I spent some moments with my dad this week. He died in 1976. I had just turned 18 and was already living in Israel, studying at Hebrew U. But I have been at the International Conference on Trauma and Mental Health in Jerusalem the past few days. Zahava Solomon presented “Three Decades of Veterans Research” on the Israeli POWs who returned from captivity in Syria and Egypt after the Yom Kippur War. She described not only the terror of the experience, but also the devastating alienation these men felt returning home. The deadening disconnection of the experience, and its effects on the spouses and children of these men.
My dad was a POW. South Africa was still a British colony, and he answered the call for volunteers. But in June 1942 he was captured at Tobruk. He spent some time at a POW camp called Tarhouna near Tripoli and then almost three years in Stalag IVB near Muhlberg-on- Elbe in Germany. I can only imagine the terror of the Jewish soldiers as the Afrika Korps approached in the desert. But because they were captured as soldiers of nations signatory to the Geneva Convention, they were given the basic protections of the Convention. The Jewish soldiers could not be sent to concentration camps.
But the war was the defining experience of my dads’ life. He returned to South Africa and joined the Liberal Party to fight for equality of all South Africans irrespective of skin colour. By the time I was born my dad had few friends in the country. Most had been exiled or were in prison. His friends were the men from the camp; men from England and Scotland who he would never again see in his lifetime. I remember whenever a letter would arrive how he would take it into his study and quietly read it alone. Religiously he would go to his MOTH (Men Of the Tin Hat) and Ex-Servicemens’ meetings. Now I understand how desperate he must have been for other men who could understand and relate to his experience. In the South Africa of 1945 who knew about PTSD? Who understood what these men had experienced? Who even tried?
The pictures I was shown of the men at the end of the war terrified me. They looked like concentration camp inmates. Because the Germans’ adherence to the Geneva Convention was poor and erratic at best, food and water was in constant shortage. The hunger wore prisoners down both physically and psychologically. The repeated bombing attacks on the German rail system disrupted Red Cross food supplies. Food was sacred in the house I grew up in; something to be treated with the utmost respect.
In April 1945 the Russians arrived to liberate the camp. I recall my dad describing how they asked for men who spoke German, and because he knew Yiddish, he stepped forward. And so it happened that my dad was taken as a translator by the Soviets who went to liberate the concentration camp closest to Muhlberg. But this was not his only story. Most of his stories were about the escape attempts, the wall newspaper he edited, the Jewish prayer services he helped organize, the Rugby team he trained, and always about the camaraderie and the friendships.
I sit at the conference and my professional ear listens to the lectures. But my inner ear hears the Second Transvaal Scottish playing their bagpipes at my dads’ funeral.
You used to tell me stories of the war
Sunsets in Ismailia
Warm beers on the steps of a desert café
Turbaned waiters in white jalabiyas
Mirages of life after death
The cupped hands of fellow prisoners
Which you still drank from
When I knew you.
Three years and from camp to camp
And just before your capture
When if you squinted
You could make out the brown uniforms
On the dusty sanddune horizon
And it was only a matter of minutes,
You buried your tefillin in the sand
Somewhere in North Africa
Your tefillin are in the sand
I can see you crouching
I have heard this story many times
Sitting on your lap and later
On the rug at your feet
Crouching to hide this thing.