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Unseen Photos from a Nazi POW Camp Found in Trash: How a Forgotten Box Revealed WWII Secrets

It was a regular winter night in 1999 when Olivier Rempfer stumbled upon an extraordinary discovery in the southeastern French town of Cagnes-sur-Mer. A wooden box, carelessly discarded atop a trash container, caught his attention. Little did he know that the contents of this seemingly insignificant box would offer an intense look into life inside a Nazi POW camp for Polish officers during World War II.

Inside the box, Olivier found cylindrical objects wrapped in paper that turned out to be rolls of black and white 35mm film. Holding the filmstrips up to the light, he saw what appeared to be scenes from a war film – men in uniforms, barracks, guard towers, even individuals in costume onstage. Believing the images were from a movie set, he set the box aside.

Years later, the forgotten box resurfaced when Olivier’s father, Alain Rempfer, came across it. As a photographer, Alain was intrigued by the old films and in 2003, he decided to digitize the images using a film scanner. As he looked closer at the 300 or so pictures, he made a startling realization. These were not movie stills but rather historical photos from a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The brand name ‘Voigtländer,’ a German camera manufacturer, was written on the edge of the film, further confirming the images’ authenticity.

One of the photographs held the key to where these images were taken. It showed a truck with men seated on its bed, and upon closer inspection, Alain was able to make out the words “PW CAMP MURNAU” along with the letters “PL” painted on the truck. After a bit of research, Alain found that Murnau, a German town, was indeed home to a POW camp for Polish officers from 1939 to 1945.

Looking at the photographs, both father and son felt a profound connection to the unknown men staring back at them through the decades. As Alain Rempfer reflected, “All these young men looked right at us through the camera, during the time they lived in the camp. And we don’t know their names or what their daily life was like there, we don’t know anything about their hopes, their feelings.” The silent, haunting images stirred a desire to learn more about the lives of these men and the experiences they endured.

Motivated by their discovery, the Rempfers decided to create a website to showcase these extraordinary images. Their hope was that these photographs would not only reach history enthusiasts and scholars but also potentially connect with family members of the POWs. They believed that someone, somewhere might recognize a face, a stance, or a uniform and could provide more insight into the lives of these men.

#1 The two opposing sides met in front of the camp and engaged in a firefight. Most of the German soldiers turned around and fled.

#2 The entire scene was captured by the unknown photographer from the window of a building in the camp.

#3 The Polish officers imprisoned in Murnau were allowed to put on plays and operettas as entertainment. Since there were no female inmates at the camp, men took on the women’s roles in drag, apparently having much fun with it.

#4 The eyewitness Tom Wodzinsky, who got in touch with the Rempfers after the publication of the pictures, said this photo likely shows the accommodations for junior officers and regular soldiers in blocks E, F, G, H and K in the camp.

#6 An orchestra was also part of the officers’ camp Oflag VII-A in Murnau. The officers’ audiences were composed of German soldiers at the camp, who occasionally brought their families with them to the shows.

#7 A group of officers poses on the stage of the camp theater, with the orchestra in the foreground.

#8 Some photos, like this one of a swimming pool, almost give the impression that Oflag VII-A was a wellness retreat center, not a prisoner-of-war camp. But the photo does not reveal whether the camp’s prisoners were allowed to swim, or if it was permitted only for the guards.

#9 In the afternoon of April 29, 1945, American soldiers approached Murnau from the north as a vehicle with SS officers drives past.

#10 German soldiers retreated back in the direction of Murnau and the camp. Eyewitnesses say some prisoners climbed the fences and shot at the Americans.

#11 The photographer also snapped a shot of two dead SS men, identified by eyewitness Tom Wodzinsky as Colonel Teichmann and Captain Widmann.

#12 Somewhat later, the photographer apparently left his position in the camp to get a closer look at the two dead German officers. The bodies by this point had been moved from the center to the side of the street.

#13 The entrance to Oflag VII-A in Murnau, taken on the day the camp was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945. To the left of the vehicle is where the two Germans were shot and killed.

#14 The identity of the photographer, who apparently was allowed to freely take pictures of the camp both before and after its liberation, remains a mystery.

#15 This officer appears to wink at the camera after the camp’s liberation by American troops in 1945. His uniform suggests he was a member of the Polish military exiled to Great Britain. After Poland’s fall to Nazi Germany in 1939, the wartime government recognized by the Allies maintained its seat abroad, from 1940 onwards in London.

#16 On April 29, 1945, the approximately 5,000 prisoners at the Murnau POW camp were liberated by American forces.

#17 The men in the background here have their hands raised. They are possibly the German camp guards who surrendered and turned in their weapons, seen in the left foreground of the picture.

#18 Here it appears the camp inmates are preparing for their depature from Murnau.

#19 Two Polish officers at the camp converse. The photo begs the question of who the photographer was, since he was allowed to come so close to the men.

#20 A relaxed atmosphere pervaded in the camp after its liberation by American forces in 1945. In front of the barracks on the left, some former inmates sit on lounge chairs in the sun.

#21 This photo was taken after the camp’s liberation. The men are apparently waiting for the truck that would take them away.

#22 A caravan belonging to the Red Cross visits the camp after its liberation in order to bring them back home with their belongings.

#23 Soldiers sit on a truck with the inscription “PW Camp Murnau.” It was this photo that gave Olivier Rempfer and his father, Aliain, the first clue as to where the photos where taken.

#24 A few uniformed men stand relaxed by a car and converse with some women. Other women in civilian clothes sit by and smoke. Who are these people and what led the photographer to capture them in film?

#25 Among the photos of the POW camp are also some pictures from Munich, like this one showing Germans standing in line for milk.

#26 This photo shows Munich’s Reichenbach Bridge in front of the ruins of destroyed homes.

#27 Another picture from Munich shows a young couple posing before a bombed-out building.

Another picture from Munich shows a young couple posing before a bombed-out building.

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Written by Andrew Thompson

Andrew Thompson is an archaeologist and historian who specializes in the study of war and conflict. He writes about the brutal history of warfare, including the World Wars and other significant conflicts. Through his work, he aims to deepen our understanding of the human cost of conflict and inspire us to work towards a more peaceful future.

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