“IT ALL BEGAN WITH A SCHET”

(Posted: September 25, 2012)

“It All Began with a Schet” is the title of an article that was written and published in German by Gerhard Rühlow.   First of all, an explanation of the word “Schet” in the title:   Joe O’Donnell explains that it was the sketch or map of the Stalag Luft IV location and it is included in one of his “Shoe Leather Express” books.

The Map with Joe O’Donnell’s address

Following is the English translation of the article posted with the author’s permission:

IT ALL BEGAN WITH A SCHET

Shortly before WWII in Mandelatz, 7 km west of Gross Tychow/Pomerania/Germany – they built an airport, but planes never landed there.  The area was made as a prisoner camp.  Barracks were built and the first inmates were Russian POWs.  In the summer of 1944 it became a housing center for members of allied bombers, about 10,000 at last, nearly all members of the US Air Force.

When I was 9 years old I went there one time but there was nothing more than wire fences, lots of people and military cars.  This is all I can remember.

End of the 1980’s talks got around in the now Polish Gross Tychow about this lager which the Russians had taken immediately after the end of the war and which had become a strict locked area.  This could be the reason why not many knew this place was there.  There were speculations that thousands of people had been killed.  Sometimes former prisoners went back to Kiefheide and Gross Tychow.  One of them had made a sketch of the campsite and left it there.  On the sketch was the address of a former US soldier.  I copied it and wrote to him.  It was the first step to a regular contact and the beginning of a long friendship.

In his first letter Joe O’Donnell wrote: “For a very long time already we have been looking for such contacts in vain – contacts to people who lived near the camp when we were there.”  Joe O’Donnell and his friend George Guderley had been trying from 1988 on to get information about the POW camp.  What they still needed was a German spokesperson from beyond the barbed wire.  I could not add too much to this subject myself, but I knew who to ask and so a vivid correspondence with the main subject “POW camp Mandelatz” began.  Some other former German residents of Gross Tychow were involved.  All information came from private sources, not a single from official ones or archives.  How difficult it was to get some information can be seen, for example, by the answers of the State Archives in  Freiburg/Breisgau and Koblenz:  “No knowledge, no records of the POW camp Luft 4 Gross Tychow.”

Thanks to the two ex-prisoners, Joe O’Donnell and George Guderley, the residents of Gross Tychow/Tychowo and its environment now know the truth about the former camp and  have a clear view about what happened there during WWII. 

The contact between former POWs and officials of Poland were intensified.  In 1992 a  memorial was inaugurated.  From time to time during the following years, groups of former POWs, some with their families, came to see the place of their painful stay after decades again.  They included me in their organization because of my contacts and my knowledge of the area.

After the official ceremonies on the campsite with representatives of the Polish Air Force and local authorities, each group would be offered a tourist program and a farewell party.  The organization was not a great problem for me, because such a visit seldom was longer than two days.  The groups had a bus, and the tours and destinations almost offered themselves: The Baltic Sea, Ancient Castles, Pommersche Schweiz (Pomeranian Switzerland, a very beautiful landscape).  Even for me these tours always brought something new.  And just to see and listen to the tourists’ reactions made the tours interesting to me.  Just to see rests of old Germany in a partly not yet restored shape made such a tour attractive to most of the participants.  And that, for example, a private man had begun to restore an old castle and was doing this job personally when we were there, had been incredible for them before.  I heard one member of the group say she was going to send him some money from home in order to assist the future owner of Podwils castle.  I never asked if she had kept her promise.

Another experience shows that such promises are not always just talk.  When I was there with the 80-year-old R.B. and his family from Utah in February 2003, the economical situation of many Poles especially in the poor villages was a subject in our conversation.  Such problems can be discussed in small groups better than among tourists of 30 or 40.  “I’m going to do something,” said one of them.  A few days after their departure I received $250 from Utah for poor people in Poland.  Something else that can only be watched in very small groups: The former POW went aside a little from his family on the camp site and I saw him wiping tears from his cheeks.

Quite different from such situations were the farewell parties with the US groups in the White Palace in Streckenthin or in the hotel in Köslin where happiness predominated.  The restaurant owners liked it, of course, too.  During one of these parties I had a special personal experience of long lasting impression which none of the guests could notice.  The American group started singing.  I didn’t know that patriotic song.  After that the Poles started.  And their song was a patriotic one, too.  When they had finished somebody shouted:  “And now you, Gerhard!”  I was the only German there.  Expecting assistance was in vain, but I didn’t want to chicken out.  And so my solo sounded through the former German White Palace of Streckenthin.  It was the Pommern-Lied, “Wenn in stiller Strunde Träume mich unwehn . . .,” the patriotic song of the Pomeranians.  I guess it was for the first time after WWII that this song was sung again in the former German palace in Pomerania.

 

 

4 responses to ““IT ALL BEGAN WITH A SCHET””

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