This week I was asked if I would agree to be interviewed about my knowledge of the WWII Prisoner of War Camp on Stewarton Road, just a short distance from where we now live. This was on behalf of a research group doing an oral history of the camp and its relationship with the local community. The area concerned is now a new housing estate, with some very expensive houses, in stark contrast to the ‘Nissen’ huts that once stood there.
To be truthful, I’m not sure I was hugely helpful to the researcher, but I did relate the fact that the camp when we knew it was full of Italian POW. We knew the camp well because my father and mother were great walkers, and on a Saturday afternoon we would very often take the bus with my three brothers and two sisters, and on occasions with some of our friends, from Shawlands to Newton Mearns Bus Station. (Where the ASDA supermarket is now) After a picnic in a local field and a paddle in the burn, we would then walk down the Stewarton road to Spiersbridge, on what then was a country road, with little or no traffic. This took us past the Patterton POW Camp. The prisoners would come to the wire and chat to us, and would marvel at our very large family! Dad on one occasion had to point out the six who were his. These were short encounters with the prisoners, but always with some friendly gestures, joking and smiles all round.
The questions being asked of me this week by the interviewer evoked memories of a much closer relationship we had with some German POW.
It happened like this. After the war came to an end in 1945, many POW had still not been repatriated by 1947-48, so the authorities decided to relax the restrictions on POW, and they were then allowed out of their camps on a pass. One Sunday evening a British army lorry with German POW from the Cowglen Military Hospital arrived for one of our evening services at Greenview Church in Pollokshaws, Glasgow. That certainly was different! But as time passed, and some of the men kept coming regularly to the church they soon became part of the church scene. Then slowly but slowly they were invited to church members homes. (Some POW attended other local churches)
Three POW started coming to our house weekly on an evening pass. They were called Max, Fritz and Pawl. They played table tennis, ‘push halfpenny’ and other games with us as children. Over time their stories started to unwrap. Max seemed to know that his own wife and family back home had been wiped out, and he was apprehensive of being repatriated to communist East Germany. Fritz and Paul were apprehensive too, but they didn’t know what had happened to their families or what to expect on their return to what was then West Germany. My father would read the Bible and pray with them before they walked back to their barracks at Cowglen Military Hospital. On one occasion just before their repatriation they came on a church bus outing to Oban, and everyone enjoyed the day out. They were always polite and courteous, and expressed their appreciation of kindness shown. Just before leaving they presented my mother and sisters with two sewing boxes from their barracks, (one of which is still with the family today – See pic) After many months of regular meeting, it is true to say that our enemy had become our friend.
Nazi Germany wrought great havoc in Europe and indeed the world, by its cruelty, barbarity and self-delusion, and as I write this, I remember it is ‘Holocaust Remembrance day’. Yes, we remember six million plus Jews, Gypsies and the disabled who were exterminated. I remember too the anxiety and trauma that the war brought to every family in Britain, the Commonwealth and countless families in the USA and the thousands of men and women around the world who gave their lives fighting this Nazi fascist terror. I remember the trauma brought to our family, the sirens that wailed in the night when there was fear of bombing, the prayers in the air raid shelters, the war news bulletins, the threat of invasion, the ration books, and the scrimping and scraping to make ends meet, and the countless hours my dad worked to make plane engines for the war effort. There is no doubt that Germany and Germans were our enemy.
So how come Max, Fritz and Paul became our friends?
I think first of all, it was when we started to talk with them, and hear their accounts of life in Germany, we then came to see that they too were vulnerable human beings, with similar hopes and fears for their families and friends as people here in the UK. They however were caught up on the other side of this same mad horrific conflict,and it was not of their personal making, and not of their choosing.
But of course, as Christians there was a much higher obligation upon the church and its members, for Jesus in his sermon on the mount said to his listeners, who lived under the iron fist of Roman occupation – You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. Matt. 5.43
And in that prayer Jesus taught us almost 2000 years ago, we have these words ‘And forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us.’ And then he went on to say ‘for if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’
Jesus’ crucifixion however by the Romans and those he called his own, whom he had loved, taught, fed, and healed, and after the trial by a Roman judge who said, ‘I find no fault in this man’, is the thing that really brings you up with a start. Did you hear Him speaking from the cross? Hanging there He looked down on those who had crucified him, and said these unforgettable words ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’.
Saul the persecutor, who became Paul the preacher put it this way – ‘Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Rom 5.7-8
Everyone knows making our enemy our friend is difficult, but it is such a healing process, for us, our families, our communities, and among nations. We all know those who have taken such steps, and even internationally, which of us has not admired figures like Nelson Mandela? The reconciliation process with others would always include the words ‘I’m sorry …’ for those who work for reconciliation tell us that in the breakdown of human relationships there is always blame on both sides, even though that blame may be proportioned 95% / 5%.
The thought of God making it possible for us who were His enemies to be His friends is amazing, and we should grasp the opportunity, it’s beautifully expressed in this song, which I’ll leave you with.