To be shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War was a hard enough fate for Allied airmen. But to be captured and sent to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp was an ordeal of another order. Yet that is what happened to 168 downed airmen from several Allied nations, including 26 from Canada: in the summer of 1944, they were stripped of their identification tags and tossed in with the thousands of poor, shuffling human skeletons who populated Buchenwald. Oddly, their story has had little publicity—until now. A new National Film Board production with the ironic title The Lucky Ones focuses on several of the Buchenwald veterans as they piece together their memories of one of the most unusual incidents of the Second World War.
The impetus for the film, directed and produced by Michael Allder, came originally from one of the Canadian veterans, Ed Carter-Edwards.
Since the war, Carter-Edwards, now living in the central Ontario community of Bala, has been troubled by the difficulties that the Buchenwald military prisoners have had in making their story known and accepted. “People just didn’t seem to believe us,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s.
‘They would ask us if we were Jewish—they thought that was the only way we could have been in a concentration camp.” Carter-Edwards added that, as a result of that disbelief, the airmen have spent “30 years in a psychological shell,” rarely speaking of their experiences.
In 1991, Carter-Edwards wrote to the National Film Board, suggesting that it make a film about the airmen. The Board took up the idea and set out to film interviews with surviving veterans from Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Many of the men were at first reluctant to open up, although in the end some used the filming as a kind of catharsis, telling stories and incidents that they had kept even from their own families.
Despite its unusual subject matter, The Lucky Ones often looks and sounds uncannily familiar: its style and many of its images
echo the spate of TV films commemorating this year’s 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. There is the same black-and-white archival footage of battle scenes, the same informal testimony from 70ish veterans as they slowly pick their way through the European sites of their ordeals. But there are important differences, too. The documentary contains rarely seen film taken inside Buchenwald by the Allied forces that liberated the camp in 1945. The footage shows not only the pathetic, wraith-like survivors, but also the unspeakable use the Nazis made of
many of the dead: human skin tattooed with decorative pictures and turned into lamp shades and wallets; half a human head floating in formaldehyde, split like an apple to reveal its brain and other organs.
In a sense, there is nothing new about such images. The world has long since grown used to—if not comfortable with—pictures of the Holocaust. But what, finally, is striking about The Lucky Ones is the way it shows the impact of that evil on the Allied airmen, who were little more than naive boys at the time of their incarceration. As Carter-Edwards points out: “We didn’t known about the existence of the concentration camp when we were shot down in 1944. We thought we’d be taken to a normal POW camp.”
The airmen were luckier than most in
Buchenwald. They did not have to work at hard labor, as did nearly everyone else, and their excellent physical condition and relatively short stay (up to 372 months) meant that of the 168, only two actually died in the camp. But they lived amid terrible despair and fear, in a place where inmates were often beaten or shot without reason. They saw the dead stacked like cordwood—and wondered if they would be next. They smelled the sickly odor from the ovens when bodies were burned. They heard the rumors of torture and bizarre scientific experiments on living subjects. Many carried psychological scars for the rest of their lives, from alcoholism to night fears and crippling emotional inhibitions.
The Lucky Ones does not make high drama of any of this. The old men talk of their experiences with an almost courtly sense of understatement, betraying their emotion by only the subtlest signs: a sudden silence, a catch in the voice, a loaded glance at a watching wife. The film leaves the impression that there is still much pain concealed beneath the men’s composure.
The documentary reveals almost nothing about why the airmen were sent to Buchenwald, or why they were eventually transferred to regular POW camps. And it sometimes implies that they saw more than they actually did of the camp’s darkest secrets. Yet it still makes a forceful statement about their experiences. Carter-Edwards expresses the hope that the film might prod the Canadian government into giving some compensation to the 16 Canadian survivors who are still alive. “New Zealand and Australia have compensated their Buchenwald veterans,” he says, “but Canada has done nothing.” Yet he is clearly pleased that The Lucky Ones has made the private nightmare of 168 airmen a matter of public fact.
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