It’s been cool and somewhat rainy for a while, so I’ve just laid low and hung out in my room for the most part. This has given me the chance to focus on my Udemy, Great Courses, and Duolingo which I have enjoyed. Anyway, today I woke up and the sun was shining and the sky was blue, a perfect day to get out and do something. Of course, number one on my list since day one was Stalag Luft 3, one of Germany’s largest prisoner of war camps during WWII located in Zagan, Poland. Stalag Luft 3 (SL3) was designated as the prisoner camp for Allied pilots and other air force personnel. Most of you know about SL3 whether you realize it or not.
If you watched or remembered the 1963 film, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and a host of other great actors, then you watched a movie based on a dramatic escape at SL3 in Zagan, Poland (at the time, it was Germany). Yes, The Great Escape was a real event that took place on the 24th of March, 1944.
What’s interesting about the escape is that it took over a year of planning and preparation. There were over 600 service members involved. Three tunnels were under construction simultaneously. The tunnels were named Tom, Dick and Harry. All of this took place using tools that were made of whatever they could scrounge. Down in the tunnel openings, civilian clothes were being made out of their military clothing, passports and other papers were being forged using stamps that were made from the rubber heels of shoes. Wood from their beds were used as tunnel supports. It was an amazing project. The plan was for 200 men to escape on one moonless night. To build the tunnels, they had to dig down 30 feet before they could make a ninety degree turn and tunnel out of the camp. They did this to avoid the Nazi microphones and workers that were continuously looking for tunnels.
They had to use wood to brace the tunnels because the soil was practically all sand and tunneling in sand was very dangerous. They developed bellows made from clothing and wood from their beds to pump fresh air into the tunnels for the diggers, so ingenious. Finally, when the night came to implement the plan, they tunneled up to the surface to find good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?…okay, the good news was that they had successfully cleared the outer fence. The bad news was that the tunnel came out in the cleared area outside of the camp fence and didn’t make it to the trees of the forest, a few feet away. The result was that it slowed them down as they had to watch and signal when the next person coming out of the tunnel could leave. The bottom line is that 76 prisoner escaped the prison that night, the largest prison escape during the war. The sad conclusion was that only three made it back home safely. The rest were captured and Hitler ordered 50 of them to be executed, breaking the rules of the Geneva Convention.
There is so much more to the story, but for me I guess it really struck me how valuable freedom is to have. Growing up and living in the United States, I’ve probably taken that freedom for granted. The last few years, living in different parts of the world has sent me a strong reminder, not only of the value of freedom, but the price that has been paid in order to have it.
What I really appreciate about the historical sites in Poland, at least the ones I’ve visited, is that they have not been sanitized. Much like Auschwitz, walking around SL3, you really get a strong emotional experience. Seeing the remnants of prison barracks, isolation barracks (“The Cooler”), guard towers, my imagination takes off. This camp is in the middle of the forest…there is beauty all around and yet a strong sense of tragedy in the air. It was such an irony to see the wild flowers pushing up all around the old broken foundations of barracks. It reminded me of a quote from Tennessee Williams. He wrote, “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.” The flowers were such a strong visual of hope and optimism as they pushed through cracks in foundations of prisoner barracks. Seeing the pathway of the Harry tunnel, it occurred to me that hope must run deep in the soil here in Zagan, Poland.
It was an enjoyable visit to SL3. After our visit, my friend Les and I headed into Zagan and enjoyed a great lunch al fresco. The duck breast was excellent. Until next time…