There is an often-told story about a Canadian soldier who escaped a PoW camp in Germany in the Second World War.
He got as far as a farm in Germany before a husband and wife caught him. Only the couple didn’t immediately report him to authorities.
Instead, they conveyed to him that they had a son in the German army who had been captured and placed in a Canadian PoW camp. He was being held at the Whitewater PoW Camp in Riding Mountain National Park.
Their son had been allowed to write home and told his parents not to worry, the Canadians were treating him better than the German army had.
So the couple invited the escaped Canadian soldier into their home, cooked him the best meal he’d eaten in months and gave him food and supplies to aid his escape. Then they bid him adieu with a "Grüss Gott!" (God bless).
There is a long history of mutual respect and admiration between Germans and Canadians, once you get past the political leaders and power-brokers. The Whitewater PoW camp was a prime example.
"I was a pearl diver," joked Peter Ewasiuk, meaning a dishwasher, in the Whitewater camp.
Ewasiuk was just 15 years old. He was living on his parents’ farm north of Sandy Lake when his uncle got him the job in 1943. The camp operated from October 1943 to October 1945.
Ewasiuk, 84, who now lives in Brandon, is one of the few surviving eyewitnesses to the Whitewater camp.
He slept in the barracks set aside for staff, waking at 5 a.m. every day to cut bread with a hand crank for the 450 prisoners. Breakfasts were hearty.
"The prisoners had bacon and eggs in the morning, or ham and eggs," Ewasiuk said. Then he and two others washed dishes.
For dinner, it was not uncommon for the PoWs to eat steak or stew. Then Ewasiuk washed dishes again. Another of his jobs was to haul wood to the stoves for cooking and heating. He wouldn’t be finished until 10 p.m.
Ewasiuk was impressed with the Germans. Whitewater held the lowest-risk German soldiers, from the Afrika Korps, captured in Egypt after the Second Battle of El-Alamein.
"I met a professor. He was quite a smart gentleman. He didn’t want to fight a war, but he got drafted. Prof. Blume was his name. He said when the war was over, he was going to go to New York and teach there. He had family there."
"They were really sharp people, smart in different things," Ewasiuk continued.
"They used to cut up blankets and made suits out of them."
Some men made dugout canoes for paddling Whitewater Lake. Remnants of the canoes can still be spotted on the shoreline of the former camp site.
There were engineers, mechanics, draftsmen, a dentist, as well as a medical officer who served as the commanding officer for the PoWs.
The conscripted German soldiers were as young as 16 and ranged up to their late 20s, like the professor. They would come into the staff building and barter for cigarettes. Many made ships in bottles to trade.
"We got along good. We didn’t know any different," said Ewasiuk, who enlisted in the Canadian Forces the next year.
PoWs would put on a stage show once a week. The men in the audience, led by the stage performers, belted out songs with great gusto. Men also dressed up as women to play female roles. Someone would play accordion.
"Golly, we enjoyed that. They were good singers," Ewasiuk said.
"I used to go ice skating with them on Whitewater Lake. Some of them were really good skaters."
They purchased skates out of the 50 cents a day they earned cutting cord wood that was used to heat Manitoba homes.
As a 15-year-old, Ewasiuk was not always aware of issues in the camp. However, he believes the famous "pyjamas strike" must have been the time the men refused to work. With money earned from cutting cord wood, the men made a mass order of pyjamas from the Eaton’s catalogue. When the pyjamas took a long time to arrive, the men got it into their heads that the authorities had stolen them for their own use.
"They refused to work. They didn’t go wild about it. They just stayed silent. They gave them the silent treatment," Ewasiuk said. A status report on the pyjamas settled matters.
Of the 40 PoW camps across Canada during the Second World War, which interned 37,000 PoWs, Whitewater was the most lax. Prisoners even built a still to make their own alcohol, housed in the medical building. However, most of the alcohol the prisoners accessed probably came from outside the camp.
"(PoWs) had the greatest of freedom. There was no barbed-wire fence around camp. They just slashed trees (in a perimeter around the camp) and painted them with red markers and the prisoners weren’t supposed to go past them."
They did anyway. Some were gone for three or four days at a time, visiting places on the edge of the park such as Olha, Oakburn and Horod, and staying in farm homes at night.
There were a lot of dances in Horod and PoWs went there and met girls. They walked 15 kilometres to get to a dance. This was likely more common in the early days of the camp, when Ewasiuk worked there and when the camp was patrolled by 45 civilian guards, mainly men from the area.
Later, those guards were replaced by First World War veterans. It seems there was a crackdown at some point and prisoners who went missing risked being shipped out to tougher PoW camps. So PoWs would attend rollcall after supper on Saturday, light out to the dance at Horod, and make it back by Sunday morning’s rollcall.
Local people even provided prisoners with civilian clothes. Their regular prison garb was a blue tunic, with a red stripe up the leg and a big red dot painted on the back.
Relations between the PoWs and neighbouring communities raised the ire of authorities and people of British descent.
But to the Ukrainians and Poles living around the park, Germany, with its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was viewed as a liberator of their people back home in Ukraine and Poland. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had starved to death at least five million Ukrainians in 1932-33.
Whitewater had no guardhouse to discipline PoWs. Plus, the First Wold War vets were in their 50s, some even older, and were viewed as pushovers by the prisoners.
Neither were there guard towers or even guard dogs, only pet dogs for the prisoners.
At one point, the camp supervisor forbade any more dogs for pets because the camp was being overrun by them. The guards were also outnumbered, 450 to 45. They had rifles but didn’t usually carry them.
"(PoWs) could get in and out of camp any time they wanted," Ewasiuk said.
Marc George, director of the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum in Shilo, is aware of the story about the German couple helping the escaped Canadian PoW but doesn’t know its origin.
"Most often stories like that are true," he said.
"Part of Canada’s policy was to create an environment where the prisoners were happy," said Michael O’Hagan, of Ste. Rose du Lac, who is working toward a master’s degree in history at the University of Western Ontario. He has studied Whitewater extensively.
One reason Canada made a conscious decision to treat German PoWs well was so Germany would treat Canadian PoWs well. But there were other reasons.
"By treating them like people, they’re more likely to work, more likely to co-operate and less likely to escape," said O’Hagan.
Escape attempts from Whitewater were virtually non-existent.
» Winnipeg Free Press