Living the horror that was Buchenwald
By Andrew Wright
When Edward Carter-Edwards took a railway spike and a piece of barbed wire from a historical landmark, they were not souvenirs or keepsakes. For him, they represented something most would soon rather forget. Nevertheless, today, these two items are dear to him.
On June 7 1944, the day after D-Day, Edward Carter-Edwards, a Canadian wireless-operator and air gunner, was shot down over France. After evading German forces on the ground he would receive help from a young French couple who were members of the French underground. They provided him with a French passport and a contact that was to safely transport him and other airman to neutral Spain. Instead, Carter-Edwards was betrayed by this contact, and handed over to the German Gestapo. He was then taken to Fresnes prison near Paris where he would first witness the cruelty of the Gestapo.
“We could hear the cries and the agony of the people being tortured,” he said.
After five weeks of imprisonment, he and 164 allied airmen would be loaded into railway cars and travel for five days to Buchenwald concentration camp. It was then that he would first pass over that railway spike.
When they arrived they were forced out of the railway car into a mob of Gestapo.
“If you had the presence of mind, you’d stay in the middle of this mob,” Carter-Edwards recalled, “because the guys on the outside were getting bit by the dogs and slashed by these whips.”
As he approached he saw the crematoriums. He saw the black smoke pouring out of them, and he could smell the burning corpses. Upon entering the camp he would get his first glimpse at what he would soon endure. “Walking skeletons” is how he describes the men and boys in the great square in front of Buchenwald.
For five months Edward Carter-Edwards would endure the evil that was the Nazi regime first hand. They would be starved, beaten and witness to death at every turn. His survival he says, is owed to the solidarity between him and the other airmen.
“Don’t give up,” they would tell each other.
Others did not fare so well. The electrified barbed wire that surrounded the camp, the same barbed wire he would later collect, offered an end to the agony that was life inside Buchenwald.
“People were throwing themselves into it everyday because they couldn’t hack it anymore,” he said.
Despite his strength, Edward Carter-Edwards would soon fall ill. He would be placed in the infirmary where those too sick to work would be killed. It was there that a secret organization operating in Buchenwald would come to his aid. Moving him around the building, they ensured his sickness would not be discovered.
“If they saw you (sick), they would inject something into your heart and kill you.”
Miraculously, as the airmen were slated for execution, a message was somehow sent out to a local air drone. A German air force officer arrived at Buchenwald under the pretence that he was to inspect a bombing site on Buchenwald grounds. An American who spoke German, saluted him and asked for his help.
Soon after, In November of 1944, German air force personnel extracted him and the other airmen from Buchenwald and transported them to an air force POW camp.
“The German air force,” he said in amazement, “who are our enemies in combat but still comrades in arms, physically took us out of Buchenwald and saved us.”
Nearing the end of his talk on Remembrance Day at Centennial’s Story Arts Centre, with students, faculty, friends and family, he pulled those two precious items out of his bag, holding them in each hand.
“I say to kids, if you want to hold it,” he said, his voice shaking, “this is Buchenwald, something you will never ever experience. And if you listen to it, you might hear the cries and groans and agony of the people who were tortured there.”
Then raising the railway spike, he continued.
“I tell them, this spike, held the tracks of a railroad car that brought me to Buchenwald in August 1944. This spike held the tracks of the car that took me out in December 1944.”
With his eyes welling with tears he pressed on.
“This spike held the tracks of the cars that (brought) 56,000 people to Buchenwald who will never (come back) because they went up that chimney.”
Member of Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service remembers the past and speaks to future
By Raquel Russell
“We don’t want another war like that, with what they have today, we’d be finished.” A veteran of the Second World War had potent words for students at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre (SAC) about warfare and what leads to it.
On November 11, Ronnie Egan, spoke about her experiences as a member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WREN), having served from 1943 until the end of the war. It was a light atmosphere in the SAC library as Egan shared stories of her responsibilities for 200 WRENs and drilling male soldiers.
“I drilled the men also. They took it.”
Egan was asked if they were as good as the women.
“No,” she responded to a chuckling crowd. “I trained the women better.”
Even with the light moments, Egan spoke about past and present warfare with an urgent tone.
“The problem is,” she said, “we don’t talk enough.”
Egan would mention speaking with a young man who did not know much, if anything, about the Second World War. For her, encounters like that make remembering even more important.
Egan enlisted when she was 19 years old and was posted to Halifax at the HMCS Stadacona. She would become one of four WRENs working with the Mechanical Training Engineers office. Egan would also directly observe the Halifax riots and looting of May 8, 1945, VE day in Europe; playing a role in preventing destruction and gathering WRENs back to the
“It was bad,” Egan said. “We tried to keep the girls in the barracks and all that…but some got out. I was sent out to get them. I had a driver and we had the car. As I saw WRENs, in the car they went, and I picked them out of the street.”
For some reason she and another WREN happened to go into a Zellers department store.
“Lo and behold about three sailors came about and they were really up with alcohol. They were throwing to burn the whole place down and I said, ‘Over my dead body you’ll touch us.’ So anyhow, I talked them out of burning Halifax down.”
When the host, Centennial journalism faculty Ted Barris, said she had saved the Zellers store, Egan agreed.
“Yeah, I saved the Zellers store.”
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