Drama Behind Barbed Wire: Theater In Oflag VIIA

Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Plan of the camp theater (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
Camp ID of Lieutenant Jan Jasiewicz (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
Camp ID of Lieutenant Jan Jasiewicz (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
A 1950s postcard with a view of the Murnau camp barracks (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
A 1950s postcard with a view of the Murnau camp barracks (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
Plan of the camp theater (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
Plan of the camp theater (Jan Jasiewicz Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
Group of Murnau inmates (the author's father, Lieutenant Konrad Siekierski, is in the bottom row, first from left)
Group of Murnau inmates (the author's father, Lieutenant Konrad Siekierski, is in the bottom row, first from left)

The September 1939 invasion of Poland by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Russia resulted in the Poland’s defeat and partition between the two aggressors. Poland was abandoned by its French and British allies and the five-week defensive campaign resulted in massive civilian losses and staggering material damage, as well as some 200,000 military casualties and more than 600,000 Polish soldiers taken prisoner, including about 32,000 officers, both professional soldiers and reservists. 

The Soviet share, nearly 15,000 officers, was put in prison camps until the spring of 1940 and then systematically murdered, with the most infamous killing field in the Katyn forest in western Russia. Ironically, those who found themselves in Nazi hands, more than 17,000 officers, fared much better, with the great majority, including even officers who were Jewish, surviving the war. The Wehrmacht, which ran the camps (unlike the Soviet NKVD, which was in charge of Soviet camps) by and large observed the provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war from signatory countries.

Among the survivors was Jan Jasiewicz (1911–72), whose collection has been added to the Hoover Archives. Lieutenant Jasiewicz, a lawyer in civilian life, along with some five thousand other prisoners, spent most of the war in Oflag VIIA, the German code name for the Polish officers’ camp near the small town of Murnau in Bavaria. The prisoners were housed in the vacant barracks of a German armored regiment fighting somewhere in Europe. Even though the Wehrmacht observed the Geneva Convention and officers were not forced to work, the only positive element of Oflag VIIA was its scenic location in the Alps.

The camp was surrounded by three rows of barbed wire fencing and watchtowers with machine guns; living quarters were cramped; the food was inadequate and bad. Most of the inmates were professional military men; and the rest were mobilized reservists: professors, doctors, engineers, businessmen, administrators, and teachers. The inmates organized a variety of activities to help them pass the time and to preserve their emotional health under seemingly hopeless circumstances.

A select group of officers manned a clandestine radio tuned to the BBC, built from parts smuggled into the camp; a number of others were digging tunnels, though most escape attempts ended tragically. There were also discussion groups, university-level lectures, literary circles, religious fellowships, foreign-language classes, sports clubs, and a theater. Jan Jasiewicz was one of the organizers of the camp theater, as well as its archivist and chronicler.

The Murnau theater was an amateur initiative, for there were no professional directors and actors among the inmates. With the permission of the German command, a vacant tank garage was converted into a theater. With little material for costumes, decorations, and sets, scrap wood, burlap sacks, cardboard, and tissue paper were used in addition to meager supplies sent from relatives in occupied Poland. The theater became an instant success, with capacity audience of five hundred men, mostly standing, during each show.

More than one hundred productions, ranging from jazz concerts and light comedy to Shakespearian plays, were staged during the five-and-a-half years of its existence. Jasiewicz saved and recorded everything: hand-painted announcements, programs, costume designs, detailed lists of participants, and photographs taken by German guards. He put his camp archives into four large albums bound in burlap. They arrived at Stanford exactly as they left Oflag VIIA seventy years ago, when the camp was liberated by units of the US Twelveth Armored Division.

After liberation, Jasiewicz, along with most of his fellow officers, joined the Polish Second Corps of General Władysław Anders, hoping for a return to a free Poland. This turned out to be but a fleeting dream in Europe shamelessly divided by the Yalta agreement. He chose émigré life. Eventually he was hired as artistic director of the Polish Broadcast Service of Radio Free Europe in Munich. Some of the programs Jan Jasiewicz produced can be found in Hoover Archives’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Collection

For more information, contact Maciej Siekierski (siekierski [at] stanford.edu)

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