Stalag VIII –A, located just south of Görlitz on the east side of the Neisse River, was a POW camp during WWII. Today it lies in Zgorzelec in Poland and the site of the former camp is the location of a cultural center to memorialize the prisoners and to educate the public.
Initially, the camp housed about 15,000 Polish prisoners beginning in 1939 and was intended as a Dulag (short for Durchgangslage, or transit camp) where prisoners were housed short-term. These Dulags had notoriously terrible living conditions and therefore a high mortality rate. Later on the camp was used as a Stalag (short for Stammlager, or main camp). The reason for the numbers and letters in the name are due to the camp being a part of District 8 (Breslau) and being the first camp in the district.
By 1940 the camp began to see Belgian and French prisoners after the German invasion of France. At one time over 30,000 prisoners were crammed into the facilities, which were intended to house 15,000.
In 1941 a separate compound was created to house Soviet and Italian prisoners. Because Stalin hadn’t signed the Geneva Convention treaties, rules related to the treatment of prisoners of war, Germany justified keeping Soviet POWs in terrible conditions. This inner compound was surrounded by barbed wire and the POWs inside were often starved and weren’t allowed to mingle with other prisoners or to work outside of the camp. The average death rate for Soviet prisoners in Stalags was above 50%, while the death rate for Western allies was below 5 percent.
In 1943 2,500 British soldiers came from battles in Italy and later that year 6,000 Italian soldiers from Albania. Americans captured at the Battle of the Bulge were also imprisoned in Stalag VII-A. The highest number of prisoners registered at one time inside the camp was 47,328 in September 1944. In total, it is estimated that 120,000 POW soldiers passed through the main camp.
Prisoners who had a rank below corporal were assigned to work details around Görlitz and the surrounding areas. They worked on farms and in factories, like the glass factory in Pieńsk and for Bombardier and the Waggonbau in Görlitz.
One of the most notable of the prisoners in Stalag VII-A was a French prisoner named Olivier Messiaen. He was a French composer who was drafted into the French army and then captured at Verdun in 1940. After hearing the poor conditions of some of the soldiers in the camp it might sound strange to hear, but Messiaen was able to form a musical quartet while in the camp after meeting a violinist, cellist and a clarinettist among his fellow prisoners. Life could vary drastically in the camp, depending on where you were from. For some prisoners there were theater groups and sports clubs, even newspapers that they wrote and distributed.
It was in the camp that Messiaen finished one of his greatest works, a 50 minute performance of chamber music, being provided with pencil and paper by a sympathetic guard. “Quartet for the End of Time” was first performed in January 1941 for a shivering audience of prisoners and guards. It’s said that the instruments were decrepit and the audience freezing. Listen to Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” here.
In February 1945 the Americans and British were marched out of the camp and westward on foot. More prisoners perished on this long march. The last of the prisoners were liberated in May 1945 by the Soviet army. After the war, many of the graves of western soldiers that could be identified were exhumed and sent back home for burial in their home countries. In 1948 the city of Zgorzelec dismantled the barracks in order to reuse the materials to rebuild Warsaw and other Polish towns destroyed during the war.
In 1976 a memorial was erected at the site by French and Polish veterans who had been POWs. Often the center has inquiries from descendants of the prisoners who were housed here looking for information. Fewer, however, are the inquiries from Soviet POWs and their families. Soviet soldiers who were captured by Germans during WWII often went home, only to be accused of collaboration with the Nazis or branded as traitors for “surrendering” and were often sent to work camps in Siberia as punishment for being captured. For this reason they probably were not eager to talk about their time in the Stalag.
The idea to create a European Center for Education and Culture called “Meeting Point Music Messiaen” for children and youth, artists and musicians in the region, was obviously inspired by the composer Messiaen’s story inside the camp. A joint project between Germany and Poland, it’s dedicated to caring for the history of the camp on both sides of the Neisse River, with a focus on youth work and musical education, as well as an exploration of the history of Stalag VIII-A.
Every year in January the center has International Messiaen Days to remember and to hold a special concert – a performance of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” performed at the site of the former Stalag VIII-A.