In the latter days of war, perhaps 1943, German prisoners of war (POWs) became a common sight on Exeter's streets. Many of them were employed by local farmers to work the land and in return they received a fair degree of freedom. They wore their prison uniform, denim tunic jacket and trousers. Affixed to the clothing were large brightly coloured circular pieces of cloth. They could not be mistaken for anything than what they were.
I don't recall them visiting the Elim Church forces canteen very often, but about a dozen of them took to coming to the church on Sunday mornings. I do not believe there was ever an occasion when, in ones and twos, they were not all taken home for Sunday lunch by members of the congregation. To an eight year old boy such as I these were grown men, to the adults it would have been obvious that they were little more than boys themselves, lonely and dispirited. Remember the people who were offering kindness and hospitality to the enemy had been so recently the victims of the indiscriminate bombing of their homes and places of work. It made no difference.
The event I am now recounting happened on Christmas Eve in 1943 or 44. The Elim church always had a service early on Christmas Eve, so that parents could get their children home and in bed before the sleigh and reindeer pounded over the rooftops. These services always featured a fine selection of the traditional carols. On this particular occasion one of the POWs had asked my father - the minister- whether he and his friends could perfom a carol. Father, of course agreed, and the men/boys left their seats walked to the front and sang Silent Night Holy Night, but in German !
To me the sight is as clear now 64 years later as it was at the time. A group of men in their humiliating uniforms who were the enemy and may, two years before, have been raining bombs on us held the congregation spellbound. Before they finished, sobs could be heard around the church, and at the end, I think that truly there was not a dry eye in the Elim Church on Paris street. It was a moment when Christmas spirit ruled.
That event has never left me because it taught this eight year old boy an important lesson. There is a difference between the 'enemy' and the humans who make up that enemy. The behaviour of the Exeter Elim congregation demonstrated that when the enemy is injured or captured he or she ceases to be the enemy, they are merely fellow humans who need friendship, company and compassion and that even in the middle of a bitter war the Christmas spirit can exist.
© 2007 Brian Slemming
The Elim Church is on the left in this view of Paris Street before the First World War.
My family moved to Exeter in early 1940 as my father was appointed as Minister of the Elim Pentecostal Church on Paris street. During that major three day Blitz Paris street was particularly hard hit. The Elim church was a large solid stone building, which the fire services decided to use as a firebreak. Water was continually played on the building. As a consequence homes on lower side of Paris street were largely saved from destruction. Those on the upper side of the street were totally destroyed. The church received some heavy water damage, but as I recall not a service was missed.Brian Slemming
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