Ep. 54 Life in Frankfurt Oder transit camp

It was in Gerhard’s best interest not to return to Russia. What would he have done to avoid returning home to Ukraine? Some Russian refugees chose death  because they saw no other way out. Gerhard would also risk death, but for the moment he chose survival. He was from Ukraine and might have been safe there had the western allies considered Ukraine a separate country. Only 200,000 out of three million Ukrainians escaped repatriation, according to Marta Dyczok in The Grand Alliance and Ukrainian Refugees.[1] Going home was not an option.

powsThere was a great deal of international “sorting out” that needed to be done after the war. Practically every European nation controlled people from every other nation. People had to be sorted on an I’ll-give-you-yours you-give-me-mine basis. Bilateral repatriation agreements were signed with Britain, United States, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and the Eastern European countries occupied by the Red Army.  These agreements allowed Soviet secret police to operate in the British and American zones with impunity as they encouraged Soviet citizens to return to mother Russia. All will be forgiven, prisoners were told, but frequently kidnapping and murder was needed to motivate those who wished to remain outside Russia.

German pows 1945 where is gerhard

Where’s Gerhard?

In 1945, the repatriation policy was restricted so “only citizens who had  actually lent aid and comfort or wore a German uniform were  to be  returned.”[2] Clearly Gerhard was still on the menu.

Russian documents refer to Frankfurt Oder camp as Camp No. 69, which also included other barracks and camps. The Horn Barracks at Nuhnenstrasse 40 was used the longest as a collection and transit camp, and it’s likely the NKVD Frankfurt headquarters were also there. The barracks built in 1936 as an observation unit, included four two-storey personnel quarters and between them a single storey administration building. The two rear buildings had flat roofs to carry out topographic exercises and observations. To the west was a large garage complex and to the south a barracks known as Camp Nuhnen. The barracks bordered on the railway line Berlin – Frankfurt – Poland.[3]

Frankfurt Oder camp layout

Frankfurt Oder transit camp (Gronenfelde)

Surrounding the camp was a double barbed wire fence built by the prisoners. By May 4, 1945 it was already overcrowded. Prisoners slept in workshops, stables, even out on the parade ground. Nineteen-year-old Gunter Hass said: “In sleep we could forget the hopeless situation and the uncertain future and dream of better days.” Walter Bunt: “We are almighty hungry. We sleep in the sun all day and become flabby. When we arise to fall in, we nearly black out.”[4]

After a cursory medical examination, the first selections are made. Men are organized into groups of a hundred led by German officers who do their best to appease the Russians.

There were no regular meals. Sometimes POWs received a thin watery soup and if they were lucky, some dried vegetables in it. Sometimes just pieces of dried bread for the whole day. Prisoners searched the entire property for something edible. Gunter Knörck thought he was lucky when he found a half sack full of beet pulp and shared it with his mates and all of them were tormented with serious diarrhea. “We have to start from scratch and learn how to survive.”[5] But Gerhard had already learned how to survive.

GERHARD I had given my birthplace as East Prussia, I hoped I would have the opportunity at some point to get to East Prussia. I gave my address as Hannover, Schiller Street 20, in case I was released I could get to the West zone.

Gerhard had no intention of leaving Europe, if possible he would get out of the Soviet Zone and then, when it was safe, travel to East Prussia where family friends lived before the war.

Horn Kaserne camp layout

Horn Barracks Frankfurt Oder POW camp. POW cemetery off the map bottom right.

The hope of release was ever present. Rumours abounded that all prisoners would soon be freed. Many were promised to be home by the end of the war. Sometimes the Russians put prisoners on the train for home, but at some stop before they arrived at their destination, they were taken off the train and returned to the camp they had just left. Nervous breakdowns and crying fits were common. Some mornings there would be bodies hanging from the fence, the result of barbed-wire madness, escapees caught in the act.[6]

GERHARD Since I had been an interpreter, I grew out my mustache and beard so that I would not be recognized by those Russians who had fought on the German side and who might then betray me and that would be my end. I didn’t want to be recognized by anyone.

Gerhard’s survival plan was taking shape. He was not a soldier; he needed to become a refugee.

GERHARD In the Frankfurt Oder Camp there were 15-20,000 captured soldiers and there was little to eat. We were always hungry.

Here the German soldiers came home as prisoners, here they gave up whatever food or provisions they still had, even those meant for the sick and wounded German soldiers. Many of them starved. The dead were carried out in a horse-drawn wagon and most likely buried in a mass grave.

What Gerhard suspected, Elfriede Welenga[7] already knew. She was 14 years old in 1945, and on weekends she brought her father his lunch. Her father’s job was to bury the dead coming from the camp. It was a hot and dusty August, and a powerful smell lay over the area. Her father told her to be careful where she walked, there were dead people buried here. Rolf Paechnatz delivered the dead from the camp to the mass grave. When the grave was full, they sprinkled the bodies with lime and went back to the camp for another load.[8] Officially the Soviets admitted to 570 deaths within the camp, while East German authorities spoke of 6,500, but a more recent study confirms there could be 30,000 dead soldiers buried in the five-acre site.

GERHARD When I had recovered and was able to work, I watched the gate where the guards were standing and whenever the Russian soldiers needed workers, I listened for the type of work available. If it was shovelling coal, then I disappeared, but if it was in the commissary, I’d stand next to the soldier in charge and volunteer my services and that way always had as much to eat as I wanted.

I was thankful I understood Russian, what they wanted, when they needed workers and particularly when they needed help in the commissary. I was always there ready to work.

At the commissary the food was German and American. I worked there for months without the Russians finding out I understood their language. In order to have trained workers on a regular basis, they selected 30 of us and gave us our release papers. Those documents, however, were held by the officer in charge of us for as long as he needed us. We were given a tiny house to live in and in which we could also cook our food. So we were preferred over thousands of others. We had the freedom to come and go from the catering camp, every evening we could leave the camp in freedom. Because the general population was hungry and desperate, often food was carried out with us (which was not permitted) and often food was thrown over the high fences for the civilian population to gather up later.

Things were getting better. We had enough to eat, and we were able to sneak out of the camp. Things were great.

 * * * * *

In Russia, the German soldiers had sent a lot of Russian men and women back to Germany as labourers: now they were freed and thought themselves lords of the land[9]. I had arranged for a German tailor to make me a suit. He had a lot of work from the Russian officers. As we were speaking with the tailor five men in civilian clothes burst in. One asked me: “Do you speak Russian?” I said I didn’t. I wanted nothing to do with Russians. The man shoved me into a corner and threatened me with his pistol. They took everything in the shop, all the new clothes.

That’s the way it was. Time passed. As captured soldiers we could go where we wanted, we were permanent workers for the Russians but had everything we needed.

 * * * * *

One dark night two young German soldiers, a cook and a barber, became homesick and took off. At that time there were approximately 30 of us living in a small cabin outside the fence. Suddenly we were awoken, and we had to line up. What now? No one knew why the Russian soldier in charge was screaming and swearing at us. I knew right away what the matter was even before the interpreter explained. Now he was cursing and raging and wanted to take 10 of us out and shoot us.

To a Russian, the German soldier means nothing. While we were begging and pleading for our lives, a Russian captain arrived on his motorcycle and calmed down the Russian soldier. After the soldier explained what happened the captain ordered that for one week we were not permitted to use the bathroom. We had to do our business in a large barrel placed in our room. During our work day we were still permitted to use the bathroom, but later we were locked up and you can just imagine the smell when 30 men go to the toilet.

It’s no wonder Gerhard stressed the importance of knowing a second language, it had likely saved his life.



[1] Lemieszewski, Stefan, Displaced Persons – Repatriation of Ukrainian Displaced People after World War II, http://www.dpcamps.org/repatriation1.html, accessed May 7, 2018.

[2] Tolstoy, Nikolai, blog, http://www.luhovoy.com/boris/Tolstoy.html, accessed May 7, 2018. (Yes, that Tolstoy).

[3] Buwert, Wolfgang, Frankfurt (Oder) – Sammel- und Umschlagplatz für Gefangene und Heimkehrer 1945 – 1950/56, Branderburgische Historische Hefte 9, Eine Publikation der Brandenburgischen Landeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1998, page 20.

[4] Bunt, Walter, Tagebuch des Uffz. Walter Bunt quoted in Buwert, page 18.

[5] Knörck, Günter, Erinnerungsbericht, 1980/81, S. 81 quoted in Buwert, page 21.

[6] Knappe, Siegfried, and Brusaw, Ted, Soldat, Dell Publishing, 1992, page 404.

[7] MDR-Magazin FAKT (ARD, 21.10 Uhr) broadcast on 05.09.2005, quoted in http://www.gasthof-thoerner.de/  Pow Research Forum entry – Horn-Kaserne Frankfurt/Oder (Lager 69)

[8] Ibid.

[9] “More than seven million foreign workers in Germany were suddenly free to leave the factories and farms to which they had been tied for so many years, some for as many as six;” Julie Frances Gilmour, “The Kind of People Canada Wants”: Canada and the Displaced Persons, 1943-1953, Phd. thesis, University of Toronto, 2009, page 121.

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