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By Bob Uphues
North Riverside resident Joseph Blas celebrated his 101st birthday on Dec. 16 and is looking forward to spending Christmas in the home he shares with his son, John, and his daughter-in-law, Jody.
It's a far cry from the six Christmases he spent as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
Blas — his given name is Jozef Blaszczykiewicz — was a 26-year-old corporal in the Polish Army's 27th Infantry Regiment when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.
After a week of fighting, his unit attempted to hook up with other retreating formations east of the Vistula River, but they never made it. They were surrounded by the Wehrmacht on Sept. 9 near Ciepielow, a day after German soldiers executed about 300 Polish prisoners there.
Blas was lucky. Lined up with German machine guns pointed their way, the Polish troops were saved from execution, said Blas, by a German officer. Over the next days, the prisoners headed west into eastern Germany, and were eventually deposited at what would become Stalag IV-A.
At first the prisoners slept on the ground as they built their own prison camp. Later, Blas would be transferred to an area west of the Oder River, where he and his fellow prisoners became forced laborers.
He remembers working at a fish farm and at a cardboard factory before he was conscripted into a special construction battalion — Bau und Arbeitsbatallion 24 (BAB 24) — comprising Polish prisoners of war who were shipped all over Germany during the next five years.
A bricklayer in Poland prior to the war, Blas said he constructed bomb shelters for German civilians and helped reconstruct buildings damaged in the frequent bombing raids.
He moved frequently and remembers living in Kiel, Wurzburg and Halle. He also remembers taking the train each day from Wurzburg to Schweinfurt, an industrial city targeted often by Allied bombers.
Though always a prisoner — guards would take their boots every night to prevent them from escaping — Blas said he was treated fairly well by his captors, despite the hard work. Eventually, he said prisoners drew a small pay allowance from their captors.
"In Schweinfurt they allowed us to get lunch at the cafe," Blas said.
The prisoners in BAB 24 were something between a typical prisoner of war and a German Army private. Their relative good treatment is likely related to the scarcity of skilled laborers to perform tasks, such as building concrete shelters and laying bricks. For Nazi Germany, these prisoners constituted an important supply of very cheap labor.
"Our treatment was better," said Blas, who credited the company's commander, an Austrian captain, with following the Geneva Convention.
Blas still has a photo of him and his fellow construction battalion prisoners celebrating Christmas in their barracks in Kiel, complete with a Christmas tree, in 1942 or 1943. He remembered that one of the members of his company played carols on a violin.
Still, the men of BAB were considered prisoners, as several pieces of correspondence between Blas and his family in Poland, written on prisoner-of-war stationery, show.
Following the war, Blas decided against returning home to Poland because of the Soviet occupation and his military background. Instead, he spent another five years in displaced person camps, like Camp Grohn near Bremen, Germany.
In 1950, Blas, his wife and his son, Zenon (John would be born in the U.S.), obtained a sponsor in the U.S. and landed at the Port of New York before traveling to Chicago and settling in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, where Blas became a union bricklayer.
John Blas said his dad remained very active well into his 90s and still had his driver's license at 99. For the last couple of years, his dad has lived with him in North Riverside and they plan to have a quiet Christmas there — a lifetime away from his Christmases as a POW in Kiel.