5. Typhoid fever

    Slowly, very slowly, things got better. Commandos of slightly injured but mobile men were formed to saw wood, fetch water and clean up the city, and I found myself in one.
    Though this appointment I was able to observe the extent of the destruction of the city of Stalingrad at very close range. The path to our water source on the Volga cut directly across the city, and everything, up to the river, as far as the eye could see, was destroyed. Now, only portions of walls stood here and there \ reminders of the former greatness of this once-modern Russian city. Charred remains of tall, noble trees towered over burned-out parks. Streets were covered with huge heaps of rubble. Only the main thoroughfare leading to the Volga had been cleared away, out of sheer necessity, but the asphalt was torn apart and full of shell-holes. Cars, tanks, self-propelled assault guns, cannons and other light and heavy weaponry rolled by us ceaselessly towards the West. Most bore signs of American origin.
    With large, not-very-friendly eyes, Russian troops surveyed us critically as they passed, pushing or pulling large carts in the opposite direction.
    The inhabitants of the city, who had been forced out of their homes and villages months before by the final battles, came streaming back in long trains from the other side of the Volga, dragging the last of their belongings behind them. Deep shock at the sight of the terrible extent of the destruction was apparent on their faces. Upon seeing us, they would let loose all of their pent-up anger and aggression. There was loud, angry cursing children
threw stones, women spat at us, men held their fists high, threateningly. At such times, we were grateful that we had a Russian guard with us, whom, in spite of everything, the civilians respected.
    When we reached the Volga, we began to break off chunks of ice with ice-picks. These were then loaded onto trucks, transported to the field kitchens, melted down and transformed into soup.
    There was an unusual amount of liveliness and activity on the solidly frozen river. There was a great number of refugees returning to Stalingrad, who had saved themselves by escaping east of the Volga when the battles began. A steady flow of traffic had developed back and forth on the bridge spanning the two kilometer-wide river, which was the only connection between the city and the outside in this first winter after the liberation. Cars, trucks, horse carts, and countless sleds brought the ill-fated civilians back to their destroyed homeland. They picked up their lives again in the ruins, starting out again by acquiring absolute necessities.
    Large work commandos of prisoners marched in lamentable, pitiful columns from other areas to Stalingrad, where they were ordered to clean up the debris. We were forbidden to have any kind of conversation with them.
    On the way back, the terrible conditions in which the civilians had to live in those first days became especially and painfully clear to me. In their basement holes under the rubble, all that was left of their former homes, life could not have been much better for them than it was for us. I had to revise my opinion somewhat as to whether the Russians' might have been able to do anything more for us in those first days.
    Amidst this chaos, there was really not much more that could have been done. It was clear to me that in spite of our wounds and hardships, the days ahead of us would be even harder.
    We arrived back at the hospital that evening exhausted and totally without energy only to find that a large transport of wounded from the south part of Stalingrad had just come in. Our room had become somewhat less crowded by the large number of deaths in the past few days, but was now again completely packed. The newcomers told stories of the last hours of the battle in the south, especially of the capture of the last remnants of the German 6th army led by General von Paulus himself. The south of Stalingrad, like the north, had been reduced to a desolate field of rubble. The whole 3-kilometer city was littered with weapons of all types that had been destroyed or left behind. Our conversations were brief and stilted, and we had to fight to pull every last word out of the new comers. They were so exhausted and apathetic that they fell into a deep sleep wherever they happened to lay insofar as their pain allowed them to do so.
    The next morning, a horrifying piece of news spread like wildfire: typhoid fever had broken out in the room! The disease spread from man to man at an incredible speed.
    Quarantine signs were hung over the whole hospital, and no one was allowed to leave the room. Precautionary measures were introduced immediately by the Russians, but already it was too late. Virus-infected lice had multiplied so greatly that groups of them could be seen on our outer garments, even in broad daylight. Everyone who could spent day and night picking the vermin from their bodies, hoping to ward off infection. Several times a day, I gave my entire wardrobe a meticulous inspection. Each time l held individual pieces of clothing against the fire, lice fell by the hundreds, like dandruff.
    What a fearsome fate faced those who were not able to move! Lice hung by thousands on the helpless bodies. They sucked the last drops of blood out of the veins of these most miserable men. There are no words to describe their torments. Even under bandages, in and on the wounds themselves, the hellish brutes sat and drove the unfortunate men to insanity and to desperation. In wild screams of pain, they could plead again and again for someone to end their agonized lives. Many of them acted as if they had gone insane. Others sould lay feverishly, dreaming wild dreams. As their ends drew near, most would raise themselves up with their last bits of energy as if by will alone they could become healthy again and live. After these torturous last hours, however, they would suddenly collapse again, with releasing death written on their suddenly relaxed faces. These were the most horrible days of my entire period of imprisonment.  There was no rest either day or night and the number of dead rose steadily. Corpses covered with blood were dragged outside every morning. No one thought to whisper words of comfort to dying buddies, or even to ask about their next of kin. Each man had more than enough worry just keeping himself alive. Truly, in hell itself, things could not have been more terrible. Perhaps, if our loved ones back home had known even a bit of the horror that the wounded prisoners in Stalingrad were having to endure, history might have taken a different turn.
    Small work commandos helped to prepare the daily gruel in the field-kitchens, the only work that was allowed to go on near to our huge room. I joined one of these commandos, having mercifully been spared from the disease up till then. In this way I was able to escape from the hell of our large room for a short time. But my luck did not hold out; I was unable to outrun my fate.
    One right after another, two comrades who had been cutting wood with me suddenly collapsed from typhoid fever. Three days later, they were both dead.
    A young doctor who had not been able to endure the situation inside the room asked me to help him get out. He too became sick within a few hours, and in a fever, cut his throat at night with a razor blade.
    I finally succumbed a short while later. An unusual feeling of nausea overcame me, and a high fever set in. Brought under quarantine, I began an indescribable period of suffering from that moment on.
    We lay cramped and crowded in the isolated quarantine room. It was deathly silent. Only raspy breathing could be heard, broken now and then by fever-induced screams.  My continuous lack of hunger soon had me completely weakened. My feverish lips had only one wish: to drink and drink again.  I was often delirious, and dreamed of myself standing at some buffet drinking glasses of beer one after another, without ever getting enough. Most of the time, I gave away my ration of bread to comrades outside the quarantine room in exchange for a swallow of water or a handful of snow.
    Each evening I would receive four shots, which combined had the effect of making me extremely tired in a very short time, and I would immediately fall asleep wherever I lay. In my slumber, however, I would be tormented by recurring dreams, both horrible and joyful. Once I jumped up and screamed, "My sister is here; why doesn't she come to me?" and another time, "Where are the Christmas packages? Have the orderlies intercepted them?"

    The orderlies had the duty of watching over us carefully, so that none of the prisoners did anything terrible to himself in one of these feverish dreams. One night, however, it happened that in my crazed state I ran out of the room, screaming over and over again, "I want to speak to the Russian hospital commander. The orderlies don't give us anything to drink and intercept our Christmas mail!" I still have no idea to this very day why no one tried to hold me back.
    At any rate I reached the exit, and in my crazed haste clambered up the stairs of the destroyed entrance. I remembered quite clearly that I had helped set up the hospital commander's office just a few days earlier, and that was where I was headed.
    Through the pitch darkness, the Russian guard must have seen my breakout, and he suddenly shouted "Stoi! (stop)".  Nothing registered, though, until I clearly heard the sound of a weapon being cocked. At that instant, I screamed once again in my fear, "I must speak with the hospital commander." The Russian guard, before doing anything rash, came nearer to me and, lighting a match, recognized in me the prisoner who had refurbished his commander's office. This fact no doubt saved my life.
    After the orderlies had been thoroughly berated by the guard for letting me "escape", they led me back to the room. I received shot after shot, so many that I was not able to recover from my fatigue for several days. At one point, one day, I lost consciousness.
    When I awoke several days later (so I was told), I realized that I was lying on a wooden cot in a dark basement. I had ended up in a transit hospital, among the most severely wounded.  The men on either side of me were completely bloated with fluid which had built up in their bodies, and I soon realized that I was not any better off than they were.
    Our hospital was managed by a doctor from Vienna. He made his rounds every morning, examining each and every man quite thoroughly. For me, he ordered a hunger treatment to reduce my body fluid. l was hardly able to speak, and could hear only if someone spoke directly into my ear. A thick fog was continuously present before my eyes. Sometimes l woke from a deep sleep and was not able to remember anything.
    New arrivals came daily -- German soldiers with strangely distended bodies. For the majority, treatment came too late. They passed on one after another, without extreme pain. The fluid had simply cut off their heartbeats, it was said.
    The room in which I had lain for days.  It felt to me like a prison, or even worse, like a death chamber.  There was some light during the day - weak rays fell from tiny balbs overhead was a sardine can of come 200 men. At night it was impossible to sleep -- the lice came out in such numbers that I often believed I would literally be eaten alive by them.
    Men died by the dozens each day; terrible, lonesome deaths.  I, however. lived. "HOW much longer?" I thought to myself with every passing hour.

    In the meantime, spring had come to the land, as if overnight. The snow had lain piled up until the end of March, but the beginning of April, the weather turned within a few days. During the day, the sun shone quite warmly, but at night it was still as cold as ever. At least, however, there was no more frost.
    A very sudden thawing of the winter snow brought great volumes of water from all around into the Volga. Mighty slabs of ice flowed down the large river, at first hindering any kind of transportation. A few days later, though, we began hearing the sounds of whistles, and newly-arrived comrades spoke of the redevelopment of an extremely busy ship travel.
    They further reported that a large logging camp had been set up for the prisoners to gather and stockpile the large numbers of trees that were coming in from northern Russia. These were dragged with hooks to the side of the river, wound with ropes and then pulled up over the steep banks. It was difficult work which, coupled with the meager provisions, left many ill. From the newcomers, however, we in the military hospital were able to get news from the outside. From them, we learned that a great number of both civilian and military corpses had floated down the river after the great thaw, and it was the job of the logging commandos to recover and bury these as well.
    The sun shone warmer and warmer each day, and we no longer had to bear the musty basement rooms. Daily we crept on all fours outside into the open. We were so weakened that not one of us was able to walk upright. Even so, we crawled out of the damp cellars into the open, smiling blue sky -- into the sun, the light and fresh air.
    The world seemed to be newly given to us. We could breath deeply again now that the gruesome winter was behind us.
    With the daily arrival of the life-giving sun, a new hope grew in each of us; a hope of recovery. Once, the doctor came in and told us, "Only one thing can save you from these damp basement holes, which have grown to become tombs of death. The sun, and the sun alone can speed your healing." Those words stimulated the wish in every one of us to continue our will to live.
    Once in the sun, we would immediately start to delouse ourselves and our clothing, succeeding at this only after quite a bit of work.  In the broad courtyard of the hospital, there was enough room for everyone, and our new lives began. We met daily in the same area of the courtyard. Wounded men came creeping slowly and with great effort out of the different hospital blocks, most so emaciated that they were hardly recognizable.
    Others, who no longer had either the desire or the strength to crawl outside, had mostly already accepted that they were not going to survive those terrible days. Apathetically they lay on their cots, waiting impatiently and with ever-growing tension for each meal, which was always the same thin consomme and bit of bread.
    In those days, it seemed to us that all we needed was just one good meal to set thousands of men back on their feet. Not even repeated blood transfusions helped us much any more.

    On quiet days, as we lay in the sun or in the shade of some tree, it often happened that German fighter planes would appear, crossing the cloudless sky. Whenever that occurred, we would follow them longingly with our eyes as if they were messengers from our homeland, which was on our minds constantly now that we had decided to live again.
    In those hours, we would think of all our retreating comrades on every front.  The struggle was over for us, but those outside were stil1 experiencing countless casualties and hardships that made no sense at all. Since the fall of Stalingrad, anyone with any insight at all had realized that the war was already lost.

    The will to live brought to us a number of new and original ideas. Some men, for instance, came to the conclusion that it didn't matter at all in what form the body consumed the vitamins it needed so desperately. These men crawled around the wide courtyard and searched for green tips on the grass, trees and bushes, which they then took to eat with their bread. They were even more encouraged to do this when the doctor mentioned that the bloating that afflicted most of us was caused mainly by the complete lack of quantity and variety in our diets.
    As with all else, this too got out of hand, and when the first illnesses and even deaths from food poisoning sprung up, these "vegetarians" were strictly forbidden to continue their special actions.

    In the meantime, a delousing station had been set up in the hospital. One group after another was led inside, continuing day and night until everyone had had their turn. After our delousing, it was a wonderful feeling it was to be able, after so many long weeks, to finally enjoy a full night's sleep again! Our reawakened will to live began to turn itself to matters of everyday necessity.
    After long effort and many consultations with the Russian hospital directors, we were finally begrudged a bit of water once a week for washing and shaving ourselves. We also received one razor, blade and bar of shaving soap for the lot of us. These were passed around from one person to the next until the blade was finally completely useless even for the coarsest blade of hair. It was only then that we would receive a new blade.
    The whole Stalingrad city water system was still completely paralyzed. Water was available only in one canyon several kilometers away, where it was fetched from a clear stream and dragged to the hospital in canisters. In exchange for bread, water carriers would full many of their comrades' dirty field canteens, who then irresponsibly drank the unboiled water directly out of them.
    Dysentery broke out, and with it came new misery - and new deaths -- into our lives. Within a short time, almost a tenth of the number of wounded survivors succumbed to dysentery.
    Slowly, though, Easter approached; our first major holiday in captivity. We all hoped at least to receive something a bit better to eat on this day, but found to our disappointment that the food was even worse than on regular weekdays. This was true for succeeding holidays as well. On Russians holidays especially, we were regularly forgotten -- otherwise the bakeries would not have been able to cover the civilian demand for extra bread.
    One sunny April day, however, there was another change for the better. The Russian hospital commander discovered an old friend among the wounded in the hospital, a German air force doctor with whom he had studied together many years before in Vienna. The reunion of the two was very touching, just like any between two good friends who had not seen each other for a long time.
    The air force doctor was immediately made head of the German hospital, a distinct improvement for us. The reason for this change, the Russian commander told the lined-up personnel, was that the German doctor knew how to handle one of the factors that made German soldiers so ill - the differences between German and Russian lifestyles. Unfortunately, our lifestyle could not be improved here. "I know what you need," the commander announced, "potatoes, vegetables and meat. I will do everything in my power to improve your situation, but you must understand that the city of Stalingrad still lies in rubble. Because of this, procuring provisions is extremely difficult, sometimes even impossible."
    And this sympathetic commander left us, promising in spite of everything to see to the improvement of the food rations as soon as possible. He would also arrange to ensure better clothing, care and cultural diversion. At the same time, he informed us that a large commission headed by a Russian general was planning to visit the hospital. Finally, the commander urgently ordered us to support him in his efforts for the betterment of our situation through personal cleanliness and obedience, and also to have a little more courage to continue going on. Things would get better soon. We would even be able to write home in the foreseeable future.
    Indeed, a few days later, we were each allowed to write one postcard with 25 words each. We turned these cards in with little hope because, of course, there was still a war going on. We were later told that the cards had been dropped down behind the German front lines by Russian airplanes, but had not been passed on by the German troops.