An Invercargill civilian at war

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War victim: Portrait of Ethel Rodgers, 1929, maker unknown (Europe). Gift of Ethel Gertrude Isabella Rodgers, 1961.

WITHIN the collection of the Southland Museum & Art Gallery there are many items which tell the stories of Southlanders who experienced the horrors of World War 2.

One of the more unusual stories is that of Ethel Gertrude Isabella Rodgers (1884-1961) who was not a soldier or a nurse, but a civilian who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Born in Invercargill in 1884, Ethel was the youngest daughter of Dutch immigrant Louis Rodgers, and his wife Emma.

Ethel’s early years were spent in Invercargill but her life was set on a different course when, in 1892, her mother died, followed by her father four years later.

After Louis’ death, her sister Emma Louisa returned to her father’s native country of the Netherlands to visit his siblings and met a young Dutchman, Marinus Cornelius Vermaat, whom she subsequently married.

In 1906, Emma sent for her young sister and Ethel joined the couple in The Hague.

Ethel was still in The Netherlands when World War 2 broke out in 1939.

As a foreign national, she was interned by the Germans, first in the Netherlands and then in Germany. In the Netherlands, she was held alongside 450 other women at Schoorl, living in long wooden barracks which offered little comfort in the depths of winter.

The women were later transferred to a large castle in Wurtemburg, Germany, which had previously been used as a psychiatric hospital.

Recalling her time at the castle in 1956, Ethel said the women kept their spirits up by putting on stage shows and pantomimes, and were saved from malnutrition by the parcels of food many of them received from loved ones.

Sixteen-and-a-half months after being taken prisoner, Ethel was finally released when the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, William Joseph Jordan, managed to prove to her captors she was a New Zealand, not a British, citizen (an important distinction as the New Zealand Government, unlike that in Britain, did not imprison German women).

She went to The Hague to live with her sister, and following the announcement of peace, the pair returned to Invercargill.

Back on home soil, Ethel went on to play a quiet but active role in the local community.

She later made a generous donation of more than 200 items to the museum collection, items that help us to remember this and many other tales from her and her family’s eventful lives.

— Kimberley Stephenson, collections manager, Southland Museum & Art Gallery

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