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Historian joins hunt for his uncle (in Poland) Print E-mail
Written by Łukasz Samek   
A North – East historian will travel to Poland in the hope of exhuming a body to carry out DNA test as he hunts for his uncle who died in a Second World War prisoner of war camp. Interview with Tom Hutchinson.

Could you tell us something about yourself?
I am 68 and a retired management trainer who worked in the electricity supply industry in training and personnel for 36 years and afterwards for five years as a part time lecturer at a technical college. I am married, with two children and three grandchildren. My mother is still alive and also her younger brother. They still live in Bishop Auckland. I also write local history books and have had a dozen published in the last 12 years. The books cover areas of south-west Durham, i.e. Bishop Auckland, Shildon, Gaunless Valley.

Could you introduce John Thomas Saunders?
My uncle John Thomas Saunders was my mother’s eldest brother and was captured by the Germans at Arras, France on 20 May 1940. He arrived in prisoner of war camp Stalag VIIIB (344), Lamsdorf in Silesia on 23 June 1940. He was shot and killed for ‘rebellion’ on 21 July 1944, along with another soldier Henry Alexander Thomson.

What kind of evidence do you have so far?
The British War Office in a letter dated 8 January 1946 said that he was buried in Poppelau Communal Cemetery, plot 1, grave 1 on 25 July 1944. This same Information is in the International Red Cross records in Switzerland. However, the location of the grave was never confirmed, so his grave has never been formally acknowledged and marked. It did not help that the church records in the village were destroyed in a fire in 1945. After the war that part of Germany became part of Poland. The latest ‘evidence’ is from a Pole called Tomasz Woiczik whom I contacted by chance through the internet. He is a native of Popielow (Polish spelling) and has spoken to the local priest and older residents of the village who confirm that there are three ‘English’ graves in the cemetery. British prisoners of war did work at the local sawmill in the war. Tomasz has been very helpful and I am very grateful for what he has done.

When are you going to Poland?

I am going to Poland on 4 July until 7 July, and staying with Tomasz and his family.

What do you expect from your visit in Poland?

The main object is to collect ‘witness’ statements confirming that there are graves with British soldiers in them in the cemetery and also to visit the graves as a family member of one of the people buried there

Do you have any contacts in Poland?
My main contact is Tomasz, but I have been also contacted by the Head of International Development at Opole Municipal Authority who is having the county records checked for any details of burials in the village or any other relevant information. Opole have links with Darlington Council. I hope to see the priest in the village and town officials whilst there.

Do you have any help from individuals/organisations with regards to John Thomas Saunders?
The main sources of help is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the U.K. and The International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland.

What kind of documents/ permissions do you need to get to exhume the body?
The main objective is to gather enough evidence to persuade the British authorities to ask the Polish Government (probably the police) to investigate the matter. The ultimate goal is to seek the exhumation of all three bodies and take DNA samples which can be cross- checked with relatives in England. A friend is trying to identify the third ‘English’ body, presumably another prisoner of war. The War Graves Commission have representatives in Poland, so they would be involved at some stage in any exhumations and later official reburials. If the bodies are confirmed as of British soldiers, the remains would be either re-buried in Popielow with appropriate headstones or buried in a War Graves Commission Cemetery in Krakow. That is the relatives choice.

Do you think you getting any closer to find out the truth?
Closure to this ‘not knowing’ would come when the appropriate headstone is erected over my uncle’s grave and when my mother and uncle receive written confirmation as to where he is buried.

Thank you for your time and good luck.