Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stalag Luft III

A lump of concrete in a forest; a lump of broken brick in my hand; a lump in my throat. Our visit to the site of Stalag Luft III today was moving, definitely, standing on the ground where Hut 103 once stood, walking on sand dug out of the Harry tunnel, looking at things that Dad had seen day after day during his four years in the camp - things like the brick-lined fire-fighting pond, the theatre walls, bits of broken crockery with the Luftwaffe eagle on the bottom. It was a warm and balmy day, but in winter it gets down to -20 degrees, and the pine and young oak trees growing all over the compound now weren't there to cut the icy wind back in 1942-45.

Marek, the museum director, is a man with a mission and enormous enthusiasm, spreading the word of the camps to local people and seeing it as a duty, to honour the memory of the men who were imprisoned here, and the thousands who died here. That was my surprise today: to learn about adjoining Stalag VIII C, where thousands of Russian prisoners of war endured (and often didn't) concentration camp conditions - all because Stalin wouldn't sign the Geneva Convention. It made Stalag Luft III seem a bit like a holiday camp in comparison, with no work to be done by the officers, Red Cross parcels, Shakespeare productions, model yachts on the pond, choirs and orchestras. But of course it wasn't really: there was never enough food, the boredom was epic, the cold was horrific - and the ingenuity, hard work, determination and courage involved in digging the tunnels was totally an inspiration.

Fifty of the escapers were shot afterwards on Hitler's orders, and their names are everywhere; but there was also danger in everyday life in those extraordinary times: my father was one small stroke of luck away from being shot by a guard wanting revenge for his family killed in a bombing raid. That kind of thing wasn't rare. It all seemed very real today, especially as the area is still used by the Polish tank division for training, and as we walked around we could hear gunshots and the boom of tank cannons, and saw one trundling through the trees.

It was a relief afterwards to find Zagan's pretty centre and sit with a beer and a pizza outside in the sun, joking about how glad we were that fast food is an international language; but actually thankful for so much more than that.

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