Greg Wilkinson – Archives of Service Civil International


Greg Wilkinson

Early 1955 Mannheim

But my time was earlier, in 1955 – or was it the following year? – when the work was only half done. The trouble is I remember some times and places quite clearly, but cant put dates to them or even be sure what order they came in. I remember camps in Britain, Germany and Algeria but not how I got from one to the next or what happened in between. When I began writing, I tried to piece the bits together and work out the most likely order. I used my common sense, remembering sun in one place, frost in another. Mannheim was definitely in the winter, but which winter? Probably the second, I decided, since I must have been sent to short camps in Britain before a long one abroad. On trial, as it were. Then I found a list of SCI work-camps on the internet. The UK camps I remembered came after, not before, the Mannheim camp in Germany, and that was in January 1955. Later there were two other camps, in Worms and Bruhl, but the second I could not get a proper fix on.

Dates don’t matter, experience speaks for itself, the narrative in a time of its own? Yes, but when we try to make sense of real events, it helps to know what order they came in, unless we can also dispense with cause and effect. Memories may also be compared to observations in a scientific experiment. To be reliable, an experiment must be repeatable, observable by different people in different places. History is never repeatable in that way, but it is more reliable if several witnesses agree: their versions will never quite repeat, if we are to believe them, but must at least correspond. Either way, there’s a sort of democratic truth in both science and history…

Since starting to write about Algeria, I’ve come across a snapshot of the team on my first camp. It includes a woman I thought I remembered from another camp, in Lebanon, a year and a thousand miles away. Now I’ve heard from a man I worked with at a later camp in Algeria. Unlike me, he kept diaries. For that period at least I can check my memories against his notes made at the time. So far, I’ve not been proved quite wrong, but reminded of things I’d quite forgotten.

When I started writing on Mannheim, I did get it wrong. I moved the camp from one winter to the next, and that led to several false inferences. For instance, if I didn’t drink on my first camp in Algeria, this might have been because I had not yet been corrupted by crates of Karneval hock in Germany. If, as now seems likely, the Karneval booze-up came first, then it may have been that experience which put me off drinking in a country awash with strong red wine. Rather surprisingly the little yellow songbook of Service Civil International included the old drinking song, Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. ‘Et la tete sous le robinet!’

If common sense can play havoc with memory, how reliable is it for prediction? This morning, Fred (whose allotment we share in Swansea) rang up and asked if I thought Israel and/or the US would attack Iran. Oil sanctions were being tightened and warships exercising in the straights of Hormuz, but I said I thought both sides had too much to lose. Fred, like me, seemed unconvinced. What if some in Israel might welcome havoc on the ground, as would surely result from an air strike on Iranian nuclear centres? Might that not provide Israeli hardliners with a pretext and cover for ethnic cleansing: the removal of Palestinians who stand in the way of a Jewish democracy in Judea and Samaria?

I’m writing this in Wales, January 2012, about Germany in January 1955. That was ten years after the Second World War. And now I have the SCI archive, listing camps in order, country by country and year by year. In January 1955, a workcamp opened at the Eherlenhof youth centre in Mannheim. Over Christmas the following year there was another on a self-build housing project near Worms.

Schritt, schritt, wechsel, schritt – Step, step, change and step – we could hear the dance teacher’s voice and the quickstep record through a window overhead. The Ehrlenhof, a former Hitler youth centre, was a modern greyish building, now a multi-purpose community centre and we were billeted in one wing, with metal beds in improvised dormitories and a big table to eat off. The centre was set among drab estates, part residential, part industrial, part wasteland, between Mannheim and Ludwigshaven. We were to help turn former bombsites into a miniature wilderness, not an adventure playground in the modern sense, more a miniature…Bavaria perhaps, with hill and wood and stream in close proximity.

What we found when we got there was still half-battlefield, bulldozed into steep mounds and hollows. This abenteuerspeilplatz was the vision of Herr Hafflinger, who believed that every city child should have a wilderness in reach. Our job was to spread topsoil over mud and rubble, build stone retaining walls, make paths and bridges, plant trees.

Weather permitting, and we were soon less concerned with a green future than keeping warm in the present, the next smoke-break and the next meal. From the stadtkuche we got a basic diet of potato, cabbage, sausage and grey bread. In England there may have still been rationing, but Germany had more to recover from.

Perhaps it was the greyness and austerity of our surroundings, or the monotony of manual work, that hardened our hearts and narrowed our minds. Privation doesn’t mostly make people nice. The core of our team was a small group of ‘longterm volunteers.’ We may have been ‘conscientious’ objectors, but now we took the line of least resistance, objecting to anything that disrupted our minimal comforts and routines. We were not lazy, cruel or anti-German, but nor were we tolerant or welcoming to the idealists and enthusiasts who dropped in to help save the world. We did the job, they talked the talk, we sneered. For a time, if I remember right, we had a middle-aged German ‘head-sister’ called Atta Gruhl. She set store by traditions and rituals, if not grace before meals, then at least a song from the little yellow book. And she served as lightning conductor for our, mainly English, derision. The English s-o-h can be quite soul-destroying, not least to those it excludes. In contrast, the young German woman who taught dancing at the youthclub won our respect. From these poor and war-scarred backstreets she got a crowd of youngsters, some younger, some older than me, to take each other by the hand and learn new moves. Beyond calling out the steps, this teacher/youthworker rarely raised her voice. She spoke some English and welcomed us to join in, but didn’t make a meal of it. She reminded me of my English teacher Miss Watts, determined and vulnerable, somehow able to create a bubble of commitment and self-belief among unbelievers.

There was nothing solemn about the dance nights. The music was a mix of German pop and the American hits diffused by AFN, the American Forces network. Mannheim was in the American sector, and here, as in Britain – where the conquest took a different form – the GIs were at once resented and admired. Overpaid, oversexed and over there. I was happier with Sixteen Tons and Hoagy Carmichael than the Yellow Rose of Texas but soon had a regular dancing partner. We seemed to fancy each other and I wondered what to make of it when she saw Bob watching us. Bob was one of my workmates and for no apparent reason she said she hated him. Bob was no dancer though he had been a lifeguard on the Serpentine. One dance night, my dancing girl did not appear. Next morning Bob told us he’d been out with her.

Bob was a Londoner and looked like a bantamweight boxer, cleft chin and quiff of fair wavy hair. He was a capable worker and handyman and this volunteering was a way of seeing the world. James was a Scot, a former office worker who wore the remains of his suits for the playground work. Our fourth musketeer was Mehdi, a Pakistani Parsee with the air of an absent-minded scholar. His eyes were like the wrap-round ones of Mogul paintings which remain visible in profile. Mehdi told fortunes from palms and collected old railway timetables, which he used to plot imaginary journeys between stations chosen at random. The four of us mostly worked together. Another workmate, though not part of our little gang, was a Dutchman, Franz. He was good-looking, good-natured and hard-working with enough humour and presence to hold his own among cynics. Franz spoke several languages and kept on good terms with everyone. At one camp-meeting, people grumbled about the state of the toilets and argued about whose job it was to clean them. Next morning, when we got up for breakfast, the toilets were sparkling. Nobody admitted responsibility but suspicion fell on Franz, clean-cut and well-washed as always.

Almost part of the team, rather more than less in our esteem, was a young Mannheim woman called Helga. She may have been a student but also had a job in town. Sometimes she came in before work to make our breakfast and returned in the evening to help with tea. She was thickset and strong with short dark hair and a plain face redeemed by fine clear eyes. From time to time she also worked with us on site. One day she offered to take us out. We hardly recognised her when she came to collect us. Not dumpy in working clothes but a diva in long dress, make-up and fur coat. She took us to a club, or music bar, and bought most of the drinks. None of us had any money. Afterwards, with no late buses, she took us to her bed-sit where half a dozen of us shared her bed. The best fit, we found, was side by side, neither lengthwise nor crosswise but on the diagonal, corner-to-corner, tallest in the middle. Our work-leader was a Hungarian called Yoshka. He was a mason by trade but with a range of building experience, grasp of plans and willingness to improvise. He shouted, joked and cajoled in various languages. Sometimes we pretended not to understand. When he despaired of us, he did the job himself. When it got very cold, we hid behind a bank and lit a fire. We might wheel a barrow over a fire and take turns to lie in it. Yoshka liked puns and crossing languages. From ‘Macht nix’ to ‘Doesn’t matter’ to ‘Thousand meter’ to ‘Kilometer’. He could play tunes on his teeth, making odd faces and tapping out the notes with his finger nails. We once watched him do a sort of rope-trick. As first stage in the building of a suspension bridge, he threw a rope across a ravine. Rather than wait for one of us to catch it on the other side, he lassooed a tree then climbed across himself.

‘Jesus!’ said James. ‘Fill it with water, and he’d walk across.’ Mehdi once read James’ palm. Usually he would tell us things about ourselves, more or less credible, but this time he dropped the palm as if in shock. What he’d seen he would not say. James seemed less perturbed than some of us, whether because he was less suspicious or already knew.

I don’t know what became of James, but Bob and my one-time dancing partner went to live together in London. Mehdi later visited my family near Wokingham. His eyes lit up when he spotted a tin of currypowder in our kitchen. He asked my mother for a taste, took a teaspoonful and swallowed it – the powder, not the spoon.

Half a century later, I returned to Mannheim, on an exchange visit with a Swansea choir. I was impressed by the city. Swansea seemed provincial and old-fashioned by contrast and the Mannheim choir’s singing was better than ours. On a free afternoon I crossed the river and found my way back to the Ehrlenhof. In the main hall there were tables set out for what looked like an Asian wedding feast. The abenteuerspielplatz was now largely overgrown with trees, but obviously still played in. I met the playleaders. One of them had got to know the playground as a child and still lived nearby. They showed me the remains of some structures I half remembered, and a safe metal replacement for the death-defying suspension bridge. I climbed up a tree to show I still could and they gave me a CD copy of photos from the glory days. Some were from before my time, most of the finished product. One shows a mountain stream with children playing in it, strung along its length like coral on a necklace (though the picture above may make the simile redundant). There must have been a pump to keep the water flowing round. No water on my recent visit. One of the pictures shows Bob, half kneeling to plant a tree. Another shows me, on the back of a lorry, passing a sapling down to scarecrow Mehdi on the ground. I don’t know whether the trees I saw a year or two ago were related to the ones we planted. It was so cold when we dug our saplings up and replanted them that we doubted if many would survive. Our saplings came from a city- or state-owned forest near the river. The snow was thick and the ground frozen so hard it was almost impossible to get the roots out intact. We cut down close to the little trunks and pulled them out like stakes, or the handles of witches’ brooms, to be stuck back in the ground when we got hem home. My granny had a story about Joseph of Aramathea planting his staff on Glastonbury Tor, where, in the myth, it grew like Topsy.

The foresters who worked those German woods had gleaming giant tractors, and a warm hut where we went for our breaks. We clustered round the woodstove to get the circulation back in our hands and melt the snow in our boots.

The work and frost hardened our hands till they cracked and bled at the seams. James, with deep pockets in his incongruous city coat, also wore woollen gloves. Perhaps his palms were the only ones still legible.

With Karneval we snapped from frostbite to bacchanalia. Basic foods from the stadtkuche were supplemented with cakes, cartons of cigarettes and crates of white wine. This contrarian Fasching lent was marked by chain-drinking, chain-smoking, chains of revellers in silly costumes singing oompah oompah tunes. I soon learned that if I drank too much, or much too much, I got a sharp headache. A weakness of mine, or a useful warning shot to pre-empt much worse next day.

One occasion was rather different. Our team was invited to a buffet supper with the Stadtdirektor at his family’s home on the other side of town. Few of us had any decent clothes and I had to choose between down-at-heel slippers and broke-back working boots. It was strange finding ourselves in a civilised living room, with carpets and polished furniture. Not that we visitors came with the same memories, and this comfortable, cultured home may have been nearer to my default environment than, say, Bob’s. But the immediate contrast was the same for all of us, between this softness and the bareness of our living quarters at the Ehrlenhof. We were kindly received, the stadt-direktor friendly, and his wife motherly. When I noticed my team-mates pocketing savouries and cakes, I felt embarrassed.

The stadt-direktor’s daughter was about my age and seemed glad to practice her English, already a lot better than my school French. When we left, she came at least some of the way with us. I remember standing next her on a bus, looking down at my old slippers and her neat boots. Perhaps I played hardbitten to impress her. We got on well but hardly met again, too far apart and each with too much else to think about.

I don’t think Bob’s Mannheim romance ended well and I’d like to think Mehdi turned his time-table excercises into epic rail journeys. I had one postcard from Helga. She hitch-hiked on her own to Ethiopia. In her pocket she carried a folding knife which she took out to pare her nails with if a driver began edging in her direction. She and Franz must also have kept in touch. The last I heard was that they met up again and married. I hope they’re living happily ever after.

13.02.2012 A few days ago, on BBC radio Desert Island Disks, I heard a wartime recording of a nightingale, against a background of bomber-engines. I wondered if the record was made by Ludwig Koch, – a Jewish refugee who found a job as BBC sound-engineer and pioneered the recording of birdsong (his name was familiar to me because his daughter, Erica, stayed with us for a while at the end of the war). When I googled ‘nightingales and bombers’ I learned that this was indeed a BBC recording, but not who recorded it. The bombers overhead were Lancasters, bound for Mannheim.

When we worked on our playground, the Mannheim bombsites must still have been obvious, but made no sharp impression on me, probably because I was used to bombsites at home. It was only when I revisited the city in 2009 that I realised the extent of the damage. Mannheim now has a fine new theatre, but there’s a little garden where the old one used to be, and a sign that describes its destruction, along with a palace not far away, by British bombers in 1943. On other buildings round the city centre, there are plaques which describe what stood there before and the number of people who lost their lives.

Now I learn that in 1940, after the German bombing of Coventry, Mannheim was the target of a British experiment in ‘terror bombing.’ Mannheim too had been an important industrial centre, but the new policy, as developed in Hamburg, Dresden and later Mannheim mission, was not aimed only or mainly at industrial or military targets.

On my last visit to the city, I stayed with a woman from the Mannheim choir which hosted us. She baked one of the biggest cakes I’ve ever seen and told me that her mother had been run over and killed just after the war by a British army truck. The man who later became became her husband was a German naval officer who was ordered to scuttle his ship in the Black Sea and spend most of the war half-starved in a Soviet POW camp. He developed a lasting hatred for cabbage, and for some reason tomatoes, but remembers beetroot as a Christmas treat. Somewhere in Germany – Mannheim or Worms – I remember walking across a wide flat space one deep midwinter night. A bombsite, recreation space or some other sort of vacant lot. It’s late and I’m on my way back to camp, arm in arm with a middle aged German in a long leather coat. We’re strangers but happen to be going the same way. There’s no-one in sight, no street lighting in that empty space, just stars and a sparkle of frost underfoot. We become friends, as you do when you’ve had a drink and don’t understand a word of what’s being said to you. We begin to sing. It may not yet be Christmas, or already New Year, but the song we sing with such feeling is Silent Night. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.

Perhaps the ground we walked on was cleared by one of those British bombing raids. Neither that night, nor at any time during these visits to Germany, barely 10 years after the allied victory, did we talk about the war. Not the agonies of defeat, nor the sometimes wanton destruction from the air. Unless we did and I forgot… When my companion put his arm around me that silent night, I thought what a sentimental old German, but didn’t pull away. The warmth that that got through his leather coat was welcome and four legs are better than two on unsteady ground.