A story of courage during WWII

The Accidental Captives:

The Story of Seven Women Alone in Nazi Germany

by Carolyn Gossage

published by Dundurn | March 24, 2012 | Hardcover 

Here's how it all started - back to the beginning:

Carolyn tells here in her own words about how she discovered the story of seven Canadian women who found themselves trapped in Nazi Germany after a passenger ship sailing from New York to Cape Town was attacked and sunk by a German raider in the South Atlantic.

Over twenty years ago in the Metro Toronto Reference Library, I was sifting through the library’s card catalogue researching another project when I stumbled upon Free Trip to Berlin, published in Canada in 1943.

The book’s unusual title immediately caught my attention, and once I had a copy in my hands it was a matter of minutes before I was irrevocably drawn into this extraordinary and fascinating story. Almost certainly this was largely due to the author’s distinctive style. Isabel Russell Guernsey was clearly a woman of exceptional intelligence, wit and charm, whose irrepressible joie de vivre reverberated through the decades  since the publication of her book.

In April 1941, Isabel Guernsey was a passenger on board the Zamzam, an Egyptian liner sailing from New York Harbour to Cape Town, when the ship was attacked and sunk by a German raider in the South Atlantic. The Zamzam’s two hundred passengers were literally fished out of the water by the crew of the raider and transported via a German prison ship to Vichy France. Here the majority of them – as neutral citizens of the United States – were then released, while the remaining passengers were transported to the Third Reich as prisoners of war. Among these were 28 women and children who were citizens of either Great Britain or British Commonwealth countries – including Isabel Guernsey and a number of other Canadians – who were dispatched by train through German-occupied France and zigzagged their way through Nazi Germany before arriving at Liebenau, an internment camp in the vicinity of Lake Constance (the Bodensee), near the Swiss border.

Three months later, seven of the Canadian women who had been passengers on board the Zamzam received permission to leave the camp and travel unescorted to Berlin, where they held high hopes that arrangements for their safe return to Canada could be made within a matter of weeks. Instead, before their exchange for an equal number of German women in Canada was finally realised, they remained stranded in Berlin for the better part of a year.

By the time I closed the covers of Isabel Guernsey’s book, I realised that I had unwittingly fallen under its spell. What an intriguing story and what an incredible journey! I was consumed with curiosity, but soon realised that I was also left with more questions than answers. Isabel’s account concentrated primarily on her recollections of the people she came to know during her stay in Germany, whereas her impressions of the six Canadian women who shared the same experience remained on the periphery. Isabel herself mentions this disparity in her foreword to  Free Trip to Berlin. ‘I regret that my Zamzam companions appear so incidentally in these pages, which is a pity, since each one is a story in herself…This is a story mostly about people – people I met and grew to know in Germany. My hope is simply that they, through me, may shed a little light that hasn’t been shed before.’

I, too, found myself equally disappointed that her companions in adversity were mentioned only in passing. Dozens of beguiling questions had already begun to surface and percolate in the back of my mind. Who were these six other Canadian women who had been thrown together by fate and circumstance as Isabel’s companions on this 1941–42 wartime odyssey that ended with them being marooned in Berlin? Vida Steele from Three Hills, Alberta, Olga Guttormson of Naicam, Saskatchewan, Allison ‘Jamie’ Henderson of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Katharine ‘Kitsi’ Strachan and Doreen Turner from Toronto and Clara Guilding, formerly of Toronto. Why had they chosen to leave the safety of home to risk a four-week Atlantic crossing fraught with uncertainty and danger? How had they reacted – both individually and collectively – to the countless difficulties they encountered on their long and wearisome odyssey? And after spending more than a year in Nazi Germany, initially as civilians detained in a variety of jails, then an internment camp and later as ‘enemy aliens’ at large in Berlin, how had they dealt with the challenges of fending for themselves and organising their lives in the war torn capital of the Third Reich?

In retrospect, it must have been at precisely this moment that I realised that sooner or later I would have to try to find answers to these and other enticing questions in order to record my own expanded version of this long-forgotten and little known World War II episode.
When their ship was sunk from under them in the South Atlantic by the Atlantis in April 1941, there began a series of shared adventures which included 140 Americans – their fellow passengers on board the Zamzam. Ultimately, protected by their neutrality, the Americans were destined for release; however, for the Canadians the journey had barely begun.

Now it would be up to me to attempt to shed even more light on what lay beyond Isabel’s personal perspective. However, it was only four years ago that I began concentrating my efforts on finding answers to the myriad unrelenting questions that had remained with me since my discovery of Free Trip to Berlin more than twenty years earlier. It was now or never!

Since Isabel’s original account had been written long before the final outcome of World War II, as an aspiring journalist she had taken pains to protect the identity of certain individuals she encountered during her time in Berlin. In many cases, she made a point of identifying these people using only their first names. Her intentions were noble, but this inevitably created certain difficulties in terms of further research.

Fortunately, another of her Zamzam companions, missionary nurse Olga Guttormson, had written and published Ships Will Sail Again, which includes her own detailed account of the Canadians’ extended stay in the Third Reich. Although a few of the others left cursory references and reminiscences of their mutual ordeal, without the literary legacy of these two women there would be little or nothing to bear  witness to the relatively brief presence of these Canadian women in Berlin. What they have written – each from her own point of view – presents the reader with a first-hand account of life among the inhabitants of Berlin between September 1941 and June 1942. Events observed, almost seventy years ago, through the eyes of outsiders looking in.

In any case, most of the additional side bars only came to light once I had decided that I would have to cast the net wider by sending out an author’s query to local newspapers across Canada in an attempt to locate survivors or relatives of those who had been passengers on board the ill-fated Zamzam. The response to this was nothing short of overwhelming, and provided me with invaluable new information and insights from a variety of sources across Canada, and also the United States. Among these were the colourful revelations found in the letters of Kathleen Levitt, a young British war-guest who had wisely decided to remain in the Liebenau internment camp with her two young children, Peter and Wendy, rather than risk the perils of accompanying her Canadian friends to Berlin. Then, too, there were the exhilarating first-hand reports and photographs of two American journalists, David Scherman and Charles Murphy, both of whom had been released in Biarritz with the other American citizens after an extended five-week ordeal aboard the German prison ship Dresden as involuntary guests of the Third Reich.

As for the seven Canadian women in Berlin who had been unwilling participants in this wartime drama, their experiences and observations, hopes and frustrations struck me – even for those exceptional times – as something unique and extraordinary. Each had been caught up unbidden and unexpectedly in a war in which they became reluctant pawns in a diplomatic game of cat-and-mouse.

Once dispatched to Hitler’s stronghold, the seven Canadian Zamzamers also became, by default, an unrecognised and inconsequential addition to Berlin’s population, sharing the same cares and anxieties, withstanding the same miseries and misfortunes while, at the same time, remaining outsiders in an alien place. By the same token, as ‘enemy’ foreigners caught up in unfamiliar surroundings and unusual circumstances, each had the benefit of her own unique perspectives and personal insights. And the more of these I discovered, the more fascinated I became as the pieces of the story of this incredible journey gradually fell into place. ■

Ethel and P.G. Wodehouse, known to his friends
as ‘Plum’ and to his readers as the creator of Bertie
Wooster and Jeeves.

1 comment:

  1. Doreen Turner was my Grandmother, I have a diary that she kept of her time on the Zam Zam maybe one day I'll have it published!