Stalag Luft III

Trip Start Jul 28, 2013
Trip End Sep 03, 2013

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Flag of Poland  , Western Poland,
Wednesday, July 31, 2013

We got an early start today to avoid the Berlin traffic and to make the 2.5 hour drive to Zagan to arrive at the 10 a.m. Museum opening time. We passed by the Brandenburg Gate which was the site of John Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963 and Ronald Reagan's "Mr.Gorbachef, tear down this wall" speech in 1987...and two unfortunately forgetable speeches by a lesser American president in 2008 and 2013. It's quite an imposing structure.
We reached the autobahn with little difficulty and headed in a southeasterly direction to Poland. 

 We crossed the border from Gemany to Poland about 10:00 a.m. The contrast was breathtaking. The roads were in poor repair and the car bounced so badly that the maximum speed on the "autobahn" was 80 km/hr or about 48 mph. The few buildings along the highway appeared in disrepair or abandoned. We approached a rest stop and decided to sample the offerings available. The gas station was long abandoned, none of the shops were open at 10:00am and we pulled up to a hotel/restaurant which showed possible signs of life. We parked and securely locked the car and walked up the steps into a small restaurant. We approached the unoccupied counter to order breakfast. Soon an apprehensive lady appeared. I asked if she spoke English, then French, then German and each time got a disappointing shaking of the head. I had tried earlier to learn a few words or phases in Polish but not only could not remember them, but could not even pronounce them. The Polish language is at best, an enigma to me.
Somehow we ordered breakfast. I ended up with a bratwurst and roll and Linda got a huge omelette or something similar...and each a cup of tea... for total of 6 euros. After consuming our breakfast, we worked our way toward what appeared to be restrooms and gestured our way in at a cost of 0.50 euros each.

 We left a generous tip of 2 euros on the table to do our part to support the local economy, and perhaps (unfortunately) reinforce the perception that all Americans are rich, and were on our way to Zagan.

 Following capture by the Germans in Holland, Jim's dad was taken to Dulug Luft in Frankfort, Germany to be interrogated and then transferred to a permanent prison camp. After about a week at Duluft Luft, on October 15, 1942, Jim Billig Sr. was transferred to Stalag Luft 3, a prison camp in what us now Zagan, Poland... about 2.5 hours SE from Berlin. He would remain in this camp until the forced march to StalagVIIA, on January 27,1945.

When we arrived at the museum which is now located at the site of Stalag Luft 3, Jim introduced himself as the son of an American pilot who spent nearly 2.5 years there. The curator of the museum, Marek and his assistant, Mirek greeted us with open arms.
We spent the next two hours sharing our knowledge of Jim Sr's apparent experiences before, during and after Stalag Luft 3. Jim shared a copy of his dad's prisoner documents, which included his prisoner ID and his photo. About halfway thru our visit, Mirek, who had been using a metal detector to discover relics from the camp for the past six years, left us and then returned, noticably shaken, with a piece of metal (german dog tags) he had found with Jim's dad's ID number on it. He now had a name and a photo to go with the treasured find and I promised to email him a copy of my dad's letters to home shortly after capture and the notice his mother received of his missing in action and subsequent status as a prisoner of war. All are to be included in the Stalag Luft 3 museum exhibit, which is apparently a work in progress.

 After exchanging the results of our respective research efforts, we accompanied Marek on a walk to the actual site of the South Compound of Stalag Luft 3, where Jim's dad was moved along with all other Amercan airman officers several months before the Great Escape occurred from the North Compound. Even though Jim's dad and other American prisoners actively participated in preparing for the Great Escape, none actually participated in the Escape.
In the ruins of the South Compound, we were shown the foundation of the theatre the POW's built as well as the foundation of the barracks where Jim's dad was housed. Marek gave Jim a part of a brick and mortar from the foundation to take back home as a souvenir.

 It was now about 3:00 p.m. and Linda and I were emotionally moved and exhausted as were our gratious Polish hosts, Marek and Mirek. We shared our contact information, said our good-byes and parted company. What an extraordinary experience!

Were drove to the actual site of the Great Escape tunnel exit, Harry, then on to the town of Zagan to the train station, where many of the escapees went after exiting the tunnel, and were subsequently re-captured. We were told the station has changed very little since 1943. We took several photos, then reversed our path from Zagan on to Spremberg, Germany.

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