Saturday, January 31, 2009

Spremberg Surprises

Hans Burkhardt & Richard, after Richard had given him a hat from Alaska.

We stayed at the Hotel Stadt Spremberg last night and it was very nice. At dinner we celebrated with champagne. When we were leaving the hotel this morning, Richard saw an older man with a British air force jacket on and Jim said, "Let's go talk to him." A few moments later I was summoned for my German. We discovered that Hans Burkhardt, a Spremberg resident, had been eleven years old in 1945 and he remembers well when the POWs from Stalag Luft III arrived in Spremberg to be loaded onto boxcars after their long march.

Hans is 79 and his family had given food and water to some of the prisoners. He accompanied us to the train station where our fathers had waited in the cold to board the boxcars. Hans said that in 1945 they had had deep snow and very cold temperatures for two weeks around the time of the march. He said that when the Kriegies arrived in Spremberg, it was around -26 Celcius. That's about -14.8 degrees Fahrenheit! He said that big groups of prisoners would arrive about every two hours and that many had to stand in the cold for hours waiting for the next train. Hans said he saw only two soldiers with gloves on and all the rest were rubbing their hands and trying to stay warm. (The German name for the prisoners was "Kriegsgefangenen" and the POWs shortened it to "Kriegies.")

We were so blessed to find Hans, because we were headed for the wrong train station and might not ever have seen the place where the Kriegies boarded the cars. Just down the road from the station he pointed out the site of the tank works factory where some of our fathers slept prior to departing on the train. There is nothing there now. Hans also mentioned that he had seen the bombing of Dresden and that the city was nearly obliterated. He emphasized over and over that war is a terrible thing - it must be a horrible experience to live through a war on your own soil, and see all that you know and love destroyed. Today we will see the Lutheran church in Dresden that was painstakingly restored and was finally finished in 2005.

Hans shared that he had a friend who was a solider in the German army, was captured and was sent to Arkansas as a prisoner of war. While there, his friend had carved a wooden plaque with the head of an eagle. His friend, Ervin Vorssatz, had seen many bald eagles while in the POW camp there in Arkansas. He also had a pocket watch that his friend had purchased while in Arkansas. Hans brought tears to my eyes as he gave us the plaque and watch. We will try to discover where Ervin was a prisoner in Arkansas. From what he said, we think it must have been in eastern Arkansas along the Mississippi River.

I sat right down to write out what I remembered of our morning as we drove to Dresden. For a good hour, I struggled with tears as I thought about the fact that here was a man who could very well have seen and helped my father during that horrid, cold march.

See more pictures at: Forced March Trip Pictures


Stephen Jones said...

My father-in-law was 23 months in a POW Camp in Spremberg in WWII. He is 94 now and talks about those months every time we visit. I will be near Spremberg in January and plan on going to Spremberg to take a lot of pictures for him. I'm just starting to do some research to prepare.Does anybody have any suggestions who I might be able to contact in Spremberg to find any local documentation that might exist or museums/libraries? My email is or You!

BetweenTheClouds (Miriam) said...

Thank you, Stephen - we'll try to email you some information on this - thank you for sharing about your father-in-law! Was he held in Spremberg or Sagan (Stalag Luft III)? If SLIII, which compound was he in? My dad is 96 now and was in West Compound.