The Russians began preparing for a
celebration on May 1, 1945. Large banners were raised, flags hoisted, and
special rations distributed to the civilians. In the premonition of victory,
both young and old became overflowing with an exuberance as never before.
We, however, worked our usual hours and suffered our usual abuse, just
like every other day.
Eight days later, the Russian people celebrated the victory over Germany. The drinking, dancing and rejoicing continued without pause for two full days, especially among Communist Party members and the Russian soldiers.
In the camp itself, the news of the capitulation had a immediate alarming effect. The propagandist ran like crazy from barrack to barrack, screaming again and again "The war is over!" None of us really wanted to believe that the day had finally come from which we could begin to hope to be shipped back home, although many of the men assumed that they would be discharged in the foreseeable future. Above all, the greatest gift of the spring capitulation for us was the certainty that at least the immediate danger of death for our loved ones in Germany was over.
I don't know whether it was due to the victory jubilation of the Russians or only because of an oversight on the part of the Russian camp authorities, but one of the shifts did not have to go to work on this day. Instead, the whole camp was gathered together by nationality. Each group was ordered to bear a flag, which for the Germans was black, red and gold. The Russian camp commander held a speech on the Appellplatz consecutively translated into German, officially announcing the surrender of Germany and praised the heroic deeds of the Red Army. He closed by thrice intoning "Hail to the one and only, the most Ingenious General of all time Generalissimus Josef Stalin!" The Red Army had pried Germany out of the claws of the Hitler-bandits, and we prisoners were honor-bound to be grateful to them.
Shortly after the capitulation, the first POW transports from East Prussia arrived at the camp. We were under strict orders not to speak to them. With the passing of time, however, we discovered that the final days had been more than tragic. Completely exhausted, they related horrible details about the last days: how women and children had been ambushed and driven from their homes and villages, or often simply taken along with the soldiers as prisoners. Certainly, indescribable things must have happened. Some had been taken away with the Volkssturm; young boys and old men, even 15- and 16-year-old children had been stuffed into uniforms right out from under their mothers' skirts and sent to an uncertain fates. They had been forced to march past their loved ones without even being able to call out a last farewell. Young mothers who were torn away from their children and put to work. According to the newcomers, even pregnant women and elderly people were seen among those marching towards the East. They were still generally in good physical condition, even though the tribulations of the past few days were immediately visible in their appearances.
Upon their arrival, these new prisoners were assigned to various shaft brigades and suffered the same fates as we did. After four weeks, they were searcely recognizable. Whether it was the hard labor or the unaccustomed rations, the poor treatment or the whole change of environment in general that did it, they all began to collapse internally. The abrupt change in their circumstances made their situations even worse than ours.
The long months of assignment underground had consumed so much of me that I had exhausted just about every way I knew of working myself out of the pits alive.
An order came then like a lucky coincidence for 500 men to be taken out of the mines to establish a new construction brigade, I was among those chosen, and thus was given a new chance to escape death. Whoever did not have the happy opportunity to be able to change work places for even a short time was, as the future taught, fated to certain downfall. Unusually hard labor, an ever-increasing number of accidents and especially poor nutrition and ill treatment made the underground workers more and more exhausted with each passing day. There was not one man in the whole camp who did not shudder with terror at the term "Knochenmuehle" (bone mill??).
In "A", a village approximately two
kilometers away, a large construction project was being undertaken. Fifteen
large factories were to be built. War prisoners would provide most of the
labor, and I was among them.
The first day on our way to the construction site, we had a completely unexpected encounter which touched us all to the very core of our beings. During our march, a black wall of people suddenly rose up from the faraway horizon on a distant plain, and slowly approached us. We soon recognized Russian soldiers with raised weapons, flanking the sluggishly oncoming mass of humanity to the right and left. Then we suddenly recognized something else: the black line of people were women. In a split second, the question went through our column, "Are those not German women who are headed towards us?"
In the meantime, the tip of the oncoming line had reached us. Yes, they were German women and girls of all ages. Their clothes were torn. They looked at us, careworn and thin as rails, the very picture of endless misery. With boundless sorrow in their lifeless eyes, they pulled themselves past us. Some of them stared at us for seconds with eyes wide open, as if they wanted to say something. Others waved their hands dully or passed by with downcast faces.
Horrified, we stared at them as they passed by and then looked at each other, too dumbfounded to say a word.
This encounter touched us most deeply. Many stood with tears in their eyes. Comparing our fates to theirs, we tried to imagine how much more horrible a life such as this would be for a woman.
An unforgettable scene still haunts my memory, as if it had happened yesterday. In the middle of our observations and our silent greetings back and forth, a young prisoner suddenly let out a scream. He had discovered his mother and sister among the women moving by.
Without a moment of consideration that the deed might have cost him his life, he rushed out of the line, heedless of the guards' orders, and tried to cross over to them. He would have made it, too, as our guards were following somewhat behind, but a womens' guard saw the prisoner coming towards them before he could reach his mother. A shot rang out. Thank God, it was only a warning shot, which in a split second caused the son of this mother, who had become blind to all danger, to come to his senses.
With this he suddenly looked around with a pitifully helpless and abandoned look and, seeing the Russian guards, instantly recognized the extreme cruelty of his situation. He collapsed then in the dust of the road, unconscious. It had been too much for him.
A horrified cry went through the long row of women. It was the mother herself, who wanted to rush to her son, but was being held back by two guards with all their might. It was terrible -- I can and will never forget this incident.
In autumn of this same year, it happened coincidentally that women from this same group were assigned to our construction site. They had to do identical work as we, ten hours long with only two meager rations a day. There was fish soup and bread each morning and evening, and also millet gruel. As we worked, some of the women told us that they were from East Prussia. When the Russians marched in, they had been gathered together and loaded into train cars like cattle and transported to Russia. Others came from the Yugoslavian borders. They related how they had been instructed to gather at the market place and told that they would not need to bring any baggage, as they would soon return home. They were aiso then taken away. Only the elderly and small children were left behind.
Longer conversations with these women who had been dealt such a cruel blow by fate were impossible, because they inevitably burst into bewildered tears after the first few descriptions. We understood that as women, they must have had to endure terrible mortifications which were impossible for them to talk about under the circumstances.
A large number of them were assigned to work in the mines. The women there did receive a bit more bread than the others, but they were no match for the tremendous tortures underground.
The most terrible thing in my opinion was that these women no longer had any will to live. Every last hope in them was dead, every belief that they would be able to go home again. After their homelands had been occupied and the Germans driven out, they knew that they would never again see their homes, gardens, villages and cities, nor their beautiful expanses of land in Mazovia. Uncertainty about the fates of their husbands, children and relatives had made them apathetic. The appearance of these women shocked me like nothing else I had previously experienced.
They told us once that conditions in their camps were, in a word, simply inhuman. At work, they were required to fulfill the same quotas as we were. They were assigned to various tasks ― dragging logs, transporting sand, unloading wagons, loading and unloading heavy stones from autos, transporting cement, cleaning, and so on.
Even in winter, the work continued for all of us. Construction materials were warmed in huge ovens and brought immediately to the scaffolding. The building went on even in the coldest weather.
We felt it more than our human duty to encourage these women in their great misery and try to console them as much as we possibly could. They asked us again and again if there was really no hope for them to go back home. Although we weren't quite convinced of it themselves, we reassured them, trying to encourage them and help them as much as possible with gifts of bread, articles of clothing, soap and anything else that was dispensable.
One morning, five prisoners in our
camp reported with fever. They were written down as sick without further
examination. On the next day, however, there was more than double the number.
The work inspector was extremely angry and ordered them to work in spite
of their fevers, which brought on terrible consequences. This fever spread
like wildfire throughout the camp, and over 400 men had already been stricken
by the time the first medical examinations were finally given. It was diagnosed
When this fact became known, the civilians who worked beside us at in the mines refused to go down with the prisoners into the shafts, as they feared that the disease might spread to them as well. The prisoners were removed from the construction sites.
The camp hospital ward was no longer sufficient, and a larger block of barracks had to be made available for the diseased.
The variety of symptoms ― chills, high fever, loss of appetite ― ended up by exhausting the patients so much that they were not able to work for quite a long time. Many of them could not even look at the monotonous meals. They were told by the Russian doctor that there was no other way and that it was up to them either to eat or be destroyed. "Birdie, eat or die" became one of the most-used key phrases in these days. Patients who could not conquer themselves, or who did not want to, who did not respond even to friendly encouragement, ended up having to go the same route as so many others had gone before and after.
In approximately two months, the disease abated. A commission had appeared in the meantime, and reprimanded the work inspector for having so irresponsibly sent those with fevers to work and thus accelerating the epidemic.
This plague cost many of the men their lives. Others were so physically weakened that they were not able to work for the longest time which, unfortunately, was too long for the Russians.
One night, about 70 sick men received orders to report to a Kolkhoz some 15 kilometers away and begin harvesting potatoes there. It had rained the whole day. The poor men returned to the camp late in the evening, completely wet and with high fevers, and their recoveries were again delayed for quite some time. Others were discharged from the hospital without prior notice and thrown back into the mines without mercy. Most of these men, too, had relapses.
In October 1945, the first war prisoners were discharged from our camp. They were mainly French, Polish, and only those Germans and Austrians who were critically ill. Still, it was a beginning, and we all felt a bit of hope. But a few days later, we realized we had disillusioned ourselves when an order from the Russian government was read out at the roll call. This order called for a further two years of reparation duty by the war prisoners. And with this, all our hopes for the time being were dashed.
With disconsolate spirits, we again celebrated Christmas in imprisonment. It was the fourth Christmas fest since our capture of Stalingrad, and just as joyless as the others had been. Nor did the New Year bring with it any hope or cheer, except perhaps for the comforting certainty that the war had come to an end at least for those in the homeland and that we, too, might return eventually, though none of us knew when.
For a war prisoner in the East, an illness or a slight injury was often a life-saving gift, as it meant he could stay in the hospital for some time. It was only in this manner that most of us were able to endure this life of hardest tribulation for so many years.
I, too, due to the months of long work in storms, freezing cold and snow and tragic conditions, ended up one day at the hospital door with a high fever and severe malnutrition.
There, in long lines of misery, all those who had been injured in the mines or had otherwise lost their health awaited treatment. Feverish prisoners lay morning in corners, injured men begged for bandages, and many others pleaded just to be released from the labor in the horrible pits.
I was led along with five other extremely ill men to the nearby main hospital on suspicion of having a lung inflammation. We had to wait for a long time in the bitter cold at the entrance, until the doctor finally appeared to check us.
Newcomers were always thoroughly examined, and those who had very little prospects of recovery were mercilessly rejected. One of the five who had come with me was already dead. His corpse was immediately taken away. Two other unlucky ones were given up on by the doctor and immediately sent back to the camp. Basically, this order was nothing less than a death sentence as well.
In the hospital itself, conditions were like those back in Stalingrad: need and misery; pitiful, tortured men. The only difference was that the men in Stalingrad were wounded in battle; here, the patients had met with their misfortunes in the murderous mine shafts. After entering the building, l shuddered as I was led through different rooms and saw all the miserable humanity.
I ended up in a large hospital room with about 30 other men. There were three German prisoner doctors, including one professor, among the Russian personnel. A Rumanian surgeon performed operations. In spite of all this, and even though the admissions personnel were very choosy, there were approximately 10 deaths per day in the hospital.
Those on the road to recovery tried to obtain a bit of extra food when rations were passed out, as the portions were completely insufficient. Half-desparingly, many prisoners begged daily for a small supplement, but were always refused by the nurses.
Once, a commission came and discovered that the entire medical staff at the hospital was regularly helping themselves to our portions and had even "relocated" some rations to local civilians. The kitchen nurse who was responsible was found guilty of misappropriation of mass proportions, and her intention to commit suicide in the last few seconds of the incident to escape her responsibility was thwarted. In my experience, this commission was the first and only which not only made pretty speeches but also took strong action. In the next few days, life in the hospital improved tangibly.
The nurses, if they must be mentioned, basically did their work only because they had to. Most of them had done duty at various fronts. Very few of them possessed any of the qualities which were most essential to the nursing profession: love, welfare, self-sacrificing care, and especially training and ability.
On the other hand, they were especially proficient in a quite different area They all wanted to try with all their might to "europeanize" themselves, and show the dirty soldiers the meaning of Kultura. And how did they do this? They powdered themselves with flour, painted their lips bright red, their fingernails blue and God knows what else that we didn't get to see. Perhaps even red toenails. Kultura was first and foremost with them.
They were especially concerned with immaculate cleanliness ― or at least they acted that way ― but unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing for them to clean the rooms with. No brooms, buckets, not even a dust rag was available.
The doctors did their duty. The female doctor in charge of our room complained daily about the cold temperature in the rooms and about the fact that bedding was never changed after a death. But nothing did any good. If an orderly requested coal or wood to heat the rooms, he was laughed at; if he tried to change the dirty bedding, they threw him out.
Everyone was hungry, and the nurses weren't even ashamed to ask to borrow our spoons so that they could help themselves to some extra soup in the kitchen, which in turn caused our own rations to be reduced.
There was a large cemetery near the hospital. Over three thousand soldiers had been buried there since the recapture of the area by the Russians ― three thousand soldiers, from one hospital. This simple fact tells more than words can describe.
During the snow thaws, the number of accidents in the mines increased beyond imagination. Most of the prisoners brought in from various camps had been injured by falling stone as a result of the insufficient timbering. l realized from the stories of the German comrades who were brought in from other camps that conditions were equally pitiful everywhere.
The hospital was overfull most of the time. One day, news came that a second large transport of sick men was to be discharged and sent home at the end of May, and whoever was deemed able to stand the trip had a chance of being in this group. This news had more power to work real miracles than all of the medicine in the world - everyone wanted to be "transportable".
There was a thorough examination shortly before the transport was put together. We had to pass slowly by the commission of doctors with our arms held high. This was done in order to uncover any SS members, who had a mark under their arms, who was then rejected outright from the transport. Among the group there was indeed one SS man who had been slated to go home. He stood ready to go at the gate. But although he had gotten that far, when the names were called off again, he was not among the lucky ones.
This same young man, by the way, had a problem with balance; he had been in the hospital for months. His body bent quite noticably and uncontrollably towards the right, so that it was impossible for him to move even five steps straight forward. His eyes were always somewhat distorted and squinted, and he always depended on the help of his comrades to guide him. These, however, did not offer much in the way of help, because most of them did not even believe he was really sick. Indeed, he was otherwise in very good physical condition. Often he fumbled alone along the walls of the corridor. Especially at doorsteps, he unfailingly veered right and into the open door. This "right steerer", as we all called him, was often derided because of his ailment. The more malicious ones even made jokes about him.
One nurse especially was not able to stand him. She was never once able to visit his room without verbally abusing him. One day, she reported to the doctor that she had seen him during night duty, walking upright, coming out of the kitchen with a tureen full of soup. After some unsuccessful experiments by the Russian doctors, the head doctor, a woman, called the prisoner to her. I was brought along as an interpreter and ordered to tell him that he would be on the next transport home if he seemed able to stand and walk straight without help to the station. He was to pull himself together and practice as diligently as he could. However, he must have noticed that this was a trap, and did not comply with the doctor's suggestions.
Later, I met him in another work camp and he told me that he had been brought to a German camp doctor shortly thereafter. He had been seriously warned by this doctor not to pull any more of his fraudulent tricks, and the severe consequences of such action were lain down in front of him. After this conversation, full of tangible fear, he slowly "recovered" from the disease which he had completely intentionally simulated, and thus after a few weeks was judged able to work and assigned to a shaft brigade. I was naturally curious to discover how he had gotten into the hospital in the first place, because this especially cunningly-executed coup of the young prisoner interested me extraordinarily. He then related to me the following singularly inimitable story.
"One day, I caught sight of a half-detached, not too heavy stone slab on the ceiling of a low, poorly-built tunnel in the shaft. When I was alone, I pushed it off with my back and sank with it to the floor, laying the slab on top of me. Quickly I cut the inside of my nose with a stone to make it bleed, and screamed dreadfully for help. The men working nearby rushed over to me, freed me from the stone which they believed had fallen on me, placed me in the chute and brought me to the front baskets. From there, feigning complete unconsciousness, I was transferred to the main hospital. The brain damage that I faked was believed by the doctors, and I consequently mimed a balance problem for the next nine months so as to be able to escape the terrible mine work and spend the rest of the awful winter in a warm hospital."
I didn't know which amazed me more ― the incredible unabashedness of the man, or the cleverness of the deed so cunningly performed with the intent of saving his own life.