Last night, I went to the opening of a photography exhibition called Journey Out of Darkness: American Heroes in Hitler's POW Camps at the Museum of National Heritage in Lexington. The exhibition features photographs and stories of 19 veterans who were prisoners of war in Germany during World War II. My friend Jorg, a photographer, decided to do a project on American veterans after watching a parade on Veterans' Day several years ago. He was struck by the image of the proud, old men, marching in their uniforms and medals. The project evolved to focus on soldiers who had been prisoners of war in Germany, and Jorg, together with writer Hal LaCroix, photographed and interviewed nineteen surviving participants who reside in New England. Their stories are powerful and incredibly varied, united only in the common themes of starvation and suffering in the POW camps, followed by feelings of shame for having been captured and guilt for having survived upon their return home. One soldier told of two escaped Russian POWs who were tracked down by dogs, killed, and paraded in wheelbarrows in front of their fellow prisoners. That night, the prisoners were served a soup with an unusually high amount of meat. Another soldier formed an unlikely friendship with one of his captors. Both were teenagers, an American who had studied German in high school guarded by a German who spoke a little English, who snuck the American extra food and treated him like a human being. After the war ended, the American sent care packages to his former prison guard, who resided in East Germany, but never heard back once the communist government began censoring the mail. After the Berlin Wall was taken down, the American received a letter and package from his German pen-pal, thanking him for good received over forty years prior. About ten of the veterans featured in the exposition were present with their families at the opening last night. Many of them were dressed in uniform, and they universally were proud to be there, and pleased to have had the opportunity to tell their stories.
One of the most interesting aspects of the project is the story of the photographer. Like most Germans, Jorg (who moved to the U.S. in 1995) grapples with the guilt handed down by his ancestors. His grandfather was an SS officer who was a prisoner of war in Russia for eight years, and returned to find his country changes, his wife remarried. He never reassimilated into society and ended up killing himself shortly after Jorg was born. During the process of photographing and speaking with these American veterans, Jorg managed to come to terms with his own personal history.