Ep. 53 Gerhard narrowly escapes freedom

German prisoners marching

German prisoners of war.

By now Gerhard and the others had been reduced to the lowest human condition driven only by the basest instincts of survival. Did they kill the single Russian soldier who came over the hill, what about the soldier with the field kitchen? Not worth mentioning, the important detail was the soup.

Gerhard and his fellow soldiers rambled west through dangerous territory and arrived at what had become the border between Soviet-controlled Germany and British-controlled Germany, the Elbe River. As the crow flies that’s 100 kilometres, but it had to be much further when dodging hungry Soviet patrols.

GERHARD We came to a hospital. By now my thumb was a swollen mess. If you’ve never experienced it, it really hurts. I had to have the last joint of my thumb amputated at the main dressing station. The doctor was prepared to operate on my thumb right away. It only took an hour or an hour-and-a-half. He gave me a glass of wine and a piece of cake and then it was on to the hospital in Wittenberg [51°52’21.11″N, 12°37’43.71″E] on the Elbe River.

The Lord had protected me particularly for the week I roamed the forest with other soldiers. Finally we were safe, at least that’s what we thought. At the hospital the rumour was that the entire hospital would be moved to the English Zone, but it didn’t happen.

The English surgeon wanted to bring us over to the safe zone because we were all ill, but on the way over the bridge the surgeon was shot by a Hitler Youth and we were all handed over to the Russians. Anyone who could walk was ordered outside. Once outside the trading in watches began. Either you traded or they just took it from you. I got a mess tin of sugar for my watch.

And that is how Gerhard became a prisoner of war for the second time. No surrender at gunpoint, no dramatic capture, simply a change of jurisdiction: he was in the Russian Zone. If there was ever a low point in Gerhard’s life, this must have been it. After a dangerous and uncertain cross-country journey hoping to surrender to Americans, Gerhard was in Russian hands on track to be executed as a traitor. The war was ending and the countryside was seething with dazed and hungry civilians, refugees who had reached the end of the road, wounded and demoralized German soldiers, and Russian soldiers bent on revenge. German soldiers lucky enough to survive the war were infinitely more likely to die as prisoners of the Soviets.

The prisoners broken and exhausted are force-marched toward registration and collection centres. They sleep in ditches and open fields. Cossacks throw raw meat as food into the midst of the prisoners and real life or death struggles ensue. The comradery of the battlefield is no more. You will be the next to die. You must learn, and learn quickly, how to survive.[1]

German Prisoners March Along Highway

Thousands of German prisoners march along the autobahn near Giesen while their allied captors travel in tanks, trucks, and jeeps. May 4, 1945. — Image by © CORBIS

On April 29, 1945 Günter Knörck, 16 years old, recalls lining up ten abreast with thousands of German POWs on the Berlin-Cottbus autobahn. “What a picture, what a tragedy … Endless columns of German POWs in rows of ten along the runway … At intervals, guards brandishing weapons. Cossacks on horses force the marchers along. Continuous shouts and commands and shots in the air.”[2]

regensburg POW caqmp

POW camp near Regensburg, Germany

Thirty-nine year old non-commissioned officer Walter Bunt describes his capture experience:

We spend the night in the ditch. May 2, we pull the baggage of the wounded soldiers to Zossen, and then we carry on further. May 3, back to Zossen, and then to Luckenwalde to the hospital. Dinner finally a little warm soup. May 5, today we move on without bread, yesterday a cup of soup. Back in Luckenwalde we are searched for valuables, some tins of meat and tobacco are taken. In the evening we arrive at a camp near Trebbin, we spend the night in the open fields.[3]

Gerhard’s experience was not very different.

GERHARD Now it was back to captivity for those who could still walk. In the morning we were lined up in fours and it took quite a while before we were ready to march. My thumb had been amputated and was now infected but we had to walk. During a rest period I passed out and when I came to I was in a barn on a farm. For several arduous days we had to walk; we were hungry and there was very little to eat.

 In a few days we arrived in a German village and stopped there for rest and water but the German people were against us: “You lost!” They didn’t even bring us water. The Russian soldiers had to chase them out to bring us water to drink. When we had transported prisoners in Russia, the Russian women would bring out milk, bread, whatever they had. The Russian men and women have a heart for prisoners and in my experience the opposite is true of the German people.

We arrived at a train station and travelled the rest of the way by train. It took another day and then we  arrived in Frankfurt Oder. Those of us who were sick went to the hospital, and I too went in for treatment. I was happy to spend another few weeks in the hospital. The doctors were German and were sympathetic to us. I grew my beard as there were quite a few soldiers who would recognize me as an interpreter. There was one soldier who recognized me, but he was a noble man and did not turn me in.

PRISONER OF WAR COLUMN marches through Munich

Prisoners of war march through Munich.

Gerhard finally understands the bind he was in. Anyone could identify him as an interpreter and that would be his end. Surely by now he had jettisoned anything that could identify him as an interpreter: his military identification bookhis aluminum ID tag, and his uniform. He was not a soldier any longer. In Soviet hands he would not survive. Others could point him out as a collaborator and gain preferential treatment. Gerhard had to find a way out.

* * * * *

Surviving the war was one thing, surviving the peace another.[4]

Europe was a cauldron of misery and revenge. Germany cut up like a pie with Soviet Union, Britain, France and United States each responsible for a piece. The capital city Berlin was also drawn and quartered. Everyone knew the worst place to be was in the Soviet zone.

German POWs - captured by American Airborne troops in the Ruhr

German POWs captured by American troops in the Ruhr region.

Of the 5.5 million Soviet prisoners taken during the war, 2.2 million had survived and now sought their share of retribution for the treatment they had endured at German hands, often in the form of rape of German women.

Ethnic Germans living in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia were expelled from their homes regardless of the length of their residency, often many generations, their property expropriated, and forced to go to Germany. In all over 13 million additional desperate people now roamed the cities and countryside of the decimated land.

Starvation and disease followed the evicted people to their new homes. In Vienna they survived on 800 calories a day in 1945, in Budapest 556 calories, in Holland 16,000 old people and children starved to death because they could not survive for a week on the calorie allotment Allied soldiers received every day. Years later, when his children pushed away uneaten food on their plates, Gerhard would say: “Someday you’ll dig through a pile of garbage looking for potato peels to eat.” Diseases of vitamin deficiencies such as rickets and pellagra, of lice such as typhus and of bacteria such as tuberculosis and impetigo continued to raise the death toll unabated. Four out of ten Jews rescued from the concentration camps died.[5]

* * * * *

Gronenfelde Frankfurt Oder POW release

Gronenfelde camp, Frankfurt Oder, returning German soldiers released.

Gerhard’s newest environment was a prison camp in the city of Frankfurt Oder on the border with present-day Poland. It was an unimportant city for the German war effort with few natural resources or manufacturing capabilities. It was ignored by the British bombers and its 50,000 inhabitants were relatively unscathed. Then on January 27, 1945 Hitler designated Frankfurt Oder as a fortress city. Hitler’s idea was to fortify with additional troops and weapons several cities lying in the path of the oncoming Soviet army to slow its advance. Soldiers defending fortress cities were to fight to the death. But it was already too late. By the end of February all civilians in the city were evacuated, and by April 21, 1945 German leadership decided Frankfurt Oder was not a fortress city after all and withdrew its troops. After two days of uncontested bombing by the air force, Soviets entered the city by now almost totally destroyed.

A second wave of Soviets followed, the secret police – NKVD. The mission for the NKVD was to make sure Stalin’s labour camps had labourers. Within a week the Russians repaired the bridge across the Oder and established a prison camp capable of holding 20,000 prisoners in the barracks of the Frankfurt Oder garrison. Immediately transports of prisoners and unfortunate citizens of various countries were sent east across the Oder River to Russia. This is called repatriation.

Since 1942 the Soviet army had been classifying prisoners of war (POWs) in terms of their ability to provide labour to its labour camps with which Gerhard had first-hand experience.

To supply the labour to the camps, the Soviets administered a detailed process for funneling war prisoners to the gulag. Collected at the front, they were sent to transit camps, where their medical condition was assessed and a personnel file created. From the transit camps POWs were sent to one of the numerous Soviet forced labour camps.[6]

As the German front collapsed, the numbers of POWs grew; by June 26, 1945 the NKVD had registered 2,658,469 POWs of which 1,836,310 were German.[7]

Not only POWs were captured and enslaved. NKVD Commissar Lavrenti Beria also used the system to capture all government opponents or any class of persons deemed to be suspicious. All persons of German heritage living in south eastern European countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, who were fit to work, or capable of bearing arms were to  rounded up and sent to the camps. Any who resisted were brought before a military tribunal.[8]

Many Soviet citizens who fell into German hands in the beginning of the war were now punished for not resisting unto death. Sixteen-year-old Herbert Asboe attended an unsanctioned meeting on October 17, 1945 and was sentenced to 10 years hard labour: in consideration of his youth he was not executed. He was given prisoner clothing and blood-smeared shoes to wear. Of his transport of 719 prisoners sentenced to the gulag only 39 were Germans. The rest were Soviet citizens, including seven who were sentenced to death, presumably the sentence to be carried out upon arrival.[9]

It soon became clear that few Soviet POWs or the Russian slave labourers seconded by the Germans had any desire to return home. Many decided they would rather die than be forced to return to Russia.

In August 1945, Russian refugees hid from NKVD agents in a church in Kempton, Germany:

The soldiers entered the church and began to drag people out forcibly. They dragged women by the hair and twisted the men’s arms up their backs, beating them with the butts of their rifles. One soldier took the cross from the priest and hit him with the butt of his rifle. Pandemonium broke loose. The people in a panic threw themselves from the second floor, for the church was in the second storey of the building, and they fell to their death or were crippled for life. In the church there were also suicide attempts.[10]

Four months later, a number of Hiwis barricaded themselves in barracks at Dachau and 400 American sentries and officers of the 3rd US Army were ordered to evacuate the barracks and turn the men over to the Soviet authorities.

By using tear gas the GIs gained access to the camp. They saw nine men who had hung themselves. Others had tried to slash their wrists with razors or to cut through each other’s throats with iron hooks. One man died later from the self-inflicted strangulation with a makeshift rope. Twenty one men with heavily bleeding wounds were transferred to a military hospital where one of them died shortly afterwards from the incised wound.[11]

How little the West understood the real state of affairs is shown by the text of leaflets addressed to Soviet soldiers in German uniform, dropped by the Allied Air Force in France in the summer of 1944. These leaflets called for an end of fighting and promised as a reward – speedy repatriation of prisoners to the USSR! The effect was of course, such that some of the Eastern troops fought desperately to the last man.[12]

Russian dps give departing comrades a send off

Russian displaced persons give their repatriated comrades a musical send off from the camp. Some people are in for a surprise.



[1] Buwert, Wolfgang, Gefangene und Heimkehrer in Frankfurt (Oder), in BRANDENBURGISCHE HISTORISCHE HEFTE, 1998. Quoting Günter Knörck, Erinnerungsbericht, 1980/81, S. 78ff

[2] Ibid.

[3] Buwert, op. Cit., Tagebuch des Uffz. Walter Bunt.

[4] Judt, Tony, Post-War A History of Europe Since 1945, http://erenow.com/modern/postwarahistoryofeuropesince1945/ accessed April 9, 2017

[5] Judt, Tony, Post-War A History of Europe Since 1945, http://erenow.com/modern/postwarahistoryofeuropesince1945/ accessed April 9, 2017

[6] Karner, Stefan, Verlorene Jahre. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene und Internierte im Archipel GUPWI, in:  Kriegsgefangene – Voennoplennye. Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene in Deutschland. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der Sowjetunion, hrsg. vom Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Düsseldorf 1995, S. 62 quoted in Buwert, op. Cit., page 11.

[7] Karner, op. Cit., S. 69 quoted in Buwert, page 11.

[8] Petrov, Nikita, Auftrag und Aufgaben der NKWD-Bevollmächtigten, in: Stalins Willkürjustiz gegen die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen. Dokumentation und Analyse von Günther Wagenlehner, Bonn 1993, S. 58f.quoted in Buwert, op. Cit., page 11.

[9] Haase, Norbert, und Oleschinski, Brigitte (Hrsg.), Das Torgau-Tabu. Wehrmachtstrafsystem. NKWD-Speziallager. DDR-Strafvollzug, Leipzig 1993, S. 35 quoted in Buwert, page 29.

[10] Dyczok, Marta, The Grand Alliance and Ukrainian Refugees, Macmillan Press Ltd., London, 2000, page 51.

[11] Lemieszewski, Stefan, http://www.dpcamps.org/repatriation.html accessed May 7, 2018, quotes Ulrike Goeken-Haidl, Der Weg zurück: die Repatriierung sowjetischer Zwangsarbeiter und Kriegsgefangener während und nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, Klartext, 2006.

[12] Feldgrau.com, Research on the German Armed Forces 1918-1945, Russian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht in WWII, by Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders and Antonio Munozhttp://www.feldgrau.com/WW2-German-Wehrmacht-Russian-Volunteers, accessed April 6, 2017.

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