06
Jul
07

Bombing raids, POW camps and the true nature of truth

Dear all,

My recent posts about lying to get what you want and the lies I’ve been told throughout the years got me thinking about The Truth and what it really means. Does it really only boil down to what we believe and are prepared to pass on to others? Let me pass on to you a story I’ve told many times over the years about someone in my family.

It goes something like this.

Back in the days when my age could be counted in single digits, Germany used to be this great, brooding, amorphous blob stuck in the middle of Europe. Everyone had a job and was fat and happy, but not long before it had been a place where a war had raged during which people had done extremely horrible things to one another.

Concerned as my parents were to give their kids the best upbringing possible, and mindful of the corrosive effects of jingoistic war films and Hogan’s Heroes, they fed us a stream of stories about their time in the Second World War, why we fought it and where it was bringing us.

Chief among them was how my uncle had been shot down while on a bombing mission over Germany, in an area which is now Poland.

Uncle V. bailed out in time and was carted off to a POW camp. He was a prisoner for nearly three years, finally breaking out just weeks before the camp would have been liberated anyway.

When he came home, people say he was never the same again. He had been this happy-go-lucky prankster, the life of the party. After the war, that part of him was gone forever. Today they’d call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

They say it came about this way:

All the prisoners were grouped according to nationality when they were brought into camp. He was hauled in along with a mish-mash of Brits, Yanks, Kiwis, Aussies, what have you. As the line of Canadians he was standing in watched those in the next line have their identities checked, one fellow who the moment before had been carrying on a bit to try to lighten up the situation for his buddies was being told, “you’re not from Australia, you’re from New Zealand.” The German then took out a pistol and shot him in the head. Killed as an example to the rest of them not to play games and to do what they were told.

My uncle saw it all at close range and they say he was so shocked, he didn’t utter a word for two years after.

I always wanted to ask him about his time during the war, but was admonished early on not to. Don’t drag it up, they told me. It’s not something he likes to talk about. As if it were something shameful, something he himself had perpetrated.

But I wanted all the details. I wanted to know the scene, I wanted to know what he was wearing, I wanted to know whether it was blasting cold or blistering hot or raining like hell, I wanted to know how the others reacted, I wanted to know how he escaped, everything. I wanted to know as if I had been there myself or seen it in a film.

By the time I’d grown up and might have mustered the courage to broach the subject, I’d grown apart from the extended family as is often the case in North American life. In 1983 he fell ill, and was dead within months.

Only one problem with the story about his seeing at close range someone getting shot in the head. It never happened. On a visit near Vancouver a couple of weeks ago to my aunt – his widow – I drew a blank stare and a shake of the head.

He was part of a raid on Nuremberg on March 30 – 31, 1944, and his plane was one of the 93 shot down that night, and he was in a prisoner of war camp, but it was only for a year or so, and he didn’t escape. He was liberated.

I have absolutely no idea where I got that story from. Did I dream it? See it in a movie or read about it? Somehow I believed it really happened. It was bullshit, but it was truth to me.

Footnote: One day in 1985 – a couple of years after my uncle’s death – a construction crew digging for the foundation of a building in Poland struck a large metal object. It turned out to be the wingtip of the plane he had been flying in that night, verified by the serial number against wartime records. Its furthest point extended 40 feet into the ground. Parts of it can be found in a reconstructed Lancashire bomber on display in a museum in Yorkshire, England. One day, I’m going to go there and kick its tires.

prop.jpg

For now, this is all I’ve seen to let me know it’s real. A section of the prop given to my aunt at the plane’s unveiling.

© 2007 lettershometoyou


9 Responses to “Bombing raids, POW camps and the true nature of truth”


  1. July 6, 2007 at 10:54 am

    There are many taboos in my family as well. I’d like to know all the stories my family could share but alas my imagination seems to fill in the blanks. Hard to know what’s real and what’s, while not a deliberate lie, rather simply imagined.

    riveting story, real or not.

  2. July 7, 2007 at 2:26 am

    Thanks for checking out my blog. I hope you’ll stop by from time to time to see what I’m up to.

    I enjoyed reading this post. It seems like you have a lot of stories to tell–even if others don’t think you should. Anyways, keep up the good work, and stop by anytime.

    Travis

    http://tcthompson.blogspot.com

  3. July 7, 2007 at 2:28 am

    my family lore contains some obvious untruths but if it keeps the old folk happy….

  4. 4 bemosch
    July 7, 2007 at 3:26 am

    Truth? As Granny said: “We did not know about anything” as her (Jewish) friend got out of Germany in 1938…. one’s ‘own’ truth may not be someone else’s, and sometimes they are not even close. Truth exists, but our knowledge of it is an asymptote. Love the blog, and thanks for the comment.

  5. July 7, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Good luck with the tyre-kicking! My grandmother is still alive, and remembers Zeppelins attacking the north east of England when she was a child. She also tells us she worked as a nurse after the first world war … although my mother doesn’t believe her!
    The truth is such an elusive animal, at the best of times.

  6. July 8, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks for your story.

    As a film buff, your story reminds me of the wonderfully told and made German film “The Nasty Girl” (Mädchen und die Stadt, Das) by Michael Verhoeven. Highly recommended.

  7. July 8, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Dear all,
    I seem to be on a truth kick of late because I’m lining up another one.

    kempton,
    I’ll check out that film. Heard of it but never seen it.

    Heza,
    this wasn’t so much a family skeleton so much as a personal experience about one person in it. but yeah, the taboo was there nonetheless.

    bemosch, tompstc,
    glad you liked what you found!

    Mr Blunt,
    you should interview her, get it down on film if it’s possible.


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