tower
Five Years Behind
Hitler's Barbed Wire

barbed wire
edited by Jacqueline Collins

A Trunk, the Keeper of Memory

Pedigru Review cover

In 1996 on a cold mid-February morning in Vernon, France, Armand Oldrà answered the phone and heard a woman’s voice tell him that a piece of luggage belonging to him had been found in Austria. Would he like to get it back?

A flood of feelings rushed through Armand, as he remembered the trunk he left 51 years ago at an Austrian farm. The hunger, cold, isolation, and humiliation he experienced at that time overwhelmed him with profound sadness.

From time to time he thought about his trunk, but he pushed aside these flashbacks. They reminded him too much of the distress of a dark period in his life.

The woman asked again: did he want his trunk back? His first inclination was to respond that he was not interested.

In September 1939, Armand had been called to serve in the army, when France and England declared war against Germany. Taken prisoner the next year in the confusion of the call to cease-fire, he remained in captivity for five years.

Oldrà was in Oflag XVIIA at Edelbach, a camp of over 5,000 officers, located in a secluded mountainous area just north of Vienna. The winters were so cold that the men called it the Little Siberia. Two hundred twenty men lived in a 5,400-square-foot barracks with rows of three-tier bunk beds, a few tables, and stools as furniture that served all aspect of life. In total, there were 28 low-laying barracks, built on a gently sloping, barren hill surrounded by fields, with barbed wire dividing them into seven sections of four barracks each. A double row of barbed wire, dotted at interval by watchtowers, encircled the entire area, giving it the appearance of a sinister spider web of spikes and posts.

As the end of the war was near in 1945, with the Russian army advancing quickly in the east and closing in on the camp, the Germans forced the prisoners to march west toward the American troops.

Armand and a few hundred prisoners, too weak to go, were left behind with older guards. Soon after, the German control slackened. Famished, Armand sneaked out and knocked at the door of a nearby farm. A woman and her adult daughter answered, took him in, and gave him some bread and soup.

They were familiar with the French. A French soldier, prisoner of war, had been assigned to work in the farm while her husband served in the German army, and she had seen the camp from the distance. Unfortunately for Armand, a local policeman passed by and stopped to get a few dozen eggs. Seeing Armand, he took him into custody and brought him back to the camp.

A few days later the guards were gone. The war ended. The French officers entered the administration building and found a cache of brand-new pistols. They went out in the countryside to requisition provisions. The area was teeming with thousands of people on the move. A Russian unit established an encampment nearby, advising the French officers to stay in the camp, because, they said, the area was still dangerous. More worrisome for the French was the suspicion that the Russians might take them to Odessa, Ukraine, before repatriating them to France. Armand decided that he would take the few things he possessed to the farm, where he had been given some soup.

After finding a trunk in the German quarters, he loaded it on a wheelbarrow and asked the two women to keep it, courteously saying that if he did not come back within a year, they could dispose of it as they pleased. Shortly thereafter, to the joyful surprise of the French, American trucks appeared. The three thousand officers, who had marched out of the camp, had made contact with the American army after a four-week trek, and before being airlifted back to France, asked the Americans to go pick up their comrades left behind. The Americans made the 70 to 80 mile trip through the Russians occupied area, and brought the men to Linz, from where they would be flown to France in B-17 Flying Fortresses.

In less than two hours, Armand touched the French soil he had left 59 months before. There was no communication for over a year between him and his wife. The town of Vernon, on the eastern edge of Normandy, was caught in the battles of 1944. From Paris Armand took the train, not knowing what to expect.

As the train pulled into the Vernon station, Armand saw a big crowd on the platform, but soon spotted his wife, Marcelle. Not knowing when Armand would come back, she came twice a day for six weeks. Armand met for the first time, his son Philippe, five and half years old, born while he was on the front.

Now, reliving these moments he murmured, “It was the most beautiful day of my life.” Why reopen the past, when, 83 years old, he lived a quiet happy and comfortable life?

But the lid of the trunk had been cracked open and could not be closed again. Marcelle, who had always wanted to know more about Armand’s captivity, convinced him to get his trunk back. As soon as he said yes, the Austrian radio-television invited him to come to Vienna to personally take possession of the trunk. Curious now about what had happened to it in the intervening 51 years, Armand left for Vienna, accompanied by Marcelle, one son and a daughter-in-law.

With the Russians occupying Austria, the farmers had brought the trunk up to the attic, where it was forgotten, until they remodeled the farmhouse. Immediately, they remembered the camp and decided to give the trunk to the local museum, Museum of Displaced Persons, founded to keep alive the memory of the tragic history of the area.

sketch of church in Edelbach
a sketch of the church in Edelbach, done by an officer

Known as the Waldviertel, this northeastern corner of Austria between Vienna and the Czech Republic, an area of rolling hills, high plateaus, and pine forests, was settled in the thirteenth century. Home to a few small towns with quaint, narrow streets, built around churches with centuries-old steeples. Numerous villages nestled in the valleys, or at the edge of the meadows of the plateaus. The area witnessed the tumultuous history of the Hungarian Austrian Empire. But the most tragic blow came in 1938, when Hitler entered Austria and declared that a large part of the Waldviertel would be used as a maneuver ground for his troops.

Hitler’s choice of that area has been subject to much speculation. The small town at the center of the area was the birthplace of his grandmother and father. Did Hitler want to erase the records of his father as an illegitimate child? But the result was unambiguous. Tragically for the centuries-old families, Hitler ordered the expulsion of seven thousand men, women and children from forty villages to make place for the maneuver ground. Later, the Russians kept it for their troops, and it has now been taken over by the Austrian army. On the fiftieth anniversary of Hitler’s entry, the Austrians opened the Museum of Displaced Persons in Allentsteig, a small town at the outskirts. The book, Die Entweihte Heimat (The Desecrated Land), tells the story.

The trunk sat forgotten on the second floor of the museum, until a photographer noticed it and contacted a historian of the University of Vienna. Intrigued, he decided to look for Oldrà, who had inscribed his name and full address on the trunk. A couple of letters later, the historian found him, still living in the same area. After Oldrà accepted the invitation, the historian teamed up with the Austrian radio to organize ceremonies, they titled “Restitution.”

Oldra and his family were warmly welcomed in Vienna. The next day, the town’s people gathered to greet them in Allentsteig. As Armand stepped out of the van, an older woman came toward him and hugged him. She was the farmer’s daughter, who had fed him 51 years before. Overwhelmed by emotion, tears rolled down both of their cheeks. An elaborate ceremony took place at the town hall with the mayor and dignitaries of the town. The school children came to sing. When the time came to open the trunk, the band struck the French and Austrian anthems.

It was with mixed feelings that Armand peered into the trunk. Living again the past and holding the objects he had touched 50 years before deeply troubled him. But they were all there, the pictures and letters from his wife, dictionaries, a Bible, sketches and tubes of paint, now dry, the mock-up cover of a book he planned to illustrate. Realizing that for the Austrians, he had become a symbol for the millions of prisoners, deportees, conscripted workers, and refugees who trod their soil during the war, Oldrà decided to leave the trunk in Allentsteig. He was given pictures of its content.

After the excitement of the celebration, Armand was intensely disturbed by the short drive to the location of the camp. He could not recognize anything. The village of Edelbach was gone, including the church steeple, which had been such a landmark for the officers. Most of the plateau, where the barracks had stood, was now a forest of pines. Even the cemetery, adjacent to the camp, was abandoned, except for a plaque honoring the prisoners who died in captivity. Looking over the landscape before leaving, Armand remarked that the sun had been shining brightly since his arrival in Austria, but now the sky was darkening, and a cold wind was blowing.

“Just as sinister as in the old days,” he exclaimed.

In an article about Oldrà’s story, the writer noted the name of the publisher on the mock-up book cover for which Oldrà had sketched illustrations. It was the name of my father’s publishing company. What a remarkable heart-warming coincidence for me!

My father was a prisoner in Oflag XVIIA, and since officers as prisoners of war were not required to work, the men in Oflag XVIIA took advantage of their idle time to create a French community in exile. Receiving packages from the outside, they established a library, a university, theater groups and a newspaper. Others dug tunnels for the largest escape of the war.

I knew that my father had tapped the talents of his comrades to prepare books to be published upon his return. But after so many years, here was a live comrade. When I contacted Mr. Oldrà just before his death, he would not say anything about the camp, but remembered my father and his visit to our apartment in Paris right after the war, when I was 10 years old.

The trunk had broken the silence. A few families, whose fathers had been prisoners in the camp, were invited to come to Vienna. Two of my daughters, a son-in-law and I were part of the group. Guided by Austrian officers, we walked on the ground of the camp. In the underbrush we found the foundations of the barracks, and climbed the remaining steps that led to the doors of the barracks.

Over 30 years ago the Austrians re-seeded the entire area with pines, hiding the ruins to casual onlookers, but the central alley is untouched, bordered by some of the trees, planted by the French during their captivity and now 60 years old.

“War never ends for those who have been part of it,” wrote Curzio Malaparte, an Italian writer and combatant in World War II.

People hide the events at the bottom of their hearts like intimate secrets. But once the silence is broken, villagers discover their ancestry and honor their displaced families in a museum. Families discover the prison camp of their fathers in the forest, and the memory lives on in the next generations.