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Voyage of discovery
2013.12.28 / Peter MacLeod
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The email came through last Easter from an old friend Barrie from my home town, Ipswich. “Pete, I’d like to visit Poland to see where my grandfather was held as a Prisoner-of-War.” I happened to be in Poland at the time, having married a Polish girl, and my mind clicked into action.

I In all my 20+- odd years of travelling to and enjoying Poland, not once had I managed to do it with my closest friends. This, I sensed, was my chance to rectify that omission.
A quick Google search based on the information Barrie supplied led me to Polish village of Łambinowice, a cursed place in a most beautiful setting in the Opole Voivodeship. For those not familiar with the history of this village – more precisely, the prisoner-of-war camp which takes its name from the village, here’s a brief summary.

1870-1871
The site of a former military range is used as a prisoner of war camp during the Franco-Prussian War, holding up to 4,000 POWs. Graves exist of 52 French soldiers from this period.

1914-1920
The site next rose to prominence at the start of the Great War, and held up to 90,000 enemies of the Germans of various nationalities, including Russians, Romanians, Italians, Serbs, French, British and Belgians. The camp remained operative until two years after the end of the war. The graves of 7,000 POWs who didn’t survive the conditions and hard labour occupy a site designated as the Old Prisoner-of-War Cemetery.

1921-1934
The Lamsdorf camp was home to German immigrants from the lands which fell to Poland, such as Górny Śląsk, Wielkopolska and Pomorze.

1939-1945
Under the Third Reich, the site was developed and expanded. Two camps were set up –
Stalag VIII B Lamsdorf and Stalag VIII F Lamsdorf – and situated about 1.5km apart. Combined, the two formed the largest POW camp in Europe. Some 300,000 prisoners
from 50 different nations were imprisoned here, the vast majority of them Russian. In 1944, around 6,000 soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising were brought here. It is thought that some 40,000 prisoners lost their lives at Lamsdorf.

January 1945
With the Red Army advancing from the East, those POWs considered capable of walking were marched westwards towards Berlin. Those incapable of walking were left behind, many of whom starved to death.

1945-1946
Following liberation, the camp was one of many used by the Polish administration to house Germans waiting to be displaced to the heart of Germany. Around 5,000 prisoners were housed during that time, including members of Nazi organizations and guards from the POW camps at Lamsdorf. Hard living conditions and maltreatment from the camp authorities caused them to die in large numbers, and the deceased from this period were buried in anonymous single or mass graves.

1964
A museum is established at the site.

1990s - present day
Due to the political situation, it hadn’t been possible to commemorate the victims of the
Lamsdorf camp earlier. After much argument between Poland and Germany – some things never change! – a tall wooden cross was erected next to the place where the dead were buried.

In 1995, another granite monument in the shape of the Silesian penitentiary cross was erected there and in 1997 a granite obelisk was dedicated to the Warsaw insurgents.

Barrie had in his possession a memento from his grandfather, a scribbled list of village names, plotting the route of what has become known as ‘The March’ out of the camp, one of several that occurred at that time from locations including the Auschwitz camp. He was keen to find out more, as his grandfather rarely spoke about his experiences. Although his grandfather is no longer with us, his grandmother is still alive and recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

So, to commemorate this landmark birthday, we plotted a trip to Poland with a couple of other friends. With two of us celebrating a 50th birthday, it seemed like a great idea to combine the trip to the POW camp with a few further nights in Krakow, a city dear to my heart, and turn it into a more complete trip. With flights booked to Krakow from a new destination – London Southend Airport – we set off on a voyage of discovery.

The Krakow part of the visit necessitates an article of its own. Suffice to say, I was able to show ‘The Boys’ why it is I love this city so much. A glass of Żywiec and a bowl of zurek whilst sitting in Rynek Główny in bright sunshine set the tone for several enjoyable days spent discovering what this pearl of a city has to offer. But, the serious part of the visit was to discover more about Łambinowice/Lamsdorf and to help Barrie fill in some details about his grandfather’s life.

Jack Robinson was a rear gunner for the Royal Air Force in a Halifax bomber. He was shot down in 1941 over Denmark. He baled out of the aircraft having been shot through his arm. Two of his fellow crew members perished in the aircraft, but the remaining crew survived and were all transported to the POW camp in Lamsdorf. He was interned there in the clothes he was captured in until the evacuation in January 1945. A look at the historical meteorological data from that month tells us the temperature dropped to -25 degrees centigrade during The March. It was one of the coldest winters on record that century, and even in March 1945, the temperatures were below zero.

We took a quick detour to visit Łambinowice station, which had featured prominently in the presentation we had watched at the museum. Not much appeared to have changed over the previous eight decades, and some of the old signage recognisable from the film still survived.

The final task in our visit was to locate the hut where Jack lived for four years. Using a map of the site and the GPS on our mobile phones, combined with the knowledge of the layout we had gained from the museum, we set off up the lane we had originally found upon arrival at the village. This lane still follows the path of one of the original roads through the camp, and led us to the far corner where the British POWs were housed.

This could have been any lane through any woods in Poland, as there was little left to suggest what stood here previously. The wooden huts in which the prisoners were housed no longer stand – they were most likely torched by the fleeing German captors – so all we had to go on was a sense of direction and what little help the GPS gave us.

After a few false moves, we pulled up near where we believed the British hut stood and walked through the thick vegetation to discover more. Little evidence was in existence, as the huts would have had no solid foundations to betray their location today. However, under our feet the earth seemed to be formed into symmetrical banks, and we were able to discern the approximate location of the British hut. After a moment of quiet contemplation, Barrie started nosing around further, and unearthed a small, glass medicine bottle from under the topsoil.

It is too much to imagine that at any time his grandfather Jack had touched this same relic, but Barrie came away feeling as though he had connected with a man whose life he knew so little about.

The memories we took away from this pilgrimage would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited such a site – the futility of it all was uppermost in our minds. For the Polish people, the unhappiness prevailed late into the 20th century. But for four men born into freedom and wealth, the world we had just witnessed made us appreciate just how lucky we have been.

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