“I CAN FORGIVE, BUT I SHALL NEVER FORGET”
A woman´s courage
In Memory of Henrietta (Joan) Evans
by Frances Evans Bengtsson MBE
Towards the end of 2009 I looked out a small metal plaque I had kept safely in a jewellery box. It was my mother's prisoner identification which she was made to wear at all times in the last German prison camp she was taken to in 1941, after going through at least ten jails both in occupied France and Germany. The prison camp was Liebenau in Ravensburg, Germany where she gave birth to the “first British baby born in a nazi prisoner of war camp” – namely me. (*) I decided it was time to let the plaque see the light of day again and to have it framed together with photographs of my parents and a roughly sketched itinerary with the sequence of events that started in Buenos Aires when they boarded the ill-fated “Afric Star” in January 1941, her sinking by the German raider “Kormoran”, being taken prisoners and transferred to two other German vessels, first to the “Nordmark” and later to the “Portland” on which ship my father was killed as they arrived in Bordeaux. At the time, my parents had no idea I was on the way.
Mysteriously, ever since I brought the plaque out of hiding, the sequence of events in my own life, as far as this whole episode is concerned, has been so overwhelming that I find myself immersed in the most incredible, emotionally staggering, beautiful and even breathtaking discoveries.
It all started with an email from Tim Lough dated 20 March 2010 mentioning the visit by Peter Mulvany, Chairman of the Irish Seamens Relatives Association, for wreath-laying ceremonies at the Buenos Aires British and German cemeteries as well as at the Malvinas Memorial in Plaza San Martin. The same day I received an email from Dublin. Peter Mulvany himself wrote saying that through Tim he had learnt about my parents being taken prisoners by the Germans after the sinking of the “Afric Star” and saying his good friend Harry Callan – also from Dublin, now 87 years old and with impaired eyesight – had been a member of crew on the “Afric Star” and remembered my parents well. In successive emails I learnt that Harry was in fact next to my father when the Germans opened fire killing both my father (aged 27) and a member of the “Afric Star” crew, Arthur Freeman (aged 23). Harry remembers everything. Like my mother, after reaching Bordeaux he went through the horrors of nazi prison camps.
This was the beginning of a constant flow of e-mails between Peter and myself. I had met two of the kindest men anyone could wish to know, albeit through internet. Peter went to see Harry and told him about my existence and Harry even sent me an audio message through Peter´s telephone with an introduction by Peter who then sent it to me through e-mail. The excitement of this incredible discovery was great, as was the emotional turmoil. Peter and Harry were planning a visit by Harry to Germany, to the XB/ Sandbostel Prisoner of War Camp, to MILAG Nord the Merchant Seamens Internment Camp and Bremen Farge, the Slave Labour Camp, all of which he was in as a prisoner. The date coincided with the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Milag Nord. Having established contact with me, thanks to Tim´s link, it was decided that Harry´s visit would also include a memorial at the Cimetière St Bris in Villenave d´Ornon, Bordeaux, where both my father and Arthur Freeman are buried. Peter accompanied Harry. Their departure coincided with the ash cloud from Iceland which forced them to cancel their flights and go by ship to Cherbourg and from there drive to Bordeaux.
Harry Callan standing next to Frank Evan's grave in Bordeaux
Harry laid a poppy wreath on my father´s grave with a message I had given Peter: “To my lifetime hero, the father I never knew – Frank William Jacob Evans – from his daughter Frances”. He also placed two crosses in memory of my mother and of Sheilagh Jagoe, both being prison camp survivors. A poppy wreath was also placed on the grave of Arthur Freeman. This ceremony marked the first memorial in honour of my father and Arthur Freeman. On return, Peter immediately sent me a DVD with all the ceremonies that took place during what was called “Hero´s Return – Journey of Remembrance”. I think I can say in all honesty that it is the most moving DVD I have ever watched, and it means so much to me. I couldn´t even breathe as I watched Harry and Peter standing to attention in front of the graves, honouring my father and Arthur Freeman. Their words were well known to me: “They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”.
While Harry and Peter were on their Journey of Remembrance, my husband Walter who was looking out things for the La Cumbre Car Boot Sale, came across a familiar suitcase
with my father´s photograph developing equipment – photography having been his greatest hobby. But inside there was also a cardboard box, slightly smaller than a shoe box, containing letters addressed to my maternal grandmother. Amongst some written by my cousins when they were little girls, there are others .......... letters in the handwriting that is so familiar to me ...... letters written by my mother from Liebenau prison camp in Ravensburg, Germany. The camp that was, and still is, an insane asylum. The asylum where Hitler ordered the death of over 500 inmates, to make room for the prisoners. There are also a few other letters written by ladies in the same camp – Sheilagh Jagoe (fellow passenger of my parents on the “Afric Star” who became my godmother in the camp), a couple from another fellow prisoner, Mrs Whiltshire. Also one or two from Sheilagh´s mother, from England. I had no idea all these letters existed. The discovery left me speechless.
I have read every letter carefully and am in the process of classifying them all. I will be sending Sheilagh´s and Mrs Jagoe´s letters to Sheilagh´s daughter Caroline (whom I met during her and her husband´s visit to Argentina a few years ago), my cousins will receive their own letters. And my mother´s letters have become the most precious treasure I could ever have come across. It was only once they arrived in Liebenau, having left behind all the dreadful jails they went through, that they were allowed to write albeit with no guarantees. Indeed, she desperately asked time and time again whether my grandmother was receiving her letters as Mum was receiving hardly any replies (when I was young she showed me just a handful of letters she received from home but they were so censored that it was almost impossible to make any sense out of what was written). So my mother wrote the allowed number of letters. Her handwriting was almost microscopic so that she could get as much as possible into the twenty-four lines allowed. And she was obviously very careful about the contents. Never did she mention the dark cellars, the poor insane people in those cellars, locked in cells and reaching out to try and grab her, the psychological torture. Never did she complain. Her first letters were full of despair, loneliness and clearly showed how devastated she was at the loss of my father. She even mentioned “putting an end to it all” as “I can´t imagine a life without Frank”. But she could not bear the thought of people pitying her. It was important to keep a stiff upper lip. With time her main concern seems to have been that her parents should not worry about her and she repeatedly said she was all right. In every single letter she asked after the adored fox terrier pup my father had given her. Chips had been left with my grandparents. And so she wrote her twenty-four lines saying how she used the string from the Red Cross parcels to knit any old thing, how she made a little shelf out of a Red Cross box etc. – always trying to keep her hands and mind busy. But being her daughter, I can see the despair behind her brave words.
And then suddenly she discovered that what she had thought was shock, was in fact a baby on the way. The desire to live returned. Hope came back into her life. She began to talk of a possible future with her baby, of the freedom she longed for. She mentioned praying that her baby would have a better fate than she had had. If it was a boy he would have Frank`s full name (Frank William Jacob), if a girl she would be called Frances Winifred Joan matching Frank´s initials. And she started knitting baby clothes from whatever she could lay her hands on. When the Red Cross heard of the baby, they were wonderful in sending her materials to prepare for the birth.
I almost lost her when I was born in the prison camp hospital. The malnutrition and months of horror she had been through took their toll. After 17 hours of labour, I was pulled out with forceps. I was almost two months over-due. From then on, life only revolved around me...... even until her death here in La Cumbre on 15 February 2005, aged 92.
I had thought of copying out paragraphs of her letters – they are so interesting. But they are too private. She would not have wanted me to publish them. They have reinforced what I always felt – that my mother was an exceptionally courageous, kind and loving person. She did not deserve the horrors she went through, but she bore them bravely in her shy, quiet, low key manner. She always said I had to learn to forgive. “I can forgive, but I shall never forget” were often her words and I have to admit I found them difficult to accept.
All these events have taken place in the last two and a half months. A mere coincidence? .... or has all this been sent to me for a purpose? I think I know the answer now.
23 May 2010
(*) Previous reference: “The Story” by Ronnie Briant MBE, April 2004 and subsequent editions of The Bulletin.
The office has just received ten copies of "Quiet Endurance", the book written by Frances Evans MBE, which tells the true story of how she came to be born in a German POW Camp. (The Spanish version will be released late in January 2011).
3 December 2010: