UNLIKE many other survivors of horrific events in the Second World War, Cornelius Melis felt no responsibility to tell about the inhumanity he experienced.
Mr Melis, 94, of Portland, was a young man in Holland when he was conscripted by the Germans in 1942 to work in forced labour programs in Germany and Austria.
When his German captors fled before the advancing Russians towards the war’s end, Mr Melis endured much depravity and hardship over a seven-month period before he was able to return to Holland.
He said people did not want to know about his ordeal when he returned to Holland after the war — and he is surprised they want to hear about it decades afterwards.
But requests by his children and grandchildren to record his experiences led him to recently write a book, A Bend in the Road, for their eyes only.
He said another motivation for the book was because little had been written about the experiences of forced labourers in Germany during the war.
Of the 150,000 Dutchmen taken to Germany 30,000 died, 11,000 with no known grave, Mr Melis said.
He believes many of those with unmarked graves worked in eastern Austria where he was posted. If they could not prove they were Dutch, they were sent by the occupying Russians to slave camps where they perished, Mr Melis said.
Despite frequent bombings by the Allies during the war, Mr Melis said his life under the Germans was not unbearable.
However, it deteriorated drastically when he was “liberated” by the Russians: “It was the worst time in my life.”
Mr Melis, who had some training as an industrial chemist, had been working for the Germans at an oilfield at Bernardsthal near Austria’s border with the Czech Republic. He arrived at work one day to find no one there and was captured by the Russians when he tried to cycle west towards the Allied lines at Salzburg.
Fighting between the Russians and Germans was still under way and he was put to work burying the Russian dead.
He witnessed shocking things as the Russians murdered civilians and repeatedly raped women. Some women committed suicide rather than face such a fate.
Some who were shot after they refused to be raped were comforted by Mr Melis as they died.
He escaped but was recaptured and imprisoned, only to be released later. Fending for himself, he was one day given a ride in a horse and cart by two Russian soldiers carrying two plundered beer kegs. When they told him the war was over, he felt no jubilation, only the hope that he could soon return home.
However, that hope was ill-founded. It took seven months of jumping trains through Germany and eastern Europe, sleeping in burnt-out houses and displaced persons camps and scrounging for food before he made it home.
After being focused on survival for so long, he was “lost” for some time before returning to his studies as an industrial chemist.
Despite marrying and having a child, he continued to feel unsettled and emigrated to Australia in 1951, coming to Port Fairy where a friend had family connections.
He moved to Portland in 1963 to take over a photographic business, pursuing his interest in photography.
“When I came to Australia, for the first time I felt free.
“I could stay where I liked and Australia had never experienced occupation. It had never experienced real war.”
Mr Melis said he had written a “warts and all” account of his war experiences in his book.
“There are things I am not proud of but I had to survive.”
He said writing the book had reminded him of things he had preferred to forget.
However, he had found the more he talked about it, “the less horrible it gets”.
He recently spoke about his experiences to visitors at a recent travelling exhibition in Portland about the life of Jewish girl Anne Frank, whose diary kept during her time in hiding in Amsterdam has become a famous book and film.
He does not hate the Germans, he said. “Without the help of some Germans, I would not have survived. I am still here. I can do what I like to do.”