martes, 11 de noviembre de 2014

A veteran's tale — finding humanity after horror

His story is one of unexpected miracles and unimaginable savagery.
But ultimately, it’s a tale of redemption — of hope for a new generation wedded to peace and tolerance.
Veteran Ed Carter-Edwards is a riveting speaker about life in wartime and the words are tough to listen to.
The Canadian airman was downed over France in the Second World War, and brutally beaten by the Germans.
Embraced by the French Resistance, he was betrayed by a Gestapo collaborator and sent to the brutal Buchenwald concentration camp.
The Hamilton native, and 168 other Allied airmen that were with him, shouldn’t have survived.
But in an act of mercy, they were able to live another day, when so many didn’t.
Of the Buchenwald slave-labour camp in Germany, the 91-year-old Smithville resident recalls his arrival in a packed train car in the summer of 1944.
“Dogs were biting, whips slashing, it was the most horrible scene,” said Carter-Edwards. “We had never experienced such cruelty in our lives.”
Around them, there were tens of thousands of men and boy slave-workers as skinny as rakes. Death rained down everywhere, in random shootings, disease, starvation. People literally dropped dead onto diarrhea-caked mud.
“They played with human beings there, like a cat with a mouse,” the vet said, with choking emotion. “Life was not worth the snap of a finger.”
Carter-Edwards’s wartime odyssey began in 1942, when he was 19. “I personally felt it was up to me to do something to try to help England to ward off the threat of this massive monster machine Germany had put together.”
He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and became a wireless operator. By late 1943 he sailed off to England via the Queen Mary liner.
After joining a crew there, he quickly became aware of the perils he faced. The airman in the cot beside him who never returned after a mission. The darkened planes crashing into each other at night.
His time of terror began after his Halifax bomber was shot down in German-occupied Paris, France. Carter-Edwards parachuted down hard, found another crew-member, but got separated from him.
He came to a village and was fed by a family who feared the Gestapo would shoot them for aiding the enemy. A couple of safe houses later, he was met by someone from the French Resistance.
He was able to prove he was an airman, despite not wearing his uniform, and given false papers and a passport.
While in Paris, he and others were protected by a “young couple prepared to risk their lives,” Carter-Edwards said. Another driver — a Belgian German collaborator who’d infiltrated the Resistance— took them through the city.
“He stopped, the driver got out, spoke to a group of German military and immediately about six of them came, opened up the door and … proceeded to beat us.”
They then were sent to a French prison run by the Gestapo. For five weeks, the men nearly went insane listening to the sounds of torture screams. To pass the time, they killed fleas and counted them.
By mid-August 1944, 167 other downed Allied airmen including 26 Canadians — also betrayed while on French soil by the collaborator — found themselves gathered in a courtyard and set to go to Buchenwald by rail.
Amid the melee, he saw the young French couple who had protected him in Paris. They were also captured by the Germans. He tried to get the word out through a contact how appreciative he was. “Our eyes met,” Carter-Edwards said, his own eyes moistening. “And I never saw them again.
After five degrading days on the train to Buchenwald, the airmen and others arrived to Hell.
Cater-Edwards soon became gravely ill with pneumonia but was protected by an underground group in the infirmary from being euthanized by a death needle.
Buchenwald was an ongoing killing-field for those imprisoned there.
“If you couldn’t work, you died or were killed,” he said flatly. “Outside, you’d step over bodies like stepping over a log.
“It’s very difficult for you to imagine such utter cruelty and brutality.”
Then another miracle happened since surviving being shot down. The German Air Force found out about the identity of the then-166 surviving airmen. Five days earlier, a German order came to have the Allied airmen group executed.
Somewhere behind the scenes there was a change of heart.
“Suddenly, they had us removed and taken to a regular prisoner of war camp run by the German Air Force called Stalag Luft III,” he said. “They … saved our lives and we were all also dying by then, we were starving.”
At Stalag, they got half-decent food and medical treatment and slowly recovered.
As Allied troops advanced in by spring 1945, he was shuttled from one camp, then another, then liberated near Lubeck in May 1945.
When he returned to Canada, Carter-Edwards had trouble at first getting people to believe his concentration-camp experience as he isn’t Jewish and has no camp tattoos.
Carter-Edwards said even the Canadian department of veteran’s affairs refused at the time to recognize his camp experience
“So for 40 years, I never said a word,” he said.
Then by the 1980s, the Allied airmen ex-Buchenwald survivors began to get in touch and they have collaborated ever since.
He also recalls several moments of humanity that have struck him since those years of atrocity.
Last April, the French Legion of Honour recipient was invited back to Buchenwald for a remembrance anniversary, where he gave a speech in the same square where countless people were murdered during the war.
While there, he ran into a German Air Force colonel — he hadn’t seen a German airman since 1945.
“A big smile came on his face and he held out his hand,” Carter-Edwards said. “I shook it. He put his other hand on my shoulder and he said:
“‘I want to thank you and your comrades for restoring peace and freedom to Europe and to my country. You removed tyranny from my country and every German should embrace you for what you did.’
“Those were very emotional moments,” he said. “Seventy years earlier they were trying to kill us.
“I said to him ‘I want to thank you for those kind words… remember if it hadn’t been for the German Air Force, we’d all have died in Buchenwald.’”
“And then we embraced.”
Carter-Edwards told his story to a gathering of Grade 10 Governor Simcoe Secondary School students in a recent pre-Remembrance Day talk in St. Catharines
He urged the students to reflect on the sacrifices so many made during that horrible time.
“Today and on Remembrance Day as I stand for a minute of silence … I will think of the other 167 Allied airmen who were with me,” he said. “We did all this, because we were trying to restore freedom in the world and remove the horrors of the Nazi regime that had taken over Europe.
“And I hope you take some of my experiences with you. I hope you consider what we have today was earned through the lives of many men and women. And take the time to say ‘thank you veteran, wherever you are.’”
He also urged youth in the audience to remember the scourge of hate and terror and to quell it wherever they encounter it.
“I know you’ll do the best you can to generate peace,” he said. “Everyone deserves to live a decent life.”
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Bringing a vet to two St. Catharines schools
Governor Simcoe teacher Steve Torok said his friend Bruce Williamson- a Laura Secord Secondary School teacher and city councillor- had both mused about enhancing the meaning of Remembrance Day for students.
“Bruce approached me about collaborating on (bringing a veteran like Ed Carter-Edwards to our schools),” Torok said. What started as a small scale idea, grew as Torok thought it made sense to expose more students to the experiences of veterans.
“Now is a perfect time to start our week of remembrance rather than having one single day,” he said.
“And this is a passion of mine as I spent the last 16 years in the army reserve too,” Torok added. “In the summer, I also help run the Links and Winks military museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
“After talking to veterans, it’s important to me that their stories are shared and shared now.”
School principal Bill Klassen said it’s his concern that some young people have lost touch with the gravity and legacy of the great wars.
“We do cover it in the curriculum,” Klassen said. “But it’s not as immediate as it was even to someone like myself in the 1960s or 70s.
“And how often do you get this kind of living history in the classroom that we have with this veteran?”
What does Remembrance Day mean to you?
Asked of Governor Simcoe S.S. students last week
Shaun Bredl, 16
“To me, it’s about about remembering my family who has been in the military and fought in World War Two, specifically, who I never got to meet. But I can remember what they did even without talking to them and seeing them.”
Weston Miller, 17
“I think of what Mr. Ed Carter-Edwards said … when talking about his first air mission, he knew how dangerous it was. But he came to do a job and defeated the enemy and he was going to do that job at all cost.”
“I think Remembrance Day is honouring people like him who shared that same goal and had that same will to fight and defend and put their lives on the line for everyone back home.”
Dylan Cober, 17
“It’s about remembering what the veterans did for us, and all the sacrifices they made, so I can live my life with the freedom I have today.”
Desiree Archer, 18
“We take so much for granted these days, it’s a great lesson in humility for all of us. It teaches us how we got here and where it’s all coming from.”
Fitore Aliu, 18
“It’s about honouring everyone who sacrificed so much for us to have the freedom we do have. They went through Hell and back (for us) … Mr. Carter-Edwards touched my heart with everything he said and what happened to him in the camps. And how he said to ‘be nice to everyone and we should never do this again.’