8. Central Camp

    We had to march a distance of approximately fifteen kilometers. In the beautiful spring weather, the exercise would have been especially good for all of us if there had not been so many who were still in extremely weakened condition due to their prolonged illnesses. There were many prisoners who fell behind and had to be loaded onto the horse carts.
    A narrow sandy wooded path led southwest through deep forests and past small villages, swamp lands, large ponds and marshes. There were no traces of the war or its destruction here. The residents went about their business or stood at the edges of the path, watching the passing of the long line of prisoners with more surprise than hate in their eyes. We were closely guarded, allowing no opportunity to speak to the civilians. We were pressed again and again to move faster, and again we passed out of the forest. A huge camp loomed ahead on the right, hidden between trees and bushes. We assumed we were already at our destination, but were soon to be disappointed. A uniformed Russian woman with a raised bayonet paced back and forth in front of the entrance to the camp. Watch towers surrounded the camp, which was enclosed by a high wooden fence with barbed wire. Faces of all ages of women looked down on us with pitiful expressions from the top windows of the barracks. This, we soon learned, was a civilian women's prison.
    Some hundred meters farther down a forest path, we espied a group of these women at work. They were carrying heavy logs which they struggled with all their might to stack up at the edge of the forest. Commando calls rang out. It seemed to us that the work was much too difficult for these women. Even in our own not especially enviable situations, the plight of these Russian women was sincerely painful to see.
    Our marching column became longer and longer. We were quite curious to see what the next camp would look like. Shortly before nightfall, l discovered a small village on the horizon. Behind this village was our new prison camp, which we finally reached just as the sun sank in the west. A huge Russian star decorated the large entrance gate, which was already lit up when we arrived. We gathered together in an open area inside the walls. At first glance, I immediately recognized a large number of long barracks. Even though it had already grown dark, there was still much activity within. Soldiers rushed here and there. The din of voices of the German prisoners penetrated out of the large electrically-lighted rooms. Smallish pots with steaming soup were carried by. It was not much different from the hubbub and ado in a German barracks; that was our first impression.
    With a dog on a leash, the German camp commander appeared. He was a large, powerful sergeant, a sporty type with riding boots and officer's pants with fancy stripes. Swinging his riding whip, he was the living embodiment of the typical Prussian corporal. Judging from his appearance, his power and authority seemed to have no bounds.
    The whole atmosphere in the next few minutes reeked of pure Prussian barrack life and military spirit. With a far-reaching commando voice, he bellowed out over the square "Music to the Appellplatz!" A few seconds later, we heard shouts of "Stand straight.  Eyes forward!  Eyes left!  Reporting to the commander!" from the direction of the camp gate. We could not believe our ears.
    An older, pot-bellied music conductor ran to the commandant, assumed his position ― left hand on his pants seam, fists pressed fast on his upper thigh, right hand saluting his hat ― and reported: "Musicians completely assembled as ordered, sir!"  This was indeed a nice state of affairs: army life again, just like before. Above all, this was what really distinguished our new camp from the others.
    Admittedly, none of us felt much up to this atmosphere ourselves. Dog tired and hungry as we were, we could not have even imagined a greeting such as this. A small smile went from man to man; gloating smirks, even individual guffaws, which ended in embarrassed coughing fits.
    The musicians played, "Old Comrades", a good old traditional march.  The final notes had barely been sounded when the commandant began his greeting speech, very passing under the circumstances, to his new "lambs" (as he called us in a snarling voice).  He assured us that he would soon bring us into his "fold".
    From then on, things happened relatively quickly. Registration, division into groups, transfer of the sick (including myself) into the camp hospital, allocation of rooms, distribution of meals, and finally off to bed; all this was done in the space of something less than two hours.
    Awaking the next morning to the well-known shrill whistle and shout "Aufstehen! (Get up!)" of the sergeant on duty, I realized that the hospital ward was quite crowded. There were long rows double beds  with straw bags, bedsheets and blankets. The orderly on duty ordered us to wash up make our beds, and eat breakfast. Soup was brought into the barracks in kegs and distributed by the orderlies. Each of us received 3/4 liter of Kapusta soup and 200 grams of bread, after which our temperatures were taken. At 8:00 a doctor came around, accompanied by the attending nurse. The loudspeakers in each and every barrack continuously spewed out music, Russian news, then more music.
    At 10:00, a propagandist from the Antifa (antifascists) arrived.  In the name of the "Free Germany" National Committee, he addressed a short greeting to the newcomers, ending with a summons to join the committee. He distributed a newspaper printed in German called "Free Germany" which focused on the goals and tasks of the movement. He also let it be known that he was personally responsible for arranging our services and entertainment, as well as spiritual motivation.
    At around 11:00 musicians arrived to play for our entertainment until lunch, which was again Kapusta soup, bread and gruel. Thereafter, rest in bed. We spent the afternoon hours playing chess, checkers and other games. We were also able to borrow books from a large reading room in the camp, which held many volumes in German by Goethe, Schiller and other masters, as well as the naturally favored Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and so on.
    There was yet another round of Kapusta soup, bread and coffee at 6:00 in the evening, whereafter our temperatures were taken and medicine was distributed. Lights out was at 9:00. The next morning I was ordered to report to our "uncle," as we called the local political commissar. The orderly brought me,wearing a light robe over my underpants and shirt, to a different building where "uncle" had his office.
    The commissar offered me a seat and then came directly to the point.  He wanted to know where I had been taken prisoner, what state I was from and what I had done before the war. He spoke fluent German, and his questions were quite precise. I realized from his accent that he was from Saxony. When he heard that I had formerly worked in Saxonia, he wanted me to tell him how large the train station in "X" was and where the Leuna- and Bunawerke chemical factories were located. I was not able to tell him, however. During the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he had lived in Chemnitz until emigrating to Russia. He then wanted me to sketch a general layout plan of the Halle airfield, which I was also unable to perform. Finally, he asked me if I was a member of the "Free Germany" National Committee. I answered this question in the negative, pointing out as an excuse that I was still quite sick. In addition, I was of the opinion that as a prisoner I could do nothing to help my country, and I had never before been involved in politics.
    He then retorted that politics was everyone's duty, and that it was high time for us to act if we wanted to save Germany. Germany had to take its fate in its own hands when the war ended, and no one should be standing on the sidelines. If those who were still in the homeland did not yet see the writing on the wall, then it was up to us, who had been so betrayed at Stalingrad, who certainly knew better than most how senseless the struggle had become and how imminent the fall of Hitler's government, to make preparations. The intensity with which he spoke naturally made a great impression on me, especially when he continued by saying that it was mainly the officers and soldiers who had been at Stalingrad who had committed themselves to this movement. I was certainly also one of this group, wasn't l?
    In order to bring the discussion to an end, I promised the commissar to think things over once again. Only then was I free to go, with the comment that he would ask me about it again later. I was quite worried about the issue for a long time afterward, but never could come to a decision.
    Other prisoners ― some sixty a day ― were similarly debriefed by the political commissar. Approximately half of them decided to join the National Committee. In this way, so-called Antifa activists were established in every camp. They were in charge of carrying out the political indoctrination of the war prisoners, and were active propagandists. Everything possible was done to organize a sufficient force of politically-schooled power which, upon the soldiers' return to Germany after the war was lost, would be able to "democratize" Germany in terms of the Russian concept of the word. Those who were willing and able, and who spoke Russian well enough, were sent by and by to anti-fascist schools in Moscow or Kiev to be trained in a six-month intensive course in Communist-Marxist theory. The main subjects of study were the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, along with a thorough study of the Soviet State and especially of the Communist Manifesto, in which the rights and duties of Soviet citizens are set down. Naturally, the first prisoners to be chosen were those who were either communists themselves or whose parents were members of the Party. Confirmed communists as well as those who had suffered at the hands of fascism enjoyed many advantages.
    All the preferred work positions ― kitchen helpers, bakers, orderlies, camp directors, secretaries, in short, all the managerial and service positions -- were filled by members of the Antifa. It often happened that, even for a job such as peeling potatoes, we would be asked who belonged to the Antifa, and non-members would immediately be sent away and assigned to a normal hard labor column.
    l recovered somewhat in the few weeks after having arrived at the Central Camp. My greatest desire was to leave the narrow, musty sick rooms for once and for all, and to live a life of relative freedom together with the other healthy soldiers. The danger of contracting a contagious disease was much higher in the sick wards than in the other barracks, and there were bugs everywhere. In this camp, which was actually meant for convalescents, patients were not treated well at all. Men whose conditions worsened or who required lengthy treatment were often sent back to the sanatorium.
    One day quite some time after the beginning of spring, I too was transferred. Because of my heart trouble, I was assigned to the invalid company (Group 3). This group consisted of severely wounded, amputees, deaf-mutes, and blind and lame men; all victims of the terrible last days of Stalingrad.
    The situation of these prisoners was pitiful. Even for the most basic necessities, they were dependent on the mercy and aid of the other prisoners. Unfortunately, the camaradie among these men was not always as unselfish as it should have been, and they often had to offer up their last piece of bread to receive a helping hand.
    Imprisonment was much harder on them than on us, as they had to endure not only the pain of their own sufferings, but also the much more acute, gnawing torture of being outcast and abandoned. I spent many hours speaking words of consolation to these poor men, or trying to cheer them up through conversation or distraction.
    One day, I sat at the feet of a man whose young wife and three children were waiting for his return. In the fires at Stalingrad, he had lost his eyesight. He related to me in stilted words what had happened in that most terrible hour of his life:
    "It was the night before the capitulation. There was street fighting all over Stalingrad. The remnants of the German army, pressed together into a narrow area, no longer had any idea how to withstand the superior force of the Russians. I was fighting side by side with my comrades in a burning street, always acutely aware of the danger of being hit by pieces of falling buildings. I had to make a break out of a street which was being cased out by the Russians, when at that very moment a hand grenade burst right next to me. I felt a burning pain in my head and lost consciousness.
    "A few hours later, I came to again, and found myself in the ruins of a house near the scene of the battle. A horrible pain shot through my eyes. My hands went to my head and then drew back, repulsed. I felt a bandage, wet and probably soaked with blood. Everything was dark around me.
    "And it stayed dark in me from that hour on. If I had been treated properly at that time, one of my eyes might have been saved, at least. Instead I lay unattended for days in a bunker, until finally an emergency medical team was ordered after tbe capitulation. For me, however, it was already too late."
    I felt the trembling of his voice when he said these words. Slowly and painfully, he continued:
    "How gladly I would have born all the pain and misery here, if only l could have hoped to return home just once and gaze upon my beloved wife and children again!"
    Now, he only wished to die as soon as possible. I talked to him often, trying to distract him or reading to him out of books borrowed from the reading room. He was interested in everything that was happening in the camp. Often he offered good pieces of advice, deploring this thing or complaining about that. One thing that pained him especially was the heartlessness with which he was often treated by his comrades.
    Of course, it wasn't easy for any of us. But the thought that I at least did not have to lay blind or without arms or legs or lamed or crippled for life, or have to go home and meet loved ones in such a condition gave me constant renewed strength to go on. It was an encouragement of sorts to many others as well, spent much time worrying over their own situations in all earnestness.
    In the next days, I learned greatly about life in the camp from my daily rounds. Coincidentally, I ran into two men from my  home state for the first time since my imprisonment. We were ecstatic. They had both been missing since 1942, and they listened with great excitement to everything that l had to report about our home towns up to when I was taken prisoner in 1943.
    One of these men had been taken prisoner under very peculiar circumstances. He had been in the infantry, engaged in the combat sector. He was buried by a grenade during a Russian counterattack, and was later found by Russian soldiers and unearthed. They had dragged him on the ground to the next dug-out bomb shelter, where he was interrogated and then transported off to a rural area. He later ended up in a work camp in Siberia and became sick within six months, and was then transferred to a local transit camp. He didn't want to talk much about Siberia. He only said over and over again that it was terrible, and that it couldn't compare at all to our present situation.

    Our camp was approximately eight hundred square meters, surrounded by a high wooden fence with barbed wire. There were tall watch towers on each of the four corners, which were manned by guards with machine guns 24 hours a day. At night the prohibited zone was lit up by searchlights. Signs warned that entry into this area would be at the risk of one's life; not only for prisoners, but also for civilians outside the camp. Once, the watch guards shot down a woman who had not heeded their calls after straying into the zone.
    Outside the camp was a narrow birch grove, and behind that, the immeasurably deep forests that only can be found in Russia. In these forests, two companies from our camp worked at clearing the land under unbearably difficult conditions. Trees were cut down and stockpiled. A quota was set that was supposed to be fulfilled daily.  Although it could never realistically be met, it was the only way the workers could receive an increase in their daily food rations.
    Then at one point, the soldiers hit upon an extremely delightful plan: they laid the wood in stacks from outside to inside, leaving the inside space hollow. This was done so cleverly that the Russian supervisors did not realize it for quite a while. It was only when the logs were brought back into the camp that the Russians noticed that there were hundreds of cubic meters fewer of actual logs than the number which had been reported. At that point they finally realized how this could have been possible, but they could do nothing to change the situation.
    The soldiers really knew how to improve their lots by using such roguish tricks. Ruses such as the one described above made it clear that the German soldiers were always ready and waiting to outfox the Russians with their proverbial resourcefulness, and they often succeeded. Of course, the company leader on duty at that time regularly had to pay for such unfortunate occurrences. Most of the time, he would be relieved from his position and replaced by an officer or sergeant who was deemed by the Russians to be more capable.

    Another trick deserving of special mention was pulled by a unit assigned one spring to plant potatoes in one of the fields belonging to the camp. The soldiers found it terribly amusing to bury the potatoes in their uniforms rather than in the soil, and then to boil them, skin and all, at night at one of the fireplaces. The captured potatoes would either be consumed immediately with understandable gusto and enjoyment or, as often happened, traded for other marketable products in a lively black market. Later, when only a few potatoes sprung up, the trusting Russians were faced with a real puzzle. They had not expected such impudence from the hungry German soldiers.
    All these affairs were successful, however, only because the Russian commander in the camp was a very humane man. He overlooked the "weaknesses" of the prisoners with a magnanimous smile. Indeed, he was no neophyte in dealing with Germans: he had overseen the German prisoners at this very same camp during World War I as well.
    Even so, he was quite surprised when an older GI approached him and reported that he had been held in that very same prison camp during the previous war, and that he had immediately recognized the commander as his leader from that time. The commander had been quite accommodating in those days as well. His few odd words of broken German, acquired some 30 years earlier, sounded very funny to us. He was always simply amazed at the cleverness and intelligence of the prisoners, who all seemed to know how to hold out superbly in any situation.
    The prisoner from World War I verified that nothing else had changed at the camp in the meantime either. From 1917 to 1919, German prisoners had been held here as well and had to do the same kinds of labor. Only the accommodations seemed a bit better than they had been before.
    The previously-mentioned German camp commandant had in the meantime shown his true colors in such a way that it seems necessary to mention him again. He traversed the barracks, pathways and squares with long strides, in a different set of clothing almost every day. With a dog on a leash and a riding whip in his hand, in a white summer jacket, highly-polished boots, and a half-dozen rings on his fingers, he was boastful and uplifting at the same time. His challenging, provoking manner had the explicit approval of the Russian camp leadership. We were told again and again that we should comport ourselves as we had done while we were in the German army, as it was well known that German soldiers had undergone strict training.
    Naturally, there were also prisoners who fully enjoyed this military atmosphere and willingly let themselves be led around. Most of us, however, fully aware of our powerless situations as prisoners, took it all in quite laughingly. With our imprisonment, our lives as soldiers had come to an end.
    My portrait of this unique and certainly unforgettable commandant would not be complete if I did not mention the fact that, while other prisoners, particularly the sick and wounded, were living in hunger and deprivation, he was having meals prepared especially for him and served directly to his private room from the hospital kitchen on white porcelain china.
    A complete collection of bird cages decorated the walls of his tiny palace. Entry therein was granted only after previous announcement by his "housekeeper", and only to those who entered with the proper honorific behavior, after being duly invited. A huge sign "Camp Commander, Entry Here" glorified the entrance. He had flowers on his desk, pinups of naked women on the walls.
    The justice of God in time will, I am certain, set right the honorless doings of this man against his fellow countrymen and brothers in imprisonment.

    Our wonderful time in the Central Camp was slowly nearing its end. During the hot summer days, we sat outside on the grounds and lay on the grass or on self-made benches, passing the time with all kinds of diversions. Only the innumerable swarms of mosquitoes, present in every Russian swampland, plagued us greatly. It was these pests above everything else that most often made life difficult for us in those days.
    The rumor went around the camp that we would be transported shortly. It was even spoken of openly at one of the monthly medical examinations. and we noticed then that the Russian doctors were more thorough than usual. Individual groups were formed according to completely new criteria and, although we didn't know then what these new classifications meant, we could easily realize that some unusual things were happening. Even prisoners who until that time had had administrative positions and did only light work around the camp were included in the examinations and assigned to groups.
    Most significantly, even the company of defectors (who had crossed over to the Russians using a special pass dropped behind the German front lines) was treated no differently than we were. Before this, they had always enjoyed more privileges and had been better treated.
    There was a so-called international company as well. This consisted of war prisoners of various nationalities: French, Austrians, Italians, Rumanians and Hungarians. Each country had its own designating mark: the Austrians, for example, wore a red and white identification band on their hats; the French, a tricolor blue, white and red band on theirs. The Austrians acted especially important, constantly stressing the point that their country had been occupied by Hitler. They had their own National Committee and their own German-language newspaper called "Austrian News, for a free, independent Austria." Even this company was examined and classified into separate groups.
    One evening in the beginning of June, an immensely long line of new prisoners arrived at the huge gate of the camp. They looked as if they had had horrible times behind them. In rags, dirty and with long beards, they stared with thin, hollow faces and hungry looks at the life behind the large door.
    Two large barracks were cleared out in great haste and quarantined. Barbed wire was put up around the barracks, and we were strictly forbidden to approach the newcomers. Even so, as usual, our understandable curiosity found a way to satisfy itself. Although it would have been impossible in broad daylight, some were successful in finding out the most important details at night.  With these new prisoners came our greatest chance to learn the whole truth about the front lines; understandably, we never completely wanted to believe the stories of the Russian propagandists. 
    The transport had come out of the Tarnopol pocket.  They, too, had had a long, hard march behind them and were happy at least to rest a bit for the time being. The statements of the extremely deteriorated officers and men confirmed the news of the past few weeks about the successes of the Red Army attacks. It was true, then, that the German army had really been beaten back to near the German borders.
    They were unanimously of the opinion that the war could not last much longer; the front lines were frayed and frazzled and the people at home were tired of war life. A very few men, however, still had the audacity to assume that the war was not yet lost and that a new secret weapon would soon turn the tide.
    In Germany, constant bombings had made daily life quite agonizing. Many women, mothers with children, had to endure more hardships during the many nights of air raids than did the soldiers at the front lines, and we assumed from the newcomers' stories that their situations could possibly be even worse than ours.
    After the quarantine period was over, the new prisoners were also thoroughly examined and divided into three categories. The rumor of a transport in the very near future became more and more concrete. The more work that was done on outer preparations, setting up of short ladders, pails, water containers, etc., the more intense these rumors became. From the Russians, as usual, there was nothing but a very sinister aloofness. There was no learning anything from them about the possibility of a transport.
    The order to move out came suddenly in one of the last days of June. With the usual haste, to which we were now accustomed, the whole camp was herded together at the station within one short hour, whereafter we stood waiting for several more hours through repeated head counts, untold shouting and watchful guarding throughout.
    Around noon, a locomotive was brought around and cattle cars were hooked up. Lunch arrived at around the same time, sent from the camp ― a liter of cabbage soup per man, so thin that one could see right to the bottom of the tin can. This kind of soup had been an everyday occurrence for us, and no one had bothered to even carry a spoon for the longest time. Most of the time, war prisoners in Russia drank their soup down just as if it were coffee.
    The prisoners were quickly loaded into the cars, and as evening approached, the train started rolling away towards the northeast. Two days later we were in Moscow. The train stopped at the main station at night, and I again had the impression that Moscow was a city of a million lights. We would have been so happy to disembark.
    The Russian escort guards told us that a propaganda march of German war prisoners through the streets of Moscow was being planned, and we were to be part of it. We waited and waited. Morning came, and afternoon, and evening again, and we still stood in the same place at the Moscow Station. Our escort officers had disappeared into the city much earlier. We could do nothing but stamp our feet, knock on the doors, and beg and plead for someone to at least open the airlocks a bit. The mugginess in the cars and the heat from outside were unbearable.
    But nothing happened. Again, we spent the longest time waiting, excruciatingly. Then we finally heard the sound of doors opening. Rations were passed out -- a liter of watery gruel, and 600 grams of dry bread. We spent the next night again standing at the platform of the station. Then, at last, a locomotive was hooked up to the end of the train, heading in the opposite direction. There was one last head count, the cars were boarded up, the planks inspected and we started off on the same track in the same direction from which we had come. Even so, one can imagine how great out surprise was as we found ourselves at the very same place from which we had started out:  back at our own central camp!
    After much hemming and hawing, one man finally found the courage to ask the Russian camp commander what had happened. We then learned that other camps actually had been led through the main streets of the Russian capital. From all sides, the prisoners had been gawked at, photographed, and filmed on newsreels. We never did learn the exact reason for this parade and for our deliverance from it, but almost all were grateful that we had not been there.