In the northern part of the city, the
31st of January brought the long-awaited dramatic climax. In
narrow hand-to-hand combat, soldiers on both sides fought one on one with
incredible bravery. Every German soldier had been told again
and again that the Russians did not take prisoners, and it was this fact
alone that impelled us to continue to fight this bewildering battle to
the last breath.
I dare not think about how many of my comrades, believing that terrible fates would await them, chose to take their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the Russians. Tens of thousands might have survived if this last ray of hope of keeping themselves alive through imprisonment had not been stolen from them. But the lie had been repeated to us again and again: the Russians took no prisoners.
Shortly after noon, all available food supplies -- the last few rations -- were distributed as far as possible. For the first time in weeks, anyone who had the time to do so was able to fill his stomach again completely, and even smoke one or two, nay, even three or four cigarettes one after another. For many of the men, this was a gift that bordered on the inconceivable.
As for me, I was still lying in the basement of a destroyed house with 25 other wounded men. In the next room, a battalion headquarters had been set up. At approximately 4:00 in the afternoon, a thoroughly devastated and shattered group of soldiers returned from nearby, reporting that Russian tanks were standing in close proximity to the bunkers and that they had thus given up the fight. The battalion commander then gathered all available weapons together and ordered a sergeant to hang out a Red Cross flag in clear sight at the entrance of the bunker, thereby declaring it a war hospital.
The sergeant never returned. In the line of duty, in service for his comrades, he had been struck down and killed by a burst of machine gun fire at the entrance to the bunker. A few minutes later, a hand grenade detonated at the entrance to our basement. In these seconds of highest tension and excitement, I became completely calm and collected, fully aware that the next few moments would decide whether I would live or die.
The whole room was full of black powder smoke from the detonation. Mortar fell from the walls, and the door flew open with a creak. Everyone stared in expectant anticipation at the entrance to the bunker. Outside, the first Russian noises could be heard, while the air rumbled with vibrations of steel and iron. It sounded like a roaring volcano.
The smoke cleared somewhat, and the light of a tallow candle appeared. Then, in the dim reflection of the light, the first Russian soldier came through the door.
This first meeting had a terrifying effect on us. Chills went up and down my spine. An older captain ran his fingers bewilderedly through his hair; others clenched their hands together tightly, or grit their teeth in order to hide their dreadful fear of this moment. Still others waited calmly and with a great peace for the worst to come in the next few moments.
But none of the terrible stories which we had been told again and again came to pass. We were taken prisoner in the usual manner: hands up, weapons to the ground, inspection and then an order to leave the bunkers.
And on that very night, some 45,000 men marched across the frozen Volga towards the East to an unknown fate; a long train of misery and uncertainty. Torn and dirty, weakened by long deprivation, unhinged by the last days of the fight and with no energy left to fight back, many of these men were left behind on that very first night, wherever they happened to fall on the way.
The wounded, however, myself included, were left behind lying in the bunkers.
In the first few days, there
was no one to attend to us at all. The Russians set up a headquarters
in the anteroom of the bunker, and through them we learned that the battle
was still raging in the southern part of Stalingrad. For five days
we remained without any supplies or medical help. Once, officers
and soldiers, and even a commissar, came in and examined us thoroughly.
With pistols aimed at us, they demanded answers to all kinds of questions.
Later, other officers came, and with surprising friendliness tried to persuade us to explain why we had not given up the senseless fighting earlier. One of the officers spoke fluent German. During our communications with him, we caused a great burst of laughter among the officers when we explained that we had not known that the Russians took prisoners, and that we were afraid that we would all be shot. After this interview, most of the Russian men lay down in close proximity to our army cots, and slept peacefully.
Later, one of them informed us about our future prospects as prisoners: we would be expected to work hard, and hunger would be our constant companion. On the other hand, we would also receive medical attention, but this would have to wait for another few days.
We fully expected to be betrayed again, but the promised doctor did arrive one of the next evenings. In a harsh voice, he ordered us to leave the bunkers, and we were led under strict observation through the destroyed streets of Stalingrad in the ice-cold night.
Only a few of the men could walk. The others pulled themselves, crawling on hands and feet and dragging their packs behind them through several hundred meters of high-piled snow. One man was so weak that he immediately fell to the ground, unmoving. None of us could help him, as we could only move ourselves forward with the greatest of effort. Shortly thereafter a shot rang out -- and the life of our comrade was ended. We turned around and gazed in shock; in that quiet moment we were still convinced that a similar fate awaited us.
But we were driven on: "Hurry! Faster!" Feeling a weapon barrel at my back, I was filled with a superhuman power in that hour. Someone recognized the Red Cross on a building not far from the street. We all stumbled inside, exhausted; all except for the one who had been left behind.
It was a pitch-black night, and at first I was not able to identify where we found ourselves. It must have been a large room, because I heard many voices, curses and cries. An open fire was burning a few meters from the entrance, around which numerous soldiers stood.
Every window and door was open, and the wind whistled and blew in from all sides. The room was as cold as ice, and the few blankets that we had -- I had two myself -- did not suffice to provide even a semblance of warmth. Shivering, teeth chattering with cold, we were not able to close our eyes for a moment the whole night, even though we were very tired. The wounded groaned and moaned again and again.
And so we spent a first, long, cold night. When morning came, I recognized from the plaster which still remained on the otherwise heavily damaged walls that we were in a huge theater. The floor was overfilled with figures in rags, squatting or lying unshaved and degenerated; a truly shocking scene.
Later I found out that this place had previously been used as a German emergency hospital. When it had been retaken by the Russians, all the medical personnel who were not wounded themselves had been taken prisoner along with the fighting troops. The wounded, including many with severe injuries, had thus been without medical care and food for several days, and the room was a terrifying picture of misery and lamentation.
My eyes, expanded and enlarged from the horrifying impressions of the past hours, searched desperately around the theater in hopes of perhaps discovering an acquaintance. As if hypnotized, however, they instead fixed themselves on the three comrades who had been my nearest neighbors during the long night. My eyes had just registered these figures for the first time: they were all dead, their own eyes broken and unseeing. A fiery fear filled me. Suddenly, it was as if the angel of death had lain his bony, cold hand around my throat in order to blow the life out of me as well.
We lay on bare cement floors, and in order to alleviate the biting cold, men began to hang the now-free blankets of the dead over the windows and doors. This made the room completely dark, and it stayed that way. An empty gas drum was dragged in from outside, and a fire was lit in the middle of the room. Luckily, there was enough wood available from the debris in the nearby area.
Others brought in pieces of horse cadavers which were frozen solid, ripped the flesh apart into pieces as well as they could, and held them over the burning fire. Their hunger was so strong that many did not take the time to let the meat cook through somewhat. With wild greed, they swallowed it half-raw just after it thawed, and a short time later, they were doubled up in pain.
Everyone had a burning desire for water. Especially, the severely wounded lamented about their parching thirst. Their pleas had no end, "Water, water." Finally, the few who could still walk dragged in some snow, melted it down in some mess gear and distributed sips of water to the severely injured. What more could we have done for them, when we ourselves were so near to dying of thirst? We hauled in snow again and again, until every one of us had at least somewhat quenched his thirst.
Small groups left later in vehicles which had been left behind to see if they could scrounge up something to eat. They brought back whatever they could hunt up: horse feed, oats, barley, wheat, etc. One man was especially lucky; he found an abandoned field kitchen with a full kettle of soup. In the last hours of battle, now behind us, there had been no time to distribute this fully-cooked bean soup which was now frozen stiff. The soup was cut into pieces and melted over the fire in cooking pots.
Soldiers sat in groups with apathetic expressions, and ground one grain of wheat after another between their teeth. Even then, there were many who did not receive anything to eat. There was only a limited amount of food, and over two thousand wounded men lay in the ruins of the theater.
On this day, for the first time in my life, I felt very clearly with my own body how painful hunger could be. Up until that time, in the heat of the battle and the torturous wait before we were overtaken, I had hardly felt my own hunger in all the excitement.
In the meantime, every last morsel of frozen bean soup was brought in, cut apart and distributed. Old and young men crept around, pleading and begging for a bit more. With tears in their eyes -- many wept like small children -- they took in their trembling hands the tiny precious pieces of icy soup.
Not one Russian had yet entered the camp. In the southern part of Stalingrad, the last fighting was still raging with extreme bitterness, and the Russian soldiers stationed nearby had neither the time nor the desire to look after us.
On the evening of February 2, however, Russian soldiers came to announce the final liquidation of the German pocket, and a Russian doctor appeared on the evening of the same day. When he saw the state of misery we were in, he left us with the assurance that something would soon be done.
Soon thereafter, Russian guards arrived. Two German doctors had been brought in out of another prison camp and put in charge of our care. All available first-aid kits were collected, and orderlies went to all the remaining medical vehicles to look for usable equipment. This was all hastily gathered together at the encampment. Finally, a small area within the theater was blocked off and a wooden rack was put together as a temporary operating table.
One after another, we each briefly received whatever preliminary treatment was most necessary, with very primitive remedies. Most of our bandages had not been changed for weeks. The wounded screamed with pain as completely bloodied, foul-smelling bandages, which had in the meantime fastened themselves securely to their skin, were torn off. In many cases, fingers and toes had become gangrenous and lain lifeless for several days, and had to be lopped off with scalpels while their owners were fully conscious. The screams of these poor unlucky creatures rang out through all hours of the night.
Our inhuman living conditions caused many cases of stomach and intestinal flu in those first few days, from which there was no relief. The all-day, all-night labors of the two German doctors to save what there was left to save was especially hindered by one thing: lice. These pests appeared and multiplied so rapidly that there was nothing to be done against them.
Men who were able to move even a bit tried in every way possible to keep themselves lice-free. This was only temporarily effective, though; there was simply no means to battle these pests. Most of all, there was no water, neither for cooking nor for even the most basic sanitary care.
A visit from Russian officers, however, produced results that promised to bring a bit of relief. Four field-kitchens had been brought in from the surrounding area, so that two large pots of soup could be boiled each day. The water for this was melted down from the ice in the Volga River. In addition, there appeared about 250 grams of bread per man every evening, brought in by nearby civilians. The orderlies distributed the soup to the wounded men, a half-liter every meal. In it, there was nothing but millet, millet and more millet. Even so, the voracious hunger which was our constant companion day and night commanded us to down the same watery soup again and again to the last drop. Bitter fistfights often occurred over the last remains of the soup.
The bread was good. The first time it came, there were scenes of true emotion. The majority of the prisoners plunged in with true gluttony on this saving gift from God. The bread must have come out of the ovens not more than an hour before it was served, and most of the men swallowed it within a few seconds. Others broke it into several pieces "to save some for later" as they explained. Those sick with diarrhea roasted their pieces a bit over the fire, as they could not enjoy the bread in its freshly-baked state.
A small group of older officers were consuming the precious morsels with great reverence. One of them commented, "Today I realize for the first time the depth of meaning held in those words of the Lord's Prayer, 'Give us this day our daily bread'."
The most touching scene for me, however, was the behavior of an older comrade who held his small piece of bread for a long time in both hands, gazing at it again and again, laying it off to one side, then taking it in his hands again. He couldn't even seem to make the decision to bite into it. In his countenance could be seen a great joy.
At about the same time, work commandos were formed and put in charge of dragging the dead prisoners out of the room. After removing shoes and outer garments, corpses were piled up at the entrance of the room. Russian panje horse carts brought them later to shell-holes which had been made by bombs in the nearby area, and they were hurriedly buried by troops of prisoners. No one ever even thought to ask the names of these unknown soldiers who died in the days immediately after the capitulation.