Compassion

“Compassion, even towards one’s enemies, is a sign of nobleness and spiritual perfection.”

Ostad Elahi (1895-1974)

* * *

“The ship I had been loaded onto had been the Sebastiano Venier, also known as the Jason… On 9 December 1941, the Sebastiano Venier was hit by a torpedo fired from one of our subs, HMS Porpoise, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Pizey. Hundreds of allied soldiers, many of them New Zealanders, were killed. Nowadays they’d probably call it friendly fire, and it would rank amongst the worst examples in history, but back then the calculation had been much simpler: wars weren’t won by captives and enemy shipping was helping resupply Rommel. No matter how many prisoners died the ships had to be sunk to save the lives of those still fighting. The greater good depended on it whatever the cost. The price was paid by men like us…

The carnage on board, especially in the hold where the torpedo had struck, had been appalling but…not all the prisoners on the ship had perished, and in fact most had survived the attack…

I had made it up on deck soon after the torpedo struck and went straight over the side without a thought, kicking as hard as I could to get away from the stricken ship. I had seen the ship receding slowly into the distance and tilting ever deeper towards the bow as it went and then I lost sight of it. I was convinced that boat had gone down with all those poor lads trapped inside it…

The Sebastiano Venier did not go down, in fact it became famous for staying afloat…

The Sebastiano Venier’s outward voyage, taking supplies to Benghazi, had been a terrible passage for the crew and theirs was he only ship of five to get through… The experience had shredded the crew’s nerves. The Italian captain in particular had been nervous and jittery as they put to sea again… They made it as far as the southern coast of Greece, when, according to the surviving accounts, the captain spotted the periscope of an allied sub poking through the waves. He panicked and concluded rashly that the game was up. He feared that the moment a torpedo struck, the 2,000 or so allied prisoners would fight their way on deck and overwhelm the few lifeboats on board. He ordered the crew to abandon ship before the first torpedo struck in order to save his own skin…

The man who saved this ship and the remaining prisoners was a mysterious German who had never been identified to this day. He appeared like the strangest sort of guardian angel, brandishing a Luger pistol and a heavy spanner. He restored the order and got the few Italian engineers who had been left behind by their superiors to fall in line and then, working through an allied NCO, he convinced the prisoners to calm down and stay on board He told them they might be able to save the ship if they worked together and that the sea was now their greatest enemy. He ordered the men to the rear of the vessel, telling them that their weight would help relieve the strain – however fractionally – on the forward bulkhead; he said their lives depended upon it. He gave instructions for first-aid posts to be set up to treat the injured and got the engines going again but very slowly…

With the waterlogged bow of the ship acting as a drag the mystery German got the boat going astern and very slowly he edged it the remaining miles towards the shore. Several hours later, he beached it on the rocks to the grinding sound of steel. There were hearty Allied cheers for the German sailor who had put enmity aside to get as many men as possible to safety…

The German, who vanished as quickly as he appeared,… was probably a marine engineer but his consideration for the wounded prisoners was never forgotten and those who encountered him spoke of a man of great courage and humanity who, enemy or not, had saved hundreds of allied lives…”

(From “The man who broke into Auschwitz”
by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby)

Ship Sebastiano Venier aground at Point Methoni, Greece, photographed December 1941 by an unknown photographer.
From Alexander Turnbull Library

 

One thought on “Compassion

  1. […]  A story of the German engineer who rescued the 2,000 or so allied prisoners from the Sebastiano Ven… […]

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