Hate begets war begets hate

A popular Advent theme is “Peace.” In these times of hateful vitriol, I pondered that theme as I read the account of seagoing cowboy Gordon Shull of his time in Gdansk, Poland, in May 1946. And I wonder, how does one defuse hate to keep it from breeding war? And after a war, how does one pacify the hate that lingers?

The destruction World War II survivors had to cope with in Gdansk, Poland, May 1946. Photo credit: Marvin Snell, shipmate of Gordon Shull.

Shull experienced that hate in post-World War II Gdansk. Gdansk had been the German free city of Danzig before the war, repopulated by the Poles at war’s end when most surviving German citizens were expelled in accord with the Potsdam Agreement. Life was rough for the small number of Germans who stayed, as detailed in Shull’s letter from that time:

“[T]he immigrating Poles have brought with them a blind, deep-seated hatred of all Germans . . . [and they] are taking their sweet revenge.

“Put yourself in the shoes of Mary K–, with whom I talked for several hours. Imagine yourself standing helpless by as an invading Russian soldier loots your home, opening trunks, overturning tables, adding your wristwatch to the half-dozen others that already adorn his arm . . . disguising yourself as an old woman in order to evade the sex-hungry soldiers, but sometimes failing because some 80-year-old women were raped, while others who had the misfortune of being young and beautiful were raped as much as 30 times.

“Then, after the Russians have settled down, and after your friends and relatives have left Danzig for uncertain fates in Russia or Germany, imagine yourself at the mercy of people whose moral principles, already reduced by war and its familiar accompaniments, have reached a new low in a boom-town atmosphere. You are now the scapegoat of a people who have suffered at the hands of Germans and Russians. Imagine yourself chased out of your home at the point of a gun by a Pole who allows you to take only that which you can lay your hands on as you leave (no . . . you must leave your camera, your watch, your bicycle, your jewelry) . . . finding a greenhouse or a clubroom or a not-too-badly-ruined dwelling in which to live . . . dragged out of bed at 6:00 AM, every once in a while, by Polish police, and forced to work all day in their headquarters for absolutely nothing . . . getting up at 5:00 each morning so that you can hide from the Poles, and thus go to your job – which, incidentally, pays about half as much as a Pole would get . . . thrown off of streetcars as soon as your identity is discovered . . . having no law whatever to protect you . . . living in perpetual fear, so that when someone knocks on your door, you hold your breath . . . .  All of this and more happened to middle-aged Mary K–. . . .

“Before the war, Mary was a Physics Instructor. A graduate of the University of Danzig, she had done work on the electronics microscope. Now she wields a sledge hammer. Her wage consists of one or two meals, and ten cents a day. That’s about enough to buy two or three loaves of bread on the market. . . .

With so many men killed in the war, women did most of the clean up work. Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman.

“Mary told us that she and many of her friends had opposed the Nazis so much that the Nazis had boycotted their businesses. ‘Because of our opposition,’ she said in pretty good English, ‘we didn’t dream that any harm would come to us after the war. But no . . . you can’t imagine!’ Several times in the course of our conversation she repeated that phrase, covering her head in her hands as if to suppress memories that were too bitter to describe, or even to hold in her mind. Then, with a determined [shake] of her head and a quick clenching of her fist, she would snap out of it.

“. . . Because we knew that she was not begging, and would share with other needy Germans anything we might give her, we made our contribution all the larger, when we left.”

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The Seagoing Cowboys of the Occidental Victory Spend Advent in Limbo

Norm Weber 2006

Norman Weber in 2006 in his home in Ontario, Canada, with memorabilia from his 1946 trip on the SS Occidental Victory to deliver horses to Poland. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

In my last post, we made the acquaintance of Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay, seagoing cowboys on the SS Occidental Victory in 1946. Their ship hit a rock before Thanksgiving off the coast of Finland, tearing open two oil tanks. The vessel was able to make it to Stockholm with its damaged bottom, but the dry docks there were unable to handle the repairs. On Thanksgiving Day, the ship left Sweden and made its way slowly and safely to and through the Kiel Canal, across the rough waters of the North Sea, and into the Weser River to Bremerhaven, Germany.

The Advent season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often seen as a time of waiting, and that is precisely what these cowboys of the Occidental Victory had to do in Germany. Their ship sat in port for over two weeks before pulling into dry dock where she was to stay until the next August. Longing to be home for Christmas, Weber says,

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay wait aboard the SS Occidental Victory in December 1946 for a way home. Courtesy of Norman Weber

“All the seamen except a skeleton crew were put onto other ships. But it soon became quite evident that no one cared much about the cowboys.” So he and “Pop,” as he called Mr. Clay, decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.

“One cold day,” Weber says, “we walked to a bombed out Railway station. We managed to crowd into an already full train and for three cold hours traveled the 35 miles to Bremen. There we boarded a street car, and somehow got around the rubble of what was once a lovely seaport.” They found their way to the UNRRA office where calls were made to Washington, D.C. After several days of anxious waiting, a ship was found to take the cowboys home.

Norm Weber and two German friends

Norm Weber with two of the German children befriended by the Occidental Victory cowboys who fed them on the ship. Courtesy of Norman Weber

In the meantime, young Weber, a German-speaking Mennonite, and the elder John Wesley Clay explored the devastated cities of Bremerhaven and Bremen, making friends along the way. On December 15, the third Sunday of Advent, Clay and three other cowboys (Weber was sick and couldn’t go) attended services of a Methodist church in Bremerhaven. With their church building in ruins, the members met in one of their homes.

Methodis Church remains, Bremerhaven, Germany, 1946

The remains of the Methodist Church in Bremerhaven, Germany, December 1946. Courtesy of Norman Weber

 

 

Clay notes in his trip account,

Before the war the church had more than three hundred members, but there were only fifteen present. A lay preacher held the services. It was the most depressing religious service I have ever attended. The hopeless expression on the faces of the people was more like a funeral service than a regular Sunday morning service. It was bitter cold outside, and the snow was falling thick and fast, and there was no heat in the building. The elderly woman who played the organ could hardly do so with her cold fingers. The lay preacher had lost his wife and children in the air raid. Many members had lost their lives, and many more their homes.

We met one Sunday school teacher who has 25 little children in her class. We gave her twenty-five chocolate bars for their Christmas, which overjoyed her. American bombers had destroyed their church and city. Now we were giving them chocolate bars for their children. We had a feeling more of pain than of joy.

Oh, the horrors of war! May the good Lord spare us from ever seeing its like again.

German WWII ruins

Courtesy of Norman Weber

A fitting prayer for this Advent season.

Next post: Cowboys at Christmas