"A Bitter Memory of a Personal Failure"

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Here is part 7 in our series of recollections by Canadian Lt. Leo L. Hamson, regarding his time as a guard at the Wainwright POW camp. (minor typos corrected)

(The full set of Recollections is back online, with photos.)

A Bitter Memory of a Personal Failure

I struck up a friendship with one officer whom I saw frequently because he worked in the Orderly Room. He spoke perfect English, the result of being educated in England. He was Oberleutnant Hans Bauermeister, and had not been a POW as long as most of the others because he was captured in Normandy in June 1944. He had a great desire to stay in Canada and asked me how this could be arranged. I told him that unfortunately we could not just fling open the gates and let them walk away now that the war was over. They would have to be transferred back to the custody of the British in England, and eventually repatriated to their homeland and demobilized. Then perhaps they could apply and join the queue of millions of other homeless refugees and civilian war victims wanting to emigrate to Canada and other parts of the world. I also told him that he would have to accept the fact that there would be some bitterness toward members of the armed forces of our recent enemies, and that they would be at the bottom of the list until those feelings gradually melted away.

He was crestfallen when I told him this, but clearly understood. He was a cultured and thoroughly decent chap, and I felt really sorry for him. He showed me photos of his elegant former home, a villa near Potsdam with chandeliers and grand piano visible. He also showed me a photo of his wife, an extraordinarily beautiful woman whom he said had been a film actress. He said he had learned that his home had been wrecked and looted by Soviet troops and his wife and children had disappeared.

I gave him an address where he could reach me when I myself was discharged, and promised that I would provide any assistance I could such as a character reference should he decide to emigrate to Canada. Months later, when I was in a remote wilderness area of the Peace River District with a group of other discharged Canadian officers in a Veterans’ Land Act co-operative land development project, I received a “Kriegsgefangenenpost” (Prisoner-of-War Post) from Lt. Bauermeister mailed from Lodgemoor, the large POW holding camp near Sheffield, England. The finely-crafted writing on the camp-issue postcard is almost microscopic.

His wife and one son had survived, but while still in Canada he learned that his second son had died a year before. His wife was working on a farm with little food and no money in the Soviet Occupation Zone, struggling to feed the extended family. He begged me to send food parcels to his family, and gave me two addresses - one to his mother in the Russian zone of Berlin, and the other to his brother in the U.S. Zone. He gave me the address of an organization to which I could send money, and they would provide and ship the food parcels.

I mentioned this postcard to my ex-officer partners. Today I profoundly regret doing that. The trauma of Normandy was still fresh in their minds. Two of them had been severely wounded - one of them, a major, while getting his tank squadron ashore on D-Day in an action for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. They were outraged that this recent enemy should beg for food from me when millions of victims of the Nazis were starving and homeless. They made it clear that I would be in serious trouble with them if I complied with Bauermeister’s plea.

I did not answer it, and put the postcard away with feelings of great discomfort.

Some months later I received a lengthy illicit letter from the same camp. He begged me, in any reply I might make, not to refer to the fact that he had written a full letter rather than the officially-allowed post card. I think they were allowed two per month. I cannot imagine why, with the war long over, the British would continue with such harsh restrictions on letter-writing by these lonely men, most of whom had been prisoners for years far from their homeland and families. There could be no security threat in their letters, now that Germany had surrendered long before, After all, they were defeated soldiers, not criminals.

He remembered fondly the many pleasant conversations we had while working in the Orderly Room at Wainwright POW Camp. He went into some detail about his family and their condition in Germany. He said he had sustained a crushed thumb while working on a farm with other POWs near Sheffield, and was in hospital, greatly chagrinned that after being unscathed in five years of war he should be injured as a POW a year and a half after fighting ended.

In this letter he made two remarks about himself that today bring a lump to my throat when I read them - “More and more I have the intention to emigrate with my family and my brother to your country because our future in Germany will be darker and darker and we do not see any hope to live in Europe. Is any chance for this idea in a reasonable space of time for the hated Germans? Please let me know your opinion in this affair. It is very urgent for me.” And… “At last, please remember if you want, and if you have time enough for a man who is unfortunately a German!”

Deferring to the strong feelings of my partners with whom I had to live, I did not answer this letter either.

Later I received a third letter, this one from Washington D.C. dated 21 Jan 1947. The writer was Herbert William Hirsch, resident in London, but temporarily in Washington on a mission for the British Government. In his surreptitious letter, Hans Bauermeister had advised me that I would be hearing from his old friend and former pre-war boss when Hirsch was director of a large manufacturing concern in Berlin. He had left Germany and moved to London in 1936 (a wise move for him!). He said that Mr. Hirsch would be at liberty to write more about his former employee’s problems than could be written on a POW postcard. The pleas for help were repeated in a very dignified way.

This letter too I put away and did not answer.

Today, when I look at these letters, my eyes well with tears. How I wish I could turn back the years and set things right! I had turned my back on a man in distress whom I had promised to help. What if he was a former enemy officer? A promise is a promise, and under the officer’s code of honour, it should have been kept. I can rationalize now that conditions had changed, that I and my partners and our families were facing unforseen hardships in a remote wilderness and having difficulty feeding ourselves, and there was the unforgiving attitudes of my fellow-officers who had suffered much on the battlefields of Europe.

But that does nothing to diminish my feelings of guilt. I had betrayed a trust for the only time in my life. I have helped numerous people over the years, including some who did not deserve it, but failed one of the most deserving of all for reasons that were weak and invalid.

I have often wondered what became of Oberleutnant Hans Helmut Bauermeister. Did he succeed in making a good life for himself and his family in spite of my failure to help him? Did he ever make it back to Canada? Could he still be alive? If we met, how would I explain what happened? I have learned from another former Wainwright POW, Siegfried Osterwoldt, that there is a society of former POWs in Germany and this dwindling group of elderly German veterans meets once a year and keeps a roll of their names.

Inquiries do not reveal the name of Hans Bauermeister. He haunts me still.

Copyright 2004 by Leo Hamson; used with permission

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