18. The Return Home

    May came, and another transport left for home. But the announcement that war prisoners would no longer work in the mines proved to be a lie, and our hopes which had blossomed a few short weeks earlier were dashed. That was the way our life went. The Russians understood masterfully how to set new rumors in motion in order to maintain the laborers' will to work and thereby raise production, even if we were destroyed bit by bit in the process.
    I too, through my several-week-long assignment in the murderous shaft was well on my way to being demolished again. With extreme self-control and application of my last reserves of energy, I willed myself to survive, if only so that I could stay with my comrades.
    Fate dealt me a string of hard blows. One of my buddies asked me to give him a hand, as he could not fulfill his work any longer. I had barely taken a step from my work face when a huge sharp-angled slab of stone broke away from the ceiling, striking my arm as it fell. If I had heeded my friend's call for help even just a split second later, the massive stone would have hit me squarely and killed me.
    A few days later, I was alone in a very desolate and completely plundered adit, busy clearing away some stone. When my shift ended, my buddies forgot to tell me they were leaving. I became aware of this when the following shift arrived, but my buddies were already long gone, and I now had to climb up the shaft alone. I had not gone 100 meters when a gust of air blew out my lamp. I had no matches, so I fumbled in the darkness on all fours through mud and garbage, creeping slowly upwards over piles of stones and holes and through numerous water puddles. In my physical weakness, I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of dizziness like I had never before experienced. I recognized a pale light shining in the distance and made my way wearily towards it. This light, as I later discovered, was leading in the opposite direction. When I tried to speed up my pace somewhat, I suddenly lost consciousness.
    When I awoke, I found myself lying above ground on the meadow in front of the mine with the warm spring sun shining down on me maternally. I had been brought back to life. A young Russian girl had found me during her watch rounds and brought me up on a coal wagon. Now, after all the terrors below, the sun was enveloping me in its protective coat of warmth.
    The most beautiful moments of the day were those when our night shift ended, when we stepped out of the dim shafts after twelve hours of darkness into the light of the sun. While we waited there for our comrades, we were able to stretch out on the meadow and recover a bit.
    As I lay there with opened eyes and looked up at the heavens, the thought involuntarily came to me that the same sun was also shining at home, and I imagined to myself how the first signs of spring were probably bringing renewed hope to everyone there, too. In such moments, my home seemed tangibly near to me.
    On the night following this accident, I had an extraordinary dream. I saw my parents and my fiancee standing very clearly before me, and they implored me to try everything in my power to return home as soon as possible. Almost like a confirmation, I received a card some days later, on which the very same thought stood expressed in writing.
    From that hour on, it was a foregone conclusion in my mind that l would be going home that year. I made all my plans with a firm conviction in this conclusion. From these first hopes, an unshakable belief in the nearness of my release grew ever stronger. Absolutely nothing could sway me from this persuasion. I lived with and for this creed alone, and I mentally and physically prepared myself to the utmost. Nothing but home, home, home!
    Perhaps it is a universally truth that people tend to receive a premonition when some big event is imminent. In the following days, I visited the doctor several times and pleaded with him to free me from the mine work, as my spells of dizziness were coming on more and more often. My heart, too, was not functioning properly any more. With a gruff tone of voice, he rejected my pleas every time, but at last he added a remark which gave me great hope, "You'll be going home soon anyway."
    Shortly thereafter, a commission appeared and performed the monthly fitness examinations. I was set on a special list with some others, and rumors were made of a transport set for July 8.
    During the monthly inspection at the beginning of July, I was reassigned along with most of my work column. My health records were tied together with other cards in a bundle. But I had to remain silent, as I did not know anything for certain. Of course, in order not to raise any expectations, everything was kept strictly secret from the Russian side. ,
    At roll call one evening, however, a list of names to be on a transport leaving immediately was read off. I was on it! A terrifying and moving excitement gripped me in this moment. Was it really true that my release was suddenly so near?
    The next morning, a new list of names was read off of men who were to report for final registration and outfitting with new clothes. This time, however, my name was not on the list. As if I had been struck by lightning, l stood for a few seconds, dazed, and waited for my name to be read off belatedly. But all my hopes were dashed - my name wasn't on the list. This terrible disappointment brought me to the brink of despair. Like a sleepwalker, I followed my comrades to the mines. My life had seemed to come to an end.
    Then, at about 2:00 in the afternoon, just before the changing of the shift, the German camp commander came into the shaft. The chute was switched off, and a voice from above yelled out my name. When I responded, l heard the same voice very clearly once again "Come back to the camp at once, you're going home."
    I have no words to describe the gamut of feelings I felt in these seconds. With a jubilant cry, I once again said my last farewells to my comrades at the coal seam, and then ran breathlessly over the rough terrain up to the meadow above.
    I spent the next two hours as if in a dream. The necessarily formalities were disposed of in great haste. At 4:00, the released prisoners gathered together at the gate. The whole camp was on its feet.
    In a short farewell ceremony, the Russian camp commander told us that once we were home, we should report everything just as we had seen it and experienced it. Each of us had to sign a statement saying that he had been treated well, that he had had enough to eat, that the accommodations had been good, the clothing satisfactory, the medical and cultural attentions without complaint. And what prospective returnee would not willingly sign anything that was put before him in this hour?
    There was once again a thorough inspection, which for the most part consisted of confiscation of all our written documentation. Then came the marching order. The band played the old German song "Muss i denn, muss i denn, zum Stadtlein hinaus"(Must I really leave this small town).  The comrades who were left behind waved again and again with painful looks on their faces, and the camp gates were opened for the last time.

    Amidst all the joy, our hearts were still somewhat heavy in this last hour of departure. As we marched west against the setting sun, we again greeted the crosses of the camp graveyard, now numbering almost a thousand, which were unforgettably and admonishingly impressed upon our souls.
    Prisoners had been discharged from 15 camps in the area, some 150 men from each camp, and we gathered together at the train station of the small central town.
    We left the site of our long period of tribulations in locked returnee transport cars the very next morning. There was a stretch at one bend leaving the central town which offered us once again a final comprehensive view of the whole area: the coal mines, the sky-high black mountains and the chalky white block houses of our camp, looming high above the poor straw huts of the civilian peasants.
    The trip took nine days. Dnjepropetrowsk, Kiev, Brest-Litovsk and Warsaw were the main stopping points.

    We were able to determine from the scenery on our trip back that the white Russian land had already recovered quite a bit from the terrors of war. Vast luxurious expanses of grain fields, especially in the Ukraine, held promise of new harvests like none before in recent years. The train traveled for hours through golden yellow corn spikes and sunflower fields, as wells acres and acres of potatoes and sugar beets. Wrecks of individual tanks, grenade pits and trenches overgrown with grass, barbed wire, Spanische Ret:. destroyed factory buildings, houses and huts were the last reminders of the calamitous battles which had taken place in these areas years ago. There were many places, many landscapes that I recognized from days past.
    The train stopped for many hours at the Polish border. All the doors were heavily locked. A terrible uneasiness befell us; we had no idea what the delay was supposed to mean. The cars were inspected several times and our numbers were checked and rechecked. This was to be the final test on our nerves.
    We waited, not knowing whether the train would move on \ or turn around, taking us in the opposite direction and back into new miseries.
    Later, when we were long inside the Polish borders and the doors were opened once again, we learned what had been the problem. The officials knew from experience that Russian civilians very often tried to escape across the Russian borders on transport trains such as these. Extreme measures were taken to prevent such occurrences.
    A lively trading was going on at the Polish stations. Men and women offered up white bread, bacon, butter, and ham \ all items that we had not seem for years.
    In the areas which had been ceded to Poland, most of the houses were empty. The squalor and dissipation of the towns, villages and untended fields moved us deeply. The most overcome with emotion, though, were those men whose homes had been in these areas and who now had to travel past their own native lands, homeless and not knowing whether they would ever see their birthplaces again. Most of these men had not had any word from their families, and were preparing to start out their new lives with an immediate search for them.
    While we were riding though the former German East Sector, which was now Polish, the few men who still believed in the nobility of the Bolshevist system finally had their eyes opened.
    On Saturday, at about 11:00, the train finally stopped at a station in Frankfurt an der Oder. We were finally home, on German soil. My feelings of joy were suddenly so strong that I wanted nothing more than to cry out, but I was not able to do so just yet, as that we had still not received our discharge papers. An upcoming review before the Russian dismissal committee still lay ahead like a nightmare for all of us, and no one could know for certain that he would not be held back at the last minute.

    In this near-rejoicing but still painfully frightening atmosphere, we suddenly heard the pealing of bells from a nearby cathedral. As it reached our ears, we sat quietly in our cars, with tears in our eyes, and listened to the intimate sounds of our homeland which had been denied us for so many years. All our love for our country and our families, all the homesickness that we had suppressed again and again in the long years, suddenly overcame us with an almighty force at the sound of these bells.
    The first German with whom were were able to speak was a railroad worker. He told us unflatteringly and without embellishment of the crude conditions that prevailed in the former East Sector. We were not surprised. Nor should we have been, we who had come out of the East and knew such things well from our own personal experience.
    Suddenly, our Russian guards were with us again, in new, spotless uniforms; looking as we had never seen them before in Russia. Doubtless there was some arrangement for the Russian soldiers to don their best uniforms before their arrival in Germany.
    From the station, we were marched in columns of five each along wide well-groomed asphalt streets to the Russian discharge camp, which was situated nearby. Civilians greeted us enthusiastically; men, women, boys and girls waved at us and looked on curiously to see whether they could spot anyone they knew.
    But it would have been impossible to recognize any of us in the condition we were in at that time; indeed, we all looked the same dirty, unshaved, most of us emaciated beyond recognition.
    Everything now progressed like clockwork: registration, medical inspection, a warm bubble bath, delousing, shaving, reception of clothing, warm food and finally sleep in clean beds. In a few hours, everything was forgotten, thanks to this first encounter with standard German organization.

    The next day was Sunday, and began with a large rally of all the returnees. A Berlin SED official gave a very fitting mass rally speech, at the end of which he read out a resolution stating that it was our duty to fight for the reunification of Germany after our return home. We didn't even let that bit of outrageousness bother us, still thinking only of the fact that every hour since our arrival brought us closer to our loved ones. In the afternoon, our discharge papers were distributed, and there were only jubilant faces to be seen from that hour on.  We had finally been given our freedom. Barbed wire and bayonets were behind us, forever. In informal groups, we strolled to Kronenfeld,@the German repatriation camp. There, we were directed to different areas, and all citizens of Germany proper - including myself - were assigned to Area 5.  From this point on, German Red Cross nurses took over caring for us until we reached our homes.
    Telegrams went out to our families. A special train, for the first time with passenger cars, brought us the next morning to the edges of the American zone.  The train stopped at the border, and Russian officers and soldiers checked our discharge papers one last time. Silently, but with smiles which couldn't be suppressed, we once again marched by the representatives of the East.
    When the train finally set in motion once again towards Hof, we felt truly safe and secure for the first time in many, many years. Suddenly, all the painful nightmarish hours of fear which we had endured so long fell away from us.
    In the American overnight quarters, there was no propaganda or orders -- only an excellent meal laid out in a clean dining room immediately upon our arrival. On huge colorful plates lay all the things that we would need to begin a normal life again. Nothing was forgotten. The walls of the dining room were covered from top to bottom with tens of thousands of notices from families searching for their relatives.
    l realized then for the first time the great extent of the number of those still missing in Russia, and how very fortunate I was to have come so far. Only two more days, via Wurzburg, Frankfurt am Main and Bretzenheim, and I would finally be where I had longed to be for so long: home.