October 7, 2010 / 10:10 AM / 7 years ago

German POW reunites with sister after 80 years

<p>Former German soldier Richard Michalek, 85, discusses his experiences as a German prisoner of war (POW) at his home near Thornhill in southern Scotland October 4, 2010. Thousands of German POWs settled in Britain after World War Two, helping the two countries put the past behind them, but their fate has largely been forgotten today. REUTERS/Dave Graham</p>

DUMFRIES, Scotland (Reuters Life!) - When Heinz Roestel was separated from his younger sister Edith aged six, he little thought it would be nearly 80 years before he saw her again.

Nor did the German ex-soldier expect that when he did, he would be lying in a Scottish hospital bed using an interpreter to communicate because he had forgotten his native tongue.

Parted when their mother died, Heinz gradually lost all contact with Edith after he joined the Wehrmacht as a teenager, was captured in the Netherlands and finally ended up in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in Scotland in 1945.

Originally from Hindenburg -- now Zabrze in southern Poland -- Roestel is one of thousands of POWs who stayed in Britain after the war because they fell in love, found work or lost their homes when Germany’s eastern border was shifted west.

Historians say the integration of the POWs, who included Manchester City goalkeeping legend Bert Trautmann, helped heal the wounds of the war and pave the way for closer ties with continental Europe. Yet their fate has often been overlooked.

Roestel, 85, settled in southern Scotland and had given up hope of seeing Edith again by the time she tracked him down to the village of Penpont this summer. Shortly before she came over from Germany, he suffered a stroke but he still recognized her.

“She looked like my mother,” Roestel said from his hospital bed in Dumfries. “She was very pleased to see me. When you’ve not seen someone for 80 years, you’d be the same.”

“I didn’t have a place to stay in Germany back then,” added Roestel, whose father died during the war. “I would have had to go back to the Russian sector, so I decided to remain here.”

Like several other Germans still living in Dumfriesshire, Roestel was interned in the camp at Carronbridge near Thornhill where hundreds of prisoners of war and displaced persons from war-torn Europe passed through by the time it closed in 1948.

When not working the surrounding farmland, the German POWs put on plays, staged sporting events and published a camp newspaper in which they praised the landscape, mused on whether Scots really were tight-fisted -- and bemoaned the weather.

SUPPORTING THE GERMANS

At first the British were skeptical about having large columns of German ex-soldiers marching around the countryside.

Polls cited in “German migrants in post-war Britain: an enemy embrace,” a book by Inge Weber-Newth and Johannes-Dieter Steinert, showed nearly 60 percent of the public held a negative view of Germans in April 1946. Yet the antipathy faded and by the following summer, the figure had fallen to 20 percent.

Around Thornhill, locals developed a bond with the Germans, a number of whom, like Roestel, married women from the area.

“They used to have football matches and Thornhill turned out to support the Jerry team,” said local Margaret Marchbank, 76.

The experience of living and working with the Germans helped many in Britain to put the war behind them, said Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum. But not much attention has been paid to what happened to the POWs, he added.

<p>Local Margaret Marchbank, 76, holds a copy of "Unsere Welt" (Our World), a newspaper produced by German prisoners of war during their internment at Carronbridge camp near the southern Scottish town of Thornhill at the end of World War Two, at her home in Thornhill, in southern Scotland October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Dave Graham</p>

“The entire POW experience for the British tended to revolve around Colditz and ‘The Great Escape,'” said Charman. “I think many young people in this country would be surprised to learn there were German POWs living here at all.”

Some 400,000 German POWs were held in Britain in the peak phase in 1946, when they accounted for around a quarter of the agricultural workforce, said Weber-Newth, an expert on postwar German migration at London Metropolitan University.

“They contributed greatly to the British economy,” she said. “And in a way they were early pioneers of the European Union.”

“TRUMAN‘S SS”

Richard Michalek, 85, said the hospitality of farmers in the Scottish Highlands helped to convince him to stay -- but not before he had had to travel across half the globe as a POW.

Captured by U.S. forces in Normandy aged 19, Michalek was transported to England, then across the Atlantic where he worked in cotton fields in Oklahoma decked out in black clothes.

“They called us the Truman SS,” he said, referring to U.S. President Harry Truman and the black-clad elite Nazi troops.

In time, his detail moved westwards and were shipped back to Britain via the Panama Canal, the former woodcutter said. Billeted in the Highlands, he and other POWs came face to face with an officer wearing a kilt -- and burst out laughing.

“I’d never seen a man with a skirt on,” said Michalek.

The POWS were then made to stand in the cold for hours.

In the end, about 15,000 Germans stayed, said Weber-Newth. Some, like Roestel, never looked back -- to the point that he had forgotten so much German when his sister Edith found him that he had to talk to her in English through a son-in-law.

“After you got married you had to start speaking Scottish to survive: you forgot most of the bloody German. I never went back,” said Roestel, who tended cattle in the hills around Thornhill before retiring in 1990, just as Germany reunified.

Others like Georg Kotzyba, an 84-year-old great-grandfather from Dumfries, have retained close links to Germany despite spending nearly all of his adult life in Scotland.

“I was a soldier for six months and that was me finished. But I usually go back every year,” said Kotzyba, who said he was lucky despite spending time in 18 POW camps. “When I see what happened to the POWs in Russia, there’s no comparison,” he said.

A sense of national identity has remained strong among POWs, with many, like Kotzyba and Michalek, keeping a German passport.

“I support Scotland when they’re playing another team,” said Kotzyba with a laugh. “Except for when it’s Germany.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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