From Buchenwald to Queen's Park:
An Ontario Airman's Legacy To His Grandson
By Sarah Watson
Plaque honouring the 168 Allied airmen imprisoned at Buchenwald. Photo by Craig Carter-Edwards.
Love of democracy, and the determination to protect it, runs deep in the Carter-Edwards family.
This month marked the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, a story which, unbeknownst to most Canadians, has deep ties right here in Ontario.
From August to November 1944,168 Allied Airmen - 26 of whom were Canadian - were illegally imprisoned in Buchenwald.
It was a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention.
The annual ceremony April 13th commemorated the liberation of Buchenwald, this year an added touch: the special unveiling of a plaque honouring the Allied airmen who were imprisoned there.
Age and time have taken their toll, but not enough to keep four of the remaining survivors from making the journey to mark an event Canada and other countries at first tried to sweep under the rug, and even now, do little to acknowledge.
Among them: 91 year old Ed Carter-Edwards of Smithville, Ontario and his 37 year old grandson Craig, a former Queen’s Park political staffer.
Ed joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942 when he was only 19, and spent two years as a gunner flying missions over Europe before the day his plane was shot down in occupied France.
The airmen were forced to hide, using fake identities, and eventually made their way to Paris, only to be betrayed by a Belgian collaborator and handed over to the brutal German SS.
Ed and the others should have been sent to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp, but the SS refused to acknowledge that they were airmen. Instead, they were labeled as police prisoners - spies and terrorists - and sent to spend a month in Fresnes Prison in Paris.
But that didn’t last long. Soon they were packed like animals into overcrowded, fetid boxcars, along with many civilian prisoners, for five long days and nights - until they arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
The worst was yet to come, as first Ed and then fellow airman Joe Moser describe in the powerful documentary “The Lost Airmen of Buchenwald.”
For the first two weeks they slept outside on rocks. No blankets. No shoes.
Eventually they were moved into an overcrowded barracks. Rations were just enough that a person would starve to death in three months - cabbage soup with worms, and bread made with sawdust.
Ed describes his experience at Buchenwald as “unimaginable.”
“During the horrible years of 1938 to April 1945, it was an area whereby 56,000 innocent victims, old men, young men, boys, perished in the crematorium,” says Ed. “And when you passed it, you couldn't help but think, those ashes... that smoke is burning the ashes of innocent people who have been cremated. Who have died here.”
But still, in the midst of this, the airmen kept their dignity. They refused to do many of the forced-labour jobs the SS ordered them to perform - because after all, they were POWs, and under international convention, they were not supposed to be in the concentration camp at all.
Upon their return home, many did not believe the airmen's story. Few yet knew of the atrocities that took place at the concentration camps.
Even today, it is still a story that is not often told, especially here in Canada.
“Most people, most citizens have no idea,” Ed explains,“that 26 Canadian airmen actually witnessed and experienced the horrors that we were fighting against.”
He can only speculate why there has been such little recognition from his own government.
“Our politicians truly have never ever, militarily, publicly, or privately … acknowledged that 26 Canadian airmen were involved in the holocaust.”
The story of Allied airmen at Buchenwald was not fully publicized until 2011, when filmmaker Mike Dorsey released the award-winning documentary.
Dorsey's own grandfather, E.C. Freeman, was one of the American airmen at Buchenwald. It was also Dorsey who arranged to have the plaque dedicated in honour of the Allied airmen who were held at the camp, and two who died there.
Ed regards Dorsey as a hero, championing their story and their cause.
After 70 years, there is finally recognition that Ed and the other Allied airmen were held illegally in a concentration camp.
“This is the highlight of my life regarding our involvement as a veteran, as an airman,” says Ed. “The fact that this plaque has finally been erected and dedicated and is sitting there at Buchenwald.”
That, and having a German airforce colonel thank him for bringing peace to Europe, he says, made for a very memorable trip.
It's a part of his life that has never left him.
“It's beyond comprehension what we witnessed and experienced, what was being done to human beings,” he says.
“This is why I'm so possessed with it. And sometimes I get told about this, why don't you just forget about it Ed? Forget about it.”
“I can't. I never will.”
Ed Carter-Edwards sharing his story with students and media In Germany. Photo by Craig Carter-Edwards.
Instead, Ed has taken it upon himself to share his story. He speaks at schools, universities, and synagogues, to reveal what happened, but also to preach peace and harmony. He feels it is an important story to tell, because, “this is what can happen, if we're not careful, if we don't show respect for each other, if we don't acknowledge that we all have a place in this world, that we all should be friends, that we all should respect one another, there's a possibility that we could go back to those horrible days.”
Ed's passion for freedom and democracy has been passed down through the generations to his grandson, Craig Carter-Edwards. Craig, who accompanied him to the commemoration, is a former Liberal Queen's Park staffer and has long been invested in politics. He now calls himself “an aspiring post-partisan” and credits learning about, and becoming a part of his grandfather's story, with making him realize how important it is that all sides work together for the common good.
Earlier this week the Jewish community marked the sombre Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, to commemorate all the victims and survivors of that terrible time.
Ed and Craig Carter-Edwards are doing their part to make sure such atrocities are never repeated.