by John Heminway, February 12, 2018 11:33 AM
Photo credit: William Campbell
While I keep reminding myself that In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement
is my sixth book, I view this one in a category all its own. Notably, it has taken more time to write than all the others combined — almost 18 years from the first day of research to its publication in February 2018. Admittedly, I was also engaged in other assignments — notably five documentaries. Still, the duration of this project has had a curious impact on me, for the span of its research, the political hurdles it threw my way, the complexity of the personalities I encountered, and one recurring fear that I was tackling a subject far more perilous than ever before.
I had brave parents who allowed me at age 16 to go off on an expedition led by a mercurial explorer. I flew to London, traveled to Southampton, and, with three other schoolboys, set sail for the south Atlantic on the Winchester Castle, a refurbished Liberty ship. From the moment the ship’s horn sounded, the word “Africa” became my mantra, tantalizing me with freedoms I lacked at home. Two weeks later, when the gangplank was lowered in Cape Town harbor, I took my first African footstep, straightaway crossing a threshold into the epic and changing my life forever.
Resuming school that September, I began making plans to return to Africa the following summer. Inspired by the expedition leader’s Africana collection, I began my own. I scoured catalogs from Maggs and Spink, and whenever my tiny savings allowed, I invested in 19th-century explorer accounts of the opening up of the “dark continent.” Now, after all these years, those books number in the hundreds, still trumpeting the call of a continent. Each acquisition was an adventurous but nerve-wracking balance between Africana desire and financial liquidity. Thanks to that schoolboy passion I still own masterpieces like Joseph Thomson’s Through Masai Land, Richard Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Major Casati’s Ten Years In Equatoria and The Return With Emin Pasha, David Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi, Henry M. Stanley’s In Darkest Africa, W. C. Harris’ The Wild Sports of Southern Africa, Rev. Alfred Charles Smith’s The Attractions of the Nile and Its Banks, Ludwig von Höhnel’s Discovery by Count Teleki of Lake Rudolf and Stefanie. While today I no longer can afford to expand my collection, I continue to pore over those treasures, reliving an infatuation that endures.
During the ’70s and ’80s, between filming assignments, I scrambled around Africa, cooking up stories to write for an assortment of magazines. I was especially captivated by Africa’s characters — bigger-than-life eccentrics who shared my passion for the wild. During this period, I kept hearing about a certain Dr. Anne Spoerry, who tended to the health of tribal people in remote corners of Africa. At first she was elusive, brushing aside all requests for an interview. Finally, in March 1980, she allowed a meeting in her office. As I rose to leave, she said I could join her the following day on her monthly trip to the Northern Frontier. That epic week flying with her sealed the deal — to write the definitive account of her life... at least the Africa bits. She was everything I admired: outspoken, brave, bighearted, quirky, and mysterious. A friendship was born — one that spanned 20 years. Still, it had its limitations; in the film I made about her, I tried (and failed) to penetrate her reserve.
When Anne died in 1999, much of Kenya went into mourning. There were multiple ceremonies — two in Nairobi, one at the coast, another in London, and a dedication back in Nairobi. I was so moved by the upwelling of sentiment and my own feelings of loss that I set out, at last, to write a broader memoir of her life.
A chance encounter with Anne’s nephew Bernard Spoerry in 2000, on the Kenya coast, alerted me to a mystery. After he took ownership of her Sabukia farm, he opened her massive safe and found a lone file. Opening it, I saw that topmost lay a foxed document, dated 1946, and headed, "CROWCASS (Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects)." In it a certain Anne Spoerry, the only Swiss on the list, was cited for crimes against humanity, including “torture.” At the time of its printing, this list was classified and not to be released until 2023. While stunned by its revelation, I knew I had no recourse but to probe the true dimensions of “torture.”
Within the year I set out to focus on Anne’s secret wartime years spent in Ravensbrück, the dreaded German concentration camp for women. Records show that some 123,000 victims entered its gate and less than 18,000 survived. On May Day, 2002, I visited Ravensbrück; there was nothing festive on that national holiday — only pods of elderly women hobbling from firing line to crematorium, reliving long-gone horrors in silence. Even now, I see the shadows of those monstrous walls and relive images of how Anne conducted herself within.
I had the good fortune of meeting three elderly ladies who had shared their captivity with Anne in Ravensbrück. Two lived in Paris and the third, Dr. Louise LePorz, a family physician, in Bordeaux. All spoke to me with a consistent narrative. The longest living, Dr. LePorz, so intrigued me that I met with her four times, each time probing her horrific experiences and painful observations. Her candor and modesty haunt me still. Now, with all three women deceased, I agonize that they will never read this book that, in some small way, serves as a testament to their bravery and suffering.
A Film Clip:
I also had the good fortune to meet and work with Caterina Abbati, who wrote the only fact-based biography of Carmen Mory, a friend of Anne’s. Mory gained a fateful reputation as Ravensbrück’s most cunning, duplicitous, and dangerous prisoner. Her name and testimony appeared throughout wartime crime trials, but photographs of her were in maddeningly scant supply. When I thought I had exhausted all leads, I discovered online a Pathé News film from 1947. In it, Mory, kitted out in a fur coat, is seen on the stand in Hamburg, facing a battery of judges, their backs turned to her. Even though the film clip is mute, we know the moment Mory hears her sentence, called out by the clerk. With those words, she performs the sign of the cross and then is rotated off the stand by two guards. No image could be more dramatic. To this day, I play the clip over and over again.
A Medieval Town:
For nine years, I sought permission from the French military authorities to read Anne’s wartime files. Each response to my letters was written in flowery French and amounted to a flat “no,” by virtue of a 1947 edict that sensitive wartime files could not be released for 75 years. Finally, in 2011, a new commandant of the archives relented and allowed me three hours with the files. I flew to Paris, drove four hours to Le Blanc in Central France, and spent my designated three hours studying a file sealed by a beautiful red ribbon. Hovering over me was an armed guard assigned to ensure that I did not photograph the material. What I discovered in that file tipped the scale.
I wrote a short synopsis of my early findings for the Financial Times weekend magazine and received a flurry of mail, most of it complimentary, some requesting film rights. Standing apart from the encouragement were three emails from Anne’s friends and admirers calling me a traitor. One suggested that when my past was scrutinized, all kinds of wrongdoings would come to light. Another threatened my life. Why focus on war, one contended, for only Anne’s Africa years mattered. Curiously, the acrimony had little effect. It inspired me. Now more than ever I needed to complete the book — to document the complexity of human character, the lengths one individual took to survive, serving as her own private jury, handing down her own sentence. I believed then — as I do now — that Anne is more important for the totality of her life than as an uncontested heroine during one era. Her past needed to be revealed, examined, and debated.
A Gathering of Supporters:
This book would never have been written without the affirmation of a collection of individuals I greatly admire. They believed in the story and gave me assurances that my ambling presence in the narrative would establish the book’s credibility and charm. Go figure, I thought.
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is an author and award-winning filmmaker who has produced and written more than 200 documentaries on subjects as varied as travel, brain science, evolution, and natural history. He has won two Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and a duPont-Columbia Award. Most recently, he is known for his exposés of the illicit ivory trade. In Full Flight
is his sixth book. Heminway lives in Montana.