A Story of Africa and Atonement
Recently, John Heminway was interviewed by Christiane Amanpour of CNN about his book which was published this year in February. In it he says during his friendship with Anne Spoerry, from 1980 until her death, he was never able to talk to her about the war, she always cut him down.
After her death, in 1999, there were papers found in her safe by her nephew, that listed her as a war criminal. After he began researching her life he found that Anne was acquitted for lack of evidence but exiled from France.
For sixteen months from 1943, Anne Spoerry was incacerated at Ravensbrück concentration camp in the north of Germany by the Nazis. In that time Ravensbrück was overcrowded, the women sleeping seven to a bunk and she was sent to Block 10 for lunatics and those with tuberculosis. Here women huddled together in the middle of winter in soiled, thin slips with one bucket in the middle for sanitation and one barred window for ventilation.
These four months of her life are Anne’s ghost from which she flees for 30 years. In Kenya she works incessantly, becoming a legend for her extraordinary humanitarian work as a flying doctor – reaching out to rural communities by defying the terrain, weather or even the government during the coup d’état of 1982, when all civilian air traffic was forbidden.
Her sobriquet, Mama Daktari became a term of respect for warriors, mothers and children waiting under trees, tents or mission clinics for whom she was a life saver.
Yet John Heminway says he can’t forgive her for what she did in the war. Because in those four months, Carmen Mory – a fallen double agent for the Gestapo and blockova or supervisor of the block, took a fancy to her. Young Anne Spoerry, who may have been raped and tortured by the Germans, according to her medical assistant in Lamu, was bewitched by the older woman. Carmen Mory taught her how to survive in dehumanising conditions. Falling in love with her captor, for refusing Carmen would surely mean death, she split her personality and became Dr Claude, doing with gusto, what she was bid. Even, if it meant torturing or killing fellow inmates. In this way she escaped the gas chamber and got food and medical provisions that were not available to other prisoners.
John Hemingway has written a thoroughly readable memoir which sometimes skims the surface of Anne, never quite getting her passion for Africa or her work. This detached journalism is punctuated with dark details of the horrific life of prisoners held in Ravensbrück.
Whilst he attempts to write without judging her, he is unable to get away from being left out of her secret. John Heminway’s shock is not only at the discovery of this vastly contradicting trait of Anne’s but also for the feelings of scorn or rejection he feels and perhaps justification of himself as her friend because birds of a feather may flock together.
Available in paperback and on kindle.