7. Convalescing

    The next morning, the train pulled onto a local track and into a small woods, where it finally stopped. The trip had lasted eight days, and we were now at our destination. Hidden deep in the woods near the station, in the midst of an exceedingly still, dreamy landscape, was  sanatorium "K".  A huge, stately stone building greeted us promisingly, and a breath of relief went from man to man. We had arrived at our new home.
    The accompanying Russian commando ripped open the doors of the cars. Many of us could not get off by ourselves, but help was waiting. Stretchers stood ready in long rows beside their accompanying personnel. Italian prisoners of war carried the critically ill, while Russian nurses in their white aprons and caps helpfully supported those who were crippled or physically weakened.
    In the warm entrance hall, the new arrivals were instructed to remove all articles of clothing and tie them up with the rest of our personal belongings, to be left behind with name tags attached.  Only a spoon, a tobacco bag and pictures were allowed to be taken inside. With the assumption that our things would be returned to us after delousing, everyone naturally took with them only the bare necessities.
    We were mistaken, however. We never saw our clothing again, and many very valuable souvenirs were lost. We later discovered that the whole lot of clothing had been deloused, washed, repaired if necessary and stored in a large warehouse.
    From the large entrance area we were sent to the baths. Passing a long mirror as we filed by, I caught sight of my naked body for the first time in several months.  I recoiled in horror. Could that really be me? Could there exist a human being who looked so wild and unclean? Eyes deeply shrunk in their sockets, backbone protruding; my whole body was nothing but skin and bones.
    We each received a piece of soap, and were allowed to wash ourselves thoroughly in the warm showers. Those who were extremely ill, weak, crippled, amputated or otherwise disabled were washed by the nurses from head to toe, as if they were small children. It was quite a rare sight -- 20-, 30-, even 40-year-old men and older sat or lay helpless in nurses' arms, who washed and dried them as they would tiny infants. The nurses didn't even need to use much strength, as most of the men weighed less than 50 kilograms. After an extremely thorough sanitary inspection, each man finally received a set of underwear, some wooden clogs and a thin cape. We were then led across the courtyard and over a small meadow into another ward. There, we climbed up the large steps and walked through a long hallway in which posters of Stalin, Molotov and other Russian leaders hung on the walls. The place had everything: high, wide double windows, steam heating, electric lights, wall-to-wall carpeting, running water, even window niches with seats. We felt as if we were in a fairyland; we had never imagined the change would be like this.
    After we reached the top floor, doctors came and began assigning us temporarily to rooms. In each room there were beds with white sheets, and if the number did not suffice, straw sacks were spread out on the floor and likewise covered with white sheets. Each patient had his own sleeping area complete with a pillow and blanket. We let ourselves fall into bed, feeling newborn and released, and soon the whole house was fast asleep. That night, the nurse on duty came around and jotted down our personal information.
    Thorough health examinations were begun the next morning, and we were assigned individually to sick wards. X-rays were taken, medications distributed and special diets were ordered. All in all, we were quite impressed that the promises of the commission of doctors which had visited us in Stalingrad had been so well met. We were at the beginning of our road to recovery -- about that there was no doubt.
    The food was well prepared, but in light of the great requirements of our bodies, by no means sufficient. Although we pleaded with the doctors again and again to try to increase our portions somewhat, the rations remained the same.
    In spite of this, we slowly recovered. Each of us felt clearly that at least things were no longer going downhill. Daily washing, weekly baths, regular delousing, monthly x-rays, blood pressure checks and transfusions, controlled medication, regular meals; all of this was leading slowly but surely to our recovery.
    On the other hand, we all became deathly bored. We were not allowed to linger outside the rooms, which were so fully occupied that we could barely move around. In spite of the forbidding rule, some of the soldiers met again and again in the halls, smoking cigarettes and exchanging their thoughts, hopes and wishes.
    The number of deaths had decreased so much that anyone who was requested by a dying man to inform his loved ones (if he had the opportunity) of the circumstances surrounding the latter's demise was more than willing to accept the responsibility. No official announcements were ever sent to relatives, nor were records kept so that announcements could be sent after the war.
    The Russian nurses behaved with great reserve. They brought meals and medications and performed the necessary sanitary procedures.  From time to time, they did bed checks, often taking with them our latest personal souvenirs. They tried to fulfilled our every wish, insofar as it was in their power to do so. There were never personal conversations, however.
    The most reliably-supplied provision was tobacco --1OO grams per week. It was the only product we (smokers and non-smokers alike) could use to barter with one another. We traded it for bits of bread or soup, as of course there was nothing else available.
    The least reliable provision was the bread. Before, in Stalingrad, the delivery of bread had been extremely irregular, and nothing had changed here. It would often arrive only late at night, still hot from the oven, and would then be distributed immediately. Often whole pieces of potato and sugar beets could be found inside the bread. One time, a fresh loaf of bread was cut into, and raw dough came oozing out from the middle. Distribution was halted immediately, and the rest of the bread was immediately whisked away. Unfortunately, it was not replaced.
    Daily political and military debriefing was neither forgotten nor neglected. Every evening, a Russian officer went through the rooms and read out a German translation of the Russian armed forces report, and in this manner we were kept up to date on the latest events on all fronts.

    In the meantime, winter arrived. The few radiators in the large rooms were not at all sufficient, and it became cold and uncomfortable. We lay shivering under our blankets and never ventured out of our beds, except at meal times.
    At Christmastime, the managers of the sanatorium ordered large Christmas trees to be placed in all corridors, which were free to decorate with shredded paper. No further preparations were made by the Russians to differentiate this day from any other, but we were still very grateful for this gift of the trees.
    Some days before the holiday, many men began saving something from their meager rations, mostly bread and sugar, so that they would be able to at least eat one full meal on the Holy Night. Using the sugar they had saved and some fat, soldiers braised themselves some candy sticks on the stove in the corridor which was used for heating water for hot compresses. We attached green pine branches to the beds.
    One of our comrades made a short speech, reminding us how much our situations had changed for the better. When he favorably compared our situation, with our nice, regulated lives, to the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, one of the men began to scoff at this. We tried to make him understand our feelings, telling him that if he had never celebrated this beautiful festival at home before, he now had the opportunity to learn about it.  Then, when the slanderer continued his harangue, trying to spoil the harmony of the moment, he was quickly shown the door. Later, we sang Christmas carols and then retired to our beds, each one of us lost in our own thoughts. Finally, we all slept. A Russian nurse listened to our celebration without saying a single word.
    It was the same on New Year's Eve. Perhaps even quieter, even lonelier. Everyone was lost in his own thoughts. "What fate would the next year bring?" was the mute question in everyone's mind. Many were discouraged and downhearted, and others tried to comfort and console them with assurances that the war would end soon, and when it did we would surely be able to return home.
    But nothing happened of the kind. The long winter continued, and spring came even later than usual to this high country.

    Patients who were somewhat recovered were assigned to the so-called work ward, and I assumed that I would eventually be transferred there as well. After thorough inspection by a Russian doctor, I was diagnosed as limitedly fit. I went to the work ward and received a small increase in rations, which was exactly what I wanted. As I had assumed, the work was easy and lasted only a few hours. We were put to work shoveling snow, cutting wood, in the store rooms or in the kitchens.
    Through these jobs, I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with the surroundings of the sanatorium. The whole complex was made up of five large stone buildings in the middle of the forest, surrounded by double rows of barbed wire. Day and night, Russian guards stood watch at various watchtowers with raised bayonets, and other guards armed with machine guns patrolled regularly up and down the length of the barbed wire.
    l was very happy to have this extra measure of freedom and movement, but I was unfortunately able to enjoy it only for a short time. In just a few days, I came down with a high fever and suddenly lost consciousness while l was cutting wood. I was brought back into the sickroom on a stretcher. l had pushed myself too far -- the few days had weakened me so much that for months I was no longer able to work. In addition, my old frostbite wounds had opened up again, and at first I could not even move about.
    And this had all happened because of my overzealousness. People are never satisfied, whatever happens to them. In my hunger, I had only seen that the others who were working outside got more to eat, without even realizing that they also expended much more energy. How much more reasonable it would have been to have stayed in my own bed until I was more fully recovered!
    One day, however, the order came for all semi-recovered patients to be ready to work. A daily labor detail marched off early in the morning to a far-off peat factory. There, they were expected to perform extremely hard work under strict observation and harsh treatment. After returning the winter clothing they had been issued in the morning, the commando returned late each night to the ward, dead-tired. Starving, they turned like wolves on the Kascha (Russian gruel) and cabbage soup. The peat was brought in big baskets up a narrow gangway and loaded into waiting freight cars; the distance between the loading and unloading was about 50 meters. Some of the guards were reasonable and allowed short breaks from time to time, but at other times the men were forced to continued to work, amidst curses and screams.
    One comrade told us that this work presented them with opportunities to speak to some of the civilians, who were quite curious about the fate of the prisoners and extremely interested in forging personal relationships with them. They especially showed great sympathy when told that we were not allowed to write to our loved ones. They often became greatly exasperated when they heard that we were not allowed to have any connection with our homeland.
    (Here, it seems necessary to mention that the Russians had explicitly refused to join the International Red Cross, which handled the transportion of war prisoners' mail, until long after the war ended.)  As a result of these conversations, a lively black market was established and flourished. The Russians were interested in clothing, soap and sugar, and offered bread, grains of corn and tobacco to the hungry soldiers in return.
    The doctors made their daily rounds, and nurses noted the recommended medicines and diets for each patient on memo pads made by hand from old newspaper sheets. The doctors went over everyone's complaints in detail. Often a so called "last wish meal" was specially prepared for terminally ill patients who had lain without appetites for days and weeks or who had just undergone operations. Whatever the patient desired was, as far as possible, fulfilled. And what did the most of the poor sick German soldiers ask for in their last hours? A large portion of fried potatoes, so that they could have a full stomach again at least once. It is significantly telling that most of them experienced their last great joy in the fulfillment of this very modest wish.
    In February, the first transport of recovered men was loaded up, destination unknown. The order came suddenly, as did all Russian orders. Its effect on those left behind was more than sobering. It was a beginning, and everyone had to deal with the fact that they might be included the next time. There was nothing more dreaded than a rail transport during winter and so, as we were all only human, every man tried to ensure his stay in the hospital at least through the winter. Every attempt was made either to hush up or delay a complete return to health.
    However, one still very cold evening in the end of March, an order suddenly came to clear out the whole Sanatorium within a few hours, as a new transport of sick men was to arrive soon. The last spoonfuls of gruel had not even been consumed when the nurses appeared and read off the names. Almost every man was on the list.
    With no time to prepare anything, we were quickly passed in front of an inspection committee and then led into the basement to put on our clothes. Each man was handed a set of underpants, a shirt, Fusslappen, a uniform, coat, boots, hat, waist belt and bread bag. Everything was done in great haste. Through trading, most of us tried to make the clothing fit our bodies at least somewhat.
    Then, after having thus put some 1500 men in the state of utter confusion for several hours, the officials suddenly discovered that we didn't have to be loaded onto the train until the next morning. We were subsequently crowded together like herrings and locked inside the washrooms of the wards to spend the night.
    At the break of dawn the next morning we were driven into the courtyard, where a train was waiting. After loading 40 men into each wagon, the doors were locked and barred with barbed wire. We waited in vain for our departure, which we assumed must certainly come any minute after such haste. But night came, and we were still sitting in the train, freezing and hungry, in the courtyard. In each wagon there was a small stove, but no wood available, and (as we were locked in) also no way for us to find any.
    Near noon the next day, prisoners in every car began to stamp their feet and scream "We are hungry; give us something to eat!" The watchguards ran from car to car and ordered silence, but as soon as they had turned their backs on one car, the noisy racket began again from within the others. At last the commanding officer for the transport took the trouble to go down the train personally and announce that food would soon be distributed and that our departure would take place shortly.
    Provisions finally came late that night: six hundred grams of bread, a half a tablespoon of lard and a teaspoon of sugar. No warm drinks or soup.
    The cars were counted yet one more time. Guards came with hammers and inspected the closed cars, knocking on each and every wooden plank in order to make sure that there was absolutely no chance of escape. We were not allowed to have any wood to light the stoves.
    Finally a locomotive was attached to the front of the cars, and our journey began in the middle of the ice-cold night. Pressed close together on the bare floor of the cars, we tried to keep each other warm by sharing body heat, which we hoped would allow us to get at least a little sleep.
    The trip took five days. Every morning the door was opened, and we were counted and the same rations distributed. Judging from the position of the sun, we determined that we were heading mainly west or southwest, doubtless to some warmer area.
    Finally, in the middle of the sixth night, we stopped at station "X."
    We were forced outside immediately, and marched up to a large wooden door near the station. Searchlights lit up the contours of what seemed to us to be a large camp surrounded by a high wooden fence. The doors finally opened after we had stood some two hours outside. In the dark, we could only recognize the outlines of large wooden barracks.
    We were registered that very night. In a large hall, our names were read off one by one, and we were deloused and brought before a committee of doctors. Many of the prisoners collapsed, having stood waiting around for hours in the cold after not having eaten anything warm for days.
    A committee of doctors pronounced the whole lot of us weak and undernourished in general. The news that we had arrived at a convalescent rest home triggered a great wave of gratification and joy. The following weeks brought rest indeed. The food was so abundant that we could not finish it all in the first few days. There was fish soup -- one liter three times a day, a half liter of porridge, 600 grams of bread, a spoonful of butter, sugar, vitamins, dessert and coffee with milk. Prisoners who were critically ill also received white bread and a special diet.
    A Jewish female doctor was in charge of our ward. She cared for us extremely conscientiously and was especially concerned with cleanliness and regularity of meals.  Italian prisoners were in charge of cleaning and taking care of the sick. We could hardly believe our fortune in those first few days, and ate with silent gluttony. We were convinced only little by little that we were no longer dreaming, and as we became happier and happier, we progressed further and further on the road to our recoveries.
    Our Jewish doctor was strikingly friendly. We took complete confidence in her and brought her all our requests. Mostly, we would request something to do with our many long free hours, and she did what she could to comply. One of the prisoners who belonged to the "Free Germany" National Committee was put in charge of providing diversions. Each ward received a newspaper, and chess sets were constructed. Every Sunday there was a special event: a concert by a music band consisting of the so called "original" prisoners of the hospital. This was a moving experience for us each time.
    I will never forget when this band stood in front of us and gave their first performance. Most of us had tears in our eyes; we were so ecstatic, so overawed, so richly gifted. In our faces was mirrored a new joy in life and a new will to survive, and each one of us had found new courage. There were no more hungry stomachs, and we felt for the first time since our imprisonment that we were in a place where people respected our pains, and did not regard us simply as prisoners and as enemies. We spoke again about the future, expecting that the war would soon end and we would be ab[e to go back home again. We read as much in almost every issue of the "Free Germany" newspaper, and were expressly told as much during our daily political debriefings.
    It was the year 1944. The Russians would not send anyone home who was sick, it was said. Only those who were well had any chance of returning home soon after the war ended. Encouraged by these words, prisoners would take pictures of their loved ones in their hands again and again and vow to themselves to do everything in their power to regain their health so that some time they would be able to see their homes once more.

    Spring came once again to the Russian countryside. The snows began to melt, and the weather grew warmer day by day. The whole area surrounding the hospital carried the fragrance of fresh life to our rooms. Each day was truly a new gift.
    If especially requested, the doctor would allow us to take walks for a couple of hours by ourselves through the halls of the hospital. We were allowed to do light jobs and easy, safe exercise under the watch of the orderlies.
    Everything was perfectly organized. There was only one problem (which will probably never be eliminated in this country) that followed us everywhere we went: bugs. Especially the bedbugs were very effective in preventing us from spending even one completely restful night. Interestingly, these brutes seemed to be very choosy.  They always appeared to be interested in only a single blood type, and there were some feverish prisoners whom they would leave completely alone.
    Otherwise, life was very good here, and we lived peacefully from one day to the next. We had no idea what was happening in the area surrounding us, as the camp was surrounded by a high wooden fence. We hardly ever saw Russian soldiers, and it was quite a relief for once not to be accompanied by guards at every turn. Russian commissions came, from time to time. On those days the food was especially good. On the following days, however, we unfailingly had to pay for this lavish expenditure with reduced rations.
    In the end of May a new change occurred. Suddenly and unexpectedly, as always, we received orders to move out. Russian soldiers drove us out of our rooms with their usual haste, to which we were already quite accustomed. With our mouths full and pieces of food still held in our hands, we were again chased out of the camp gates within minutes. All at once, an icy atmosphere dampened our good spirits -- whether out of fear of the unknown or the eerie feeling of being treated like prisoners and enemies once again, I am not sure.
    There was a noteworthy exchange of words between one Russian officer and our head doctor. The doctor had been watching our departure from the doorway and noticed that there were some men among the prisoners rushing hurriedly by who were still limping or otherwise handicapped. As she immediately commanded orderlies to bring around Russian panje horse carts for these prisoners. Then she went down the lines and pulled some fifteen men out.
    In the process, she had a strong argument with the Russian transport leader, a major. In a rather harsh tone of voice, he told her that she didn't need to show us any sympathy, as the Russian prisoners in Germany were not treated particularly well either. The doctor emphatically insisted on her position, however; saying that it was her business and that she held strictly to her medical ethics. There developed an extremely vicious argument between the two. The major commanded the prisoners who had been pulled out to immediately fall back in line. The doctor, whose voice became louder and louder, insisted that her instructions be followed. Finally the officer, with mighty curses, walked out on the transport and sent a replacement to take over. The prisoners who had been singled out went, as ordered, into the horse carts.