Americans, Poles meet in Va. hotel to save nearly forgotten Nazi POW camp in small Polish town
By HANNAH NATANSON | The Washington Post | Published: July 29, 2018
STERLING, Va. — For four hours Saturday night, an event space in a DoubleTree Hilton near Washington Dulles International Airport became a war room in the fight against forgetting.
The people came from as near as Ashburn, Virginia, and as far as Szubin, Poland. They came because they are descendants of American officers once imprisoned in Oflag 64, a small Nazi prisoner-of-war camp that was located in Szubin during World War II. They came because their grandfathers had spoken fondly about the place — or because their grandfathers had always refused to discuss it. Some Szubin residents came because they had walked by the prison site for years without knowing what it was. All came to remember.
Ninety-six-year-old Wilbur Blaine Sharpe was the sole "Kriegy" — a nickname for the officers kept in Oflag 64 and an abbreviation of kriegsgefangenen, the German word for prisoners of war — who was able to attend. He came because, well, how could he not?
"I just figured it would be nice to preserve it even though it was a place of adversity," Sharpe said. "We had a lot of pleasant experiences there, like the theater and the music; all the adults tried to take care of each other. They just didn't feed us."
Sharpe, an artillery officer captured by Erwin Rommel's Panzer division in World War II, spent 19 months as Prisoner 1,573 in Oflag 64 before escaping. His weight sank from its initial 150 to a measly 96 pounds. But he found the strength to take leading parts in musicals the roughly 1,500 incarcerated officers staged, often wearing women's clothes, in an effort to keep up morale.
More than seven decades later, Sharpe is again taking a starring role - this time as the founder of a Polish-American foundation seeking to build a commemorative museum at the site of Oflag 64 in Szubin. Saturday's gathering was to announce the establishment of that foundation, as well as a U.S.-based nonprofit group that will raise funds for the museum.
"My generation does not know what happened in the camp," said Mariusz Winiecki, 42, a Szubin resident and university professor who began researching Oflag 64 more than a decade ago. "Our purpose is to make people aware of WWII and the atrocity that war can cause."
Only a handful of original Oflag 64 buildings remain standing on the site, which now houses a reform school.
As a boy, Winiecki used to walk through the dilapidated campus on the way to school. In 2007, he started Googling the German name of his hometown and "Oflag 64" and discovered the Oflag 64 Association, a long-standing American group comprising Kriegies and their families. He eventually began corresponding with several Kriegies, including Sharpe. One former prisoner of war sent Winiecki a 17-page handwritten letter detailing his experiences in the camp. Then several members of the Oflag 64 Association visited Szubin to see the site.
Winiecki began working with Szubin's mayor, Artur Michalak; the head of the reform school, Wieskaw Gusinzki; and the curator of Szubin's museum, Kamila Czechowski, to figure out how to save Building 9, a former prison barracks that is one of the few original structures still standing.
This June, the Polish government officially signed over ownership of the building to the "community of Szubin," Winiecki said. Now they must raise an estimated $1 million to restore the building. Winiecki said it will be at least three to four years before the museum can open its doors.
The Americans are determined to help.
"It would mean so much to help honor (my father's) memory and his experience, to help keep the memory alive of that experience," said Oflag 64 Association member Nancy Wyatt, whose late father, Robert Thompson, was imprisoned in Szubin.
In September, several members of the association's advisory council will travel to Warsaw to meet with Winiecki and Polish officials in an attempt to secure government funding for the project. Cindy Burgess, Sharpe's daughter and a council member, said all are hopeful for the future.
But on Saturday night, attendees focused only on the 20th-century past. Most did not mention Poland's far-right government or a recently modified law that made it illegal to suggest Poland was complicit in Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Asked by a reporter about those events, Winiecki re-emphasized the importance of educating Poland's "youngest generation" about World War II.
Sharpe, who wore a pin bearing entwined Polish and American flags on his shirt collar, spoke for roughly half an hour about his time in the camp. He had to sit down halfway through and sometimes needed prompts from relatives, but his voice was clear and loud as he recounted memories of foiled escape attempts, secret radios and dreadful food - but also theatrical productions, friendship and laughter.
"I think that's what kept us alive, frankly ... that's what kept us going," he said.
Winiecki spoke next, offering the audience a peek into life at Oflag 64. He showcased the results of painstaking research: photos of American POWs frolicking in a field, skating on a frozen fish pond, standing in the theater barracks dressed as women in bras and skirts, sheltering under scraggly trees as they read books or wrote letters home.
Descendants of Kriegies paid close attention.
"I want to tell your stories, your fathers' stories," Winiecki told the room.
Anna Weber, whose grandfather, Phillip Wade, was imprisoned in Oflag 64, is writing her master's thesis at the University of Pittsburgh about the camp and his time there. She said she is partly inspired to write by the current political situation in Poland and by rising far-right sympathies and neo-Nazism in the United States.
"The deeper and deeper I dive into what I'm doing, the more it feels relevant to what is going on today," Weber said. "It's intense."
Not so for Sharpe. Asked about the rise of the far right, he shook his head.
"Nazism doesn't have any meaning for me at all," Sharpe said. "I guess I've chosen to forget."