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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Camp 11a and more. New facts and stories.

Since January we were preparing for exticing trip thru footprints of POW. In April we had pleasure to be guide for Alison and Andrew. Alisons uncle was in Stalag XXA, subcamp 11a and even knowledge from the sources each trip gives us opportunity to better know new facts and stories about daily live in Stalag XXA. Once again we realised that many of historical documents written in early 50's 70's by researches and based mainly on Red Cross reports are not precisly. Personally stories, letters, diaries etc. are opening new ways in our project. Below we put short brief from trip wirtten by our guests:

Our trip to Stalag XX A in the footsteps of my Great Uncle Joe Gribben My great uncle Joe Gribben (Princess Louise‘s Kensington Regiment 6206452) was fighting with the 51 st Highland Division when he was captured at St Valery-en- caux, in France, on the 12 th June 1940. He was a prisoner of war at Stalag XXA at Torun. From there he was assigned to Bau und Arbeits Battalion 20, a work camp in Upper Silesia, where sadly he was shot by a German guard on 27 March 1942. He was 21 years old. In April this year, my husband Andrew and I arranged for Pawel to be our guide in exploring the Stalag complex in Torun.

First of all Pawel gave an introductory presentation. This included many photographs and video clips which set the scene perfectly. From a map of Torun and the surrounding area we could see that there were a circle of identical defensive forts around the outskirts of the city, built by the Prussians in the 19 th Century. The prisoners of war were mainly held in the camps south of the river Vistula. These were Forts XI to XVII. Pawel explained the incredible defensive architecture of the fort. Walking round we had an insight into the crowded conditions that would have existed in the forts that were used as prison camps. (32 prisoners were held in each room with just one small window.)

The very first prisoners of war of the Nazis were Polish civilians who were rounded up in 1939 and taken to Fort VII. These were teachers, priests and others whom the Nazis considered to be a threat. 1000 civilians were taken into the woods at Las Barbarka, near the fort, and shot.

We knew from photos that Joe had been at Fort 11 but in wooden huts built in the vicinity of Fort 11 (known as the sub-camp Fort 11a). This camp held mainly British, French and Polish prisoners. Unfortunately Fort 11 is in disrepair and has recently been shut to visitors. However, we were able to peep through the gates and to see the swimming/ washing pool outside the gates. Close by we met Tomas who collects bunkers. He has an amazing collection and a detailed knowledge. In one of the bunkers he has set up a mock up of the wooden beds with straw for mattresses, as used by the POWs. He has also collected artefacts relating to the prison camps. There is also a display of copies of paintings by an prisoner in Fort 15. These paintings capture the life of the prisoners.

In Tomas museum
We next went on to the Russian cemetery. This was a mass grave in a wooded area and was very moving. We learned that the life expectancy of a Russian POW under the Nazis, and without the protection of the Geneva Convention, was only around 3 months. They were worked and starved to death. In one year 14,000 out of around 21,000 Russians died compared to 44 of other nationalities. We know from a diary kept by another British POW, Jim Peters, also at Fort 11a that they were situated close to the Russian camp called the Russian Jungle. Both Jim and my Great Uncle Joe carried bricks through this area for the building of a new camp for Russian POWs in 1941. This was called Stalag XXC or Stalag 312. Some British and Italian prisoners were also held here. There is also a tall water tower build from bricks by the British prisoners. We visited an old building that was once a distribution centre for post and Red Cross food parcels..

Pawel took us to the platform, outside the main station, which was where the POWs were offloaded from the trains after the last leg of their long journey from France to Poland. (They had walked through France and Belgium to Holland, been on coal barges up the Scheldt Rhine canal to Wesel.) This was particularly poignant as we knew Joe would have stood on this very spot. He presumably had no idea where in the world he was. From here he would have been photographed, his capture card completed, and be given a POW dog tag at Fort XVII near to the railway. For Joe this took place towards the end of July, 1940, more than a month after he was captured, and it was not until October that his family heard that he was a prisoner of war. Fort XIV was used as a hospital and was staffed mainly by Australian, New Zealand and some British medics who had been captured. Our last stop was to meet Piotr.
On the old platform
Piotr is a teacher at the oldest school in Torun. He has collected a wide range of memorabilia from various periods of Polish history but what was of particular interest to us was his collection from the POW camps. His collection is housed in the basement of the school. He has help from the students in making the displays and in re- enacting events from the war. Piotr is a true enthusiast and very knowledgeable. His collection includes everyday items such as food containers, Red Cross tins, games and musical instruments provided by the Red Cross and also things they had made for themselves. These items bring to life the day to day existence of the prisoners. Piotr and Pawel have had visits from a number of POW families and their stories are displayed in the museum. 
In the museum with Peter
In the museum with Peter

Pawel, Tomas and Piotr describe themselves as ‘Passionates’. They are hugely knowledgeable. Without them it would be impossible to understand the history of Stalag XXA and to find the key sites around Torun. We are very grateful to them for preserving this history and for providing such excellent guidance to the families of POWs who come to find out more. We highly recommend Pawel. He is a fantastic guide and very generous with his knowledge. Together with Tomas and Piotr they are the holders of the history of Stalag XXA.
Testing Polish cusine after trip with Pawel 

Alison and Andrew
April 2016

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