This Spring Equinox (2014) found me in Barth, Germany. I had traveled to Austria and Germany for work, taking advantage of the College spring break.
First night in Europe, jet lag kept me up until the wee hours – so I turned on my computer and began surfing the web. One thing led to another and I figured I might as well try yet again to find out some important information about my father I had always wondered about.
You see, my father – deceased nearly thirty years now – had been a prisoner of war in Germany during WW2. His right ring finger was the only visible physical reminder of his long ordeal; that finger had been deeply slashed by trees as he parachuted down from the damaged aircraft. When he was captured two days later, very close to the Allied border area, his finger was crudely stitched and it never quite moved or looked right.
As a child, I would sometimes ask him about his finger and about what it was like being a prisoner of war. He would always make a joke about his finger, and then tell me that he did not want to talk about his experience. Every single time I asked him, for more than two decades, he always refused to answer.
So my first night ever in a German speaking area, I checked the internet one more time and to my great surprise found my father’s name and record rapidly.
James H. Stephenson. 2nd Lieutenant, Air force. Stalag Luft 1/Barth/Prussia – 1/29/44-6/14/45.
My heart beat hard when I saw this long searched for information. I wondered if Dad was smiling down upon me right then and there.
I found the town of Barth on the map. It was on the Baltic Sea, not far from the current Polish border. That made sense. Dad had mentioned a northern sea.
On the spur of the moment, I realized I could make a fast one day trip there when I was in Berlin later in the week. In fact, the only day I had free to visit Barth was March 21st, the Spring Equinox.
After a five hour and one train change journey due north from Berlin, I stepped off at 11 am to Barth, Germany on the first day of spring, 2014. I had no idea where the prisoner of war camp had been located, or even how to communicate this question to the people in the town since I speak not one word of German. More significantly, I did not know how the locals would react when I asked this question.
Three people who worked in the railway station, all of them most likely born and raised when this part of Germany was East Germany, spent 15 minutes printing out a google map and writing the path I needed to follow to find the spot. They explained that it was out of town. They waved me good-bye, wishing me well.
I had to walk through the center of Barth to find the site. As I walked its streets, Barth seemed to be about the size of Keene. I stopped for an early lunch at a place filled with locals. I sat alone, but shortly an elderly couple joined me at my table. We tried to communicate the best we could, despite the language barrier. I understood the woman to say that she had learned Russian, not English, in school. I nodded understanding.
The town’s one church steeple loomed tall as I passed it by and kept walking out of town. I tried to keep a brisk pace and follow carefully the penciled directions. Half a mile out and I turned off the main road, following a smaller road that edged a large meadow. This meandered for a while until it turned to dirt, and I found myself in the middle of a solar panel farm.
Then the solar panels ended, and I was in a forested area. I walked a short distance more and then I saw the stone. It was large and prominent. Next to it was an informational sign, triangular in shape and about 15 feet tall.
I walked towards that stone and placed my right hand upon it as I read what the metallic plaque on its face said (in both English and German).
“Dedicated by the citizens of Barth and the Royal Air Force ex-prisoners of WW2 on September 28, 1996 to commemorate all those held prisoner at this site from 1940 to 1945. Nothing Has Been Forgotten”
Goosebumps moved from my hand up my arms slowly, and then I found tears welling up in my eyes – a few fell upon that stone.
I spent a long time by that rock – trying to imagine how such a peaceful scene now could have ever held a place like a prisoner of war camp filled with thousands of scared, cold and hungry soldiers. I tried to imagine my father here, and let him know that all these years later, his daughter had found the place and it was a peaceful spot now.
On that early spring equinox afternoon my strongest sensation was hope. Hope that a place which had once been a prisoner of war camp was now a forest where people walked their dogs. Hope that a factory that had once produced munitions for the Germany army was now converted into a solar farm. Hope because it was the citizens of Barth and the ex prisoners of war together who had laid plaque. Hope that even in the worst of times, there is a promise of springtime to come, of a potentially brighter tomorrow.