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Revealed: The darker secrets of Kenya’s legendary flying doctor

Wednesday May 26 2010

Dr Anne Spoerry, Kenya’s legendary flying doctor, who has been uncovered by the Financial Times as a Nazi-era war criminal. Photo/ FILE

Dr Anne Spoerry, Kenya’s legendary flying doctor, who has been uncovered by the Financial Times as a Nazi-era war criminal. Photo/ FILE 


Kenya’s legendary flying doctor Anne Spoerry, has been uncovered as a Nazi-era war criminal. The Weekend Magazine of London’s Financial Times reveals how “Mama Daktari” took part in the torture and killings of prisoners while herself an inmate at the Ravensbrück Prison in France run by the German occupiers during the Second World War.

The notorious camp for women prisoners held thousands of Jews, many of them mentally ill. Many of them were executed in the gas chambers. Dr Spoerry, the article recounts, started out with the French underground resistance until she was captured by the Nazis and confined to a concentration camp.

Interviews with survivors trace how she gradually came under the influence of a powerful fellow prisoner used by the Nazis to keep inmates under control. After the war, Dr Spoerry was indicted by a Swiss court on war crimes, but was eventually set free after confessing her crimes.

She eventually made her way to Kenya where she bought a farm, learnt to fly and joined the Flying Doctors outfit of the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref), formed by the legendary Dr Michael Wood.

White Highlands

She came to Kenya in 1949, and by the end of the following year, settled in the White Highlands at Ol Kalou, doubling as a farmer and countryside doctor. As independence approached, she left the 3,000-acre Ol Kalou farm that was required for African settlement and bought another one near Subukia.

The Financial Timesrecounts that Dr Spoerry was a popular member of the settler community who elected to stay on after independence. In 1964 at the age of 45, she learnt to fly and joined the Flying Doctors, carrying on the job that made her famous until her death in 1999.

Up to that time, her past had been a closely-guarded secret. Her numerous friends and acquaintances in Kenya only had vague information that she had been a member of the French resistance and she had been captured and imprisoned by the Germans. But other than that, she was extremely touchy on any inquiries on her experiences as a prisoner.

She would clam up and lose her temper whenever asked about confinement at Ravensbrück, and the assumption from friends was that the memories of concentration camp ill-treatment and torture were too much to bear. But, says the Financial Times, far from being a mere prisoner and victim of Nazi brutality, Dr Spoerry held dark secrets that she might be trying to atone for with her good works in Kenya.

Writer John Hemingway, who over the years had become acquainted with Dr Spoerry and become an admirer of her work, traces the revelations to some time after “Mama Daktari”’s death, when her nephew Bernard Spoerry opened one of three safes in her farmhouse.

Among the documents was one dated October 25 1947: “Central Registry of War Criminals Consolidated Wanted List. Spoerry, Anne Marie, C.R. File No: 191069 C.C. Ravensbrück (Ger.), Reason wanted: Torture, wanted by FR. (France).” The writer, who had known Dr Spoerry for two decades, went on to launch investigations that took him to France, Germany, Switzerland and Germany.

He dug into old war trial archives and traced a few surviving witnesses of the Ravensbrück camp. The elderly women recalled clearly the diminutive Dr Spoerry’s 16 months at the prison and her strange relationship with a sadistic camp trustee who was her protector and presumed lover, Carmen Mory.

Ravens­brück was Germany’s only concentration camp exclusively for female prisoners, holding as many as 123,000 of whom only 30,000 survived. It operated as a work camp, giving out inmates to local industries, including Siemens. Late in 1944, Spoerry, whose medical training was interrupted by the war, was assigned to a block housing TB patients and lunatics.

Each block was run by a Blockova, or block elder, a prisoner selected by the Nazis to police the camp from within. The trustee enjoyed power and privileges denied other prisoners, and often held the power of life and death. It was Carmen Mory in charge of Block 10, found the Financial Times, who became Spoerry’s friend and protector.

Among the camp survivors, were Dr Louis Le Porz in Bordeaux and Ms Violette Lecoq in Paris. The former recalled clearly Carmen Mory and Dr Spoerry, and one incident remained stuck in her memory. It involved a young Polish girl — in the ward for lunatics — with a beautiful voice who sang loudly day and night.

“Carmen could not stand it,” said Dr Le Porz. “I think she must have asked the head nurse for the authorisation to make her ‘disappear’. Then she wanted me to give her a shot and I refused.” But Spoerry, still not a qualified doctor, readily agreed:

“She did not hesitate... I was dumbfounded. This was a discovery for me. That anyone who is a medical doctor or wants to become one could deliberately execute a patient... I can only explain it by her fear of reprisals.” Testimony given for the Hamburg Ravensbrück trials supported Le Porz’s memories.

The investigation also took the Financial Times writer to Basle, Switzerland, with testimony of a Ms Elsa Schultz: Spoerry “hit the inmates inhumanly and she’s got hundreds of human lives on her conscience with the injections.”

From Birmingham

From Birmingham, England, Ms Tryntje Duvivier De Beer testified: “Every day, some 60 people died. Out of these were some who had been injected by Dr Claude (that was the name Spoerry had assumed). The persons injected were only lunatics... I suspect the cause of death was the injection, because after the injections the room became empty.”

Towards the end of the war, the Swedish Red Cross liberated Ravensbrück and Spoerry was free. She returned to Paris to continue her medical studies. But by 1946, she had been arrested on charges of ­torture and murder. She essentially confessed to damning evidence against her and Carmen Mory by numerous witnesses, but her family had the means to get her off lightly.

Mory was sentenced to death by hanging at the beginning of 1947. The Court of Honour found Spoerry guilty, being a traitor to the French and bringing shame on France through inhumane behaviour. She was exiled from France for 25 years. That was how she left France, initially taking a job on a ship plying the Red Sea out of Aden. Late in 1949 she found herself in Kenya and immediately fell in love with the place.