By Gilly Carr
The case of Paul Gourdan, and his journeys through the Nazi prison and camp system, is one of the more difficult to unravel out of all of those in the Frank Falla Archive.
Paul Gourdan was born on 8 April 1909 in the parish of St Martin, Jersey; he renewed his French passport (thus claiming French nationality) in Toulon in 1931, when he was 22. Gourdan married Jerseywoman Henrietta Mary Gourdan née Le Cuirot. The couple married on 1 December 1934, with Henrietta automatically taking on Gourdan’s French nationality, and lived together in Rozel in the parish of St Martin.
By the outbreak of the Occupation, it appears that Gourdan and his wife may have chosen to anglicise their surname to Gourdon; Henrietta’s surname is spelled this way in her occupation registration form, and Paul’s charge sheet also spells his name in this manner. However, this may simply have been an error on the part of the authorities whose job it was to register islanders.
We can see from Gourdan’s Occupation registration card that he moved four times within a seven month period from October 1941 to May 1942. His wife’s card lists only one move, perhaps indicating that the couple had separated, or that Gourdan lived in temporary accommodation near his place of work. However, he and his wife also had three children to take care of on Gourdan’s salary as a labourer: Roger (born in April 1935), Pauline (born in April 1937) and Terressa (born March 1940). According to his registration card, the last two children were living at Westaway Creche, a home for abandoned or unwanted childten. If Gourdan and his wife could not afford to look after them, this may have been only a temporary arrangement.
Paul Gourdan comes to our attention on 25 May 1942, when he was sentenced by military court tribunal to three years and three months penal servitude for ‘serious larceny’. Such a conviction fits with our observation that there were likely to have been financial difficulties within his family, although by now he was working as a waiter. Such a long sentence at this stage in the war could be nothing less than disastrous for Gourdan. He was deported to France under escort on 14 June 1942 with two of the men with whom he was convicted for the same offence: Gordon Green and Irishman Patrick Quinn. Patrick Quinn had the same sentence as Gourdan but Gordon Green was given one year and ten months hard labour. Paul Gourdan was, at this point, 33 years old.
Gourdan next appears in the records of Fort de Villeneuve-Saint-Georges Prison, on the outskirts of Paris, where he arrived on 16 July 1942 and was given prisoner number 3231. It seems very likely that he arrived here from Caen Prison.
Gourdan stayed in Villeneuve until 7 August 1942 – just three weeks – until he was transferred to Germany. Our record of his movements after this rely on two sources of evidence: his compensation claim file of 1964-6 and International Tracing Service records.
Within his compensation claims file is an official letter from one R. Pasqualini who was able to consult files of former victims of war to then write to the International Tracing Service to let them know that Gourdan was deported first to Caen Prison, then Fort de Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. He then went to Neuoffingen Forced Labour Camp at an unknown date, where he escaped on 3 September 1942. He was recaptured on 12 October 1942 and transferred to Augsburg Prison, and from there to Diez Prison where he was still present on 2 March 1944. Pasqualini also noted that Gourdan’s name was present in the records of Fresnes Prison, to where he was sent after Villeneuve. We can do no more than to take all of this information on trust given that we know that at least some aspects of it were correct, and that records were being referred to which no longer exist today.
Also in Gourdan’s compensation claim file is a testimony from Guernseyman Jack Harper. Harper had travelled in the hold of a cargo boat from Guernsey to Jersey, and then from Jersey to Granville, France; he stated that Gourdan had joined him in the boat at Jersey. Harper also stated that Gourdan also travelled into Germany with him, to Neuoffingen Labour Camp, after they had been processed at Augsburg Prison. Harper wrote about Gourdan’s escape from Neuoffingen in the following terms:
‘We were put to work on a railroad track with pick, axe, fork and shovel, digging a trench; this was in August 1945 [sic; 1945 is an error]. We were working in pairs and Paul Gourdan was my partner. On the second work day Paul suggested we make a run for it because we had the woods at the back of us and the guard at our end would go up in the signal box for his beer.
The following day I agreed to have a go at it. We dropped our picks and ran through the woods. After five (5) days of living on the land we were crossing a field and had to pass a signal box when I heard a voice shout ‘halt!’ I looked back and saw a young man armed with a rifle. Paul and I started to run for it and he kept ahead of me. I could hear the bullets coming very close to me so I hollered to Paul to keep going and I threw my hands in the air. The German came up and butted me with the rifle and we went back to the signal box where I was placed in the coal hole.
Later a German policeman came and took me to the local police station. I was unable to tell them where I escaped from so I was transferred to a number of prisons in Germany until they located me.
Paul was not caught and kept on running. I was subsequently returned to Augsburg prison and received 28 days solitary confinement with bread and water. After a few days in the hole the Germans took me out in the yard for exercise where I saw Paul Gourdan … he told me that he had gotten to the Belgian border and was fed by a farmer but later the farmer turned him in to the Belgian police …
… It was not until October 1965 when I was in Guernsey on a visit and the Guernsey Press reporters came to me for a story which they published with my photograph that Paul, who was on holiday in Guernsey from Jersey, read the story and found my address and came to see me. I noticed that his right arm was disabled and he was highly emotional and suffering from loss of memory and it was me that advised him to file an application for compensation He told me that he had been in a prison and at one time the food was so good he was actually given a second helping; however, it was cannibalism since they were cooking humans.’
In a separate hand-written letter to the Foreign Office dated June 1966, another Guernseyman, Frederick Short, also testified to being imprisoned with Gourdan. He wrote:
‘I can vouch for the fact that he was the man I met at Diezlahn Prison, Germany, about two days after being liberated by the American forces in 1945. I could not tell you if he had served time in Diezlahn Prison, but I do know that he was brought to Diezlahn Prison under escort of American armed forces. He then informed me that the Germans had had him on slave labour, building fortifications in some part of Germany, and I believe not far from the prison. He then informed me that he, with a large number of French prisoners, had been caught up in the cross-fire of German and American forces due to the fact that the German forces had abandoned them and fled. They (the prisoners) sought refuge in slit trenches, etc, until such time as they were taken prisoners by the American forces, after having identified themselves to the Americans, they were then escorted to Diezlahn Prison. I saw Mr Gourdan for a few hours only, for I myself was taken away from the prison by American ambulance and placed in the American forces hospital, shortly after seeing him …
Apparently he (Mr Gourdan) was in a concentration camp in some other part of Germany (the name of which I cannot tell you) in company with ex-police sergeant Jack Harper … and they both escaped from this camp and were free for several days …
… I should like to add … that when I met Mr Gourdan in Guernsey about a month ago, he informed me that his mind has not been too good since his Nazi ordeal, and of later years seems to be getting worse, he cannot seem to remember anything, and his general demeanour, when he spoke to me, also gave me that impression.’
These two testimonies by Short and Harper were invaluable to Gourdan because his own testimony reflected the memory problems which both men had observed in him. Gourdan was also badly hampered by a lack of education which affected his ability to express himself clearly in writing. In 1966, now living at a hotel in Rozel Bay, Jersey, Gourdan wrote the following testimony [spelling and punctuation errors reproduced from the original]:
‘Has you alredy no, that I have been marched about in the camps by the Nazis. I am, very sory that I cannot think of all the camps I was in. All I remember is I was put in the Jersey Prison … From there I was taken to Catret [Carteret] in France from there I was then taken to Vill neuve St George. Just on the out-scert of Paris which is a Fort. From there I was taken by train to different Prisons which I don’t remember the names. One thing I do remember is that I whent in one of the prisons that Hitler was in befor he came to Power. I was in there for about a week then I was taken away again to other camps. Mannheim then from there to Dietlahn camp. Where I met Mr Jack Harper, we were working together on a railway track. So me and him ran away together, But unfortchenly we recapcherd a little wile after …
… When I was liberated by the Amerikans one morning they told me to see the Batel field. Yes I said well help your self. So I did my first thing was for food, there I was looking in all the sacks for food then I fell sick But the Americhen oficers look well after me. After a while I was put in charge of getting the food for all the Palitichel prisoners at Arantsine [?] so of course I had no mercy for the Germans there. I use to go from house to house whith the americans army for munishens, as regard some of the German women use to throw Hand grenade throu windows at they soldiers. One day I whent to a house with oficires from where some of they soldiers had been Kill. And that is in Mannheim. So as I spoke a little German I had to go with them ..
When the war finish I was flone from Paris, to London then by train to Glasgo, then on to Brigh [Bridge] of Wier as a rest camp to be disenfigted. Very sorry Sir. But as regards witnesses who were in the camps with me were mostly Jews and all other nationalyte. by Jersey people, (By these two letters) which I enclose.’
Paul Gourdan’s lack of memory was unlikely to have been a function solely of age. In 1966, at the time of the compensation claims, he was 57 years old. We might not be too wide of the mark to suggest that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a condition which also affected Guernseyman William Quin’s ability to recall the prisons and camps to which he had been sent.) Whether it affected Gourdan’s day to day memory in the 1960s is not possible to judge, given that the records focus only on his wartime experiences. However, there are also clear signs that not only did Gourdan’s wartime trauma affect his memory (and, indeed, his bodily health), but it also seemed to lead him into the realms of fantasy (or at the very least, severe confusion). Such a claim is not made lightly, but there is very clear evidence from both the mid-1960s and, indeed, as far back as 1945, that Gourdan’s mind was unhinged to the extent that he alleged things that he had not experienced. Whether these false claims were made knowingly for his own purposes, or whether they stemmed from PTSD is unclear, but his experiences were certainly traumatic enough for us to place the weight of likelihood on the latter.
To explore this further, at the end of his compensation claim Gourdan dictated the following claims to a more literate friend, who wrote for him. Gourdan stated that he was ‘tortured by being crucified and beaten’ in Jersey Prison (ill-treatment such as crucifixion or similar levels of brutality have never been alleged for Jersey Prison, although beatings were known). He then claimed to have been in Cherche-Midi Prison; this claim is far less serious, but is not verified by documentary evidence. He then claims to have been sent to Mannheim Prison ‘for six-eight months, where I was tortured and then I was in hospital where they were taking blood from me.’ While documentary evidence has yet to be found for Gourdan’s presence in Mannheim, we know that his prison records are incomplete. Blood-taking from prisoners has also been alleged by another Channel Islander and was not beyond the realms of possibility. Gourdan then stated that he was in ‘Diez Lahn Camp for five years where conditions were very bad and little food. Again I was beaten and tortured and my nose broken. They removed a vein from my right arm, which is now useless and an incision in my neck.’ We have less trouble believing this account as Gourdan’s presence is verified in Diez Prison and his disabled arm was verified by Jack Harper, even if we do not know how Gourdan really lost the use of his arm.
Further evidence of Gourdan’s confused mind can also be observed in a newspaper article in the Jersey Evening Post of 9 July 1945. In an extended interview which can be read on this webpage, Gourdan claimed to have spent 13 months in Buchenwald Concentration Camp where his job was ‘skinning bodies’. His interview was full of stereotypes about the camp which Gourdan would have read about in the UK newspapers; his disturbed mind was probably unable to distinguish between his own memories and the images in his head conjured up by reading of the brutality and human rights abuses in this concentration camp.
In records dating to 1945 and available at the Imperial War Museum, Gourdan admitted to a Major Francis Haddock, who was in Jersey in 1945 to make an investigation about war crimes, that the newspaper article was ‘an exaggeration for the purposes of impressing the girls of Jersey (including his wife) who had consorted with Germans’. Haddock found that his descriptions of Buchenwald differed from that of Jerseyman Emile Dubois, who was also in the camp. Haddock could only conclude that ‘in all probability he had never been to Buchenwald.’ He then later discovered that Gourdan had also been convicted, before the Occupation, for crimes including forgery, false pretences, burglary and housebreaking.
Whether any details at all in Gourdan’s 1945 newspaper interview are true, we cannot tell, but it is interesting to note that Gourdan claims that his original offence was one of ‘sabotage, destroying revolvers and ammunition’ of German soldiers staying at the hotel by throwing them in the water while employed as a waiter in St Brelade’s Bay Hotel. He also claimed that after his arrest, he was ‘questioned at Bagatelle House by the Feldgendarmerie, tied to a wall and beaten unmercifully with truncheons because I would not say where the pistols were. Then I was taken to Gloucester Street [Jersey Prison] and received more ill-treatment.’ While there may well have been elements of truth within his story, its veracity is seriously compromised by his Buchenwald allegations. He also states that he was taken to Caen Prison, then to Dijon, where he met other Jersey prisoners such as Clifford Cohu, Joseph Tierney, Jack Harper, Fred Short and Thomas Gaudion. After being in Dijon for a week he was sent to ‘Lemberg in Poland’ where he worked on a railway line. No record of Gourdan exists for either of these prisons.
Unfortunately the records from the International Tracing Service are not exhaustive and conclusively record his presence only in Amberg Prison for 1942 (month illegible). Even this record is unreliable as he is unlikely to have been in Amberg this early in his journey, and the record itself is a post-war one.
What, then, can we definitively deduce about Gourdan’s trajectory among the confused claims by multiple parties, not least by Gourdan himself? The prison record for Villeneuve Saint Georges is the only one to survive. If to this we can add those given by the ITS in his compensation claim, we can add that he was in Augsburg, arriving there from Saarbrücken Prison on 5 October 1942 (although independent evidence of this has not been located). To this we might add the statement from the French Ministry of former combatants and victims of war, which notes that he was in Caen before Villeneuve, and then Fresnes. Again, however, independent evidence of this has not been found. Harper and Short add Neuoffingen, Augsburg and Diez to the list.
The jumbled list of facts and fantasy born of confusion initially confused the Foreign Office, who thought at first that they had the wrong person. Gourdan then replied in a six-sided rambling letter, explaining that he had been ‘knocked about in the camps’ by the Nazis and was unable to remember all of the camps he had been in. He then lapsed into retelling episodes, experiences and conditions in his camps and prisons, jumping confusingly from one to the other.
Although they were doing what they could to help Gourdan’s case by seeking statements from other former prisoners who were interned with him, behind the scenes the Foreign Office were less sympathetic. In his case file notes, one official wrote ‘I am not at all happy with this case. Either Mr Gourdan is lacking in something or he thinks we are’. Further, the same official thought that Gourdan’s statement ‘arouses suspicion’ and that his vagueness was ‘convenient’. He was, none the less, awarded compensation which did not take account of his disabilities received as a result of his internment.
Paul Gourdan was clearly a very troubled man twenty years after the war, suffering in mind and body. His testimony is clearly cast into doubt by the specific nature of his pre-war criminal record and his 1945 newspaper interview, coupled with his inability to separate fact from fantasy, which made him appear as a possible con-artist to the Foreign Office. Gourdan was extremely lucky to have others to testify for him. Today we should view his case with sympathy. Three years of brutality in the Nazi camp and prison system was enough to mark Paul Gourdan in mind and body for life.
Paul Gourdan, Occupation registration card and forms, Jersey Archives ref. St.H/5/4496, 4497, 4498, 4499.
Paul Gourdan’s Aliens registration form, Jersey Archives ref. D/S/B8/22
Paul Gourdan’s court records, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/3/70.
Paul Gourdan’s entry in the logbook for Jersey Political Prisoners, Jersey Archives ref. D/AG/B7/7.
Paul Gourdan’s compensation claim for Nazi Persecution, The National Archives ref. FO 950/1263.
Account of Paul Gourdan, Jersey War Tunnels information panel.
Record of Paul Gourdan (Amberg), International Tracing Service, Wiener Library, ref. 11366697.
Record of Paul Gourdan (Tracing record summary), International Tracing Service, Wiener Library, ref. 109283152.
Imperial War Museum, Channel Islands War Crimes Papers, IWM MISC 172/2640.