It was a winter night in 1999 and Olivier Rempfer, then 19, was walking back to his town of Cagnes-sur-Mer in southeastern France after an evening spent with friends in the neighboring town of Saint-Laurent-du-Var, when a wooden box on top of a trash container caught his eye. Curious, he opened the box and saw a number of cylindrical objects wrapped in paper.
Rempfer waited until he was back home to unwrap the objects. When he did, they turned out to be rolls of black and white 35mm film. Holding the filmstrips up to the light, he saw uniforms, barracks, guard towers — and men in costume onstage. Assuming the pictures must have been taking during the filming of a war movie, and the men in them to be actors, Rempfer set the box aside and forgot about it.
Years later his father, Alain Rempfer, came across the box. The elder Rempfer, a photographer, was also unsure what the film negatives showed — until 2003, when he bought a film scanner and eventually found the time to take a closer look at the images, around 300 of them. “I quickly realized that these were real, historical photos, taken during the war in a prisoner-of-war camp,” said Rempfer. “The brand name ‘Voigtländer’ was written on the edge of the film. That name wasn’t familiar to me from movies, but I knew Voigtländer was a German camera manufacturer.”
Rempfer looked for some clue as to where the pictures might have been taken. One showed a truck with several men seated on its bed. On the back of the truck, Rempfer made out the words “PW CAMP MURNAU” in white letters, then the letters “PL.” A little research showed that from 1939 to 1945, the German town of Murnau was the site of a prisoner-of-war camp for Polish officers.
Father and son studied the photographs closely and with fascination. “All these young men looked right at us through the camera, during the time they lived in the camp,” Alain Rempfer said. “And we don’t know their names or what their daily life was like there, we don’t know anything about their hopes, their feelings.” It was a strange experience as if someone had turned off the sound and left him watching a silent film.
The father and son decided a website would be the best way to show the pictures to the world. They hoped the images would reach anyone who might be interested in them, but especially family members of the former prisoners of war who might be looking for information, or might recognize someone in the photographs.