CYRUS WATHEY SQUARE–When the church bells of Philipsburg tolled and uniformed personnel solemnly marched on Friday afternoon, the people whose names grace the War Memorial on Captain Hodge Wharf were foremost on the minds of those gathered for Remembrance Day (in Dutch: Dodenherdenkingsdag).
One name not on the Memorial is that of the late St. Maartener Lionel Romney (1912-2004). He did not carry a weapon in World War II (WWII), nor did he die at the hands of his captors. What prisoner number 76,548 did, though, was survive Mauthausen, officially designated as a “Death through Work” camp by the Nazis.
Romney’s experience is an obscure one from WWII that illustrates how interconnected the world was even then, and how important it was for all peoples to fight for freedom. He is listed as number 76,548 in handwritten prison ledgers from the war era. However, his story tells volumes more than that number can represent.
Romney, age 28 at the time, was aboard a Greek ship loaded with coal in Cardiff, Wales, when the war broke out in June 1940. Originally destined for Argentina, the merchant navy ship was rerouted with its cargo to the Mediterranean Sea – to Greece.
His ship hit a mine and sank between Sicily and Tunisia on June 17, 1940. The crew was rescued by the Italian Navy, but taken prisoner. Romney was held in various Italian prisoner of war (POW) camps through 1940 until 1944. As the Allied front advanced northward through Italy, the Germans and the Italians were in retreat. The Germans relocated the prisoners to prevent them from being freed and perhaps join the Allied Forces.
Romney was in the batch sent off to Mauthausen in Austria. This “Death through Work” camp” was the only one designed to work prisoners to death in a quarry, cutting and carrying large blocks of granite Adolf Hitler loved. The able-bodied were forced to carry stone blocks, each weighing 50 kilos (110 pounds) on their backs, up a stairway of 186 steps. This was known as the “Stairway of Death” and is prominent in Holocaust history.
He was assigned to work, not in the quarry, but as a lumberjack. That posting and his aptitude for languages may have aided in his survival, opined his daughter Mary Romney in a 2012 newspaper interview. English was his first language. He also spoke Dutch and Papiamentu, and could understand German, Spanish, and Italian.
Romney may have received extra food as a lumberjack, according to information from Lt. Jack Taylor, an American Navy pilot and later the first United States Navy SEAL, who had been shot down over Austria and interned at Mauthausen.
It is from his 30-page testimony that Romney’s presence at Mauthausen is documented. Taylor recalled meeting Romney, but referred to him as an American, although at that time he was Dutch. He also reported that no one knew what became of Romney, which in those days was almost a code phrase for “he probably died.” This same information has been repeated in books and other sources.
Romney was in Mauthausen from June 1944 until May 1945 when the camp was liberated by American troops. He went to the Netherlands, then immigrated to the United States where he had an aunt living in New York. There he married and raised his family. He became a naturalised citizen in the 1980s.
Romney worked for decades as a maintenance worker for a building in New York City’s garment district. There he worked with a survivor from the Auschwitz concentration camp.
St. Maarten observed Remembrance Day with a solemn march of uniformed personnel from Clem Labega Square to Captain Hodge Wharf, where two minutes of silence were observed and wreaths were laid by Government, other officials and the public.
Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/76306-romney-s-story-of-survival-adds-hope-to-remembrance