I had an above-average interest in Stalag Luft III because my father was one of the Prisoners of War held in this camp from 1943 through 1945. I didn't think I would ever be able to actually see the place since it was behind the Iron Curtain for so many years and far from my usual travels even after that era ended. But the opportunity came up to spend a little additional time in Europe so I excitedly planned to visit the museum and camp, thinking there probably would be much to see but it would still be worth the trip to just see the area that had such an impact on my father's life.
Wow, when I got there I discovered far more than I ever imagined - the museum has a lot of artifacts from the camp itself, with an emphasis on The Great Escape, of course. My father had participated in building the tunnels, getting rid of dirt, etc, but had been moved to the South Compound before the actual escape took place so he was not one of those who tried to get out [thank goodness]. Still, I grew up hearing stories about Stalag Luft III and various details of the tunnels, the escape, etc, and I had also read a number of books about the topic - so I assumed I knew most of what there was to know. Until I reached the museum, that is - they have so much information there, my brain couldn't really absorb it all in one day.
When one of the museum guides discovered I was a family member of one of the POWs, he immediately got out his records and looked up my father, providing me with the exact building and room number he occupied, as well as some other information I didn't have. He asked me some questions and provided a TON of other information, then took us over to the actual camp site and showed us all the areas of the camp, even though it was raining. My dad had spent some time in the North Camp when he first arrived so Mirek showed us the replica of Tunnel Harry, which was the one my dad worked on the most, and it's relationship to the various buildings, including the guard tower and German headquarters buildings. He gave me extensive details about many other buildings and took me to the area where my father was when he got the evacuation order on January 27, 1945, which resulted in a grueling march, an even worse ride in railroad box cars, followed by an even longer and more grueling march as my dad and others were transferred from Stalag Luft III to Stalag Luft VII-A. Mirek gave me many details about the evacuation, the transfer and other things of life for the POWs that I didn't previously have, including showing me copies of the camp newspaper and other items.
After our extensive exploration of the North Compound, Mirek took us over to the South Compound and the exact building where my father lived during his time there. He told me they don't know for sure how the rooms were laid out but showed me where my dad's room was probably located based on their best information. Between all the information he told us and the information provided on the many boards around the camp, it was truly overwhelming to take it all in. In fact, we had only allowed 4 hours for our visit, thinking we couldn't possibly need that much time, but even though we exceeded our limit by more than an hour, we still had a lot more to see!! So obviously the only thing we could do was to schedule a second visit a week later!!
Mirek was very nice and scheduled an appointment with us for our return visit to be sure he or someone else would be personally available when we arrived. On our second trip, we toured the replica of the barracks building, which has loads of additional information about the escape and life in camp for different groups of people. I had previously been under the impression that only Americans and British, along with a handful of Canadians and one or two others, were held in the camp. I was astonished to learn just how many other countries were represented among the prisoners and what a wide variety of cultures, religions and backgrounds were present in that camp. It was a truly amazing experience and I am totally impressed with everything they have done.
But wait - there's more!! I actually decided to go back a THIRD time since it's unlikely I'll get to return to this area again, at least not any time in the near future, and I purchased some postcards, coffee cups and other mementos for my siblings and other family members. Each time we went to the museum, there were people visiting it and each time, we observed museum employees explaining things, showing a group something or being helpful in some way. I've been to a LOT of museums but never one that had such a dedicated group of employees. This place is truly something very, very special - if you are anywhere in the area, it's really worth the effort to visit!!
Note - the Museum is currently closed on Mondays and there is free admission on Tuesdays! Otherwise, there is a small entrance fee which helps cover some of the costs of maintaining the exhibits and displays.
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