Voices from the other side

Marie Kuhn's secret record of her conversations with Nazi prisoners of war has surfaced after 50 years. Marie Woolf met her

"THAT was the terrible thing. You went into this place and there were all these young men from Europe bashed to pieces, and it was so depressing. That's why I started to write it down. I had to relieve my feelings."

The war diary of Marie Kuhn, a German exile of part-Jewish descent, records the details of her daily visits to St Hugh's Head Injuries Hospital, Oxford, where critically injured allied and enemy wounded lay side by side during 1944 and 1945. The British Red Cross had asked her to interpret during medicals. But she did far more. She offered comfort and reassurance to suffering, bewildered young men, lending German books, baking cakes, writing to their families and preparing small items of familiar food.

Most of all she talked to them.

Her diary, which she kept secret for 50 years, reveals her attempts to unravel the Nazi beliefs of the soldiers (many still teenagers) and prepare them for life in occupied Germany. Gently, she revealed to them the worst excesses of Hitler's regime, including the discovery of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and subverted myths about Hitler and the Nazi regime.

"The majority of the people had been completely taken in by Hitler. One of the soldiers, who was very educated, said 'I realise that things in the Party were bad but the Fuhrer was a wonderful man.' They were all homesick for their families and at the back of them was their country blown to pieces. They didn't even know where their families were. It was such chaos, complete chaos."

Marie Kuhn, now 85, arrived in England in 1933 after her half-Jewish husband was dismissed from his university post and thrown out of Germany. He was the physicist Heinrich Kuhn, who, once in England, was swiftly enrolled in the allies' atomic project. She never learned what her husband's war work entailed, and he never saw her diary. The Imperial War Museum learned of its existence when interviewing her husband about his war experience. Mrs Kuhn had believed it "of no importance".

"It was something so private that I didn't show it. What shocks me now is that everyone is so interested," said Mrs Kuhn. "It was written without a thought."

Many of the soldiers she talked to did not live to see Germany at peace. Willi, the 27-year-old soldier she describes in this extract as "my best POW", died of his wounds three years after leaving hospital.

Ernst - who refused to co-operate with the nurses until Mrs Kuhn rebuked him - did not make it that far. But there were happier stories. Gabriel, a young Slovenian peasant in the German army, learned to walk despite being paralysed in one side from severe shrapnel wounds. Mrs Kuhn visited him after the war and wrote until his death.

German-Jewish refugees who had settled in Oxford ostracised Mrs Kuhn for working with the German soldiers, even though her family, too, was a victim of the Nazi's anti-Semitism. One won't speak to her to this day.

"I fully understand, because she had lost her family in the Holocaust," said Mrs Kuhn, who lives in the same terrace house from which she cycled to the hospital.

"She still hasn't forgiven me and looks the other way when we see each other on the street. My work was purely humanitarian. It was not political or religious."

The British wounded tended to be more sympathetic, and Mrs Kuhn was touched by the camaraderie she witnessed. She quotes Willi, whose life had been saved by a British brigadier: "It makes no sense, does it?"

29 June 1944

I was asked by the Red Cross to visit the Head Injury Hospital in Oxford to talk German to a German prisoner of war.

I found a 20-year-old, fairly well educated boy from near Bochum, who had only 12 days ago been captured in the big battle in Normandy. He was wounded in the head, could not see in his left eye and had 300 grenade splinters in his legs.

There he lay, side-by-side with the men he had fought a few days ago, overcome by all the kindness he received from doctors and nurses and the other patients. He kept saying, "I can't understand it all; all these people could be my friends," and the Englishman next to him said: "I like this German, he is my pal."

28 September

Went to see the German paratroop officer. His name is Walter B, aged 25, from Dresden. He is good and fine-looking, a clear forehead, intelligent eyes, handsome. Cultured speech and manners. I began to talk about Germany, the war etc, the Nazis. He still gives Germany a chance to win the war; he believes in "Nationalsozialismus" although he condemns the murder and persecution of Jews and others; he thinks that Nat S can never be eradicated from German youth.

7 October

Walter B had thought much about our last conversation - at first wondering whether I was not after all one of the officials in disguise, trying to probe and get information. But afterwards believing my assurance that I was not. Told me he entered the Hitler youth when 14, went to boarding school until he was 19. Then war broke out, he became a soldier. He realises that his upbringing was solely on Nat S lines, that he never heard or read anything but controlled propaganda etc. He says he now reads as much as he can - I brought him some, also a copy of the Times.

In argument he always brings the well-known Nazi statements about the Jews: that they were in overwhelming power in key positions and "don't leave any room for the German people" - about the cruelties and crimes committed: "that in every revolutionary movement irregularities will occur" etc.

15 October

Visit to Walter B, disappointing for me to see how hard it is even for a man of his age and education to begin even to shake off all the Nazi propaganda and ideas about Hitler's true personality. To W he is still the noble creature, filled with high idealism working for Germany's good - a "widely read cultured man" (Hitler!) who has done a great deal for the arts and education(!). And then this same WB is conscious that there is a lot that has been withheld from him and is honestly willing to learn the truth. Apparently I could not hide my feelings; he asked quite unhappily, "What's the matter? You are completely changed." Then, as I tried to deny that I was angry, just disappointed, he said sadly, "I noticed straightaway, don't do this to me, don't stop coming. I can't be a National Socialist one day and the next day not be."

23 February 1945

Heard of a POW just arrived and searched for him. His name is Willi H, age 27 from Bruchsal. Wounded in his legs and back in the Reichswald Forest on Febr. 13th. He sounds completely disillusioned - says there was simply "nothing left" in Germany.

25 February

Willi H told me his sad tale: his brother was killed on the eastern front, aged 18; his father was killed in a ghastly accident, swallowed up by sand-filling machine and suffocated. His wife died in November, aged 24, scarlet fever with contracted pneumonia. His mother, according to the last Nov. message he received, so seriously ill that he cannot believe she is still alive. His own little home, near Stettin, presumably in Russian hands now. He is very surprised, almost unbelieving the perfect treatment he gets, specialist doctors, nurses etc. Told him that Hitler today had again told the people how often in history an unexpected miracle had saved the country. H remarked bitterly, "Oh yes, the great miracle weapon, we've been waiting for that for ages!"

26 February

I told H of now revealed horrors committed in Poland, Lublin gas-chambers etc. He said he had never heard of such a thing, did not think that others had either. Was visibly shaken.

28 Febraury

Willi H asked for news of the war (closing in on Cologne, street-fighting in Breslau, heavy day and night raids on almost every big German city - Berlin biggest day raid etc.) Showed him pictures, some of Norwegian refugees - he is beginning to realise what misery this war has brought over the world.

7 March

H very low, he had had an operation yesterday, when they removed a piece of metal from his back. Gave him the latest news: Cologne in allied hands, Stettin (of great interest to him) under Russian fire. We spoke of the Russian cruelties towards German civilians, even women and children; he denies that German soldiers behaved likewise when in Russia.

12 March

Was rung by the Red Cross, many new cases have come in. In S1 Adolf S, aged 21, still very dazed but pleased to have me come, and Wilhelm G from Hamburg, 39, father of 4 children. He had an operation and was very ill and sick and cried a lot, "Oh, my poor Germany. Don't make me weak. We must not give in, we must not surrender."

13 March

Saw Adolf S, got him some matches and cake, talked to him - he is still a bit dazed and can't see on account of his head wound.

In the same ward Wilh. G better today, apologising for "rude" behaviour yesterday, when coming round from the operation! He is a convinced Nazi, not in a fanatic way but like spellbound. We had some political talks, I tried not to "quarrel" but he can't see things at all yet.

14 March

Talked to Adolf, a nice boy. We spoke of some of the crimes committed by Germany all over Europe; he seemed sincerely ignorant about any of these things and was quite frankly shocked. He still can't read, can hardly see, has a wound at the back of the head.

Then G, same ward. He is a fanatic, no doubt, and I am rather careful talking to him. There is no possibility of "convincing" him of anything, he is too set in a sentimental way somehow. Bought him Goethe's Faust for which he had asked.

Saw Hans H, whom I begin to like. As far as I can judge, he sees matters clearest of the lot, talks intelligently; is also the first one who had heard about, for instance, the Lublin gas murders. How did he hear that? Well, he got hold of some information, all very secret, he says. What did he say to it then? Had to keep my thoughts to myself, he said.

At last again to see Willi H, always pleased to see me - he lay in bright sunshine with the door open. Talks always very frankly about his views and experiences.

Told me of the dangers of the firing of the V1 bombs, called the "Eiffelschreck"; as often as not the bomb went off in the wrong direction and fell into some Eiffel villages [a hilly region in the middle of Germany].

22 March

Quick visit to Hans, left him Oxford book and Mozart's childhood letters; he had twice read Thom. Mann's 1936 letter, much struck and impressed by its prophetic truth.

28 March

Kurt S, aged 18, came last night, still dirty with the grime of the battlefield. Headwound and bad eye, much in pain, crying, homesick.

Willi H, who is probably leaving tomorrow, was slightly melancholic, said: "Sometimes I wonder why live at all?" Said all one can say to this question - to think of his little Gitta (5 years old) etc. I shall miss H, he's been a real stand-by to me when I sometimes despair of some of the others. He once told me how on the plane that flew him from the battlefield to England, a Brit brigadier had sat beside his stretcher, holding the tube for his bladder for him etc and how nonsensical and terrible all this was, that one minute you try to kill each other, the next, to save each other's life!

31 March

G quite obviously talking Nazi propaganda and spoiling my chances to cheer young Kurt who is a strange fanciful young boy, very nice. Tender- hearted - "liebes Mutterlein" we had to start the letter home. He comes from Sudetenland.

1 April

Went down with a little bag of sweets for young Kurt. It depressed me to hear this queer mixture of childlike romanticism, little love poems and letters and snaps, in stiff, childish hands "To dear Bubi from your darling Hedi", sweet love nonsense written on notepaper with little birds among roses. And then this same boy will tell me, he became a war volunteer (when 17) - "I wanted to see blood and battle." Looked at him with astonishment; he said apologetically, "Yes, we learned and said that in the Hitler youth. No one wanted to be cowardly."

21 April

When leaving the ward one of the lady-helpers said bitterly to me - in front of all the others - "Why don't you look after the people of Buchenwald?" It hurt me most terribly, I only answered, "I wish I could."

2 May

Adolf S gone, at last! Wonder what his reaction would have been to the news of the death of Hitler (yesterday).

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