This story was written by Peter Walker, the Grandson of Jack Walker,
A member of the 2/5 Australian General Hospital Unit -- POW
Jack Walker left his keys in Poland. Almost 70 years later his grandson Peter Walker went back, and to his great surprise, managed to find them.
As a prisoner of war in the Second World War Jack was, in his grandson’s words, “a bit of an artful dodger”. After being captured by the Germans in April 1941 while serving with a hospital unit in Greece, the Sydneysider was sent to a POW camp in the northern Polish town of Torun.
But Jack, who is now 91, quickly became known for his “lockpicking” skills and mischievous qualities, and carried with him a set of twisted wire keys fit for the purpose.
Left largely to their own devices, Jack and a few other adventurous POWs would sneak around the camp pilfering supplies.
“They would steal potatoes, coal, anything to supplement their quite meagre rations.
They even made a still and hid it somewhere in the fort,” Peter said.
When Jack was freed he hid the keys in the windowsill of his room so they wouldn’t be found. The story of the keys captured his grandson’s attention, who decided last July that he wanted to try to find them.
“I thought if I’ve got an opportunity I might head over to Poland and see if I can do a bit of investigation about my grandfather’s POW camp,” Peter said.
“I went to see my grandfather, who’s still pretty sharp, and we just talked through the details of his experience. He had been put in contact with a series of historians, so he put me in contact with one of the guys.”
And so, along with a local tour guide, Pawel Bukowski, Peter began the journey to Torun, armed with only the location of the camp and his grandfather’s 70-year-old memories.
The German army took Torun on 7 September 1939 and annexed the city. A series of forts bordered the town, which were used as the POW camps and called Stalag XX-A. Thousands of allied prisoners were held in these forts, including Jack, who was kept prisoner there until 1943.
Jack had been held in Fort XV. When Peter got there, he found to his surprise that it was still largely intact. The fortifications were still standing and most of the buildings were stable. An inebriated guard was easily bribed on entry, giving them full access to the grounds.
Using Jack’s instructions, they entered his old room and found the window where Jack said he had hidden the keys, but they were disappointed by what they found. The windows had been boarded up many years before, blocking access to the window sill.
“We were disappointed when we got there, because we had got all this way and had discovered the building was still standing,” Peter said. But the tour guide, Pawel was not to be dissuaded. He walked outside the building and discovered a small manhole – just big enough to fit a torso – outside the bedroom wall.
“When we reached down we rifled around and came up with a set of twisted bits of wire, but that’s effectively what my grandfather had been using,” Peter said.
“I smuggled one of them back home and my grandfather reckons it’s the actual key he would have used,” he said.
Peter returned to Sydney to show the keys to his grandfather, who now lives in a retirement village in the southern Sydney suburb of Oatley. The forgotten memories, the sights and sounds, slowly came back to him.
“You can imagine someone who has had these memories for 70 years could be confronted by the photos again. It was more like he was trying to calculate and calibrate things,” Peter said.
“He wasn’t tearful really, but what it looked like was almost like you were watching a 19-year-old peering out from a 91-year-old’s eyes.”
The key sits proudly now on the wall of a room in Peter’s father’s house in Oatley, where the family have lived for many years.
Afterwards, Jack wrote his grandson a brief letter thanking him for taking the journey. While the keys were important, it gave his grandfather something of far greater value.
“While you were there, I felt as though I was there with you. They were exciting and sometimes worrying times, but have now had a safe mental revival which has taught me to hate wars, respect other people and their way of life.