The Answer – Justice
An Australian Prisoner of War and Witness in the Small Fortress, Terezin Concentration Camp, in 1945
Excerpts from the autobiography of Alexander McClelland (1920-2010)
It is now 1974, and McClelland is back in Australia engaged on a campaign to get official recognition of his ordeal in the Small Fortress which, with a brief incarceration in a British military prison, does not appear in his war record. He is also seeking compensation. He recounts the origins and his part in the TV documentary ‘Where Death Wears a Smile’ and the many exaggerations and inaccuracies it contains. Plus how the fruit of his investigations were used without attribution by David McGill.
By now I had written to so many organisations without receiving replies, if I had a dollar for each one I wouldn’t need compensation. But compensation was not the real issue here, I had done a job for my country, and I wanted recognition for it, I wanted the record to show it.
Also in November 1974, I read in the paper where a Mr Haber was running a German war claim advisory company in Sydney. So I rang him and sent him some materials. When I went to see him I received the similar reply I had received in London from the United Restitution Organisation: “The money is not for you people, it is for our people.” And the door slammed in my face.
I noticed in the Newcastle Herald of 19th January 1975 that victims of the Nazis, most of them Jews, were to be paid 600 million Deutchmarks by the West German Government. I wondered when, if ever, they would get around to paying us, the Australians and New Zealanders who had suffered in concentration camps too. Although West Germany had considered reparations closed since 1965, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former Chancellor Willy Brandt had been instrumental in bringing about this new compensation. West Germany had already paid about $645 million to Israel and more to other countries and individuals, and it was interesting to see that there was still some hope of getting compensation from the Germans. If only I could prove beyond doubt to the Australian Government officials that Australians had been in Theresienstadt. (pp. 280-281)
During early 1978 as a result of my letters to ex-service organisations I began receiving communications from other internees of Theresienstadt: Harold Granville, Jim Ilott, Thomas Moles to begin with. Then one day there was a knock at the door, and I opened it to a man who introduced himself as Paul Rea, a journalist with the Newcastle Morning Herald. He was visiting his mother in the UK and wanted to interview me for an article in his paper. He had read my letter to the paper about the ‘100 homeless men,’ challenging them to take up my case too. So I agreed to the interview. I answered his questions and showed him the results of my research, and explained my fight for recognition and compensation.
Later in the year I was sent a copy of two articles about me by Paul Rea which appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald during August 1975 outlining my experiences and my fight for justice from the authorities. They were followed up by articles on Wal Steilberg and Herb Cullen, two other prisoners of the Small Fortress. I noticed that the article on Wal Steilberg on September 13, 1978, quoted him as saying that he witnessed the killing of men too weak to work on the work detail, twenty-eight to be exact. I never witnessed that. I myself had been too weak to work on the work detail, and far from being killed, the SS guard had slipped me his first aid kit. But I thought nothing more of it at the time. I was still intent on getting recognition and compensation. (p. 292)
Early in 1983 the journalist Paul Rea contacted me and suggested that a television documentary be made about my experiences in Theresienstadt and my personal fight to have the fact of my imprisonment there officially recognised by the Australian Government. He was writing the script, and the documentary would also feature Wal Steilberg. At the same time he offered to help me finish my book which was a welcome offer. I was having trouble putting it in order, and had come to realise that while I could design and build things, I was no writer. I was having difficulty putting my thoughts on paper or dictating them into a tape recorder. Paul Rea’s offer gave me renewed hope. (p. 298)
I also received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Wellington, New Zealand, via Tom Mottram, a list of ten New Zealanders who had been in the Small Fortress in 1945. The Small Fortress Association now numbered more than fifty members.
The journalist Paul Rea finished the script for the proposed documentary, and eventually succeeded in obtaining finance for the production. Half of the money came from the Seven Television Network, at that time controlled by Christopher Skase, and the remaining half came from 30 Sydney businessmen who had put up between $5,000 and $10,000 each. Paul Rea wrote to me on the 8th August 1983, saying he had the co-operation of the Sydney Jewish community and the European survivors of the Small Fortress and the Ghetto. The film-maker Frank Heimans was interested in producing it...
I received news that Dr Frank Harrison, my very good friend, had died on 14th March 1984. All four of my best friends, Scottie in Australia, Wings Day and Airey Neave in England had died. I felt very much on my own. Wings advised me in 1973 to “Fight on.” Out of respect for my four very good friends I will fight on for what I know is right.
Towards the end of March 1984, Meg and I drove the Kombi as was usual every year down to Crete. I had decided to find a place to rent there where we could live for at least part of the year. I was always made to feel like a hero in Crete where they knew I had been one of General Campbell’s men, unlike Australia where nobody could have cared less. We finally found a barn on which I signed a five-year lease. It had been an old chicken shed, which was obvious from the accumulated droppings on the floor. It was a real mess, but it was right next to the beach and I could see potential in it.
On June 19th I received a letter from Frank Heimans of Cinetel Productions saying, “we have now finalised most of the arrangements for the filming of ‘The Greatest Nazi Hoax... The Story of Theresienstadt’ which will deal with your exciting story and that of Wally Steilberg.”
On June 21st I received a letter from Paul Rea saying, “Enclosed are necessary papers re. the documentary which was given the name ‘The Greatest Nazi Hoax.’ This is the untold story of Australian nationals, illegally imprisoned by the Nazi in Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II.”
The documentary team arrived in the UK by air from Australia at the end of July. Something was worrying me, something didn’t seem to be right, so I had local lawyers draw up a contract which was signed on August 2 by me, Paul Rea and Frank Heimans for the producers, Cinetel Productions. One of the clauses in the contract specified that the research material obtained by the Company in relation to the production of the film was to be made available to me for use in my autobiography.
Both Rea and Heimans told my solicitor in England that if I did not agree to go back to the Small Fortress in Theresienstadt with them I would be letting my WWII mates down. There would be no documentary.
On August 4 they booked me in at the Swiss Cottage Hotel where they took some preliminary footage for use in the documentary. The next day we flew to Prague and booked into the Panorama Hotel. The first night there was a reception for those involved. Rea and Heimans told me during the evening that they would be off early the next day to go up to the Small Fortress to commence filming. I assumed that I would be going too but it appeared not. Heimans said to me, “Alex, you’ve been there twice before, and we want to film Wal as he goes there for the first time since the war. It would be best if you stay in Prague.” I felt a little uneasy – something worried me.
I stayed the next day in Prague with Les House who was a law processor from London, and we wandered round looking at the sights. The day after that it was my turn to go to the Small Fortress. The documentary crew filmed and interviewed me in Cell 44 where I had been in 1945, and took footage of me and Wal Steilberg walking outside the Small Fortress walls.
The first two nights in Prague I had a room to myself as Rea and Heimans knew I had lung trouble and did not smoke. The last night before we left Prague for the UK I was put in a room with another of the TV team who chain-smoked all night. They had got what they wanted.
Back in England I received a letter from my sister Isabel advising me that Chris and her husband were in London. I made arrangements to meet them in Brighton. The first words from Bill Henry were – are you any closer to proving you were in that place? – meaning the Small Fortress of Terezin. I said as a matter of fact I have just come back from being featured in a documentary called ‘The Greatest Nazi Hoax.’ It was good to see Chris, my sister, again.
I still had an uneasy feeling about things, but later I was to understand that there were many things about this documentary of which I knew nothing, and if I had known I would have had nothing to do with it at all.
I received a copy of the master script for the documentary from Paul Rea. I was horrified to read in the first few pages that a rail spur was driven into the very heart of the camp. There was never any rail spur driven into the heart of Theresienstadt camp at all. I also read that of the 15,000 children in Theresienstadt, only 100 were alive at the end of the War. These were absolutely ridiculous lies.
It claimed that forty Australian, New Zealand and British prisoners of war were murdered, and then asked, “How many Australians and New Zealanders were exhumed among the 601 victims killed in the Small Fortress during the last weeks of the War? Nobody knows.” It went on, “The morning after Steilberg arrived at the Small Fortress he looked out of the cell window and saw a pile of bodies without heads and limbs. Other prisoners were stuffing human remains in hessian bags and stitching the bags up. “I was horrified,” says Steilberg, “I have never forgotten it.”
Unknown to Steilberg, other Allied soldiers were also in the Small Fortress. Among them was Walter Wise, a 29-year-old Tasmanian Private who claimed he pulled corpse-laden carts to the lime pits. One day he saw a prisoner gripped around his wrists and suspended above the doorway. Nearby was a warning about the penalties of attempted escape. Unbelievable!
There was also Walter Reilly, a Tasmanian, who was already at work in a ditch when he saw a Royal Airforce Officer protesting to the guards that under the Geneva Convention prisoners of war were not to carry out military tasks. “The SS guard drew his gun and shot him,” says Reilly. Steilberg and Slayter make a final successful bid for freedom, but Steilberg never mentioned the fact that there was another man with him, Collins, an English chap.
I cross-checked with all the archive material I had collected since 1973, and of the people who were with Steilberg, Wise and Reilly, none claimed to have seen any of the ghastly crimes that these three claim they saw.
Before it was shown, the title of the documentary was changed from ‘The Greatest Nazi Hoax’ to ‘Where Death Wears a Smile.’ Promotion on the radio said, “It is not well known that Australians suffered in German concentration camps. One of the worst was Theresienstadt and up till now no one even knew that Australians lived behind its walls. But Frank Heimans and Paul Rea reveal the truth.” I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the documentary that was supposed to be made showing my fight for justice. By this time I was anxious to see the documentary itself.
The morning before the screening on 28 June 1985, a full page in the Sydney Morning Herald announced, “Australians in Concentration Camps... the Horrifying True Story Tonight on Channel 7 Network.”
On June 4th a video tape of the documentary was sent to me in Crete by Frank Heimans. The thing which struck me in it was the claim by Walter Steilberg that he witnessed 28 people killed that day out in the anti-tank ditch. The documentary also claimed that 40 Australians and New Zealanders were murdered by the Waffen SS guards. The witnesses were a Czechoslovakian Jew and a Jesuit Priest. It seemed there were no other witnesses.
Tom Mottram, my good friend in New Zealand, who had also been in the Small Fortress, said in a letter to me, “Don’t you think it is rather strange that Heimans or Rea didn’t tell you anything about this murder of 40 of our people? There is something very odd about it. Seeing that you are the one that started this way back in 1973 when you went to England and all the years of research and money. They didn’t tell us when they interviewed us in New Zealand, anything about this murder of 40 of our people. I think there is something very odd here.”
I thought so too, and I decided to do further research into it.
At the time of the showing of the documentary the papers in Australia and New Zealand were full of stories, many of which elaborated on what was in the film, and which I knew to be far from the truth. One magazine article in New Zealand, entitled ‘Two Soldiers’ Tale’ by David McGill, claimed that over 100,000 had died in what the prisoners came to call the “living grave,” as well as other weird and wonderful things witnessed by the prisoners, which belonged to pure fiction. I was sick to death of this documentary and everything I saw in the papers, even claims, supposedly made by me, that the SS murdered people, which I never did claim. I realised I had been badly used in this documentary.
Lawyers that looked at it in England, four in all, all said the one thing. It ‘Australianised’ the Holocaust. I believe that the whole thing behind it was to make out Australians were murdered in concentration camps so that they could produce another Holocaust promotion documentary, in which I had helped, aided and abetted. I was determined to find out the truth about the murder of those 40 men, and the many other weird and wonderful claims. (pp. 298-302)
From Appendix II
CLAIM: Steilberg claimed there were barrels of human fat, headless bodies and blood-spattered walls.
FACT: This is nonsense. Not one other ex-POW from the Small Fortress recalls any such horrors.
CLAIM: Steilberg said every time they saw the cart filled with bodies go out, it always turned out to where the cookhouse was.
FACT: Detailed maps of Terezin published by the Czech Government show that Steilberg could not have seen where the cart (if there were carts) went. The heavy wooden doors of his cell were locked, and there was no way to see out through the courtyard arch except by standing in the middle of Compound 4.
CLAIM: Steilberg claimed the POWs had sheets which were replaced with clean ones every week, and that he was fed soup with hunks of meat in it. He speculates that perhaps they were forced to eat human flesh.
FACT: Other POWs including myself and C. J. Collins recall that we were given no sheets or clothing. Collins in his cell had to sleep on wet concrete. We were given bread to eat and not much of it, not stew.
I feel sorry for Steilberg, who had a heart condition. I believe he was manipulated by the film-makers. I also feel sorry for Donald Watt. Both men had serious health problems.
In 1995 the book Stoker by Donald Watt was published as the true story of an Australian Army ex-serviceman, an eye-witness account of the mass murder of men, women and children at the notorious Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stoker is the most macabre, horrific book based on the Holocaust which I have every read in my 25 years of research. Doctor at Auschwitz appears a child’s fairy tale in comparison.
It is noteworthy that his book was published with the ‘encouragement and enthusiasm’ of John Saunders AO, founder of the Sydney Jewish Holocaust Museum. The Museum cost Saunders $5 million to establish and, according to a report in the Australian Jewish News, a further $1 million a year to operate. He clearly has a vested interest in promoting new and sensational material about the Holocaust, even if it is blatantly untrue. (pp. 367-368)
The Sydney Morning Herald of December 4th, 1985, carried the story that the Australian documentary ‘Where Death Wears a Smile’ had won the award for the Best Political Documentary at that year’s New York Television and Film and TV Festival. It puzzled me why it won the award for the best political film. I thought it had nothing to do with politics. During the first week in January I received a copy of a newspaper article headed, ‘Kiwi Prisoners Fed Hot Water in Living Grave.’
In July I received a letter from Paul Rea saying, “I am working furiously on my book about allied prisoners of war in Terezin.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was the man who had written to me back in January 1983 saying, “Dear Alex, I look forward to sitting down with you in partnership. First the documentary and then your book.” Now he was doing a book of his own instead. He also wanted information to help him write it, information about Granville, Ilot, and other people. I told him all the information he wanted was in the archives of the Small Fortress Association.
Then in February 1987 I received a letter from Sue Carney of the Reader’s Digest in Sydney saying that Paul Rea had written an article for their magazine about the servicemen imprisoned in Theresienstadt and my fight for their recognition. She went on to ask if I could “read through the enclosed pages and verify each point. As this has been a very controversial issue, we would not like to weaken your case by publishing any inaccuracies.” I agreed with her one hundred percent. I wrote back saying “the text you sent me was riddled with wilful lies. The article written by Paul Rea, would do to the credibility of any future articles published by the Reader’s Digest what AIDS does to the human body.” I received a letter from Paul Rea accusing me of calling him a liar and expressing his “anger and disgust.”
I also received a copy of a book from New Zealand, The Untold Stories of New Zealanders... Prisoners of War by David McGill. The interesting thing was all maps, Gestapo files and so on in the book were discovered by me after many years of research and considerable expense, and yet my name wasn’t mentioned once in the book. It interested me the number of people in Australia and New Zealand... writers... who were jumping on the bandwagon and making money out of wild, weird and wonderful stories about Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war in Nazi concentration camps.
I have done a lot more checking, and had more access to files and archives than any of these journalists and I knew that much of the alleged facts in the documentary and in the papers was sheer rubbish, and could do nothing but create racial hatred, which we can do without in this world, in my opinion.
On the 27th April 1988 I received a letter from the Minister of Veterans Affairs in Australia, Ben Humphries saying: “I am delighted that a grant of $10,000 had been made to you as a compensation for horrors experienced in the Nazi concentration camp.”
Also with this was the decision of the Concentration Camp Committee. “The Committee determines that Alexander McClelland was eligible for a payment of a non-taxable lump sum of $10,000 by way of compensation as an Australian War veteran interred illegally in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and having there been subjected to brutal treatment...”
I HAD WON! After all these years! The $10,000 would come in handy, but the main thing was that there it was in black and white, the thing I had been fighting for since 1970, eighteen years, and which had cost me every penny of my pension to prove: that I had been telling the truth about being in a concentration camp at the closing stages of the war. At last my World War II records had been revised to tell the truth. (pp. 302-303)
But I always had that nagging doubt about the Czechoslovakian affidavit about the murder of 40 Australians at Terezin in 1945. Some of my mates could have been among that 40. Also the letter from Tom Mottram, an engineer in New Zealand, expressing his opinion. Tom had received $10,000, Jerry Fleming who had been with him received $11,000. It seemed the more wild stories you told the more compensation you were entitled to. (p. 305)
The next day was 4th July 1988. I went to the War Crimes Office and, as Secretary of the Small Fortress Association of Terezin Concentration Camp, was ushered into the presence of the senior public prosecutor, Herr Schacht. He informed me very quickly that “already I have sent two letters to you saying that we will not allow anyone access to these documents.” I countered that by saying “Well, in this documentary ‘Where Death Wears a Smile,’ and in countless newspapers in Australia, there is an affidavit mentioned where this Czechoslovakian Jewish gentleman claimed the SS murdered 40 Australians. Some of them could have been my friends. I am here as Secretary of the Small Fortress Association to find out.” I then said “I am not here to offend the German people. I’m interested in the truth – not fiction. I believe there is something in that affidavit which is not as people make out it was in the documentary, and all the newspaper articles, like those of Paul Rea. I’m interested in historical truth; the children of your country, my country, the world, should know the truth, not a bundle of lies put out by a small number of people as the truth as they would like it to be.”
I knew I just had to see that affidavit. I hadn’t come all this way for nothing so I took my passport out and threw it on the table. I said, “I’m Alexander McClelland, there’s my passport. I am Secretary of the Small Fortress Association...’ and pulled every plug I could. He said, ‘Well, my English is not the best...” He backed off into German, so I went after him in my pitiful prisoner-of-war German, not crossing my t’s or dotting my i’s.
Anyhow a smile came on his face and he said, “If you come back in four hours’ time we might have something for you.” Four hours later I arrived back at his office. I looked at the three affidavits his secretary held in front of me. My German is not word-perfect, I cannot write German, but there was the text. I read one affidavit, the second affidavit, the third affidavit, and the thing that struck me most of all was this:
In the first affidavit he said “I was between 5 and 15 metres from this ghastly murder of Australians”; he was “in the Small Fortress, in Compound 4.”
In the second affidavit he was in the anti-tank ditch a couple of kilometres away.
In the third affidavit the same crime had been committed in a forest which was on the horizon, 15 kilometres away.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I thought, ‘Good God, here I am in ex-Nazi Germany in the Senior Public Prosecutor’s office in Dortmund. Here is the evidence that what Christopher Skase and thirty businessmen in Sydney, the Jewish gentlemen who put up the money, for – ‘Where Death Wears a Smile’ – was a fabricated lie. Here is the evidence that the murder of forty Australians never happened, except in the brain of one Czechoslovakian Jewish gentleman.
Obviously they had been watching me because Herr Schacht came in to the room and shook my hand and looked into my eyes and said ‘Good luck’ in perfect English. I wandered out of that place in a bit of a daze. I went out of the door and thought, ‘Where did I park my Kombi?’ I was really shocked. I turned around the corner and, strangely enough, ran into Schacht again. He saw that these three affidavits had really stunned me.
I decided to head for England as fast as I could. I drove from Dortmund to Zeebrugge and I arrived about 6am in the morning at Dover. I immediately drove to where Frank lived, and showed him the three affidavits. As they were in German I wanted a 100% correct translation, which he was able to do. Frank had copies of the newspaper articles written by Paul Rea, and a copy of the video ‘Where Death Wears a Smile.’ I was amazed a couple of days later when he rang me up and told me that Rea had taken one sentence out of one affidavit and one out of another. In other words he cannibalised the three affidavits, which ‘proved’ there was the murder of 40 Australians and New Zealanders, so that they formed one affidavit for the documentary, the same one being used in the papers. I couldn’t believe it so I went over to Frank’s place, and he showed me. It was word-perfect where Rea had taken one sentence from each affidavit to make up the evidence. I could hardly believe that Rea, or the people who put up the money for that documentary, would stoop so low.
This documentary, ‘Where Death Wears a Smile,’ was shown on Channel 7 and 10 networks in Australia, and then several times in America and eventually in Germany, and many other countries as being the true story of Australians in Terezin Concentration Camp. It successfully Australianised the Holocaust. I determined to expose Rea, Christopher Skase who controlled Channel 7, and the thirty Jewish businessmen of Sydney who put up the rest of the money for this hate-promoting documentary. There is no room for these people in our democratic society.
The heart of the documentary of Terezin was irrefutably false. It suddenly dawned on me: what about the claims made about other concentration camps like Auschwitz in Poland? I had to ‘Fight On’ as Wings Day had advised me in 1973. These evil people had to be exposed to the world. I owed it to my friends in Australia, to Scotty, to Frank Harrison, Airey Neave, Wings Day, Dr Eberhard and many other good people who had helped me so far. (pp. 306-307)
The Answer – Justice was originally published by HRP in 1998 with an incorrect ISBN. In 2013 it was renotified with a valid ISBN, 978-1-901240-23-8.