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April 2011 - Nr. 4
Happy Easter - Frohe Ostern

Finally, winter was over. Able-bodied persons had to clear the forest to create fields for food production. My sister and I were assigned to tear out roots and clear the land of huge amounts of stones. Potatoes were planted. We managed to gorge ourselves on some raw potatoes and stash a few away. The forest had become very kind to us, providing the odd hedgehog or rabbit, fiddle-heads, tree buds, mushrooms, bird eggs, berries, bulrush and big worms for our hungry bellies.

Among debris and human feces we found discarded overly salted fishtails that not even the rats would eat. When soaked in water, those tails made excellent brine for the worms. They would shed the layer of slime and clean themselves out to become almost transparent. Those of us who were proud owners of a piece of wire or an old bicycle spoke, used them as skewer to roast the worms in open fire. A salty delicacy that tasted somewhat like pretzel. When the river was free of ice we received some extra fish soup now and then. It was like something from heaven for us.

As the temperature increased, so did the number of diseases and deaths. Diphtheria and typhoid had invaded the camp and really decimated our numbers. We survivors benefited greatly from it. For the first time we had enough clothes, even some extra for nights. By then the supply of fresh straw for bedding had long been depleted. The old straw looked shredded and covered the ground more like a mat. Very sick and dying people had left large steaming spots behind reeking of urine and feces. The most soiled spots we raked out and we covered the entire floor with a thick layer of tender spruce and pine twigs. The place still smelled like a sewer.

The field with potatoes and beets was guarded heavily during the summer. As the days got colder, we received permission to harvest the first beets and potatoes. Fires were lit for a big potato roast. We could not wait for the potatoes to be done; starvation forced us to reach into the fire and consume everything found there, done or not. From that time on there was a bit more to eat, but we were still hungry and very weak. Campfires, when allowed, had always been special occasions for our cold bones and for what was left of our spirits.

I always joined the Pushky and Troika-boys, they had the biggest fires going. To control head lice and provide identity as to nationality, Russian boys had their heads shaven except for a small half-moon shaped patch of hair above the forehead, called Pushky. Troika, was a small triangular hair-patch on the head of a Polish boy. Germans were completely bald. The pattern of hair or lack thereof did not matter, but the amount of firewood one would donate certainly did! And my donations were always generous. When I delivered enough stolen firewood, the Pushkies would share some of their stolen fish with me. Some called me Igor. Firewood had the amazing power to rekindle a little humanity, thaw out and open up some hearts again. It was a fabulous chance to pick up some valuable survival tricks from the mostly older boys, though difficult to communicate in different languages. Since children are eager to learn, not preoccupied with politics and misconceptions, we somehow miraculously managed and got along just fine.

When the campfire reached its peak, human feeling had returned. There were some smiling faces and even some laughter. Over time I learned to join in singing “Evening Bells.” But it never failed, when the fires dwindled down, moods had changed dramatically. The show was over, reality returned. Then we all sat there silently, with hair and without, staring into the fire, soothing cracked souls trying to cope with bygone horrors and loss of loved ones. It was there and then on the shores of Dnjeper River, where in harshest environments I learned, that nothing brings true people closer together than the warmth and the all-embracing magic of a campfire.

Snow fell and the long Russian winter began. By then we could read and write some Russian. Some women were picked once, my sister among them, to go with an armed guard to the bakeshop in the nearby village to pick up bread for the camp. My sister, able to read Russian, saw the requisition paper: 16 loaves of bread. Someone produced a pen and it was changed to 18 loaves. Under the pretense of having to go behind the bushes the women buried the extra two loaves in snow on the way back to camp. Sister told me about all those wonderful things and smells in the bakery and the hidden bread behind a bush by the road. Feverishly we waited for darkness.

Our guard lit the oil lamp and sat by the entrance of our tent. When he finally left, my sister tried to turn off the lamp. But something went wrong. The lamp tipped over and burning oil reached the straw with horrendous consequences. When the guards had rushed towards our burning tent, we aimed for the main entrance and slipped into the bushes to avoid the road.

That bright fiery red light was behind us. Ahead we looked and went, driven by hunger. Out there in the darkness of night there was bread, plenty of bread! We reached “the spot” and began searching frantically in and through the snow. Nothing! Not even a single crumb of bread we found, but lots of fresh footprints from the “big” people. We had come too late! Sitting there with shattered dreams we cried, ate snow and more snow to subdue the pain in the empty stomach. Never again had snow such a bitter taste, as in that particular night! The next morning, as the river had not been frozen over, the older people had to bury those who had perished in the blaze; and they were not a few.

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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