Sunday, August 24, 2014

World War II remembered in Murnau

When my son Ted and I visited Murnau am Staffelsee in March 2006, snow still covered the ground and ice rimmed the lake. We walked on a few of trails outside of town and spent the late afternoon sitting at a chilly sidewalk cafe, eating cake, and people watching.
A religious sculpture by
Lt. Kazimierz Artamowski

Photo used with permission 
of Martin Lohmann

We were there because Troop B, 116th Squadron, my father's troop in the 101st Cavalry, had traveled through Murnau on their way to Austria on April 29, 1945, one day before Hitler committed suicide and less than a week before the war ended. Around 3:00 p.m. that day, they passed Oflag VII-A, a camp imprisoning thousands of Polish officers. As the Americans passed the camp, they were approached by a group of SS coming from the opposite direction. The two groups met right outside the camp gate. After a short exchange of fire, two members of the SS were killed and one prisoner who was struck by a stray bullet. According to the records of the 116th squadron, the first of the Americans to enter the camp was Corporal Richard Pawlowski of Chicago, who spoke Polish.

A U.S. helmet found in the region.
Photo used with permission 
of Martin Lohmann
Ted and I couldn't visit the camp, now an active German army base, nor did we see any signs of World War II when we were there. But that is only because we didn't know Martin Lohmann at that time. For several years, he and students in his history class have been collecting information about the camp, as well as photos and other artifacts. Martin is currently writing a book about Oflag VII-A and organizing a 70th anniversary celebration for April 24, 2015. The anniversary will include an opportunity to tour the camp, some of which is much the same as it was in 1945.

It's not the only event he has organized lately. From February 10 to 23 this year, he and his students held an exhibition in the local museum about the end of the war in their area. It included several rooms with military artifacts, either found in the ground or given to the exhibition by veterans. Some of the artifacts included posters, maps, photos, war diaries, and a completely rebuilt air-raid shelter with sounds of an actual bomb raid. One room was set aside for information about Oflag VII-A. More than 1,000 visitors came to see the exhibit.

As he prepares for the 70th anniversary celebration, Martin is seeking more artifacts, as well as first-person accounts from the camp and its liberation. If you have anything you might be willing to share with him to help complete the story of Oflag VII-A, you may email him directly. 
Oflag Room C (the "sergeant" represents Unteroffizier Bartsch,
who was in charge of the camp). The typewriter is original. Martin
has noted that the picture on the wall that is turned backwards
is a portrait of Hitler. It was required to hang it in every office in
the highest position; however, Martin said, they didn't find it
appropriate to have him facing the visitors. 

Photo used with permission of Martin Lohmann

Friday, July 25, 2014

Celebrate the liberation of OFLAG-VII

Martin Lohmann teaches English and history at Staffelsee-Gymnasium in Murnau, a small city in Bavaria. The odds that he and I would ever just run into each other are probably astronomical, but we did. We ran into each because of a common interest in history, specifically the history of World War II. We both had come to that interest through family members who fought in the war: my father and two of Martin's grandfathers.

“History has always been so much more than a teaching matter to me, with my main focus on World War II," said Martin. "With one of my grandfathers surviving the war with what is commonly referred to as a “million-dollar wound,” and the other taking part in all the main theatres of war, but only narrowly escaping death on at least three occasions, plenty of innocent interest was triggered in me as a young boy. It was only much later that I acknowledged the terrors that my grandmothers and parents had to endure in the bomb shelters in Hamburg. In the ’80s, older gentlemen with limbs missing were such a common sight that, unfortunately, it took years to realize that this generation has stories to tell that need to be preserved.”

Murnau 2006
Martin began interviewing local war veterans in 2008 and soon realized he was living near a site that needed more research. He passed by Werdenfels Kaserne, a military base in Murnau, quite frequently on his way to a local fast food restaurant.

“You could tell that its architecture revealed a history of more than 70 years,” he said. “It was within one of my extracurricular history seminars in 2008 that one of my students wrote about Oflag-VIIA, also displaying Alain Rempfer’s pictures that he had found online. Ever since, I have become more and more interested in the history of the POW camp, with many hours spent in the local archives and slowly getting into touch with descendants of the Polish officers in held captive there.”

Among the descendants of the Polish officers held captive at Murnau is where our paths crossed. My father's troop was part of the liberation of the camp, and I also had been in touch with the children and grandchildren of the prisoners. At some point, my name turned up on his radar, and he contacted me. 

Martin and his students have been doing some exciting things in Murnau. In February 2014, they held an exhibition about the end of the war in the region, an exhibit which attracted more than 1,000 visitors. One room of the exhibit focused on Oflag-VIIA, with many original exhibits, barred windows, and a uniformed German Unteroffizier doing his paper work, the originals of which were on display as well.

“There was a lot of positive feedback on the exhibition and many residents praised us for dealing with a topic that had been ignored for almost 70 years,” said Martin. “It is only now that Murnau starts working on its National Socialist past, and I am proud to do my part in this effort.”

Now Martin is organizing a celebration for the weekend of April 24-26, 2015, (exact date of the event will be determined soon) commemorating the Oflag’s liberation 70 years ago. Both the date and the program have been approved by, and are strongly supported by, the Polish consul, the Murnau town hall and the mayor, the army commander of Werdenfels Kaserne, the archive, and the principal of Staffelsee-Gymnasium Murnau.

Martin is hoping that some surviving Polish officers and U.S. soldiers who were present at the liberation will be in attendance at the celebration, as well as their descendants.

“We are very much looking forward to receiving our guests of honor,” he said. “Those who are historically and emotionally connected to Oflag-VIIA.”

The program will include a church mass held in several languages and a guided tour of the Oflag buildings, walls, and attics, which have remained untouched since 1945. After a ceremony at the Polish war graves, guests can attend an Oflag exhibition. A number of presentations by Polish, American, and German respresentatives are planned, as well as short films and music of different nationalities.

Please take some time to learn more about this important event in the history of the 101st Cavalry. I have several pages dedicated to it on my website, including two short videos.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Farewell and thank you, Joseph Coccia

A few years ago, I traveled to Maryland to meet and interview five men who had served with my dad in the 101st Cavalry. For some reason, the Maryland group became especially dear to me: Buck Fluharty, Charles Covey, John Borotka, Robert Klein, and Joseph Coccia. Just writing their names makes me smile.

These lovely men all invited me into their homes and told me their stories. First I went to St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore where Charles Covey told me I was the first person he had ever talked to about the war. And Buck Fluharty showed me his model airplanes, started up his motorcycle for me, and contributed dozens of photos for my book. It was an amazing opportunity.

In Baltimore, I went to Joseph Coccia's house, where I spent more than two hours with him and John Borotka. 

Joseph Coccia c. 1944
Although the two men had grown up in the same Baltimore neighborhood, they had not know each other until they joined the 101st Cavalry. During the war, their mothers became friends because their sons were serving in the same squadron.

"John told his mother everything," said Joseph, "and I told mine nothing, so they would get together." It was the only way his mother could find out what was going on. 

Joseph had trouble hearing--a gift from the war, he said. Howitzers going off over his head had been so loud his ears began to bleed. The medics sent him to the 63rd evacuation hospital, but there was nothing they could do. John fought in the battle for Merkendorf, for which his troop received a Unit Citation.

Joseph Coccia 2007
After the war, the men remained friends, found jobs and raised families. 

The day I met with them, Joseph dominated the conversation with stories of the war, his family, the Catholic Church--anything and everything. 

John wanted to tell me about Merkendorf, and I wanted to hear about it, but we both willingly gave the floor to Joseph. He had an impish sense of humor, and  I would get so caught up in his stories that I forgot to take notes. Before I left, he even sang a song for me. Music was an important part of his life, he said. Music and family.

As I walked down the sidewalk to my car, John Borotka asked to buy me lunch. He still had his story to tell. We had lunch, and I finally heard about Merkendorf, as well as more stories about his friend Joseph.

I don't know if John is still alive, but this past January, Joseph's daughter sent word that her father had died. He was 92. As always, I cried. I want them to live forever. I have grown to love them--maybe because I still have so many questions. Maybe because, in their presence, I feel close to my dad.  

Robert Klein

Buck Fluharty
Charles Covey