As you read this we could be standing in the brick and cobblestone plats between the two main buildings of the old, boys school in Sczubin. The chances are it will look much the same as it did when we first saw it in May 1944. Beyond the Oder, villages in Eastern Europe and Poland do not change much with the passage of years.
In 1944, Szubin was the site of Oflag (Offizierlager) 64, the German prison camp for captured ground force American officers below the rank of full colonel. But it had a longer history. When war in Europe became certain, the Poles themselves had closed the school, built some barracks on its 10-acre grounds and converted it into a billeting area for Polish cavalry. After the blitzkrieg in 1939, the Germans ringed it with barbed wire, added more barracks and turned it into a POW camp. They even renamed the village, Altburgund. Before June 1943, when it became a camp for Americans, the French, British and Russians knew it as prisoners also.
Since the war, a small nucleus of former prisoners has kept an alumni-like organization in existence. On infrequent occasions there have been reunions. (We attended one in New York in 1950, a rollicking, drunken bash at Toots Shor's with entertainment supplied by a talented group of ex-prisoners who, during camp days, had improvised a stage and theater in one of the barracks, and helped to relieve our boredom with the plays and variety shows.) About four years ago, at another reunion in Chicago, the idea of a travel junket to revisit Sczubin was conceived. Finally, this year, after a couple of abortive attempts to arrange one in the interval, the tour will take place.
At peak occupancy, there were some 2000 American prisoners in the Szcubin camp. From the list sent out of those planning to make the present tour (about thirty, not including wives), only six or seven names are familiar to us. The returnees will be a mixed group; they will range in age from 45 to 70. Nearly every one will have a different story to tell about how the war ended for him as an individual, for some were left in the camp and were there when the Russians overran it. Others dropped by the wayside at different places in Poland and northern Germany on the eight week long march to Berlin and Luckenwalde. Nearly every one, also, will have his own recollections of the camp itself. Some will remember the many tunnel digging and escape projects, some the amateur theatricals, some the volleyball and softball games. All will remember the endless hours of daylight during the short summer season, the endless hours of darkness during the long winters, and the interminable, grinding days of dull, chronic hunger when food was our chief preoccupation.
It should be an interesting exercise in nostalgia. Not one of us, who remained in or left the camp in the snow and sub-zero weather late in January 1945, would have entertained the thought of ever wanting to see it again. It was not the kind of garden spot where you'd willingly choose to spend a vacation.
But time mellows all, and curiosity overcomes even the least sentimental of us. The chance to see for ourselves whether memory is accurate, or whether it all could have been as miserable as it once seemed, has been too good to pass up. So instead of heading west into the sunset for a medical meeting in Hawaii, we're off in the opposite direction to Poland. At least the snow might be melted by now.
(c)The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", May 1971, Vol. XVIII No.5, p.11