Reece Pocock has written an authoritative and intimate story of two families brought together by war and peace; in the process, he creates a fine study of how ordinary people are swept along by political and military events over which they have no control but which continue to colour their daily lives.
In North Africa in the 1940s, two men – Bill, an Australian and Rolf, a German – confront each other in a one-to-one fight in the vicious battles around Tobruk. Both are forever scared physically and mentally. Later, when Rolf is fighting in Italy, he learns of the Dresden fire bombing, deserts and returns home to find his family dead or dying. Rolf flees Germany and takes the identity of a dead companion, winding up in a displaced persons camp in France, from where he eventually migrates to Australia. The Australians meanwhile are withdrawn from North Africa and fight in the Pacific. In Papua-New Guinea, Bill is exposed to the horrors of jungle warfare and is invalided out of the army.
Five years after the War, Bill and Rolf meet each other by chance in Australia without knowing who the other is, and strike up a working relationship. Some of the locals resent the arrival of German migrants and Rolf is the subject of abuse and violence. When Rolf and Bill’s sister Elaine fall in love, family resistance is strengthened. Rolf eventually realises that it was Bill who wounded him in North Africa and must decide whether to forgive and forget or whether to seek revenge.
Pocock evokes powerful imagery of the viciousness of war in both the desert and the jungle as well as convincingly portraying how men respond under enormous stress.
The dissonance between men at war and men in peace is a central theme of the book
Targeted Age Group:: 25-75
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
It was my first attempt – I put it away for many years. Some personal events in this book happened but not the way I have written them.
My half brother who served in WW2 was my inspiration.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Some characters are composites of real people and others are made up. I think I knew what my characters had to do and I had to write them with the character traits they would need for the action.
Finsbury Migrant Hostel South Australia―1950
It was dark, Rolf slept, rolling around in his bed, dreaming the same dream.
He felt pain in his head – what the hell? He was scared – fear descended on him like a thick cloud that seemed to clutch at him as his heart raced.
Control your fear. Think, think! What did he know? He had no idea what was happening; maybe they were trying to kill him.
'Don't make me go,' Rolf begged.
The boy’s trusting eyes immersed his father in a warm embrace leaving him feeling contented, and fulfilled in his euphoria.
But the dream changed to a nightmare.
Tobruk, with the Devil standing over him. Rolf’s eyes locked onto the apparition's eyes that were glowing like twin lights.
The Devil smashed the butt of his rifle into Rolf’s head. He sat up screaming, his eyes open. The sound of the battlefield continued in his head.
‘Die you Hitler shit,’ yelled the Devil, ‘die you Hitler shit.’
Rolf woke and clamped his hands over his ears then jumped off the bed, still screaming and ran from his bed, his face distorted in fear. The sound of the battlefield ceased, but the voice continued, ‘Die you Hitler shit. Die you Hitler shit.’
He slammed into the closed door and collapsed on the floor, whimpering. The shock brought him back to reality, but fear continued to make him shake.
Rolf shouted, ‘Lass mich in Ruhe. Lass mich in Ruhe,’ while other men in the hut cursed in Polish.
‘You’re speaking German, Nazi bastard. What’s wrong with you?’ shouted a man in Polish.
Rolf lifted his head, ‘Sorry, nightmare,’ he replied in Polish then crawled on his hands and knees back to his bed staring at the ceiling too frightened to go to sleep in case the Devil returned. Slowly his terror subsided, and he remembered he had shouted, leave me alone, in German at the top of his voice. Fear of discovery returned.
His mind drifted back to his arrival at sun-drenched Outer Harbour, Adelaide's deep-sea port and his relief at finally reaching his destination.
Rolf stood near the top of the gangplank watching passengers, mostly refugees like him, mill around ready to disembark onto the wharf. His face had a worried look showing all the tragedy that had been in his life since Tobruk. He wanted to forget it and look forward. He looked down at the gap between the ship and the wharf hoping this new country would help him to stop remembering his past.
The sound of the lapping sea had a rhythm that Rolf heard intermittently when the noise of the passengers abated. The low sheds running along the wharf gave the impression of a country town more than the gateway to a city. Rolf guessed the larger building was the passenger terminal.
The signs were good, he thought, he didn’t want to settle in a big city. Adelaide looked to be ideal. Rolf had told so many lies to get onto the ship; he hoped his masquerade of pretending to be Polish would not be discovered. He didn’t speak the Polish language like a native even though he had spent two years there.
Australian authorities had interviewed him in Paris. His documents identified him as Friedrich Wielun which, he hoped would make it easier to be accepted as a refugee. Rolf’s face clouded over at the thought of his friend Friedrich. He hoped he could live up to his name.
The arrival of an immigrant ship was a big occasion for South Australia given the people on board had chosen to settle amongst the citizens of their fine state. However, given the importance of new workers arriving to overcome the shortage of labour, it was surprising only a few decided to welcome them.
The funnel belched smoke while tugs manoeuvred the ship into the wharf. Sailors, forward and aft, threw large hawsers to men ashore securing the people to their new home in a symbolic connection.
Passengers, men, including Rolf women, and children―milled around in subdued excitement mixed with trepidation as they considered their decision to set up life in a new country, and in the process leaving behind loved ones. Men had dressed in coats and trousers, some in shirtsleeves. Women wore dresses or skirts, some with coats. More than half the passengers were children of all ages. Many teenage girls and boys, as well as younger children, stared at the buildings on the wharf. It was difficult to gauge how they felt about their new country.
A swarthy passenger glared at Rolf. Anger showed in the man's eyes. Did this person have a problem? Rolf thought he could be Jewish, and decided not to be over sensitive.
Rolf’s tragic past was raising its ugly head in the present again; he wanted to scream, The war is over. The Allies had punished the people they deemed war criminals, and their anger had diminished. They had taken over their former enemies’ countries and were in charge, and the world marched in step to their drum. Everyone must rebuild after the war. The madness must not continue, the killers had engorged for years, and the world now hoped their bloodlust was satisfied.
Unfortunately, someone always basked in the reflected glory that the Allied victory provided, and reminded the defeated how marvellous the victors were because they happened to choose the winning side. Luckily, most people had decided to get on with coping with the new world order.
Laughter filtered up from the gangplank as the refugees descended, full of expectation that their life would be better in Australia after the European disaster. Rolf watched a tall man with a pretty redheaded woman and a small boy who looked like the couple’s son, hurry down the gangplank.
Rolf had survived the insanity of war, even though pain reminded him of his wounds and his heartbreak over the loss of loved ones. He had decided on a fresh start in a new country with people he did not know. He would change and adapt, he told himself, or the decision to abandon Germany and his roots would be a mistake.
Already he was living a lie when he took the name Freidrich Wielun to pass as Polish. His escape from Europe had proven easier than with his true nationality.
The refugees mingled in a terminal where they took refreshments. Rolf tried to be alone and not mix with the passengers. A woman attempted to gain his attention, and they spoke for a while. In the end, he moved outside for a cigarette to avoid associating with the immigrants from the ship. His identity as Friedrich Wielun, a Polish National, would be easy to see through, and he felt uncomfortable especially when speaking Polish.
Refugees climbed into buses and were driven away from Outer Harbour towards Pennington Migrant Hostel. They travelled from the wharf towards temporary accommodation at the hostel where they would stay until they found a job and moved into conventional housing.
Rolf sat at the back and watched other passengers pointing through the windows as they left Outer Harbour’s precinct, and the bus travelled through large tracts of vacant land.
He noticed some passengers pointing towards the east. A cargo ship appeared as if it was sailing on land. He stared until he realised the vessel must be in a large river as it headed towards an inland port. Undamaged buildings told Rolf bombs had not rained down on the people of South Australia. He noticed remnants of unused air raid shelters.
They crossed over the Port River where they watched small ships sailing up and down under an opening bridge. Stevedores loaded several large ships giving the impression of a port full of activity. Over the river, the bus drove through the large settlement of Port Adelaide with busy roads and shops.
Rolf wondered how he would adjust to life in this country, his inner spirits lifted in anticipation, although a little worried at how he would cope.
The bus drove along a wide road eventually turning into the hostel. Rolf's high spirits nose-dived when he saw that his new home consisted of large water tanks cut in half. Six rows of curved corrugated iron sheds gave the camp a look of silver arches disappearing into the ground. Towards the camp’s rear were more huts made in the conventional shape of a square building with gable roofs. A large open channel ran through the site where children played in the dirt.
The refugees left the bus with their belongings and hurried into a hut where government officials interviewed them, filled in forms and allocated quarters which contained at least sixteen beds, eight each side.
Authorities separated men from women―even married couples lived in different huts. All immigrants had to dine together in a large hall.
After he had entered the hut, Rolf relaxed and leant against the door-frame, smoking a cigarette watching other residents walk past. Many refugees had suffered during the war, but despite their experiences, there was a new-found optimism in this modern promised-land.
A different man glared at Rolf, 'Nazi dog!' he vented in Polish. Rolf sighed as the abuser hurried away. Sadness engulfed him, and he felt doubtful about his prospects in this country. Some refugees had already seen through his Polish disguise and labelled him a Nazi.
However, Rolf knew he had to deal with prejudice to survive, and that some immigrants would never forgive Germany and by association the German people.
Rolf woke pressure on his shoulder―he tried to ignore it, but the hand persisted.
‘Get up!’ A voice demanded in Polish; three angry men stared at him.
‘Sorry, terrible night – the war – couldn’t sleep – nightmare.'
'Bad memories … the people you killed are haunting you?' a man suggested.
'I never killed anyone,' Rolf lied.
‘We must talk,’ said another man.
Rolf gazed at the ceiling and rolled over wanting to avoid his accusers and pretended to go back to sleep, although all his senses were alerted when he recognised the men's attitudes. How he handled, these men could be pivotal to his acceptance in this new country. His ruse of rolling over and pretending to sleep would not work, but he needed time to think about his situation. The Polish men had every reason to hate Germany, and he would not get away with pretending to be a countryman. He decided not to make any decisions and go with his instincts.
A man grabbed Rolf's shirt and yanked him up, 'Nazi filth!’
Rolf opened his eyes to stare at the angry men, ‘What! What’s this?’
‘Nazi murderer! Go away and never come back,’ another man demanded.
'Who are you?' Rolf asked.
'I'm Stefan. This is Janek and Wincent. We are Polish. We suffered at the hands of you Germans.'
'So did I! The Nazis tried to kill me,' said Rolf as he pulled away angrily. The only way to handle his accusers was to tell them how much he had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Rolf had much more in common with these Polish men than with many of his countrymen.
Stefan took the role of spokesman. Rolf noticed despair showing through their anger; like many Europeans, they had a hint of sadness about them.
‘You’re not Polish,’ Stefan declared. 'You speak Polish with a German accent.'
'You yelled in German last night,' Wincent accused.
'You’re a dirty Nazi; get out! We will kill you,’ Janek emphasised.
Rolf’s head dropped. He had told lies for so long he took a few seconds to remember the truth.
Janek’s angry face moved closer to Rolf, 'Get out!'
‘I’m not a Nazi,’ Rolf declared.
Stefan glared, 'Don’t try to tell us you’re Polish, we know you’re not.'
Rolf lifted his head, ‘Not all Germans are Nazis. Many suffered under the SS butchers; they tried to kill me―I'm lucky to be alive. I’m a deserter from the Wehrmacht and changed my name to stay alive.'
'Liar,' yelled Janek.
The Polish men stalked out.
'I told you the truth,' Rolf shouted after them. ‘I have lost as much and maybe more than you. If you come back, I will tell you.’
Rolf lay on his bed worried he would be sent back to Germany, unsure how to make these men believe him. Stefan was the obvious leader of the group. If he convinced him, his friends would follow.
The men returned. Stefan pulled up a chair while Janek and Wincent sat on Rolf’s bed.
'Your lies worked. The authorities won't shift you; their records show you're Polish, and the SS wanted to arrest you. They said you are not a Nazi.'
'Correct. But the authorities think I'm Friedrich Wielun. You're right; I'm German… my name is Rolf Krieger; I'm not sure you'll understand. I did what I had to, to survive. The English wanted me dead; the Italian Militia tried to kill me. The SS and German Police almost killed me many times. I felt as if the whole world wanted me dead, and they almost succeeded.
‘My story starts when my family arrived back in Germany after working in Poland with my father who was a carpenter. I was his apprentice.'
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