Five Years Behind
Hitler's Barbed Wire

barbed wire
edited by Jacqueline Collins

Notable Achievements

The University
      La Semaine de France
      Salon Nautique and others
The largest escape of the war 132 men escaped in two days. (see article)

L’université de captivité Oflag XVIIA

course offerings
Schedule of classes published in le Canard

officially started on 31 August 1940. There were two categories of courses, university and junior college courses, taught by the thirty accredited professors in the camp. In addition, there were numerous practical courses: husbandry modern languages, accounting...

At the beginning, however, the Camp University was still without resources, books, or articles, except for what each officer POW may have carried with him. In addition to limited resources, there were very unique practical challenges: no lectern, neither desks nor chairs. A picture, taken clandestinely and published after the war, shows the men waiting outside the barracks, each officer carrying his own wooden stool on his shoulder. Who would know that some of these drab-looking men had stood at podiums of town halls, in the halls of the Sorbonne, le Palais Bourbon, or commanded ships? But they were determined. A colonel wrote: “The mission of the university and of all the accomplishments of brotherly love, which were born and blossomed in our prisons, aimed to be superior to one’s fate: as captives our bodies are shackled but our minds are free.

A year later, the diarist registers a congratulatory note,

The university is not the self-conscious debutante it was some time ago. Having acquired with age an official sanction, it is the hub, which attracts the cultural life. There is a very clear distinction between classes and conferences, between the student and the auditor. Many study circles have been created, including Cosmography, botany, prehistory, and paleontology…, and poets. The Alma Mater of Oflag XVIIA is the center of one of the most active groups: the pedagogic circle of elementary school teachers, an energetic group of six hundred members...

By mid-1942, the men were determined to make their studies count. After receiving the current books and course synopses they followed the same curricula as they would pursue in France. The number of well-known academics in the camp insured that the exams conformed to those given in France, and a number of diplomas were recognized after the war. The university was also a source of general education, about two third of the men were auditors. Numerous seminars in many disciplines reached well beyond the formal learning of a university.

Officially, there were three major departments, sciences, humanities, and law, and in addition a strong section for elementary school teachers, which in France would have belonged to a different institution than a university. The sciences benefited from three well-known scientists: Jean Leray, the dean and a mathematician, Etienne Wolff, a biologist, and François Ellenberger, a geologist, who organized a lab in the lavatory with microscopes, built in the camp. After the war all three were members of the prestigious Académie française.

Starting in 1943, the university was closed for periods of time for lack of coal to heat it or because of retaliation for escapes, but basically remained open through 1944 and early 1945.

La Semaine de France

Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral made of cardboard with a picture in the background. Exhibited during la Semaine de France

Keeping the morale of five thousand officer POWs was a continual challenge. In June, le Canard en K G publicized plans for a grand exhibition, “a festival to honor the richness and glory of France.” It would represent all aspects of French life and utilize the far-ranging talents of the prisoners. Called La Semaine de France (the French Week), it was to take place in the fall. The theater troupes would present classic and contemporary plays to “show the evolution of our language and taste the French spirit.” For the next three months, le Canard organized this weeklong festival,

The stated goal of La Semaine de France was ambitious, “To express faith in the future of France by building on (our) past and tradition.” It became the largest exhibition of the five years, lasting twenty-one days.

It was a huge success as recorded by the diarist.

4 September 1941--- It is impossible to describe the exhibition in Barracks 21. It is the high point of La Semaine de France, the living synthesis of French art, craftsmanship and thought: picturesque mosaics, which portray on a small scale the essence of each province, their sights, the variety of their products, and the originality of their costumes. They represent the miracle of the talent of thousands of men, who, for weeks, have kept whole a strong faith. They have embodied all their memories, their skills, and their power in order to re-create the image of the absent fatherland. With the exception of photos, books, and objects of the homeland, received in the packages, everything was created on site: decorations of the booths, murals, dioramas, watercolors, and models. Architects, artists, sculptors, engineers, professors, and craftsmen have worked side by side to make this a success.

Should we see in this cultural and artistic manifestation an act of defiance thrown to the enemy, the revenge against an unearned fate, and a victory over all the accumulated hurdles to act obstructing our path? Without doubt also, there is a desire to dazzle the Chleuhs, to show them that, in spite of the whip and the barbed wire, the Frenchman keeps a powerful potential in reserve.

From morning to evening a throng of officer POWs swarms around the booths: one dreams in front of the miniature portal of a cathedral, another raves about a model farm, moved to tears by the contemplation of a simple peasant headdress.
Dance folkloric du Languedoc
Dance folkloric du Languedoc performed during La Semaine de France

The exhibits consisted of a great variety of mediums: large panels, frescoes, mock-ups, scale models, and exposés. One officer had built a full-size loom on which he wove a tapestry. A collection of drawings by caricaturists spread over a large panel. There were photos, drawings, and sculptures. One half of the barrack was dedicated to stands, each with a specific focus: Education, Architecture, Decorative Arts, Agriculture, Industry and the Colonies.

The other half of the barrack was dedicated to the provinces: le Canard called it, “Le Tour de France” in 262 feet. Of particular significance was the Corsican corner. At a time when Italy was trying to claim Corsica for herself, the Corsicans had drawn a colorful fresco with the inscription saying in part: “With all our soul, we pledge to live and die, Frenchmen.” The Southwest displayed a collection of dolls, wearing their rich-colored costumes, a mock-up of a model farm and of a port.

In the performing art section, the theater troupes presented some plays and the men of different provinces presented their regional folkloric dances. In the concluding lecture, the speaker declared, “Our long captivity has not shaken our invincible faith in our destiny, and the inspiring splendor of our Semaine de France has expressed the most eloquent testimony of the vitality of our country. “In the crucible of suffering, the France of yesterday is the foundation of a new soul giving birth to the France of tomorrow.”

Salon Nautique (Boat Show and others)

Sailboat, made with supplies found in the camp
Sailboat, made with supplies found in the camp
(Photograph Marcel Corre)

The Boat Show in September 1942 was a major event, announced with a front page picture on le Canard. There were an amazing collection of small-scale models, sailboats, fishing boats, motor boats, Navy Ships, little masterpieces deemed worthy of a museum, and a complete mock-up in relief of the harbor of Le Havre. The stand for yachting was particularly popular. The orchestra provided background music producing the feeling of a country club atmosphere.

Concurrently, the officer POWs launched tiny boats across the pond of an area they called la Petite France. They looked like an Armada crossing from one side to the other. Yachts, sloops, models of thirty and forty-feet sailboats, and schooners pulled broadside, bumping a big dundee, and a lougre [tall ship], on the way, while speedboats, moving in circles nose in the air, made deep wakes. At intervals the turret of a submarine emerged and dived in this miniature sea, “a miserly pool without waves carrying children toys,” concluded le Canard.

Crafts and Industry exhibit
May 1942. The men executed their work in great details with materials from scratch. Clandestine pictures show a Belgian Brabant plow, made of tin cans, complete with a colter, a depth leveler, a share, a landslide and moldboard attached to the central beam. The hitch in front was made for horses with handles in the back for the farmer. There was another little gem: a miniature locomotive, which included all the pieces of a real locomotive, built with tin cans by a railway engineer. A microscope used in the laboratory of a class was also part of the exhibit.

At the end of June 43 the oficer POWs opened la Senaine de l’Enfance [The Week of the Child], an exhibit in which the French children participated by including the works their children had achieved in schools and sent in packages. All the professionals in the camp supported it by giving seminars on the psychology of children and the philosophy of pedagogy, all under the direction of B., philosopher and specialist. The viewing of two French films, La Maternelle [Kindergarten], and le Mioche [the Little Kid], gave rise to an intense emotion to see again loved artists, the French landscape and the Parisian youngsters. At the theater, Poil de Carotte [classic book and film by Jules Renard], the story of a family and a beloved little red headed boy, named Poil de Carotte, was a painful reminder of their separation from their children.


Library reading room
Library reading room

Reading was one the most cherished pastimes. Early on, they borrowed from each other the books they had carried. But books got misplaced and lost. Librarians designed a cataloguing system and asked each officer POW to give their book to be part of a library. It took some convincing, but by mid-September they had about 800 books.

By the following spring their book collection had greatly increased. They received books from home packages, the Red Cross, various organizations, even the Germans gave them novels in German. They received textbooks and an office of the Sorbonne (university of Paris) sent class notes. The library consisted in a reading room in one half of a barracks, which was always filled to capacity. The other half was for bookshelves. In addition, individual barracks had their own library.

After a couple of years, there were about 10,000 books of all kinds from the Greeks and Romans to the contemporary period in science, art, the humanities, medicine and law.



At first they performed short plays written in the camp and acted on makeshift stages. By November 1940, they used one of the rooms in an empty barracks for a “real” theater with rows of chairs and a stage behind a curtain. The theater bloomed with a proliferation of troupes and the acquisition of plays, classic and contemporary, dramas, comedies, vaudeville and slapstick. They made further improvements in December 1941, decorating the walls and providing better lighting.

Early on they relied on harmonicas for well-known tunes of folksongs. A choir formed, singing acapella until they got a harmonium. The choirmaster harmonized well-known melodies. Officer POWs in the camp composed the scores until they could receive some from France.

After receiving the first violin, a prominent violinist gave seminars and played solo pieces. Soon, with the arrival of more violins, they played duos, trios, and with more instruments reaching the camp, the orchestra gave their first concert in February 1941. A jazz band formed.

Engaging the talents of their community, they opened a cabaret, named La Volière (The Aviary). An article in le Canard introduced it very pointedly explaining the symboliam of the name, “one cannot – or should not - imprison birds in a cage because they need to spread their wings.They find freedom only when the door is open. And so are men made to be free. We turn without end inside our narrow prison. Our cage does not even have the smooth bars (of birds’ cages) but our bars are like an iron cactus, products of war with thousands of menacing sharp points that tears our clothing and hands.” La Volière was a smashing success, thanks to the décor, the live show, and the care taken in reproducing for the men, “the illusion of being free in an upscale cabaret in France.”

The Germans eventually caught up with the success of the cabaret and its symbolism, giving “the illusion of being free.” After a couple of months, they closed it.

A strong group of men dedicated to sports, built a stadium and sponsored soccer, volleyball, and basketball teams.