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May 2011 - Nr. 5

One day in the middle of winter we few remaining children were rounded up and moved into the Russian quarters, washed, scrubbed in warm water and dressed in clean clothes. Some Germans had arrived that seemed to have been good friends with the Russians. Very loudly they thanked the Soviet people for having taken “good care” of us in the camp and for liberating the Germans from the Nazis. We children, always called “Nazi-swines”, beaten, abused and treated like animals, now had to go back to the country that had just been “liberated” from us.

Life in Altenburg, East Germany, was like being in heaven. Food there was scarce too, but we received two small warm meals daily. We slept on floor mats in a clean heated hall. No longer did I have to work in forest and field, just in a warm kitchen, shovel coals in the basement, attend classes in German and get treated for frostbites and several diseases. No more “Nazi-swine”, I was promoted to “dirty Russian”. Warm water, clean warm clothes, flush toilets, all those luxuries I enjoyed immensely.

One day I was informed, as my father had fallen in the war, that my “new father” would soon pick me up. I was still in shock, when a tall scruffy looking man peered into my mouth and ears, checked if and how much meat there was left on my bones and poked around my big waterbelly, like a butcher looking for choice meat on the cattle market. His name was August Gneist. He disliked me and let the Red Cross people know. Of the surviving children returning from the Soviet Union slated for adoption, I was the last boy – a leftover.

I ended up on his farm on 129 Leipziger Landstraβe in Weiβenfels/Saale. His wife was not excited seeing me. They lived in a small two-room house attached to a large barn. In it, beside the door leading in to the kitchen, a wheelbarrow and garden tools were moved, a box was formed and the ground covered with straw. A sack filled with straw served as mattress and an old horse blanket completed my bed. I was introduced to a variety of animals and shown how to care for them. Instructions I received for maintaining the outhouse, with wood-ash from kitchen stove. The cistern pump needed priming every morning and the big manure pile had to be turned over once a week. A supply of firewood always had to be stacked beside the kitchen stove, the only source of heat. All animals had to be fed first before I was allowed to eat. I was forbidden to touch the breadbox. One slice of bread I would find in the morning and evening on the kitchen table. More food the school would supply. If I misbehaved or neglected my chores, there would be no bread!

I was to be happy and thankful to have found such merciful people like them. To show their generosity they placed a small bowl with porridge in front of me, but added, it was not earned, as I had not done any work. I was hungry, very hungry indeed, but I could not eat – something choked me. When the farmer tried to force-feed me, my forearm accidentally swiped the bowl off the table. Just as the bowl hit the floor, a big wallop to my head knocked me off the chair.

I landed beside the broken bowl. A hefty kick to my rear end and I broke down. Kneeling, I scraped the porridge and everything that stuck to it off the floor, and ate.

I was ordered back to the table and got a lengthy lesson about German manners, German decency and everything else German. I could not look at that wretched man who wanted to be “my father”. I remembered the Polit Kommissar and his description of Nazis which befitted the farmer well. When I looked at the woman, out of that stone face strange eyes gave me chilling penetrating looks. Such were not the eyes of a mother. By then I was survivor enough to recognize, that I looked at a cool calculating, heartless being. Remembering my own mother, I had to fight hard holding back the tears.

Next morning, even before the rooster crowed, I fed the animals as well as I could and performed the other morning duties. I glanced at the kitchen table, of course, there was no bread, as I had misbehaved. When I stole some chicken feed for myself, I was caught and beaten good.

It was a long march to school, but I liked school. Firstly, every day I got a soup and bun there. Secondly, the beatings I received caused agony and anger, which I could unload unto those who called me “dirty Russian”. I progressed well in school and in my farm work. Very attached I became to the animals, but avoided my adopters whenever possible. The world of man had been too murky for me. People spoke of love and peace, but exploitation and violence prevailed. Even mothers were disposable items there. For a cleaner and more genuine life I had the barn with the animals in peaceful coexistence. Though they all would end up on other people’s dinner tables eventually, I found some comfort in the thought, that at least immense enjoyment and appreciation awaited them there.

Merely feeding the animals was only duty. I felt they deserved better. The goat’s ears I cleaned painstakingly and trimmed the hoofs. When the rabbits built nests for the expected young, they got the fur brushed for extra wool to line their nest. For the chickens I made a box with fine sand and wood-ash to repel fleas and mites. Since pigs do not sweat, they feel uncomfortable in higher temperatures; so I brushed them periodically. I shall not forget that morning on the way to school, when something behind me came gently galloping on those cobblestones. It was “Moritz” the male pig. With flapping ears and a big squeal he stopped at my legs and began brushing them vigorously. I grabbed the escapee’s ear and dragged him under loud protest back to the barn. At school I received the customary beating for being late. Only Moritz was on my mind thereafter, and what I had to share with him. But when I faced that little fellow later that day, I could not even be mad at him. The atmosphere in the barn must have been like therapy for me. Looking at Moritz with his blinking eyes, I felt appreciated and even rewarded with genuine affection. While the animals did relatively well in my care, in return, I gained much needed inner strength. Despite those many cold nights and the pesky mice in my “bed”, I was more at home in the barn with the animals than with the farmers.


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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