Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/9/2014 (1045 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ELM RIVER HUTTERITE COLONY -- One of Lutz Beranek's favourite stories about his father, a German prisoner of war from 1944 to 1946, was his first encounter with a skunk.
Richard Beranek, a new arrival at the PoW logging camp at Mafeking, just north of Swan River, had never seen the endearing critter before. The other PoWs, Lutz recalls his father telling him, said they made wonderful pets and he should try to catch it.
So he sneaked up on the diminutive black animal with the white stripe down its back...and was coated with a yellow, rank-smelling liquid that shot out of the rodent's anus.
He reeked for a week, but Beranek, a PoW at age 17, still called his time in Manitoba "the best days of his life."
In homage to his father, Lutz, along with his son, Marcel, and his sister, Marianne Markus, retraced his footsteps in Manitoba PoW camps. The Free Press caught up to them at the end of their three-week journey at the Elm River Hutterite Colony.
Lutz, short for Ludwig, started to investigate his father's PoW experience two years ago. All he had was his father's PoW mug shot and prisoner number: A 442024. A German archive service revealed Richard Beranek saw his first combat duty during the Second World War in Normandy on D-Day, and was captured two days later on June 8, 1944. He was one of 33,796 German PoWs held in Canada and returned to Germany in 1946. But there was no information about his stay in Canada.
Lutz googled various word combinations such as "PoW and Winnipeg," and turned up Winnipeg Free Press stories I'd written on the Whitewater PoW camp in Riding Mountain National Park. He contacted me by email, and I in turn referred him to Ed Stozek in Dauphin, a local historian and author of The Sawmill Boys, PoWs and Conscientious Objectors: stories from the Parkland.
Stozek put him in touch with Linda Maendel, a Hutterite school teacher at the Elm River Colony, who was researching a former PoW camp at Newton, just southeast of Portage la Prairie. And Maendel put Lutz in touch with Michael O'Hagan of Ste. Rose du Lac, who is working on his PhD on German prisoners in Canadian PoW camps.
Together, they researched and charted Lutz's trip for him. It was O'Hagan, from his research files, who discovered Lutz's father was interned at Manitoba PoW camps in Mafeking and Grassmere.
The Grassmere camp was just north of the junction of Main Street and the Perimeter Highway, east of Middlechurch, now a residential neighbourhood along Grassmere Road. No known remnants of the camp exist.
The Beranek family visited Grassmere, took a horse-drawn wagon to the Whitewater camp in Riding Mountain and finally drove to Mafeking and Pelican Rapids, where Beranek used to fish with local Cree people. O'Hagan, 25, accompanied the family to all three PoW sites, while Stozek acted as tour guide for the Whitewater camp.
The Elm River and Decker Hutterite colonies provided some lodgings along the way. While Hutterites speak a German dialect, there are no colonies in Germany, so visiting them was a new experience for the Beranek family.
The highlight was Mafeking, a lumber camp run in the 1940s by the Manitoba Paper Co., a division of Abitibi. The camp cut wood to make paper and for firewood. Several log cabins the PoWs built are still partly standing. "I felt as though I was with my father. It was a great experience," said Lutz, 49, his words translated into English by his son.
The PoWs at Mafeking were not fenced in. They were called "white Nazis" because they were considered low risk to escape or act violently. Canadian authorities treated them well, according to the Geneva Convention, in hopes Germany would do the same with Canadian PoWs. The high-risk "black Nazis" were held at PoW camps such as the one in Medicine Hat.
The PoWs at Mafeking fraternized with local people and attended events such as dances at the community hall.
The Grassmere camp was different. Men were held in a compound behind a barbed-wire fence, with guards on duty around the clock. The PoWs made up farm crews and did such work as stooking grain and harvesting sugar beets.
Lutz, who returned home to Germany with his family on Friday, wanted to thank all those who made his odyssey possible. "I think I've had just as wonderful a time as my father, but shorter."