POW Tour Trip Report: September 24 through October 2, 2007
Dear Family & Friends,
We made it! Dad (Richard) and I just returned from our trip to Germany and Poland where we visited the site of his old Prisoner of War camp. My brother Rick had planned to go with us but he injured his knee only days before we left so was unable to travel. He was sorely missed.
We were part of a special tour organized for WWII ex-POWs. There were 35 of us, 10 of whom were ex-POWs. Everyone there had some connection to the POW camps. This was a two week tour but we could only make the first week. It was the most important part of the trip for us since it focused on visits to Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany (pronounced ‘Bart’) and Stalag Luft IV near Tychowo, Poland (pronounced ‘Tuh-hoe-voe’). Richard was in Stalag Luft IV from mid-June 1944 to February 6, 1945. During our trip the POWs were referred to as ‘Kriegies’ which is short for the German word, "Kriegesgefangenen," meaning prisoner of war.
We arrived in Berlin, Germany on Tuesday, September 25th after being on the road for about 24 hours with very little sleep. We immediately set out with the group to see a local landmark, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and do some souvenir shopping. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche or Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is one of Berlin's most famous landmarks. The damaged tower (http://www.aviewoncities.com/berlin/gedachtniskirche.htm) is a symbol of Berlin's resolve to rebuild the city after the war and a constant reminder of the destruction of war. At dinner that evening the first Kriegie we spoke to was Gerry May who had been in Lager A of Luft IV with Richard. Even though they had not known each other then they got along as if they had long been friends. Richard and Gerry were the only Kriegies from Luft IV on this trip.
Up and out early on Wednesday (Sept. 26th) we headed to Potsdam, Germany on our tour bus. We were very lucky that the weather was perfect since we expected only overcast and rain the entire trip. We visited the Cecelienhof Palace, site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, and then on to the Palace Sans Souci (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanssouci), built by Frederick the Great in the mid-1700s. After touring around Potsdam we headed back to Berlin and stopped at the Brandenburg Gate (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandenburg_Gate). We saw many other landmarks throughout Potsdam and Berlin but only out the window of our bus. It was a long day and was still not done! That evening we were attended a reception at the Russian Science and Culture Center in Berlin. It was hosted by Natalia Botova, daughter of four-star Russian General Pavel Batov who liberated Stalag Luft I in May 1945. There were Russian veterans of WWII there and shots of good Russian vodka for toasts.
Richard at the Palace Sans Souci in Potsdam, built by Frederick the Great in the mid-1700’s
Richard at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Richard and other Kriegies with Russian WWII veterans at the reception held at the Russian Science and Cultural Center, Berlin
On Thursday (Sept. 27th) we left for Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany (http://www.gps-practice-and-fun.com/stalag-luft-1.html). This was a four-hour bus ride North to the Baltic Sea during which we enjoyed the German countryside and got to know our fellow travelers more. Once there we visited St. Marien’s church, built in the 16th century, then went out to the Luft I camp site. That evening we were invited to a reception at the Barth Mayor’s office or the Rathouse in German. They recognized the contributions of our Kriegies during the war and presented them with a gift. Some of the local German attendees were children in Barth during the war and were telling stories of their experiences which the Kriegies really enjoyed.
On Friday (Sept. 28th) morning Dad and I walked to two nearby historical sites. Our hotel was located on the site of the Heinkel airplane factory and the concentration camp that provided slave labor for the factory (http://www.stadt-barth.de/englisch/history.htm). Our first stop with the group was to a German high school located on the grounds of the former headquarters for the German Flak school. The Flak school provided training on how to use anti-aircraft guns during the war. The students put on a music concert for us then took us for a tour of their school. Their English is very good. Afterwards we visited the Luft I museum.
Kriegies visiting the Stalag Luft I museum. Back row from left to right: Everett Statton, Norm Rosholt and Bill Moore. Front row from left to right: Milton Klarsfeld, John Tayloe, John Bryner, Verlyn McGraw, Richard Hanson & Gerry May.
On Saturday (Sept. 29th) we headed for Poland. Since we were near it we made a detour to visit the Peenemunde (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peenem%C3%BCnde) museum. This is where the Germans developed the V-1 and V-2 rockets that were fired at Britain. During this trip we crossed the path of Richard’s forced march when they evacuated his prison camp in February 1945. He and 6,000 other Kriegies were marched for 86 days from Poland back into Germany to avoid being liberated by the approaching Russians. His march covered more than 450 miles. This was our longest day yet for traveling. We saw a good deal of countryside and quaint little towns before we finally made it to Koszalin, Poland (pronounced ‘Koh-sha-lin’) at 7:30 p.m. This town is about 1 hour North of where Luft IV is located.
Jeff and Richard viewing the V-1 ‘Buzz Bomb’ rocket static display at the Peenemunde Museum, Germany
Jeff, Richard, Gerry May and Dan May enjoying a libation in Koszalin, Poland after a long bus ride
Our big day finally arrived! Sunday (Sept. 30th) dawned overcast but dry which was very fortunate because we knew we would be outside when we visited Luft IV. We arrived at the Luft IV monument site at 11:00 a.m. to find a large group waiting for us. There was the town mayor, the fire brigade, a band, Polish Scouts, reporters and TV cameras! They had organized a very special ceremony to honor our Kriegies. Richard and Gerry both stood up to make short speeches about their POW experiences and to thank our Polish hosts for honoring the memory of their ordeal. The Stalag Luft IV Association (run by Joe O’Donnell) has begun a memorial program to have granite plaques installed at the Luft IV monument site so I was able to surprise Dad with his own plaque. His is one of the first eight to be installed and this was completed just prior to our arrival. We were able to take a few moments after the ceremony was completed to walk out into the woods to look for visible remains of the camp. The whole area is now overgrown with pine trees but some foundations are still visible in the undergrowth. Once we were dragged out of the woods they took us to the Podborsko, formerly Kiefheide, railroad station which is about two miles from the camp. This is where the Luft IV Kriegies were unloaded from trains and then walked to the camp. There is also a monument there and our hosts put on another ceremony commemorating the 2 ½ mile walk to the camp, which for some Kriegies was very traumatic. Our hosts then treated us to a special luncheon that included a viewing of the beginning of their Luft IV museum. While we were at lunch Richard and Gerry were taken aside for an interview with a Polish reporter. On our way back to Koszalin we visited a Polish cemetery that contained a special monument dedicated to Luft IV POWs. Polish cemeteries are quite beautiful and well tended, showing a great deal of respect to those who have passed on. We wrapped up the day with a dinner that was attended by the mayor of Tychowo and the artists who designed the Luft IV monuments. It was quite a day, made extra special by all the effort our Polish hosts went through to commemorate our visit.
Richard and Jeff at the Stalag Luft IV monument in Poland
Richard’s POW plaque at the Stalag Luft IV monument site
Richard watching the excavation of a building foundation in Lager A
Richard and Jeff at the Podborsko (formerly Kiefheide) railway station with its monument to the ‘Trail of Tears’, the walk from the station to the Luft IV camp
Kriegie buddies Gerry and Richard at the Stalag Luft IV museum display in Tychowo, Poland
On Sunday (Oct. 1st) we were on the road by 8 a.m. making a speed run back to Berlin. Our travel through the German and Polish countryside was very reminiscent of being in central New York state. There were similar trees, farmlands and small towns. The difference that I found the most interesting is the abundance of community gardens. These are large areas of land sectioned into small plots. Each plot has a small building and well tended gardens of vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. I was surprised to learn that these are used as ‘weekend get-aways’. After a six hour trip we arrived back in Berlin and had the afternoon to ourselves. Richard took a nap and I hit the road again. I made my way to Check Point Charlie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checkpoint_Charlie) and the remains of the Berlin Wall. Much has changed in that area since the Wall came down but they have erected an outdoor display that documents that period of our history. That evening we had our final dinner with our traveling companions. It seemed as if we had traveled with these folks for many weeks already yet it had only been one. After dinner those that chose said a few words to the group. This is what I contributed:
“I’d like to share a story that my father told me, one that he would not completely share with others. For me it’s a story that best represents the strength of heart and strength of mind that the Kriegies needed so they could survive their ordeal. During his 86 day march they walked over 450 miles. Along the way they would commandeer horse drawn carts to be their ‘krankwagons’, which is German for sick wagon, that would be used to carry those Kriegies too sick or weak to walk. They had very little to eat, sometimes only a cup of hot water to start their day. He was so weak that even walking into the cold wind was a struggle. At the end of his telling me this you could hear the pride in his voice as he told me “Even though I saw guys riding the wagon that I knew could walk, I never got on that wagon.” There is a lesson in this for us all. Thank you.”
Remains of the Berlin Wall near Check Point Charlie
On Monday (Oct. 2nd) we packed our bags, said our goodbyes and headed home. After another 24 trip we arrived back at my house in Livermore, California and began talking of how we can go back next year.
This was quite a trip, one we never would have thought to take but when a chance opportunity presented itself we seized it. We met others like us who were seeking a connection to the past and now have a wonderful memory that will last us far into the future.
Thanks for letting me share this with you,