My uncle Cliff
and the need to
Nobody in the official media outlets or political and historical institutions, publishing houses or agencies wanted to know about Clifford Rushby's prisoner of war story when he was alive. In 2008, I privately published and personally distributed a prose poem,'Knowing' (in 'Xchanges'). On 9 November 2011, Cliff passed away peacefully in his own home in Binbrook, Lincolnshire.
Yet, I realised how special his account was as soon as he shared his audio tapes with me in December 2001. In the 1970s, and without any prompting and before 'oral history' had become a well-funded practice and international trend in the West, Cliff had begun to record his story on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder which was still functioning a couple of years ago.
His story begins with his farming life in Binbrook and the sudden disruption to this pastoral life when he is called up to serve in the army in 1940. What follows is what he describes later as a real 'Cook's tour of Europe courtesy of the Fuehrer'. After being trapped north of Dunkirk, he and countless thousands of other prisoners of war were marched halfway across Europe to work in labour commandos in Poland. In January 1945, he was marched westwards for weeks on end in horrendous conditions from mines in Sosnowitz, Upper Silesia.
His account was different because of his attention to detail, his sense of humanity and also his sense of humour which he had tried to retain throughout his ordeal. However, at Sosnowitz, when he was working underground in deep mines on excessively long shifts with no days off, and alongside Maoris who were mutilating themselves in order to try and get transferred, or force some days of respite through injury, he found nothing humorous to recount.
These mines should have been closed years ago on the grounds of health and safety. This was the conclusion of an International Red Cross report in 1942. His account of the suffering of Russian prisoners of war is also particularly harrowing.
As a fluent speaker of German, I began to research his story in depth in archives and to ask pertinent questions of key institutions and governments from March 2002 onwards. My specific questions were mostly met with silence or deliberate obfuscation. In 2008, I even travelled to New Zealand to seek out and interview former prisoners of war: my relative's was the only British account I had ever come across that mentions Maoris working down the mines. His was also one of the few accounts that differentiated between the guards as individuals and did not regard them all in absolute terms as 'the enemy' – the manufactured enemy.
I quickly established that Sosnowitz was a concentration camp ('KL-Betrieb') and was part of the Auschwitz III complex (extensive work camps of upper Silesia). He was working and living over 70 miles from his base camp (Stalag). There were many Scots also at Sosnowitz and I managed to locate lists of these prisoners and their respective illnesses.
He kept his silence. Then a year ago, he felt the need to describe to me
a French family seated at a kitchen table – the scene was of normality,
yet, their bodies were of charcoal.
There was further silence from official bodies and institutions when I raised the matter of Geneva Conventions and the misleading administrative records. His account was turning out to be an uncomfortable and neglected key part of the past with ramifications for the present. Indeed, I discovered from official German documents dated 2 January 1945 that he and other British prisoners of war were to be marched along the same route with inmates from Birkenau ahead of the Soviet advance on the area. Again this raised further questions. Their commandos were marching under the code word 'Krebs' (crab) and were being transferred towards the interior of Germany in order to be put to work there.
Cliff did eventually arrive back to his village in one piece, with a flight first from Landshut to Reims and then from Reims to Buckinghamshire. All the villagers turned out to greet him when they heard he was on his way. Soon afterwards his feet collapsed and a year or so of mental and physical healing ensued. Some aspects of war and what he had witnessed as a soldier were just too horrendous for him to recount. He kept his silence. Then a year ago, he felt the need to describe to me a French family seated at a kitchen table – the scene was of normality, yet their bodies were of charcoal.
Cliff could not talk much about his experiences after the war. All we really knew was that he had worked on a farm in Poland and that he had been happy there. Few in the village would have been able to understand his extensive ordeal. From 2002 we talked regularly and in depth. It was only then that I discovered that he also knew German, and that he had remained in contact via German with Marie from the farm throughout the cold war, and had last spoken with her in June 2011, yet they had not seen each other since 1943. This truly was an example of genuine friendship across nations. Furthermore, when Marie married in 1950, her son was born on the same day as Cliff's birthday.
The non-fiction manuscript based on his account and my archival findings and interviews with the last survivors await publication. Over the years I nevertheless persisted in trying to get this underbelly of Auschwitz known to the public at large: in 2007 I prepared a touring exhibition about Cliff's experience in the mines beneath Auschwitz and his three-month forced march from upper Silesia to Bavaria. This exhibition was recently displayed again in Berlin (and subsequently confiscated by the police).
But, as I write this from Palestine, I realise more clearly than ever how historical facts can be uncomfortable and blatantly suppressed to suit an agenda and how generations can be brutally oppressed, displaced, and decimated, and how ordinary families suffer and continue to suffer immeasur-ably as a consequence. Cliff would have clearly identified with the people here, and would have hated what governments, politicians and international bodies have been doing to this part of the world, and to these people under occupation.
During the last few years, Cliff turned his attention to recording past village life and farming practices in Binbrook which are now mostly forgotten, along with the people who once inhabited this niche in the Wolds. In spite of his advancing age, he managed to capture with his voice and memory the vibrancy of daily life and the lost voices from the past. These voices will be heard by generations to come, thanks to his own need to bear witness.
Joanne McNally is a poet, writer and independent scholar