Oflag 17-A was a German World War II ‘Prisoner of War Camp,’ an “Offizierlager”, where mainly French officers were held following the defeat of France in 1940, and also some Polish officers from the war with Poland in 1939. It was located between the villages Edelsbach and Döllersheim, in the district of Zwettl in the Waldviertel region of north-eastern Austria. With the help of visitors, an 8mm movie camera was smuggled in small parts and then reassembled and hidden inside a book, with which some of the prisoners filmed their own captivity without it being discovered. The film survived the war and was later published in France. Here is a 13 minute excerpt:
According to Wikipedia:
The camp was originally built as barracks for troops taking part in military exercises in Truppenübungsplatz Döllersheim, which with an area of 200 km2 (77 sq mi), was the largest military training area in central Europe. It had been created by the German Army in 1938, and some 7,000 inhabitants of 45 villages were removed and resettled.
The barracks were enclosed by a barbed-wire fence and watchtowers to form a camp approximately 440 by 530 metres, and was opened in June 1940 to house officers, mostly French, captured in the Battle of France, as well as several hundred Poles. Approximately 6,000 officers and orderlies were in the camp. The guards were mainly Austrian army veterans and conditions in the camp were better than in many other POW camps in Germany. [NOTE: NO sources are given for the claim that conditions were better in the Oflag than in other camps. No cross-comparison is offered)
The POWs lived in barrack huts that were divided into two dormitories each housing around 100 men, with a small kitchen and a washroom between them. There was a separate shower block, and prisoners were allowed two showers a month. Part of one barrack was set aside for use as a chapel.
The prisoners were encouraged to occupy their time productively. They formed a choir and a theatre group, and built their own sports ground, the Stade Pétain. One of the most popular activities were the lectures at the Université en Captivité, headed by Lieutenant Jean Leray, formerly a mathematics professor at the Université de Nancy. The University awarded almost 500 degrees, all of which were officially confirmed after the war. Leray lectured mainly on calculus and topology, concealing his expertise in fluid dynamics and mechanics, fearing being forced to work on German military projects. He also studied algebraic topology, publishing several papers after the war on spectral sequences and sheaf theory. Other notable figures of the University were the embryologist Étienne Wolff, and the geologist François Ellenberger. The syllabus also included such subjects as law, biology, psychology, Arabic, music, moral theology, and astronomy.
The prisoners produced a weekly newspaper, Le Canard en KG. “KG” is the German abbreviation for Kriegsgefangener [“Prisoner of War”], and in French this was pronounced as Le canard encagé [“The Caged Duck”], a reference to the popular satirical journal Le Canard enchaîné.
A more clandestine production was the 30-minute film entitled Sous Le Manteau (“Under The Cloak”), directed by Marcel Corre. It was shot on 14 reels of 8 mm film on a camera hidden inside a hollowed-out dictionary, and recorded scenes of daily life in the camp, including prisoners at work on one of the 32 tunnels, totalling over 1 km (0.62 mi) in length, that were dug during the camp’s lifetime.
Most of the Wikipedia info is sourced to this article:
“Leray in Edelbach“ (PDF) by Sigmund, Anna Maria; Michor, Peter; Sigmund, Karl (2005) from which I have taken the following excerpts:
“The physical and psychic deprivations of years in a POW camp, with its over-crowding, sickness, hunger, and biting cold, on top of the boredom and un-certainty, were something else: in these conditions, intense intellectual pursuit must have been a desperate means for keeping hold of sanity. The prisoners of Edelbach founded a “University in Captivity.” Of the 5,000 inmates of the camp, of which a few hundred were Polish and the rest French, almost 500 got degrees, and their diplomas were all officially confirmed in France after the war. The fact that Jean Leray had been the director, or recteur, of this impromptu university must have helped with the French authorities. His academic credentials were impressive: he had received his doctorate at the élite École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and had been professor at the Université de Nancy before being drafted into the war. [snip] …
But Leray was not the only distinguished scientist in the Oflag. There was the embryologist Étienne Wolff, by all testimonies a driving force behind the university, but obliged, for racial reasons, to keep discreetly in the background. Étienne Wolff later became professor at the Collège de France, and member of the Académie des Sciences de Paris as well as of the Académie Française. Another luminary was François Ellenberger, a future president of the Société Géologique de France. The geologists at Oflag XVII had to content themselves with the stones they could find in the prison yard. Their laboratory was an old kitchen which they could use for a few hours daily.
Eventually, friends and relatives from France were permitted to send books. Over the years, Leray received a small library from his former teacher Henri Villat [Sch 1990], [Ell 1948]. From eight in the morning to eight in the evening, Barrack 19 housed lectures on law and biology, on psychology and Arab language, on music and moral theology, on horse-raising (by a Polish fellow-officer, bien sûr!), on public finances, and on astronomy. [snip] …
The university’s curriculum shows that on Sunday nights, the prisoners could listen to a lecture giving “practical advice for constructing an inexpensive house,” before having to return to their cheerless cold quarters. The barracks consisted of two rooms housing 100 inmates each, one small kitchen, and one toilet with eight wash-basins. There was a special building for the showers: each officer could use it twice a month. Half of one barrack was used as a chapel. More than seventy of the prisoners were priests, and each could say mass daily if he wished.
The captives founded a first-rate choir and a theatre group, and soon set up their own sports stadium, named stade Pétain. The prisoners even managed to produce, behind the back of their guards, a documentary film of about thirty minutes’ length, entitled Sous le Manteau (“Beneath the Cloak,” because the camera had always to remain hidden). Three versions of it have survived to this day ([Kus 2004]).
As in many other POW camps, the captives printed their own newspaper, a weekly called Le Canard . . . en KG. KG is Wehrmacht shortspeak meaning Kriegsgefangener, or prisoner of war, and the French would pronounce it as Le canard encagé (The caged duck), a pun referring to the celebrated Le Canard Enchaîné (The duck in chains), which was, and still is, a hugely popular satirical journal in France. The prisoners’ version was not permitted to comment on politics, satirically or otherwise: it was filled with harmless caricatures, theatre bills, sports news, crossword puzzles, and announcements of special lectures. Nothing about the war, or about the conflicts dividing the French community into what, with hindsight, was simply the issue of collaboration vs. résistance, but seemed much more confusing at the time. The Vichy régime tried to foster a network of “hommes de confiance,” but an underground résistance group, who called themselves the mafia, eventually became the dominating force in the camp. For many of the prisoners, the dilemma was whether to become a civilian worker in Germany, with a freedom . . . of sorts, or to stick it out behind the barbed wire, in the hope that the legal status of a captive officer would protect them from the worst. For Leray, who in 1933 had witnessed in Berlin the accession of Hitler to power, collaboration was never an issue. [snip] …
At first, they all had hoped to be back in France by the end of 1940. The war seemed over. When this proved an illusion, many fell prey to depression and to homesickness. Leray and his academic colleagues used to meet every evening in the highest, southern-most corner of the camp, and watch, weather permitting, the sunset over “la petite France.” Needless to say, the French did not merely bemoan their fate. Some tried to change it. The prison guards became experts at discovering tunnel entrances beneath the barracks. They were so good at it that they overlooked a tunnel entrance which was out in the open, right under their noses. It was through this 90-meters-long tunnel that on the nights of September 17 and 18, 1943, no fewer than 132 prisoners de-camped. It was the greatest escape from a POW camp in World War II, and its story is almost unknown [Kus 2004].
The prisoners had established an open-air theatre, called Théâtre de la Verdure. They were allowed to decorate it with twigs and greenery, hiding it partially from the guard towers. Because delegates of the International Red Cross had found that the camp lacked protection against Allied air raids, the POWs were told to dig a few trenches, and were even provided with shovels and wheel-barrows. [snip] …”
Firstly, lest we forget, it was France which had declared war on Germany, and not the other way around, and they subsequently got their asses handed to them in the Spring of 1940, following which Adolf Hitler signed a very fair armistice with the French. He then called upon the British to come to their senses and to bring an end to a totally unnecessary war. See my film “Hitler’s Victory“.
The war could easily have ended then and these French prisoners would probably have been sent home, in orderly fashion not long afterwards, rather than languishing in a German POW Camp which was, as far as prisons go, a resort in which they were treated far better and more humanely than likely in any other prison camp that has ever existed, before or since World War II !
Take a good look at that video and the descriptions provided in that article. Indeed, it was also monitored by the International Red Cross and the Germans took their recommendations seriously and had slit-trench air-raid shelters installed, the thanks for which was that these pampered French elite officers used what was given them to attempt to escape on more than one occasion, apparently having forgotten that there was still a war going on, finally resulting in 50 of them being shot. Oh those “evil Nazis”! I guess they just should have let them all go and sent them home? Did the British or Americans treat their German POWs this well? And did they let them go home if they got bored and tried to escape?? Ummm … I think not! Yet, in the last days of the war, with the Soviet Red Army closing in, the camp was evacuated (as were many other camps) and the prisoners moved out and westward for their safety. Yes, “the evil Nazis” were THAT evil!
And by the way, speaking of air-raid shelters. please don’t forget that, as I have previously reported, the “evil Nazis” were also having them installed at Auschwitz to protect the inmates there in that labour camp from allied air-raids. Hmmm? Go figure, eh!
I am left to wonder what those French prisoners would have had to say if they were given a choice between Oflag 17a and the Eisenhower’s Rhine-Meadows Death Camps?
Somehow, I think they would have been ashamed of themselves, would have begged to go back to Oflag17-A and they would have apologized to their Germans captors, and would thanked them. Indeed, they should have. But unfortunately, all to often, the German guards were summarily executed by the “liberators” or sent to perish in death camps, while these French prisoners got to go home to their families and careers.