2012
Nov.
06

Return to Stalag Luft III

Since today is likely to be a contentious and divisive day for America, I’m going to post something I hope will be a small reminder of the country’s great common history – a set of photos I took the Friday before last during a visit with my son and mother to the site of the P.O.W. camp my father was interned in during World War II.

The remains of the camp, known during the war as Stalag Luft III, sit on the outskirts of the town of Żagań in southwest Poland, which prior to 1945 was the German town of Sagan.

Stalag Luft III was reserved for Allied airmen, mostly officers who, like my father, survived being shot down during bombing runs over Nazi-controlled Europe. But it was part of a much larger complex of camps housing thousands of captured Polish and Soviet soldiers, as well as a smaller number of Jewish and other forced laborers, many of whom did not survive their incarceration.

In the small museum we saw a model of the North Compound, which held mostly British inmates and was made famous by the “Great Escape” in March, 1944.

We also were aided by a museum staffer who helped us locate a record of my father’s internment, which lasted roughly 22 months, and ended with the infamous “Long March” of January 1945, as the Germans evacuated the camp in advance of the approaching Soviet army.

Here is a reconstruction of one of the barracks – or “huts,” as they were known – that some visiting British solders recently erected. My son Oscar has just gotten a stern warning that he shouldn’t goof off.

My father has always said his overwhelming memory of his time as a P.O.W. was of being cold. After spending just a few minutes in a room like his in the clapboard hut I understood why. It was bone-chilling – and this was on a gloriously sunny, late-October day.

We then checked out what is for many the “highlight” of a visit to Stalag Luft III – the actual place where the celebrated “Great Escape” took place. Here is a marker for one of the three tunnels excavated by prisoners under the noses of the camp guards.

While the effort was almost unimaginably daring and ingenious, only three of the 76 men who crawled through the tunnels and into these woods were ultimately successful, and 50 of the 73 who were captured were executed on the direct orders of Hitler.

We then went a little farther into the woods to check out the overgrown ruins of Center Compound, where my father had apparently spent most of his time as a P.O.W.

On the way we found some items that had likely been unearthed by treasure hunters. The broken white cup my mother is holding had likely been used by a prisoner, while the “Luftwaffe Blue” of the piece held by our guide means it had belonged to a German soldier or officer.

After a hundred or so meters we came across the foundation of one of the barracks in Center Compound. Whether this was my father’s actual hut I don’t know. But I do have the feeling that his quiet heroism has helped ensure that neither his children nor grandchildren will ever have to undergo a similar ordeal. Thanks, pop!