In 1944, in the oflag near the German city of Woldenberg (now the small town of Dobiegniew), in western Poland, thousands of Polish military officers were held captive as prisoners of the Nazi regime. In many ways, life there for the POWs, if still harsh, was certainly much less so than in the concentration camps that pockmarked Europe. There were no gas chambers on the grounds of Oflag II-C. There were no crematoriums.
The prisoners of Oflag II-C — oflag is derived from the German word for an officers' prison camp — were largely treated within the rules of the Geneva Conventions. They took (and taught) classes in languages, math and philosophy. They put on plays. The camp featured an orchestra. Prisoners even had their own quasi-government.
And in 1944, after the summer Olympic Games scheduled to be held in London were canceled because of the ongoing conflict in Europe and around the globe, the prisoners at Woldenberg were permitted to put on their own Olympics under the unblinking gaze of their Nazi captors.
POW Olympic Games
"Woldenberg was one of the most fair POW camps in Poland," says Michał Puszkarski, the head of education and promotion at the Museum of Sports and Tourism in Warsaw, Poland. "We have a lot of examples of other camps that were not going by the Geneva Conventions."
The 1944 "Olympics" at Woldenberg remain one of the most bizarre historical sidelights in the history of war, a celebration of perseverance and humanity amid the death and destruction of World War II. The games also demonstrated, especially to the thousands imprisoned in Woldenberg and those who later heard about them, the awesome healing power of sports.
Strangely, perhaps, the 1944 games at Woldenberg were not the only pseudo-Olympics — or even the first — held in a POW camp. In 1940, the real Games were scheduled for Tokyo and, as World War II heated up, rerouted to Helsinki, Finland. When they were canceled altogether, captives from several countries in a German POW camp in Langwasser, Germany, held a competition dubbed the International Prisoner-of-War Games.
The games in Langwasser had to be held in secrecy because the penalties for running afoul of the Germans in charge of that camp — which was not for officers — were much worse than those in oflags. In Langwasser, prisoners from Belgium, France, Great Britain, Norway, Poland, Russia and Yugoslavia surreptitiously held an opening ceremony, complete with a flag featuring Olympic rings drawn in crayon and fashioned from a Polish prisoner's shirt. A few recited a pledge that contained the words, "in the name of all the sportsmen whose stadiums are fenced with barbed wire ..."
The flag is about 11 by 18 inches (29 by 46 centimeters) and was later smuggled out of the camp. It's now displayed in the Museum of Sports and Tourism in Warsaw.
The Woldenberg Games
After four more years of war, the prisoners at Woldenberg decided to put on their own games. They competed in several sports with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Nazis, who may have had political motives in allowing the games to be played.
"They were trying to create the feeling in the [officers] that were in the prison camps that German occupation was nothing compared to Russian occupation," says Puszkarski, pointing to the horrendous crimes committed in many Soviet camps both during and after the war. "It was known also that the Germans wanted to have better treatment after the war."
The camp at Woldenberg, which at its height held nearly 7,000 prisoners, included six buildings for lecture halls, at least two kitchens, mess halls, a theater hall, a cafe and a building for the Polish administrators of the camp. (The Geneva Conventions allowed for the formation of self-government among officer POW camps.) The camp was, in effect, a small city.
Still, no one could mistake it for anything but what it really was. From the Woldenberg museum at Dobiegniew website:
"The entire camp was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence, 2 meters wide and 2.5 meters high. Around the camp, there were 8 watchtowers with light and heavy machine guns, movable searchlights and telephones."
In those conditions, the games commenced, under a flag made from a bedsheet and colored scarves.
Prisoners competed in many sports in the Woldenberg games, including football (soccer), handball, basketball, and what are known today as track and field events. Several sports did not make the cut; among them fencing, javelin, archery and the pole vault, the last of which Puszkarski says was forbidden because the Germans saw it as a possible means of escape. Boxing had to be abandoned because undernourished POWs proved too fragile to fight.
The POWs also competed in chess and in nonathletic events like sculpture, painting and other arts. Though that may sound bizarre in its own right, it didn't in 1944. From Smithsonian magazine:
Decades later, the prisoner who organized the 1944 POW Olympics presented Woldenberg's "Olympic" flag to the museum in Warsaw. Another prisoner said of the flag, "It seemed to us, who were removed from the war game that was being waged for life and death that it would be good if somebody, somewhere — even in the prison camp — remembered this banner, which has always been a symbol of struggle, though never stained with blood."