30 January 2017

Holzminden, Germany 2013

This is a re-write of an earlier Nov 2013 post elsewhere.

A German, if asked, might know Holzminden as a pretty little town on the Weser River in Lower Saxony. The name might have an entirely different context for an Englishman, an Australian, a Canadian, and others. Today's town seems to function without conscious memory of its own history a "mere" century ago.

We were looking for this:

Ninety-nine years ago this is where my father Lt. Hector Dougall and his colleagues in Holzminden Prisoner of War Camp received the news of Armistice Day (more on Hector's escapades here and here). The camp inmates in 1917-1918 were captured Allied officers with some enlisted men as orderlies. In 2013 when we asked a few residents of the town about the old camp buildings and their First World War role, they were bewildered; "shared memory" seemed barely to encompass the Second World War. The daring (and later celebrated) wartime tunnel escape of 1918 in the prison in their midst was no longer on this generation's radar.

The buildings that housed the prisoners were constructed as army barracks in 1913 and still exist today, somewhere above the town, as part of a German military base. Holzminden was deemed a punishment camp for rebellious prisoners, repetitively described as the "most notorious" of First World War prison camps the German Black Hole, as Hanson mentions.[1] Its notoriety was due to the strictest of controls and the reputation of the hated, brutal, temperamental Kommandant: Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer.
Well, we didn't mention any of that to the locals. A quiet and overcast day, we wandered the town a bit then had lunch at a river pub.

Asking directions elicited mostly confusion; the language barrier had something to do with it. The town map didn't help. Ill-prepared for this brief opportunity, we had no photo(s) to show anyone we asked. We did know the buildings had been on the outskirts of town. When the Kaiser's defeat looked likely, The prisoners occasionally had passes to visit the town to buy or scrounge food, although by the fall of 1918 the townsfolk were hungry and anarchic.

Sadly, we never did locate the actual buildings. Chalk a disappointing experience up to not enough advance preparation and a provisional itinerary with deadlines.

Later we learned the buildings look like this today, not open to casual visitors!

Maybe we are all guilty of some collective memory deficit.

Later in 2013, the lengthy project called Faces of Holzminden gave birth to the Random House (Australia) publication The Real Great Escape.[2] No, it's not Steve McQueen and the Second World War. Some of Dougall's wartime-diary excerpts appear in the book.

[1] Neil Hanson, Escape from Germany (London: Doubleday, 2011), 32.
[2] Jacqueline Cook, The Real Great Escape (North Sydney: Random House Australia, 2013).

© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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