A German POW in Canada Transcript


Sebastian Koester: There are beautiful and less beautiful dreams. I thought I was dreaming. The less beautiful one saw myself in the dream, swimming in the water of the turbulent sea and suddenly a desperate cry for help tore me out of the dream. And I knew in the flash that I really was lying in the water and not in my bunk. in the Sergeant's quarter of submarine-U301. A screaming figure swept past me. I saw it as if through a veil. The scream went silent and then I was alone in the wasteness of the sea. Alone with the fear of the unknown. The fear of death. 

Kate Jaimet: Wilhelm Rahn was a 19 year old ensign in the German Navy. When his U-boat was torpedoed by a British submarine off the coast of Corsica in 1943. Rahn was plucked from the water by the helmsman of the submarine, the only survivor of U-boat 301. He was sent to a prisoner of war camp near Petawawa, Ontario. 

How did his time in the camp change his beliefs about Nazi Germany? And what do his memoirs tell us about the P.O.W. experience in Canada? This is Stories Behind the History.


Kate Jaimet: Welcome to Stories Behind the History. I'm Kate Jaimet, senior editor of Canada's History Magazine. In this podcast, I speak with leading historians and witnesses to history to discover the people and events that shaped our nation. 

Today, I'm speaking with Bernard Wood, who wrote the article Prisoner of Camp 33 for Canada's History Magazine. Bernard, welcome to the podcast. 

Bernard Wood: Thank you very much.

Kate Jaimet: And I'm also pleased to have as a special guest today, Wilhelm Rahn’s grandson Sebastian Koester. Sebastian, welcome to the podcast. 

Sebastian Koester: Glad to be here Kate. 

Kate Jaimet: Sebastian, you're joining us from Berlin, is that right? 

Sebastian Koester: That's right. 

Kate Jaimet: So it's great to have you and I appreciate you coming on the podcast. 

So the story in Canada's History Magazine is about your grandfather and you posted his memoirs online, which is really interesting, and that's how Bernard discovered him. So I'm just wondering, Sebastian, could you start us off by just telling us a little bit about your grandfather and the memoirs that he wrote? 


Sebastian Koester: My grandfather had a great sense of humor. First of all, he played bridge. He learned that in the camp and he was a fan of the game Skat. The thing with him playing Skat was that he was a cheater. He cheated very often and was very satisfied. when people found out. So yeah, that was also him. 

Kate Jaimet: Did he used to tell you stories about his wartime experiences? 

Sebastian Koester: He never talked about it, no. 

Kate Jaimet: So how did you discover his memoirs? How did you find out about his experiences? 

Sebastian Koester: I found out from my grand mother. She talked about it and showed me the what he wrote down. And then after he passed away, I decided to roll it up and put it to the Internet.

Kate Jaimet: So I should tell our listeners a little bit about these memoirs. So these were memoirs of his experiences that he had in the Second World War and in the P.O.W. camps in Canada. Originally in Petawawa and then later near Lethbridge, Alberta. Is that right? 

Sebastian Koester: That's right. Yeah. 

Kate Jaimet: And what made you decide then, to share those memoirs on the Internet?

Sebastian Koester: I wanted that the world gets to know him and that he won't be forgotten. That was my intention. 


Kate Jaimet: It's interesting because one thing that struck me, as he mentions in his memoirs, that he had been in the Hitler Youth and he had been, you know, like he's not ashamed to say in his memoirs that when he was young, he did believe in the Nazi ideology. How did that make you feel when you discovered that? And also, did that sort of make you hesitate about posting the memoirs for the public? 

Sebastian Koester: Yeah, the thing was, everyone was in the Hitler Youth by the time when Hitler became the Chancellor. It was also in preparation to be a soldier. But he also had fun. The fun part was the holiday camps and all of that. But yeah, I can’t tell what he would say about it. 

Bernard Wood: I read Kate one statistic from a very reliable source that said in 1939, in the beginning of the war, 82% of young Germans were either in the Hitler Youth or the young German girls, which was the female equivalent. So and, you know, more recently there's been that popular film Jojo Rabbit, which showed a little bit how all the pressures of the whole society on the children. 

Kate Jaimet: Yeah Bernard maybe you could talk a bit about that. I want to bring you into the conversation, because when you when you came across Wilhelm Rahn’s diary on the Internet, you were already researching, I believe, German P.O.W.s in Canada. Is that. Is that right? Is that how you came across the diary originally? 


Bernard Wood: Yeah. I've been working on a book about Petawawa in Canada, actually. The story of Canada through the lens of Petawawa. And this was one of the little known chapters was the fact that there was a prisoner of war camp there. And in fact had been an internment camp before that. So I had studied it quite carefully, you know, from all the official documents in the archives and a couple of academic thesis and so on.

And I really had a respectable chapter drawn up about that camp. But what I was dying to find was some kind of testimony from a prisoner who'd actually been there. Even the guards didn't write very much or speak very much about it. And, you know, because I can read German, I assume, scanning the Internet in hopes that I would find something.

And then. Well, lo and behold, in a real eureka moment for a researcher, one day I came across Sebastian's post and it was just a prisoner of war. And his number. And so I started started scanning this. And immediately I recognized this name because it had been in the archives, the military archives here on an escape attempt from Petawawa.

So I thought, wow. And then I started reading it, and it's as Sebastian said, I fell in love with this guy because he has such a lovely sense of humor. And, you know, you keep reminding yourself he was a kid. He was 19. But in writing, you know, with the perspective of his in his later life, a very, very engaging account and down to earth. But also thoughtful.


Kate Jaimet: Yeah. So for our readers who haven't already, or our listeners, I should say, who haven't all read the article, Sebastian, maybe tell us a little bit about your grandfather's experiences in the P.O.W. camp and maybe that escape attempt and some of the, the things that he experienced and that happened to him in that camp. Can you can you give us a picture?

Sebastian Koester: Yeah, He was allowed to to go out of the camp to how can I say it. Smash the timber... 

Kate Jaimet: To cut the trees down. 

Sebastian Koester: Cut the trees down and he enjoyed it so much that I could watch him smash the trees for fun when we were in Denmark or our weekend cottage. He always cut the trees when he had time and I thought, Wow, "that's my grandfather. I'm impressed." 

Kate Jaimet: Yeah. He wanted to be a lumberjack after all. 

Sebastian Koester: He even had the had the clothes. 

Kate Jaimet: Well, he wore, like, lumberjack clothes, plaid shirts and things. 

Sebastian Koester: Yes. 


Kate Jaimet:  That's so funny. And he tried to escape. Tell us a little bit about this escape attempt that he was actually almost somewhat successful, right? 

Sebastian Koester: Almost. Yeah, but the guards always told the prisoners, you don't escape. You don't escape. And if you hit the trees, you have to escape when you're in the prison and fight your way through. But when you cut the trees, you are not allowed to escape. Otherwise you will be punished. 

Bernard Wood: I think it was the German authorities in the camp as well, Sebastian. Who told the prisoners that they would should not escape while they were out on the work camps, because then the Canadians would withdraw their privileges and, you know, they wouldn't get the pay that we were getting for being lumberjacks. So they were forced to, as you say, to make the escape from the camp itself. 

Kate Jaimet: So the story that I read, Bernard, from you is they they had these other prisoners create a distraction. And then Wilhelm Rahn and his his buddy cut through this fence. And then they tried to run through the the woods. And now, Sebastian, pick it up from here because he was actually trying to pretend or pass himself off as a lumberjack, right?

He he thought he thought people would believe that he was just a stray lumberjack wandering the woods and not an escaped German prisoner. Right? 

Sebastian Koester: Yes. 

Kate Jaimet: And how did that work out? How did the escape attempt end? 

Bernard Wood: He got as far as the railway, and then he ran into some railway workers who were not fooled by his his impersonation of a Canadian lumberjack. 


Kate Jaimet: Not too surprisingly. 

Bernard, I want to circle back to this idea about the Nazi indoctrination. Wilhelm Rahn was 19 years old, so it's again, like quite young and Bernard, I think you mentioned to me before the podcast that you had actually interviewed some other people about this Nazi indoctrination of young people. Could you give us some insights into that? Because when we talk like Sebastian, when you're talking about your grandfather, I don't think he he fits this idea we have of of what a Nazi would have been like, some very nasty, evil person. He doesn't seem like that kind of person at all. So, Bernard, can you tell us a little bit about like, how was it that these young men got indoctrinated into these ideas?

Bernard Wood: Well, you know, we all know the broad history, but I did see one interview on a documentary about a prisoner, a former prisoner returned to Alberta who who described it. And, you know, Wilhelm Rahn says at one point in his in his memoir, you know, what could you expect from a 19 year old back then? It doesn't go into much more detail, but this this former prisoner said, you know, what we were taught about German history began with the defeat in the First World War.

It was all about the humiliation of the country, the loss of territory, the crippling reparation payments we had to make, the forced disarmament, and then that was followed by the hyperinflation and the chaos of the Weimar Republic. What he says against all that Hitler was painted as the savior of Germany. And that was that was all we could see.

And, you know, recently it struck me that you can see now, even in a much different situation, the power of disinformation and the hold it can have on people's minds. And if you try and visualize this for the whole society so rigidly enforced, you understand how much in a sense deprogramming had to happen. And I thought the Canadian strategy was another thing that I learned about in doing this research, to say, you know, we've got to try and bring these people around by treating them well rather than just the kind of brutality they expect from us.

Kate Jaimet: In the camps, you mean? 

Bernard Wood: Yeah. 


Kate Jaimet: Yeah. Sebastian, maybe you could tell us a little bit about that. Like based on your grandfather's memoirs, what was sort of the relationship between the prisoners and then the guards and the Canadians in the camps? What sense did you get of that? 

Sebastian Koester: I heard he was treated very well by them. He always had something to eat and made friends there. And it was not a problem for him. 

Kate Jaimet: And was that typical, Bernard, from your research of the P.O.W. experience in Canada? 

Bernard Wood: No question that they were well treated. In fact, it was even a little bit of concern in some of the areas where the camps were, that the prisoners were being treated better than the civilian population during the war because there was rationing and so on.

But they were extremely well-fed. They had exercise facilities. Depending on the size of the camp and so on. As Sebastian said, they had the opportunity to do some outdoor work. And of course, things were so tough at home for Germans on the front that these they felt they were very privileged And they even, you know, in the bigger camps, particularly, they were taking university courses.

I saw the recollections of one P.O.W. who who did all his studies basically through the University of Saskatchewan while he was in the camp in Alberta. And he went back to Germany after the war. And he said, Well, I finished the top of my class within a year in my professional calling because of the chance we had to study.

So it was you know, it was not lavish, but it was very comfortable by comparison with what they would have had otherwise. And they appreciated and, you know, a thousand of the 35,000 actually emigrated to Canada after the war. So they clearly had liked it. And I think 6000 had expressed an interest in doing that. 


Kate Jaimet: So you think that that was a strategy by the Canadians in order to sort of turn people away from this Nazi ideology, away from this idea that, you know, that Hitler was a savior and that that was the only way that they could exist as a people. It gave them a different way of looking at the world, do you think?

Bernard Wood: I think it did, and it was gradual. And he records this, Wilhelm Rahn records this in his memoir that, you know, different pieces were falling into place, that he knew firsthand because he was the only survivor from his U-boat when it was sunk that the U-boat strategy was failing. And yet the government and its Admiral Donitz kept on sending these these young sailors to death or imprisonment.

But he was the only one of 49 on his U-boat who survived, badly wounded. So they knew that that was going wrong. And this was all after the first phases of the war where Germany had been winning on every front. But, you know, most of the prisoners in Canada came from North Africa after the the North African campaign turned turned sour for Germany.

So they were seeing the defeat. They were seeing that their leaders were not infallible, that they their people were lied to. And the Canadians consciously gave them newspapers every day and each barracks. And William Run was actually the translator in his barracks for the stories. They would censor them sometimes. But clearly, you know, when things started going badly for the allies, they censored them a bit.

But, you know, after they were initially said, this is all propaganda, this is nonsense, they began to see there's a difference here. This is actually truthful information. So they began to see through the kind of lies that they've been fed. 


Kate Jaimet: Sebastian the part I really found gripping is the very beginning of the diary where he describes I think he starts with there are beautiful and less beautiful dreams, and then he talks about being pulled under when his U-boat is sinking or is torpedoed right?

Sebastian Koester: Yeah. 

Kate Jaimet: Yeah, I thought that was interesting. And I think you mentioned he still had, like, dreams, the nightmares after. 

Sebastian Koester: That’s true yeah. 

Kate Jaimet: Were they nightmares of the drowning of the of the sinking of the boat? 

Sebastian Koester: I believe. Yes. He was still in his jacket. He has to rip it off so he not drowned. That was it was an intense part, you know. There was another one he was trying to contact, but this man didn't make it unfortunately. 

Kate Jaimet: He was he was trying to save one of his shipmates? 

Sebastian Koester: Yeah. He was even yelling at him now. But yeah, this member of the crew didn't make it. 

Kate Jaimet: That must have been something again like it. Just a moment that you would never forget. And that he was rescued by a British submarine. A person on the British submarine, right? 

Sebastian Koester: Yes. 

Kate Jaimet: And I think you mentioned that they stayed in contact after the war. 

Sebastian Koester: Yes. 

Kate Jaimet: Your grandfather and the person who had rescued him. Can you tell me a little bit about that, how they managed to stay in contact afterwards? 

Sebastian Koester:  Yeah, they wrote back and forth. And, you know, that's what I know. I believe he was in Germany as a guest, but I'm not sure. But they wrote each other after the war. Yes. 


Kate Jaimet: So I guess we should back up. So he goes to the P.O.W. camp in Petawawa, and then at the end of the war, he was transferred to a camp in Lethbridge, Alberta. And some of the P.O.W.s were sent home from the camp in Petawawa, but some were sent to Alberta. Let's just basically just touch on that a little bit. Why was he sent to Alberta? What was the purpose of that second P.O.W. camp? 

Bernard Wood: I can chime in on that if you like. 

Kate Jaimet: Yeah, jump in Bernard. 

Bernard Wood: Because it was he says it was they they sorted out the sheep and the goats at that point they because the war was over and they were determined not to send unreformed Nazis back to Germany.

And the the camp in Lethbridge was one of those camps where they began concentrating both hard liners militarists as he describes himself and escapers, which he also was so in a sense, sort of a troublemaker. But he said halfway across the long, long trip, the guards realized we were just a bunch of silly young men like their own sons, mostly.

And they got to Lethbridge, and there were some real hard liners there. And the big camp, the prisoners there, a lot of very smart people, they had built radios. They were in touch with Germany. They were getting instructions and, in fact, that there was a murder in one of the camps in Alberta, because the people were defeatists.

A couple of prisoners were saying, you know, we're going to lose. And this is all been wrong. And the Nazis were wrong and they were actually murdered in the camp and the murderers were executed after the war, so that it was a different kind of routine there. And even though the big camp the way, way bigger in Lethbridge than that in Petawawa had all kinds of great facilities as well, they began toughening up on the prisoners and saying, you know, you're going to one.

They showed them the films from the liberated death camps. And this was this was really a shocker for most of those soldiers who had no idea. And although you know, once again, the hard the real hard liners were saying, that's all propaganda, that's all nonsense and so on. But they also cut their rations. Things were not as as nice and comfortable.

And the Canadians consciously said to them, you know, you're not going to escape knowing what it's like, the kind of conditions that were imposed in the camps in Germany, although nobody's going to starve here. And it did. He says it made a difference. You know, he said initially we laughed at them because they'd been so, so kind to us and we thought they weren't going to do this.

And they did, in fact, crack down pretty hard. And he said that made a difference. So over time and, you know, they began the process of sorting out people who were more inclined to democracy. There were study groups that were formed on democracy and so on. And, you know, by the time he left, it was he was more than halfway there in and, you know, that was shown when he got back to Germany and became a policeman and eventually joined the army of the new West German democracy.


Kate Jaimet: So, Bernad sorry, I'm curious about that. You were saying that some of the hard line prisoners in some of the other camps, though not Petawawa, but they actually built ham radios and were in touch with people in Germany, but they were inside the P.O.W. camps? 

Bernard Wood: Yeah, there was. There was one. I believe it was Lethbridge, which I may be wrong, because there were two camps, two big camps, at least in Alberta.

And there was also another one in Bowmanville, Ontario, which was for officers. And there they were closely in touch. And there was one escape attempt. And a guy got as far as Nova Scotia where he was supposed to rendezvous with a submarine. So they had been in that kind of communication. 

Kate Jaimet: Wow. Yeah, that's incredible. I had no idea. I'd never heard that before. And did they manage? I know we're getting a bit far from Wilhelm Rahn’s story, and I'll come back to it. But I'm curious, did they manage to de-Nazifiy those hardline Nazi people or did they eventually just have to sort of give up and say the war is over, we have to let you out?

Bernard Wood: You know, you know, I only can answer that question Kate and I mean, my wife's German and I don't think Germans can answer that question fully, but I think for the huge majority of them, there's no doubt that they went back very different people. But the indoctrination had had been lifted to a very large degree. 


Kate Jaimet: What do you think, Sebastian, like when you read your grandfather's memoirs and I'm sure you've read them more than once, did you get a sense that he changed as a person or that his time in Canada changed him at all? 

Sebastian Koester: Yeah. First, at the beginning of the of the book, he believed in the Nazi ideology, but at the end he thought, what am I doing? What am I doing here? What have I believed in?

Kate Jaimet: Do do you have any thoughts about what made him change? Do you think? 

Sebastian Koester: That would be speculation. Yeah, but what I said was he first believed in the ideology and at the end, what was about to about to get free from the camp. He never believed in it that much anymore. 


Kate Jaimet: Well, Bernard, I'll. I'll wrap up with you two. Do you think that Rahn's memoirs added to your understanding of the history, or can what can Rahn's memoirs and his life experiences add to our understanding about this part of the history of Canada and Canada's involvement in the in the Second World War? What do you think? 

Bernard Wood: Yeah, it's very powerful. His story in the way it humanizes a stereotyped enemy. You know, when you see an individual, especially people who are outrageously young, the kids, the people we send off to fight wars, and, you know, one who is so engaging and observant and humorous, that was really good. And that was happening on the Canadian side as well. You see interviews with former guards who, you know, really got quite close to the prisoners and recognized their humanity across the lines of, you know, the kind of dehumanization that happens in war time that has to happen in a way. And that's why it's always useful to go beyond the official sources and get to the human stories. 


Kate Jaimet: That's a good point. Sebastian, any do you have any final thoughts or things you'd like our listeners to think about or to know about your granddad before we wrap up? 

Sebastian Koester: I will always remember him. When he holds the speech of my church graduation. When I was a full member of our church community. And it was a very long speech. When I remember and I picture this moment and I am very proud of him. 

Kate Jaimet: That's really nice. Thank you both for joining me. It's been a real pleasure having you on the podcast. 

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I'm Kate Jaimet, thanks for joining me.