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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Education, Recreation, and Welfare

page 27

Education, Recreation, and Welfare

THE SCHEME for advancing the education of prisoners of war was first set on foot in the summer of 1941. It could function only through the co-operation of a number of parties— educational bodies, the International Red Cross, and the German authorities. The last gave it a qualified blessing: they censored books to a minor extent and prohibited the study of European history to any date later than 1914. Ninety-four different bodies, from bee-keepers and chiropodists to organists and swimming instructors, and twelve universities* held examinations in the camps; nearly the full range of academic courses could be studied, including the early stages of a medical course. The scheme had originated partly in parents’ anxieties about the loss of opportunities their sons suffered in prison camps, partly in the frustration of prisoners’ own ambitions. Many men also were aware of the chance offered them of cultivating interests or talents previously foregone for lack of time or money; some wished to acquire knowledge for its own sake. All courses and books were provided free to prisoners of war and examination fees were waived, costs being borne by their respective governments.

Officers had the best opportunity for study. But at a typical stalag it was possible to maintain a ‘school’, affiliated to the University of London, with a roll of 5000 students, out of the 8000 in the camp, studying different subjects from technical and trade training to philosophy, theology, and history. The school kept open from 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. and made the maximum use of its five classrooms. The head of this school was the graduate of an English university, and he had a staff of about forty: prisoners with special qualifications gave their time and services with the utmost unselfishness. Books were sent out through the International Red Cross from a specially established section of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Each prisoner’s needs were considered individually in the light of his educational standard and his knowledge of his subject, and books were prescribed accordingly; many prisoners followed individual courses of study independently of the camp ‘school’. The degree of enthusiasm and application of prisoner-students is shown by the fact that about three-quarters of those who sat examinations passed them, in spite of the great material hardships of prison life, the long time mails took in transit between Britain and the camps, and the distraction of working in a crowded atmosphere; spiritual obstacles had also to be overcome, particularly the peculiar mental lassitude which afflicts the prisoner in spite of all his resolutions. Examining bodies were scrupulous not to lower their standards for the special benefit of prisoners of war.

The great solace of camp life was sport. All sorts of competitive games were played, and although space limitations sometimes made football and cricket impossible, a basketball or deck-tennis court could usually be established even on a pocket-handkerchief ground. The tanks dug in many camps to hold water for fire-fighting in the event of air raids made excellent swimming baths in summer, and in winter were used for skating rinks on which ice hockey could also be played. In a hospital for the disabled, swimming sports were held for the blind, ‘comrades guiding them along the course by calling out their names as they swam’. The societies of the Red Cross and St. John, working through the International Red Cross at Geneva, supplied most materials for sports and games, and the Danish and Swedish YMCAs also gave generous and valued help.

* The University of New Zealand conducted examinations in German prison camps through the University of London.

page 28 In kommandos the main recreations were card-playing, reading, and talk. Lack of space in the compounds where prisoners were confined when not at work, and the restriction of their leisure to Sundays, curtailed more vigorous pastimes.

Many camp theatres flourished and absorbed the energies of the talented. Not only were plays put on but the players appeared dressed in something approximating the appropriate costumes, for which purpose uniforms were dyed, blankets turned into men’s suits, and a thousand and one odd rags and pieces of wrapping paper and cardboard changed into men’s and women’s clothes of unimpeachable smartness. Stage sets, as original and complete as any used in a London theatre, were designed and made in the camps, often from the scantiest of materials. The German authorities were usually very sympathetic to dramatic enterprise, and it was sometimes possible for them to hire costumes from civilian agencies on the prisoners’ behalf. The high quality of the performances of plays, revues, and musical shows made these among the most satisfying of prison-camp activities, both for the actors and others who contributed to the productions and for their audiences.

In stalags periodicals flourished, usually in the form of wall newspapers. The Germans printed and sponsored a weekly paper, The Camp, for prisoners of war, to which prisoners contributed, but which had more than a faint flavour of propaganda. In some areas prisoners’ news-sheets were published in the stalag expressly to keep men in kommandos in touch with what was going on. One such periodical, The Pow Wow, dealt with questions of distribution of Red Cross parcels, administrative details, personal items, and also included messages from chaplains of the different denominations.

The Germans’ attitude to chaplains and doctors was curious. They were recognised as protected personnel, but they were not always encouraged to carry on their work. The Germans were reluctant to place prisoner-of-war medical officers in charge of camp infirmaries, because they thought they were too ready to excuse men from work. This was a soundly-based suspicion: most medical officers in captivity prevented as many men working as they reasonably could. Chaplains also were regarded to some extent as trouble-makers—for the Germans—and at first they were not allowed to visit kommandos to conduct services and meet the men. In some camps, but not in all, they were not allowed to preach without a German interpreter being present. In captivity personal problems weighed on men more heavily than in ordinary life, and the chaplains in prison camps did work of the highest value.

Letters, always important to men away from their homes, were the focus of many men’s thoughts. Mail came quickly and regularly from the United Kingdom (many people in Britain wrote to prisoners of war who were strangers to them), but letters from New Zealand were slow in transit.* Prisoners were allowed to send home a card and a letter every week. Delays in censorship were a constant complaint.

* Except for part of 1944 when letters from New Zealand took less than two months to arrive. Black and white sketch of Red cross packet