the ymca pow camp: oflag 64

words anna weber  ||  images sarah weber

Traveling between Motel Tramp in Szubin and the airport in Warsaw takes about three-quarters of a day; it's a bus to a bus to a train, or vice versa. The small town of Szubin doesn't bear many characteristics that distinguish it from any of the other small towns in the region—dilapidated old farmhouses and manors, clumps of Soviet-style housing scattered through the outskirts, the smell of asphalt sitting in the open sun mixed with the odor of mowed hay, smudges of forest on the horizon.

Other than a good meal in the restaurant downstairs, Motel Tramp isn't anything more than a place to lay your head down at night, trying to sleep through the stifling heat, the chatter and television-sitcom laughter drifting through the thin walls, the thirsty mosquitoes flitting in and out of the open window. I didn't know that the town existed before I organized my trip; I don't think many Polish people could place it on a map. But it was in Szubin, and not any of the other small towns in the region, that my maternal grandfather Philip M. Wade, a first lieutenant in the 36th infantry division, had been a prisoner in World War II. He was one of the Americans of Oflag 64 who called himself a Kriegy, from the German "Kriegsgefangenen," meaning "prisoners of war."

Mariusz, a local historian, took my sister and me on our first drive through the town the afternoon we arrived. He explained that the camp is more or less intact, more or less how it was when it was full with 1,400 American prisoners, all officers. The majority of the barracks are still present, although some are in disrepair, and others now function as apartments. The white mansion in the center of the camp, which served as its administrative center, was supposed to have been renovated into a hotel and restaurant a decade or two ago, but instead rests empty and out of use. The brick church still stands in the far corner, the barbed-wire fence still winds around the perimeter.

Before it was an Oflag for American officers, the camp was a Stalag for Russian soldiers. Before it was a POW camp, the grounds were home to a boys' reform school. Today, it's a reform and boarding school again. Two barracks, home to the international YMCA's cultural activities for the prisoners, had been taken down to make space for the newer building.

During the time of the Kriegies, there'd been plays, jazz bands, musicals, even classes. The entertainment materials were provided by Henry Soderberg, "the Welcome Swede," a representative of the international YMCA and one of seven foreigners allowed to visit the German POW camps during the war. The YMCA provided morale-boosting support and supplies to camps in both theaters of the war, as well as to Japanese internment camps in the United States. In Szubin, the Kriegies' Polish neighbors had no such form of entertainment in town, and would hide in the bushes around the exterior fences, trying to catch strains of song or music. The Russian POWs hadn't had the right to the international YMCA's offerings. They'd stand in the same place all day, then go to sleep in the barracks at night. If the barracks were full, they'd dig a foxhole in the ground instead.

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"Residents thought, much too late, that maybe it would have been nice, a good thing, to preserve the camp," Mariusz explained as we parked for a moment in front of the camp. An obelisk commemorating the American soldiers stood at the entrance of the grounds. "A lot was gone by the time we thought to recover the buildings. And it was not possible, during the Cold War, to celebrate the memory of American soldiers."

Memorials like the obelisk exist all over Szubin. There is the memorial, in the woods next to the camp, for the men and women of Szubin who were beaten, forced to dig their own graves, then shot en masse by the Nazis. Not far from it is a monument to the Jewish cemetery, dating back to the eighteenth century, that the Nazis dug up and defiled before using it as their location for public executions. "We used to play back there, as children," Mariusz told us as we climbed out of the car to take a look at the obelisk. "Sometimes, one of us would dig up a bone…"

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There are monuments to the resistance, monuments to fallen war heroes from Poland's many fights for autonomy. Outside of town there is a small bunker, a miniature of the ones one can still find along the northern seas of Europe. "The Polish tried to prepare for a German or a Russian invasion. There was a whole line of those bunkers, hundreds, straight through the country." Mariusz shrugged. "You can understand how well that worked. Not so prepared after all." He smiled at us. "But we will see all things tomorrow? You might be tired, we will go back to the motel?"

Cicadas hissed in the trees lining the road. A couple of teenagers, students, lounged in a full kiddie pool in the middle of the courtyard. School was out for the summer, but many of the boys still lived on campus, having nowhere else to go. I wondered what it was like to go to school surrounded by the ghosts of war. I could feel them, practically see them shimmering in the heat.

I never met my grandfather. He died three years before I was born.

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