other respects, great effort was devoted to playing and practis-ing music and as a family, we made up a theoretical quartet with instrumentalists on the piano, violin, viola and cello. Hitherto the gramophone had lain idle most of the time.
Nevertheless, after the Germans' arrival, on Sunday afternoons the gramophone was brought out, needles were sharpened and I was put to work keeping it wound up. At that time I remember that we had perhaps less than twenty 78 r.p.m. records, of which I could claim that one was my own - entitled "Trains" by Reginald Gardin-er. The only collection as such, was one volume of Albert Schweitzer's pre-war Bach organ recordings played at the Parish Church of Gunsbach and the Church of Ste. Aurelie in Strasbourg in the Alsace. It was this volume of Bach’s organ music, to which our German visitors were inexorably drawn.
In this afternoon atmosphere, attended by German prisoners while my parents slept, I sat on the floor by the gramophone handle ready to respond the instant that Bach's melodic pitch started to falter. Although the music of Bach has been ever constant in our family, my personal consciousness of what later became the passion of a lifetime started during those months at the end of the war in the company of Heinz and other German POW guests in our home.
During the Christmas of 1944, Heinz and another prisoner spent whole days of the holiday with the family. They were given presents from around the tree. They joined in the carol singing and brought a different dimension to the traditional German themes. For Christmas lunch scarce wine appeared from nowhere and the war was forgotten. Indeed, from the perspective of a six year old, the weekends and at Christmas one could be forgiven for imagining that the war did not exist. At all other times, one was all too conscious of the war - rationing, parents of friends returning or not returning from the front, reports of V Bombs, countless other daily reminders - and not least the sheer exhaustion of a father trying to conscientiously do three jobs concurrently. And yet, my parents still provided "open house" to the belligerents.
And what of Heinz? My mother's only memory of him was the occa-sion when she returned from church to find him and a companion already ensconced in the living room - by then, they had been told where to find the key and had let themselves in. Taking no notice of them, she started to clear out and build a new fire and then she stopped. Turning to them and in the crispest German she could muster, she lost her temper and said in effect:
"You Germans started a war that no one wanted and now that you are facing defeat, you can bloody well clean out my fire grate."
My last memories recall Heinz playing the piano at a concert at our house put on by the children in the neighbourhood. There he sat at the upright Blüthner piano with his back to the Conductor and the orchestra, his head turned to watch the beat. A few days later he was gone.
60 years later, I often wonder what became of Heinz. He would be aged over 85 by now.
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