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I met Polish sculptor Zygmunt Wujek in July 2017 at the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia, near Savannah, during a gathering of descendants of WWII POWs. In the above photo, Zygmunt is pictured at the museum with his American Aviator bronze bust.
The American Aviator is one of more than two hundred works Zygmunt created in his native Pomerania. Among Zygmunt’s many works were monuments commissioned by Lech Walesa to mark the entrance to Stalag Luft IV. To see photos of Stalag Luft IV then and now, including the monuments created by Zygmunt Wujek, please visit this POW site.
The American Aviator bronze bust in the photo…
…is described on the accompanying plaque as …
the only exact copy of the “American Aviator” in the 1992 memorial at Stalag Luft IV, the WWII prison camp for enlisted American airmen in Poland. Wujek used a photograph of Joseph O’Donnell, a POW at Stalag Luft IV, as his model. At the 2006 dedication of the site as a Polish War Memorial, Wujek gave this bust to former POW Walter Grotz. It took Grotz five years to make the necessary import arrangements, and in 2011 he delivered the bust to this museum which will be its permanent home. Wujek presented it on behalf of the people of the Pomerania region of Poland as a Thank You to Eighth Air Force Veterans, all Veterans and the people of the United States.
Note: The POW from whom the American Aviator was modeled, Joseph O’Donnell, was the author of the series of “The Shoe Leather Express” books.
My father, George Edwin Farrar, was one of the American aviators imprisoned at Stalag Luft IV during WWII, and so this particular work of Zygmunt Wujek has special significance to me.
I have not been to the site of Stalag Luft IV to see the remains of the prison camp or the memorial erected there, but seeing and touching this memorial to all the men with whom my dad shared this part of his past sends waves of emotion though me. I am thrilled that we have such a monument on American soil to remind us what these men sacrificed for us so many years ago.
Next year, 2020, will be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the march of prisoners out of Stalag Luft IV. Plans are in the works to mark the anniversary at the memorial site and across Germany following part of the path of the march. I know Zygmunt would have taken part, but sadly Zygmunt Wujek died on December 22, 2018.
Zygmunt’s obituary shared the following information:
On Saturday (22 December ), a sad news came. At the age of 80, Zygmunt Wujek, a sculptor from Koszalin, a medalist, painter and draftsman and a social activist died. He became famous as the author of over two hundred monuments, including Jan Stawisiński, Victims of Bolshevism, General Władysław Anders and Martyrdom of the Polish Nation.
Zygmunt was born on September 22, 1938 in Rawicz, Poland. He studied sculpture at the State Higher School of Fine Arts (currently the Academy of Fine Arts) in Poznań. In the capital of Wielkopolska he was a participant in the demonstration of support for the workers’ protest in June 1956. He worked as an instructor at the Youth Culture Center in Poznań, but in 1965 he came to Koszalin. Here he was a teacher at the Technical School of Building, and later a sculpture teacher at the State High School of Fine Arts and a lecturer at the Design Institute of the Koszalin University of Technology. He was an activist of the Union of Polish Visual Artists. Awarded many times, including decorated with the Gold Cross of Merit, the Mater Verbi Medal and the West Pomeranian Griffin.
The news about the artist’s death is a huge loss for the Koszalin culture and a surprise for a group of his friends, because Zygmunt Wujek, who was still active, had many plans for the next year.
A more complete biography is included Zygmunt’s full (translated) obituary here.
But something is missing from this summary of Zygmunt’s life. What formed the man is not the list of his accomplishments, but the impressions that formed in his young mind when he was growing up in Poland.
Zygmunt was born during a terrible time in the world, during the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Barely over a month following Zygmunt’s birth, over 15,000 Polish Jews living in Germany were expelled without warning. They were loaded in boxcars and dumped at the Polish border. Weeks later, the Nazis coordinated widespread attacks on Jews throughout Germany in an event call Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass.
Shortly before Zygmunt’s first birthday, the Nazis invaded Poland, initiating WWII in Europe. Britain and France demanded Germany withdraw its troops, but instead the Luftwaffe raided Warsaw. In September of 1939, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all declared war on Germany. Before the end of the month, Warsaw surrendered to the Nazis.
In the early years of Zygmunt Wujek’s life, his country was under Nazi occupation. Concentration camps arrived and the extermination of Jews began. Stalag Luft IV opened in May 1944 for the imprisonment of captured allied enlisted airmen.
On January 17, 1945, with Zygmunt only six years old, Soviet troops captured and liberated Warsaw from Nazi control. On the 26th, the Soviets liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. On February 6, with the Russian Army approaching, the POWs of Stalag Luft IV were made to gather their belongings and march from the camp, beginning their eighty-six day odyssey out of Poland and across Germany.
Until VE (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8, 1945, Zygmunt Wujek had known nothing but war in his life, but now at school age, those terrible times would become memories, but memories that would last a lifetime.
It is impossible to think of the memorial at Stalag Luft IV without remembering Zygmunt Wujek. Though he will be greatly missed by family and friends, including the daughters of Stalag Luft IV, his memory will live on through his works of art, and especially for me, his memorial sculpture for the airmen of Stalag Luft IV and the American Aviator.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019
The March 2017 issue of the 8th AF News contains a wonderful story, “Band of Daughters.” The story is about two women, Ellen Hartman and Laura Edge, and their adventure together to visit the WWII prison camp, Stalag Luft IV, where their fathers and my father, were held as prisoners of war. You can read the story here.
Laura holds a Masters of Social Studies Education degree and wrote the book “On the Wings of Dawn: American Airmen as Germany’s Prisoners – Their Story of Courage, Sacrifice, and Survival.” Ellen owns her own public relations agency in Atlanta and is just beginning to research her father’s service in WWII. You can read the post I wrote about Ellen’s father, Joe Weaver, here.
I contacted both Ellen and Laura and learned that they had big plans for this year’s Fourth of July weekend in Savannah. They would be visiting the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. Joining them would be Zygmunt Wujek, a Polish sculptor, and Jupi Podlaszewski, head of the English School of Koszalin. Zygmunt created the memorial sculpture at the site of Stalag Luft IV.
Zygmunt Wujek has created more than two hundred memorials in his native Pomerania including monuments commissioned by Lech Walesa to mark the entrance to Stalag Luft IV. Zygmunt also created a bronze bust of an American airman from a photograph of Stalag Luft IV POW Joseph O’Donnell, author of the book “The Shoe Leather Express.”
Also joining the group as the third Stalag Luft IV daughter would be Candy Kyler Brown. Candy wrote the book “What I Never Told You: A Daughter Traces the Wartime Imprisonment of Her Father.”
A WWII veteran of the 8th Air Force, Walter Grotz, was to join the group. Walter, of the 445th Bomb Group and his wife, Mary, sponsored the Polish dignitaries’ journey to the US. Walter and Mary had a B-24 propeller blade to donate to the museum and wanted Zygmunt to see his American Airman’s home in the museum. Walter became a prisoner at Stalag Luft IV when he had to bail out of his B-24 on the November 26, 1944 mission to an oil refinery at Hannover, Germany. Sadly, Walter Grotz died in May, but his wife, Mary, carried on Walter’s wishes and joined the group in Savannah.
Walter’s B-24 Propeller Blade
Zygmunt Wujek’s bronze bust of the American Airman in the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force
The American Aviator bronze bust (as described in the accompanying plaque) …
is the only exact copy of the “American Aviator” in the 1992 memorial at Stalag Luft IV, the WWII prison camp for enlisted American airmen in Poland. Wujek used a photograph of Joseph O’Donnell, a POW at Stalag Luft IV, as his model. At the 2006 dedication of the site as a Polish War Memorial, Wujek gave this bust to former POW Walter Grotz. It took Grotz five years to make the necessary import arrangements, and in 2011 he delivered the bust to this museum which will be its permanent home. Wujek presented it on behalf of the people of the Pomerania region of Poland as a Thank You to Eighth Air Force Veterans, all Veterans and the people of the United States.
Zygmunt Wujek and Mary Grotz admire Zygmunt’s work.
The organizer of the Savannah group, Ellen Hartman, was kind enough to invite me at join them as the fourth Stalag Luft IV daughter. And I, knowing that a WWII veteran living near me, John DeFrancesco, had a great desire to see the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, invited him to go to Savannah with me. John had been a POW in WWII, but not in Stalag Luft IV.
John was a pilot with the 384th Bomb Group, 544th Bomb Squadron, the same group and squadron in which my dad served. John was on his thirty-fifth mission on January 8, 1945 to a railroad line in Kyllburg, Germany when two of his engines exploded and his B-17 caught fire. After bailing out of the crippled aircraft, John was a POW at Stalag 13D Nuremburg (Oflag 73) Bavaria, an officers’ camp, and later after a forced march, was held at Stalag 7A (Moosburg).
Our experience at the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force was extraordinary. In addition to touring the museum on our own (we took advantage of every free moment in our schedule to see as much as we could), we had two excellent guided tours.
Our first tour was led by 384th Bomb Group, Inc. Historian and NexGen Research Director John Edwards. John was one of the original nine who started the Museum of the Mighty Eighth. Between John’s history with the museum and his interest in aviation research, John’s tour offered our group a unique insight to the museum and the WWII history of the 8th Air Force.
Our second tour was led by Al Pela, museum docent and son of Stalag Luft IV POW Albert Pela who was a flexible gunner with the 100th Bomb Group, also known as “The Bloody Hundreth.” Albert’s B-17 crashed at Gottesgab (now Bozi Dar, Czech Republic) on September 11, 1944. Al’s stories of his father’s experiences at Stalag Luft IV added another perspective to our museum experience.
Just past the POW exhibit in the museum is a display case in which the vest that Candy Kyler Brown’s father, John Roland Kyler, made while he was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft IV. Candy proudly shows her father’s work to the group. Kyler knitted the vest from a Red Cross-provided kit and he was able to bring it home on his trek across Germany in the Black March.
The museum is full of wonderful displays. John DeFrancesco stands in front of a memorial to the 384th Bomb Group complete with a model of a B-17.
Past a set of glass doors at the back of the large space housing the B-17 and other aircraft is the museum’s memorial garden. The garden is a beautiful, peaceful place full of memorials to groups and members of the 8th Air Force and the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles.
Inside the chapel are a multitude of stained glass windows…
… including a replica of the one honoring the 384th Bomb Group in the Church of St James the Apostle in Grafton Underwood, England.
John DeFrancesco stands in front of a replica of the 384th Bomb Group Memorial in Grafton Underwood, England, where the group was stationed during WWII.
After some help from Al Pela, I was able to find the memorial to the Brodie crew of the B-17 Lazy Daisy which collided with the B-17 Lead Banana on which my dad was the waist gunner on September 28, 1944.
To end this wonderful weekend, our group was honored at the American Legion Post 135 which is housed at 1108 Bull Street in Savannah, where on January 28, 1942, the Eighth Air Force was activated.
In addition to honoring the WWII veteran of our group, John DeFrancesco, the American Legion also honored Zygmunt Wujek, Walter Grotz, and each of the Stalag Luft IV daughters’ fathers.
Following the ceremony at the American Legion, our group enjoyed a spectacular dinner right next door at the restaurant Local11ten. It was the perfect ending to the perfect adventure for this group which was brought together because of a shared history in WWII. That adventure ended, but I suspect a new journey is just beginning.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017