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.
The Polish officers imprisoned in Murnau were allowed to put on plays and operettas as entertainment. Since there were no female inmates at the camp, men took on the women's roles in drag, apparently having much fun with it.
The eyewitness Tom Wodzinsky, who got in touch with the Rempfers after the publication of the pictures, said this photo likely shows the accommodations for junior officers and regular soldiers in blocks E, F, G, H and K in the camp.
A scene from a marionette theater.
An orchestra was also part of the officers' camp Oflag VII-A in Murnau. The officers' audiences were composed of German soldiers at the camp, who occasionally brought their families with them to the shows.
A group of officers poses on the stage of the camp theater, with the orchestra in the foreground.
Some photos, like this one of a swimming pool, almost give the impression that Oflag VII-A was a wellness retreat center, not a prisoner-of-war camp. But the photo does not reveal whether the camp's prisoners were allowed to swim, or if it was permitted only for the guards.
In the afternoon of April 29, 1945, American soldiers approached Murnau from the north as a vehicle with SS officers drives past.
The two opposing sides met in front of the camp and engaged in a firefight. Most of the German soldiers turned around and fled.
German soldiers retreated back in the direction of Murnau and the camp. Eyewitnesses say some prisoners climbed the fences and shot at the Americans.
The entire scene was captured by the unknown photographer from the window of a building in the camp.
The photographer also snapped a shot of two dead SS men, identified by eyewitness Tom Wodzinsky as Colonel Teichmann and Captain Widmann.
Somewhat later, the photographer apparently left his position in the camp to get a closer look at the two dead German officers. The bodies by this point had been moved from the center to the side of the street.
The entrance to Oflag VII-A in Murnau, taken on the day the camp was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945. To the left of the vehicle is where the two Germans were shot and killed.
The identity of the photographer, who apparently was allowed to freely take pictures of the camp both before and after its liberation, remains a mystery.
This officer appears to wink at the camera after the camp's liberation by American troops in 1945. His uniform suggests he was a member of the Polish military exiled to Great Britain. After Poland's fall to Nazi Germany in 1939, the wartime government recognized by the Allies maintained its seat abroad, from 1940 onwards in London.
On April 29, 1945, the approximately 5,000 prisoners at the Murnau POW camp were liberated by American forces.
The men in the background here have their hands raised. They are possibly the German camp guards who surrendered and turned in their weapons, seen in the left foreground of the picture.
Here it appears the camp inmates are preparing for their depature from Murnau.
Two Polish officers at the camp converse. The photo begs the question of who the photographer was, since he was allowed to come so close to the men.
A relaxed atmosphere pervaded in the camp after its liberation by American forces in 1945. In front of the barracks on the left, some former inmates sit on lounge chairs in the sun.
This photo was taken after the camp's liberation. The men are apparently waiting for the truck that would take them away.
A caravan belonging to the Red Cross visits the camp after its liberation in order to bring them back home with their belongings.
Soldiers sit on a truck with the inscription "PW Camp Murnau." It was this photo that gave Olivier Rempfer and his father, Aliain, the first clue as to where the photos where taken.
A few uniformed men stand relaxed by a car and converse with some women. Other women in civilian clothes sit by and smoke. Who are these people and what led the photographer to capture them in film?
Among the photos of the POW camp are also some pictures from Munich, like this one showing Germans standing in line for milk.
This photo shows Munich's Reichenbach Bridge in front of the ruins of destroyed homes.
Another picture from Munich shows a young couple posing before a bombed-out building.