17. The Final Days

    The whole camp was going full steam. They stared at us, surprised and envious. Among the few known faces, which had changed so much during the time we were away that we barely recognized them any longer, we saw many unknown prisoners. We exchanged happy greetings and stories with our older comrades, and they expressed their astonishment again and again at how well we had recovered. Next to them, we with our tanned skins made a enviable impression. My buddy was hardly able to believe that I had gained so much weight in the few months, from 52 to 84 kilograms.
    This was when I first realized how terrible all the others looked. Dirty, unshaved, pale and gaunt, they stared at us with half-starved gazes.
    Once we were inside, we heard about all that had transpir during our absence.  A transport had been sent home, but new ones had arrived from Woronesch and Murmansk. As usual, the "newcomers" had been completely physically ruined within a few weeks. Although their previous labor at Murmansk Harbor (among other places) had been quite hard, there was still no comparison between it and they work they were having to perform here. They confirmed this fact themselves. In our absence, great holes had been made in the columns due to illness and accidents in the shaft. The number of crosses in the prisoners' graveyard had increased by several hundred.
    Upon returning, I was greatly pleased at finding that messages from home had arrived during my absence. Even before I had finished reading my mail, however, all of the harvest workers were called to report for registration. The Russian camp commander bade us to line up, and inspected the rows with a gloating sneer. Behind him stood the work inspector from the mine, like a black shadow, looking upon this new crop of highly welcome, well-rested mine laborers. He rubbed his hands together again and again, praising the commando for having fed ourselves so well, saying over and over that "this will be our elite troop."
    "Your entire brigade", he said "will be put to work together in a new Utschasta in the mines. Under the favorable conditions there, you will easily be able to fill the daily norms, and more."
    The very same night, we marched out to replace the second shift -- not to the best mine, but to the very worst one for miles around. The general construction of the whole pit was the most primitive I have ever experienced in my life. There were no horses or electric rails. The coal was not cut, but blasted, and broken up with crowbars. The ceiling was only some 60 centimeters high, and the rock was fragile, cracked and so wet that water flowed down in rivulets in several places. By the time we reached the seam face, we were completely soaked from the water in the passages, even though we had all received rubber suits -- which did no good at all -- at the entrance. With small short-handled shovels, we worked in squatting or kneeling positions throughout the entire passage, while water flowed by both above and below us. Such conditions turned the already difficult labor at this very low level into a human drudgery like none I have ever experienced before. Working with man power alone, we had to shove the slabs of coal along the belt-conveyor using only our own hands and feet as, being wet and heavy from the dampness, the coal could not move well on its own.
    Death lurked everywhere. No matter how well the tunnels were supported, stone slabs were always falling from the ceiling next to the wooden supports. The first evening had not passed before we already saw our first casualty: a prisoner who was crushed under a wagon as it rushed down past him.
    It that The metal ropes here, completely rust-eaten by the permanent water, broke apart daily, making entry into the main tunnel a constant life-threatening affair. The whole mine itself lacked any kind of safety at all. It was a crime to keep us working underground in such conditions, but no one did anything to improve the situation even though we continually reported the unbearable deficiencies.
    On that cold December morning, we came back upground at the end of our first shift. After sweating from the difficult climb up the narrow shaft on orders from the Russian guard, we sat around for a whole hour shivering with cold in the snow and waited until the last man of the shift was above ground.
    Our wet galoshes froze directly to our feet while we were waiting. That very first day, some of the men came down with lung infections from the cold and dampness, and now faced a battle with almost certain death. Although the guard was well aware of how we were freezing, he was unwilling to dispense with the customary counting and recounting.
    Unfortunately, most of the men did not have even so much as a pair of gloves. Our hands were not tormented only by the cold, but also by cuts and bruises inflicted by handling the hard sharp-edged coal with our bare hands. Numerous tiny coal splinters became lodged in these wounds; a veritable torture for many men in this freezing time of year. Amidst all this misery there were only two things we could enjoy at all: the bowl of hot soup upon our return and the short but sweet sleep in our somewhat warm rooms.
    We spent the Christmas holiday this year in the mine, while the Christmas trees we had brought back made the others happy. Only once, at midnight, we gathered together for a short time, switched off the chute and sang a round of "Silent Night" in remembrance of the Holy Eve. Surrounded by the glow of our pit lamps, 300 meters under the ground, we felt at peace for just a short time. But we had barely finished singing when the mighty voice of the Natschalnik bellowed down from the main tunnel, demanding to know why we weren't working. Even though he knew full well how much importance the German prisoners placed on this holiday, he still ordered us to begin working again immediately.
    On New Year's Day, we thought not only about all the difficulties of the year which now lay behind us, but also about the first sunny day of the year, which it had appropriately brought with it. We all had the feeling that we were approaching the end of our tribulations.
    Even on New Year's Eve, though, I worked in the mines. Shortly after midnight in the first minutes of the New Year of 1948, a series of detonations in the tunnel buried us in coal. The detonator, a Russian woman, had lit the fuse of the prepared coal seam without previous warning and against regulations. With this, three comrades, who were only moments before almost certainly winging their thoughts back home, were crushed to death by falling stones and masses of coal. Two others were severely injured.

    At the beginning of the new year, I again promised to myself that I would hold out under all circumstances. "What I am losing here I will receive doubled when I get home," I told myself.
    Our brigade, still intact from the harvest assignment, had to pay very dearly with our own sweat and blood for our four-month rest period, and many did so with their lives. After just a few weeks, there was no longer any visible difference between ourselves and the rest of the prisoners in terms of appearance.
    Slowly, all too slowly, the winter passed. Our homesickness and longing increased with each day. I often believed that the Russians were systematically trying to ruin all of us. Then one day, something happened that tore me out of my reveries and gave me immediate hope for an imminent end to our situation.
    The news spread like wildfire through the camp that from May 1, no war prisoner would have to work any longer in the mines and that the number of men transported home would increase dramatically. Several transports of young Russians arrived to be trained as miners and thus facilitate the dismissal of the prisoners. All of this strengthened our dreams of returning home.
    Once again, spring came to the land and with it, renewed hope. We were all now understandably interested in everything which was brought to us from our fatherland Germany. The few newspapers from the East Sector which lay in the reading room were perused with ever-growing interest in our short periods of free time. Even though they only covered East Germany extensively, and included only excerpts of reports from communist newspapers in the West, we still tried over and over to imagine how things would look back home. Our few pieces of mail from home confirmed for us that there were constant developments in political and cultural affairs. These messages were the only things that brought joy to me in these difficult days.
    For many others, however, these days marked the beginning of a life of confusion and despair. It was a common enough occurrence among the prisoners that, after sending out their cards from the camps and waiting months for a response, they would finally receive news that their wives or fiancees were already married to other men, and belatedly asking for consent. It was extremely difficult to help these disappointed comrades. They went their ways silently and glumly, often deliberately searching out the most dangerous positions in the mines, in the hopes of bringing an end to their destroyed lives.
    One of these men was a work comrade of mine with whom I had labored together for weeks at the same site. I tried to pay special attention to him even though he had no longer spoken a word to me for days. In every free minute, he sat off in a corner, musing and brooding. Many times I had to admonish him to avoid particularly dangerous places which were well known to all of us.
    In response to one of these admonishments, he poured out to me all the bitterness of his heart. Imprisoned as an lieutenant, he had left his wife, children and a large home behind. He had always had a good life back home, and could never understand why his life had taken such an unjustifiable turn here. A few days before, a card had arrived from his wife, in which she pleaded with him to consent to a divorce as she had long since belonged to another man. From that day on he was completely destroyed.
    At the very next opportunity, he reported for an especially dangerous task: to remove a slab of stone which was hanging down threateningly in one tunnel. No one else had volunteered to do this extremely dangerous assignment up till then. He wanted under all circumstances to face the danger alone, even though he still had very little experience in the mines. And indeed, what I feared would happen came to pass. The pitiful man met his death.
    No one will ever know how many men met tragic fates such as these in the Russian prison camps, due to the fact that communication with their homes and families had been allowed too late.