Longtime readers will remember a series of posts I wrote earlier this year, following a trip to Slovenia and Austria, about my grandpa Geoff Skinner’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Austria. While he was adapting to his new reality, the war dragged on around him. While in captivity, he sent off for textbooks and put in the study that allowed him to train as a doctor, after the war was over. And without that, I would not be sitting here today, because he was introduced to my grandmother by a teacher, while, aged 26, he was back at his old school, cramming for the exams he’d never have been able to take without being a prisoner.
In researching his story, I was often struck by contrasts: between my own preconceptions of the war and Geoff’s truth; between Geoff’s experiences and those of his Slovenian friend Ida (and her daughter Breda); between Geoff’s experiences and those of Breda’s father, the Australian soldier Gilbert Conyard; and between the experiences of British POWs and the Soviet POWs that were housed in nearby camps. It’s easy to imagine that his life would have been pretty hard, but I can remember a certain nostalgia in his eyes when he remembered some of his experiences ‘in the bag’ in Klagenfurt. The preceding post in this series explains why.
After writing all of these, I decided in July I went to see Geoff’s last living sibling, his youngest brother Leslie, who’s now 88. Leslie has always been a character in my family, but I realised how little I really knew him. I’d also heard from his daughter Sera that he had more photos and letters. So on the day after my birthday in July, nursing a hangover, I took the train out to Berkshire, and cycled from the station to Leslie and Daphne, for lunch and a chat.
Connection number 1: little did I know that they were always keen cyclists. So before we got to talking about Geoff, they admired my bike and we had a chat about riding in London. He also told me the old family story of his and Geoff’s brother Raymond, and their sister Winifred, cycling from Kingston-upon-Thames to Devon on a tandem, in 1937. My mum and dad have a photo taken on that day; they look nonchalant and (to modern eyes) spectacularly poorly dressed for a 183-mile bike ride: Ray has on a sports jacket, plus fours, a jaunty beret and a tie; Winnie appears to be wearing a sensible tweed jacket and skirt and a headscarf. Times change: towards the end of the afternoon, Leslie and I settled down in front of the TV to watch a lycra-clad Chris Froome climbing Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France.
Before this, though, Leslie had gone off to find his box full of family documents. He has things going back as far as a distant great-great-[…]-grandfather’s school book, from 1860, full of algebra problems, written out and worked in stunning copperplate on hand-ruled red lines. There were photos of his parents (my great-grandparents), Abraham and Clara, from their wedding day, and many other family things besides – Abraham’s army ID tag from his service days in the 1914-18 war – another reminder of mortality, because these tags were given to soldiers so they could be identified in case of their deaths. I wondered what Raymond’s may have looked like. One of Leslie’s photos was of Raymond’s original grave, marked by a wooden cross, near where he died on Monte Cassino in 1943, before his body was disinterred and re-buried in the British cemetery nearby.
In amongst all of this, there was one letter from Geoff, written to Abraham and Clara from Naples in 1945, just before he came home. His wry tone and humour were familiar to me, and his tart comments about Naples seemed apt for someone who had been away from home for six years, whose return was imminent, and who just wanted to come back:
“By the way, I should think that the slum problem in Naples [a town devastated by war, remember] must be something terrific. I thought that Egypt used to hold some fair average stinkers in the way of towns, but Naples has ’em licked right from the starting gate.”
But Leslie’s photos had something different; they reminded me of the darkness enveloping this whole story. They are photos of POWs, in a camp looking much like Geoff’s. Unlike the cheerful, relatively healthy prisoners in the photos I had already seen, these men looked freezing cold, desperately tired, and emaciated. In one photo, taken from a distance behind a wire fence, some of the men are naked, and some kind of ordered activity is taking place – washing? Or de-lousing? In other photos, there are what appear to be dead men, on the ground, covered with rushes and greenery. In another, coffins are being unloaded from a cart.
I scanned these photos and sent them to my historian friend in Austria, Paul Angerer, who wrote back to say that he had seen them before; indeed, some of them had featured in an exhibition held at Wolfsberg earlier this year. These were not British or Commonwealth, but Soviet prisoners. Captured in Russia after the defeats suffered by the Red Army in the summer of 1941, at the time the photos were taken they had just arrived in Wolfsberg – after marching 1,400 km from Kiev, where they had been captured. The conditions of this march don’t bear thinking of, but the evidence is there to see: many of them are in a very poor state. Paul tells me that the British POWs watching the arrival of the Russians were totally shocked, and apparently took these pictures to document their conditions, despite this being strictly forbidden. Many of the Red Army soldiers died shortly after arriving in Wolfsberg – presumably the reason for the coffins.
It’s well documented that the Nazis, who regarded the British as their racial equals, but the Russians as untermenschen or subhuman, stuck to the Geneva conventions in their treatment of British prisoners, and treated the Russians appallingly, using them as slave labour until they starved or died of diseases. This means it was a mere accident of nationality that Geoff survived. I don’t know the fate of these nameless Red Army men. Huddled under their near-identical rags, they are hard to individuate. As for the British, they were (for the most part) fed and able to organise and entertain themselves (as I’ve previously written), so that one SS report into morale on the home front in 1943 could write of British prisoners (some in Klagenfurt – Geoff was among them) that:
“Although a large proportion of British prisoners in Germany come from ordinary working classes, a large number of them speak impeccable and fluent German. Their attitude is self-possessed and, indeed, often borders on arrogance. Their bearing and their whole behaviours are doubtless intended as effective propaganda.”
From Klagenfurt, too, we hear: “Of all the prisoners of war in this district, the British are the most respected and discussed by the local population. The reason for this lies in the smart appearance of individuals, as well as the smartness of organised units of British prisoners. The British are always decently dressed, their uniforms are always in faultless condition, they are shaved, clean and well fed. Their attitude is extraordinarily self-possessed, one could almost say arrogant and overbearing. This, combined with the good impression they give of their nation, influences the German people in a way that should not be under-estimated… When they march in formation, they frequently look better than our own German replacement units. You can see that the uniform they wear is of much better material than the German uniform.”
The general attitude of British prisoners to the Reich is absolutely hostile. They make fun of Germany, German institutions and leaders on all possible occasions. In Bayreuth, for instance, two British prisoners called themselves “Churchill” and “Roosevelt”. As a foil they picked on a German worker who stuttered and called him “Hitler” as a joke. Some other British prisoners were singing a rude song to the tune of Deutschland uber Alles as they passed two high German officials in uniform. When one of these officials said “That’s going a little too far, my friends”, one of the prisoners who understood German called back “We’re not your friends, we’re British.”
The contrast between this apparent bonhomie and the obvious misery of the Russians chills me.
Last week, Paul sent me one more photo, which drove home the contrast even harder. He had been doing some research at the National History Museum in Vienna, which holds the archives of the POW camps in Carinthia. And he had found a photo of Geoff, taken at Wolfsberg in 1941 when he first arrived – immediately after his capture in Greece and the long journey up from the Balkans, locked into cattle trucks. In contrast to the later photos, where he is relaxed, looks well-fed, and seems in good health, this one really hit me. It’s recognisably him, but he looks miserable, more so than I ever saw him. He also looks extremely thin. This was taken when he first arrived. And had it not been for the randomness of Nazi racial views, he could have ended up like the Red Army prisoners, in which case nothing that I know – family, school, career, history, my name, my identity, friends, love, London, this blog, my contact with Breda, my travel, nothing – would ever have existed. Geoff would have been extinguished, not to live on, not to meet my granny (whose hundredth birthday it would have been on the day I write this). And that is probably what happened to all of these Soviet soldiers.
By such thin threads are we held together. So a theme I’ve written about before returns to me, with double the force: make the most of things. The existence we have is precious, contingent, and a fragile gift.
If you are interested in viewing all the photos that relate to these posts, you can find them on my Flickr page. Click here for the full set. For earlier posts in this series, click here.