Willie Heider, a 17-year-old German machine gunner, is drafted into the army in 1942. During his two years as a soldier, he never shoots a man. His rejection of armed conflict, and subsequent capture by Allied forces, leads him on a journey that would change the course of his life. Meanwhile, a family in Oxfordshire host numerous German and Italian prisoners of war on their farm. Like many from the Brethren Christian community, they are conscientious objectors. Their stand for peace and commitment to love their enemies causes them to be shunned by society in a time of patriotism and war-fever. When Willie Heider arrives at the English family farm as a POW, he is welcomed with open arms, and experiences love and acceptance in the home of his foes. Meanwhile, as Britain begins to recover after the war, the devastation and poverty in Germany is far more severe. The Brethren family are moved to send aid to Germany out of their own rations, which sparks a glimmer of hope to a nation emerging out of the rubble. With exclusive access to previously unpublished prisoner of war images, this oral history documentary brings a unique and challenging perspective on one of the most tragic events in human history.
Unknown Ravens is a personal story to me. I first came across the POWs on the Kjeldsen family farm when I discovered some old family photos in my parents’ home in April 2018. Molly Kjeldsen was my grandmother. When she passed away in 2003, a letter came to my mother from Germany, offering condolences and enclosing a cheque with instructions to buy flowers for her grave on behalf of the sender. They had not seen each other since shortly after the end of the Second World War, when a series of events, triggered by a mutual rejection of armed conflict, lead his family and ours to become connected for life. The man’s name was Willie Heider.
The film was awarded the Emily Hobhouse Travel Bursary from Falmouth University, to make a film which reflects Hobhouse’s legacy of pacifism and social action, and it is a pleasure to be able to present the Kjeldsens’ story in her memory. The story of peacemakers often goes untold, while the focus on war, conflict and politics takes the limelight. Unknown Ravens presents an alternative perspective of WW2 – that of the under-represented, under-celebrated peacemakers. It calls into question what has generally been accepted as a ‘just war,’ and shows us that there is far more to history than presidents and generals.
The making of Unknown Ravens has been a fascinating exploration of the legacy of pacifism that has connected my family to the Heider family for three generations. It also highlights the wider context of WW2 conscientious objectors – a group we hear very little about in dominant WW2 narratives.