On February 24, 1944, 22-year-old Lt. Jacob Kaplan of Brooklyn, New York bailed out of the B-24 he was navigating over northern Germany. Shot down during the Gotha raid, Lt. Kaplan survived the fall with a badly broken ankle, which he packed with snow until his capture six days later. His unconventional 'kriegie'(short for 'kriegsgefangener' or POW) education began in the prison 'lazaret' (dispensary).
JK: In the lazaret, I met Ernie, a Czech RAF pilot who was interested in religion. Ernie pointed out to me that my name-Kaplan-comes from the same root as 'chaplain' or 'minister.' So he thought I should be interested in religion, and he started me reading the Bible, the Koran, and Hindu writings. I knew my Haftorah was from Isaiah, and I searched for it in an English version. Its message was eerie: "My Lord has forsaken and forgotten me." I became an avid reader, and I read whatever I could get my hands on, even German propaganda.
Lt. Kaplan was moved to Stalag Luft I, in Barth, Germany, where 10,000 Allied airmen were held in three compounds, 22 officers in each barracks. Kaplan's kriegie education continued there.
JK: In the camp, after we'd been through all the stories-the bail-out stories, the back home stories-we'd pass the time in discussions and arguments. But we found "we ain't so smart," and we needed facts to support our arguments. So we sought out the few reference books that were available, thanks to the Salvation Army and the YMCA. These included a dictionary and a desk encyclopedia.
For example, we had an argument about whether or not a prune was a dried plum. One guy from Oregon insisted that there was a prune tree. Later on, with the reference books, we found out the guy was right-and the rest of us ate crow!
I started reading to keep busy and do something constructive. It was important to me to keep a record of all the books I read so I could show how I'd spent my time. In the camp, you survived with your sanity only by finding ways to keep your mind active.
Before long, the men of Stalag Luft I decided to form a school, where the POWs would teach each other subjects in which they were knowledgeable. They called it "Barth University," and they actually sent around a course listing that included courses in calculus, trigonometry, geometry, history, philosophy, languages (especially German and French), and music-with instruments from the Red Cross and the YMCA.
JK: One reason for the school was that we had formed an escape group, called "Group X," a paramilitary group with about 85-100 'weapons.' The school was a place where we could meet to make escape plans without undue questioning by the Germans.
The other reason for the school was that it was a way to get out of the barracks, to keep busy, and keep your mind active. Homework and exams were very important as a way of keeping busy.
You've got to understand, in the camp you had to do anything that might help to keep some of your self intact, to keep some of your dignity, to be somebody and not just vegetate. Even if it was just busywork, you had to maintain the sense that you could still make certain decisions, that there was some part of your existence that you could control. You had to have something-whether it was escape plans, school, athletics, or a close personal relationship-that they couldn't get to, so you could feel that they didn't control you completely.
Lt. Kaplan studied philosophy at Barth University, and he taught geometry and trigonometry. Each instructor was responsible for establishing his own curriculum.
JK: The most popular courses were languages and math-especially trigonometry-to help in escapes. Trig was important to the escape groups for surveying-to make sure the tunnels would come up on the other side of the barbed wire. There were cases where the tunnels came up inside the wire, or between the two barbed wire fences. Using trig, we could get distances, not only bearings, by taking sightings from inside the barracks.
Though I'd never studied trig in school, I understood the concepts from my navigation studies. In order to teach it, I needed to study it. Luckily, I was familiar with setting up curricula and lesson plans from the experience I had stateside setting up pre-pre-flight training schools.
Just as in the movie "Stalag 17," the men of Stalag Luft I had a contraband radio which allowed them to listen to the news on the BBC. When the news was good, attendance at Barth University classes would drop off, since the men thought help was 'just around the corner' and their thoughts turned to liberation. For example, after the Allied invasion, attendance was down for a while. Then, when Allied progress stalled, morale went down and attendance at the school picked back up.
JK: My own studies and involvement stopped in January of '45 when all the known Jewish officers were put into a separate compound. At that time I also spent 30 days in solitary for a failed escape attempt. I lost hope of escape, and I lost confidence in my fellow officers, because I'm sorry to say that some American officers turned in Jewish officers who had previously been unknown to the Jerries. I lost interest in intellectual pursuits.
The school also stopped around January 1945 with Patton's drive across eastern France and western Germany. After the Ardennes, over Christmas-New Years 1944-45, there was a huge influx of prisoners into the camp, and the Germans severely restricted movement about the camp. Also, the relocation of the Jewish officers into a separate compound had an enormous impact on the number of teachers and students at Barth University.
JK: It's a funny thing to say about prison camp, but it was a very important period in my life. It was the first time in my life that I had a chance to think about what I believed in and what was right and wrong. And I thought a lot about what does and does not get resolved by war.
I learned, too, that not only bad things come out of a catastrophe in your life. When you go through terrible times, you find out a lot about yourself, about the people around you, about your priorities, about how you feel about life. Although I wouldn't choose to go through it again, my 'kriegie education' has served me well.
Read more about Jack Kaplan's WWII experiences on the Internet. Go to www.b24.net, click on "Stories/Diaries" and scroll down to Lt. Jack Kaplan.