They all greeted my Grandmother nicely, paid respect to her and connected through her with a friend, who wasn’t there anymore. I sat quietly beside her and listened to the stories these men had to tell.
All of them had been soldiers. They had survived the horrors of World War II, and now 30 years later they met again. Some of them had known my Grandfather, that’s why I had begged my Grandmother to come. I wanted to hear about him; I wanted to hear and learn more about World War II. This all happened 1977 in Austria when I was just 13 years old, and now, 40 years later I still remember this day, and I remember the veteran soldiers.
They didn’t tell the war stories I had hoped for. Instead, they told stories about their youth, talked about their families and the life they now had. They talked about my Grandfather and all their other friends and neighbors, who weren’t around anymore.
Then the conversation shifted, they talked about where they had been. Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and the USA. I didn’t understand it at first, but then I learned that they all had been Prisoners of War (POW). All of them had been captured and had spent up to ten years in prison camps around the world.
The ones who were held captive in Russia had the hardest life. There they didn’t get much to eat, they were often beaten, and they had to work hard for a piece of bread. Things got better after the war ended, but not by much. 350,000 POW out of 2.8 Million died in Russian prison camps. An older man got up and talked about his experiences. He had been sentenced to death as a war criminal for destroying tanks of the Russian army and only the presence of the Red Cross shielded him from dying that day. His hair lost color that day and grew out white from that day on.
He talked about the cruelty he and experienced; he had tears in his eyes when he calmly mentioned the kindness he had seen by civilians on his long way back home.
Others talked about Belgium, about how hard they had to work there. “They were fair to us, but life was tough in the prison camps.” More and more men told their stories, and then one got up and talked about his time in America.
“We were prisoners, but they treated us fair.” He tasted his first donut and even got a few letters from home. “The Americans were good to us, they gave us tobacco and cigarettes,” he added before he sat down.
Others got up and told similar stories. About the prison camps in Great Britain. The treatment of the captives, though strict, was generally humane. They didn’t have to starve, they weren’t humiliated or tortured.
They all had been soldiers, had fought a losing battle in the name of a leader who had promised them a better tomorrow. Like so many, they had just dreamed of a better life for themselves. A dream that many of us have.
I learned that day a lesson about human rights. What an impact fair treatment makes and how terrible it is when people get treated badly.