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Published: February 12th 2013
My grandfather was a pilot who fought in Northern Africa during the Second World War. He fought in the Rhodesian Air Force, alongside the Allied Forces. After his third escape in the desert, he was sent to the Prisoner of War Camp, Stalagluft III
in Zagan, Poland where he was a prisoner in the camp for more than 2 years.
Stalagluft III is one of the best known POW camps, as it was the setting of the largest escape by POWs during the war which came to be known as 'the Great Escape' in which 76 POWs escaped through the tunnel known as 'Harry'. Of these 76 men, 73 were recaptured and 50 of them were executed. My grandfather was one of the men waiting for his turn to escape through the tunnel when the tunnel was discovered. He saw out the rest of the war in the camp before being one of the many to start the Long March to Berlin. He was shot in the leg during an escape attempt, but survived and married my grandmother.
It was for this family history that we travelled to Zagan with my Mum, for a reunion of sorts, and to see the location
of the POW Camp, have a tour of the museum and the forest where the camp was located. We met with our family friends from Australia, the Leus, whose grathfather's story is similar to that of my grandfather's and who was also a POW in the camp in Zagan. It is our grandfathers' friendship that has caused our families to remain friends to this day, and played an important role in my family moving to Australia.
It was quite late on Friday evening when we arrived in Berlin; after a night by the airport we hired a car, picked up some of the group in the centre and drove along the German autobahns and into Poland. It was immediately obvious that we had crossed the border, as Al was forced to decrease his speed from around 180km/h to about 50km/h to avoid the largest of the potholes. Once in Poland, it was a short drive into Zagan and we managed to find Hotel Willa Park reasonably easily.
We met in the bar for vodka shots (Mum's idea!) whilst the guests of the 3 weddings that would be happening in the hotel started to arrive. On a
walk into town we bumped into more of the Leus and after strolling around the town and by the river we retired to the hotel to catch up. We had some dinner and drinks and caught up, whilst hearing tales of grandfathers' antics.
We watched and listened to the different weddings unfold around us. Once we retired to bed we learnt that Polish weddings go on well into the early hours of the morning, and those of us lucky enough to be directly above one of the weddings felt the vibrations of the wedding while we tried to sleep. Who knew that so much bad 90's pop had been translated into Polish?
The following morning we arrived at the museum to be met by our young and incredibly enthuiastic guide Mirek. We weren't really sure what to expect or how long the tour would be but none of us expected it to go all day! We had a detailed tour of the museum which includes objects from the camps as well as replica buildings and tunnels, we spent some time looking through the museum's archives to see what they had relating to our grandfathers before we all took
a turn crawling through the replica tunnel.
Running low on time, we walked into the forest surrounding the museum which is where the POW camp was located. The forest has reclaimed most of the buildings and only some foundations remain visible. It wasn't easy to imagine what had once been there, the forest was peaceful and picturesque which would have differed drastically from the treeless compound it once was.
It was unfortunate that most of us had to rush off to catch planes and buses, but we all managed to see 'Harry' before departing in different directions. Hurried farewells followed as some people were picked up by taxi and we had to find our way back through the forest to make our evening flight back to London.
It was such a crammed weekend, but it was wonderful to have been able to see a place that had such an important role in the lives of previous generations.
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