What am I doing in the middle of a grove of trees taking a selfie in front of this old cement foundation?
It’s not just any old cement foundation. I’m in Austria, and what’s hidden beneath decades of underbrush it all that remains of the infamous Nazi POW camp Stalag 17B.
During World War II, the ground I’m standing on was a place of horrible suffering. It was among the most notorious of all prisoner-of-war camps, detaining as many as 66,000 prisoners—4,200 being American.
My upcoming World War II novel has a key character who spends eighteen months here. I wanted to include this place in my storyline because of my relationship with former POW Ray Matheny. Ray lives in American Fork, Utah, and he was prisoner number 105921.
I helped him publish his biography “Rite of Passage: A Teenager’s Chronicle of Combat and Captivity in Nazi Germany.” His story is amazing.
On his 9th mission, his B-17 was attacked by flak guns and a swarm of Nazi fighter planes. As the plane began to disintegrate, Ray fell unconscious just as his plane started to spin out of control. He awoke suddenly and had somehow been ejected from the plane and was falling at terminal velocity. When he managed to pull the ripcord on his parachute, it opened just in time for him to land hard in a ditch filled with ice. He suffered a few broken ribs, among other injuries, but he survived and was immediately captured. To this day considers himself lucky to have survived.
At 95-plus years old, you can see the pain in his eyes when he talks about the brutality of Stalag 17-B. Of how the Nazi guards tortured prisoners and subjected them to a viciousness that still makes him choke up when he talks about it.
He learned quickly to hate the Nazis. It felt like it was their primary objective to demean and humiliate all prisoners, but especially incoming prisoners. Upon arriving at the camp, each new prisoner was forced to surrender all their personal items like watches, special clothing (like long-johns), jewelry, etc., and the guards often helped themselves to these valuables. After this process, they had to endure a bitter cold shower and then they were sprayed with a delousing chemical. They were given a new German I.D. number was required to memorize this number or face severe physical punishment if they forgot.
The camp was filled with enlisted men, and under the terms of the Geneva Convention, they could not be required to work. Consequently, the tedium took its own toll on the prisoners, who had to find ways to keep themselves busy.
I used this old map of Stalag 17 taken by Allied reconnaissance in August 1944. It shows just how large this camp was. Almost a square mile in total.
To make prisoners miserable, guards would require all the prisoners to line up for roll call three to four times a day. While this process was ostensibly to keep a tally on prisoners and to detect escapees, the process was often cruel. Despite inclement weather, the “Kriegies” (The German word for war prisoner was Kriegsgefangener or “Kriegies” for short) would stand for hours while the guards conducted an extensive roll call, inspecting ID tags and comparing the faces with their photographs.
After hearing Ray’s story, it inspired me to read other first-hand accounts Stalag 17b.
And that’s why one of my key characters is a composite character of many Americans survivors of this camp.
The more I researched this place, the more I felt a strong need to see it with my own eyes. To get feel for the place. After a bit of digging, I located the GPS location of the old camp, and on a recent trip to Austria, I set out to find it.
Thanks to the fine photoshopping skills of Bob Penoyer, by overlaying the map on a Google image, you can see its location today near Krems, Austria, and more specifically, the town of Gneixendorf.
The map points to the grove of trees where the only relics of the camp remain. It’s on private property and I had to walk carefully to avoid trampling down the wheat that surrounded this densely forested area that has been left unmanaged for decades.
I wondered why this plot of land was not reclaimed by a local farmer. Maybe it’s because there are so many concrete structures that it’s just not worth it. Once I found one foundation, I kept finding more. And more. And more.
Today, the overgrown trees and moss-covered cement walls are all that physically remains. But there’s more to this place than just concrete relics.
I was surprised by the impression I felt that this was hallowed ground. At the time I didn’t know why I had this feeling. It wasn’t until I returned that I realized what makes this place a unique and possible sacred space.
The Russian Experience.
The focus of my initial research was clearly on the American experience, as I wanted to learn about as many details as possible so I include them in my book. But also the dismal rations and food shortages that became a constant concern. Many men lost almost half their body weight, while others lost their minds and were never the same when they returned.
But whatever hell the Americans had to endure, the Russians had it worse. Much worse. What the Soviets were forced to endure was unimaginable. From an American standpoint, the horrible state of the Russians was a constant source of anxiety as they had to watch them slowly die of starvation and exposure. Many Americans risked their lives trying to save the Russians, throwing candy and other food over the wire. Some of these heroes deserve a book on their own.
Why did the Nazi’s single out the Soviets for such harsh treatment? Well aside from centuries of conflict, the many historians point to the Russian’s refusal to sign the 1929 Geneva Convention for the treatment of war prisoners. The Nazis knew they were immune from any legal consequence for making the Russians endure such a ghastly sort of hell. And to compound matters, they possessed no compelling moral reason to treat the Russians with compassion or any small degree of human dignity. The predictable result was death and suffering.
The statistics are mind-boggling. According to the German government’s own post-war figures, of the 5.7 million Russian POWs held by the Nazis, 3.3 million died. That’s a 57% death rate. But at Stalag 17, the conditions tell a similar yet still gruesome story. Although the Russians population made up roughly 22% of the prisoner population, they accounted for 96% of all deaths, 1641 in all.
Why did I feel like I was walking on hallowed ground? Because over 1,700 men died at this place, under the most desperate and cruelest of circumstances.
In the surrounding area, I noticed a few markers to identify this place as a former POW camp. The most noticeable is the work of an Austrian artist who created four markers on the corners of the original site. The marker has the word “Remember” written in the twelve different languages represented among the nationalities who were held here. In the artist’s own description of the work, he points out that few people in Krems is aware of the sordid history that existed in their hometown. He stated, “Hardly anyone knows (that) the largest prisoner of war camp in Austria was located here in Krems.”
I also found this marker that also indicates the existence of the camp, and what happened to the bodies that were buried here.
I could go on and on about this horrible place, but the more I am tempted to tell you, the more I risk revealing spoilers in my book.
But if you ever plan to go to Vienna (Krems is about an hour west of Vienna), hit me up. I’d be happy to help you find it. For me, the memory of this place has lingered for a long time after I returned home.
But this I do know… I’ll never regret making the effort to go there feeling the vibe of this place. I’ll never forget it.