Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Leifur's Crystal Ball

Internment Camp, Southern Québec
Lately I keep returning to the image of my father as a young man standing at attention for hours in a snowy field in Canada wearing nothing but his underwear. He stood in line with all the other internees, mostly German Jews, but also Communists, pacifists (like my father), and one or two Nazis. Farm women would come from their homes and gather to watch the men through barbed wire; some would laugh.
German POWs playing chess,
Farnham, November 1945
          My father was known to embellish freely, so only a few details can be confirmed. The name of the prison camp in Southern Québec was Farnham, for example, and the Commandant of Camp Farnham was Major Eric Kippen, who had himself been a POW during the first World War.

          We know, for instance, that four ships transported internees from England to Canada in 1940. The second ship, the Arandora Star, sailed from Liverpool with 480 passengers on July 1. The ship was sunk by a U boat on July 2, and the survivors were returned to England. The third ship, the Ettrick, left a few days later with my father and some 1,300 other prisoners who were bound for Camp Farnham. Along the way, the Ettrick stopped at Halifax to pick up lumber.
The SS Ettrick, 1940
          The first camp school was pioneered by my father at Farnham in 1940. Realizing that there were at least 100 boys between the ages of 16 and 20 in need of guidance, education, and belief in a future, he requested a meeting with Commandant Kippen to voice his concerns, as well as his worry that the boys were an easy target for the Communists and their propaganda. After consideration, my father was given the use of a hut for the prison school, which was taught by volunteers, like my father. Eventually, three or four other prison camps started schools based on the Farnham model and outside speakers from McGill were invited to give guest lectures.
Farnham, Class of 1941
          The camp's war diary justified the school from the perspective of controlling the prison population.

"The idea behind this is to give internees as much mental activity as possible, as it takes their minds off their many worries and makes them that much easier to control. After all in the running of an internment camp, the expedient thing to do is to run it with as little trouble as possible from the prisoners. If they are given considerable amount of freedom concerning internal affairs in the compound and as much self-government as possible, it has the effect of making them that much easier to control and govern." 

Regardless of who was benefiting more from the school, the project was a success. The results of the matriculation exams enabled a high percentage of prison students to be accepted to McGill University. (Prisoners of the Home Front, by Martin F. Auger, UBC Press, 2005.)

          I wonder, though, if the deepest truth isn't best expressed in fiction and, if so, why should we trouble ourselves over details like facts? Don't the stories we tell about our lives reveal an inner truth and quickly become our lives?

          He shivered, wondering if he would die, worrying his secret would be discovered, not yet knowing that in two years he would marry a lovely Canadian girl who adored him—slim, fragile, blond, fresh and nearly transparent with hope—who would give him two astonishing, beautiful daughters.

          The prisoners received mail but it was almost unreadable because it was so highly censored, thick black stripes drawn sometimes at random across the lines of every page. The romantic girl he would marry happened to be fluent in German and worked at the censorship office. She fell in love with him reading his letters.

Farnham to Hamburg, September 1, 1945

          As soon as he was freed from the camp, he delivered a lecture at the university. A beautiful blond girl sat in the front row, the first woman he'd seen in two years. She introduced herself afterwards, shyly, as his censor.

          These stories flowed into each other, backwards and forwards, during dinner parties, while my father smiled, perhaps a little mischievously, and his second wife—my mother—poured more wine into the guests' empty glasses.
           Sometimes they were awakened  in the middle of a winter night, called to stand at attention in howling wind under a sky riddled with stars. At the feet of each man was a crumpled heap of empty clothing he had been ordered to remove. A bullseye was imprinted on the back of every prison uniform so the guards posted in the four watchtowers would have an easy shot. Like a lighthouse, the watchtower's bright beam revolved, illuminating pale skin and white snow, the scene almost snapping into momentary darkness, again and again, for hours.

          He used to put cardboard over the windows of his study in our house in Princeton, and tacked handkerchiefs and towels over a window in the dining room where the sunlight was particularly unpleasant. He had tantrums whenever a candle was blown out because the scent was disturbing. The sound of fireworks caused migraine.

          He shivered for hours beside the other internees, teenagers and young men, Jews, Communists, scholars, factory workers. His expression, the stretched cheeks giving him an air of haughty resignation, was a result of the pocket watch he hid in his mouth. Its long gold chain was roughly bunched, bitten between his back teeth, but the golden disk of the watch itself was smooth on his tongue. The ticking, resonating like a beating heart, was inaudible outside his head.
Huts at Farnham
          While the men stood outside for hours, the guards inspected the inmates' belongings and stole with impunity. The pocket watch in his mouth had belonged to his father. I have a formal portrait of my elegant grandfather, from the late nineteenth century--painted in oils some 50 years before Farnham—seated at his desk, wearing an ascot and pince-nez, the gold chain of his timepiece fleetingly visible, just a shimmering glimpse of golden paint dabs on the front of his dark suit.

          I have a photograph of my father, taken perhaps 20 years after Farnham. His blue eyes convey calm, alert intelligence but his hand clutches at something we can't see, something round and graspable, and the gold chain is there, visible over his heart.

              Wilhelm stood in line at night in the snow. Behind him was the small child called Wilhelm who grew up in Hamburg and Utrecht with a maid and a nanny. Wilhelm had a naughty little brother, Heinrich, who looked up to him, and an older sister Wilhelm revered, and after whom I was named. He was Wilhelm but his mother, with whom he shared the same piercing blue gaze, sometimes called him Schwein! Ass! or when she was feeling more affectionate he became Bübing. His mother wrote exquisite poetry in Italian and English as a young woman. As an old woman she was taken into police custody and beaten for refusing to perform the Nazi salute. It was Wilhelm who had taken his father, dying of Parkinson's Disease and confined to a wheelchair, on a world cruise and procured women and pet monkeys for him. Wilhelm left Germany after his mentor, a famous Jewish art historian, had been dismissed from the University of Hamburg and fled the country. Wilhelm stood in line with all of that, and more, behind him forever, blacked out like the censor's line, or maybe just trailing behind him and fading like a ship's wake, merging with an overall pattern.

          But the man who left Farnham was called William, which is the official name printed on his Canadian passport. It's William who married the lovely Canadian girl who spoke fluent German. Brother Heinrich would become Henry, with an American passport, and interrogate Nazis at Nuremberg. Later, in the States, it was Bill who was the Director of Duke University's art museum, Bill who married my mother.

          When you change your name, what else do you change? Can you reinvent yourself? Do you change how others relate to you when you are not Wilhelm nor William, but Bill? What does it mean when you no longer dream in your native language, when brothers call each other by foreign names?

          He stood at attention obediently—silent, naked, afraid and cold—but what defiance! No one ever found out his secret, a watch in his mouth hoarded like treasure: memories linking themselves into an unbroken chain, ticking off like time itself, reaching forward and back, into dreams, across continents, over the bodies of all the women he would ever love, inside each one who would ever cherish his memory.

           As a very old man, he told this story, in his elegant English accent, of being held captive and forced to stand at attention for hours, stripped and freezing cold. Afterwards he chuckled at "the idiots" who thought they had controlled him or stolen something from him. He sat back in his chair at our dining room table and seemed quite pleased with himself. Captivity had somehow enabled him to take back stolen time, to behold the future as if it was something solid and round, like a crystal ball, that could be grasped and seized. It was so tangible for him that others (students and captors alike) were persuaded.

          After his death, I kept the portrait of his father. The pocket watch was given to my sister's son, whose family lives in Iceland, along with the story of the watch. In time, our watch will be passed on to my father's great-grandson, Leifur, perhaps without a story, but with a secret history that spans all of time, if we wish it to do so. Wind it and it still ticks, connecting all of us like the points of a vast constellation on a heavenly map.


  1. This was tear jerky for me to read ... I had never seen that 'bright eyed' photo of him before now.

    This is beautiful and melancholy how our William would have loved to have read it.
    It brought him back in so many memories.

    1. The photo's in the dining room (with so many other framed photos of him that it's hard to pick it out from the crowd).

      I loved writing this and I'm sure he would be pleased that I've written it. (Though of course he'd rewrite it! Ha!) I just noticed that his death day in nearly here. Part of the biological clock, maybe.

      Love xxxxx