Remembering A First Day of Freedom

Words build bridges of compassion

EXACTLY 50 years after being released from a World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Barth, Germany, Phil Robertson wrote this letter of reconciliation to the mayor and the people of the town.

Dear Friends,

On this day, the 50th anniversary of the release of the American and British prisoners of war from Stalag Luft I please know that I, one of the POWs in that camp, consider this a day of complete forgiveness and reconciliation between the people of Germany and the people of the United States.

My most vivid and lasting memory from World War II is the day we former prisoners of Stalag Luft I walked through Barth on our way to the nearby airfield where US airplanes would fly us to France. From there, we would board a ship to return to the US, leaving the people of Barth under the control of the Soviet authorities.

Before we left the camp that day, each of us packed a knapsack of food. Although there would likely be abundant food in France, we wanted to be sure. We didn't ever want to be hungry again.

As we walked through Barth, I remember how the townspeople lined the streets - women, children, and older men - looking earnestly at us and saying or crying, "Bleibt mit uns. Bleibt mit uns!" {Stay with us.}

As I heard these pleas over and over, I began to wonder what life would be like for these people when we left the area. I began to feel sad for them, wondering if they would have enough food and clothing and whether they would be free to live in peace.

As I looked at these people, seeing their fear and despair and knowing that they were not involved at all in fighting the war, I realized that they were not our enemies, but they were really "prisoners of war" like us, and I felt a great kinship with them.

A deep feeling of compassion and concern swept over me, and I wondered what I could do to help these needy and deserving people. Immediately, the thought came to me that I could share with them the food in my knapsack.

I began handing out my food - biscuits, margarine, powdered milk, chocolate bars, and meat pate - everything that had come in the Red Cross parcels we had just received. By the time I reached the airfield, I had no food left - but I felt happy that I had given it to people who needed it much more than I did.

Then, I checked with the other former prisoners in my group, and everyone had given away every bit of their food, and they were all happy they had done it.

As we waited for the planes, none of us said very much. Although we were happy, knowing we would soon begin the journey home, the thought that was dominant in all of us was: "What will be the fate of the people of Barth?" For us, the war was over, but was it over for them? What would their life be like after we left?

For 50 years, I have thought about the people of Barth and hoped all was well for them. And I have often prayed for them - to know that they are God's children, like all of us, and that God is taking care of them, meeting all their needs.

Today, 50 years after I left Barth as a 27-year-old, I say to you, the people of Barth: We are all one family, and there should be nothing but good - and goodwill - between us. We all need each other, and we all need to love each other. "Ich bin auch ein Barther!"

Finally, I say to you, as you said to me and other POWs so long ago, "Bleibt mit uns. Bleibt mit uns. Bleibt mit uns!"

God bless you all, and may your lives be full of joy and love, prosperity and peace.

With love, your friend,

Phil Robertson

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