Wednesday, January 11, 2017

World War Wednesdays: The Scoop of the Century: Clare Hollingworth

Clare Hollingwood in 1932
     I'm sad to report that we've lost another of history's most important people, and even sadder to admit that I hadn't heard of her before today. After reading her incredible story in the obituaries being posted online, I thought it important to make her name known to anyone who, like me, had not yet come across it.

     Her name was Clare Hollingwood and she was born on 10 October, 1911 to middle-class parents in an English village where her father ran a boot factory that was founded by her grandfather. Interested in politics, she studied Croatian at Zagreb University, international relations in Switzerland, and Slavonic studies in London. Following that, she worked as a secretary and then at a British newspaper's refugee charity in Poland while writing occasional articles about the tense political situation in Europe. Her work must have been exceptional, because friends convinced her to focus on journalism rather than politics.

     While working in Poland, Clare arranged for the evacuation of more than 3,500 political and Jewish refugees to Britain, which earned her the the nickname "the Scarlet Pimpernel" in the British press. According to her biography, written by her nephew, she had a natural talent for dealing with reluctant officials, incomplete information, and managing complicated logistics. After having saved thousands of lives by regularly circumventing British immigration bureaucracy, her time with the agency came to an abrupt halt in July 1939. While the exact reason is not clear, her nephew believes that Britain felt she had opened the doors to potentially dangerous immigrant spies and enemies of the state in her efforts to save the lives of people being persecuted by the Third Reich. Within a month of returning to Britain, she secured a new job as a war correspondent for the Telegraph and quickly returned to Poland, this time staying with a diplomat friend from the Foreign Office in Katowice, at the German-Polish border. [Interestingly, this is the same town where my good friend and Holocaust survivor lived, and she also was a witness to the earliest events in Germany's invasion of Poland.]
Hollingworth (left) with the Consul General's car she borrowed to cross the Germany-Poland border in 1939, South China Morning Post
     With the knowledge that war could erupt at any minute, Clare took advantage of the influence of a diplomatic flag on 30 August, 1939, when she borrowed her host's car and "motored off alone into Nazi Germany" to stock up on wine and aspirin. Driving back along the border, a fabric partition separating the two countries flapped briefly in the wind, revealing "scores, if not hundreds of tanks... thus I saw the battle deployment." (she later reflected on the event in her autobiography)

     After making that horrible discovery, she immediately understood its implications: "I guessed that the German Command was preparing to strike to the north of Katowice and its fortified lines and this, in fact, was exactly how they launched their invasion in the south." At that point, however, Poland was thought to still be in negotiations with Germany. 

     Three days later, on 1 September, 1939, Clare was awoken at 5 A.M. by the sound of tanks rolling past her window. She quickly called her editor, as well as the British and Polish Foreign Offices, each of whom responded with disbelief given that they believed the negotiations to still be ongoing. Frustrated with the response from the British Embassy, she actually dangled the phone out the window so that the official could hear the terrifying rumble for himself. "Listen!" she implored. "Can't you hear it?" After hanging up the phone with him, she called the Telegraph's Warsaw correspondent, who then dictated her story to London. When the story of Germany's invasion of Poland was finally filed, Clare's name was not included on the byline as was common practice for newspapers in those days. Here's what the original looked like:
The Telegraph
     At twenty-seven years old and as a rookie reporter, Clare Hollingwood truly had the scoop of the century. Amazingly, her remarkable life and career only continued from there: as the Nazis moved into Poland, she scrambled to escape their advance, often sleeping in cars, and eventually made it to Romania. Following that she spent much of her life on the front line of numerous major conflicts, including those in the Middle East, North Africa, and Vietnam, for British newspapers. During her remarkable career, she established herself as a fearless, talented, and respected journalist and won numerous awards for her work. She died on 10 January, 2017 at the age of 105 in Hong Kong, where she had been stationed as one of a few Western journalists sent to China in the 1970s. 
     Many thanks to TIME, CTV News, and the Telegraph for information and images. Further reading on this story can be enjoyed at: and
     I hope you found this story to be as incredible and inspiring as I did. Women like Clare are proof that it is not just the men who get to make history, and that heroes come in all forms.
     Thanks for reading,
     Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

Friday, January 6, 2017

Family History Friday - Stevenson

Thanks to Sandra Sales for providing these photographs because she read a past blog post about the Stevenson family bible from July, 2014 donated to the museum by Jennifer (Stevenson) Worth.  Click here for that post.  If you have local family photos from West Elgin, Southwold, Aldborough and Dunwich townships we'd love to feature your family on the blog.  Just contact Angela at 519-762-3072 or email

  1. Likely Eliza (Williams) Stevenson wife of James Stevenson, b. circa Mar. 12, 1825 Watson’s Corners (near Burwell’s Corners), Gravestone inscription In memory of/Eliza/wife of/James Stevenson/died/March28, 1877 AE 52 y’s/& 16 d’s/Blessed are the dead/that die in the Lord. Fingal cemetery.
  1. Four generations - Myrtle May Waite b 1895, d. 1975, James Stevenson b. 1814 Stirlingshire, Scotland, m. 1842 Eliza Williams of Watson’s Corners, d. 1906 Watson’s Corners, Annie (Stevenson) Waite, Robert Stevenson.

  1. Robert Stevenson family – Back row: Ida Stevenson b. circa 1874, m. Radebaugh (a confectioner in Dutton), d. Aug. 1962 California, James P. (Jim) Stevenson b. circa 1874, d. June 28, 1945, Annie Stevenson, Maggie Stevenson, Henry (Harry) Albert Stevenson b. Feb. 8, 1877, m. Lois Bedford, daughter of preacher John Bedford Tyrconnell, d. Jan. 26, 1960. Front Row: Robert Stevenson b. 1843, d. Mar 9, 1919, Elizabeth Sarah (Lizzie) Stevenson b. 1882, m. Phil Bedford, d. 1978, Sarah (Crane) Stevenson b. Dec 17, 1844 Port Talbot, d. Dec 1925 Tyrconnell. This family had their own orchestra and entertained locally.

  1. Sylvia Ann (Annie) Stevenson b. 1870, m. Richard Waite 1895, d. Oct. 7, 1948 and Margaret (Maggie) E. Stevenson b. circa 1868, m. William Brush, d. Apr. 3, 1947 – daughters of Robert Stevenson – mentioned in the Patterson diary at Backus-Page House.

  1. Likely Sarah (Crane) Stevenson wife of Robert Stevenson, daughter of Peter and Mary (Willson) Crane Tyrconnell, granddaughter of George and Isabella (Findlay) Crane (who were Thomas Talbot’s first settlers 1806 Plum Point Dunwich), b. Dec. 14, 1844 Port Talbot, d. Dec. 1925 Tyrconnell.

  1. Stevenson reunion 1944 to celebrate Annie and Richard Waite’s 50th anniversary. Standing: George Waite, Allan Waite, Maggie Waite, Richard Waite, Annie (Stevenson) Waite, Earl Stevenson, (?), Jim Stevenson, John Robb, Maggie (Stevenson) Brush, Lois (Bedford) Stevenson, Henry (Harry) Stevenson. Kneeling: (?) (?) possibly Jim Stevenson’s two daughters, Dorothy (Stidwell) Stevenson and Wayne, Marion McFarlane (my mother), Neil McFarlane.

  1. A Crane family picnic on Aug. 22, 1901 at Tyrconnell Ontario. Children and their spouses of Peter and Mary (Willson) Crane of Coyne Road Tyrconnell. Back row: John E. Crane, Will Crane, Robert Stevenson, Ben Crane. Front row: Sarah Catherine (Mitchell) Crane, Sarah Jane (Austerhout) Crane, Sarah (Crane Stevenson, Belle (Crane) Haycroft, Emma Maria (Crane) Cole, Hattie (Morrish) Crane. 

  1. Annie Waite and Jim Stevenson with Mary Anne (Cutler) Crane wife of Edwin R. Crane, a 100-year-old woman they call their aunt, who was actually a distant cousin by marriage, the mother of James Wellington Crane of Wallacetown/Iona Station/University of Western Ontario, a medical doctor and philanthropist.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

World War Wednesdays: The Maple Leaf Belgium Scrapbook, WWII
     I hope everyone is having a smooth transition back to reality after the holiday season! Don't mean to brag, but I am still enjoying some R&R back at home before my final (!!!) semester of undergrad starts on January 9. While I'm still here, I wanted to share with you a fascinating item I received this week which is a great addition both to my personal collection and this blog. It is a Second World War souvenir scrapbook called "The Maple Leaf," which the cover states was "printed in Belgium at cost price to forces overseas." Essentially, it was a Canadian Army newspaper which kept soldiers informed on what was happening around the world and back at home while they were serving. My copy was given to me by my grandpa, who said that it came in a collection of papers from his parents' house (his father served in WWII). It was quite exciting to have a personal connection to the item since I had thought that his war memorabilia had already been dispersed among distant cousins, and I am always looking for more details on his service (like many other professions, historians can be researching any number of in-depth family histories for other people but have limited knowledge on their own). I've looked into the book a bit online and it appears to be quite rare, although the Toronto Public Library appears to have a copy should you be able to access it for yourself.

     A 2013 post on the online auction site includes what seems to be an excerpt from Barry D. Rowland's 1987 book, The Maple Leaf Forever: The Story of Canada's Foremost Armed Forces Newspaper, which gives a nice overview of the paper's history and is definitely being added to my reading list:

     “Captain MacFarlane, I want you to set up a newspaper for the Canadian Army,” said Lieutenant-Colonel R.S. (Dick) Malone, director of Public Relations for 1st Canadian Infantry Division during the Italian Campaign in November 1943.

     LCol Malone was reacting to the wishes of then Defence Minister, Colonel J.L. Ralston — a First World War veteran — who was deeply concerned for the welfare of the troops fighting overseas. But the impetus to deliver a daily Canadian Army newspaper to the frontlines in Italy was not a “top-down” decision; rather, it arose directly from the troops themselves who felt out-of-touch from home.
The Canadian soldier, also known as “Johnny Canuck”, expressed his angst through the chain of command. These concerns reached Minister Ralston’s ears as he arrived in Italy to speak to the troops after five months of hard fighting. Mr. Ralston knew well the fleeting nature of soldiers’ morale and pressed for ideas to shore-up fighting spirit. With Canadian soldiers complaining about their lack of knowledge on the home front, LCol Malone suggested the production of a daily newspaper, delivered directly to the frontlines with the soldiers’ rations.
The paper would be published in Italy with news from Canada and include stories and editorials prepared by military writers and war correspondents attached to the Canadian Division. The paper’s primary audience was the Canadian soldier. In return, the newspaper would not express opinions on domestic issues or report on internal military matters that might detract from morale.
And so Captain (later Major) J. Douglas MacFarlane, a former journalist with the Windsor Star and the Toronto Telegram, was appointed managing editor of the first Canadian Army newspaper. The newspaperman, who became a legendary figure in Canadian journalism following the war, was a natural fit for the job.
Mr. MacFarlane enlisted for wartime service with the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment as a provisional reinforcement officer. He embarked on a long and winding military trail, stationed in Wolseley Barracks, the Officers’ Training Centre in Gordon Head, Vancouver Island, and attended the Advanced Infantry Training Centre at Camp Borden. Capt MacFarlane was then summoned to Ottawa and attached to Army Headquarters as a Public Relations Officer. He proceeded overseas in 1943, where he was eventually attached to General Harry Crerar’s headquarters when he got the call from his superior, LCol Malone – another giant in Canadian journalism after the war – informing him of the new publication.
What to call the paper?
LCol Malone suggested The Liberator, The True North, Northern Light, Johnny Canuck, The Beaver, and The Invader. Capt MacFarlane came up with The Maple Leaf, a reference to Canadian identity.
The first edition of The Maple Leaf rolled off the press in January 1944 in Naples, Italy and was a four-page tabloid. Sports, news, a daily editorial and Sergeant Bing Coughlin’s hapless “Herbie” cartoon character were the main features. The papers were flown to a postal distribution centre near the frontline and delivered to the troops by any and all means available: truck, jeep, lorry, aircraft and mule cart.
Curiously, a French-language edition of The Maple Leaf had been proposed but turned down by French-Canadian soldiers as they didn’t want their exploits restricted to French-copy only; they wished English speaking readers to know of their achievements.
At its height, The Maple Leaf printed 16,000 copies per day.

     My edition was printed in Belgium in 1945. Its introduction includes much of the same story as above concerning the paper's history, and also discusses how the "clippings" or articles in the scrapbook were selected from various departments in order to portray the paper's "general tone and spirit." In this regard, the editor-in-chief wrote, "If you don't like the selection write the editors and give them hell." Clearly, this was an informal and much-loved element in the Canadian soldiers' experience, and there is much to be learned and appreciated from these pages.

     Without further ado, I'll give you a little glimpse into the scrapbook (sorry about the poor lighting!):
This page shows how the paper was assembled like a scrapbook, with numerous photos seemingly pasted together on one page

Of course, it is not without its pinups! This page includes the beautiful Esther Williams

"Here's to You, Canucks!"

Even General Montgomery read The Maple Leaf!
     Overall, the scrapbook is a compilation of comics, poetry, news stories, photos, and articles all assembled for the intended enjoyment of Canadian soldiers far from home. It is obvious just by flipping through a few pages how much comfort and entertainment it would have brought them, and I can't help but think of how thrilled my great-grandfather would have been to have that small enjoyment. It's proven to be an amazing souvenir for both him and myself, and I hope you enjoyed this little overview.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

World War Wednesdays: First World War Christmases After the Truce, 1916

British troops celebrating as best they can in a trench, 1916, Imperial War Museums
     I hope everyone had a great Christmas and that there are lots of leftovers for this week! I thought I'd put together a brief post on this World War Wednesday for you to enjoy while relaxing, which is a follow-up to last week's about the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front. Part of why the story of the truce is so spellbinding is the fact that it was never repeated, making it the only period of ceasefire between the start of the war in 1914 and Armistice in 1918. I thought it might be interesting to explore what those other First World War Christmases may have been like, as demonstrated through the London Free Press (curated by @LdnOntWWI on Twitter) and photos from Britain's Imperial War Museums.

     According to a press report of unknown origin from 19th December 1916, the legendary Truce was confirmed as a unique phenomenon which was not to be repeated:
Many Christmas Presents For Men in Trenches, but They Will Fight All Day 
With the British Armies in France, Dec. 18 (Via London from a Staff Correspondent of the Associated Press)-- Thousands upon thousands of packages from "home" are pouring in for the soldiers of the British empire fighting in France, as harbingers of Christmas, but the usually glad season of "peace on earth, good will to men," will bring no cessation of hostilities this year, and Christmas day promises to go down in history as just another twenty-four hours of ceaseless shelling and war activity all along the line.
This promises to be the most bounteous Christmas of the three the British "Tommies" have spent on the foreign field of battle, and the problem of transporting the big and little parcels cross channel and through the various stages of progress to the very front trench itself has been one not easy to solve for even Christmas tokens cannot be allowed to interfere with the real business of the war-- the constant bringing up of shells, shells, shells.
Through rain, fog and darkness, by day and by night, the British guns ceaselessly pound the German trenches. Prisoners recently captured say that the effect of the everlasting drumming of the guns drove them insane. Captured letters written from the trenches speak of the terrors of the constant shelling. "Death is far better than this," wrote one private to his wife.
     This message to presumably British and Commonwealth readers appears to be an attempt at boosting morale on the home front and reassuring relatives of soldiers that their men were going to enjoy at least some comfort that Christmas. It also portrays the British as having the upper hand in the battle and generates hope for the coming year. 
British troops purchasing geese for their Christmas dinner in the marketplace at Bailleul, December 1916, Imperial War Museums
    Closer to home, the London Free Press had its own uplifting Christmas message for readers in 1916:
Merry Christmas! Message to People of Forest City
Hope For Victory In War Before Another Yuletide Is Generally Expressed.
Anglicans Suffer Heavily, Says Bishop
Leading Citizens and Clerics Join In Kindly Wishes For Their Fellows
Greetings from official London and from eminent representatives of the clergy of many denominations were communicated to citizens of the Forest City through The Free Press this afternoon.
Three Christmases under war conditions find Canadians with an even more fixed resolve to have their part in bringing the great European cataclysm to a victorious termination, and from all sides come expressions of sympathy with those who have come under the conqueror's temporary sway, of satisfaction that Canada is able to enjoy the blessings of peaceful domestic conditions, and of confidence that before another Yuletide comes, right and justice will have been restored by the overwhelming force of allied arms.

British troops (the soldier on the left thought to be of the Worcestershire Regiment) purchasing mistletoe from women on a market, Montreuil-Sur-Mer, December 1916, Imperial War Museums
   Finally, the Christmas Day 1916 edition of the Free Press published a message to all British empire troops from King George and Queen Mary: "District Headquarters to Communicate Royal Good Wishes to Men in Khaki To-Day:"
King George and Queen Mary Send Greetings to All Troops Of the Empire Confident They Will Achieve Victory
Special Message of Cheer to the Sick and Wounded Wishes Speedy Restoration to Health
Two Christmas messages from the King and Queen to the soldiers and sailors of the empire were received yesterday at district headquarters here for publication.
One of the messages was to troops on land and sea everywhere in the empire. The other was particularly addressed to the sick and wounded. Her Royal Highness the Queen joined in the message of cheer to those suffering from wounds or disease. Both greetings will be communicated wherever possible to the men concerned today. Following are the two messages as received by cable yesterday morning:
"To the sick and wounded:
"At this Christmastide, the Queen and I are thinking more than ever of the sick and wounded among my sailors and soldiers. From our hearts we wish them strength to bear their sufferings, a speedy restoration to health, a peaceful Christmas and many happy years to come.
"George, R. L."
The general message read as follows:
"I send you, my sailors and soldiers, hearty and good wishes for Christmas and the new year. My grateful thoughts are ever with you, for victories gained for hardships endured and for your unflinching cheeriness. 
"Another Christmas has come around and we are still at war, but the empire, confident in you, remains determined to win. 
"May God bless and protect you.
"George, R. L."

     I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the Christmas season exactly a hundred years ago, and I appreciate your taking time out of the relaxing part of the holiday season to read it! Many thanks to @LdnOntWWI on Twitter and the Imperial War Museums. 
     Thanks for reading,
Delany Leitch (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

World War Wednesdays: The Christmas Truce, 1914

     When we think of the First World War, which, for many of us, was a regular occurrence this year, we often think of a period marked by unprecedented levels of horror and hardship with no clear rationale. Indeed, between 1914 and 1918, over twenty-five million people were killed or wounded around the world. However, what we do not often reflect upon are the moments of joy that did come from those mud-filled trenches; the few periods of respite from the suffering and carnage. I feel that World War Wednesdays would be remiss if we did not dedicate one of the most legendary of such moments to the annual Christmas post, and hope it will serve as another humbling reminder of how fortunate we are today.

     It was during the first Christmas of the war when men from both sides of the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from the trenches, and shared in food and drink, games, and fellowship in an unofficial and illicit truce. While it lasted, it was an extraordinary flicker of humanity amid one of civilization's darkest hours, even prompting the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector), Imperial War Museums

The first signs of abnormality began appearing on Christmas Eve, when at around 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” Further along the line, both sides serenaded each other with carols, including the German "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) and "The First Noel" by the British, as scouts cautiously began meeting in No Man's Land between the two sides. The war diary of the Scots Guards reads that a Private Murker “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.” 

     An important thing to remember is that this same basic understanding seemed to occur in various places all down the Front, with various groups of enemy soldiers arranging their own form of spontaneous Christmas truce. The most detailed estimate, made by Malcolm Brown of Britain’s Imperial War Museums, is that the truce extended along at least two-thirds of British-held trench line that scarred southern Belgium. Private Frederick Heath on the British side included in a letter home that “all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” Then, the voices added: "‘Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired."
British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium on Christmas day 1914, Imperial War Museums 

     According to Smithsonian Magazine, several factors contributed to the Christmas Truce. For one, the men in both sides of the trenches would have become veterans by December 1914, familiar enough with the realities of combat to have diminished the idealism they had carried with them to war that August, and most longed for an end to the bloodshed. They had so firmly believed that the war would be over by Christmas, but yet still they fought, freezing in rudimentary dugouts. Then, on Christmas Eve itself, several weeks of mild yet miserably soaking weather yielded to a sudden and hard frost which created a dusting of ice and snow along the lines. As a result, men on both sides felt that something spiritual was taking place.

     Interestingly, it was only in the British sector that the troops noticed at dawn that the Germans had placed small Christmas trees along the parapets of their trenches and responded with conviviality. As the Smithsonian discusses, this could be attributed to the fact that the Russians at that time still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which observed Christmas as January 7, and the French would have generally been far more sensitive to the fact that Germans were occupying about a third of France at the time. 

     The obvious language barrier between English and German meant that communication was difficult among the newly-acquainted troops, but they quickly found a common interest in "football" (soccer). Somehow, in one section a ball was produced, and British and German soldiers proceeded to take pleasure in kicking it about in a match which the Germans claim to have won 3-2. Due to the subsequent atmosphere of downplaying and condemning the truce on the part of the British, some of the most detailed accounts of the football matches come from the German side. These report that the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played a game against Scottish troops, which was reflected upon in a 1960s interview by 133rd participant Johannes Niemann: 
     "The mist was slow to clear and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternizing along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee.  A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm... Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts—and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of “yesterday’s enemies.” But after an hour’s play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternization ended."

     Overall, the Christmas Truce was a temporary respite from the horrors of battle for both sides of No Man's Land that fateful night. In most places, it was accepted that the peace would be short-lived, but in a few cases the ceasefire was allowed to persist into the new year. After that, there were no further truces until the armistice of 1918 which many, if not most, of the Christmas Truce participants did not live to see. For those who did survive the war, it was certainly not something to be forgotten, and that story lives on in infamy a hundred and two years later.
     Many thanks to Smithsonian Magazine for the information. If you are interested in a phenomenal filmic portrayal of this story, I encourage you to check out Joyeux Noel (2005), which is based on a true story and includes the perspectives of Scottish, German and French forces during the truce. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you and your families a Merry Christmas and safe and relaxing holiday, and thank you for taking the time to read this post.
Delany Leitch (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Christmas at Auschwitz

SS officer Karl Hoecker lights a candle on a Christmas tree only weeks before the liberation of Auschwitz, USHMM
     Thanks for bearing with me through some weird technology weeks! As of now I believe things are back to normal and hopefully that won't ever happen again. I realize that this week's topic is a bit dark for the holiday season, but I've been doing some work on the Holocaust lately and happened upon this story. It's important to point out before we start that the Jewish prisoners would not have observed the holiday, but Christian Polish inmates did celebrate to the best of their ability during the five Christmases during the camp's operation. In addition, the Nazis employed at the camp held their own horrific festivities, as will be mentioned. These descriptions come from the testimonies of Polish prisoners who survived the infamous death factory and were compiled by the Auscwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

     The first Christmas Eve behind the barbed wire in 1940 was one of the most tragic, and created a terrible tradition which was repeated in subsequent years. On the roll-call square, the Nazis set up a Christmas tree complete with electric lights. Beneath it, they placed the bodies of prisoners who had died while working or freezing to death at roll call. Former prisoner Karol Świętorzecki later recalled that Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch referred to the corpses beneath the tree as “a present” for the living, and forbade the singing of Polish Christmas carols.
A Christmas tree standing in front of Block 15 in Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
     The next year, the Nazis organized another dark Christmas. During the return from slave labor on the construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, they killed around three hundred Soviet POWs who were too weak to walk that day. According to an eyewitness account by former prisoner Ludwik Kryński, there was a second roll call at 6:00pm after the SS men had finished the first roll call and eaten their supper. In temperatures well below freezing, the prisoners were forced to listen to Pope Pius XII's Christmas Eve proclamation recited in German. Forty-two prisoners succumbed to the cold, and numerous others were brought to the point of nervous breakdowns at the sight. 
     Prisoners also tried to celebrate in their blocks and attempted to help their fellows whose spirits had been broken. An account in the Museum collections by Józef Jędrych from Block no. 10a describes how “the singing of German carols began, and then like the waves of the sea came the powerful words [from a Polish carol] ‘God is born, the powers tremble’ and others, until the final chord in the form of the Dąbrowski Mazurka [the Polish national anthem]. Everyone exchanged warm, cordial embraces and cried for a long time. There were those who sobbed out loud. . . . Such a grand moment never fades from memory. That Christmas is fixed forever in my heart and memory.”
     Henry Bartosiewicz smuggled in a small Christmas tree, which stood in room 7 block 25. Polish Army cavalry-platoon commander Witold Pilecki, a hero of the camp resistance movement, adorned it with a White Eagle carved from a turnip.
Christmas Eve Władysław Siwek. Auschwitz State Museum (APMA-B-I-1-107)
     The Germans set up another tree at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1942 and once again placed the bodies of murdered men beneath it. Former prisoner Krystyna Aleksandrowicz recalls their deaths: Before Christmas in 1942, the SS men put up a Christmas tree for us. On Christmas Eve, they gathered the labor details from the men’s camp and ordered them to carry soil in their coats. They shot any man who gathered up too little soil. Then they stacked a whole heap of corpses underneath the Christmas tree.”
     That Christmas was twenty-two year-old Walentyna Nokodem's first at the camp, and she later reflected on that horrible tree: "I remember my first Christmas in Birkenau. There was a Christmas tree and they gathered us up in the roll-call square, and under the tree they put the bodies of man, the bodies remained there for the whole Christmas, and they forced us to look at them. They put the Christmas tree by the end of our section, just by the barbed wire. I can't remember exactly but there were hundreds of bodies of male prisoners. It was my first Christmas in the camp. The women didn't want to look. We all cried."
     In her Auschwitz Chronicle, the late Danuta Czech, the Museum historian, notes under the date December 24, 1942 that, in the evening, Polish women prisoners in the Stabsgebaude [staff building] lighted candles on a fir bough that had been smuggled in. Carols were sung in many places around the camp, which lifted people’s spirits and gave them hope of surviving. In Block 18a, Christmas Eve had a religious dimension. A prisoner who was a Roman Catholic priest obtained some bread and used it as a substitute Host.

     By 1943, the November arrival of new camp commandant Arthur Liebehenschel had improved the prisoners' lives and there were no macabre "presents" that year. Many of the Polish prisoners received communion wafers in parcels from their families and shared them with other prisoners, including the Jews. In many blocks, the prisoners organized Christmas observances. 

     1944 was the last Christmas spent at Auschwitz. Since the days of the Third Reich were numbered, the holiday atmosphere was completely different. Father Władysław Grohs de Rosenburg, the prisoner priest, was even allowed to hold a midnight mass. The women in Birkenau prepared “Christmas gifts” for the children in the hospital, using material supplied by other women to sew about 200 toys. They attached two lumps of sugar or a piece of candy to each, and wrote the children’s names on the presents. One of the women dressed up as St. Nicholas and passed out the presents on Christmas Eve. Fifteen children from another block also received presents.
    Auschwiz-Birkenau Museum historian Teresa Świebocka says that in 1944, Leokadia Szymańska, who was then a patient in the camp hospital, made a small Christmas tree that is now part of the Museum’s collections. It features Polish flags and a Polish eagle at the top.
     The camp was liberated shortly after, on January 27, 1945,  finally granting the wishes made during the five Christmases observed there.   

      I hope this glimpse into some of history's most terrible Christmases was an interesting and thought-provoking reminder of how much we all have to be grateful for this holiday. I'm looking to explore the camp's celebrations held by Nazi guards and staff next week so that the two stories can be compared. Thanks so much for spending part of your busy holiday season reading this post!
     Delany Leitch (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

Monday, December 12, 2016

St. Nicholas Visits Backus-Page House Museum

On Saturday, December 10th we were blessed to have St. Nicholas visit the museum.  He told stories and sang Jingle Bells accompanied by Bard Judith on the keyboard.  Hot apple cider, hot chocolate and Christmas cookies were served by museum volunteers.  The house was decorated and toys were left out to play with, while beef stew and bread were cooking on the woodstove.  Here's some pictures and video from the event.  Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!!!

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