Ep. 55 All or nothing part 1

DEAR READERS: Thanks for coming on the journey. Only nine more stops.

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Sometimes survival in Frankfurt Oder meant keeping a low profile, sometimes it meant keeping secrets and sometimes it meant risking your life at a fateful moment. By 1945 Gerhard’s life had been at risk for his entire adult years, the Mennonite farm life a distant memory, danger, fear and suspicion a constant companion. Survival was second nature.

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Prisoner at Frankfurt Oder

Daily transports arrive in Frankfurt Oder with returning soldiers, and depart with repatriated Soviet citizens and others.

Die Horn-Kaserne in Frankfurt Oder 1943.

Horn Barracks where Gerhard dodged the line.

After Gerhard’s shift in the commissary, he returned to the main Frankfurt Oder camp. By now the camp had become the main transit point for human cargo travelling west to east or east to west. German soldiers captured from the various front lines who were being released funnelled through Frankfurt Oder to freedom. Millions of expelled ethnic German civilians, citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, returned to Germany, many through the gates of Frankfurt Oder. Captured Russian soldiers also went back to Russia from the Frankfurt Oder camp – many of them to the gulag as punishment for being captured alive.

GERHARD After several weeks the work was completed, and we were put back in the large prison camp with all the other prisoners. Now it was determined that our company would accompany a transport of captured German officers back to Russia and then we were to return at once to Germany. How many of us believed that I don’t know, but the Russian has never yet told the truth.

So we were to line up to register our names and receive our work assignments from company commander in a small office. When it became my turn to give my name, I avoided the person taking names and went back into the line. Three of us avoided having our names registered.

The second time we were also successful in avoiding reporting. The company commander was responsible for making sure we got on the list. It was already evening and three names were still missing. Then the company commander hauled us out to force us to register since we three were not on the list. He grabbed us and took us to the barracks.

As I came to the door of the barracks and was about to enter, I darted left and disappeared into the darkness. If he had chased me, he would have lost the other two. So he grabbed them and made sure their names got on the list.

Gerhard knew the truth about repatriation.

According to an “estimate based on data of a former NKVD officer, a total of 5.5 million Russians were repatriated from formerly occupied areas, of these 20 per cent either received a death sentence or a 25-year labor camp sentence, 15–20 per cent received sentences of 5 to 10 years, 10 per cent were exiled for six years or more, 15 per cent worked as conscripts in assigned areas and not allowed to return home subsequently, and 15–20 per cent were allowed to return home, but remained ostracized. The rest was ‘wastage’, that is people who died in transit, got lost, or escaped.”[1]

For many, repatriation was a code word for slave labour and death. Many returnees took their own lives and the lives of their families rather than return home. Gerhard’s name had been recorded in arrest records, interrogation reports and transport manifests from the Black Sea to the Arctic Circle. It would be easy to identify him as a Russian traitor.

But now the danger was immediate. Where to run? Where to hide?

GERHARD Outside there was also a company of sick soldiers, and because things were taking so long they sat down and I sat down with them. I had a full beard and the company commander came looking for me. I thank God for preventing him from seeing me. Three times he walked by me saying: “Where is the old one with a beard?” Now the sick soldiers started complaining, it was cold at night and after a while he gave the order for the sick soldiers to go back into the barracks, and so I went with them. 

But I had no bed. I lay under a bed until the transport left for Russia. It took several days, and I wasn’t on any ration list, so the sick soldiers gave me some of their rations. When the transport had left for Russia, I reported to another company and was placed back on rations.

Lager Gronenfelde bei Frankfurt_Oder,_entlassene_Kriegsgefangene

Transport leaving for Russia.

Gerhard never explained how he went missing from the transport and then reappeared for duty to another company. Frankfurt Oder was busy and he was lucky.


GERHARD I got work in the commissary again. We had some very experienced boys among us who were entrusted to distribute the provisions for this large camp. The men from the camp came with a four-wheeled wagon and loaded everything by hand. Four to six men loaded the wagon with supplies for 15,000 prisoners and drove it to the camp. That’s how every day went by. We became bolder and smuggled flour into the city. Often the camp received more than requested: there were thousands of hungry men in that camp who longed someday to be free.

 Apparently two of our boys and the camp cook had agreed to deliver more food than was ordered and then split the surplus among friends who were also hungry. One day the head of the camp became suspicious of the two prisoners who weighed and recorded the weight of the wagon so he ordered it returned to be re-weighed. Even before it got back to the warehouse, the boys who loaded it disappeared because they knew it would be very costly to stay there. Since the boys who loaded the wagon were gone, the Russians called those of us who had been doing other work together and swore at us Fritzes (Germans were called Fritzes and Russians Ivans) and threatened to send us immediately to Russia.  After he calmed down, he locked us in a small room for three days and we waited to see what would become of us now. On the third day he came to us in a friendly manner and said: “Because you have been good workers, I will let you go. I don’t want to see any of you in Frankfurt Oder again. What do you say?”


Heimkehrlager Gronenfelde

Frankfurt Oder memorial



[1] Tolstoy, Nikolai, The Secret Betrayal,  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977, ISBN 0-684-15635-0, page 409 cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victims_of_Yalta#cite_note-8, accessed May 8, 2018.

9 thoughts on “Ep. 55 All or nothing part 1

  1. I have read your blogs from the beginning. I cannot describe how deeply they have altered my perception and perspective of my Mennonite heritage. Your writing allows me to form my own opinion and your citations support what you clearly state,mwithout preaching. I only wish I had known these things in my youth.

    Liked by 1 person

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