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March 2011 - Nr. 3

One day, mother and some helpers had been very busy sorting clothes and foods, when there was a constant thunder or roar in the air, accompanied by a huge cloud of dust above the treetops. The ground began to shake and some people fled into the nearby forest. The tanks of the Red Army arrived and continued rumbling right through our fields, while two trucks used the road to our house.

Always fascinated by anything motorized, I stood in the middle of the road. The first truck drove around me, the second stopped in front of me. One Russian soldier came down, kicked and dragged me to the side of the road. He put his own jacket over my shoulders, pointed to the ground and ordered: “Stoy!” I got the message: “Stay!” When I saw mother and friends involved in a scuffle with the soldiers, I rushed toward them. I came just in time to witness my mother, my very own dear mother, and the other people all being shot dead!

At first, deafened and confused by gunfire, I could not comprehend fully what had happened. Stunned and in shock, I watched those bodies on the ground rolling and moving into the very last phase of life. When the magnitude of the horror sank in, I regained my breathing and pushed and kicked my way through those soldiers in order to reach and hug my mother. One of them got hold of me, pulled the Russian jacket off my shoulders and, like discarding trash, flung me into the back of a truck. I landed hard in pain, and that helped me, I finally was able to cry and cry.

My sister was found hiding in a barn and beaten badly. She landed beside me on the truck. It was war, gruesome war, and we had been literally thrown into it. Those who had not fled before the Red Army came were rounded up and herded to a nearby railway station. I was never to see again my family’s large homestead that had been established by fathers and forefathers over centuries in our native East Prussia, which would be ethnically cleansed of everything German.

We were loaded into cattle railway cars and the long journey into the Soviet Union began. Everyone sat on the floor very close together warming each other as the wind blew snow and rain through the car. At one of the frequent stops an old man opened the big door to relieve himself when shots rang out. He fell back bleeding profusely and soon after died. At night some women opened the door just enough to slip the body out. After many days without food and half frozen, we stopped at a small village and were ordered out. A horse drawn wagon was heaped full of mostly elderly dead people for whom the long trip had been too arduous. We were fed some little fish and bread. My sister was hiding a small pouch with some dried foods that had helped us to survive. It had been the very last gift from our foreboding mother.

Then we marched out of the village to our new “home”, a labour camp: barracks and large tents in rows surrounded by fence and barbed wire. The forest next to it was our toilet; on the other side down a steep bank, was a big river still covered with ice and snow. Each tent had a walkway in the middle and to the left and right a thick layer of straw to sleep on. An adult got one blanket, my sister shared with me. The nights were bitterly cold, even during the day we never got warm.

Adults were grouped into teams and had to work in the forest. Housekeeping was assigned to children. Every morning we had to shake out and fold the blankets, empty and clean two pails serving as night pots. While turning over the straw we searched the sheaves for any remaining kernels of grain to augment our meager meal of watery soup and a sliver of bread. Hunger had become our constant companion. Very seldom we received some salted fish. Carrying ice-blocks from the river up to the kitchen and the Russian barracks, and hauling and piling firewood for them filled our day. There was very little time left for us to pick the lice and fleas off each other. All we owned we carried on our bodies, worked with it and slept with it. At night my sister and I cried sometimes together, but we never spoke about mother. That was too painful.

People got very sick. Nights had become endless. Besides cold and hunger we had to endure the moaning and groaning of very sick and dying people. When the person next to me had turned cold at night – one more had passed on I used that opportunity to search the pockets for something edible. I had learned from the adults to be quick at salvaging socks and other garments from the dead. My sister specialized in swiping scarves from the corpses, which she then transformed into sweaters on our small bodies. Rats crawled over us at night. As long as we moved, they would leave us alone, but they did feed on the dead. In the morning the guards came with a flatbed wagon. Those dead or almost dead were thrown on that wagon and carted down to the river. After completing the haul of ice and water, the naked bodies were shoved under the ice. The mighty “Dnjeper River” not only provided, it also received.

Periodically a German speaking “Polit-Kommissar”, better known as “Stalin’s Apostle”, would lecture us about peace and war, socialism and fascism. Because we fascists had brought death and destruction to the Soviet Union, there was an acute shortage of food and supplies. We should not complain about watery soups and cold nights, but instead be grateful for the mercy of the Soviet people to allow us on their soil. He assured us, that life under socialist rule would soon be much better. The great leader Mr. Stalin would see to it that the world would live in peace and prosperity. For those opposing his goals, punishment would be severe.

Mr. Stalin was somewhere far away. It seemed as if he and his likes had lived in the past for the future. Our past was yesterday, that we barely survived and didn’t want to remember. We were too hungry and too cold to have ludicrous dreams about a glorious future. Somehow making it through the present day, that was what counted. That was victory. Surviving that seemingly endless night to avoid the flatbed wagon in the morning was our future. More hunger, more pains just like the day before and all other futuristic yesterdays! It was not a time for mercy or self-pity. There always is a price to be paid for empowering and supporting politically evil “Misleaders” in their satanic, ill-fated ambitions. Old or young, guilty or not, we all paid dearly.

Besides “Nazi”, we had been called “Gerrrmanski”. By stretching this word and especially rolling the “R” letter, the Russian war torn soul would and did air its hatred towards us. Vengeance is sweet. Even as a child I sensed from whom to stay away. Occasionally a body was spotted floating down the river. Some of us who had ventured alone too far into the forest never came back. Some older men paid special attention as to where the crowing ravens circled above the treetops. Around there, they would later search for leftover shoe wear and clothes.

One day we all were assembled outside our compound. While we received a long speech about law and order, two older men had to dig a deep hole. They were subsequently shot and buried in it for trying to break into the Russian supplies. Theft was rampant, justice swift, when caught. Food, no matter how little, always seemed to outweigh a human life, even one’s own.

To be continued...

To start from the beginning

Werner Bogdahn, WW II, second world war, orphan, orphans, orphanage, Germany, Poland, Siberia, Russians, Russia, Canada

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