Textiles in Hiding
At the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia, among all the aircraft and equipment, is an exhibit that shows the stories of pilots downed behind enemy lines. One part of the exhibit is a Prisoner of War camp, with items created by some of the captured men, including a crocheted vest that provided extra warmth, and a blanket stitched with insignia patches, and a handkerchief completely covered with a large insignia design.
Another part shows what could have happened for those who eluded capture. There is a representative safe house, with hidden compartments and codes in the wallpaper, and stories of some of the people all over Europe who hid the servicemen and tried to get them through to friendly territory.
Hanging on the wall is a collection of small embellished fabric scraps. (Unfortunately, due to the light-filtering glass, the picture didn’t turn out well, but you just have to see it.)
They were crafted in secret by women prisoners from Waldheim and Cottbus, women who had been in the Resistance in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. They used scraps of handkerchiefs and threads drawn out of their uniforms, and when they were required to sew as a prison chore, they skimmed off some of the materials to use later. Some of the embroideries are lilies of the valley and violets made of French knots, and some are loosely stitched words that record the camp names and prison tasks, or popular song lyrics that symbolize the women’s losses and hopes. There are tiny yarn dolls and doll-sized felted slippers.
If the Nazis found any of these creations, they would take them away. The ones in the display exist because the Russians liberated the camp on May 6, 1945.
I cannot imagine what I would do if I found myself in that situation. I think I would be so afraid of being caught that I would not even try to create anything.
Obviously in all the different POW camps, conditions were very different. The men whose textiles are in the museum didn’t seem to have to hide what they were doing, or even scavenge for materials.
I wish I knew more. I was hoping for a postcard showing these items or a book that explained how museum staff know about these hidden embroideries, or even something general about the women in the Resistance, but there wasn’t anything like that in the museum store, or on the museum website.
Still, I am so glad that the story of the safe houses is included in the museum. With all the terrible risks they faced, I am amazed anyone got involved in trying to get the air crewmen to safety.