6. RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS
When an arrested man was brought to camp, the military police immediately conducted him to the quartermaster's store where he received his underclothes, two sets each of summer and winter clothing, a heavy jacket, a pair of heavy work boots and two pairs of woolen sox. He signed for the items received and his civilian clothing and articles were rolled into a bundle, given a number and placed on a shelf. The administration guaranteed the return of your belongings on your release. But that was only on paper. In reality valuable items often vanished and were never returned to the prisoner, though he affirmed with his own signature before witnesses that he had given the items to the administration for safe keeping. Peter Prokop and Jacob Penner lost their valuable watches this way.
At the same time as he received the clothing the prisoner was given a small round disk with black numerals imprinted on it. From that moment on he lost his name and became a number: 251, 633, 720...
Prison clothing was cut after a single fashion (in different sizes). The summer hats looked like jockey caps. They were dark blue in colour with a red stripe which stretched from the nape of the neck to the visor. The winter caps were sewn from thick black material without any markings. On the back of the shirts, jacket and winter jacket a large disk had been cut out and replaced by a circle of red material. This marking served as a target for the guard in case a prisoner should decide to escape from camp, and also to identify him if he succeeded in breaking free. The pants were marked for the same reason; a red stripe had been sewn on the right pant leg from the buttocks to the boot top. As a result, one could not differentiate one prisoner from another by clothing, only by physique.
After fitting out the prisoner, the guard conducted him from the military section of the camp to the prison section — to the provost. The sergeant-major summoned the camp spokesman to the quarters of the military police and together they conducted the new prisoner to the commandant who read him the regulations: the prisoner was not to venture near the barbed-wire fence; he must carry out administration orders; upon meeting an officer (beginning with the sergeant-major) he must salute him (by placing the fingers of his right hand at the visor of his cap); the prisoner must address an officer as "sir"; in all matters the prisoner may address the commandant only through the sergeant-major of the military police and in the presence of the camp spokesman.
One should mention that all internees were categorized as prisoners of war and were openly called POWs.
Having heard out the commandant's exhortation, the internee with his gear and his number returned to the prison section of the camp, where the sergeant-major showed him the barrack where he would live henceforth.
Each newcomer was the object of interest; the internees who had been in camp for a long time came up to him and plied him with questions about what was going on in the world. This was entirely understandable, since the prisoners lived as if on a small island surrounded by barbed wire, and hungered to listen to news from a person just arrived from the "free world".
The German fascists wanted to know if the war would end shortly, if soon would come their Der Tag (Victory Day) which they impatiently awaited. If the newcomer said that the war might continue for a few years yet, then they would become annoyed and call him a know-nothing fool.
This is how the day began for the newly arrived prisoner at Kananaskis internment camp:
The prisoners were roused by the sound of a gong at 6:30 in the morning. They hurried to the communal lavatory. At the second sound of the gong, at 7:00 a.m., they went to the common dining hall. Each internee was assigned a place at a table. Whoever was late missed breakfast, lunch or supper. It rarely occurred that someone was late, because everyone wanted to eat.
The third gong, at 8:00 a.m., summoned all internees to the parade-ground for roll call. The prisoners stood in rows in numerical order: 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. Roll call was conducted for the most part by a lieutenant (occasionally by a captain) together with the sergeant-major, corporals and military police. The sergeant‑major shouted through a megaphone, "Attention" All the prisoners drew themselves up and silently waited until a military policeman came up to them and read out the number on their disk. Each one whose number was read out had to answer, "Sir!" only those who were ill and were so certified by the doctor did not attend roll call. They were accounted for in the barracks or in the hospital. After roll call the prisoners were assigned to work brigades for two types of work — paid and unpaid. Before lunch they worked from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., and from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. after lunch.
When the prisoners returned from work at 11:45 a.m. the gong summoned them to the parade-ground for the next roll call to verify that all had returned, particularly those who had worked in the forest. Having called out their numbers, in a strident voice the sergeant cried through the megaphone, "Parade dismissed!" All together the prisoners went off in different directions, since they were free till lunch. A similar routine also occurred after the prisoners returned from work in the afternoon.
In accordance with the international convention on prisoners of war (we belonged in this category) they had to give us the same rations as the soldiers in the Canadian army received. The administration did not always abide by this law; it was occasionally broken. But, generally speaking, the food was not bad, though it was given to the internees in smaller quantities than to Canadian soldiers and was of poorer quality. Very often the prisoners were fed old boiled salt pork, the smell of which we could not stand. The Nazis, though, tore at it like hungry wolves. They stuffed their faces with Speck (as the Germans called this salt pork) until the saliva ran from their mouths. The eels, which came in big cans, were also disgusting to us. But one has to say that there was never any lack of bread, condensed milk, butter, vegetables, and even fruit (especially apples). True, breakfast and lunch were standardized; there was no choice.
After supper the prisoners had free time. Until 8:00 p.m. they were able to walk about the territory of the camp. Then the gong sounded again and the prisoners had to go to their barracks to which the military police came and locked the doors from the outside. After a while a roll call of the prisoners was taken in the barracks. The door would suddenly open, the sergeant-major would come in and shout that word already well-known to the prisoners — "Attention!" Each had to stand at attention beside his bed. An officer with a military policeman would enter and check the prisoners, that is, state their numbers. The door would be locked again. Often enough a bed check would occur: the guard would enter the barrack, illuminate each bed with his flashlight, and verify that there was a prisoner in it. True, it was not necessary at that time to stand at attention and answer "Sir!" Such a check, however, disturbed the prisoners' sleep, especially when the light from the flashlight fell on their faces. A check of the prisoners was made four times a day — sometimes five times.
Between 8:00 and 9:30 p.m., the prisoners could play chess, checkers or cards. Some would read books from the camp library, which consisted for the most part of detective and cowboy stories. At 9:30 p.m., the military police would come by the barracks and cry out, "Lights out!" Then the prisoners had to go to sleep. Only on Saturday were the lights allowed on in the barracks till 10 at night.
As I have mentioned already, the prisoners were sent out to do different sorts of work. One brigade worked in the forest cutting pine trees for bracing in the mines. It was hard and dirty labour because the prisoners worked in burnt-out forests. When they returned to the barracks they looked like coal miners who had just come up from the mines: their clothing and faces were covered with soot and only their white teeth shone. The prisoners, escorted by armed soldiers, were transported by truck ten to fifteen miles from camp into the mountains for this work. There under canvas tents the prisoners had lunch — pork and beans, bread and coffee.
Every internee had to perform some task. Only those 60 years and older were freed from the obligation to work. The prisoners were divided into work brigades: construction workers for the barracks and the administrative buildings, road crews, and plumbers. There were brigades for cutting firewood for heating the barracks and administrative buildings. There was a brigade to mend the camp fences. Others performed various internal tasks in the camp: cooking, washing the cooking pots, cleaning the yard, peeling potatoes in the soldiers' mess, carrying firewood to the barracks, serving in the hospital, cleaning the guard room, sorting clothing in the storeroom and washing the windows on the guard towers. Some of the prisoners worked in tailor and shoemaker workshops.
The administration paid only for that work which brought income to the camp, particularly for cutting timber. One contractor, Stanley MacLean, had an agreement with the government to supply a certain amount of timber which the internees in the Kananaskis camp had to cut. Consequently he would hurry among the prisoners like the devil himself and urge them to work faster because he wanted to prosper by their involuntary labour. The prisoners who worked in the forest hated him. They were paid the same as for other work such as road construction and ditch digging. For such work the prisoners received 20 cents a day. If a prisoner worked for a whole month then the most he could make would be five dollars and forty cents. He was paid not in money but only with tokens, little bits of yellow paper which were the equivalent of five cents. Pay was given out once a month. Also tokens for money which the prisoners received from home were given out once a month. All other work (in the kitchen, cleaning the yard, washing windows on the guard towers) was without pay; it was the prisoners' obligation to do this work.
Of course, without help from the outside it would have been very tight for the prisoner in camp because not everyone could have paid work. But even if he worked continuously and made the $5.40 a month, this money would not have been enough for him to buy tobacco, toothpaste, razor blades, soap, pencils, paper, etc.
Every prisoner had to wash his own laundry. Nevertheless this problem resolved itself in the following manner: one prisoner would do the wash and receive 5 cents from each person. The prisoners also had to pay their barber 5 cents. The laundry for the antifascist group was done by our comrade Mike Biniowsky. He was also our barber.
The prisoners had the right to write four letters and four postcards a month. Each month the administration handed out the appropriate forms. One was allowed to write 24 lines in a letter and only 7 on a postcard. They told us that the English internees in German prisoner-of-war camps had similar rights. We antifascists were amazed by this; why were these criteria applied to Canadian citizens — English, French, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles and Finns who had nothing in common with the Nazis and with the regulations in German prisoner-of-war camps? We considered this to be a callous violation of our rights and stated so many times in our protests to the Canadian authorities.
Letters could be written in English and German. Such letters immediately went through the censor at the camp and were forwarded to the addressee. If someone wrote a letter in Ukrainian, Yiddish or another language, then the letter was sent to Ottawa where it was censored and only then forwarded to the indicated person.
Each prisoner gave his return address: his name and surname, his number and the additional notation "Internment Camp K".
Our friends and relatives wrote to us from home that our letters were subjected to severe censorship; not just separate words or separate sentences, but whole paragraphs were blacked out with India ink so that you could not make heads or tails of it, you could not understand what had been written. The letters which we received from home were subjected to similar practice. They were defaced with India ink or entire paragraphs were cut out of them.
To the camp were delivered ten copies of the daily newspapers the "Edmonton Journal" and the "Albertan" which also went through the crucible of censorship since separate news items or even entire pages were cut out of them. This was done so that the prisoners would not find out about matters on which the administration had placed a taboo. A newspaper was allowed to be kept in a barrack for a mere hour. Thus each of the twelve persons who were in a barrack had the right to a paper for just 5 minutes. The papers were delivered four days after they were published. The canteen paid for the newspapers out of its profits.
After supper and on Sundays the prisoners whiled away the time with various diversions. A group of the antifascists played horseshoes. In the summer the Italians would gather behind the barracks and play cards for money. On "Hitler Platz" the Nazis would play soccer. Some would go for a stroll in the fresh air. Using penknives and wood chisels others would make boxes, trays, cigarette boxes and other souvenirs which they could send home to their friends or family.
Sometimes a feature-length movie was shown in the recreation hall (located in a long barrack).
True, the antifascist group conducted its own political and cultural activities which will be discussed later.
When the first arrested antifascists were brought to camp, there were nearly 250 Germans there. They already had their own spokesman, Hans Brendel of Vancouver. His assistant was Walter Bode. The secretary was Joseph Kiefer from Saskatchewan. All of the prisoners had to obey the spokesman. He was officially confirmed by the Ministry of Justice in Ottawa. He was the contact between the internees and the camp commandant.
The spokesman passed on all orders from the commandant. During the day he went with the commandant on inspection of the barracks. He held regular meetings with the barrack leaders. Through his hands passed all the mail which the prisoners sent and received from the outside. Hence he was able to read all letters because they were not sealed. It was the same with the letters from the outside, since they had been opened by the censor. We antifascists could not agree to the Nazis, our mortal enemies, attending to our affairs. Similarly we did not want a Nazi looking through our mail. Consequently we immediately protested against such an arrangement. On the very first day the antifascist group sent William Kolisnyk and Andrew Bileski to the camp commandant with a protest. Having listened to the delegation, Commandant H. de Watson said, "I don't see any difference between you and the Germans."
He categorically refused to meet the demands of the antifascists. Consequently, for some time we were obliged to conform to the status quo but we continuously struggled for our rights, which we finally secured.
Though Hans Brendel was a Nazi, he was not "orthodox". As a result the extremists among the Nazis disliked him, and considered him guilty of collaboration with the administration. They hoped to remove him and select an ardent Nazi for the post of spokesman.
As mentioned previously, the barracks where the prisoners lived were constructed of pine boards between which there were chinks and holes. In the summer, the wind blew sand through the cracks. When a prisoner awoke in the morning there was sand in his eyes, in his ears and mouth, even between his teeth. The table, bench, shelves and the water bucket were covered with sand. In the winter the wind blew snow through the holes into the barracks.
The barracks were designated numerically. Those sharing a barrack chose from among themselves a barrack leader who was responsible to the camp spokesman. He attended the regular meetings of the barrack leaders, brought back the decisions of the meeting and also passed along the demands of his barrack-mates. Of course, the Nazis chose their own to be barrack leaders since they held the majority in the barracks.
Order was kept in the barracks by the prisoners themselves, each in his turn. Depending upon the schedule they established, they took turns every day or every week. The barrack orderly performed the following duties: each morning he swept the dirt floor, carried out the urinal, brought in firewood, cleaned the ashes out of the stove, filled the drinking bucket with fresh water, cleaned the lamp and filled it with kerosene. All of this he performed in addition to his daily responsibilities. Each prisoner made his bed in the prescribed army manner.
Every day before lunch, between 9:00 and 11:00 o'clock, the commandant with the camp spokesman and the military police inspected the barracks. At that time no prisoner dared be in the barracks. If the commandant caught someone there, he told the sergeant to take his number. If the prisoner did not have an excuse he was punished with three to five days in solitary confinement. If the commandant found disorder in the barrack, then he would warn the spokesman or officially reprimand him.
There were two infirmaries in the camp: one for the internees and the other for the soldiers. The prisoners' infirmary was under the supervision of Dr. Heuston. In his time he had been the doctor in the farming town of Olds, Alberta, but under his charge tragedy struck: several children were asphyxiated by anaesthetic gas and the doctor was expelled from the town. Now he was entrusted with the supervision of the infirmary in the Kananaskis Internment Camp. He was an unfriendly person.
Each day the sick reported to the infirmary for examination. Heuston almost never examined them himself — he only looked them over from a distance and prescribed as "medicine" some castor oil. Among themselves the sick said that he treated everyone and all illness with one and the same "medicine": even illnesses of the ear, the nose, the eyes... His assistant was medical orderly Gillespie. His behaviour toward the sick was even more callous. Heuston and Gillespie were very often attended by a German, Bodewein, who had been a veterinarian during the First World War and now they had made him their helper. He was a robust man — he weighed perhaps 250 pounds. His favourite method of "treatment" was to steam the patient in a huge wash tub. He covered the sick man with a sack containing some sort of herbs and kept him there for some time. Afterwards he laid him out on a table and gave him a massage until the sick man almost lost consciousness. After such treatment the ailing internee felt as if a caterpillar tractor had driven over him. Having gone through such a course of treatment once, even if he were still ill the prisoner did not want to fall into the hands of Bodewein.
Among the antifascists at Kananaskis, only Michael Sawiak, editor of "Farmer's Life", was seriously ill. It was painful to see his agony. Besides the physical pain he was very homesick for his family, wife and sons. If he had been released from camp soon enough, then for certain his life would have been saved for many more years. In the end he was carried out of camp on a stretcher and he died soon afterwards.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All