Le Monde/The Guardian
First world war: memories of the last survivors
‘God let me live so that I could tell the story’
Ovsanna Kaloustian Turkey
The diminutive old woman does not go out in Marseille much any more. She hunches over a cane and is spoilt, mollycoddled by her daughter and grandchildren. Ask her about her childhood, and she becomes perfectly alert. Ovsanna Kaloustian is 106 years old, and one of the last survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915. As a memory bearer, she is perfectly aware of the role she has to play almost a century later. “God let me live this long so that I could tell the story,” she says.
Ovsanna has kept a whole host of images and details that she describes energetically, of the terror, the massacres and the deportation of her people from the Ottoman empire. She was born in 1907 in Adabazar, a city about 100km east of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). She grew up in a beautiful house opposite the neighbourhood church, with three floors and a garden. The city was an important centre of trade and craft for the Armenian population, which numbered some 12,500 people in 1914, almost half of the inhabitants. “Even the Greeks and Turks spoke Armenian,” says Ovsanna. She herself only picked up Turkish during deportation. Her father owned a bar that was also a hairdresser’s and dentist’s. She went there every morning before school to have tea.
Ovsanna was eight years old in 1915, when the Young Turks government ordered the deportation of Armenians. “It was Sunday and Ovsanna’s mother was coming back from church; the priest had just announced that every neighbourhood in the city had to be emptied in three days,” says her grandson Frédéric, who has preserved the family story. Groups set off on foot towards the south and east. Ovsanna and her parents, brother, uncles, aunts and cousins arrived in Eskisehir, where they were crammed on to a livestock train carriage; that’s how thousands of Armenians were sent to the deserts in Syria. However, the train was stopped along the way in Çay, in the Afyonkarahisar province, and they were ordered to build a makeshift camp. The triage centres further ahead were already congested.
It was not until two years later that they were finally dispersed, and ran to hide in the countryside. Ovsanna remembers being worried about the young girls who were kidnapped by the brigands who served as auxiliaries of the Ottoman army. After the armistice in 1918, Ovsanna and her family returned to find their house burned to the ground, and were driven back out by the city’s new Turkish occupants. The exodus first took them to Constantinople. In 1924, Ovsanna’s uncles, aunts and cousins emigrated to the US. Four years later, she emigrated to Marseille by boat. “We arrived under the snows of December,” she remembers. Today, 10% of the population of Marseille is descended from survivors of the Armenian genocide.
Ovsanna earned a bit of money by working in textiles and married the sole survivor of a massacred family, Zave Kaloustian. They opened an oriental shop, bought a patch of land and settled down.
“She taught us Armenian, but the stories of her history came later,” says Frédéric. Ovsanna works in cultural associations and takes part in community protests. She is a tireless voice in fighting the denial of the Armenian genocide. “Denying the genocide is denying the words of my grandmother,” says Frédéric.
Guillaume Perrier Le Monde
‘I’m terribly, terribly proud of Wilfred’
Dorothy Ellis UK
The subject of the first world war did not come up during their courtship. It was only after they were married that Dorothy Ellis noticed a scar the size of a 50p piece on her new husband Wilfred’s lower leg. “We didn’t talk about the war to begin with,” she says. “We had lots of other things to talk about. And like many men back then, he wasn’t keen to speak of what went on. But then I saw the wound and asked him about it. He told me: ‘That’s a bullet hole’ and things began to come out, bit by bit.”
Now aged 92, Dorothy is the last surviving widow of a British first world war soldier. She was born three years after the war ended and married Wilfred in 1942. But her memories of him, their conversations and the few souvenirs she has of his time as a teenage soldier in the muddy horror of the western front provide an extraordinary, fragile and precious link with the great war.
“He told me he had got shot in the ankle and could hardly walk,” says Dorothy. “He leant on a friend’s shoulder and was helped across no man’s land. There were bullets coming all over but they managed to get to the other side. The friend told him: ‘There you are, that’s all I can do for you.’ Wilfred replied: ‘Thanks very much.'” The wounded were being loaded into wagons; Wilfred managed to scramble up. “He got the last place on that wagon,” says Dorothy.
Wilfred, who was still a mere 19, was not allowed to linger in hospital. “So many men lost their lives that even if you weren’t really fit enough they got you back out there.”
Wilfred noted the injury in the front page of his tiny Bible, now a delicate, dog-eared relic of his service. He wrote simply: “Wounded March 1918.” The next entry, made during the second battle of the Somme, is equally brief: “Gassed August 1918”.
“That was phosgene,” says Dorothy. “There was such a fight going on. Again, one his pals helped him and got him down into a trench. Wilfred told me: ‘I just lay down in the trench, hoping and praying the battle would stop.’ After a while a German soldier jumped down into the trench with a fixed bayonet. He pointed it at Wilfred’s stomach. Wilfred thought he was finished. But for some reason the German jumped out again. Wilfred told me that the German probably thought he was a poor devil not worth the effort. Our soldiers took over that trench and he was saved.”
One of Wilfred’s big regrets is the delay before the soldiers realised the war was over in November 1918. “At first he didn’t know anything about it,” says Dorothy. “They were still fighting, the war was still going on for them. It was the next day they found out. That was a dreadful thing really, because there were men who were injured or died when the war was over.”
Wilfred’s final entry in the Bible reads: “Returned home December 1918” and the rest of his life began. “His idea was to put it behind him and get on with his life. He held no malice. He went on. He was a person that had got strong faith and I think prayer helped him.”
Back in England, Wilfred’s family helped nurse him back to health. He was a talented musician and spent happy days as first violinist in the orchestra on the ocean liner the Empress of Britain, believing that the sea air helped him recover from the effects of the gas, though he always suffered bouts of bronchitis. Despite the ankle wound, he was a fine dancer.
He moved from London to Devon, where he met and fell in love with Dorothy, though he was twice her age. They married and set up an antiques business together. One of their neighbours was the author Michael Morpurgo, who based elements of his book War Horse on the stories Wilfred and other villagers told.
Over the years Dorothy continued to question Wilfred. She once wondered why he had signed up before his 18th birthday. “I asked him what made him do it?” said Dorothy. “The thing was he was tall – 6ft 3in – and slim. He looked older than he was and in those days the ladies would hand a white feather to men in England who were not in uniform as a sign of cowardice. He said: “I made up my mind that no lady would hand me a feather. I will sign up and go.”
He was never angry that he went to war. “A lot of his friends were killed and injured but he wasn’t angry,” Dorothy says. “And he never held out any antagonism against the Germans. He believed there was a terrible loss of life on both sides and nobody was any better off.
“He took some Germans prisoner one time. He said they were doing what we were doing; they were fighting for their country and we were fighting for our country. When it come to being hurt you are the same.”
After what Dorothy calls a “long, lovely love story”, Wilfred died in 1981, aged 82. She has given his trenching tool to a museum but has hung on to the Bible and an embroidered remembrance card Wilfred sent to his mother, Lavinia, from France reading: “God be with you, till we meet again” with a tiny pressed flower inside picked on the battlefield.
She will not be parted from the photograph of a teenage Wilfred looking confident and contained in his uniform. “I think it’s a beautiful picture. He looks kind, determined. Of course I’m proud of him, terribly, terribly proud of him and what he achieved. He was such a wonderful person.”
But was he scarred mentally as well as physically by what he experienced on the western front? “He always said the loss of men made you feel sometimes it should never have been. At the end of the day nobody wins, you’re all losers someway or another. Wilfred always said it was supposed to be a war to end all wars. But it wasn’t. Wars are still gong on.”
Steven Morris the Guardian
‘We were so pleased to have Father back’
Gertrud Dyck Berlin
Gertrud Dyck springs from one anecdote to another when she tells stories from her life. The small room in an old people’s home in the suburbs of Munich, where she has lived for years, is quite forgotten. “There is music in Rixdorf,” she sings, remembering her childhood in Berlin. “There is a stable. That horse can’t move, that other horse is lame.” When Gertrud was a young girl, these were some of the favourite tunes of the day that you could hear in kitchens and pubs alike. That was more than 100 years ago. The popular Berlin neighbourhood of Neukölln was still called Rixdorf. Germany was ruled by Emperor Wilhelm II.
During the first world war, Dyck survived hunger and cold and desperately awaited news of her father from the front. She spent the second world war fearing for her husband’s life in Norway. How did she go through this twice? Today, at the age of 105, Gertrud is so full of life, and giggles and makes jokes, as if none of this could ever have happened to her. Is it selective memory? Perhaps it’s the only way to get on with life.
When the war broke out in 1914 Trudl Bandow, as she was called, was still at school. Two months later her younger brother, Heinz, was born, and their father, Fritz, was called up to serve in Belgium. Their mother, Lina, was alone with four children to care for. She still wonders how her mother did it, although they never spoke of it. Fritz Bandow was a painter who went to the capital of Prussia to make his fortune. Like many other handymen from East and West Prussia, Brandenburg, Silesia or Pomerania, he moved his family to the worker’s district of Friedrichshain, which was not far from the factories. The neighbourhood was a stronghold of the Social Democratic party (SPD) and also of the communists in 1918. For the children, the courtyards of the buildings at 7 Cotheniusstrasse were like giant playgrounds, and they played in the parks with their neighbours, built huts from leaves, lived in a world of fairytales and visited relatives to pick berries. Times were not easy, but the children were free.
Then came the war. Father Fritz was at the front and Mother Lina rented rooms in their apartment to earn money. These tenants had fled from the east, where the front was. The war was traumatising. One of the tenants would scream in her sleep, and dreamed of burning coals raining on her head. The children were irritated when doors would suddenly remain locked and they could not roam through all of their flat any longer. A Polish man with annoying eating habits lived in the big room with the balcony. He would mix liver sausage and bread with marmalade. “Brr, that was weird, but we were cheeky little kids. We still wanted to be able to go out on the balcony,” says Dyck.
Money was tight and hunger was a constant companion. The children would often wait with rumbling stomachs for their mother to come home. Dyck’s worst memories are from 1918, shortly before the war ended, and of bad brown bread (Schwarzbrot). “It was the most hideous thing ever and stuck to the tongue where you bit into it.” Her future mother-in-law would eat coal when she woke up to try to fill her stomach. The children were always prioritised when it came to food. By the time the family realised that the older woman was severely undernourished, she had already developed a hunchback from the nutrition deficiency. Cold was also a mainstay of her childhood; Lina had to manipulate the numbers on the gas meter.
Father’s letters from Belgium told stories of grown men who played marbles on the streets. Dyck shakes her head happily; they didn’t have boules in Friedrichshain. Once a year the soldiers came home on leave, and the family were pleased to see their father in November 1918. The day before he was due to return to the war, the guns fell silent on the fronts. The chaos on the streets of Berlin was almost like a civil war, but Dyck says family was more important to the then 10-year-old. “We were just so pleased to have Father back.”
The family had no money for a carpet, so her father painted a Persian rug on to the living room floor. Dyck still idolises “Papa” despite her grand age. The walls in the old people’s home are covered with his pictures.
“We even had a naked young woman coming out of the water in a picture in the corridor,” she says, looking amused. He might have survived the war, but he died in an accident when she was 14. Ninety years later, she still can’t hold back her tears. The death effectively ended her childhood, and she left school. “I just wanted to earn money and help Mother out.” She met her husband, Gerhard, at 18 and was married at 22. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Anna Günther Süddeutsche Zeitung
‘The letters stopped. I never saw him again’
Emma Morano Italy
“Augusto and I dreamed of a life together. We were young and in love. Like me, he was born in 1899. When they called the soldiers to war, he went off to fight in the mountains with the Alpini [mountain troops]. We said goodbye and, for a while, I got letters from him. They spoke of love. And of war. Then they stopped coming. I never saw Augusto again.”
Emma Morano is 114 years old. She is the oldest woman in Europe and still has many memories of a life that has straddled centuries. By the time of the great war, she had already moved with her family from her home in the Piedmontese village of Civiasco to the town of Villadossola, where her father had found work in a steel plant.
Today, she lives in Pallanza, Verbania, a stone’s throw from the banks of Lake Maggiore and near the monument that contains the remains of General Luigi Cadorna, the Italian army’s chief of staff from 1915-17. “They called him the prince of war,” says Morano. Inside the mausoleum, Cadorna is watched over by 12 statues of soldiers cut from the stone of the Val d’Ossola. It is in stark contrast to a modest plaque nearby which lists the names of 102 soldiers who died in battle: lieutenants, captains, corporals. Young men whose stories may not have been so different from Augusto’s.
“He was from Villadossola,” says Morano. “We used to live in one of the workers’ houses behind the steel plant. I was young; I liked to sing and when people used to pass beneath my window they would stop to hear me. I had a nice voice. Augusto, too, fell in love with it.
“I used to often listen to the radio with my sister Angela. It brought us news from the front. Even if there was the war, those were the years of dreams. We would go dancing. We ate rice, a bit of bread and cheese, and we warmed ourselves on the stove. I also brought home money; I started work at 13 years old at the Ossolano jute factory. We used to make jute bags with a long sewing machine – and woe betide you if you broke something; you’d have to pay for it.
“My health, though, was not good at all, and the doctor advised me to move to Pallanza, where I found work at the Maioni jute factory. By then the war was over. Another chapter of my life had begun.”
Carlo Bologna La Stampa
‘Our boys jumped the train as it approached. The Germans seemed surprised’
Józef Lewandowski, Poland
Józef Lewandowski recalls the first world war as a surprisingly calm period in his life. But then as a Pole this was the war that allowed a nation to be reborn. It has a different cachet than elsewhere in Europe.
“I cannot remember a shot fired, battles, or any bloodspilling whatsoever. And the end of the war? Well, we simply went to sleep in Germany and woke up the next day in Poland. There were no big celebrations. The authorities had changed; so had the flag and all the administration officials.”
“At that time, I lived with my parents [in Bydgoszcz] in a house near the railway tracks. I liked watching the trains through the window. Once I witnessed the Polish army ambush a German draisine (a light auxiliary rail vehicle). It had left the Bydgoszcz train station with soldiers who were probably going to support their colleagues in battles around Nakła [near Bydgoszcz in northern Poland].
“Our boys jumped the train as it approached. The Germans seemed surprised. They surrendered without a fight. The Poles disarmed them, but I don’t know what became of the German soldiers after that.”
The German influence remained after the war. “My teacher in school was a German. He spoke poor Polish but I remember him as a very good person and a good teacher. We laughed a lot during our lessons. Thanks to him, I also learnt to speak good German. When he decided, many years after the war, to go back to Germany, the pupils accompanied him to the train station in tears. Nobody viewed him through the lens of his nationality.”
“Of course, there were Germans who did not feel comfortable in an independent Poland. They got into quarrels and wanted revenge. As a child I had an altercation with the son of a butcher who was named Wolf. He wanted to beat me up for speaking Polish. Luckily, he and his family quickly moved to Gdansk.
Most of the Germans however, stayed in Bydgoszcz. And so we lived in peace until the outbreak of the next great war.
Wojciech Bielawa, Gazeta Wyborcza