Posts Tagged ‘healed’

Dresden: The wounds have healed but the scars still show

February 8th, 2015

The city was quickly rebuilt. On Feb 13 1955, the restored Church of the Holy Cross (Kreuzkirche) was packed for its reconsecration. Thirty years later, a crowd of 200,000 gathered for the inauguration of the rebuilt opera house. And, 60 years after its ruins had become an icon of the city’s destruction, in 2005, the Frauenkirche reopened.

The contrast between the blackened original stones and their fresh, white counterparts serves as a permanent memorial. “Its wounds have healed,” says Rev Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the church. “But the scars still show.”

Wounded pride takes longer to heal. The flames that skipped through Dresden have long since died out, but the passions sparked that night burn on. As the city prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the raid on Friday, official talk is of reconciliation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, will deliver a sermon in the Frauenkirche, and the Duke of Kent will be presented with a prize for his efforts to reunite the old enemies.

Away from the town hall, some Dresdeners recoil from these overtures. Where once February 13 was a day of quiet contemplation, it has now become a violent clash of historical interpretations. Thousands of neo-Nazis march across the city, hijacking the anniversary to claim moral equivalence between the bombing and the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Even larger crowds of Left-wing activists throng the streets in turn, trying to blockade the fascists’ advance.

“We will sit down in the street to stop them demonstrating,” says Frank Kohler, a 19-year-old student who will take part in this week’s blockade for the third year running. “They can’t be allowed to abuse this date.”

Ursula Elsner at home in Comenius Strasse, Dresden with her husband Helmut (Craig Stennett/The Telegraph)

The commemorations have become so charged that editors of a local newspaper supplement charting the raids have spent days debating their choice of pictures. “Everything is political,” says Oliver Reinhard, heritage correspondent of the paper, Sächsische Zeitung. “If we just used pictures of the bombing, some people would ask ‘why don’t you show what the Nazis did, too?’?”

Dresden was never intended to become such a contested chapter of the Second World War. Many more civilians had died during a raid on Hamburg in July 1943, and by the time Dresden was bombed, most other German cities had already been targeted.

For Harry Irons, a rear gunner who flew 60 raids, the city was “just another target”. “It was nothing out of the ordinary,” says WO Irons, now 91, who lives in Romford. “I was used to seeing German cities going up in flames and losing my comrades night after night. What went through our minds was just to get there and to get back – we couldn’t have any feelings about it.”

Dresden bomber Harry Irons remembers raid 70 years on

Listening as I read out his comments, Mrs Elsner, who is now 84 but has never moved from Dresden, stays silent. At last, she nods. “From his perspective, of course,” she says. “But for me, that was the worst night of my life. The whole city became one enormous morgue.”

She and her seven-year-old brother, Dieter, had been celebrating Shrove Tuesday, and Dieter was still in fancy dress as a tomahawk-toting cowboy when the air-raid sirens began to sound. They sheltered in their cellar but when they began to be sprinkled with ash, they leapt over a burning timber to hurtle outside, Dieter still clutching his teddy bear.

In the street, sparks singed their hair and hands, but they survived: the families who remained in the cellar all succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Everywhere around me was death and destruction,” says Mrs Elsner. “I most recall seeing the prams – the babies weren’t moving any more.”

Yet, even though she remembers that night every day, she is happy to forgive WO Irons and the rest of Bomber Command. “It was war,” she says. “We can’t talk about blame.”

The British veteran plans to fly to the city for the first time since 1945 later this year, and Mrs Elsner says she would happily invite him in for a cup of tea: there they might sit, with the Frauenkirche between them, the bomber and the bombed. “It’s difficult to be angry,” she says. “What good does it do to hold a grudge?”

Mrs Elsner is typical of many of the remaining survivors, who have reconciled themselves with their former enemy.

Warrant Officer Harry Irons, DFC, joined the RAF in 1940 at the age of 16 as a rear gunner, flying in Lancasters with No. 9 Squadron (Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph)

But their efforts to make peace with the past are being threatened by a younger generation determined to exploit the legacy of that night. The neo-Nazi march has been an annual fixture of the commemorations since the Nineties, so that the city that was destroyed in the battle against fascism is now the epicentre of its revival.

“They’re young and they don’t know what fascism is really like,” says Mrs Elsner. “The day is becoming more and more political. There’s the Right-wing here and the Left-wing there: the idea of remembrance is getting lost.”

WO Irons is also depressed by the sloganising that surrounds Dresden. The far-Right’s claim that the raid was a “bombing Holocaust”, an Allied war crime on a par with the Final Solution, used to trouble him.

“I had second thoughts about Dresden for years,” he says. “But last year I went to visit Auschwitz myself. Now I’ve seen it, my conscience is clear. We killed many civilians but we lost many men too. That was war – but Auschwitz was something else.”

The neo-Nazis are far from the only group seeking to exploit the sense of loss that pervades Dresden. Pegida, a far-Right movement of “patriotic Europeans” that began to target disenchanted Germans last year, has shied away from overt references to the bombing, but few think the choice of Dresden for its regular marches is coincidental.

“It ties in with the victimhood running through the city,” says Frederick Taylor, the historian and author of Dresden. “The unresolved trauma of 1945 provides a fertile ground for those kinds of feelings.”

This exploitation began even as the embers glowed. Nazi propagandists seized on the raid to paint a dark picture of the bombing campaign. Helped by its self-styled image as a “Florence on the Elbe”, they claimed the city as an innocent victim of a war crime, omitting to mention the 70,000 workers there who toiled in factories supplying the war effort, or the city’s significance as a centre of the railway network and a sizeable barracks.

This fiction continued under the communist regime of East Germany, which used the raid as a useful shorthand for Western aggression, and branded the bombers “air-raid gangsters”.

Such blatant propaganda fooled few, but some of the misinformation it generated has proved far more pervasive. Seven decades on, the death toll is still disputed, after years in which Nazi and GDR politicians, helped by revisionist British historians such as David Irving, claimed that as many as 500,000 Dresdeners died that night.

Even after an official commission of historians settled on the far lower figure of 25,000, the number is still contested, and government press releases about the commemorations explain their workings in lengthy footnotes.

“There are still a lot of people who say it must have been higher – it must have been 100,000,” says Matthias Rogg, of the Dresden Military History Museum. When he quoted the true figure in a newspaper interview to publicise a new exhibition about the bombing, he received hundreds of furious letters.

“I don’t think this will ever become just history,” he says, detailing the emotions still stirred by any reference to the raid. “The debate will never end.”

One uncomfortable truth is sometimes overlooked in all the furore.

“You have to ask the question of responsibility,” says Col Rogg, pointing to a skyline that once again resembles the landscape in Ursula Elsner’s apartment. “The war started in Germany. And, that night, it came back to us.”


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Scars of the Burma railway trauma that never healed

October 17th, 2014

This week, the railway made the headlines after The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a moving novel by Richard Flanagan, the son of a Burma PoW, won the Man Booker Prize. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the line’s completion, in 1943, but every day is a milestone for Mr Seiker.

“It never leaves me,” says Mr Seiker, still remarkably lucid at 98. “In the early days, I had terrible nightmares – and I still have them.” The exhibits he has laid out on the dining table of his home in Worcester catalogue man’s inhumanity to man: his sketches that speak of brutality no words could capture, an iron spike from the original line to remind him of all the friends he lost.

At the end of the table lies the latest addition: a copy of his book about his wartime experience – in Mandarin. The book, Lest We Forget, which he first published in 1995, had sold well locally and online, and many readers have been moved to write to Mr Seiker. But it could hardly have been described as a publishing sensation. Until now.

The story began in January, when Mr Seiker saw a comment piece in this newspaper by the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming. He agreed with the argument – that Japan’s refusal to face up to its aggressive past posed a serious threat to world peace – and wrote to tell the ambassador so, expecting no reply.

Yet, within a week, the embassy’s press attaché was dispatched to Worcester. Not only did he bring a lengthy response from the ambassador, but he wanted permission to publish the correspondence in the Chinese media. By the end of the fortnight, Mr Seiker had been interviewed by two Chinese newspapers and a film crew was preparing a documentary about his experiences.

“There were taxis turning up all the time and camera wires all over the place,” says Mr Seiker, showing me a photograph of the attaché presenting his wife Liz with a bouquet of flowers.

Despite this flurry of interest, Mr Seiker was alive to the danger that he could be exploited by the Chinese regime. “I made it quite clear that the moment I even suspected that, I would kill it. I put that in writing.” He was careful not to endorse China’s leaders in any of his appearances, but was happy to share his fears that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is risking conflict by flirting with militarism.

One of the sketches from Fred Seiker’s book, showing his condition before and after the PoW camp

Most of all, he was content that his memories of the war were reaching a wider audience. It is wider still now that the Mandarin translation of his book has been published by the People’s Publishing House. It was launched to great fanfare at the Beijing International Book Fair in August, when 3,000 copies were sold on the first day. A Chinese studio has even mooted a film.

“The whole thing is too ridiculous for words,” insists Mr Seiker. “I am just an ordinary bloke living in Worcester.”

Hardly. Born in Rotterdam in 1915, he followed his father, Frederick, into engineering, and was serving in the Dutch Merchant Navy when the war broke out. He was on the Indonesian island of Java when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Taken prisoner along with 18,000 other Dutchmen, he was forced to spend the next year building the railway, and almost two years after that never knowing when he would be free again.

Conditions were a kind of “hell on wheels”, he says. In one terrifying passage of his book, he remembers how Japanese guards left the men to die when cholera broke out in camp. Those who were not afflicted were forced to burn the remains of their fallen comrades. “Death becomes acceptable as a routine,” he wrote. “Words cannot describe the horror of the dying – and the living.”

And yet, incredibly, he claims the experience was a “privilege”. He has, he agrees, “experienced the most degrading behaviour by one human being to another”. But he has also felt the power of the “unconquerable spirit of civilised man”.

“I have seen humanity at its very best and at the same time at its nadir. You were in a situation where you would die for your mates and they would die for you. Some statement, isn’t it? But, believe me, at the time, it was true.”

Fred Seiker now, at his home in Worcester

His ordeal eventually ended when the men realised their guards had left, a few days after American airmen dropped the first of the two atom bombs that forced Japan to surrender. “I just stood there, tears running down my face, being free again.”

He moved to Grays, in Essex, to marry Edna, whom he had met before the war. The marriage gave him a daughter, but it was not happy. Like many Burma veterans, he struggled to reconcile his memories with civilian life. After one bad experience, when he felt his stories of the war were not believed by friends, he never spoke of his time in Burma. Trying to cope with such awful memories alone affected him badly, and he now says he became a “bastard”, “snarling at the slightest thing”.

His marriage fell apart, but when he met Liz, she slowly “got me out of a terrible state”. It took decades, but by 1995, the 50th anniversary of the war’s conclusion, he was ready to speak of his experiences. “I know what life means, so small things mean a lot,” he explains. “You never live until you have almost died.”


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The pioneering surgeon who healed men scarred by war, a new monument created in his honour – and the remarkable twist of fate that links them

May 30th, 2014

In the end McIndoe and his team in West Sussex “fixed up” 649 servicemen – men who underwent such innovative treatment that they rakishly dubbed themselves The Guinea Pig Club.

Their disfigurement meant the possibility of being shunned by sweethearts and friends, their lives blighted. So McIndoe not only treated them, he also stood up for them. “He had enormous battles with the authorities,” says Montfort Bebb, now 86. “He said, ‘You treat my boys properly.’ He even had a keg of beer for them in the ward. He had to give them the odd dressing-down, they were young men – they did misbehave – but they loved him.”

Such devotion suggests that few men more richly deserve being immortalised in bronze than Sir Archibald McIndoe. But by the time, two years ago, that Jacquie Pinney, chief executive of the medical research charity Blond McIndoe, began a campaign to erect a statue to McIndoe, his name and reputation had faded from the public eye.

The charity was founded in 1961 by the industrialist Neville Blond, who lived near East Grinstead and saw McIndoe’s work there first-hand. He admired how McIndoe had taken existing, primitive, plastic-surgery techniques and pioneered new methods that transformed not only the lives of his patients, but also the whole field of reconstructive surgery.

But despite McIndoe’s achievements, there were no statues or monuments to his honour, even in his native New Zealand. “There was nothing,” says Pinney. “I felt it was long overdue.”

Hence when she called Martin Jennings, the acclaimed sculptor of the much-loved John Betjeman statue in St Pancras station, she was worried that he would not know who McIndoe was: “I assumed he would think, ‘Who are these weird people calling from East Grinstead?’”

When she got through to him, he went quiet on the line, apparently confirming her worst fears. She need not have worried. “It was amazing,” says Jennings now. “She imagined that I would never have heard of McIndoe. But in fact I knew all about him.”

Over the course of the ensuing conversation, Martin Jennings related how his father, Michael, had been a tank commander in the war. On the afternoon of October 17 1944, with the Allies bearing down on the Maas canal, he was leading a troop of four tanks from the 15/19 King’s Royal Hussars on a push through heavily fortified German positions east of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands.

Suddenly his Cromwell tank was hit by a shell. The driver was wounded but, determined to press on, an undaunted Jennings switched to another tank and continued the advance. He was less lucky second time round. The shell that hit his commandeered tank killed its driver. As the armoured vehicle erupted into flames, Jennings himself was badly burned. He had little time to reflect on his condition.

“In his diary he recorded that the Germans were ‘coming on a bit’,” says his son. “I think that’s a euphemism for large numbers of them trying to kill him.”

Under heavy machine-gun fire, he made it back to his own lines. From there he was evacuated to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where his head and his hands were entirely bound in bandages. He was 23.

His sisters visited and fed him grapes through a mouth?hole in the wrappings. But he also received another visitor – Archie McIndoe, who was on one of his regular tours of the country to see if there were patients that he might be able to help.

Michael Jennings was unusual for a Guinea Pig, in that he was not an airman. None the less, he was transferred to East Grinstead and, over the course of the next two years, underwent a host of skin grafts and reconstructive procedures at the hands of McIndoe and his fellow surgeon, Percy Jayes.

At the outset, Michael Jennings’s morale could hardly have been lower. His sisters found him staring into a mirror, repeating: “I’m burned to a crisp. I’m burned to a crisp.”

But, as his son notes, “McIndoe had this remarkable capacity to transfer his confidence to his patients.”

Jack Perry can remember that golden touch: “He sat on my bed and kindly spoke to me. He said: ‘I see you play a lot of sport. Well, you’re going to play again. Maybe not as well, but you certainly will play.’”

That ability to lift spirits was an essential part of the McIndoe therapy. “His patients, like my father, were such young men,” says Martin Jennings. “They were hoping to get married, have children and a normal life. Suddenly they were plunged into the prospect of a life of passivity and victimhood. But McIndoe was so upbeat. His ethos was that these terrible injuries did not mean that their lives were over.”

Michael Jennings was one of those who, with McIndoe’s help, refused to accept that his life was over. In 1952, he got married, and he and his wife had 11 children.

Today, Martin Jennings describes his family connection and the call from Jacquie Pinney as “an astonishing coincidence”. She had found in the sculptor a man who had long nursed the idea of creating a monument to the man who had cared for his father and overseen “significant improvement to the lower half of his face – to his nose, mouth, lips”.

Indeed it is a hardly a stretch to suggest that without McIndoe, Michael Jennings might never have married, and his sculptor son might never have been born.

It has taken two years since that 2012 phone call for the project to come to fruition. On one research trip to East Grinstead, Jennings asked for records from the war. There he turned up a file featuring a familiar face. For 10 years after he was burned, Michael Jennings refused to be photographed. But there, in the hospital files, were images from that lost decade that McIndoe had taken to plan and perform his operations.

“That was very moving,” says Jennings. “I was looking at pictures of my father, and he was the same age in the pictures as my own sons were in real life. I found myself feeling a sense of paternal protectiveness to my own father. That was very much McIndoe’s spirit. He was a father to these men. This is a story of fathers and sons.”

With that same protective spirit, McIndoe would send the men under his care into East Grinstead, to stroll the town, drink in the pubs, attend parties – just like other young men. And the people of East Grinstead, to their immense credit, learned to welcome these disfigured men in uniform. Now it is known as “the town that did not stare”.

Jennings’s McIndoe memorial is, as a result, an arrangement of two slightly larger than life-size figures. Seated is a airman, his burned hands clawed together, his scarred face turned to one side. Standing behind him, resting a reassuring hand on each shoulder, is the figure of McIndoe.

They are framed by a stone bench. “When the local people sit on that long curved seat, they complete the monument,” says Jennings. “This is a tribute to Archie McIndoe and the Guinea Pigs, but it is also a tribute to the people of East Grinstead.”

Michael Jennings, like many of the Guinea Pigs, went on to outlive by far the man who had so helped him. He died in 2002, aged 82, after a long post-war career as a teacher. He too, will live on in the memorial. Although the figure of the airman is not based on any one man, Martin Jennings modelled the burned hands on those of his father.

The result, says Montfort Bebb, would have enormously pleased her own father, Archie McIndoe. Not that he subscribed to theories of “greatness”.

“He said that greatness is just hard work – attention to detail and a lot of hard work. He probably worked himself to death. But he never mentioned his own health. He was just devoted to medicine and patching up those poor boys.”

Visit mcindoememorial.com to make a donation


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