Stoker : the story of an Australian soldier who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau

Stoker : the story of an Australian soldier who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau by Donald Watt.

StokerI read this book about 17 years ago when it was first published, and the story has stayed with me so strongly that I wanted to add it to our 28 Days of Australian Stories.

This is not a definitive account of life in the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but rather an intensely personal account of what one man saw and experienced. Donald Watt was a 21 year old Australian from Victoria when he responed the the Prime Ministers call to defend the ‘Mother Country’ and went off to fight in WWII. He was captured by the Germans on the mediterranean island of Crete, and imprisioned in Stalag 13C and then Stalag 357,  in Germany. Enduring terrible conditions there Don, and other prisioners, made a number of attempts to escape. The final attempt was successful and Don was on the run for three weeks, getting to within 100 metres of the Swiss border. Tired and hungry, Don became careless and was again captured. When he refused to tell his captors how he escaped and who else had been involved, he was tortured and then sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they made him stoke the furnaces in which they burnt the Jews – and anyone else unfortunate enough to be unable to work.

Donald Watt was finally liberated in April 1945, but to preserve his sanity he never told a soul his story for 44 years. In November 1987 Donald Watt was living in Tweed Heads when the Federal Government put an advertisement in the paper searching for Australian service personnel imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during WWII, each of whom were entitled to $10,000. Don turned to his wife and said quietly “I was there, too” – and so, bit by bit over the following months, the long story came out. As Don was required to prove that he was eligible for the payment and had been interned in a prison camp for a protracted period, he was made to re-live the horror all over again. On many nights he had recurring nightmares, and would then lay awake writing out his experiences. These writings then became the basis for a manuscript which was published as ‘I was there too’ and sold through the Tweed Heads post-office for $15 a copy. Finally, after adding many more memories the list, the booklet was republished as this book.

As Don re-lived the memories of his time in Auschwitz, he developed the physical symptoms of the diarrhoea which he suffered all those years ago in the prison camps. He was sent to Greenslopes hospital, but the wonderful team of doctors there were unable to find anything wrong with him – his illness was psychosomatic. Writing of his experiences eventually proved to be the therapy which healed Don.

While this book tells a harrowing story, it comes across as interesting and ‘always looking on the bright side’ of everything. Don Watt never lost the ability throughout his life to stay positive and is truly and inspiration to all, although he descibes himself an ‘an ordinary bloke’. Stoker tells the story of his life, which puts the war experiences in perspective looking at it all of these years later.

The Gold Coast Libraries no longer have a copy of Stoker, but there are plenty of copies available on interlibrary loan.