They Who Wait

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French POWs receive cabbages in Wynsdorf/Zossen, WWII

This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.

“Yes, we soon learned to separate the real truth from the propaganda,” says the character Robert, narrating his life as a French prisoner of war in a German camp.

The statement is somewhat ironic, given that the radio drama itself was a weekly program produced by the U.S. government to help Americans to “understand the character of the enemy we are fighting.”

The play is structured as the memoir of Robert Gerland, though it is narrated by a man with an American accent. All of the French prisoners sound American, in fact, in contrast with the thick German accent adopted by the somewhat amusingly named Corporal Gefeiterhinteruber.

Robert speaks about the conditions of the camp—the harsh hours, the starvation rations, the cramped quarters. Much of the play, though, is devoted to reenactments of various German breaches of international law.

The Germans also fail to release the prisoners, despite an armistice signed with France. Corporal Gefeiterhinteruber assigns many men (sick with rheumatism or members of medical terms) to forced labor, despite international mandates to the contrary, and trick non-commissioned officers into doing the same by threatening them with worse assignments later on, or making their camp lives miserable with fatigue tasks.

“But the non-coms held on,” says Robert, as the music swells, “Rather than help strengthen the German war machine, they would go on digging useless holes forever.”

The men are forced to parse German radio broadcasts—the propaganda mentioned earlier—for news. Eventually, however, they are released, since they are too starved, maimed, or sick to be of any use to the Germans. The play enters with their triumphant return to France, where they are greeted by the Marseillaise.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection

WNYC archives id: 69642
Municipal archives id: LT778