Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 12 :
Even in Words
by John Hamilton
If war can be justly described as long stretches of acute boredom punctuated by moments of intense excitement, it makes it easy to draw a comparable picture of P.o.W. life. The long stretches of boredom are there, the moments of intense excitement are missing. In the place of the latter are moments of a somewhat milder intensity when we fetch into play our attempts to wage war on the former - amateur theatricals, social evenings, musical concerts, sports, and a variety of other diversions and amusements. And fitting somewhere in the ranks of those fighting the good fight against the weary hours is the 'Stalag 383 Talks and Debates Circle.' This body came into being just after the opening of the camp to help fill what was then a heavy gap in our social and cultural lives.
It hardly had a propitious birth. Just sheer enthusiasm carried it over those early and difficult days when meeting places were hard to get and cold and cheerless when we did get them. When speakers were much more of a gamble in respect of their ability to entertain a few hundred disillusioned men than their selection is now, when we have experience to guide us. When we never knew whether we were to be addressed by a voice that sounded as though it was endeavouring to establish direct touch with its nearest and dearest in faraway lands, or at the other extreme a voice which sounded as if its chastened possessor was imparting strictly confidential information to the family doctor. Before very long, however, the proverbial sorting of the wheat from the chaff began, and with the aid of a few men who had had some small experience of speaking in public, and who gladly and unselfishly placed their few talents and time at the disposal of our first committee, a gradual improvement set in. With their help that first, and probably best committee, contrived a mixture of sugar and sand that slowly but surely won public favour, and eventually found a permanent place in the affection of many of our 5,000 camp members.
At the end of the first six months the picture, if by no means perfect, was certainly more pleasing. By then we had graduated from unpleasant meeting places and haphazard meetings to the dignity of a twice a week fixture in our most palatial camp theatre 'K.2.' There on Tuesday evenings we would listen to our lecturers. On Friday evenings we would not only listen but often join in when our debaters, with the portentous solemnity of well girthed alder-men, put their cases forward. These arrangements have suffered but little change to date. We still meet twice a week but Sunday has been substituted for Tuesday, and one of the two meetings is held in our other very comfortable camp theatre, the 'Ofladium.'
The last two years have therefore thrown a multitude of subjects and speakers into public view, and it is a personal opinion that some small benefit has been extracted by many camp members who have had that refreshing thing, a new point of view, applied to many problems and subjects on which they have previously held preconceived and possibly erroneous ideas. Granting that the value of the circle as applied to camp members as a whole is a transient one, a filling in of time which might possibly be occupied in brooding on mainly imaginary hardships, there is little doubt that in some cases it has provided direct information for some individuals which will prove of value in their future.
As to the actual activities of the circle they have more or less run true to form with the main idea that underlay the creation of the first debating group the world ever saw. Each one created since has resolved to be different, and eventually each one has followed the recognized pattern. In our case we too determined to be different, but even with the advantage of unusual circumstances and surroundings it wasn't long before we were well into the old hackneyed subjects. We were only save from debating 'Capital Punishment should be abolished' by the passionate pleading of one committee member who had already met it five times in a short and obviously misspent life.
However the privilege of isolation has added a new zest to the discussion of these other more or less sedate and recognized vehicles for debate - Politics, religion, woman's rights, social reform, legalized prostitution, &c., &c. - as with no Mrs. Grundyish criticisms to contend with and no old and stupid conventions to outrage, many phrases and ideas are voiced that even the bright young things of the 1920's might have fought shy of. Rigid we are indeed in our insistence that none of the so-called 'naughty' words shall be voiced in public, but we have no censor to lay down rules as to what lengths implication can go to. In the case of the one or two unusually hearty adjectives that have so far slipped through our moral guard, they have been regarded less as solecisms than the product of moments of mental excitement.
So far our meetings have produced funny moments, happy moments, thinking moments; and numerous are the debates that have started in 'K.2.' and where many camp huts are concerned have been abandoned some months later with a no decision result. You who lack the P.o.W. atmosphere would doubtless be surprised to learn that a subject can be so dissected as to provide material for discussion for undreamt periods of time. At the cost of freedom we have discovered a trade secret that had previously been jealously guarded by members of Royal Commissions.
He would be a carping critic who would quarrel with our debaters on the grounds that theirs is bludgeon work rather than rapier play. True it is we are not overblessed with Burkes, Sheridans or Pitts, but we do have more than our share of counterparts to Strube's little man. And as we by no means totally lack the skilful thrust we enjoy it all the more on its comparatively rare appearances. All in all our speakers provide a mixed diet with common sense predominating, and so far I doubt if any trace could be found of the mental stagnation that is popularly supposed to set in with close or confined living. It is only because I am unwilling to rouse what could be unkind memories to the few that I refrain from reminiscing on many items of repartee and interjection that were well worthy of a Wilkes or a Wilde.
It may possibly be of some small interest to others to learn what results some of our debates provided. By large majorities we voted for 'War is inevitable,' 'Public schools should be open to all,' 'Modern art is decadent,' 'Women's place is in the home,' 'The Modern pulpit is a dying force,' 'The Beveridge Plan' and possibly our greatest revolt was against the motion that 'Public houses in England should be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.' Such a sacrilegious idea justly received the fate it deserved.
By smaller majorities we also decided that 'Prostitution should be legalized in the British Isles,' 'The freedom of the British Press is a myth,' and in discussing the affairs of 'Cabbages and Kings' we also reached other decisions too numerous to mention. These decisions can hardly be claimed as interesting sidelines produced by unusual circumstances. Rather do I think them representative of the popular reaction to those matters.
Possibly it is on our talks that we really spread ourselves. Lecturers from all ranks of life rise in all their glory, and so far a multitude of subjects have been discussed ranging from 'The romance of refuse' to 'Civilization is at the Crossroads.' Taxi drivers, New Guinea Patrol Officers, experts on Russia, Art critics, professional hoboes, all these have at various times contributed magnificently to our pleasant evenings. I shall regard it as a personal grievance if I have to bid farewell to this life without hearing, at first hand, the experience of a Tibetian Llama. If the twang of the long bow does resound once or twice what matter that. We who are busy planning our P.o.W. reminiscences for the enlightenment of our friends in the 'local' cannot object to receiving such practical demonstrations that may be put to future profit.
The lecture that has so far created the greatest interest was one entitled 'Intelligent people must abandon Chritianity.' Battle was joined a few days before the lecture on the appearance of the poster advertising it. The camp religionists showed strong opposition to the whole thing, but truth compels me to state that the lecture itself had a great reception. Not that we were, as a community, godless. Rather the reverse. But tolerance to all speakers and complete freedom of speech were laws that we always observed. Freedom of speech was a principle that caused a great deal of commotion before it could be established. Many people had argued that certain subjects should be closed to public discussion at all times. On a vote being taken on the matter, a very large majority decided that complete freedom of speech was desirable. No doubt our surroundings influenced the vote. There was undoubtedly a strong attraction in living in one of the few places in the then Greater, now Lesser, Reich, were such a practice could be observed without detriment to one's future health.
Under the heading 'Know your Empire' a series of lectures were given that were outstanding for their clarity and presentation. Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African P.o.W.s all formed committees whose particular task it was to concoct a talk on their country that would interest and entertain listeners. They all succeeded so well that in some cases repeat talks had to be given and literally hundreds of questions answered after each meeting. There seems little doubt that many seeds of emigration have been sown in Hohenfels which will be harvested many miles away from it.
Jock Kane, the famous hun-hater and Stalin-stalwart, gives a series of war reviews whose value is hard to estimate. Even if they are, as some critics claim, just pep talks, the popular view is that we can't get enough of them. Naturally they are hardly advertised as war reviews, but are billed under such innocuous and misleading titles as 'Summer Sports' to, we hope, the confusion of those of our captors who walk around inside the camp. How really delightful to sit in the 'Ofladium' and hear Jock air his views on German military might. Never have hosts been so severely castigated, and never have guests revelled in such unseemly mirth during the operation.
Finally a tribute to the 'old and popular.' Those speakers who could always be relied on for a good display and whose efforts have done much to making the circle the success it is. If I merely mention such names as Edgar, Morten, Lindsay, Macmasters, Mallory, Ross, it is not because they are all. The fact is so many deserve recognition that space will not permit of their mention. For the popular and efficient secretary, Arthur Hill, mere mention is not enough. The energy he has expended in the cause of the 'T. & D. Circle' is as vast as the success that has crowned his efforts.
The days will come when P.o.W. life will be a memory. A vague memory that, dimmed and softened by time, will tend to reflect the pleasanter aspects of an unpleasant mode of living. Then we will surely find satisfaction in thinking of the efforts we made to keep sweet the 'uses of adversity.' Then indeed will we surely realize that concerts, sports, social evenings and all our other diversions were more and meant more than what appeared on the surface. For in them we have found some compensation and some measure of forgetfulness. Every second they lasted was a second less for brooding on the problem of 'When ---.' All these things helped, and the 'T. & D. Circle' also helped when they put into practice that precept of Euripides which says 'Even in words there is a pleasure, when they bring forgetfulness of present woes.'
Music : Penselvania 65000