Singing Strings at Sagan

Twenty years ago this month we were walking along a cobblestone road toward the small rail station in Sagan, a village in Silesia. Accompanying us was a bored and silent German soldier who intermittently pulled a bit of cheese and some sour, black bread from his metal cannister and munched away in dispirited fashion. We were headed back to the ground force officer's Prisoner of War camp, Oflag 64, in Poland, about a two and a half day journey under the conditions of rail travel at the time.

Since being captured on the Anzio beachhead almost nine months earlier, our supervised travel had taken us by supply truck to Rome, by motor lorry to a camp near Siena, by rail to Bolzano and northern Italy through the Brenner Pass into Munich and a larger POW camp in nearby Moosburg. After a few weeks there we had traveled by rail again to the camp at Sczubin, a small Polish town near Bromberg.

For the first few weeks in Poland our spirits had remained good, but gradually over the next months the bare subsistence diet and steady preoccupation with thoughts of food along with the monotony of prison camp routine had dulled our consciousness to a low level of gray uniformity. When a request came for a medical officer to be sent to the large Air Force camp, Stalag Luft III, in Silesia, we had volunteered willingly. The change of scenery had only a temporary effect on brightening our outlook, and within a short time an overpowering depression aggravated by the inactivity of close confinement and the frustration of holding daily sick-call with nothing to offer the ailing (most of whom were malingerers fighting the same boredom as we) settled in for good. In November when the opportunity came to leave Luft III and return to the camp in Poland, we had seized it, but with little hope other than that change of any kind would be welcome.

At Sagan we had lived in a low, one-story wooden-frame barracks within the main barbed-wire enclosure, but separated by more barbed wire from the three main compounds of the camp. Our medical lazaretto housed a medical and a dental treatment room, living quarters for three medical officers, one dental officer, several enlisted medical orderlies, and about a dozen two and four bedrooms for the hospitalization of non-surgical patients. Any cases of serious illness or those requiring major surgical treatment that we picked up at our routine sick calls had to be sent to a larger prison camp hospital about 30 kilometers away, which served several camps in the general area.

One of the factors contributing to our discomfort at Luft III was the other American medical officer there (the senior medical man and the dentist were both British). He was a young Ist Lieutenant, loud, brash, and typical of a personality later to be described as "the Ugly American." Although he had been in the Army only two months and in combat for less than a week before being captured in North Africa; he was an authority on military tactics and a severe critic of the way the Allies were conducting their campaign against the Germans. In kriegie terminology he was also an "operator' who utilized the meager added privileges of his position as a doctor, (protected personnel along with dentists, chaplains and war correspondents under the Geneva Convention) to his best advantage.

Using a hoard of rations, clothing, and medicines culled from the extras in the medical parcels supplied by the Red Cross for hospitalized patients, he lived in relative comfort through barter and bargaining with the Germans. He enjoyed such seldom seen items as cigars, loaves of white bread, wine, and special cheeses, and had amassed a large souvenir collection of rings, watches, cameras, laces, linens, china and other odds and ends that turned up sporadically in black market transactions. There was little compassion in his nature and his dedication to medicine was predicated only on its usefulness as an occupation of status adaptable to personal advancement. He had welcomed us enthusiastically when we arrived at Sagan, but with a slight reservation since our rank, as Captain was a step higher than his own as Lieutenant.

It was logical that the two Americans should room together, and for several weeks we shared quarters pleasantly in spite of our differences in outlook. The aggravation that finally broke up our close association as roommates arrived one day in the form of a violin. It had been bargained for through one of his several civilian contacts and represented an outlay of some long woolen underwear, a pair of GI shoes, two packs of American cigarettes and a can of powdered milk.

Before long we discovered that our roommate was a far better businessman than he was a musician. He could sing only in a monotone, had little conception of rhythm or harmonies, and in fact was almost completely atonal. As a boy of eight, however, the violin had been inflicted on him unsuccessfully for six months, and in maturity he had often regretted "not keeping on with his music." He regarded the violin as a great prize and attacked it with a ruthless determination, picking up where he had left off in his practice some twenty years before. Apparently he had never gotten much beyond the finger exercises and a halting rendition of Humoresque, but he was methodical and persistent and devoted two hours each afternoon and one hour each night to the instrument. Being tone deaf must have helped, since the noises and scrapings he produced were indescribable; they were also intolerable to normal ears.

After a week of tortured listening, and getting no reaction to our hints that perhaps the violin was a faulty one, the rest of us agreed that some action was imperative. At the insistence of the British dentist who lived in the adjacent room and who was an accomplished accordion player, we prevailed finally through persuasion and military rank and moved the offending instrumentalist into a small patient room at the far end of the barracks. There he continued to saw away daily. This turned out to be an effective means of shortening the hospital stays of patients, for only the hardiest of our malingerers were willing to remain on the sick list for more than a couple of days thereafter.

As we walked away from Stalag Luft III that day in November, the violin noises at the start of another afternoon practice session filled the air and followed us down the road. Our German guard stopped eating his bread and cheese momentarily, shook his head in helpless dejection, and muttered to no one in particular, "Ach, Goth Krieg ist besser."

(c) The Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XX, No. 1, 1966, p20

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