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Zagan

I am contemplating a trip to Zagan, Poland, to visit the site of Stalag Luft 3, where my partner's father was imprisoned as a POW for about a year at the end of WWII. (I dont' think he got there until shortly after the Great Escape.) Although I've traveled extensively, independently, in Germany (I speak enough German to get around by myself), I'm not so sure about Poland.

Since Zagan is a relatively small town (about 26,000 people) I wonder if many people will speak English. If not, will they understand German (until after the war, Zagan was part of Selesia, a German state)? Or, considering the war, will they want to?

When I was in Prague six years ago, I found people were more likely to speak German than English.

Is there any public transportation in Zagan - buses, taxis? How will I get from a hotel in downtown to the Stalag site?

Posted by
16768 posts

Rome2Rio only suggests taxi to get to the museum and memorial and taxis do exist in Zagan.

Posted by
12091 posts

I never met a Polish person in Poland (guys and women, young or older), on the three trips there, who could speak German did not want to speak German. In those cases I spoke German with them, if they didn't mind, why should I mine?

Posted by
30932 posts

Lee,

I've been to Stalag Luft III so can provide lots of information on visiting there.

Zagan (formerly "Sagan") is in the region of Lower Silesia in Poland. I found that the easiest way to get there is from Dresden via train (as I recall, at least 1-3 changes, perhaps in Zgorzelec or Legnica). One important point to note - be sure you have Polish Zloty on hand as the train in Germany will only take you to the first stop in Poland. When you arrive in Zagan, the easiest way to get to the hotel is via Taxi (there will probably be at least one waiting outside). I found that Taxi's were quite inexpensive.

I'd suggest staying in the Hotel Willa Park, which used to be an old hospital in the Soviet era. The rooms aren't luxurious, but they were large, clean and comfortable. The hotel served a great breakfast (which may have been better than usual during my stay, as there was a large wedding party there at the time).

The Museum is located on the site of the former Stalag Luft VIIIC. It's some distance from the hotel, so I'd recommend taking a Taxi. The Museum Curator is very knowledgeable, especially as he's attended a number of reunions with survivors of the camp. There's a recreation of Hut 104, which is where The Great Escape took place from. This website provides more information - https://muzeum.zagan.pl/en/stalag-luft-3/ .

It's easily possible to walk from the Museum to the actual site of Stalag Luft III. The Curator can provide directions. I didn't have any trouble finding the camp. Although the path of "Harry" is clearly marked out, it will take some imagination to envision what the camp looked like when it was in operation. The foundations of "The Cooler" and the Hospital are still there. There are concrete rooms in the basement of the hospital, so pack along a flashlight if you want to venture in there.

If you want to recreate the walk from the exit of "Harry" to the rail station, again it's not a difficult walk, maybe 10-15 minutes. You can go through the woods (as the POW's did), or use the small road that passes by the camp. There's a small building covering a stairway which leads down to the back entrance to the underground passageway to the station. If you want to visit The Memorial to the Fifty, continue past the station entrance towards the main road. Just before the main road, you'll reach a store (grocery, hardware?). Turn right on the small road and go behind the store. The memorial is not too far along that road, across from a Russian cemetery. The remains of "The 50" were re-interred in the Garrison Cemetery in Poznan, but the memorial built by the POW's is still in Zagan.

Regarding the language issue, I found that many of the people I dealt with seemed to be fluent in German (Taxi drivers, etc.), but English was more of a problem. Anyone who says "all the younger people in Europe can speak English" obviously hasn't been to Zagan. I had quite an adventure ordering lunch one day in a small cafeteria, but thanks to some helpful app's on my phone and a bit of pre-study, I muddled through it. I missed the part where the Perogies were priced by weight, but it was a fine meal anyway.

It would be a good idea to become familiar with the details of the escape, so you have some idea what you're looking at. If you're interested, have a look at this website - http://robdavistelford.co.uk/webspace/gt_esc/ . I can recommend some good books also. I did extensive research on this before my trip and I'm currently reading yet another book on the subject. You could also watch The Great Escape movie. One of the surviving POW's who saw the movie said that many things depicted inside the camp were reasonably accurate, but everything that happened outside the camp was pure Hollywood fiction. For example, there was NO dramatic motorcycle chase.

Hope this helps.

Posted by
12091 posts

" Anyone who says 'all the younger people in Europe can speak English' ...." This is a myth. I don't find this to be the case, simply put.

Posted by
17648 posts

My major interest in Zagan is for Robin to see where her father was held as a POW for the last year of the war. Seeing the Great Escape venue is of secondary interest. He was not part of the escape (no Americans were) and he had just barely arrived at Luft 3 if he was even there yet.

Zagan is not very accessible by rail, particularly from Germany. It does have a train station, but there are only a few trains a day.
There is one direct connection from Forst, Germany. Two trains each way per day - one very early morning, on late afternoon. It goes through Zary, which is a change point for the connect from Zgorzelec. Other than that, you have to go farther into Poland, to Legnica. I might try the connection via Zgorzelec. I would like to see Görlitz

Posted by
6148 posts

It looks like it's right off a Polish rail line, but I'm not sure about the best way to get there from Germany (depends where you're coming from exactly). Young Polish people in Poland learn English in school, but ones my parents age (early 70s) learned Russian and possibly German (my Dad and Grandfather learned German). You never know who will speak what, so try both.

Definitely don't expect anyone working behind a train kiosk counter to know English (or sometimes even to be helpful) but you can't go wrong with a young person.

By the way, that war site is not too far across the other side of the railroad tracks, as is the Museum...see map. https://muzeum.zagan.pl/en/ (sorry, even the English translation on the website is actually in Polish)
https://www.inyourpocket.com/wroclaw/museum-of-the-prisoner-of-war-camps_86306v

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Żagań/@51.605238,15.3182256,16.09z/data=!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x4708a6a0fb8aed2f:0xaf7b6015bb7dd014!2sZagan,+Poland!3b1!8m2!3d51.6178445!4d15.3248325!3m4!1s0x4708a4232adfd9ff:0x92a4015688b07b56!8m2!3d51.6045482!4d15.3155637

Posted by
30932 posts

While many of the displays in the Museum focus on The Great Escape, I believe it's intended for all POW's that were held there. If Robin's father was held at Stalag Luft III, he was probably in the south or west compound. While the actual site of the camp is somewhat overgrown now, it provides some indication of the experience that all the POW's would have had.

While no Americans took part in the escape, there were many who enthusiastically worked on the tunnels, preparing forged documents and other work before they were transferred to the south compound, so they did contribute. When the tragic consequences of the escape become known, I'm sure they were relieved that they hadn't escaped.

I found there were about 10 trains per day from Dresden to Zagan. It was a relatively easy trip.

Posted by
12091 posts

Re: don't expect everyone behind a train ticket counter to know English...very true.

I found that in the last two trips to Brno and Slavkov /Austerlitz) (granted they are in the Czech Rep but the example still applies) in 2016 and 2017 to be true. The staff person did not know English. If they spoke another language, it was German, one woman just gave me the unmistakable hand wave behind the counter to go to another counter because she spoke only Czech after I had asked her if she spoke English or German. That was in Brno. They were not older employees, unless you consider a women in their 40s old. Those who spoke German (and told me so) did not speak English, and vice versa since I asked if they spoke German too.

In 2001 I passed through Legnica on the train going from Krakow to Berlin, a well known site for its two battles (prior to WW2) when the place was known as Liegnitz.

Posted by
16770 posts

Someone in his late 40s would have been born no later than the early 1970s and would have been pretty much finished with high school by the time the wall came down. I wouldn't expect most people that age to speak English.

Posted by
6148 posts

I don't know about most young people but certainly young people from larger cities and who studied at the university (and born in the early to mid 1970s) in Poland usually speak and write in English quite decently (definitely enough to help a tourist). All my cousins do - they are in their early 40s. Their children definitely do, from a very young age. 2004 was a watershed year when Poland joined the EU. When Poles could finally travel abroad, study abroad, work abroad and have other Europeans come visit them and exchange knowledge, that really opened things up (English is really the only way they can communicate since no one else uses Polish in Europe). Plus millions have immigrated to the UK for work and ended up living there. Now every young person knows that mastery of English is the way forward because they want to either get into a top university (likely in England), work abroad, or work for a multi-national company either at home or abroad.

But that doesn't really answer whether there are many young people in Zagan...if it's a rural or small town, the young tend to leave for brighter pastures.

Posted by
30932 posts

Zagan is a city of about 26,000 but I doubt they get many tourists other than those coming to see the WW-II historic sights. The staff at the hotel had no problems speaking English, nor did the Taxi drivers.

As I recall there's also a military base there, and during my stay a large contingent of British Army personnel arrived to take part in joint exercises.

I wouldn't mind returning at some point to explore a bit further.

Posted by
242 posts

As a Polish American who speaks no Polish and has been there two times, I can only give my experiences. We had no problems in Krakow and Warsaw with finding people who spoke English, but of course was in the touristy areas.

The villages are a whole different story. My cousins who are in their early forties didn't even attempt to speak English. It would be like me using my high school Spanish or college German from 40+ years ago. Even the highschoolers were shy about speaking, but I kept assuring them that their English was wonderful, and it was!

In Zawoja (about an hour SW of Krakow), the villagers spoke no English, although we met no young ones because it was a school day. In my mind, the experience transported me back to my Polish grandparents house where everyone was speaking Polish and I could only pick out my own name.

Fortunately, I had a Polish translator on both trips and don't think I could have survived without them. The one was the famous Andrew Durman of Rick Steves' fame (sensational) and the other was a woman I call Ella who has become like a cousin. She is arranging all the details of my next research trip (for a historical novel) in the villages.

Report back to us on your experience!

Posted by
12091 posts

When one goes to the border towns on the east side of the Oder, ie, in Poland, you'll find the service people able to speak German for sure, those waitresses/waiters in restaurants, cafes, etc. and presumably English, although the museum guy only spoke German as a foreign language. I always used German with them and with the museum guy.

I've been there on the other side of the Oder, ie, the Polish side of Küstrin an der Oder and Frankfurt an der Oder, most recently in 2016 and last June. Unless you encounter a Polish person with the linguistic repertoire, I think knowing a language depends on the person's job and the location of his town, aside from formal education.

Re: "...didn't even attempt to speak English...." True, not everyone (assuming they know at least a smattering of English) will want to use it with you.