If it’s true that freedom bears a heavy price, then it comes in a heavy box, too.
In this case freedom’s box weighs 135 pounds and is delivered by UPS. Sixty years ago, it was delivered by the U.S. 8th Air Force. A B-24 crew member by the name of Wally Grotz was among the brave airmen who delivered freedom to the people of Poland in the form of heavy bombs raining down on the Nazi’s. For his bravery, he paid an equally heavy price: shot down, captured, and imprisoned.
“Freedom is a wonderful thing and you don’t know what it really is until you don’t have it anymore,” said Grotz.
The German Luftwaffe sent Grotz to the infamous Stalag Luft IV near Koszalin, Poland. By the end of the war it would house 7,000 American POW’s. He spent two months there before the Germans forced him and hundreds of other prisoners on a 500 mile march to Berlin. Grotz was among the few to survive the march. The Russians and British finally liberated him as they closed in and the Third Reich collapsed.
Grotz never forgot the experience. Neither did Poland. When the Pomerania region of Poland dedicated the old Stalag Luft IV site as a memorial in 2006, Grotz was the only living American POW to return. They raised a statue to the airmen of the U.S. 8th Air Force but the sculptor, Zygmunt Wujek, wanted to give Grotz something more. This week if finally arrived—the box of freedom.
It took two hammers and a crowbar for Wally and his son Jim to pry open the box’s green wooden slats. They pulled at the packing Styrofoam like curious kids on Christmas morning to finally reveal the surprise. There, gleaming in the October Minnesota sun was a bronze bust of an American airman. An exact replica of the statue dedicated at Stalag Luft IV in Poland. To the Pole’s it might as well be their version of the Statue of Liberty.
When the artist told Grotz of his gift, he was stunned. “I asked them, how so much appreciation after 60 years? He said, ‘it took us a hundred and 25 years to get our freedom and we appreciate it.’”
As a former POW, Grotz is one of the few of us in America who uniquely understands. “There’s just a few of us left who actually remember what these poor Polish people went through,” said Grotz. “Five years under the Nazi’s and then from 1945 until the end of the cold war under the communist rule.”
Grotz has accepted the sculpture on behalf of all his fellow 8th Air Force veterans. He intends to display it in the lobby of the Veterans Hospital Minneapolis. Then, on Veterans’ Day he and his family will drive it to the 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia where curators will display the sculpture among its permanent collection.
Grotz’s family, especially his son Jim could not be more humbled. “I think it’s a very fitting tribute to all veterans of this country that people of a small region of the world would come back after the fact and say, ‘Thank you veterans for having made us a free nation,’” said Jim.
Yes, freedom has a price. In this case it comes with deep gratitude, and a box that can no longer carry it.