Monday, February 06, 2012

out of the same camp

Mr Elliott sits on the ambulance trolley, his jointy fingers laced together in his lap, his eyes circumscribed by shadows.
‘I had some shrapnel taken out of my hip last year,’ he wheezes. ‘Copped it at Normandy, but no idea what it was so I just carried on. Well you do when you’re in your twenties. Anyway, this surgeon who did me up in London – looked about ten years old. Turns out he was French. When he showed me the x-ray and pointed out all the metal work, I told him where I think I picked it up. So he turns to his team and says: “People? We must take care of this one. He liberated my country.”’
‘That’s a good one.’
‘It was a good one. Good as new.’
Mr Elliott slaps his thigh and settles back into the trolley.
‘Just after the war they put me in a special detail and we went into this concentration camp, gathering material for the war crimes lot. And I never really made all that much of it, till a few years ago, all those years later, when I’d had my family, finished my working life and retired and all this and that, and then it all came back, and it really started to bother me. So I thought I’d better do something about it, you know, before it was too late. So I started going into schools and telling them about the Holocaust. I mean, you can’t really tell them what it was like, not really, not so they’d understand. Which bothers me, because you see the whole thing just get played out over and over again. You see it in the papers all the time. No-one’s learned anything. Look at that Cambodian guy in the news the other day. And Yugoslavia, Rwanda. Nothing changes. But it made me feel better.’

***

Mr Leyton, later that same day, sitting on the same ambulance trolley, hugging his toiletries bag, radiating good humour.
‘…So we finished up a couple of miles outside this concentration camp.’
‘Did you go in?’
‘No – I didn’t. But one of the adjutants I knew did.’
‘So what did he say about it?’
‘Not much. He came out with a German attaché case full of watches.’
‘Watches?’
‘Yeah. He wanted five pounds but I didn’t have enough. He was a Cockney and wanted cash, but I didn’t have enough.’
Watches?’
‘Yeah. Buried in the ground. But he wanted five pounds and I didn’t have enough.’

8 comments:

jacksofbuxton said...

I don't suppose the cockney was called Walker was he Captain Mainwaring?

A few years back we went to visit some friends who live in Beauvais.I was chatting to one of my seniors about it and was stunned at how well he knew the area.His son followed him into the chair and I asked Pat how his Dad knew so much about it."He bombed it in the war as the Germans were building tanks there" was the answer.

Spence said...

I wonder if he had to study surveillance photos. I read somewhere how they used to fly spitfires stripped back to the bare minimum with cameras instead of guns.

Steve'nLubbock said...

Spence, there was a show on History International channel last week talking about the recon efforts of the RAF during WW2. It was very interesting how they used stereoscopic techniques to spot stuff like rockets, tanks, etc

Spence said...

Sounds interesting, Steve. Can't get that channel on Freeview, but maybe it'll come round...

***

BTW - I can't resist adding a kind of general / personal note to this post...

When I heard the story of the watches I was really shocked. Mr Leyton didn't seem to have made any connection between the watches and the inmates of the concentration camp. Afterwards I thought maybe it was the brutalising effect of fighting through the whole campaign. But then, Mr Elliott had been through the whole war, too.

I suppose it has to be said that Mr Leyton was a little removed from it; after all, it was the Cockney adjutant who'd actually gone into the camp. But it came across as a chillingly commercial view, I thought.

I know I'm looking at these things from the safety of my laptop, and who knows how it would've looked on the ground, so to speak.
But still. That's what stuck in my mind, and that's why I wrote the post.

Jean said...

First thing I thought was "it takes all kinds".
One cares about people, one cares about things. Or so it seems.

Spence said...

That's a good way of looking at it, Jean.

The other thing that really impressed me about the first man was that he was still interested and active in the world, despite his great age. In his nineties, and going in to schools to give talks - amazing!

sebbie said...

My uncle was at Belson shortly after it was liberated. He didn't talk about it much, I imagine it iss not easy to convey what it was like. I applaud the old man for trying.

Its amazing (and depressing) that two other people could be so close and miss the point completely.

Another Uncle was at Normandy, was shot and captured, he remained a POW for the rest of the war and made the forced march across Europe as the front moved and the Germans retreated. Its nice to be reminded of them both. They were lovely men, I'm sure their experience meant that they valued the small pleasures in life.

And Steve'nLubbock my grandad was one of those men who used the stereoscopic equipment to identify equipment. He was based at Medmenham and I believe there's a museum there now commemorating the work that was done there during the war.

Spence said...

It is staggering that two such different stories came out of that horror. I know which one I prefer to think about! The two old men were both really lovely, but Mr Elliott had my respect for taking a bad experience and trying to turn it into something positive, however impossible it might seem. Quite inspiring, really.

Good to hear about your uncle & grandad Lubbock. Great bunch of men. It's a truism - but worth repeating any number of times - we owe them so much.

Cheers for the comment, Sebbie.