11. In the Coal Mines

    The New Year brought with it a decisive change in my life: on the 1st of January, I was assigned to one of the morning shift brigades in the mines.
    After hastily downing a breakfast of 600 grams of bread, a sour tomato or cabbage soup and a teaspoon of sugar, the shift would march out daily at 6:00 to their allocated shafts. Each shift consisted of about 500 men. We wore ragged cotton pants and jackets. On our heads were Russian military caps with bonnets, and rubber galoshes on our feet.
    Shivering with cold, we would pace back and forth in front of the camp gate and wait for the order to march. We would wait in the bitter cold for a half-hour, sometimes longer, until it finally pleased the escort guard to come and pick us up. The camp gate would open, and we would leave in orderly march columns for the work areas. The watch officer counted us off as we marched by, divided into groups of five men each. One brigadier and 40 men made up a marching unit. The escort guards would count once again, and then acknowledge receipt of the war prisoners to the watch officer.
    After reaching the shaft aria, we would go into a largish building in delegations of 10 men each to receive miners' lamps, which mostly had no glass. There was never enough for all of us. Afterwards, the lines were again set in march.
    On this first morning of my assignment, the moon was full, bright and peaceful in the heavens as certainly it was in my homeland as well. The stars looked down on us, clear and bright.
    Then we stood before the winding tower, immediately next to a mountain-high rock pile. The long line halted in front of a square black hole.  A cloud of smoke rose up from the shaft. The laborers disappeared, one after another, into the yawning abyss of darkness. We had to climb down long ladders with our miners' lamps in our hands or hanging on our chests.
    My turn came. As a dull smell of moldiness rose up from the shaft, I slowly fumbled my way down the first ladder. It was a back-breaking task. At the end of it, I had no idea how to continue down. No one had explained anything to the newcomers. Our more experienced comrades in the mines left us in the lurch, saying only that they, too, had had to figure it all out themselves. So I continued fumbling in the darkness until I found the second ladder.
    The deeper I went, the darker it became, and the more lonely, helpless and deserted I felt. From above, there were cries and curses for me to hurry up. The man coming after me stepped on my fingers, and in my shock I almost drew my hand away. If I had done so, I most certainly would have fallen.
    The lamp I was holding would have been so useful at this time, if only I had been able to light it. But as it had no glass, the strong suction in the shaft would have blown the flame out immediately. At one point somewhere in the middle of the descent shaft, there was a shout from above, "Careful --Lamp falling!!". Hardly had I swung myself back behind the ladder when the lamp swooshed by me, sideswiping my arm, and plunged down into the depths.
    Slowly, we began to see light from below. The sounds of voices wafted upwards. Wagons were clattering noisily one after another. The fifteenth ladder led me finally to firm ground, and I was 120 meters under the earth, on the first adit.
    At this most important area, where the mine hoisting cages were set up and coal wagons were hooked onto the train, there was a real flurry of activity. Between and next to the rails lay stockpiles of timber for constructing supports. Hand tools, pieces of railing and of switches, everything lay about haphazardly.
    There was not even one narrow passage where one could safely tread. Coal and stones from overturned wagons lay all around. An old Russian man who was working the signals sat at the hoist. He signaled to us to disappear quickly, as it was very dangerous in this part of the mine.
    The main rail line was about 700 meters long and curved away on a slight incline. Wagons filled with coal sped past us. A primitive catching device caught and stopped the wagons.
    Then we came into a side passage. There, the lamps were lit, and the coal schedule was read off by the brigadier. The workers were then given their assignments.
    I was assigned on the first day to building supports, while others became wagon pushers, coal shovelers, and borers. Shortly thereafter everyone disappeared into the darkness of the main passage. Not even this was electrically lit.
    As we left, a more experienced miner gave me some pointers at my special request. I learned that this was an age-old shaft which had been put again into operation only because it was war time. The work conditions were extremely dangerous. The rails were badly built, and the well-planned depletion was more and more evident with each passing day. As a miner in former times of German coal, he was of the opinion that one day there would be a huge catastrophe and that the whole shaft would collapse. According to him it was unavoidable under these conditions.
    I asked him whether the management worked on the same principles here as they did above, i.e. that the norms were all-important, and that neither the men nor their safety mattered. He replied that impossible quotas were set every day, so the miners had no time to build even the most necessary supports. Whoever did not fulfill his target received a reduction in the already-meager rations and inhuman beatings from the Russian Natschalnik. It was no wonder that everyone thought about nothing but reaching the prescribed number of tons. Not only this, but all the work had to be done by human power. Tools, even shovels, were far too scarce, because the civilians often took them home with them, and there was nothing but woe for the poor prisoner who ended up without a shovel.
    There was one justifying compensation however, he continued, which made life underground somewhat bearable. This was that there was never a shift that came and went without some sort of hindrance paralyzing the whole work process for prolonged periods of time. The previously-mentioned Natschalnik, a giant of a man, was a coarse and heartless journeyman who mistreated and tormented the war prisoners at every opportunity. He had been given the nickname Totschlager (death-beater).
    Thus informed of the most important details, we continued on our way. Backs bent, buckled over, we crept along the rails of the ascending main stretch to the wood area. In the meantime, other workers had already reached their positions and were relieving the previous shift. Black, tired faces came towards us from the opposite direction. In the sallow light of the mine lamps, we clearly saw the depths of their exertions written in their eyes.
    There were great stone slabs from collapsed ceilings and wide gaping holes from dismantled coal seams, the ceilings of which were supported only by a few mostly old and rotting or even broken logs. Water dripped from the ceilings and flowed in gullies down the walls, collecting in the holes. It could only be that the stone was still holding itself up on its own.
    There were innumerable crickets chirping in the passages, and bloodthirsty mosquitoes gorged themselves in great numbers on the few living creatures. Everything was greasy, dirty and full of garbage. Countless rats fed themselves on this filth, and they often scampered through the passages, frightening the unsuspecting workers in their labor.
    A dull rolling sound was suddenly heard from far away. My comrade barely had time to pull me into a niche when two fully loaded wagons bolted by us. By the weak light of the miners' lamps, I recognized the forms of two men who were hanging onto a wagon with both hands and trying to brake it by putting their feet on the rails so that it wouldn't derail at curves.
    We finally reached a switch point, at which the rails diverged and continued in two different directions. This point was also the location of the timber stockpile. We loaded a wood cart with logs and then pushed it up to the work area.
    There was a detonation, and then suddenly an explosion occurred. A terrifying convulsion went through all the tunnels. The air pressure blew out our lamps with a single gust, and clouds of dust and gas blocked our vision, even after we had relit our lamps. We lay where we were until the clouds had retreated.
    Then life began again at the work area \ and all at once there was something for everyone to do. Most of the supports had been to out by the explosion, and had to be replaced, and this work was not being done fast enough to please the brigadier. The coal production could not afford any interruption \ the quotas had to be met. Other comrades refused to begin work until the supports had been finished, as there was nothing to protect them from being hit by falling rock. Heavy boulders were hanging down freely, threatening to crumble away at any moment. Individual men knocked carefully on the ceilings, thus ascertaining that yawning crevices thick as fists had appeared in many places. The Russians knew nothing of emergency scaffolding, which would have served to protect the workers. The prisoners at the seam face immediately had to clear away the bulk of the coal; only then were we allowed to begin the timbering. We worked zealously, as fast as we could, knowing that the lives of many of our comrades depended on our speed.
    In the middle of our work, there suddenly came an order for silence. Everyone listened. The stone creaked and a slight crackling could be heard. Tiny pieces of rock came loose from the ceiling.
    Then, out of the darkness came then the curses and screams of the fearsome Natschlanik as he arrived. "The Totschlager is coming", the comrades whispered to each other and pulled all of their wits together.
    Just then, a huge stone slab suddenly broke away from the ceiling, half-burying one of the prisoners with it. A terrible scream rang out, and everyone ran towards the scene.
    Pooling our energy, we were able to clear the slab off to the side with crowbars. Thank God the slab laying on top of the unlucky prisoner was partly hollow; otherwise he would have been crushed to death. With serious bruises and intemal bleeding, he was loaded onto a wood cart and brought to the mine cages. His groans and whimpers echoed long after him in the darkness as he was carried upground, further and further away from us.
    In true Russian style, the Natschalnik harangued the brigadier as to why the stretch had not been supported according to regulations, without even bothering to inquire how the accident had occurred. He also complained about the meager coal production figures as the quotas had always been met up to today. When he saw us working on the timbering, he mercilessly started beating us one after another with a truncheon.
    The brigadier naturally pushed the blame onto us, even though he certainly knew that the explosion had happened first and that we had had to wait until the coal had been cleared away. Under the observation of the Natschalnik we continued to work at a feverish pace, piled up next to one another. We were driven harder and harder with cried of "Faster, faster." None of us were permitted even to straighten our backs.
    Whenever our work was disrupted because of wagons not being available or having derailed \ which often occurred \ the Totschlager would rush with fury to the wagon pushers and vent his rage out on them.
    Life underground struck me as being no better than hell on this first day, and it was fully understandable why the prisoners breathed sighs of relief as the first lights of the replacement shift emerged from the darkness of the shaft.
    In the following weeks I experienced each work position one after another: wagon pusher, coal shoveler, boring assistant and wagon coupler. The hardest jobs in my opinion were coal shoveling and wagon coupling, because they demanded not only every ounce of energy but also experience and constant caution.
    For several days there had been rumors of a suspicious rustling in the eastern portion of the shaft. Insiders assumed that these noises were the harbinger of a cave-in of massive proportions. In spite of numerous warnings and hints on the part of both the Russian overseers and the German workers, the mine administration authorities made no attempt to provide any precautionary measures. On the contrary, work was to continue up to the very last moment.
    One day, however, a commission did come into the shaft and ordered that the section be closed, but the Natschalnik commanded that the rails in the threatening area be dismantled first. During this task, a portion of the vault lying in front of us collapsed. The timbering collapsed on other lines too, breaking apart like matches under the weight of the sinking stone. The prisoners performed the dismantling only under the strictest coercion and with a tangible fear of death. Civilians who had been assigned with us to the work face refused to enter the danger zone at all; at the last moment they took flight and abandoned us.
    The noise of the shifting stone became more and more frightening. The whole passage seemed to be moving, although the movement was barely perceptable. Only the Natschalnik stayed close by the area and beat us with clubs, driving us to work harder and harder.
    Then came the catastrophe. With a terrifying roar, a 10-meter long section of the ceiling suddenly caved in. Although most of the men were able to save themselves at the last moment, three of our comrades were buried alive. Immediately afterwards, the whole passage fell together up to just before the main tracks. A thick cloud of dust waltzed sluggishly through the tunnel. There was a strong gust of wind, and all of our lamps were extinguished with one blow. The "hero" of the day, the Natschalnik, ran gutlessly for safety and was no more to be seen. This was certainly to his personal benefit; otherwise, who knows what would have been done to this oppressive dictator at that moment.
    All attempts to unearth our buried comrades ended in failure; it was impossible to get through the meter-high hulk of stone. Many dynamitings were attempted, but all in vain.
    The Russians formally ordered a thorough investigation to find out who was to blame, although they didn't actually care about the details at all. They knew full well who the culprit was anyway: the Totschlager. Nothing further was mentioned of the three war prisoners who had lost their lives in the accident.
    As far as it was deemed necessary, the section was bolted off and secured with additional supports. In the next few days, work proceeded with somewhat more caution. We were now urged to continue production with renewed vigor, however, as the loss in production due to the accident had to be made up, at no matter what cost to the prisoners. The quota had to be met.
    After several days, the Natschalnik appeared again, loudmouthed, angry and in even a worse mood than before. He certainly must have experienced several reprimands, and took out all his rage and vengeance on us. How we hated him!
    At one point, the prisoners came within a hair's breath of lynching the man. This came about because of the following incident. The supply of wagons to the coal pile had unexpectedly stopped, the wagon pusher could no longer run.  His galoshes were completely torn apart. There was no replacement for the man, so the German brigadier ordered the wagon coupler to give his shoes to the pusher. The coupler then replied that he could not do this, because they were his own shoes that he had taken with him as a soldier, and he could wear no other shoes. In addition, they were the last reminders of his homeland he had left with him.
    As luck would have it, the Totschlager was just making his rounds as this altercation was unfolding. Having been briefly informed of the content of the affair, he called the wagon coupler to him and ordered him to take off his shoes. Trembling with fear and with tears in his eyes, the coupler explained that he could not wear any other shoes because he was constantly afflicted with severe cases of frostbite on his feet.
    The Natschalnik immediately broke into an unruly rage and promptly hit the poor man to the floor with a iron crowbar. I was working not far from the scene, and became aware of the incident through his blood-curdling screams. As I hurried over, I saw how the Totschlager continued to pummel the poor man again and again until he could no longer make a sound. After he had finished, we dragged the severely wounded man, covered in blood, to the coal baskets. He lay in the hospital for many months.
    The reader can perhaps imagine what extremes of self-control were required for this moment not to come to a bloody retribution. Later, however, although fully aware of our own positions of weakness and powerlessness, we gathered ourselves together in front of the camp authorities. All the tortures that we had endured for months on account of this terrible murderer were brought to light. The Russians clearly realized that we were taking our chances by complaining, and that we were no longer afraid of anything. They promised to look into the matter, and indeed, the Natschalnik was thereafter replaced. We never learned what became of him, but we were redeemed, and the terror which had been etched in our expressions vanished again.

    However, a new situation came up to embitter our lives in the pit once again. One day when we had met the quota, the brigadier allowed us to take a few pieces of coal back to heat our rooms. Exhausted and beaten down from our labor, we each dragged a lump of the black diamond up the narrow ascending ladders, under extremely difficult conditions. With these hard-earned riches, we had hoped to earn a little bit of extra soup or a piece of bread, or at least to have a warm room for a while. Many of the prisoners needed extra time to reach the top, during which the others had to sit waitng, freezing, in the snow.

    Without any justification at ail, and this we felt even harder than the rifle butts and kicks to which we had already been accustomed, most of us were ordered to hand over our hard-earned coal at the private accommodations of some officer or of his lover. Anyone who was caught trying to hide a small piece of coal in spite of this order was severely beaten.
    As time passed, all the inhuman treatment we received had produced in us a feeling of bitterness which could hardly grow any stronger. When would there ever come an end?