15. The First Mail

    With the first days of fall came the happy news that everyone would be able to send a 25-word postcard home once a month. The cards were distributed, but not everyone used them. Some prisoners doubted whether they would ever receive replies. Others considered the effect that the news of their very existence would have after so many years on their loved ones. Many, however, simply did not want to write simply because, as they explained, they did not know whether they would ever return home alive. They assumed that their loved ones probably considered them dead anyway, and did not want to give them false hopes. "Whoever chooses to write will have to take responsibility for the consequences," they said.
    I, of course, had no guarantee either that I would not be struck down by falling stone in the inhuman slave pits the very next morning, but still l wrote down my few words with trembling hands and an overflowing heart. The majority of the prisoners saw this first distribution of cards as a fulfillment of their greatest desire: their first signs of life were finally to be sent home.
    By the end of 1946 the conditions in the camp had improved somewhat. First and foremost, the poor treatment of the prisoners had eased up, and beatings and mishandling occurred less and less frequently.
    Moreover, the coal shovelers in the mines began to earn between 700 and 800 rubles per month. 400 rubles went to the camp to pay for room and board. 150 rubles were paid directly, and the rest was added to our accounts to be paid on the day we returned home.
    Some prisoners, after having fattened themselves up after working for months in the kitchens, volunteered to spend a day in the mines as a Rekordschaufler in order to make some money. In their superior physical conditions, they often produced more than twice what we did, and were celebrated as enlightened paragons of work.
    A typical Rekordschaufler day went as follows: first, breakfast was served on tables covered with white tablecloths. The volunteer shovelers could eat whatever was available: meat, sausage, butter, sugar, coffee with cream and as much bread as they wanted. The camp band played during breakfast and accompanied them with lively march melodies to the shaft. After they crawled out of the mines, they immediately received a bottle of vodka and cigarettes before they had even gotten out of the mine area, accompanied by a sincere greeting from the shaft Natschalnik or an officer of the camp. On their return, it was the same as in the morning -- another wonderful meal, served on clean linens and accompanied by music. The names of the shovelers would be posted along with their fulfilled norms on large boards in all of the barracks. While the other prisoners struggled daily to reach their production quotas in constant mortal danger, this deification of a single day's accomplishment had the effect of making a complete laughing stock of all the hard labor of the regular prisoners.
    The Russians also had another completely different way of playing the prisoners off against one another to their own benefit. In the individual mines, the prisoners were separated by country: in this mine, Germans; there, Hungarians; and in another shaft, Rumanians. If one of the mines succeeded in reaching or surpassing their monthly production goals, the whole work force received extra rations, and the laborers in the other mines were simultaneously billed as lazy and indolent. This all lead to fighting and hatred between the camps.
    The Russians exploited these methods as much as they could because they were then able to force the coal production as high as it could possibly go. Through these acts, they succeeded in reaching total production amounts that would have been impossible under normal circumstances, even with Russian workers.
    Wherever one looked, the same system was in effect: exploitation of the workers to the very end. The Russians had complete control over us. Hunger drove us again and again to perform our utmost. Naturally, as usual, neither the safety nor the health of the workers mattered a bit.
    Nobody dared to ask how many people were being destroyed by the inhumane work load; how many men and women, both Russian and German, had completely lost all joy in life. Anyone who was physically able to do anything was forced to go down into the mines just so the amount of coal prescribed in the five-year plan could be met.
    This fully inhumane system of exploitation began more and more to create a justified indignation both among the prisoners and the civilians. The Russians worried that the production capacity of the prisoners was much too high because of the methods used to get them to work, and were afraid that the same things would be done to them once we all went home.

    In spite of the fact that it was strictly forbidden, the civilians began more and more to work together in friendly cooperation with the prisoners, especially the ones who had been sharing the same fate as theirs for several years. Conversations with the Russian miners became more and more frequent. Having already gained a good working ability in Russian, I was able to understand such discussions quite well and learned that these workers were also for the most part treated very poorly. They told me openly of their troubles, especially of their poor financial situations.
    At the border of the camp, a bazaar of sorts would often take place at the entrance, right next to the barbed wire. Here, we were able to trade our pocket money for supplementary goods: milk, eggs, butter, cheese, chocolate, onions, tomatoes, fruit, tobacco, newspapers and from time to time even beer and schnapps. The prices, however, were exorbitant; for example, a kilo of butter cost 100 rubles. With a monthly allowance of 150 rubles, nobody was able to buy much of anything. In addition, there was nothing available of real importance; bread, for example, which could have really filled our stomachs. Only milk and eggs were in demand, as they were both readily available and affordable.
    The most important commodity, money, was given only to those who had met their quotas, which in our poor physical conditions was accomplished by only very few.
    In order to enliven the understandably awful atmosphere in the camp, efforts were made to bring some variation into our monotonous lives through culturally-oriented diversions. Few of the prisoners joined in these very often \ our long imprisonment had deadened our senses too effectively. All of our memories as to what was good and beautiful had been forgotten, or had moved far away from our present reality. Only hunger, work, quotas, insects, need, misery and death were and continued to be our constant companions. Weeks, months, years had passed in this manner. We had learned not to think, we had forgotten how to hope. We had completely lost any sense of the value of life.
    Even so, a deep longing and extreme homesickness still burned in the depths of every heart.
    On one fine day which I will never forget, the second shift came back with the unbelievable news that the first mail shipment had arrived in the camp. There was a card for me as well. At first, I simply did not want to believe it. I was besieged with thousands of thoughts, as I made my way up the steep ladder out of the mine. How had my loved ones fared in all these years? Were they still living in the same town? Was my home, my garden still intact, or had the murderous war lain my birth home to ash and dust and made me poor as a beggar as it had so many others? How was my bride, with whom I had exchanged no signs of life for the past four years? All of these questions ransacked my insides.
    The way back to the camp had never before felt as long as it did in this hour. With an impatience that was hardly restrainable, I feverishly imagined the moment when the modest little card would be placed in my hands. All my exhaustion, all my hunger, these things which otherwise always oppressed me, had disappeared.
    l had barely gotten inside the camp when I rushed through the door of the propaganda office. Among a pile of about 500 cards the officer found mine, convinced himself once again that it was really for me, and then finally handed it over to me.
    My face flushed bright red, I held this sign of life, with its contents still unknown, in trembling hands. My excitement made my eyes swim as if they were in a thick fog.  It took me a long time before I was able to read the few lines. In all haste I then skimmed the contents, searching only for the sentence "Everyone is all right." My heart beat wildly ... praise the Lord. Now everything was good again.
    I calmed myself down slowly, with my thoughts full of thanks to God. Then I read on: "Our apartment was burned out. We're waiting for your return. Love, your family." I rushed out of the office, my heart full of deepest happiness.
    When I reached my room, I lost complete control of my emotions. The moment had struck me so deeply that I now cried openly for joy and happiness. I saw all of them physically before me: my father bent with age, the careworn face of my mother, who had already lost her second son, my brother, in Russia. How happy she must have been to have received a sign of life from her first born...
    My happiness was also shared by many hundred other comrades, who had received mail along with me. For the first time ever, truly happy faces were seen in the camp. People were able to smile again, and suddenly had friendly words again on their lips, and stopped others in their tracks to share their joy.
    But with the joy came also pain. For many other comrades, the mail had brought bad news from home: parents, wives, children, siblings, relatives lost in the terrible air raids over the skies of our homeland. Homes destroyed or devastated. Others received news from acquaintances that no one knew of their families' whereabouts.
    Still others discovered that their loved ones had been dragged away from their homes, and these men were the hardest hit. They sat in corners silently and spoke not a word. From these men had been taken the last little piece of earth that they had called home. Their silent demeanors and hopeless stares out of eyes made red with tears betrayed to us, more than any words, just how heavy the burdens were that had been added now to their already miserable lives of agony. They now deserved our special attention and consideration in this time of grief.
    On the other hand, I and all the other lucky ones took our cards -- the first greetings from home -- in hand at any opportunity, especially when fate treated us too roughly and mercilessly. At those times especially, we learned to treasure the happiness which had been laid upon us, and the power that we drew from knowing the simple fact that our loved ones at home were waiting for us.
    The knowledge that we now had a connection with home made imprisonment only half as hard as it had been before. At that time, l secretly applauded myself for having held out, and promised myself to continue to endure for as long as necessary, come what may.
    After this, we were now allowed to write a card every month as long as they were available.

    The speed of the first mail delivery also prompted those who had found no courage to write the first time to believe. Most of them at least wanted to be sure of the fates of their families, without giving themselves too many false hopes. Even so, many still did not write. These were mostly men who had been imprisoned since 1941 -1942, who were of the opinion that their parents had already somehow accepted the fate that their children were "missing". Why should they now give them hope again? We tried to make it clear to them that the possibility of returning home was now much greater than it had been while the war was still on. But nothing could persuade most of them.
    There were some who had received no answer at all to their cards. but a solution for these disappointed ones came a month later: they were allowed to write to the Red Cross tracing service in Berlin. From there, many of them received information which enabled them to make contact with their families. In spite of this, the number of men who had not received any word was still quite high.  We interpreted this to mean that many of those who had been dragged off, driven from their homes, evacuated or otherwise "moved" had not reported this to the Red Cross, even though they knew that they still had loved ones lost in Russia.
    In order to complete the picture of the prisoners and their mail, I must also mention that there were those who did not write because they were afraid of what might be disclosed about them in an unguarded sentence; things that they had kept silent during the interrogations. All of the prisoners in all of the camps that I knew of, including SS members, were allowed in principle to write to their families. Many of these, however, had intentionally hidden important data, said they were of a different military rank, lied about their membership in the Nazi Party, changed their nationalities, given out false home addresses, etc. Especially those who had lived in what was now the East Sector were afraid that the Russian NKWD (secret service) would be able to check up on them. It was well known that the mail was always censored and then brought to the Russian camp commander, who had interpreters read every card or letter once again to him before they were given out. The inattentiveness of a family member truly could and would be a fatal blow for so many. Filled with such forebodings, many men preferred not to write at all.
    The situation was especially difficult for those in the "stool pigeon" brigade, who had been forbidden to leave the camp after the interrogations.  These men, as previously mentioned, were billeted in special barracks, and had been neither convicted nor pardoned by a military tribunal. Even though they were allowed to write, the uncertainty of their own futures led them to remain silent. Indeed, in the dubiousness of their situations, they really had no idea what they could have written.
    To complete the list of men who did not use the cards, there were those who had already been found guilty and therefore were not allowed to write, those who were completely tired of life, those who were extremely ill, and blind men who did not want to write or could not bring themselves to tell their families of their pitiful conditions. It is understandable why specifically these people would not want to write, as the orders stated that we could only write 25 words with the contents that everything was well. These poor men could honestly not write such a thing.
    There were examples of each of this type of prisoner in my camp, and I am sure that there were other special cases that I have not mentioned here. I am especially thinking of the many thousands of war prisoners in Siberia, in the Far North, in the punishment camps, or in commandos who were perhaps never able to write or whose mail did not arrive.
    Such may be the only explanations for the great numbers of German families who never heard anything about their loved ones. Perhaps even today or tomorrow, news of one or another - or many, if God wills - of these men whose families have long given them up for dead will suddenly surface. To this day, there is a black shroud hanging over Russia and the war prisoners who were left behind, which will only be lifted when the last prisoner is accounted for.

    This year, we were able to celebrate a real Christmas for the first time in years. It was our fifth Christmas since the defeat at Stalingrad.
    The land was covered with high snow, the cold weather having set in surprisingly early in the year.  Whenever they weren't at work, the Russians sat or lay on top of the stoves in their piteous clay huts, which usually took up almost half of what was often their only room. They went to sleep early, both to save petroleum and to capture the warmth they needed by lying near each other on top of the stoves.  It was strikingly quiet on these nights before Christmas. We very seldom saw even a small light burning as we returned home from the mines at night. Black figures with tiny burning miners' lamps rustled by us to clear a path to the workplace through the high snow.
    The winter days were almost always cloudy and bleak, and storms raged around us for days on end. In this comfortless time, in our lost existence, the landscape with its huge coal heaps struck us as especially monotonous. In the frost-rigid moonlit starry nights, the miserable rented huts of the laborers sat like tiny fragile toys among these huge black giants.
    After long efforts by the German camp committee, a day of rest was finally established one day a week for the working prisoners.  On these days each of us finally had the opportunity to think of himself. Bathing, shaving, laundry, mending, all of these things were attended to on the rest day. If any more time was available, prisoners rummaged among the newspapers and magazines from the East Sector which were available in the "club" room. Others caught up on their sleep requirements for the week or hurried with hunger to the kitchen to help out with whatever work was available, in hopes of receiving some more food. If one was especially lucky, this day of rest would fall on a Sunday. We always knew when it was Sunday, because an extra sweet roll was provided in the early morning, even though it meant a worsening of the flavor of food during the weekdays. We rejoiced like children at this development.

    For some months there had been requests, at first from a few prisoners, then from more and more as time went on, to be allowed to attend a church service. Even this fact alone, that the comrades were beginning to be able to think of something else besides the strain of the forced labor, was a hint that conditions had improved somewhat in general. Until as late as spring of that same year, none of us had had any time even to tend to the most necessary matters, not to mention even thinking about holding a religious service or celebrating religious holidays. In the most difficult times, everyone who had not already given up on their personal relationship to God the Father simply carried their troubles and prayers to the Almighty mutely in their hearts during work or before falling asleep.
    Now, there was suddenly a great need to hold an open religious service once and for all, in the company of fellow believers. We suddenly sensed that in all these years something essential, most Essential, had been lacking in our lives.
    Every Sunday, an ever-growing band of believing Christians - both Catholic and Protestant - gathered together to attend a short service held by the only evangelical minister in our camp.
    And at Christmas, in the barely-decorated dining room, all those who were not working in the mines gathered together on the Holy Night. Food had been prepared with special care and set out on long tables by volunteer orderlies. With the permission of the Russian camp directors, the kitchen workers had been saving up for weeks out of their supplies without any of us having noticed. For each of us now, there was now ? liter of barley soup and noodle porridge, and also a piece of roasted fish, a sour pickle, a teaspoon of sugar and even a sweet roll braided in the shape of a pigtail. While we were considerably overjoyed with this special accomplishment produced by our kitchen, our joy was made even more complete as the camp propagandist distributed the mail -- letters and cards which had been held back for weeks.
    This Holy Night brought some peace and joy for the first time to the hearts of many otherwise lost and abandoned souls. The atmosphere of extreme well-being opened the hearts of almost everyone to the grippingly emotional sermon of the minister which now followed. This sermon spoke of the gospel of the Holy Night and interpreted it as meaning Peace on Earth for all men and, specifically, a speedy return home for all of us. This was indeed the silent wish that each one of us carried in his heart.
    And so our Christmas songs rang out in the white of Russia, and became as a single cry of longing and of homesickness, filled with the hope that the next Christmas holiday might be celebrated at home.
    On New Year's Eve, too, we gathered together. This night was actually remarkably funny, because the famed Hermannchen, known and loved from Koelner (Cologne) Radio, was waiting for us with some of his well-known humorous acts. Besides Hermannchen, we had another entertainment "ace" in our camp company: a former announcer of Belgrade military broadcasts.
    Russian officers brought their wives to the event; watch guards and civilians had become regular guests of our productions and had a deliciously good time. Hermannchen immediately became the best-loved prisoner in the camp. He no longer had to go underground, but spent all his time making up couplets, music and comedy acts. Funny "Koelner jokes", 2000 kilometers away from the actual city, expressed his constant prayers morning and night -- as he said "Ich moecht zu Fuss nach Koelle jon". ("I'd love to walk back home to Cologne.")
    In Spring 1947, amidst all our hopes and fears regarding our possible discharges, came the news that the "Big Four" foreign ministers had decided in Moscow to send all war prisoners home by the end of 1948.
    At first we were very disappointed that our return was to be so delayed, but there was still much to be happy about in this news. There was at least a point in time around which we could orient ourselves, even if many feared that the Russians would not hold to their part of the agreement.
    From then on, we counted the days. At the entrance of the shaft, we wrote the words "Only _ more days" with white chalk on a large signboard which noted the daily shifts. Newspapers from Berlin, which always arrived in the camp late, confirmed the report that still seemed so unbelievable to us. The opportunity was used by the Russians to appeal to us to raise the quotas. The best laborers would be sent home first, and no sick men.
    I first realized what the Russians really meant by this much later. Naturally, only sick men went home early: the ones who had worked themselves so hard in the mines that they had finally taken ill and were no longer fit to labor.
    Indeed, each month some 150 mine laborers were sent home, sick, emaciated, and destroyed to the very last. Their recoveries would have required months under the present conditions.