16. The Harvest Assignment

    One day in the first week of September, I was taken to the village center with fifteen other prisoners, all of us dressed and outfitted in our best. Elated, we thought we were going home. We were loaded up into cars with about 200 other men, and the train started out, heading west.
    After eight days, we came to a standstill at a small station between Chernikov and Gomel. The train was unloaded that evening, and we spent the whole night outside in the pouring rain. It was a bitter and sobering disillusionment after the great dream we had had about being on the way home. Completely soaked and frozen to the skin, we were in considerably bad humors the next morning.
    The first person with whom we came in contact was an old Russian who approached us curiously. Starving as we were, we offered him our soap to trade for some food, whereupon he treated us surprisingly well. He disappeared behind his garden gate and reappeared with apples, pears, milk and bread. Even then, fearing that he may still have gotten the better end of the deal, he offered us some money. The responsiveness of this Russian man surprised me greatly, and I had the immediate impression that the people in this area must have had very little soap.
    A number of trucks, ready to be loaded, picked us up later. As I had already discovered in the meantime, we were to be taken to a large Kolkhoz to help with the harvest. During the several-hour-long trip through different villages, I experienced something that I had never before felt in all my years of imprisonment. It seemed that there were people in the great Soviet empire who were not only friendly to us, but actually fond of us.  Men, women and children stood curiously watching on the streets, waving at us and throwing apples and pears onto the wagons as they passed by. The Russian watchguards cursed and complained, but they were powerless to act. The remarkable cleanliness of the scenery left us without a doubt that we now found ourselves in the Ukraine.
    The whole population of one tiny village at which we stopped for a rest gathered around us in an instant, and I came into conversation with a young farmer woman. She told me that prisoners came to help with the harvesting every year, and they all enjoyed the themselves immensely. She said, "Your assignment will make you quite happy. You will have enough to eat \ so much, in fact, that you may never want to leave this place. Your predecessors look quite spectacular by the time they left and went back to their prison camps, which they did with heavy hearts."
    Among the civilians, one older woman went inconspicuously from one prisoner to the next and looked at each carefully, catching my special attention. She was apparently unsatisfied with the results of her inspection. Suddenly she broke her silence and cried out loudly to no one in particular: "Why do you all look so terrible?"  I told her in a very resolute tone in Russian: "We're miners, and we have been forced to labor in the mines for many years now." Thereupon she swore and began to curse the Russians, saying over and over "damn devils"; spat on the ground to emphasize her words and then hurried away, still swearing.
    These were how the Ukrainians were. It was the same everywhere we went: friendly treatment, and even sympathy. These people empathized with us, whereas the civilians in the Donez area had only tormented us again and again. However, we had to take into consideration that there, the people had been working together with us in the hardest assignments against life and death, and under the most terrible living conditions, whereas here life was much better for the citizens.
    In the afternoon, we reached our new workplace: a Kolkhoz dubbed "First of May". We moved into our accommodations in the so-called "club", a large room which served also as the setting for lectures, meetings, concerts, plays and dances; in short, all the cultural events of these people. The management of the Kolkhoz had their offices in small side rooms. Everyone received a sack filled with fresh straw as a mattress.
    There were about 10 Russian watch guards and at least as many officers, who had chosen this harvest assignment as the ideal work position. As they saw it, the assignment was not so much to watch us, but to make a better life for themselves, forage food provisions for their half-starved families in the Donez and live it up for once in this controlled society with vodka and women and all the nightly carousing that went with them. Whenever they were sober, they left us alone. Sometimes we never saw a Russian soldier for days on end, and we rejoiced in the freedom we had never before experienced. For four long months, there was no barbed wire. The commandos went to and from work without guards, even at night.
    One Russian lieutenant colonel was responsible for the whole organization and disposition of workers. The officer responsible for carrying out the plans was a German sergeant, who fulfilled his duty in a military and disciplined manner, but also placed emphasis on humane feelings and consideration. His main concern was to provide well-balanced and satisfying meals.
    Before we began to work, the lieutenant colonel held a speech in which he stated that our task was to provide the winter potatoes necessary to feed our own comrades in the work camps in Donez. He was leaving it in our hands to ensure (through our own hard work) that the potatoes would reach their destinations before the coming of winter.
    During the daily morning roll call, we were divided into commandos. There was one large one that went off equipped with spades to the potato harvest, and this group was introduced to some remarkable harvesting methods. The Russians dug their potatoes up with spades just like we hoe our gardens in spring: one man dug, and another followed behind him to pick up the potatoes.
    A smaller commando was in charge of transporting the potatoes from the fields to the stations, where a third commando loaded them onto the waiting wagons.
    At the beginning, I was assigned to the fields with the harvest commando. Under the observation of a 20-year-old girl, the daily norms would be read off to us in the middle of the immense potato fields. Without a doubt, it had to be quite a difficult undertaking for a young girl to direct some 100 grown men, especially when the men were starving to death and saw it as their main goal in life to ensure that the "camp fires" were always burning so that potatoes could constantly be roasted again and again.
    Eat, eat, and eat some more; this was our motto in those first few days. Our young supervisor at first tried in a friendly way to limit our gorging binges somewhat. The prisoners made fun of her and didn't worry about anything, especially as we always were able to meet the daily quotas.  Indeed, we had a planned and much larger determination to meet an unallocated "quota" of eaten potatoes completely understandable in light of all we had had lived through the last few years. Naturally, there were some who believed that this wonderful life would soon come to an end and who daily dragged as many potatoes as they could carry in their pockets into the "club room" and hid them there carefully under or in their straw bags. With wise foresight as a precaution for any emergency situations that may have arisen, the really clever ones established some small, well-hidden stockpiles for themselves near the clubhouse.
    In the first days of October, it began to rain, but the harvesting continued unconcernedly. The ground became loamy and hard and stuck to wooden shoes and spades, slowing down our work pace considerably. In spite of this, the assigned quotas of a solid square meter area of potato field per day were still enforced, a leading to a great number of potatoes left behind on the ground. Everyone tried as much as possible just to finish their day's work, no matter how the harvest itself turned out. Especially the Russian women and children worked lackadaisically and without interest. The land belonged to them; the harvest, however, to the state. Why then should they have to work so hard and so conscientiously?
    "When the harvest is over, everyone will receive only as much as he or she needs to stay alive," so believed the civilians, and they spoke of it openly to us making no secret of the fact.
    In spite of all our efforts, we were unsuccessful in finishing the harvest before the winter set in. Potatoes, turnips, sugar beets, onions and all kinds of vegetables were simply left lying in the fields. The peasants themselves confirmed that year after year, almost half of the cultivated fruits of the field were irresponsibly left to rot.
    In this harvest assignment, it became absolutely clear to me that tons of valuable foodstuff was lost here in this irresponsible manner, products which would have been sufficient to feed the whole Russian working population.
    When seen from the point of view of the Kolkhoz system proponents, the main reason for the poor harvest lay also in the fact that there was a noticeably severe shortage of labor, brought forth by the millionfold casualties of the war. But it was also due substantially to the whole collective farming system in itself. There were no propertied farmers, only working caretakers of their own land, and the harvest itself was distributed proportionally even to these people. Thus, people naturally lost interest in extensively working and exploiting their land. Many Russians were still in arms or had been sent to Siberia for some offense or other. At any rate, they were not here; and women, children, old men and war invalids were left with all the work. In addition, they were under constant pressure from the political officers, who did not shrink from applying the harshest measures when it came to fulfilling the quotas.
    The following incident is indicative of the inattentiveness of the Russians towards anything that did not belong to them: One morning, there was an unusual confusion. The roof above the largest cowshed in the village had caved in during the night of an autumn storm, and the cattle were buried under piles of beams and straw. Everything was cleared away in great haste and the rebuilding of the roof began. The new roof was finished with disproportionate speed. Clean and covered with straw though it was, no one had remembered to fasten down the roof framework beams to make it windproof. It could have also been due to the fact that there were no nails available at that moment, but at any rate, it was left as it was. It was not their own roof, anyway, so it wasn't so important.
    One morning a few days later we were wakened early again by an unusually loud bellowing from the cows. This time, the very same roof had been carried several meters away by a formidable storm.
    And what did the Russians do? With a shrug of the shoulders and a nitchevo (doesn't matter), they began to reconstruct the roof once again, as if nothing had happened. Again, the construction was performed with the same carelessness as before. Whose Kolkhoz was it anyway? It belonged to the State, and everything in it belonged to the State, and thus it belonged to nobody, "so what does it have to do with us?"
    Then there was the blacksmith, too, who went home to bed one night without putting out the fire in his workshop hearth. Exhausted from his work, he went to sleep with the peacefulness of a righteous man in his dilapidated hut, just like every other night. As he woke up unsuspectingly the next morning and started off again to work, he discovered that his forging workshop had burned up completely during the night. Anvils and pieces of iron lay around annealed together in the smoking coals. Of course, the villagers had noticed the fire, and had tried everything to put it out. But with the roofs of straw and walls of wood and the little bit of water from the only well which was situated far away, all their efforts had been in vain. So what did they do then? They smoked their machorkas and gazed comfortably on the night fireworks display "Nitchevo." Did they wake up the smith? Why should they? The workshop belonged to everybody -- and thus to nobody. "The State will build us a new one soon enough."
    I could relate countless similar experiences, all reflecting this same attitude of the Kolkhoz people. Just one further example:
    Every morning, horses and cattle were driven out to pasture. To prevent them from running away, their front legs were bound together so that they could only take very small steps. This allowed them to graze on one portion of the meadow during the day; then in the evenings, they were driven back home.
    One day, the whole village was bursting with agitation. A young boy had run up from the pasture out of breath and explained that one of the horses was lying in the meadow with severe bite injuries, struggling with death. A wolf had crept out of the nearby forest in the early morning to the meadow to attack the animal, and had had quite an easy time of it. Traces of the unfair battle were still clearly visible. With his front legs bound together, the horse hadn't stood a chance of defending himself. "Nitchevo," said the Russians, shrugging their shoulders when they saw the spectacle.
    A short time later, a second horse was attacked by the same wolf in front of the horse stables, and had to be slaughtered. Someone had inattentively neglected to drive the horse back into the stall at night. Even so, the villagers still remained indifferent. Only after the third case, only eight days later, when the incident was repeated with a very young horse as the victim, did the villagers systematically begin to hunt down the predator. We prisoners were happy, however, as horse meat was very welcome in the kitchen.
    One day I was assigned to the smaller commando at the station. Here, there was as much activity as at a fair. The trucks from the outlying farms brought in their potatoes one after another to the station, and the huge mountain of thousands of tons of potatoes waiting to be loaded grew ever larger. Working alongside the war prisoners, women and girls were constantly hauling baskets of potatoes one after another up a steep gangway and onto the individual cars.
    The station building in these past weeks had turned into a mecca for do-nothings, tricksters and dawdlers of every kind. It started with the women and girls, who filled every piece of clothing with potatoes and then wearily dragged them home after their work had finished, and continued with the civilian drivers (chauffeuren), who had masterfully understood how to hide certain "remains" somewhere in the cars, which they then squandered on the way back for schnapps money from a black market profiteer.  The corruption went all the way to the Russian officers, who were true masters of the art of hamstering. They were almost constantly trading, coupling prisoners for hours with civilians?? and pocketing for this thousands of rubles which they thereafter boozed away. They mostly appeared drunk at night on the loading platforms where they beat and mistreated the prisoners, stamped out their fires and scattered the food which had been prepared by the latter to the four winds.
    It was quite understandable, then, that the prisoners also did what they could do to receive their fair share. A permanent cook was constantly preparing all different kinds of dishes. Everything was available: potatoes, vegetables, tomatoes, turnips, onions, sugar beets \ everything that the Russian soil in this blessed land had to give.

    The Russian officers in the harvest camp one day hit upon the idea of eating a roasted hare. One of the Russian drivers was an especially good shot, and received orders to go on a hunt with a staff of four prisoners, of which I was one.
    On a moonlit night after the first snow, we drive off in an American cross-country vehicle over heath and fresh winter seed, up hill and down dale. The hunter had procured and outfitted himself the day before with dynamite and lead chips for hunting shot. One unlucky hare, after having been discovered in the garish searchlight, tried again and again to find cover behind the troughs. The driver wasn't about to let him rest, however, and went after him until he finally sat up and froze, thereby falling victim to the poacher. Thus the lieutenant colonel had his hare, even though the seed in the whole area had been partially destroyed and the vehicle was in desperate need of repair after the irresponsible chase over rough terrain.
     One more experience:  From a neighboring Kolkhoz, one of our watch officers had purchased for himself five living geese which he wanted to take back with him to the Don River. He had an approximately 3-meter-long crate made for this purpose out of thick planks. Ten prisoners dragged the crate about five kilometers, loaded the geese inside and returned, panting and dripping with sweat, with the wooden crate and geese. Finally, one of the prisoners could no longer hold his tongue over the complete insanity of this order, and broke out into guffawing laughter, saying: "That was really brilliant, these are now the seven Schwaben Waisenknaben dagegen?". The Russian lieutenant wanted to know what he had said. I interpreted, "The Herr Oberleutnant is a very intelligent person, we all know that. However, it would have probably gone a little bit easier if we had left the crate behind and each taken a goose back under his arms. Or does the Herr Oberleutnant not believe that the geese would have returned alive in this manner?" The lieutenant stopped short, changed color briefly, realized that he had only himself to blame and then disappeared without saying a word.
    Another delectable tidbit of an experience from these days, was when our chef, a real "stuffed kitchen bull" as we had always called him before as soldiers, befriended the so-called night guard. The guard then invited him to visit his home, adding with a benign smile that he had two pretty daughters there. The "kitchen bull" went. It was a festival reception, with roast chicken, potatoes, cabbage and lots and lots of vodka. Late that evening he swaggered back home in a wonderful mood, but he couldn't hold himself back from making one last jump into the "other"clubhouse" where the Russian lads and lasses were dancing. I met him there, as well as many others who had not been refused entrance.
    Although I and my friends later got back to our rooms unseen, the cook had been detected by a Russian watch officer. He vamoosed as fast as he could, with the officer at his heels.
    The cook was in the kitchen with one bound. The apron on, a stirring spoon in his hand, the closely-following officer caught up with him a few seconds fater. With a never-before heard of zealousness and a true angel face, the "runaway" began stirring up the cold, clear water in the pot.
    His act was successful. The officer didn't recognize him, nor did he think to check the pot to see what on earth it was that this cook, working so hard at night, was stirring up.
    Nor did he ever did find out where his escaped criminal had hidden himself during the night.
    The closer the day came for us to return, the larger the anxiety grew that one of the prisoners would escape. Surprisingly, not one of us had even made an attempt to escape up till that time. This was certainly due in part good quality of life that we had there, but also to the repeated assurances we had received that we would not be sent back again to the mines in the Don pass. What more could we have asked than to spend the rest of our time here until being sent home? Naturally, it was a lie.
    And so one winter day in 1947, the orders reached us to move out on Dec. 15.  We were told that we were being sent to load up another 2000 tons of potatoes in Poltawa, which also turned out to be untrue.

    Everyone was busy now gathering together as much as he could carry \ tobacco, potatoes, beans, peas, onions, sugar beets. We even took back Christmas sir trees, from a forest that a hunting commando had discovered many kilometers away on one of their nightly rabbit hunts. We weren't thinking only about Christmas, but also about the possibility of selling the sir trees in Poltawa. And just in case we didn't make it to Poltawa, we would at least have some presents for our comrades in the mines which would certainly give them a bit of pleasure.
    The departure from this hospitable area and the friendly people with whom we had gotten along so well was very difficult for us. Even after the train set into motion, the villagers continued to wave good-bye for the longest time. What lay before us, no one knew. But what we had experienced in these few months here counted for me as one of the few really beautiful experiences of my whole imprisonment.
    For the first time, we were allowed to travel with the car doors open.The prisoners went on "patrol" at each stop in order to systematically increase our stocks of "goods necessary for life". Sugar beets were worked overnight into a syrup, by busy hands in the cooking pot set up in our car. Among our tasty cargo was also a large amount of salt that we had scrounged together in the long months on the Koekhoz and especially on the train. This, too, was a precaution. If we were fated to return to the work camps in the Don Pass, salt would be a good trading commodity.

    Then that which all of us feared most came to pass. Nothing materialized of the commando supposedly allocated to Poltawa. We were all extremely disappointed as the first black mountain of the Don Basin soon came into view, throwing us back into the harsh reality much sooner than we could have even suspected.
    The days of joy were suddenly over. The wagon doors were closed and barred. Our freedom was gone, our good lives were gone, the humane work conditions, all gone. The miserable slave-life in the mines again threw its shadow threateningly onto the small band of men, whose very fear of life itself grew larger and larger as the train approached the well-known station.
    Eight days before Christmas -- I remember this still quite clearly --we arrived at the break of dawn. Fully laden down with goods, and each of us shouldering a Christmas tree, we marched back through the gate.