Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trying to imagine what it was like 64 years ago.

The worst winter in Europe in 150 years. No food from the German guards for the first four days. No hotel to sleep in at the end of a grueling day's slog through blizzard conditions. Hundreds of civilian refugees, mostly old men and women and young children, fleeing westward along the same route pushed by the advancing Russian army. Freezing nights crammed into whatever would supply four walls and a roof - a church one night, wooden barns the next, a huge pottery factory later on. Only a third to a half of the 2,000 POWs from Center Compound, one of them being Lt. James Keeffe, my dad, found refuge in a church in Ilowa (Halbau - the German name during the war). The others were taken by a decent German guard to the lee side of the church and bedded down on straw and some were put into the crypts of the nearby cemetery. Then up the next day, still no food but maybe some warm water graciously offered by a few local farmers, and then marched out into the snow for another day's trek westward through the iron cold, bleak, wind-swept countryside, only to stop when the next night's refuge was found.

Today we 14 Kriegie Kids, and George Bruckert, a WWII reenactor whose second cousin was a POW, finished 41 miles of the 50-some mile trek following the route our dad's took. Passing through the same old hamlets and villages, walking the same cobble stone country roads that wind through farm land and pine forest, we were at times bunched up in groups or stretched out for half a mile. Most of the homes and farms we pass look as they must have when our fathers were here. In fact most were probably built back in the 17 and 1800's. The only difference would be the modern cars and satellite dishes mounted to old brick walls. I wish I knew what all the trees were that lined the narrow roads. Some are large and knarly oaks that spread their twisted branches far overhead from both sides of the road to form what must be a beautiful tunnel in the summer time when the canopy is choked with green leaves. Others I think are chestnut and/or walnut trees. The woods that we pass through are small pine trees, no more than a couple feet in diameter, but thickly planted. Val, Jerry, Richard and I walked parallel to the road in the woods for awhile on a nice forest path. The soft pine needles that covered the path were very welcome after miles of walking on cobble stone and pavement. Throughout the woods are pawed up places; a sure sign that wild boar are about.

We finished today crossing a bridge over the Neisse River into the town of Bad Muskau, just across the border from Poland into Germany. A 100 yards across the bridge we turned right and walked another couple hundred yards to the site of large pottery and ceramic factories that Center Compound stayed in for three days and two night. Finally the Germans came through with some hot food for the men. And finally they were able to warm up as the factory was cooking hot inside.

Off in the distance during that past couple of days, we've heard the low rumbling double boom of large cannon fire. The Polish military must be out practicing. Richard, a Vietnam vet combat medical corpsman, said the artillery fire was probably 30 to 35 miles away. I try to imagine what it must have sounded like as the Russian army pushed westward right behind a wall of their fierce artillery 64 years ago.

Tomorrow we finish our trek when we trek into the town of Spremberg, Germany. We'll walk to the site of what was a German Wehrmacht tank maintenance outfit. There the POWs from Center Compound, and some of the other compounds, were given a cup full of barley soup and then turned around, marched to the train yards and crammed on filthy box cars. Four miserable days later they arrived at their final destination of captivity at the German prison camp called Stalag VIIA.

Stay tuned........ Jim Keeffe

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