Local fury as officials plan to build housing estate on site of former POW camp
As a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag VIII-A claimed the lives of thousands of inmates, among them Polish, Soviet and Commonwealth soldiers.
Now, locals and historians alike have been left reeling after it was revealed that swathes of the site are to be turned into a modern housing estate.
Situated on the border with Germany in the Lower Silesian town of Zgorzelec (which, prior to the war, was part of Görlitz just across the river), the facility was first established on the eve of WWII to house Polish prisoners.
Within a week of hostilities, 8,000 Polish troops had been detained here, and their numbers were soon boosted by a wave of academics and other prominent members of society who had been rounded-up as part of the Nazi crackdown on the Polish intelligentsia.
Originally sleeping in tents, these early prisoners were put to work constructing the camp, however, by the summer of 1940 the majority had been transferred to other detention facilities across the Third Reich.
In their place came thousands of French and Belgian soldiers, and the camp’s population swelled yet further when the first batch of Soviet POWs were transported in 1942.
Defined by its rich spread of nationalities, estimates suggest that approximately 3,000 Commonwealth troops from the UK, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were held in Stalag VIII-A, and over the course of the war these were joined by soldiers and airmen from the United States, Canada and many more nations besides.
Reflective of the war’s shifting nature, Italians were held here after the fall of Mussolini, while later years saw an influx of Polish and Slovak combatants that had taken part in their respective uprisings against Nazi occupation.
It was here that the Frenchman wrote Quartet for the End of Time which saw its premier on January 15th, 1941 in the primitive and unheated conditions of Barrack No. 27.
Attended by prisoners, as well as German officers that sat shivering in the front rows, the event was promoted via a poster fashioned in Art Nouveau style by a fellow inmate and was greeted enthusiastically in spite of its apocalyptic message. "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” Messiaen later commented.
Now recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of 20th century classical music, the success of the performance, and the camp’s general cultural life, belied the brutal conditions. Hunger and epidemics were endemic features of day-to-day living.
Moreover, not all prisoners were equal; denied all medical help, the Italians and Soviets suffered the most and historians suggest that around 500 Italians and over 12,000 Soviets perished here.
The camp’s buildings were dismantled in 1948, and the accumulated materials were sent east to aid in the rebuilding of cities such as Warsaw. But although a monument and a centre of remembrance have since been added, the area outside of the centre’s sphere of influence has been allowed to fester and degenerate into wasteland.
Falling under the authority of the city hall, it is this section of the former camp that is now under scrutiny. Used briefly in the post-war years as a military training ground, it’s now been revealed that the city developed a spatial plan for its use and sold plots for development. The alarm was only raised after local dog walkers happened upon early signs of the grounds being cleared.
It has also been revealed that the spatial plan has largely been based on the camp’s former layout, with plots coinciding with the site of individual barracks and even the road system matching up.
Many have been left outraged by the news, among them history teacher Dorota Tyniec who has led calls to protect the site. Her campaign has garnered the support of politician Małgorzata Tracz of the Zieloni party: “Mass grave of prisoners of war and Jews have recently been discovered at the camp,” says Tracz.
“The inhabitants of Zgorzelec believe that the decision of the authorities is unacceptable, as the people buried there deserve respect and commemoration.”
For their part, authorities appear unmoved arguing that geographical factors have left the city little choice as to the directions it can expand.
In a public statement, Renata Burdosz, a spokeswoman for the local magistrate, defended the decision: “There are few areas in Zgorzelec where the city can develop,” she said. “Are we going to rebuild the barracks and turn them into a memorial site? The residents are being unrealistic.
“Furthermore, there was no concentration camp on the part where the estate is to be built, only a prisoner-of-war camp. People were not executed here, and no human remains have been found on this particular site. This is not the location of some terrible crime.”
This rebuttal has done little to placate the critics, and a growing number of people are now calling for the decision to be re-examined and for the area to undergo a thorough archaeological search for artefacts.