Ep. 40 Gerhard goes to war

The German invasion of Russia, known by its code name Operation Barbarossa, began June 22, 1941. By the time Gerhard was mobilized, the German army had pressed deep into Russia and was approaching Moscow. Four million soldiers from Germany, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Finland faced off against three million Russian soldiers. It was the largest military operation ever assembled. German forces were arranged in three large thrusts along a thousand mile front stretching from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Army Group North was to push toward Leningrad, Army Group Centre was to push toward Moscow and Army Group South was to capture the oilfields in southeastern Ukraine and beyond. Army Group Centre under Field Marshall Fedor von Bock, had advanced to the Mennonite stronghold of Khortitsa in the south and to Smolensk in the north.


Operation Barbarossa.

GERHARD On August 30, 1941 we were loaded in the Red Wagon cattle cars at the Matveyev-Kurgan train station. There must have been thousands of people there, because each of the enlisted men had brothers, fathers or someone else with them. We were to dig anti-tank trenches so the Germans could not get through. Some of the women broke through the lines and wanted to go along. The cries and screams were horrible. I had never heard anything like it.

Two weeks earlier the Soviet government had begun to evacuate German villages east of the Dnepr River to Siberia or Kazahkstan to join the Trud Armia, the [slave] Labour Army. The population of the German villages was not to be present when the German forces arrived.[1]

The psychological impact of the experience can hardly be fathomed – in a matter of two to four hours, people had to come to terms with the loss of their homes, their property, their Heimat, and with the prospect of a very uncertain future.[2]

By August 30 the Germans had surrounded Odessa and Leningrad, captured Smolensk, and reached the west bank of the Dnepr River, occupying the second largest Mennonite colony in the USSR: Khortitsa. Two weeks later the German 134th Infantry Division had reached the ancient city of Priluki [50°34’53.50″N, 32°23’6.07″E] in northeast Ukraine, and there it found Gerhard.

GERHARD So now we were in the Red Wagon travelling north-east. We thought we would be working in the factories to free up the younger men for the war. But that did not happen. We travelled more than a day and a night and then came to a stop at a station and we stayed there for hours. No one knew what was happening. Early the next morning the train began travelling in a different direction – south-west – that gave us hope. We travelled for several days and came to the vicinity of Priluki, Ukraine. This is where we came into contact with the German air force.

With no military training, no leadership and no known destination, Gerhard and thousands of other civilians were delivered to the front where Operation Barbarossa was in full swing. Just as Stalin was sending civilians into the cauldron of battle he was enforcing his scorched earth policy:

In case of a forced retreat… all rolling stock must be evacuated, the enemy must not be left a single engine, a single railway car, not a single pound of grain or gallon of fuel. The collective farmers must drive off all their cattle and turn over their grain to the safe keeping of the state authorities for transportation to the rear. All valuable property, including non-ferrous metals, grain and fuel that cannot be withdrawn must be destroyed without fail. In areas occupied by the enemy, guerilla units….must set fire to forests, stores and transports.[3]

The retreating Soviet officials … shipped 6 million cattle from Ukraine east to Russia, 550 large factories, thousands of small factories and 300,000 tractors. The USSR also evacuated 3.5 million skilled workers from Ukraine to the Russian Republic.

Moscow also ordered the evacuation to the east of the Government of the Ukrainian SSR, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, all Kiev, Kharkiv and other university personnel, scientists, skilled technicians, Soviet bureaucrats, and most NKVD (KGB) secret police to be evacuated east to Russia.[4]

The average “soldier” could not retreat to the East, only plunge headlong into what has become known as the meat grinder.

GERHARD We were travelling toward Kiev – the Russians were driving all their cattle and pigs to the east in great herds. While riding in the train we could see bombs falling in the distance and as we approached Priluki we could see it was being bombed. We noticed one of the planes was approaching our train and even before the train came to a stop we were scattered all over the fields. Several cars were hit and three men were killed. We carried on to Nizhyn and were unloaded. Now it was up to each person to save themselves however they could.
Sept 14, 1941 red line

Gerhard says he was in the region the Nizhyn (Neshin on the German map) was he encountered the 134th Infantry Division. This map shows the positions of German divisions on September 14, 1941.

When Gerhard got off the train at Nizhyn [51° 1’19.70″N, 31°54’0.65″E], he and men of his village and men of villages along the way, untrained and frightened, found themselves delivered deep into the Kiev encirclement, the Kiever Kessel. German tanks had already passed Konotop [51°14’4.39″N, 33°11’51.26″E], 200 kilometres east of Kiev and were heading to Orel in high gear. The pincers had closed on Kiev. What remained was to slaughter trapped soldiers ordered to fight to the last man. The cruelty and viciousness of the German attack sowed the seeds of bitter revenge when it was returned in full measure three years later. In Operation Barbarossa the Red Army lost over three million soldiers either killed or missing, while Axis forces (Germany and allies) lost 800,000. “The carnage was beyond imagination. Eyewitnesses described the battlefields as landscapes of charred ash and steel. The round shapes of lifeless heads caught the light like potatoes turned up from new-broken soil.”[5]

World War Two was a total war, unlike any before it; total war has as its object the complete annihilation of the enemy. There are no bystanders – every member of society is an active participant in fighting the enemy. Any reluctance is met with a bullet.

GERHARD Without leaders or overseers, hungry and thirsty, we found our way to a Russian village and asked a Matka if she would take us in. There were 15-20 of us, still in civilian clothes. It was a beautiful evening and we were happy to rest from the stresses of the day. She told us there was a sheep collective nearby and in the evening we took a sheep and slaughtered it. We sat behind the house and discussed what was happening. We didn’t know what to do so we awaited our fate.

Suddenly in the twilight a Russian company came along and demanded to know what we were doing. We were in civilian clothes and told him we had no leader. That seemed to satisfy him as he was seeking directions to a town nearby. We were glad to see them leave.

The next day, it was September 19, 1941, the dear woman made us a grand lunch. Since we did not want to be seen, we sat on the floor to eat and watched the roadway from inside.

This is the infantry

German infantry advancing over the open steppe

Infantry soldiers do the heavy lifting in warfare. Armed with the lightest weapons, they fight close to their enemies. German infantry in the region of Nizhyn on September 19, 1941 were from the Sixth Army led by Field Marshall Walter von Reichenau and were about to annihilate thousands of outmanoeuvred Russian men.

GERHARD So there we were, twenty men sitting on the floor looking out the window watching the roadway. In the morning we peered out of the upstairs gable window and we noticed an orderly military group approaching from the distance. It was still too dark to tell if they were German or Russian. I went out onto the highway and made my first contact with the German military. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore. We spoke to them in German and they wondered where we were from and invited us to go with them. And so a great wish was fulfilled [my emphasis]. They fed us even though the Russian woman had already made a nice soup from the sheep.

 So we were captured by the German Army in the Battle of Kiev.

Gerhard’s happy day wasn’t over yet. First, the Germans insisted to feed the “captives” chocolate even though they had just eaten soup made by the Russian matka, then he watched with a sense of pride as five hundred Russians were captured.

GERHARD Russian soldiers were as happy as we were to meet the Germans. All it took was for one German soldier on a horse to ride through the village knocking on doors and calling the Russians out. Before long there were 500 Russian soldiers standing on the highway with their weapons in a heap in the middle of the road. The Russians were taken prisoner and us ethnic Germans were given separate quarters.

 For several days I did nothing, but I wanted to get out of there. Each time a transport left for Germany I volunteered to go along. After all, I had a sister, Lydia Borowski, who lived in Germany and I wanted to go to her. But it was not so easy to go to Germany. Each time the ethnic Germans were called out of the line and we had to stay behind. For us there were other duties.

soviet pows transport 2

Transport of Soviet prisoners leaving for Germany

Had he know the destination of the passengers in the transports leaving for Germany, he would not have wanted to go along. The Germans must have smiled each time Gerhard and his cohort lined up to join the slave trains going west; it was comical to see these “country” Germans asking to travel with Untermenschen (sub-humans).

Joining the German forces must have been exactly what had given Gerhard hope days ago when the train turned to the south west. It was the fulfillment of a great wish.



[1] Epp, George K., Mennonite Immigration to Canada after World War II, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 5, 1987, pg 111, accessed at http://jms.uwinnipeg.ca/index.php/jms/article/view/143/143 on November 20, 2017.

[2] Ibid..

[3] On July 3, 1941, Stalin went on Soviet radio and gave instructions that when forced to withdraw, the Red Army should destroy anything that could be of use to the enemy.

[4] World War II in Ukraine: Stalin’s Scorched Earth Policy by Andrew Gregorovich  http://www.infoukes.com/history/ww2/page-06.html, accessed November 20, 2017.

[5] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s Way, Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1345, Picador, New York, 2006, p. 3.