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New Carlisle students tackle legendary local spy tale for Unearth Our Past

02/20/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT
It’s a spy story with an unlikely hero set in the Gaspé during the Second World War.

The plot is based on a true story, etched into the history of the seaside community.

And now, more than 70 years later, Secondary 4 students at New Carlisle High School in the Baie des Chaleurs are transforming the tale of undercover treachery into a stage production.

The play is part of the Unearth Our Past project, one element of this year’s Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

Students from five schools across Quebec are participating in the project and writing their own plays based on local history and lore.

Unlikely Hero

The New Carlisle High School students researched historical characters from their community as part of their history class.

Then, under the guidance Montreal-based playwright Fanny Lacroix, they picked one, Earle Annett Jr., to be their main character.

Annett, the son of a hotel owner, sniffed out German spy Werner Alfred Waldemar von Janowski and confronted him in late 1942. 

Janowski was a Nazi lieutenant who disembarked from a German submarine fewer than seven kilometres from New Carlisle, according to the Gaspesian Heritage website. He walked into Annett's hotel asking for a room.

“[The German soldier] had this musty smell about him. He smelled like he had been on a boat all day,” said Marshall Billingsley, one of the students working on the play.

Janowski told Annett he had taken the bus into town that morning.

Locals knew the bus hadn’t been running for week.

“There were a bunch of clues that made him odd, that made him not fit in,” said Billingsley.

Other clues included his Belgian cigarettes, outdated money, and a suspiciously-Parisian accent.

Janowski gave himself up when he was intercepted by provincial police on the train after Annett gave an officer a description of the odd hotel guest.

He eventually became an informant for the Allied forces.

Creative liberty

Students at New Carlisle High School are using the true story as the inspiration for their play, but Lacroix says they have creative liberty to mould the story line.

If they have questions about the facts, they can turn to a local museum that has an exhibit on the Annett-Janowski story, or they can ask their teacher, Ian Gilker.

Gilker has a personal connection to the tale: Earle Annett Jr. is his now-deceased great-uncle.

“It’s cool that our teacher is related to these people,” said student Staci Buttle. “It’s more of a connection to what we are writing about.”

Lacroix will pick 12 of the best pages of the play to include in a book published by the Blue Metropolis Festival for their 2015 edition, which runs from April 20 to 26 in Montreal.

Connection to history

Students participating in the Unearth Our Past project, funded in part by Heritage Canada, say they like the immersive approach to learning about their community’s history.

Shelby Major moved to New Carlisle from Ontario with her family in the past year. She said she found it “amazing” to think this part of Canadian history happened in her new hometown.

“In Ontario, we learned not so much about our history, but world history. But here we are learning more about the history of Quebec. It’s good to know your background and where you are from.”

Once the play is written and revised, students will perform a polished reading before a local audience.

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