Görlitz is an industrial town built on the River Neisse, approximately 50 miles east of Dresden, and though it now lies within the borders of Poland it was part of Germany before and during the war. Very well served by road and rail connections, the town was home to 95,000 people during the war and was prominent in the iron and glass trades. During the 1930's the Hitler Youth established camps and built barracks outside of the eastern suburb of Moys, but when the war began these buildings were converted into the prisoner of war camp that became known as Stalag VIIIA.

 

1940 - The Beginning

 

The first group of prisoners to arrive were all Polish, and by June 1940 there were 15,000 of them at the camp employed in the building of further barracks, but they were gradually drafted elsewhere to be used as labourers. The camp had grown to accommodate 30 barracks, each of which in the most dire of circumstances could house 500 men, 15,000 in total, and so when 40,000 French and 8,000 Belgian soldiers arrived over the summer there was gross overcrowding and many of them were compelled to sleep outside in tents, with only the most primitive facilities available to them. By the end of the year 56 barrack huts had been built, including two large kitchens, 14 of the barracks were reserved for the guards and the Command Post. The process of housing prisoners in these new barracks began in December 1939 and by the end of 1940 tent accommodation was no longer necessary. It had been intended that the Stalags VIIIA, B and C would hold only prisoners of a specific nationality, Belgians, British and French respectively, however as time wore on the practicalities of doing this led to the plan being abandoned. 

 

1941 - Cultural Improvements

 

By February 1941 all of the Poles had been removed from the camp and only a few hundred French and Belgians remained. These were left behind because they either worked in the camp, were too sick to work, or had refused to work, and together they set about improving the conditions. With the addition of a stage, Hut 27B was transformed into a theatre during the first few months of the year, 28A was converted into a Roman Catholic chapel, 28B became a lecturing hall but only for classes by German teachers and in their language, a canteen was open for business, and a POW Hospital was opened in Görlitz in August. By this time a number of nationalities in addition to the French and Belgians were taking up residence in the camp; Russians, Czechs, Serbs, and also 20 British prisoners who were passing through the camp before being moved elsewhere.

 

On a bitterly cold night on the 15th January, with temperatures sinking to -4°C, Olivier Messiaen's masterful and harrowing composition of Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was given its debut performance before an audience of POW's. Messiaen, a French prisoner, had conceived and penned the work at Stalag VIIIA, taking inspiration from the Book of Revelation and his desire to escape the misery of his situation. "We were 30,000 prisoners (French for the most part, with a few Poles and Belgians)," recalled Messiaen. "The four musicians played on broken instruments: Etienne Pasquier's cello had only 3 strings; the keys of my upright piano remained lowered when depressed...It's on this piano...that I played my Quartet for the End of Time, before an audience of 5000 people...Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding." The scale of the audience is believed to have been wildly exagerrated and the real figure was between three to five hundred. The hour-long piece consisted of eight movements for violin, cello, piano, and clarinet, all of which were available to the musicians at the camp and Messiaen had deliberately written his composition around them. Quartet for the End of Time has since received great critical acclaim and been hailed as one of the most brilliant pieces of the 20th Century. For further information, go to www.oliviermessiaen.org.

 

1942 - Education

 

The prisoners succeeded in gaining more flexibility in the lecturing hall and were permitted to appoint instructors from within their own ranks, and so qualified men began to lecture other interested prisoners on subjects such as Language, Maths, Science, and Law. Due to the mix of prisoners and dialect, the neutral language became German.

 

1943 - The British Arrive

 

Stalag VIIIA welcomed its first permanent British and Commonwealth prisoners on the 19th September 1943. The Allied invasion of Italy had resulted in prisoners being removed from the country to German camps, and a train-load had arrived from each of P.G. 52 (Chiavari), 57 (Grupignano), and 82 (Arezzo), carrying 2,500 men in all. Many of these men had been captured in the fighting across North Africa and so had acquired much experience of POW life and knew how to make conditions more pleasant than they would be for the uninitiated. The camp authorities at Görlitz had received little notification that such a large group of prisoners would be arriving, and as a consequence there was overcrowding. The problem began to ease very quickly as the new arrivals were sent away to work at some of the Kommandos, and before long the British and Commonwealth population at the camp itself had been reduced to a more manageable 1,000 men, and everyone had a bunk. Red Cross parcels were not expected to arrive for a long while, but in the meantime the Belgians and French were most generous and handed over food, cigarettes, and blankets from their own stock. Initially, although within the same compound, contact between the British and the other nationalities was not allowed, however this policy was waived in time and all prisoners were able to mix freely and enjoy the same facilities.

 

The administrative machine of the British had kicked in the minute they had arrived with commanders selected to represent each barrack, and groups established to ensure the distribution of food, Red Cross parcels, and letters, while services such as cobblers, tailors, barbers, carpenters, and hygiene inspectors also arose spontaneously. Less vital but nonetheless important groups sprung up devoted to entertaining the men and making sure that there was always something available for them to do; such as the usual sports and theatricals, through to educational facilities, a library, arts and craft facilities, gardening, and a church. The British "Man of Confidence" was RSM J. J. Rossouw, with RSM W. F. Van Winsum acting as Camp Sergeant-Major.

 

1944 - Helping Hand

 

By September 1944 the British population had reached 1,300 with a further 2,000 or more working in the Kommandos outside the camp. Specifically the British contingent was comprised of 470 British, 400 South Africans, 330 New Zealanders, 90 Australians, and a hotchpotch of others. Red Cross parcels had been arriving regularly until August and the prisoners had been able to live as well as could be expected, but by the end of the year the deliveries were becoming increasingly scarce until none got through at all. The Russian prisoners had no Red Cross organization to support them and so the British shared with them what they could spare from their parcels. In the final few weeks of the year 1,800 US troops arrived at the camp in a far from handsome condition, and so a similar effort was mounted, this time with the permission of the Kommandant, but it was clear that what the British could spare would not be enough.

 

1945 - Forced March

 

As the Red Army continued its relentless advance through German occupied territory, camps in the east were evacuated and its occupants forced to march westwards, and a great many men from Stalag 344 arrived at Görlitz, having endured appalling winter weather. On the 14th February the evacuation of Stalag VIIIA began when a large group of US soldiers with 140 British were marched off, followed on the next day by a further 1,200. On the 17th February a Hospital train whisked 700-800 sick prisoners away to Stalag XIB, while the small number for whom room could not be found proceeded on foot or on the back of horse drawn carts. This process continued until the camp was empty and abandoned, however a few prisoners had hid themselves in it to await the arrival of the Russians and their freedom.

 

The number of men which Stalag VIIIA and its Kommandos held is not certain. Over the duration of its life the camp was noted by the International Red Cross to have held 21,784 Frenchmen, 5,254 Belgians, 2,365 Yugoslavs and 65 Poles. It is pure speculation but it is believed that as many as 100,000 Polish prisoners may have passed through the camp at some stage or other. The amounts of Russian prisoners held is equally vague, but it is known that 16,000 of them died from disease or malnutrition at Görlitz, and they were buried in mass graves at the rear of the camp.