Mysterious war photographs sparked Gill’s Austrian quest
- Credit: Archant
There were five photographs in an album belonging to Albert Harrison but when his daughter Gill asked who they were her mother Violet would just say: 'They're the people your dad was with during the war.'
It made her even more determined to find out more about what and where her father, who had suffered from Alzheimer's before his death in 1991, had been during the Second World War, a time of such torment and savage conflict, a time which so many men rarely spoke of.
Gill Girling, of Horsford, discovered her dad had served with the Norfolk Yeomanry, managed to get off the beaches at Dunkirk, but was later captured in the Middle East and ended up at a prison camp in Austria.
Internet searches resulted in bits and pieces of information and then she got in touch with an Austrian newspaper, which used the photographs along with a story, in the hope someone would recognise the people or the farm.
No information was forthcoming but Gill did hear from an Austrian woman, called Steffi, who had lived near the PoW camp during the war, married an Englishman, lived in Norwich for 50 years, before returning home to Wolfsberg.
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Ian Brown, who runs a website – www.stalag18a.org.uk – told Gill to look on any old paperwork for a work party number as Stalag18a was a holding camp from where the PoWs were sent out to work, some on farms and the less lucky ones in quarries, factories and railways.
Her inquiry coincided with the opening of an exhibition about Stalag18a at the Lavanthaus Museum in Wolfsberg.
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And then, out of the blue, a number was discovered on the back of a photograph sent to Albert by his sister in 1943.
Ian pinpointed where Albert had been sent to work as a PoW and so, armed with the information, those five photographs, and some questions translated into German, Gill along with husband Roy, brother Keith and his partner Sue, set off for Austria last month.
It was a long shot. There were so many farms in that part of rural Austria. Would anyone remember Albert, a tommy PoW from all those years ago?
The answer was yes.
This is part of Gill's diary highlighting that memorable trip last month.
'We travelled to Wolfsberg to the Stalag18a Exhibition which is beautifully presented, emotion ripping, thought provoking and an amazing insight into the world of PoWs. We all agreed it was well worth the journey to Austria for that alone.
'We were made very welcome and when we told a young man of our plans to search for the farm where my father had been he kindly rewrote our questions in correct German.
'After visiting one farm we decided to wait until the following day before exploring any further.'
'We decided to head for a cafe/bar. One man, Josef, aged about 75, spoke English. We showed him the photographs and questions. He took them and set off on his bicycle saying he would be back in two hours.
'We were walking round the village when we spotted him riding hell for leather towards us. He shook his head sadly saying he could not find the people in the photographs, they were all dead but then added with a triumphant grin: 'I have found the farmer's son.' His name was Karl Taucher
'Wow! I kissed him on the cheek and then Keith and I cried with joy, there in the street. An amazing moment.'
'After a restless night we arranged to meet Josef in the cafe again. More people arrived, the photographs came out, and we were introduced to Anton who turned out to be another of the farmer's sons. He was in the photographs with his parents.
'All went according to plan and we arrived at the 20-acre farm to be welcomed most warmly by Karl (born 1940) and his wife Christina. Anton (born 1946) and his son Martin arrived and we all sat around a large table in the kitchen eating and drinking with everyone talking at once.
'Details were sketchy and it was obvious that much of what the two brothers could tell us came from family conversations over the years. Karl remembered sometimes being left in Albert's care and that after the war the family often talked about him.
'We heard that another brother, Franz (born in 1938 and now a priest in Graz) had ginger hair and that dad would pull his leg about being easily spotted by the bomber planes. It indicated that perhaps there had been an easy rapport going on.
'There was a distinct impression that the family were fond of Albert for as much as it was allowed. Apparently it was strictly forbidden that the farm owners should show any kindness or favours to the PoWs.
'Then we realised our photographs couldn't have been given to dad when he left the farm in 1945, as we had always believed, because they showed Karl and Anton as teenagers.
'Anton suddenly announced he remembered a letter arriving from England in the 1960s. We all thought it was strange the event had not been mentioned by either [of our] parents.
'We had to draw the conclusion that probably my father's attempt to make contact hadn't been unsuccessful after all. Perhaps he met someone who spoke German who helped him write a letter to the farm and received a reply along with the photographs.
'One of the photographs showed a building which had been part of the farmhouse but was damaged by bombs in October 1944. Albert would have been at the farm at that time. We were shown the cellar where the family would have gathered but we have no idea where Albert would have sheltered because he would not have been allowed in the cellar.
'It was overwhelming to walk on the same ground Albert had worked on, willingly or not we will never be sure. Tears flowed and I found it hard not to cry uncontrollably. Keith was also very emotional and Sue & Roy had a tear in their eye too.
'Eventually it was time to leave. I think we were all exhausted but happy. We could not, and still cannot believe our luck – and to think this all happened on the anniversary of D-Day!'