Kath and Stan Hansen have found a stack of letters and documents belonging to Stan Bert’s father, who was a Kiwi war hero from World War I. Video / Dean Purcell
Stan Hansen waited 80 years to open the brown suitcase tucked away at the top of his parents’ wardrobe that keeps a written history of his father’s war years.
The recorded memories of veteran Bert Hansen’s seven months as a German prisoner in Belgium during World War I are too painful to pass up while still alive.
“My father would not talk about war even if he appeared in it,” said Hansen.
But the deep memory of Stan’s childhood is that of his father’s whining from exposure to mustard gas: “he just coughed, coughed, coughed.”
With Stan having only a “vague consciousness” that grew out of his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war, the brown suitcase takes on a kind of mythological meaning.
“It’s in the wardrobe in their bedroom and it’s absolutely no no. We kids are not allowed to come near it,” said the 88-year-old.
“The first time I touched the bag, I was actually pictured with my dad in Christchurch as a kid aged 3, with my dad carrying my suitcase.
“It will be 80 years [since] I have the opportunity to touch it, because it is sacred. “
After Bert Hansen’s death in 1951 at the age of 53, the suitcase belonged to his youngest son, Arthur, who for his own reasons kept its contents a secret.
“He’s a tough guy to deal with at the best of times,” said Stan of his younger brother.
“The saddest part for me was that while growing up, my oldest brother, Jim, who should have been the right person to at least read the memoirs, died without seeing him.
“We know there is something valuable enough for my father on the top shelf in the cupboard in his bedroom.”
With Arthur’s death in January this year, the brown suitcase was finally accessible to Stan and his remaining older sisters.
Stan’s daughter, Sue, said she could barely stand from her shock when the suitcase was finally opened at their Point Chevalier home.
Inside is a 109-page handwritten manuscript detailing his father’s arrest at age 22 in northeastern France, at Meteren on April 16, 1918, during the German Spring Offensive.
Bert was able to escape twice from the prison hospital where he was and was protected by Belgian underground resistance until the Armistice took effect on November 11, 1918.
Stan’s wife, Kath, was as stunned by the document as her husband.
“[It was a record] about his gruesome adventures from the day he was arrested until the Armistice, “he said.
“During that time he was in six different prisons in France or Belgium, almost dying, as did hundreds of others in those prisons. He escaped twice, and I understand he is the only Kiwi soldier who escaped twice from detention. Germany in the West. Home. “
Perhaps even more interesting in this case is Bert’s post-war correspondence with French citizens who helped him during his imprisonment and escape.
“The most interesting thing is a lot of French documents. Most of them are letters,” said Kath.
“It seems that in 1924 and 25 he corresponded with local residents in and around the church where he made his first escape. The parish priest at the time sent him three postcards of this church, which had been turned into a victim cleaning station.”
A translation of a postcard sent to Bert in 1924 from a pastor named A. Guidon at St Peter’s Church in Chains in Leuze-en-Hainaut, West Belgium, provides an overview of the type of correspondence.
“You will find annexed a card (interior view) of our church converted into a prison (as you know),” Guidon wrote in French to Bert.
“Despite the fact that the Germans wanted to hide your escape, we are well aware of it. One of the men who gave you the food (which we offered) gave us assurance about your disappearance.
“Would you be kind enough to tell us if there were any civilians involved in your escape. Who gave you civilian clothes? Who protected you? If someone really helped you, we’d be happy to respect that.”
Fr. Guidon ended by asking Bert to send him some New Zealand stamps for his collection.
Kath said she intends to write her own book over the next two years, including manuscripts and various other correspondence found in the briefcase.
He believes Bert planned to do the same in the 1920s before the project was put on hold.
Bert has described in a 1919 article the hunger and forced labor he endured during the seven month cycle of arrest, flee, arrest and flee in France and Belgium.
“As I went through all these papers, I got the impression Bert might have gathered information other than his own story because he was going to write something better and bigger,” said Kath.
“In the last few pages I found about three or four little notes on the side that reinforce my theory that he was actually going to write something else.”
The photo of Bert dressed in clothing in Europe during the war also intrigued Hansen’s family.
“How could he dress like that?” Stan asked. “He is a prisoner.”
Sue Hansen said she plans to return to Europe to retrace the many sites mentioned in the manuscript.
“This is a story that continues to grow, it’s incredible,” he said. “The internet helps, but it’s like a puzzle. We have most of the outside but we are missing a lot of the inside. With these things, it doesn’t seem like a huge number but it really is. It’s quite old and people are getting old. we even have this.
Sue will also meet two historians the family has contacted over the past two months.
“Our two main local contacts are in Belgium, one has a museum, the other is publishing for academics, and they’ve got into their network and all of a sudden all these people are saying ‘hey, we want to get involved’,” says Sue.
“I have taken lots of photos and sent them to Europe, the embassies. Churches are fascinated by these writings because many of them were destroyed.”
Stan says his travel days are over, but just being able to read his father’s handwritten words describing a story he could never tell while he was alive is more than enough.
“Oh, that’s incredible. It’s an extraordinary story. It’s incredible that he can actually move and get so many people to help him in occupied Belgium,” he said.
“Until the end of January this year I had never seen them. To me this is a complete discovery.”