The darkest period in the lives of many of our contemporaries has been that of the war. Everyone in Holland experienced its misery, either directly or through family members or friends. All those who spent the war years in Holland experienced the loss of freedom, repression, and hunger, especially during the winter of 1944. My mother wrote in a letter, dated February 20, 1945:
"It is not easy these days since food is scarce. You probably heard about our rations: 1 kg. of potatoes and 800 gr. of bread per week; no fat, no milk except for babies, no sugar. It would be easier to say what we do get than what not. If the war does not end soon, our nation will die of starvation. Deaths are so numerous that it sometimes takes three to four weeks before there is an opportunity for burial. In Amsterdam the dead are temporarily laid up in a church or other hall, waiting for their turn..... Nell went to Barneveld and Ommen in January by bicycle, in snow and cold, to get food. She brought back rye and wheat. Fortunately we have been able to get by until now."
Others, among whom one of my sisters and a brother-in-law, befell a much worse fate, that of imprisonment and concentration camps. I was among these for a three-months period during my two years in Germany.
For many years I found it impossible to talk about my experiences, or to be exposed to discussions or films related to the atrocities committed by the nazi's. Under such circumstances I would lose control over my emotions and reasonable behavior. All I could do was ask for a change of subject or leave unobtrusively. On some occasions, of which I remember one in particular, I would come to violent confrontation. But time erodes and I have found it less difficult to discuss such matters the past ten years or so, although I still cannot sit through a movie about nazi atrocities. This year, for the first time in 40 years, I brought myself to reading the letters and postcards which I wrote during the war and which my mother saved. I had started many times but never got beyond the first postcard.
In this letter I will give you an account of those things I remember. It will be a factual account. Neither do I have the artistic talent to give verbal expression to my feelings, nor do I want to because I have always considered them personal and private.
In one of my previous letters I mentioned that the war years were exciting. They were that but not enjoyably so. As you know, I believe that nothing is entirely black or entirely white; there is always a range of grays. In other words, nothing is entirely good or entirely bad, absolutely true or absolutely false. I would be hard pressed to find something good to say about the war however, except that it makes other circumstances appear good in comparison. Beyond vague recollections, I do not remember much of the events which led up to the war or those preceding the invasion of Holland. I did keep a diary from 1940 to 1942 but it does not contain much you would find interesting. There were confrontations between the communists and the nazi's on the bridge near our house where they peddled their literature; there was the return of Neville Chamberlain from his visit to Herr Hitler, as he called him, and more closely related to Holland's involvement, there was the mobilization.
The first act of war we witnessed was the bombing of Rotterdam, about 15 miles from The Hague, where we lived. It was clearly visible from where we lived. This is more understandable when you know that this part of Holland is completely flat. We were naive enough and inexperienced in the ways of war, to go to our roofs and watch the air battles and the crimson sky over Rotterdam. The destruction was massive and, as history records, the conflict short. The mostly unprepared Dutch forces were no match for the German military machine. Within five days the war between Holland and Germany was over and large parts of Rotterdam destroyed by German bombs; the royal family had fled to England and Holland was under the boot of the German hordes who made their presence known through suppression of freedom, torture, and death among a defiant population. We have a series of picture books, probably in the "groene kist", which graphically describe what went on in occupied Holland. They were published shortly after the war. During the early part of the occupation many aspects of life went on pretty well as they had before. We continued to go to school and church, people went to work, and within curfew restrictions, lived their family lives. Mass defiance was limited to symbolic actions. When I follow the news about the Polish opposition to that regime, I am always reminded of Prince Bernhard's birthday in 1940, when we and many others went to the royal palace in The Hague where we placed flowers around the statue of William the Silent, the earliest ruling ancestor of the House of Orange, in symbolic tribute to the royal family, all before the arrival of machine-gun toting German soldiers. Needless to say that we were soon chased away, as we were at our next stop, the Queen Mother's palace. In frustration we ended up at the residence of the prime minister, Hendrik Colijn, where my brother and another gentleman presented expressions of loyalty on our behalf.
We did not fully realize this, at least I did not, but by 1943 the German fortunes had started to wane and more of their men were needed at the front. Some were also recruited in the occupied territories where small national-socialist (nazi) parties existed, even before 1939. In Holland their members were called NSB-ers, after the name of their party, the National Socialist Movement. These were the most dangerous people of all. Having knowledge of past and present loyalties and practices of their fellow citizens, even relatives and former friends, they were the perfect informers the Germans could rely on. The leader of the NSB was a man named Mussert. He and his ilk came to regret their wartime affiliation when the time of reckoning came in 1945. Mussert was shot by a firing squad on the grounds of the army base where I was stationed after the war in Europe. In German the word 'leader' is Führer, a title afforded Hitler. Each time it is now used in connection with loyalty to a political party leader ('our leader') where its use implies almost blind obedience, as is so often the case, I have the feeling that some people are still sheep, as they were then.
For occupied territories the German misfortunes translated into recruitment of labor for their factories. From Russia, the Ukraine, France, Belgium, Holland, and other countries, trainloads of young men and women, some as young as 13, were rounded up and transported to labor camps near German factory towns. I was among them. At the time, it was in July 1943, I was working as a clerk at the city gasworks. I had just turned 19 and city employees whose names were readily available were among the first contingents. With the cooperation of Dutch employers and officials in government employment offices, summonses were issued. I received such summons and was placed on a train of the Netherlands Railways under armed guard, eventually arriving in Lübeck in the north-west of Germany. It was not until two years later, in 1945, that I returned home.
There were three distinct periods associated with this part of my life. There was the time of the transport to and early stay in Lübeck. It was marked by anger, defiance, and confrontation, resulting in the second period which saw my being arrested, imprisoned and sent to an Arbeitserziehungslager (labor reform camp.) The final period saw a much subdued person during a year of work at factories, bombings, and the movement to another labor camp, to the time of the liberation by British forces and the trek back home.
This is certainly not intended to be an autobiography or a diary, nor could it be, since many of the day-to-day events have slipped my memory. I will just relate some of the highlight which you may find of interest. I am sure that events such as these do shape a person's outlook on life and way of living. From that perspective this letter will be indirectly about you and what you are today.
You must try to transport yourself to a situation without television, with a poorly developed and highly controlled mass information system, mainly utilizing radio and newspapers, and a population which is not wise in the ways of the world. I think this fairly represents the period of my youth, the twenties and thirties. I don't think many people had any great interest in how the other half lived. In this context my whole experience in Germany was an education which I could not have had otherwise. My friends were not members of the youth organization I belonged to, nor my family's friends. They were instead Ukrainian and Russian peasants, Polish girls from the city, French former soldiers, a Russian pilot, a Dutch priest incognito, a Belgian photographer, and Dutch young men of all walks of life. They were Protestants, Catholics, and confessed atheists. They included young men and women alike. They were more than casual acquaintances. They were close friends, and friendships were deep, meaningful, compassionate and, above all, unselfish.
In the realm of work we dug ditches, cleaned rubble after bombings. We learned to operate the lathe and milling machine. Those who did not know the difference between hard and soft steel before, soon learned much of what was to be learned about materials, tools, and machines of all sorts. We also learned the meaning of the word endurance, working long hours, week after week. A typical day was: getting up at 4 in the morning, starting work at 6 with two fifteen-minute breaks; quitting time at 5 in the afternoon and back to camp by 6:30, to be followed by cleaning, washing and other chores. Some of us found out what it meant to defy totalitarian authority and paid the price. In a word, it was a total immersion program in the school of hard knocks.
The train trip to the German border was not terribly eventful, at least judging from correspondence of that time. We left The Hague for Germany on June 30, 1943. The train was marked with signs such as the Dutch lion, and with slogans as "we shall return" and OZO which stood for Oranje zal overwinnen (Orange will triumph.) Along the route the population waved at us with orange and red-white-and-blue flags. At station stops we sang patriotic songs.
The first culture shock came when we were detained in a transfer and distribution center. This was at the Dutch-German border in a camp immediately adjacent to one for Russian prisoners. I don't know if it was through ignorance or through indoctrination but the fact that we were in the company of what we considered primitive people, was our first foreign confrontation. We fully believed to be in peril of life and limb because of their presence and went so far as to organize an overnight vigil to protect ourselves. Of course nothing happened. But can you imagine, seeing a real Russian! To our minds at that time, a Russian was as mysterious as the man in the moon, someone from the ends of the earth. We probably even expected him to look differently. I hasten to report that soon after , Russians and especially Ukrainians (who did not consider themselves Russian) were among my best friends. I think of them with great delight at this very moment. Not only were there Nicholai and Igor, Petrenko and Gregori, but also Maria and Tanya, Tamara and, above all, Lida.
Its is amazing how quickly one becomes proficient in a language when the need exists. The emphasis on the study of languages in the Dutch educational system proved to be beneficial. German and French being two of the three compulsory language subjects in high school meant that I never had any problem communicating in these. I became quite proficient in both and still am in German. During the two-year period I also learned enough Ukrainian and Polish to make myself well understood and able to communicate with friends. I am now only able to pick up the odd word of a conversation in these languages although I still know the first stanza of the Volga song in Russian and some expressions I rather not use anymore.
One thing I learned through my association with Russian friends was that they were totally content being Russian. It was quite a revelation to find that a communist state represented misery and repression in the minds of some beholders, in this case ours, but certainly not in the minds of these citizens. When, toward the end of the war, I invited some to come with me to freedom and democracy, they flatly rejected the notion, being at a loss to understand why anyone should prefer the decadence of the capitalist world over their just society. They almost persuaded me to join them instead. As I have said before, carpenters breed carpenters, Christians Christians, and communists communists, predestination or free will notwithstanding.
After the overnight stay at the distribution center I was among a group destined for Lübeck where we were housed in wooden barracks. They were run by the German Labor Front (DAF) an arm of the nazi party. There were 300 men in the camp, 12 per room: Dutch, Belgian, French and Italian. We stayed at this camp for some months after which we were moved to one which was much closer to the factory. The second camp consisted of sections, the Ostlager (East camp) housing Russians and Poles, and the Westlager for persons from western countries. The Westlager contained young men only, the Ostlager both young men and women. It did not take me long to find ways to pay visits to the east, something which was not permitted. A close relationship developed. I have often wondered if any in the current hierarchy in Russia might not have been among my former pals in the Ostlager. The Russians had to wear a blue-and-white patch with the word OST on it, and the Poles yellow-and-white ones with a P.
Each camp had certain communal areas which included washing facilities and toilets, twelve thrones per room without partitions. After a while I was fortunate in that one of the Russian girls looked after my laundry, something which was our own responsibility. This task, as well as cleaning, cooking and other chores had to be done after returning from work each day.
Apart from those we worked with we virtually had no contact with German civilians. The designation Ausländer (foreigner) had the same connotation as DP (displaced person) had after the war, or the word foreigner has in some circles today. In short we were shunned and disliked by the German population which was O.K. with us and certainly no different from what the Germans experienced in Holland. The population of Lübeck was about 130,000. Much of the city had already been destroyed by the time we arrived.
The first camp was located in Lübeck, the second one just outside, as was the one we moved to later after the bombing of the factory and our camp. The factory was also just outside the city. In addition to Germans, the factory employed 800 Poles and Russians combined, and 400 Dutch, Belgian and French. It mainly produced parts for rifles. During these two years I did bench work (drilling, filing, etc.) and operated different lathes and milling machines. In the process I lost the tip of my left middle finger. I had started to wipe the workbed of a vertical milling machine before the tool had come to a complete stop and it caught my finger. Ouch!
During these months we had a lot to learn and I am not only talking about machine tool skills. We actually were naive enough to believe that, as workers, we had certain rights. Unfortunately I had allowed myself to be named room representative and soon became the spokesman for the entire Dutch camp community. If only I had been older and wiser (doesn't that sound familiar?) I would have declined the honor. But I was not made that way; I had to carry the torch. I remember one occasion when we were fed up having to dig and work on building an air raid shelter in the camp after work and on Sundays. We would have no part of it and decided to make our position known to the camp commander. So, forward we marched, all two hundred or so of us, to the camp commander's office, everyone playing follow-the-leader which was I. The commander was waiting for us on the steps of his office. At first he said nothing, he simply listened to my presentation. When I was all finished he pulled out his revolver and shouted: "you have one minute to get back to your barracks!" As I turned around to gage the sentiments of my followers, I found that I no longer had any; I was alone. Everyone was on the run, and soon so was I. We attempted to make other demands, all to no avail, until it was decided that enough was enough. The second phase of my German experience was at hand.
On January 3, 1944, I should have gone to work, just as on any other day. Instead I got dressed and decided to go to town. When I returned to camp in the afternoon, I was told by my roommates that the watchman (Wachmann), a very nervous but otherwise harmless little man, had been looking for me. Shortly thereafter he showed up again and told me to go with him. Understandably I associated his demand with my illegitimate absence form work that day. Before leaving, he suggested that I put on my coat and take some bread with me. This should have been enough to tell me that something more serious was at hand. Nevertheless, I only partly heeded his advice and left without my coat but with some bread. We then proceeded to the Ostlager where he deposited me in a small dark room with a barred window, locking the door as he left. Without giving any indication of my fate, he left me wondering what would become of me. It was not long before the Russian girls returned from work. To break the monotony, I decided I should have my mouth organ and proceeded to write a note to that effect, addressed to my roommates. I then knocked on the wall separating my cell from the adjacent room, never wondering how the instrument was to pass through the locked door. Soon some Russian girls, in response to my knock, came to the door of my cell, at which time I passed the note under the door. If I had expected my request ever to reach my roommates, I was mistaken. I can only guess that reading my name was enough for my Russian friends to devise a plan of their own in which other things reckoned as of greater importance than a note they could not read. Some more appeared at my door, identifying themselves as "girls from room 3", the room of Lida, my girlfriend.
In the morning the deputy camp commander appeared. He instructed me to go with him and then took me by tramcar to the Gestapo office in Lübeck. After having been left in a cell for a short time, I was led before an officer for interrogation. He started by asking me why I was there, to which I had no answer, of course. He then accused me of having stolen a valuable necklace and a Christmas tree, as well as of other ridiculous matters. Eventually the real reason of my arrest became apparent when he started to question me about a collective letter which we had sent to the German Labor Front (DAF) in which we had complained about what we considered deplorable conditions in the camp. After extensive questioning about this letter, my interrogator suddenly changed the subject. He now turned to allegations connected with a man, named Piet van Zutphen, an NSB-er who was employed at our camp office. I was to have criticized him for being an NSB-er which I admitted. Then I was accused of having taken part in a severe thrashing he had received, which I also had to admit. I was alleged to have accused him of performing his function out of selfish motives. Again I could not deny the allegation and this time I took it upon myself to further elaborate. And so other insignificant matters were brought forward, none of which was serious enough to explain my predicament. Finally an allegation which ostensibly could justify my arrest was presented. A hammer and sickle had been displayed in our room, I was told, and I must have been aware of it. At any rate, as room representative I had to accept full responsibility for this crime, unless I was prepared to tell who had done this thing. As I had no knowledge of the incident and seriously doubted the report, I had no choice but to express my ignorance and innocence. Notwithstanding his shouting and threats with what appeared to be a truncheon, Herr Wolff, this was his name, was unable to have me change my story. I was led away and returned to my cell. Later I found out that my roommates had also been questioned about the alleged incident. They too expressed their ignorance. All I have been able to conclude is that someone, probably van Zutphen, made up the story and reported it to the Gestapo who accepted it as fact. Earlier that day René, a Belgian friend of mine, had been arrested also and questioned about the letter to the DAF. We remained together most of the time until he was admitted to hospital.
That same day, along with other prisoners, we were transported to an emergency prison in Lübeck, called Lohmühle. As soon as we arrived we were taken to the administration area where we had to turn in our possessions, all but our clothes. We were searched which caused me great anxiety. In the inner pocket of my vest I had a clandestine paper which had been distributed in Germany by the allied forces. I can only conclude that German vests did not come equipped with inner pockets for it was the only place they did not look. After all this was over I was taken to cell number 4 and temporarily lost sight of René.
The jail consisted of a barrack for men and one for women, with prisoners of different nationalities. Germans, Belgians and Dutch were grouped together. Each barrack had a corridor with cells on both sides which could be opened from the outside only. The door had a peephole and in one wall was a small barred window. My cell contained three double bunks with thin palliasses and two blankets each; besides this a small table and a chair. I was assigned to a lower bunk. The other prisoners in my cell when I arrived there were a Pole without a country, about 50 years old, who had lived in Germany for the past 20 years, and a gypsy boy of German nationality. The man without a country was accused of having been involved in a murder in Posen at the time Hitler came to power. He had been in this jail for ten months. His case was being handled by the police unit for criminal offenses (Kriminal Polizei, or Kripo.) Once every week he was asked the same question, namely whether he had been in Posen on a certain day in 1933. His answer was always 'no' for, if he would say 'yes', he would hang. Each time the police would lower his pants and make him bend over a chair, after which they would beat him. This whole process was repeated twice on each occasion, after which he would be returned to his cell until the following week. The gypsy boy claimed to have been arrested for the illegal killing of a sheep. His only dream was to go to America some day. A German who brought our food and who was a prisoner also, had made the mistake of saying, when he witnessed the death of his friend, a father of seven, at the front that it was Hitler who was responsible. He was promptly arrested. During my stay at this prison a Czechoslovakian prisoner joined us but soon left again. Also a German communist who had been in a concentration camp from 1933 to 1939. When he was dismissed he was asked whether he now embraced national socialism. The only exposure to national socialism the man had known had been the concentration camp. He was quickly arrested under the pretense of having stolen a goat. This man's long experience as a prisoner soon became clear from the way he kept us occupied with exercises, 'cards' and such. When we were in danger of getting bored, we would tear a small strip from our blanket. We used it and a small piece of candle to polish the floor until it shone like a mirror. One morning I worked. I had to chop wood for the police for which I received a piece of bread as pay. After that I decided not to work again in prison but rest as much as possible. Work was normally not compulsory, in some instances even forbidden. We were supplied with a metal bucket for urinating. It was placed inside our cell, behind the door. If we had to relieve ourselves otherwise, we had to use a communal toilet and request permission by knocking on the door. In general conditions in this jail were not bad. Rations, although small in quantity were good by our standards. It regularly included some meat and we had porridge every day. Although not allowed to write letters, the prisoners received whatever mail was forwarded to them. Two things were not allowed: smoking and looking out of the window. The relatively favorable conditions were probably a result of the fact that this prison was one for preliminary detention.
During my stay here a mentally disturbed Russian boy was brought in and deposited in an empty, unheated cell (all cells were unheated.) He was said to be practically naked and bound by hands and feet. I assume that this was done for fear that he would smash everything around him. For us it was fortunate that he did not stay long for he never stopped calling for his mother, day and night.
The time at this prison was short and after two weeks I was led before the Gestapo once more where a repeat of the first interrogation took place. This time it took longer and everything was recorded. Having placed my signature under "gelesen, genehmigt und unterschrieben" (read, agreed and signed) I was led away after being told that I would soon leave prison. Herr Wolff neglected to tell me what was awaiting me, however. He did advise me to keep my eyes open for bad elements and saboteurs after returning to the labor camp in Lübeck. I then was to contact him an supply him with names, everything in the strictest confidence, of course. Finally he told me that the district commander of the Gestapo had wanted to send me to a concentration camp but that he, Herr Wolff, had been able to prevent this. In a word, he was virtue personified.
On January 21, 1944, I received instruction to prepare for departure. Soon others and I marched off under armed police guard to a railway station where we were taken through the rear entrance to a police train destined for Kiel. All sorts of prisoners were with us, among them two brothers, chained together. They had attempted to escape when the jail they were in, was bombed. We were allowed to use the toilet on the train but had to leave the door open while the police stood guard. Escape was out of the question. We arrived in Kiel after dark and were led out of the station, again through a rear exit. From here we were transported by open police vehicle with guards on the running boards, to the penitentiary on Blumenstraße.
This was a regular prison with massive gates, long corridors with cells, and jailers with enormous keys. After the usual admission routine I was taken to a room which could be described as a communal cell in which about fifty men were walking about or sitting. There were all kinds among them. Some looking like typical criminals, thugs, but also decent looking persons. They appeared to be of many different nationalities. At night we slept on straw which was placed along the walls. Some slept on the bare floor, others on the table and bench which were in the room. The area was about 21 x 4 meters in size.
My stay here was short and after a few days three others and I were taken to Straferziehungslager "Drachensee" in Hassee near Kiel. This is when the less pleasant time of my incarceration started. Upon arrival I was taken to the administration area where one of the first questions asked was whether I had any vermin (lice) which of course, I didn't. After admission formalities were completed I was taken to a large room of about 10 x 4 meters in size. It was one of two main areas of equal size. The room I was taken to contained approximately sixty men of whom small groups were gathered under three dim lights which were mounted on the wall along the length of the room. At first I could not make out what they were doing. It seemed as if they were manipulating articles of clothing. It took a while before I had accustomed to my new surroundings and presently I went to find out what the men were doing. I found that they were removing small specks from their clothing which changed color as they did. They were killing lice, something I had never witnessed nor heard of before. Within a few days I too had to join the hopeless and never ending fight against these vermin. It proved to be the worst torment I ever experienced.
I have mentioned this before, but I do not have the talent to put in words the emotional experience of this time, nor the daily conditions and feelings associated with them. For this reason I will have to be content telling you about some of the events, limiting myself to an enumeration of facts. I recorded these shortly after my return from Germany. Most of this letter is essentially a translation of these notes.
First the lay-out of the place. It consisted of a barrack around a gravel courtyard, surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. Let me refer to the sketch which I included in my original notes. There was one room (marked '?') which none of us ever entered and I have no idea what it was used for. German prisoners, about six, were housed in room 'A', Poles and Russians in 'C', while prisoners of other nationalities were housed in room 'B'. The number of persons in B and C varied from 60 to 100 per room. The sleeping area consisted of two boards, one a meter above the other, mounted along the entire length of one wall. With everybody close together, there was room for approximately 30 men per board. The remainder had to find room on the floor to sleep. Without mattresses or facsimile, one was as uncomfortable as the other. 'K' represents the stove, and 'OOO' jam tins which were used for urinating. During the evening we had to use the toilet. The third place from the front on the bottom board, shown shaded, was where I slept. After about three weeks my Belgian friend René who had arrived also, was taken to hospital which meant that I moved one place closer to the door. During the first or second week in the camp René was injured by a crate which fell on his foot. This resulted in blood poisoning which grew progressively worse to the point that he had attacks. During such attacks he would have the appearance of a wild animal, like someone possessed, and he would swing his good leg and his arms with superhuman strength. Although he was unable to sit up, it took four men to keep him under control. As these attacks followed each other ever more rapidly, he was taken to a hospital where he was operated on several times without anesthesia.
The toilet consisted of four holes in the concrete floor. The trick was to hunch over such hole and aim for dead center. From time to time we were given the task of emptying the cestpit which was located below the floor.
Once a week we received for up to 100 men one razor blade which was discarded by one of the guards. Soap and water were not available. Nevertheless, we were expected to have a good shave. The washing facilities consisted of a trough above which were five cold-water taps. Picture as many as 200 bald-headed men competing for a place to wash themselves, for which a total of 15 minutes was allotted. There were no facilities for the washing of clothes.
The area 'C' consisted of four very small cells, called Dunkelzellen (dark cells.) These were used to lock up prisoners who deserved special punishment. Each contained a board which, when lowered, left no walking space. No natural light could enter these cells. The rations for its prisoners consisted of one thin slice of dry bread each morning, and once every two days one-half liter of soup. As for other prisoners, soup consisted of water with a little cooked cabbage. Within the confines of the barrack we were supervised by Germans who themselves were prisoners.
Let me now describe our daily routine. The day really started the evening before when everybody had to line up in room A to receive the next day's work assignment. Early in the morning, at 5:30, a guard would enter room C, blow his whistle, repeat this performance in our room, and check to see that all prisoners in C and subsequently in B had heeded his alarm and gotten up. Anyone who by his return had not left the board would be whipped with a much feared truncheon which was called Gummi. This instrument was made of flexible rubber (Gummi in German), triangular in cross section, with concave sides causing the corners to taper sharply. Fortunately it happened only once that I met the full fury of this tool of torture. It was nine o'clock in the evening. I had to urinate and wanted to use the 'toilet'. When I got to the door of the room, I was met by a German who stopped me, telling me the door was closed for the evening, something which normally did not happen until 10 o'clock. Being in urgent need 'to go', the only thing for me to do was to use one of the night buckets inside the room. This was not to the man's liking who came at me with his Gummi and proceeded to whip me, forcing me to pick up the bucket in order to empty it in the toilet. To protect myself from the onslaught, I tried in vain to hide behind the bucket, only to end up in the corner. As the man continued to beat me I finally made it back to the room. When I visited a doctor three months later he asked me if someone had beaten me. Terrible as the punishment was, my worst suffering was caused by never to know when the end would come, or even if there would be an end.
The potbelly stove was always kept at maximum temperature. This, the large number of people and the lack of ventilation made the place unbearably hot. No wonder the cold outside early in the morning (it was mid-winter) did not do us much good, especially when we had no coats of any kind. It should therefore come as no surprise to hear that after a short time I had pleurisy. I did not know it at the time, thinking it to be arthritis. The condition consisted of severe back pain causing me not to be able to sleep. I would then slide off the board as I was unable to bend my back, and sit near the stove hoping it would alleviate the pain. Let me now come back to the daily routine.
After getting up and washing, each of us would receive two folded slices of bread, one with margarine and one with jam. One was breakfast, the other lunch. As you can understand, both would have disappeared before arriving at work so that we had to wait until evening for our next 'meal'. There was also coffee for breakfast but since there were neither enough mugs nor enough coffee, it required a lot of pushing and punching to be among the lucky ones. It is remarkable that, despite the meager rations of two slices of bread and one-half liter of water-cabbage soup, some still swapped a slice of bread for a cigarette. This goes to show that it is easier to get used to hunger, as indeed it is despite unmistakable deterioration, than to the shortage of tobacco. Our tobacco rations were the butts we managed to find.
Our work consisted of clearing rubble left from bombings. We were hired out to the city or to private individuals while the camp provided armed guards. After work we marched in column back to the camp where we received our one-half liter of water-cabbage soup. Once a week we received, instead of soup, a scoop of sauerkraut, straight from the barrel. The evenings were usually spent killing lice and having conversations. On Sundays we did not work unless on fatigue duty. Often the guards would conduct random foot inspections. This meant that we had to line up outside the room. Some, who were selected at random, would be required to show their feet. If these were found not to be clean, they had to come forward and receive five strokes with a cane in an area which was used to administer corporal punishment. The victim was required to hang over a table in room A, after which his arms and legs were drawn together. The others had to line up in B and C to witness the event. On one such occasion a Russian man received 65 strokes, followed by 70 because the first had not had the expected effect. He was still normal, the officer declared. The man never made a sound and did not show any emotion, although two guards took turns administering the blows with full force. The next day the man was dead.
Probably because of the large turnover (some stayed only a few days) I do not know how many died. In addition to the Russian I saw a Frenchman die. He had a growth in his throat and with no medical attention, he choked to death. Then there were two Poles and a Russian who had committed some offense while in the camp. I believe they had tried to steal identification papers in order to make good their planned escape. After having spent a month in the dark cells and being literally reduced to skin over bone, they were handcuffed and led to the gallows where they were hanged. All other prisoners were lined up outside to witness the execution. Any attempt on our part to rebel would have led to a massacre since two machine-gun toting guards were stationed on a knoll overlooking the grounds. I do not remember my feelings during the event but in a letter I wrote home a few months later, I stated that at the time I was envious of these boys, wishing it was I to hang there. I often wished I were dead during that time.
Finally, on March 29 my name was called and I was included in the 'transport' contingent. This could mean all sorts of things. The possibility of a discharge never entered my mind. I had no emotional response at all when I was told the next day that I was dismissed. I had become completely apathetic and everything left me cold. They took me back to the same penitentiary I had been in before, on Blumenstraße in Kiel. During the night of March 30 a bomb fell near the prison, causing the window of the cell I shared with a Frenchman, to be blown in. My weight was 45 kg. and, as soon as I arrived in the labor camp in Lübeck, I was unable to stand, walk or sit. I collapsed. My plight had not ended yet. Several days later my problem was diagnosed as pleurisy. This turned out to be the start of years of lung problems, culminating in a partial lobectomy in 1969.
After six weeks I was declared fit to go back to work, although for some time I continued to be afflicted with tiredness and shortness of breath. I remember well the concern of my roommates during this period. They did everything they could to provide me with proper nourishment and care. My hair grew back and in one of my letters, dated June 7, I read that it had grown to "matchstick" length.
After this experience there were no more confrontations, just the drudgery of long hours of work, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. I had been "educated"! During the final year the only event which occasioned excitement took place on August 25, 1944, when part of the factory and several barracks in our camp were bombed. The barrack in which I was housed was completely demolished. When someone asked a German if any people had been killed, he replied: "no, mostly foreigners."
The food situation deteriorated during the final months of the war, although it never became as bad as it did in the occupied territories. Only the fuel supply became virtually non-existent during the final winter, as did the supply of tobacco and cigarettes. These had always been extremely scarce. Mail connection stopped after January 1945 and it was not until early May that I was able to write a short message home through the Red Cross.
On May 2, 1945, British forces entered Lübeck and we were free at last. We had two alternatives: wait for transport back home, or take off on our own. Two of us, a good friend of mine who later emigrated to the US, and I decided to do the latter. With the help of British soldiers we managed to get hold of two bicycles which were confiscated on the spot from German soldiers. Before leaving we supplied ourselves with cigarettes taken from a German army warehouse, to be traded for food on the way. We left for home on May 5. During our trek we slept mostly in farmers' barns and under the open sky. On May 9 we reached the German-Dutch border at Oldenzaal where we were immediately quarantined in a transit camp. That was not in our plans and after five days we escaped under the cover of darkness, continued our journey, crossing Bailey bridges and being helped by soldiers of the allied forces.
On May 17, 1945, at 6:30 p.m., I arrived home.
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