Our "outing" to Moscow also marked
the end of our recovery period. We spent two more days wandering around
the camp, but the morning of the third day brought a new transport order.
This time we headed southwest, destination unknown. The Russians were much more taciturn than usual before our departure. They cleaned out the whole camp. Only the sick and a few members of the theater troupe and some artists stayed behind in the camp; even the new men from Tarnopol were taken with us.
After being loaded again into cattle cars, the doors were closed, locked and secured with barbed wire and iron lattices. This time, our departure was very quick.
It was unbearably hot in these last few days of July. The cars were so completely full that we could barely move, and within a short time the air became oppressively sultry. Near noon we found it next to impossible even to breathe, and we all thought we would suffocate. There was no ventilation in the musty livestock cars, and the hot July sun burned continuously over the roof.
After four hours, the train stopped at a station. Our pleading to open the doors a bit was ignored, even though we did receive some water. The night after next, the train stopped and stood still for several hours on the open road. We noticed that something unusual was up. There were cries and curses, and then flashlights were turned on us. Orders, commands. All the guards were on their feet. An officer and watch guard inspected each car thoroughly. We learned then that in the next car, two German prisoners had escaped. They had pulled the iron bars off the lattice and jumped off the moving train through the airlock at a curve. Somehow the Russian guard had caught sight of their getaway, and had immediately stopped the train.
The car from which the men had run off was especially ill treated. Exact details were demanded, and the prisoners were hit with rifle butts and pummeled with fists and boot kicks. The appointed elder of the car was treated much worse than the others, being held responsible for the approximately 50 men in his car.
The remainder of the night passed quietly. During the morning head count, the post entered our car and asked if there were any Germans present. My comrade and I had no sooner announced ourselves -- we had been traveling with a group of Rumanians -- than we were both slammed to the ground by rifle butts. He then ordered the elder in our car to make sure we were given no food or drink during the day. We were also not allowed to change our positions. We had to sit by the doors.
In the evening, the same thing happened. We shuddered as we heard the latches screeching. The guard came in and demanded, "where are the two Germans?" No sooner had he gotten inside the door than the kicks and beatings began again. The elder in the car was required to declare that he had followed orders in giving us neither food nor drink. As the guard left, l asked the elder why we were being hit. He, a Rumanian, replied that one German was the same as another, and that we were being forced to atone for the two that had run away.
Not all the Rumanians were so hard-hearted, however. Although they would have been severely punished if caught, some of them gave us something from the meager rations that they had received.
After two days, the guard received orders from his superior to allow us to receive rations again. We were to feel the effects of the escape of the two Germans, however, for some time to come, and the beatings became as much a part of our lives as our daily bread.
We left the swampy forest area behind us, and with it the blessedly peaceful (if not rich) landscape which had been behind the former front lines. We were traveling now through old battlefields in the Donez area. The surroundings were littered with debris of all kinds: shot up, burned out areas with destroyed bridges, torn-up iron railings, wrecks of airplanes, burned-out tanks and munitions trains. On the fourth day, we finally stopped at "Y" at the great bend in the Don, a city that had been almost completely destroyed .
The civilians of the town, clothed in rags, impressed us deeply. They stood in tatters at the stations and offered the few Russian passengers the modest products of their poor soil. Hunger was written in their eyes. The farther on we traveled, the more the picture outside transformed itself. Vast fields of sunflowers, sugar beets, potatoes and all kinds of grains attested to the fact that the farther west we went, the more the people had already succeeded in overcoming the horrors of the last few months and were back zealously at work in their fields. The people were better clothed in these areas, too.
On the seventh day, we stopped in Donez. Here too, the previously hotly contested (and much fought over) industrial city was marred by destruction. The piles of rubble in the center and especially at the industrial installations at the edges of the city reminded me with horror that my homeland, still suffering under the monstrous effects of air warfare, probably looked much the same.
Two days later, we arrived at our destination. The train stopped at a station in the late hours of the night. There was not much that was recognizable, except for few houses and sharply defined dark silhouettes, wide, sloping mountaintops, which seemed to rise to the heavens in the moonlit night. These silhouettes were a strange sight in this otherwise completely flat landscape. On the side tracks next to us stood coal wagons, a good half-dozen of them.
Conversation went on continuously through the night. Conjectures and rumors were planted, and grew like seeds in most fertile soil. Would the Russians really put us in the coal pits, some wondered. Others maintained that that would be crazy, "we have absolutely no training, and besides, its a violation of our rights". What rights do we have, I thought to myself at this; the Russians didn't recognize any even for themselves. Even the biggest doubters, however, tried to encouraged themselves by thinking ahead towards winter in the hopes that at least they would not have to freeze again in an area with so much coal available. The optimists assured themselves that we would certainly all receive three meals of gruel and bread per day, no matter where we ended up.
Without getting ahead of myself, l'd like to mention here how grossly we had deluded ourselves with our conjectures. We had nothing but a long period of suffering ahead of us; the extent of which, thank God, none of us were able to foresee.
The morning dawned slowly. It was July
29, 1944 - the day of our arrival. Little by little, the sun slowly rising
in the east freed the entire landscape from its darkness.
The long shadows were shooed away like monsters over the black mountains and disappeared in a few minutes. And what did we see?
Pithead towers and huge stone tailings?, surrounded by an extensive railway network in ail directions. A huge power facility. Water towers. And cramped together close to the individual shafts, human housing: tiny huts reeking of horrific poverty. In contrast, official buildings ― schools, hospital, and storehouses ― towered like skyscrapers next to the adobe huts. The outlines of the small town "A" greeted us from the distance.
The Russian accompanying officer had already announced the arrival of the transport to the prison camp commander of this large industrial area. Around noon, a locomotive shunted us another kilometer or so on a side track leading to a heavily ramified coal shaft.
We were all caught up in a great uneasiness: the certainty of having arrived at our destination with a more than uncertain future filled us with terror. Each of us had certainly been hoping in secret that we would drive right on, as we all knew full well that Russian mines were notoriously primitive. The thought of having to work underground under such conditions without any previous training filled us with consternation.
After we had stood around for hours, we were subjected as usual to unloaded in great haste with constant goading from the guards, who were gesturing like crazy. Dressed in rags and covered with coal dust, almost all of the civilian population had assembled with surprising alacrity; men and women with miners' lamps on their chests. They were ordered back by the guards, but they did not move. Instead they gradually dared to approach even closer, marveling at the large number of prisoners and bearning with satisfaction at the new sacrifices for the hard labor underground. Words of abuse were also hurled at us ― hateful words, the terrible meanings of which I cannot repeat here.
After the line of approximately 2500 men had organized itself, we marched through several streets until we stood before some large stone buildings. However, there was nothing to be seen of the camp about which we had been told when we were first unloaded. The massive stone buildings carried numerous traces of the war -- direct hits, potholes, missing window panes and doors, etc. In a free area in the middle of the block, we waited for what was to come. Finally, we were all called by name and immediately assigned to companies of 120 men each. Prisoners who could speak Russian were designated as company leaders.
A commission of doctors briefly inspected each prisoner one by one as we marched by and allocated us to categories according to the same classification system as before -- group 1, 2, or 3. We were then assigned to rooms, twenty men to each, so narrow that each man had only a square meter of room for himself.
The whole block was uninhabitable in its present state. There was no glass in the open window frames; no cots, no tables, no chairs. We had to set up camp on the bare floors, without straw, without blankets, without anything. There was neither electric light nor water. Cooks had been appointed from our midst and a source immediately set up a kitchen. They had been to carry water themselves from hours away after their other work was finished.
Shortly after our assignments on this first morning, the new camp was called together by an alarm bell (which was actually an iron rail bar) to an area near our small watchhouse which had been set up. Russian guards rushed through our rooms and drove us with curses and complaints together to the open area. A Russian major appeared and gave us a speech, in which he announced ― such a derision in this hour ― that he would treat us "like a father." We had been brought to this camp, he explained, in order to restore and work the mine shafts which had been destroyed by the previous German occupants and had since filled with water. Our times at the front were officially at an end; we were now soldiers of the reparation. It was up to us ourselves to renovate our camp within fourteen days and make it livable; there would be absolutely no help from the Russian side. He then pointed out to us that it would be essential to make some precautionary arrangements in preparation for winter.
Naturally, we were especially interested in these last orders to set up our own quarters. Certainly, none of us wanted to spend another cold winter without any protection.
The craftsmen in each company were pulled out and put to work on the necessary reparations of the destroyed blocks. Windows and doors were walled up, leaving only peepholes in the rooms and a single door to the outside. The materials for these reparations as well as for construction of primitive tables and cots were taken from a neighboring block, as were supplies for building ovens, a kitchen and a delousing station. The industriousness in the camp resembled that of an ant hill.
Our slowly emerging accommodations
were surrounded with triple layers of barbed wire, which were electrified
at night upon their completion. Watch towers were built on each of the
four corners, and large searchlights were put up. There was neither light
nor running water available for us. The most difficult problem we faced
was stocking the kitchen. Instead of the three meals a day we had become
used to, we now received only 3/4 of a liter of water gruel twice a day.
Prisoners who had already had experience in mine labor (and admitted as such) were assigned to a so-called shaft brigade in the first few days. One of the men in my unit reported that he had worked before as an overseer at a mine in the Ruhr. He received orders immediately to put men who seemed suitable through a short-term training session. After fourteen days, the first brigade had to be ready to go to work ― these were the orders of the camp commander. Whoever worked underground would receive an extra ration of 400 grams of bread in addition to sugar, lard and an especially thick soup with preserved meat. The work would be "particularly interesting and diversified," and would be compensated as soon as the war ended. As everything began to run more and more smoothly, we began to believe that life would become better for us.
Indeed, we no longer needed to wait hours in line to receive our meals. They were carried in vats to the individual blocks and distributed in half-rusted tin cans. A few days later, an order came to begin taking our meals in the so-called dining room. Here however, whenever the rations were distributed, especially at dinnertime, the lack of organization often led to large-scale fistfights.
As already mentioned, there was no light in the rooms, so we managed by taking turns during the day cutting wood chips which would then be lit up at night during distribution of the evening meal. Even with these preparations, however, it was impossible to ensure successful organization.
Even more terrible than all this proved to be the lack lavatories in the first few days. Because of this, the first cases of new disease broke out, and the environment soon became unbearable. A general panic threatened to ensue.
At this point the Russians finally stepped in. Latrines were built, and now care was taken that to supply the prisoners with the materials necessary for further building and renovation of the camp. The stricken were moved to separate rooms and tended. Even so, it was once again too late. Death returned, and the daily mortality rates rose. In the end it became so bad that we had to pile the corpses on top of one another in the halls each morning. A special commando was set up, whose task was to take the corpses away on stretchers and bury them. Not far from the camp, behind a small acacia woods, a piece of land was set aside specifically for this purpose and surrounded with a low fence of barbed wire. The dead were interred under the watch of a Russian guard. Each received a thin piece of wood with a name plate and a number.
At the end of the second week, a Russian doctor came to the rooms, examined the ill and announced that he would have a hospital set up immediately. He commanded us henceforth to bury the dead daily.
We first fully realized how much our situation had changed for the worse when we discovered that a prison area had been established without our knowledge, a fact we became aware only little by little. One of the buildings within the camp had been surrounded by high barbed wire, which contained a large room in which some 50 men could be held. In the yard, too, a large bunker was set up which was later dubbed the "ice bunker". I will skip the details of this "ice bunker" for now ― there will be opportunity enough to tell more about it later.
Barbers, cobblers, tailors and clockmakers had their own rooms. Each of us was allowed to receive a shave once a week. Shoes were repaired on the spot as much as possible. If one was lucky ― which usually meant he had bread to spare for the tailor ― one could even occasionally obtain a necessary piece of clothing.
The Russian soldiers' and officers' own clothes were strikingly poor, however, and they set the German tailors to work for them making new uniforms and street clothes for themselves and their wives.
Staff accommodations were set up to house the watch guards on the opposite side of the barbed wire nearby the camp blocks. A few prisoners been appointed as guards, and they slept in a separate block within the camp. Their job was to watch the prohibited zone along the barbed wire from the inside of the camp. They would also later accompany Russian guards who escorted individual work commandos to the workplace. There they would watch over all the possible escape routes from the shaft -- entrances, exits, emergency tunnels and air ducts. These prisoners were specially trained by the Russians and put through a short military training of practice drills. They carried no weapons, but wore full uniforms and were equipped with whistles.
One day I was surprised by a Russian guard as I was standing together with several comrades in the yard, having nothing special to do. We had completed our assigned tasks and had not been assigned new ones. Unfortunately, I neglected to greet this guard, a sergeant. Now he approached me, the offended sergeant, abruptly ordered me to follow him, led me unsuspectingly to an unused block, opened a door, pushed me in and locked the door with no further explanation. I found myself in a tiny cell no larger than a wall closet. It was so narrow within that I could neither lie nor comfortably sit down. Here, I spent a long afternoon and the following evening standing or half-crouching/half-kneeling in the dark. Nobody bothered about me, and my continuous knocking went unheaded.
The next morning, I heard footsteps. The same sergeant opened the door and, with cries and curses, threw another older prisoner into the cell. Now, neither of us could move. We remained the whole next day in this uncomfortable position without food or water. We were released that evening, thank God.
Our two weeks of preparation came to an end. The camp was set up, provisionally at least. An aqueduct had even been set up in the courtyard with washing facilities. However, there was usually no water available, these facilities were of little use.
Now the work began. We were awakened each morning at 4:00. After roll call at 5:00, we were assigned to various work positions. The some 50 men that had been trained by the German overseer comprised the first shaft brigade were to march down into the pits. Other brigades were assigned to the brickyard, woodpiles, railroads, factory construction, rockpiles or as craftsmen in the individual shafts.
l still belonged to the third group of prisoners who were not yet completely able to work or who had some physical disability, slight wound, etc. We were marched off to a Kolkhoz (collective farm) located about 5 kilometers away, where, the harvest was in full swing, and men and women were busy threshing grain. This was a job with which we had had experience in our own homelands, but here it was being carried out on a much larger scale. The Russians who were working at the threshing machines were quite surprised as some 250 war prisoners suddenly approached to share in the work.
Those who were comfortable with horses took charge of a horse cart to transport grain from the huge haystacks to the threshing machines. The rest of us scattered among the civilians and helped out as much as we could with whatever work there was to be done. Our meeting with the civilians was for the most part not unfriendly, although feelings of hate, mistrust and denial were still clearly noticeable. While older women, although it was forbidden, would offer a piece of bread or a sugar beet now and again to a prisoner, the younger women and girls behaved with the utmost reservation.
The work was hard and continued all day without a break. About noon, we received a thick vegetable and potato soup as we had never tasted within the camp. One woman had taken on the task of preparing this meal especially for us, and it was her greatest pleasure to see how our eyes shone as we stowed away the extensive portions. We were allowed to take back whatever was left over to the camp in tin cans, and each of us also tried to smuggle back whatever we could hide of wheat grains, sunflowers, tomatoes, red beets and sugar beets. We were regularly disappointed, however.
Shortly before our daily march back, the guards on duty would perform a thorough inspection, and the considerable amount of food which had been meant for the camp and for our hungering comrades from the pits and factories would go instead into large baskets, destination unknown.
We returned each day to our camp just before sundown, always disappointed and empty handed. The work assignment lasted over three weeks. For us, it was a reasonably good period, especially when compared with how much worse it was for our buddies in the pits. They were extremely dejected and grew more and more silent, thin, and tired of life with each passing day. The severity of their hard labor underground was clearly legible in their faces, and our questions about what was happening in the pits went unanswered. They repeated over and over again that one just had to experience it for himself. Not that it really mattered ― we were all slated to go underground someday.
As there was only one washing facility, which was completely insufficient and usually without fresh water, most men went to bed unwashed with faces black with coal, and fell asleep in partly wet clothing. There were still no blankets available ― we never did receive any. Bread bags and cooking wear served as pillows, and our coats as blankets.
Medical checks for the whole camp were performed regularly on the 10th and 25th of each month. At the second check, I was finally put into Group I (above ground) and joined a work commando of about 150 men who were sent to work the overhead railway. Our task was to repair or rebuild the destroyed railways to the mines, which was much more difficult than my previous assignment, and represented a step down for me, especially since there were no extra rations. Full of misery, I thought longingly about the harvest work with the civilians and the thick soups.
One day during a cigarette break, I came into conversation with the Russian rail master. He told me of his experiences as a WWI prisoner of at a German mine in the Saarland. He still thought back on how well he had been treated then. In his life he had seen many changes, and had sired a total of 12 children in 4 marriages, emphasizing this last fact as a special accomplishment with unconcealed self-satisfaction. He complained fiercely about the war and its effects on people. In his opinion, it should never have had to happen. Here he was today, everything lost, no one to help him, and his income as a socalled "public officer" totally insufficient.
l got along quite well with him. He was exact, but not overly strict. On Sundays, he busied us with easy work, more for display than anything else, as he knew that no one in Germany worked on Sundays. In Russia, there were no Sundays, and no holidays, either. Russia could never be a match for Western Europe in his opinion, and they were just lucky that the Americans had supported them so well in this war.
An old locomotive conductor who had driven by our unit for several days as we were working caught my attention with the especially benevolent gaze with which he looked down on us. One day he was stopped for some time at a switch, and he used this opportunity to strike up a conversation with me. He had driven the Charkov-Brest-Litowsk line during the German occupation, and praised the German transportation system for its accuracy and complete reliability. He had never felt so safe conducting a locomotive either before or since then. He would never again had an opportunity to speak to us directly, but he must have known that among all the anger and displeasure, it would please us to hear something favorable for once about the past.
In the camp, there was never an hour of peace. After the brigades returned in the evening from their work, we had a roll call which usually extended until well after dark. Provisions had to be picked up at the station almost every day. With no vehicles, the transportation of heavy sacks weighing up to 60 kilograms from the station to the camp warehouse (a distance of 2 kilometers) was no easy matter. Prisoners collapsed on the way, and were buffeted with punches and kicks until someone finally loaded the sacks onto their backs again.
The work assignment for the third group was now to drag heavy stones from the quarry or wooden boards and tree trunks of unusually large lengths and thicknesses to be used for building up the camp. During these tasks, weakness and clumsiness often led to accidents with serious consequences.
Fall came, and with it the first rainfalls, which made these tasks even more difficult to perform. The streets became incredibly muddy. The prisoners in the mines were now working in three shifts. Accidents increased daily as new, untrained prisoners were constantly added to the ranks. By and by the majority of the camp was assigned to work underground.
The daily tonnage of the individual brigades was written up each evening on a large blackboard, a tactic to induce the companies to compete with each other. Whichever mined the highest tonnage, received a few extra rations. The leaders of the brigades, the so-called "brigadiers", were allowed to have their own meals first. They could receive as much as they wanted, and this served to turn them more and more into dictators. One consequence of this whole system of slave driving and quota issuing was that the individual mine tunnels were never sufficiently supported or scaffolded, which in turn significantly increased the possibilities of danger. There were now so many accidents that working in the mines soon became the most dreaded task in the whole camp.
Alarm! One night, we were all forced
outside to stand for hours in pouring rain at the roll call area, while
Russian guards rushed through every room, corridor, cellar, and hall with
flashlights amidst searching every corner. Constant head counts were performed,
roars, screams, kicks and shots. After about three hours we were finally
allowed, dripping wet, to return to our quarters.
We all knew now what was up. Three prisoners had used the heavy rains to carry out a highly well-planned escape.
The effects of this escape on us were very harsh. The watchguards were even coarser than usual and punished everyone who even took a step out of line with kicks and rifle beatings.
Immediately ofter the escape, one brigade returned from the shafts, a young theology student temporarily forgot the new orders and left the marching column, without undue haste, to pick up a piece of newspaper that was lying on the road. Newspaper was highly prized, because we had nothing else to roll cigarettes with. Without further warning, however, the poor defenseless man was shot down by a young Russian guard, and brought back to the camp with a severe lung wound.
One day a large transport of new prisoners arrived at the camp. They had come from the front lines at Pruth on the Rumanian border, and had been on the train for several days without enough food and absolutely no drinking water.
A great number of them had died on the way, and their corpses had been thrown out of the moving train. The new arrivals reported the newest events from the front, including the disorganized retreat of the German army. They were quarantined for fourteen days after their arrival and then immediately thrown into the work commandos.
Dysentery suddenly broke out in the camp. The epidemic snatched up many men, as not even the most basic medical supplies were available and the sanitary facilities were in a condition that simply defied description. The German medics had absolutely no idea what to do. In their narrow quarters, the prisoners had no choice but to lay, sick and well, mixed up with each other.
Due to the terrible weather conditions at this time of the year, lung infections also cropped up, aggrivated in most of the prisoners by the dampness of the pits.
Medics were allowed to treat prisoners only in their spare time. During the day, they had to attend to numerous camp matters which had piled up. In addition, they were also in charge of the sad duty of burying the dead. In the early hours of the evening, corpses would be brought on stretchers to the burial site and interred there. Thank God there were a few orderlies who, having reramed their faith through all the months and years of imprisonment, said prayers over the dead. Friends were also always praying for their dead buddies, with whom they had often been talking just hours before.
One day, I was called to the side of a critically ill comrade from my home state. I had known him before, but had not seen him since the last days of Stalingrad. There he had been seriously wounded and had had the unusual luck to be carried back by transport plane to a hospital at home. At that time, he had taken with him my last greetings home. After his recovery, however, he was taken out of the hospital and put back in the front lines at Tarnopol, where he had been taken prisoner and ended up by coincidence in this very camp.
How strange the twists of fate sometimes can be! I visited him every day, and fulfilled his every wish as much as possible. His condition worsened from day to day. Upon visiting him again one day, I discovered he was dying. His face pale, eyes deep in their sockets, he looked at me with a dull, cheerless gaze, as if he wanted to say something.
I bent down close to him, and I could see how difficult it was for him to speak. Then came stammering from his dying lips the few garbled words, "Please, some water, or I will bum up." And as soon as he saw my troubled eyes, he cried quite excitedly, "I'm dying! Just give me water, water!" In my desire to do something for him, I tried to light a fire to warm up the cold room a bit. Then he began to speak deranged words, pulling out his wallet with all his last energy. He beckoned to me with a tired, weak gesture and presented me with his last treasures: a picture of his wife and child, and a tiny Hornkapschen in the form of a prayer book, which his wife had given to him as a talisman when he had departed. Inside it, there was a picture of the Mother of God and a rosary from Czenstochau, a place of pilgrimage in Poland. With the words "Go to my wife -- tell her I just couldn't make it," he died.
How glad I was to be able to promise him this last wish! He had already faithfully brought my greetings back to my home once. Would it ever be possible for me to do the same, to fulfill the bequest of this dying man? Or would I also have to come to a similar death in the future? These were my thoughts in this unhappy hour.
It was November 1 , All Saints' Day. The rains were over. The weather was stormy and rough during the day, and the clear moonlit nights brought with them the first frosts. The organization of our work units had been changed for quite some time. At the beginning, most of the prisoners had been assigned to work above ground, but the Russian work inspector had accomplished his goals there within a few months, and now anyone who could walk straight was sent down to the pits.
Even imprisoned officers for the most part shared the same lot. Up to and including majors, we were all assigned to the same work. They were only treated differently as regards meals -- they were given their own food with a bit more lard and sugar. They were also given a double ration of tobacco, but no more bread.
Understandably, this preferential treatment often led to quarrels, especially the officers and soldiers were always together, working side by side in the mines, sleeping side by side in the camp. As such, officers were just as subject (or even more so) to bullying and torture after work was finished.
Once, because of this, there ensued a lively discussion between the Russian cultural officer and some of the prisoners. One prisoner wanted to know how, in the land of socialism -- of equality of all humanity, of absolution of all class distinctions -- how it was possible that different meals were distributed even among prisoners of war. The officer, at first somewhat disconcerted, told him that this was an international decision, which even the Russians had to obey.
Another time, the same officer was asked why the German prisoners of war were not allowed to have any written contact with their homeland. He replied that, certainly, we could write whenever we wanted. The Russians would even take the mail by airplane and drop it over the German lines, but as far as he knew, the mail would not be passed on by the German side. We had been told this once already. Where was the truth here, and where did the lies begin?
After this conversation, we indeed each received a postcard, just like before, with the instructions not to write more than 25 words. Like the first time, it seems these postcards never arrived to our families either.
Yet another time, we asked the Russian cultural officer why Russia had not agreed to the *1929 Red Cross and Geneva Conventions. This time, although aspiring Russian candidates for officer positions were undoubtedly extensively well-schooled in military wisdom and had a thorough understanding of Marxist theory, this officer had absolutely no idea what the Geneva Convention even was. After having been adequately informed by the German prisoners, he then replied merely that the Soviet Union respected the Red Cross.
*The Convention on Treatment of Prisoners of War (Geneva
1929) guaranteed the right of prisoners of war not only to adequate sanitation,
health care, and accommodation, but also representation, intellectual and
moral attention, and communication with families. It was signed by most
major powers, including China and Germany but not Russia, and "Hitler did,
in fact, attempt to legitimize his brutal treatment of Russian prisoners
by observing that Russia had not signed the 1929 treaty and, therefore,
Germany would not be bound by those regulations when dealing with Russian
prisoners." (THE DEVELOPMENT OF INTERNATIONAL LAWS OF WAR PERTAINING TO
PRISONERS OF WAR Christoper Ames, 1997 avail http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~n9610899/writings/pow.
The "October Revolution", which falls
every year in the beginning of November is one of the biggest holiday seasons
in Russia. This year, we noticed the preparations even within the camp.
On the morning of the first day of the festival, red flags flew over every
mine shaft, train station, school, and hospital, and even over our camp.
Pictures of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov, and many others hung like huge posters
on the walls and gate entrances. At night, Soviet stars glowed in large
numbers around the whole area, and there were large demonstrations, parades
with music and lots of noise. Young people danced. As a sign of Russian
solidarity, the workers received small holiday allowances in the form of
insignificant amounts of honey, sugar, and schnapps.
We prisoners were for the most part scarcely elated by all the festivities. They were accompanied by a general revision, in which the whole camp was stood on its head. Russian officers rummaging in every corner were ordered to find any "sharp" object and recover it. During this action, we all had to report for roll call in the courtyard and stay there. We were then each thoroughly searched one by one. This action was a so-called "precautionary measure" against any possible revolts during the festival days. And indeed, we were only very superficially guarded during the next three days.
The Russians know very little of the concept of "holiday" in our sense. Even these "Red October" days were for them first and foremost workdays. Every shaft was in operation, with a full staff. There arose extremely dangerous situations, as drunk and groveling civilians tried again and again to venge their hatred and frustration, whetted by alcohol, on the prisoners.
The nationalistic emotions of this extremely aroused and volatile people in those days led to many mortifying emotionally-charged actions, the most terrible effects of which were prevented only through the intervention of the watchguards.
Shortly after the holidays, the whole camp was driven together to roll call at an unusual hour. The Russian camp commander made a personal appearance. After a few brief words, he announced that the prisoners who had escaped some weeks previously had been recaptured and brought back to the camp. He then led them out and made them report on the details of their escape.
We all realized how they had been drilled to depict their attempted escape as if it were absolutely hopeless to try to flee from the Soviet Union. They spoke quietly but with frightened voices about how they had been followed several times, but had gotten away each time.
After about fourteen days, they finally met their fate in a tiny remote village. They had burrowed themselves into a haystack without being observed, and thought themselves safe until one of them had a coughing fit and was thereby discovered by a girl who was just passing by at the time. Full of fear, she brought her discovery to the Starost (village elder).
A few hours later, even before the morning had dawned, the village was surrounded by about a dozen Russians. The Russians sidled up to the haystack with the greatest of caution, and found inside it two completely ruined men, exhausted to the point of death and in remarkably bad condition, deep asleep.
After they had finished their story, the Russian camp commander asked the whole camp what he should do with them. This meant that we were supposed to suggest the punishment for the two men. Naturally, no one volunteered anything, so they were then taken off, beaten, and put in the ice bunker for fourteen days.
This ice bunker, which I have mentioned already, was extremely feared. It was a hole, dug deep down in the earth, just large enough for two men to stretch out next to each other. The bunker was locked by double doors, and there was only a tiny air duct. The dungeon was damp and cold, and everyone who was locked inside came out with severe damage to their health. A later commission ordered that a wooden cot and a small window be added to the bunker, as it violated the regulations in its present state.
It was long after Christmas before these orders were finally complied with, long after many had already contracted diseases, sometimes with fatal consequences.
The colder the winter weather turned, the more hideous life became for us. We still had no heating material for ourselves, even though approximately 4/5 of the whole camp was working underground in those days, and we generally succeeded in meeting the overall demand of more than 1OOO tons of coal per day. None of us had received so much as a blanket, and the previously announced winter clothing had not yet arrived, either.
We finally received an order one day for 40 men to go and pick up the winter clothing in a town about 37 kilometers away. I was one of the members of this commando. After a march of several long hours, we finally reached the town, and each of us was given a heavy bundle of padded pants and jackets to carry on his shoulders.
On the way back, shortly after we left the town, men began to break down under their heavy loads. First, they were hit and thrashed. Later, when this failed to do any good, others were forced to take over their burdens by the two guards. Whoever hesitated to do so was also beaten.
In the end, this too failed to help anything, as the commando had not received anything to eat the whole day. The irresponsibly long march, the heavy load and above all, the terrible cold did the rest. The line of prisoners soon stretched out to over a kilometer from beginning to end. The two guards became coarser and coarser, as they feared they would lose complete control of the group. Finally they ordered the front of the line to halt. As night approached, we all gathered in a small village. Here, the two Russian guards gave in to our constant pleading and begging, and let us boil a couple of potatoes. We had not eaten a thing the whole day. Afterwards, we were locked in the cellar of the ruins of an old house, the doors barred and a huge stone rolled in front of them.
The two Russian guards did not appear at all that night. None of us could sleep because of our hunger and cold.
The next morning, the two guards opened the door, made long faces and drove us out again with fists and kicks. But we had only walked for a few minutes when the whole drama repeated itself again. Many of the prisoners collapsed under the weight of their burdens, and the stragglers were collected and left in the next village with one of the guards. The rest of us dragged ourselves on with our last reserves of energy.
The others were later picked up with sleds pulled by prisoners. When we finally got to the camp, we received our first real meal in 36 hours.