Tale of forgiveness outshines bitter war

Bill Duncan<br>


For the Capital Press

The closest the Germans got to invading England during World War II was their occupation of the Guernsey Island, a British possession off of France.

The occupation is featured in an excellent BBC television series called "The Enemy at the Door," now available on video. But even more recently, the prize-winning book 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, became a best seller not only in England, but also in the U.S.

I chose the book as my selection for the Sunday Afternoon Book Club. The story is a fictional account of that occupation in which the reader is caught in a web of letters exchanged between the protagonist, popular British author Juliet Ashton, and an array of vivid personalities, each eager to tell their story in letters to her.

Author Mary Ann Shaffer died before the book was published. Her niece, children's book writer Annie Barrows, finished the book, keeping Shaffer's unique style. I had reviewed the book earlier for a newspaper.

After the review was published, I received a telephone call from Pamela Smith of Roseburg, who was 9 years old when she and her 6-year-old brother were evacuated from the island just days before the German invasion and were sent to the mainland of the British Isles for the duration of the war.

I thought a firsthand experience would be a nice touch for the book discussion. The story, Pamela told the book club, was fiction, not fact, even though she agreed the book itself told an authentic story of what went on during the occupation.

She at first was relocated with a Scottish couple, whom she remembers as Uncle Max and Aunt Buffy McIndoe in Charleston, Renfrewshire, Scotland. She has fond memories of this couple and how they cared for her during the separation from her family.

Eventually she was reunited with her mother and other siblings who had fled the island.

After the war, she and her family returned to the island, where she married Fred Smith. The two emigrated to America and started a new life, first in Kansas and later in Roseburg.

During the book club session, one of the points she made was that not all the Germans occupying her homeland were cruel to the townspeople. She tells about returning to the island in 1980 and discovering a cemetery at the edge of the sea where stark white crosses stood in neat rows at the base of a hillside ablaze with the bright blooms of daffodils, blue bells and primroses. Until she examined the names on the crosses, she was unaware that the graves were all of German soldiers, airmen and sailors who were casualties of the war and were buried there by the people of Guernsey.

Pamela said the graves were facing toward Germany in what she called "Facing the Vaterland." The cemetery has been maintained all these years by the people of Guernsey, an act she describes as an act of forgiveness. She said most of the bodies buried there had washed ashore from planes shot down while on bombing raids to England, or from German ships and submarines sunk in the channel.

"I wandered through the well manicured paths absentmindedly reading the German names," she said. "The ages on the crosses startled me. Many were just teenagers -- 16, 17, 18 years old."

She remembers her mother telling her during the war that the enemy was also somebody's son and instructed her: "Don't you ever forget that." She said she thought about that admonition when she saw how young the Germans were that had been buried in that cemetery.

"I hope I never forget her lesson. As I climbed up the steep steps away from the tiny cemetery, I had such pride in my fellow Guernsey brothers and sisters and realized that they had learned to forgive."

Not a bad lesson for all of us in these times.

Bill Duncan can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, OR 97470.

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