In the next weeks, there were signs
of preparation for the reception of the previously heralded committee of
doctors. Several delousings were carried out and the hospital was thoroughly
scrubbed down from end to end. New lavatories were built, and existing
ones improved. The area within the enclosure of the broad courtyard was
also cleaned up. We lived each day in tangible excitement, in the hopes
that our circumstances would soon be change for the better.
The blue sky lay over the landscape in full spring splendor. The Pentecost holidays were approaching, and anyone who could walk, or at least hobble, spent the days outdoors in order to catch some sun or enjoy some peace and quiet under the shady trees. Officers and troops found themselves together in small, friendly groups. Some did handicrafts, others spoke of the homeland, still others listened to their comrades' lectures. Those who were gifted with their hands whittled chess figures, and spent hours playing the royal game in order to pass the time. There were daily reunions of soldiers who had not seen each other in months.
Every night, a Russian political commissar appeared and, with deep emotion, described the overwhelming successes of the Red Army on all fronts. The German troops were reported to be on a panicked retreat, and the distance between them and us increased day by day.
Shortly before the Pentecost, there was a general roll call, and the German camp commander announced the formation of a National Committee for a "Free Germany". Both he and the Russian commander entreated us to join this committee, but few did so immediately. However, with the ever farther-receding German front and the increasing hopelessness of the struggle of the German troops, more and more prisoners came to the realization that some changes would have to be made before the war came to the German borders. Little by little prisoners decided to join this movement which proposed to create and guarantee a new, democratic Germany.
Pentecost arrived, and shortly thereafter the high commission from Moscow arrived at our hospital, with its promised general and approximately 10 doctors. All the inmates were instructed to gather in their quarters and lay on their cots with their chests exposed. The commission, led by the Russian hospital commander, visited one ward after another, and even reviewed the basement rooms, halls, and bunkers. We didn't have to speak, complain or ask for anything. Our appearance said it all -- we made such a terrifying impression that the members of the commission just stood there, continuously shaking their heads at the sight of these wrecks of human figures.
l thought I was able to recognize in their faces a certain amazement that we were still able to cling to life under these circumstances. Over and over again, the general would stand beside one prisoner or another and ask him how he was and what he needed. Now and again, someone found the courage to answer him openly and honestly. In this way, the general learned the complete truth -- too little food, no drinking water, no change of clothes, scanty medical attention and all the rest. Silently, he listened to everything.
On the next day, a scale was brought in and each man was weighed. Most of us had not even half of our normal weight. Men in their prime with heights of 165 to 180 centimeters weighed only 38, 40, at most 50 kilograms.
In his rounds through the sick wards, the general assured us that things would soon get better. We should be patient. Even the food would improve as soon as the situation on the front was somewhat clearer.
The commission had hardly left the premises when, indeed, tangible improvement was noticable. We received a liter of soup twice a day now, instead of the half liter we had had before. The quality of the day food also improved. Before, 16 men had had to share one loaf of bread, but now the weakest ones began to receive a full quarter loaf. They were even given some sugar.
Everywhere, a new will to live blossomed. Many could not even finish the improved quantity of food in the first few days, as their stomaches simply could not take it all in. However, it was only a few days before we grew accustomed to the new amounts and slowly began to feel like we could eat even more. ' Our bodies began to react again, and pangs of hunger became commonplace. A remarkable improvement was noticable everywhere.
The German doctors now posted lists of patients who were mobile and in what manner: lying, sitting or limited walking. Our transport seemed imminent -- to where, no one knew, and it didn't matter. We all had just one wish -- to get as far away as possible from the ruins of Stalingrad, to any area untouched by the war. The citizens of Stalingrad still looked upon us as enemies who had destroyed their homeland, and originators of all the atrocities that had befallen the city.
One beautiful fall morning, we received orders to move out. Russian soldiers appeared in the halls and drove us out suddenly with great haste. The whole hospital was gathered together in the courtyard, and each prisoner was thoroughly inspected. Razor blades, knives, and all sharp objects were taken away, and we were only allowed to take one blanket. Thereafter followed one surprise after another.
The biggest one was several busses that drove forward to take the severely injured to the station. I was loaded onto one of them. On the long trip through the city, I witnissed the destruction of Stalingrad once again with my own eyes. Since the last time, much had changed. The rubble on the streets had for the most part been cleared off to the sides; houses had been hastily repaired. Large working groups of both men and women, including many prisoners, were diligently laboring to return some order to the chaos. It was especially surprising that the streetcars were already up and working again. At the Red Square, one woman with a half-dozen children had set up house in a shot-down Junkers cargo plane.
On that day, as usual, both weapons and vehicles were heading steadily towards the west, to their encounters with German troops who were trying as hard as they could to ward off the already long-sealed fate of their homeland.
Arriving at the station, we found a full-length Russian hospital train waiting on the tracks, complete with springbox beds decked with white sheets. We could not believe our eyes. Russian nurses who had been assigned to our care helped the most severely wounded out of the busses.
On the night before our departure, we received the thickest and most delicious soup that I ever tasted during my whole period of imprisonment. In the cleanly prepared hospital cars, we felt happy and safe, in spite of the pain of our wounds. Everything seemed so special to us.
A gorgeous star-lit night sank over the land. We could not close our eyes for pure joy and excitement. The especially lively conversation turned again and again to the same topic: where are we going? The especially friendly treatment and politeness that we received, not only from the nurses who had been assigned to us but from everyone in general, led some to believe that the war had already ended. The mood was magnificent.
As the day broke, the train finally pulled out of the station. Again, we greeted the city and surroundings of Stalingrad, the Volga and all of the silent locations which had been the stage of such great renunciation, disaster and death, but also of so many true friendships built on shared experiences. It was a parting which affected every last one of us. We thought of the many men who were no longer with us, who had suffered nameless deaths at the hands of a terrible destiny, who had met their untimely ends underneath rubble, in bomb-holes, in the rapids of the Volga or under ice and snow that lay on the endless steppes.
In this hour of departure from a part of our lives that was indelibly etched in our hearts, many of us began with a simple prayer of thanks to God for the fact that, in spite of all the hours that we had spent near death and all the months of hunger, we had received again the gift of life. Our future was still uncertain, but the most terrible part seemed already behind us.
Slowly, the train left the station. In the East, the sun rose up like a glowing fireball. As we travelled north, we became more and more caught up with the familiar melody of the rolling rails. Their monotonous but nostalgic tune brought a yearning for home to everyone on board. We sat or lay on our beds, dreaming, taking our last looks at the city of Stalingrad sinking beyond the horizon. Each one of us had the same thought in these hours: "When would these very same rails take us home?"
A new page of our lives had begun. The train continued, always following the Volga. Familiar landscapes appeared; landscapes from the days of battle, places that were linked with unforgettable memories. We were silently greeted by massive proportions of war paraphanelia: bunkers, trenches, fox-holes, grenade holes, shredded trees, etc. The further north we traveled, however, the more the scenery changed into a bucolic portrait of a landscape in peace. Again we saw undisturbed villages with their gray straw-roofed houses, and men in the fields who went peacefully about their work with tractors and plows, reaping immensely large grain fields.
The meals during the trip were good, very good - perhaps even too good. There was thick noodle soup with American jam, dry bread, lard and tobacco. The food was so rich that many of the patients quickly developed diarrhea and could hardly eat anything for the rest of the trip. The malady struck me too, and afterwards I could eat nothing but dry bread. Not everyone was able to endure the eight-day trip. Some died; others had to be left behind at stations on the way, as they would hot have survived further travel. I kept my own little-enviable situation a secret out of fear of not reaching our destination with the others. My condition grew noticeably worse, however, and I felt that I would not be able to stand much more.
The following night we arrived at the main station in Moscow. The huge amount of traffic and the intensity of the bright lights and neon signs astonished us. Back home, the cities and villages had been dark for several years, and yet here people were living as if there were no war at all.
Our stop was very brief. We started off again, still heading north. Soon Moscow was behind us, and we entered immense pine woods which stretched out for miles on both sides of the train. Towards noon, it was announced that we would soon be arriving at our destination. That day, as usual, a head count was taken to ensure that everyone on the transport was accounted for.
Naturally, there was almost no possibility of escape. Wherever the train stopped, a heavy watch patrol marched back and forth alongside the cars. I found this patrol a bit excessive, as most likely very few of us were in any shap to even dream of planning an escape. Outside, only uncertainty, hunger and death awaited us; especially as most of us were so weakened by our injuries or illnesses that we could barely even stand upright. First and foremost, we were a busy promising ourselves that as long as the quality of our meals continued, we would surely be able to regain our strength in no time.