After flying doctor Anne Spoerry’s death, John Heminway’s tribute turned into a tale of cruelty and horror on discovering the truth about her former life
Book review: The tale of a Nazi collaborator who became Africa’s ‘saint’
When Dr Anne Spoerry died in 1999 at the age of 80, much of East Africa fell into mourning. Men, women and children from far-flung villages in Kenya gathered alongside European diplomats and African politicians in an airport hangar in Nairobi to pay their final respects to the unwearying doctor who had spent almost 50 years of her life healing the locals and
saving their lives.
“It was said no other physician could match her industry, tenacity and productivity in the cause of Africa’s well-being,” John Heminway writes, in a vivid recollection of the mass memorial service that opens In Full Flight. “As a sole lifeline for the poor, it was not uncommon for patients to declare her a saint.”
It was Spoerry’s saintly reputation that first drew Heminway, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and author of several books, to this unusual figure: the scion of a rich Swiss family who went on to fly solo to remote villages in a rickety plane, Zulu Tango, and minister to the poorest.
Her vaccination drive was instrumental to the eradication of smallpox in Kenya. Patients in the lands over which she flew called her Mama Daktari, Mother Doctor.
When Heminway first pitched the idea of writing a story about her as a flying doctor, she was indifferent, even brusque. But she softened, and allowed him to travel with her in the co-pilot’s seat. An enduring friendship blossomed.
Overcome by the outputting of love and grief at Spoerry’s funeral, Heminway decided to write “a tribute to Anne’s indefatigable will to better the lives of the downtrodden, an affectionate memoir of a blazing career”. But then he “learned the truth”.
In this startling book, he exhumes the distressing pre-African biography of Mama Daktari that she had so painstakingly suppressed during her years in Africa. Heminway had accounted for the gaps in his knowledge about the early life of Spoerry – the years of the Second World War – by telling himself that his friend had been tortured by the Nazis; the livid rebukes and stony silences provoked by his occasional attempts to probe her about that period only solidified this impression. The truth, when he discovered it, was devastating: Spoerry had tortured, and possibly executed, her fellow prisoners at
Ravensbrück, the only women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Her journey to Ravensbrück originated, not in collaboration with but in resistance against the Nazis, as they stormed France in 1940. A young medical student in Paris, Spoerry formed a resistance cell and helped British operatives.
But her campaign was cut short within weeks of its inauguration. Captured by the Gestapo in 1943, she was transferred to Ravensbruck. There she effectively functioned as a kapo under the command of a sociopathic inmate called Carmen Mory, a Blockova or block elder, and was assigned to supervise tubercular prisoners.
Spoerry, tortured and possibly raped, appears to have found solace in Mory’s companionship. Spoerry fell under the spell of the Blockova, assumed the name Dr Claude and executed the most vicious of orders. She threw cold water on the occupants of the “lunatic” ward and administered lethal injections. But once Mory was moved from Ravensbrück, Spoerry’s character abruptly changed: she dropped the Dr Claude persona and radiated compassion, helping a number of Jewish prisoners to escape the gas chamber.
After the liberation of France, Spoerry was tried by the Court of Honour, convicted and expelled from France for 25 years. She was 28. She spent the rest of her life in Africa. There, in rare moments of uncharacteristic lucidity, she made brief allusions to her past to close friends. Shortly before her death she began work on a memoir of the period she had glossed over in 1996 book They Call Me Mama Daktari. Should we conclude on the basis of the testimonial evidence so painstakingly collected by Heminway, who spent years travelling the world interviewing the last remaining survivors of Ravensbrück, that Spoerry was the manifestation of evil? Such a judgement would be in perfect harmony with the feral mood of our times. But can we arrive at that conclusion without engaging in a degree of self-deception? Spoerry was responsible for her own actions – a fact underscored by those who chose to act differently. Yet this extraordinary book compels us to ask what we, separated from the Second World War and its heinous brutalities by many decades, might do if we found ourselves in Spoerry’s position.
In 2012, Heminway interviewed Dr Louise Le Porz, one of few remaining survivors of Ravensbrück who witnessed Spoerry’s crimes. “Sixty years ago if I had met [Spoerry] in the street, I would have turned my back on her, walked away, and never talked,” she told Heminway. “Today, if she were still alive, knowing her suffering, realising the beauty she made of her career, and knowing how much she has done for humanity, my reaction would be different. I would embrace her.”