Earlier this month, I traveled to Zagan, Poland, to talk to a Polish military unit on their way to Afghanistan. I had never heard of Zagan before, but I should have: It was the site of the “Great Escape” memorialized in the 1963 Steve McQueen/James Garner film. On a free day, some colleagues and I went to the site of Stalag Luft III, the prison camp from which the mass escape occurred. The museum commemorating the prisoners of the camp was small, but stellar. While the movie took great liberties—first and foremost, Americans were not present in the camp at the time of the escape—Germans did intern American airmen at the camp at other times, including three veterans of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, one of whom has just recently passed away.
The museum historian who provided a personal tour has interacted with many of the former prisoners or their families, and has collected a number of fantastic mementos of the American presence, including sketches done in the camp by an American prisoner of other American prisoners. New discoveries are being made almost weekly, as curators continue to scour the substantial grounds with metal detectors. Not too long ago, site personnel even discovered the remains of another tunnel. Next year, I believe, will be the last reunion for the Stalag Luft III prisoners as old age claims those the Germans did not. In recent years, some German former guards have also joined the reunions, the most recent of which was held in Dayton.
I came across many Holocaust survivors growing up; when I briefly taught at a Sunday school in Connecticut while in graduate school, I brought an escapee from Sobibor to talk to my class. And, of course, growing up I knew many World War II veterans. That so many eyewitnesses to these decisive episodes of history are now dying out is sad. That their stories and an understanding of what they fought for are now diminished if not ignored in high school and university history classes is tragic. So seldom have intellectuals turned their backs on so much history. That a museum such as that in Zagan so enthusiastically chronicle is fortunate; that only a handful of Americans and Europeans will ever see them is a poor reflection on our collective ability to appreciate our recent past.