By Gilly Carr
WARNING: CONTAINS DISTRESSING DETAILS OF THE DEATH OF CLIFFORD COHU
Clifford John Cohu was born in Guernsey in 1883. He was educated at Elizabeth College in Guernsey and then Keeble College, Oxford. He was ordained as a priest in 1908, and moved to India in 1912 to serve as a minister in several communities, including as Canon of Allahabad, until 1935. He retired to Jersey in 1937 with his wife, Harriet, who he had met in India, and was nominated as acting rector of St Saviour in 1940. He was an eccentric but popular man. His particular act of defiance was to have spread the BBC news, both in the General Hospital in St Helier, where he was chaplain, and (on at least one occasion) whilst riding down the Parade in St Helier.
Cohu’s source of news was Joseph Tierney, who was the parish cemetery worker. He wrote out the news he received every morning from John Whitley Nicolle and his father, who retained a radio set. On the basis of this information, news-sheets were produced by Tierney and Arthur Wakeham, which were then taken to Cohu. Cohu’s non-conformism made him unpopular with the Germans.
Cohu was arrested on 12 March 1943 by the GFP, the German Secret Police; others in his network had been arrested during the fortnight before. He was taken to the GFP HQ at Silvertide, Havre de Pas. In total, 18 people in the network were tried and even more were interrogated. The trial took place on 9 April 1943 and large crowds gathered outside, in Royal Square, eagerly awaiting the result. Cohu was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for ‘failing to surrender leaflets and […] disseminating anti-German news.’ Five days later, on 14 April 1943, Cohu was transferred from the military (German) side of Jersey prison to the civilian side, where life was a little easier. He remained there for three months and was then deported on 13 July 1943.
His first destination was Saint-Lô prison, where he spent nearly a week before arriving at Fort d’Hauteville near Dijon on 19 July 1943. He stayed here until 19 December 1943 and was joined by Joseph Tierney, Frederick Page, Clifford Querée and George Fox. They were transferred to Saarbrücken Prison on 19 December 1943, where they stayed two weeks, and then on to the prison of Frankfurt-am-Main Preungesheim Prison on 6 January 1944. Conditions in Frankfurt were severe, but up until the D-Day landings the inmates could communicate with their relatives in Jersey once a month. Cohu was put in solitary confinement at Frankfurt, spending ten and a half hours a day inserting hooks into cardboard frames. Cohu’s wife sent him food parcels but these were confiscated on arrival. Cohu’s weight dropped from 10 stone 3 lb when he left the island to 7 stone by May 1944. The prison diet was wholly insufficient and consisted of a weekly bread ration of four and a half pounds. In his letters to his wife he frequently referred to the gruelling conditions in prison, particularly the cold and the hunger. Prisoners frequently had to join work-parties clearing rubble or removing unexploded bombs from the streets of Frankfurt. Prisoners were also executed by guillotine at the prison, although fortunately this was not the fate of any of the Channel Islanders.
In July 1944, the Channel Islanders were moved to Naumburg Prison, where dysentery and dropsy were rampant and no medication was made available to British prisoners. According to Frank Falla, who befriended Cohu in prison, they ‘were not allowed to smoke, talk, sing, hum or smile – it was starkly grim’ in Naumburg. Falla also recalled that Cohu’s two most heartfelt, but unsatisfied, wishes were to be reunited with his wife and to be allowed to bury the islanders who died in prison.
Cohu’s sentence officially ended on 24 September 1944, but on 30 August 1944 he was released from Naumburg into the hands of the Gestapo and taken first to Halle Prison for a few days and then to Zöschen Forced Labour Re-Education Camp, 22 miles from Naumburg, which was run by the SS. He arrived there after several days on a prisoner transport on 13 September 1944, at a time when the camp was first opening and was severely overcrowded with more than 500 prisoners. Up to 30 men were cramped into small round paper tents, with nothing but soil spread on the bare ground. Cohu attracted attention when in the camp for being the only British prisoner and for being a priest. He was too weak and thin to lift a shovel when on an Arbeitskommando (work party) in Leuna, and was given continual beatings and screams of abuse from the guards.
Frans Busschers, A Dutch prisoner, later testified to the death of Cohu:
‘Uncle Keesje’ was the biggest sadist in [Zöschen] camp. He beat many prisoners to death for no reason. After the end of the war, he was denounced by Dutch prisoners, arrested by US soldiers and convicted by a Dutch court. On this day, Uncle Keesje was the head of the watch. As usual, he was giving out beatings left and right.
Then he said, ‘Now I have a genuine pastor for you sacks of shit. He can pray for you and give a sermon, in English, of course, he is from England and was nabbed in the Channel Islands.’
The pastor seemed to have been imprisoned for a long time, which we could see since he was so extremely emaciated. Whether he had not understood Uncle Keesje or had purposefully ignored him, I don’t know, in any case he made no effort to give a sermon. He was badly beaten right away by Uncle Keesje, to the point that he lay on the floor.
I saw the pastor one or two days later. He told me that he was very poorly and he could no longer walk. When I visited the hut the next day after roll call with Jupp Dyslag to talk with the pastor, a prisoner showed us a coffin, and when he lifted the lid, we recognised the dead pastor.
Martin Pabst (2007), translated from German by Roderick Miller.
On 20 September 1944, Clifford Cohu died from the brutal treatment he received. When undressing his body on the order of the guards, a Czech survivor, Premysl Polacek, found a small bible tightly pressed against his breast. Somehow this had survived body searches and the treatment he had received. Cohu’s remains were cremated and it is not known whether they were scattered in the graveyard in Zöschen (which was the normal practice), or whether he was incinerated instead in Halle, as suggested as a possibility by another former prisoner, Monsieur Tournier.
In the Dutch newspaper Nieuwe Leidsche, an article of 1948 revealed that:
The 59-year-old German, Willy F. Gerbsch, nicknamed ‘Uncle Kessje’, for whom the death penalty was had been requested as justice for his beastly behaviour in the Zöschen camp, has today been condemned by an Amsterdam Court to 15 years.
Clifford Cohu’s wife Harriet died before the period of the compensation claims for Nazi persecution, and as the couple had no children, no claim was ever made for Cohu’s persecution or death.
A commemorative plaque was erected in St Saviour’s church in Jersey after the end of the occupation. Today Clifford Cohu is named on the Lighthouse Memorial in St Helier, which is dedicated to the Jersey 21. He is also depicted on the Occupation Tapestry in the Maritime Museum, where a painting of him is also on display.
‘Camp guard gets 15 years’, Nieuwe Leidsche Courant, 25 May 1948, page 1.
Obituary of Clifford Cohu, Jersey Evening Post, 25 September 1945.
Pabst, M. 2007. Der Tod ist ein täglicher Gast: Holländische Geiseln und Widerstandskämpfer 1944/45 in den Arbeitserziehungslagern Zöschen, Schafstädt und Ammendorf, Galgenbergsche Literaturkanzlei.
Sanders, P. 2004. (2nd edn). The Ultimate Sacrifice. Jersey: Jersey Heritage.
Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or: 1409 W 1-13, Régistre d’écrou Prison d’Hauteville.
Clifford Cohu’s occupation registration card and forms, Jersey Archives ref. St.S/3/592-594.
Clifford Cohu’s court documents, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/5/57
Enquiry from Harriet Cohu into the death of her husband, Jersey Archives ref. B/A/L15/6
International Tracing Service documents, Wiener Library, refs. 12037934, 12037935, 12039827, 12039829, 12039831, 12042865, 12042866, 866073674, 11298270.