By Gilly Carr
Brian John O’Meara was born on 27 December 1926 and was a 13 year old schoolboy at the start of the occupation. In his Registration and Identification of Persons Order form of 30 December 1942, O’Meara had just turned 16 and was then working in the stockroom of the Soldatenkaufhaus, a shop for soldiers. By May 1943, O’Meara’s form had been updated to note that he was then working as a carpenter for the Organisation Todt. That O’Meara was working for the Germans should not surprise us; this was common, and their higher than average wages were attractive.
O’Meara comes to our attention because on 19 August 1943 he was tried by military tribunal for two cases of ‘theft and abuse of the Occupying Forces’, for which he was sentenced to one year imprisonment. His specific offence, according to his son, was of ‘borrowing’ a German bicycle, with a friend, just before the curfew so they could get home in time.
The archival record shows that, on 8 September 1943, the Nebenstelle (or Guernsey branch) of the Feldkommandantur wrote to the Bailiff of Guernsey to say that ‘the serving of the sentence in Guernsey is not possible’, indicating that an appeal had been made. We do not know whether the appeal was instigated by the Bailiff himself or O’Meara’s parents. The archives also show that O’Meara’s mother, Eileen, wrote to ask for her son’s release the following February. On 15 May 1944, the Nebenstelle of the Feldkommandantur wrote to the Bailiff to tell him that this appeal had been rejected.
In order to learn more about what happened to O’Meara after his deportation, we have three sources of evidence to draw upon: records from the International Tracing Service (ITS); his compensation testimony of 1965; and interviews with his children. Where applicants for compensation did not write detailed testimonies, we must rely on the testimonies of others in order to learn about their likely experience. Although O’Meara was fairly brief in his testimony, there are fragments that are helpful to us in building up a picture of his story. He does not, however, provide any dates, which means that we cannot know for sure when he was deported. The ITS documents indicate only the arrival date at his first prison in Germany. All we can deduce is that he was deported between 19 August 1943 (the date of his trial) and 22 October 1943, the date of his arrival at Karlsruhe Prison in Germany. The lack of records relating to him in the usual French prisons in which Islanders spent time indicates that it seems likely – but not definite – that his first German prison was, indeed, his first place of incarceration, indicating a date of deportation a few days before his arrival in Karlsruhe. His children were under the impression that their father spent a while in Jersey prison before his eventual deportation. While there is no record of this in Jersey, it was not uncommon for people to be deported without it being recorded.
Records show that his sojourn in Karlsruhe Prison was from 22 October to 9 November 1943, although O’Meara did not mention this prison in his testimony. After this he was moved to Mannheim Prison. In his testimony, he later wrote that:
On route for a concentration camp, in Mannheim the prison where I was being held was badly damaged by an RAF raid.
After Mannheim, O’Meara notes that he was transported to a
… camp at Wittlich on the River Mosel where I worked in a hard labour group in a plywood factory. Almost ten months later I was again moved, destination Buchenwald.
ITS records indicate that O’Meara appears in Wittlich’s record books on 12 May 1944. We do not know how long he was in Mannheim, and so the addition of 10 months leaves us at an unknown point in time. However, we know that O’Meara did not arrive in Buchenwald until 6 February 1945. After Wittlich and before Buchenwald, O’Meara wrote that ‘at Darmstadt I was again caught in an RAF night raid, the whole town being devastated’. The date of the main RAF raid on Darmstadt was 11 September 1944 (although there were other minor raids), which helps to date O’Meara’s presence, meaning that his period in Mannheim was probably fairly brief. O’Meara recorded that, ‘while awaiting transport I was ordered to help remove the dead’, referring to those who died in the bombing raid. Presuming that O’Meara was incarcerated by the Darmstadt Gestapo – he was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp by them – it would have been in their provisional location in Bensheim Gestapo Prison.
We are still left with a gap of up to 3 months between O’Meara’s indicated date of transport from Bensheim Gestapo prison and his arrival in Buchenwald, although his Buchenwald records indicate that he was brought to the camp by the Darmstadt Stapo (Staatspolizei or political police). Although O’Meara does not mention it, ITS records clearly show that he was, at some unknown point, in Rollwald Penal Camp in Rodgau (about 25km from Darmstadt). The accounting book from this latter camp, containing O’Meara’s name, dates from the period April 1944 to March 1945, which confirms little more than the fact that he was very likely to have been here after Wittlich Prison. However, given that Darmstadt and Rollwald were close, it seems likely that he was in them sequentially just before – or maybe after – Bensheim Gestapo prison rather than earlier in his journey.
Of his transport to the camp, he wrote that he ‘arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp after ten day journey in cattle wagon.’ This would have been a period of starvation for O’Meara and he would have been extremely weak upon arrival on 6 February 1945. He was given prisoner number 71066, and wore a red triangle patch on his concentration camp uniform, denoting his political prisoner status, on which was written ‘Ir’, indicating Irish nationality. As he was not of Irish nationality but had Irish ancestry, can do not know who was responsible for registering him as Irish. It may have been a personal decision given that many British prisoners were picked on by guards in prisons and camps, judging by the testimony of other islanders.
Brian O’Meara’s name was recorded in Buchenwald as ‘Bernard O’Meara’; probably because of the unfamiliarity of the non-English speaking camp staff member with the name Brian. We also know that he was in block 17, which was used as a Zugangsblock, or quarantine block for new inmates who had been brought to the camp individually or in small groups. It seems unlikely that he stayed in this block. About his experience in the camp, he wrote:
Was sorted out into work party. Remainder of party were gassed in showers. Whilst at Buchenwald I suffered the usual treatment by the Nazi regime including working at the hard labour section. Later I was smuggled to another block where I came in contact with the members of the Dutch Police, who fed and clothed me.
O’Meara probably presumed prisoners were gassed after reading about concentration camps in the media after the war. In fact, there were never any gas chamber facilities at Buchenwald. A group of Dutch police are, however, known from Buchenwald. They were brought to the camp in the second half of 1944 and placed in the ‘Little Camp’ (noting that block 17 was not in the Little Camp). They were allowed to receive supplies from home, and shared this with other inmates; they were thus highly regarded. As at least four other Channel Islanders are known to have been in the Little Camp (Emile Dubois, James Quick, Alfred Baker and Stanley Green), it seems not unlikely that O’Meara, too, was eventually moved here and met the Dutch this way.
O’Meara told his son that he was isolated in a particular part of the camp, and that he had to carry out agricultural work on a farm while in the camp. This was a boon as he was able to acquire extra food during this period which enabled him to survive.
On 6 April 1945 the Jews were evacuated from Buchenwald. The rest of the prisoners began their forced march the day after. O’Meara wrote that
… finally we were marched out of Buchenwald and for how many days I don’t remember we walked and walked, numbers who fell at the wayside had their brains shot out by the SS guards. I was picked up by an American tank corps who sent me to a US hospital where I was virtually brought back to life. Later I was transferred by plane to a British hospital in Swindon where I was able to recover completely.
After the war, in the late 1940s, O’Meara joined the Grenadier Guards, an infantry regiment in the army, where he was a sergeant. His son believed that he also served in the Korean War in the early 1950s.
O’Meara successfully applied for compensation in 1965. He was, however, compensated only for his time in Buchenwald, reckoned at ten weeks by the Foreign Office.
O’Meara went on to marry Kathleen Malledent in 1949 and they had three children. They were later able to testify that their father grappled with various symptoms of PTSD, such as emotional numbness and explosive outbursts of anger, in which he shouted at his children using German words. He also exhibited behaviours which probably had their roots in the camp, such as in his attitude towards food and authority.
Brian O’Meara died of thyroid cancer in 2004.
The author would like to thank the children of Brian O’Meara for their interview on 14 December 2014.
Brian O’Meara, compensation claim for Nazi persecution, TNA FO 950/4466.
Brian O’Meara records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide refs: 44768334/0/1, 44768335/0/1, 44768337/0/1, 44768339/0/1, 44768340/0/1, 44768341/0/1, 44768342/0/1, 44768343/0/1, 44768344/0/1, 87338478/0/1, 87338478/0/2, 87338479/0/1, 87338481/0/1, 87338483/0/1, 87338484/0/1, 87338485/0/1, 87338486/0/1, 5386560, 6601167, 87338478, 92822942, 11297403.
Brian O’Meara, occupation registration forms, Island Archives, Guernsey.
Brian O’Meara, charge sheets, Island Archives, Guernsey, refs. CC14-05/225, 230, 349 and 350.