Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

13/1/2008

The Book of the Just

The British prisoners of war, working-class provincial boys captured during the evacuation from Dunkirk, had hardly met a Jew before. If they thought hard, they might remember the odd soldier who was excused church parade. Until a bleak, icy day in January 1945, they knew nothing of the murderous brutality of Hitler’s Final Solution. They had spent most of the previous five years [as forced labourers on German-owned farms on the Polish borders], but they were jolted out of their ignorance in the last winter of the war by a squad of SS men driving 300 living skeletons through the village, the frail survivors of 1,200 Jewish women force- marched west because their jailers needed a pretext to escape the advancing Red Army. One of the POWs [was] Willie Fisher, who kept a diary. That night he wrote in anger: They came straggling through the bitter cold, about 300 of them, limping, dragging footsteps, slipping and falling, to rise and stagger under the blows of the guards. Crying loudly for bread, screaming for food, 300 matted-haired filthy objects that had once been Jews.’ One of the marchers was Sara Matuson, a sixteen-year old Lithuanian girl. Sara was still fighting for life:
‘[I] slipped out of the line – don’t ask how, I don’t know how – and into a ditch. I ran into a barn. [It] was animal instinct. I laid myself in a trough. There were cows in the barn. They looked for me for two hours, but didn’t find me’.

The hue and cry petered out, and then a man came into the barn. He was one of the POWs, Stan Wells, who had served in the Royal Norfolk regiment. He reassured her in rudimentary German that he knew she was the runaway Jewish girl and that the police had stopped looking for her.

‘I felt pity’, he recalled, ‘I was sorry for her, she was in such a state. Ragged, very thin, crying. That’s how I found her: I heard her sobbing. I told her to lie still and keep quiet. I made sure she was safe. I left her for the time being.’ In the morning, Wells told the girl that he had talked to his fellow POWs and they had agreed to hide her. They remembered that when they were taken prisoner and were marched through Holland on their way to Germany, Dutch townsfolk had risked being shot to throw food to them. Stan later explained:

‘We were aware of the chances we took, but they didn’t come into it. [It] came to me that we had a place to put her, and everyone was in agreement.’ Two other POWs, Alan Edwards and George Hammond, concurred:

‘It didn’t matter to us that she was Jewish. She was just a human being. If she had been Polish, or any other nationality, we would have done the same. [She] had to have some help or she would have died.’ The men hid Sara in the hay loft of the stable where they were locked in each evening next to a warm chimney. But first they gave her food, [meat] from their rations. At first, she vomited it up, but gradually they noticed an improvement. The POWs would take food off their plates and smuggle it home to her. Edwards stole clothes for Sara, a coat, a sweater, shoes and stockings. They began the slow process of rebuilding her health and strength. Sara never forgot the British prisoners who restored her faith in humanity. In March 1989, Yad Vashem honoured them in Jerusalem where they planted a carob tree in the Avenue of the Righteous.

Adapted from: Silver, E (1992) The Book of the Just, London: Weidenfield & Nicolson
Ltd pp 70-76

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