The Nazi sword under the bed was one of the few reminders of Paddy Fox’s storied past. He kept it there, like many of his countrymen kept hurleys, in case of a burglary.
For him it was an implement with a practical purpose. For his stepdaughter, however, it was also a memento of sorts, a swastika-inscribed reminder of her stepfather’s moment at the gates of history.
“He only very rarely spoke about what he had seen,” Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz tells the Sunday Independent. “He had no optimism, he expected people to behave very badly. He quoted Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘I wish I loved the human race, I wish I loved its silly face.’ I feel this sentiment may have been a legacy of the things he had seen in his life.”
Those events traversed the horror of the Holocaust and the chaos of Irish liberation. Patrick Joseph Fox was the son of a Ballina postmaster who set up a hotel on Leeson Street in Dublin. The family were not well off and as a child the young Paddy slept in a cupboard. He lived through the 1916 Rising and had memories of lying flat on the floor of a tram while bullets flew overhead.
He studied medicine at UCD and after graduating joined the British army. He was stationed in India where he met his first wife, Nancy, a nurse from Belfast, whose family disowned her when they learned she was marrying a Catholic. She and Paddy returned to England and he undertook a hygiene specialist course in London. It was this expertise that led to him being sent to Germany.
In April 1945, Dr Fox, armed with a pocket German dictionary, travelled with the British army through the woods of northern Germany to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. By then most of Europe had been liberated from the Nazis, and Adolf Hitler was holed up in the underground bunker in Berlin where he would commit suicide a few weeks later. Before that happened, though, the full horror of the Holocaust was laid bare. “We had never seen or contemplated anything like it in our lives,” Fox would later say. “The ground in the camp was literally covered with corpses, some of which had been dead for some time. Wooden huts were full with people, some already dead, some barely alive. They were suffering from many diseases including typhus, dysentery and TB and many of them would die of these.”
Belsen was not, officially, an extermination camp. Unlike other German concentration camps, it did not contain gas chambers intended for the factory-like mass murder of Jews and other minorities. Instead, its 50,000 victims – among whom was the young Anne Frank – died slowly, from a mixture of brutally hard labour, starvation and disease.
As Germany’s defeat in the war became inevitable, the guards forced inmates from other camps, including Auschwitz, on death marches toward Belsen, which lay further west. It was this, in part, which led to the unbelievable overcrowding and dreadful scenes that Dr Fox encountered when he arrived.
“My reaction was one of horror,” he said. “We heard stories that the SS had used human skin as lampshades and I think they went on practising this there in Belsen. They hadn’t got the crematoria to exterminate large numbers of people as they did in other camps but they made life as wretched as possible for the inhabitants as they could. It was pure sadism, I suppose.”
On April 24, 1945, the British army film unit made a tape of Fox standing outside the gates of the camp. “The conditions here are truly appalling,” he said. “Nobody would believe the horrors we have seen here. Although the task is a gigantic one, I feel we will surmount it.”
After order had been established in Belsen, Fox travelled to Berlin and photographed the Reichstag in ruins. He attended the Potsdam Conference, at which the post-war division of Germany was decided. He also testified at the Belsen trial, which resulted in the hanging of many of the Nazi war criminals who had run the camp, including Josef Kramer, who had also been the commandant of Auschwitz.
After the war Fox returned to England and began working as a doctor in Cornwall. He was given compassionate discharge from the army when his wife developed health issues. She died in 1962.
He met his second wife, Liz, in the mid-1960s. She came from a Jewish family – one cousin had had to be “bought” from the Nazis to save his life – and had a daughter from her previous marriage, Lindsey. “I was born in Australia, my father was a complete no-gooder, and she (Lindsey’s mother) came back to England. She was always close to a sister-in-law who lived in Cornwall, and that was where my mother and my stepfather met. For quite an unemotional man, he fell madly in love.” Into the marriage he brought the stiff upper lip of the English army. “As far as I went he was a bit distant. He hadn’t had children of his own. I was very eager to have a daddy. I was a naughty child and eventually I went away to boarding school.”
It was only later in life that Lindsey, who is a teaching fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies, began to understand the import of what her stepfather had done. “He hardly spoke about it at all, he was a deeply down-to-earth, commonsense, pessimistic sort of a person. He was stubborn: he once fell out of bed and lay there for about two hours because he was too proud to call out for help.”
Paddy Fox died in 1992 in Cornwall after a period of ill health. Last year the Imperial War Museum in London and the British Film Institute re-screened the footage of Fox at Belsen. The film ends with the sight of Belsen being burned to the ground, a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion to the story of the camp.
The Nazi sword as well as a pair of swastika-inscribed binoculars, which he took with him from Germany, have since been sold at auction.
“I went to clear out the house in 2014,” Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz recalls, “and the thing that brought me to tears and laughter were the lists he left behind. He had recorded the cubic capacity of every teapot in the house, for instance. He loved order and precision, he wasn’t very emotional, and, in a strange way, I think all of those qualities probably stood to him in Belsen.”
Source: Irish News