Fort XIII (Wild, David. Prisoners of hope. 1992. London)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Personal reflection of Phill Johnson our friend from october trip to Torun

That was amazing trip. Phill with his wife visited Poland inspiring by book of his father who was PoW in Torun. Again we could travelled in time, sightseeing forts and old paths from WWII. Below we put some memories of Phill and pictures.

My father, Ralph Johnson, was a member of the 2/5th Australian General Hospital. He was captured on his 21st birthday in Greece on the 28th April 1941. In December 1941 my father, along with many others, were loaded into cattle trucks for the nine day journey to Torun where he spent the next three and a half years in various POW camps with the majority of time spent in Fort 15, Torun. Dad did not speak about his experiences for 30 years after his return and is was only in the later years of his life that he shared his experiences in a book he wrote for his family. We are extremely grateful that he did this as without his recollections we would have little knowledge of his experiences. So it was with mixed feelings that my wife and I decided that we would visit the town of Torun in Poland, the site of where he spent most of his time as a German POW.
Australian team with prize after cricet competition. Phill father first in the middle on right...

The city of Torun is a beautiful Polish medieval walled city and well worth a visit for the city sights alone but the beauty of the town belies the events that occurred in the surrounding countryside during WW11. We had been very fortunate to discover the services of Hania and Pawel from War Time Guides before our visit and much of what we were able to do and experience was due to their expertise and experience in guiding people who are effectively on a pilgrimage tracing the wartime footsteps of a parent. It is hard to put into words what it was like visiting the camps and in several cases actually standing on the same spot of ground were my father had stood 70 years ago. 
Pawel wisely took us to the restored Fort 4 first and gave us a rich lesson on the history and layout of the Prussian Forts that surround the city of Torun. Even though my father had not spent any time in Fort 4 it was quite an emotional experience crossing the moat and entering the gate of the Fort. The effort that Pawel put into explaining the functioning of this Fort was invaluable in appreciating Fort 15 where my father had spent most of his time.

Walking through the main door of Fort 15 was even more emotional than entering Fort 4. It was when I allowed my thoughts to reflect back to my father entering by the same gate under German guard after what must have been an horrendous train journey in winter from Greece that the lump grew in my throat and I shed a few tears. How do you place value on such an experience? It is a moment that I will never forget. Pawel guided us around the now derelict Fort through rooms that had been the sleeping quarters, along dark corridors and past hand pumps were my father had described drawing water, all the time referring back to what we had seen in the restored Fort 4 to help us make sense of what we were looking at in Fort 15. Standing at the well where my father had drawn water and stepping inside the sleeping quarters brought a richness to the descriptions Dad had written in his book. I had often wondered why my father could never share his war time experiences and often didn't share his feelings with others but standing in this place there seemed to be some resolution or understanding.
With original DogTag form Stalag XXA
 Pawel had come equipped with some old photographs and one where I had identified my father standing outside a gate to the parade ground as part of the Australian Cricket team. It seemed appropriate to take time out to stand exactly where my father had stood for a photo. I would have been happy if time could have stood still for a time. It was an amazing moment.
In the same place after 70 years...
 Those experiences alone would have been incredible but next we headed to Fort 11 where my father had served one weeks solitary confinement for supposedly 'smoking on parade'. This was another 'I wish time could stand still' moment and again something that will remain etched in my memory. I was standing exactly where my father had stood all those years before! We combed the walls of the confinement cell, amongst the many etchings, to find if my father had scribbled or etched anything on the wall but were not able to find anything. However actually seeing these 'scribbles' was a reminder of the many people who suffered imprisonment and endured hardship fighting for a freedom we still enjoy. Watching a beam of sunlight streaming through the slit window of the cell seemed to convey a sense of healing of the soul and a great way to finish the day.

Phill father spent around week in Fort XI prison bunker...we were there

Hania gave us a great overview of Stalag XXA including the Forts we had visited and how the Polish POWs had been treated so very differently to the British and Australian POWs. We then visited a WW11 Museum that had been set up in a local school and where a small section had been set aside on the Australian POWs. How absolutely amazing it was to see my father in two of the photos on the wall!

I feel very privileged to have visited these places and to have made such a personal connection with the experiences of my father as a POW. I am also very grateful for having discovered 'War Time Guides' before I visited the town There is no way that we would have experienced the richness of the visit without the involvement of Hania and Pawel.

Family connections aside, the Forts of Torun are of world significance, I would say World Heritage. They are a resource that need protection. My hope would be that not just the buildings but the wall paintings and etchings would be preserved so that they are not lost to future generations.

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