When, at 4:20 a. m. on June 22, 1941, “criminal bands of German Fascists suddenly and treacherously violated the untouchability of the sacred borders of the Soviet Union,” the Red Army, the “flesh and
blood” of the Soviet people, did not wish, along the entire stretch from the Baltic to the Black Seas, to defend these “sacred borders.” Casting off their armaments, its warriors and commanders surrendered into captivity or fled deep into the country.
“We will not give an inch of Soviet land to the enemy!” “Beat the enemy on his territory!”
“A Red Army man does not surrender, he fights for his country to the last drop of blood, to the last breath!”
Soviet land was being handed over to enemy hands by thousands of square kilometers, the enemy routed the Red Army on Soviet territory, while the warriors and commanders of this army surrendered into captivity in tens and hundreds of thousands. Even in the first official announcement of the German attack everything from start to finish was a lie. The advance was conducted not by “bands of German Fascists” but by a regular perfectly armed, organized, and disciplined German army that was inspired by victories and led by generals of the Prussian military school who, through the irony of fate, were fulfilling the orders of paranoid Hitler. This did not happen “suddenly,” since both the West and the Kremlin were perfectly aware that the invasion was being prepared. It is impossible to gather forces of about two million, position them along a line extending almost two thousand kilometers, and do all this in total secrecy. Inhabitants in Bessarabia, Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia determined even the moment when the attack began quite accurately. Stalin had been warned by British intelligence, Soviet agents sent appropriate reports from Germany, and commanders of Red Army units situated along the line of demarcation separating the “zones of interest” for the USSR and Germany according to the 1939 nonaggression pact reported the preparation for aggression. There was no suddenness in the German attack on the Soviet Union. Neither was there any treachery.
When Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the nonaggression pact endorsing the latest partition of Poland, they knew its value perfectly well. For Nazi Germany as well as for the Communist USSR this signing was a tactical maneuver to gain time in a great political game. Germany was guaranteeing for itself a relatively safe rear and the provision of raw materials, fuel, and rations from the Soviet Union. As late as June 21, freight trains were crossing the border from the east to the west. And it was necessary for the Soviet leadership to gain time to completely suppress the resistance of the population in the Baltic lands and Western Ukraine, fortify the new border, and reorganize its armed forces, which had been devastated by Stalin after the Tukhachevsky affair.
When the USSR, after overtaking Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and a sizable portion of Poland, reached new “sacred borders” an urgent need arose to create a new fortified zone, since the old one turned out to be far in the rear. Immediately after the pact with Germany was signed the construction of this zone began in “accelerated tempo.” Ten thousands of engineers and technicians were taken from jobs in industry and sent to construct the so-called Stalin Line of Defense.
Starting in the spring of 1941, the Germans started bringing their troops right up to the border. Pilots of the Soviet reconnaissance aviation, who were categorically forbidden to approach the line of demarcation closer than by one kilometer, could see from where they were flying infantries, artillery parks, and a conglomeration of tanks appearing in the border zone. Whenever they reported their observations to their commanders, they would be told, “Keep quiet! Not a word about this to anyone!”
The war started with raids by the German aviation along the entire front. 1,500 planes were destroyed at the 66 military airfields that were attacked, and in air battles of the first day of the war Soviet aviation lost 350 military aircraft, while Germany lost only 32 planes. On the first day of the war German troops advanced by an average of 50 to 70 kilometers into Soviet territory. During the first month of military action the Red Army lost 10,388 artillery weapons, 13,146 tanks, and 6,082 planes, and 895,000 Soviet soldiers and commanders became war prisoners. German armed forces advanced deep into Soviet territory by 500 to 700 kilometers.
The number of war prisoners was increasing catastrophically. In the Kiev encirclement, 600,000 prisoners were taken, and another 600,000 fighters and commanders were taken at Viazma. Individuals, small groups, entire subunits, regiments, divisions, and even entire armies surrendered and were taken prisoner.
How many prisoners did the Germans take before the winter of 1941? There is no precise Soviet nor German information regarding this number. There is an estimate of three to five million! Possibly, there were five or six million. Many of the captured Soviet servicemen perished at field assembly points, in hastily created camps, or during the 1941 fall-winter in hundreds of camps in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They perished from hunger and the cold, from dysentery, and from typhus. No one counted how many people froze to death in the winter in fields cordoned by barbed ware and in holes dug out by bare hands. Probably, no one will ever manage to collect reliable data regarding the number of war prisoners taken in the first months of the war and the number of Soviet servicemen who survived the first year as war prisoners.
From the first day of the war endless columns of war prisoners were moving from the front line westward. They went on foot, in trucks, and in freight cars, in which they would be standing against each other. They would completely fill jails, military barracks, community buildings, and schools in territory the Germans occupied. They were driven like herds of cattle into parcels of field or forest hurriedly enclosed in barbed wire.
At one point Stalin refused to sign the convention of the Red Cross regulating the maintenance of war prisoners by warring countries, their rights, the guarantee of their rations, clothing, and necessary living conditions. The Soviet Union did not sign the Geneva Convention, basing this upon the position of the Red Army rules and the words in its oath that a Soviet warrior does not surrender and fights the enemy till the last breath, till the last drop of blood. Thus, the German command felt that it does not bear any official responsibility for the fate of Soviet war prisoners, since neither did the conditions of the maintenance of German war prisoners in Soviet captivity fall under the control of the International Red Cross.
For the overwhelming majority of war prisoners, independent of their rank and service position, and even independent of their political convictions, the results of the first months of war convincingly bore witness to the most severe defeat of the Red Army, which many regarded as the complete downfall of the Soviet regime. There was no more past, the present was inhumanly difficult, and the future was absolutely unknowable. It was rare for anyone to have a feeling of “Soviet” patriotism before the war. There was a feeling of national patriotism, even though, especially in the national republics, it had to be assiduously concealed! The Germans knew about this “hidden nationalism,” and attempted to make use of it.
The Germans attempted to accomplish the first artificial stratification of the prisoners purely according to nationality. Bashkirs, Buryats, Tatars, Uzbeks, Tadzhiks, and certain groups from the Caucasus were isolated from the rest of the prisoners and later turned out to be part of the so-called “Eastern Battalions.” In all the field and transfer camps, Jews were the first ones to be picked out. The process of identification was simple: noted were the first and last name, a semitic appearance, and, of course, the Jewish ritualistic feature —“Pull your pants down and show your passport.” Those selected were immediately taken away and, as a rule, eliminated. Then the political element was isolated — political instructors, commissars, and workers in the Political Administration. Regular party members and members of the Komsomol were not sought after, especially since, having destroyed their documents, they mixed in with the others. They were not usually betrayed by their own kind. Commanders were separated from the others at the first opportunity. Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Galicians were allowed to go home.
The huge concentrations of prisoners received almost no food in the transfer camps. Hunger engendered anger, outrage, demoralization, fear of death, and a desire to search for the culprits of the misfortune that had taken place. Hungry, embittered, dirty, and ragged Soviet soldiers and commanders suddenly, to their surprise, made a discovery —in captivity they had freedom of speech. They could say anything they wished for all to hear, and, most important, they could curse anyone. They cursed the Germans for the lack of food, cigarettes, and even for no opportunity to wash. But they did not dare to curse the unknown political system of National Socialism, whose symbol as a large red flag with a black swastika in a white circle was flying over the camp. But an endless stream of curses flowed toward the political system in which the prisoners had lived just recently, which raised them, and which they were supposed to defend to the last drop of blood. Stalin! The Communists! The Soviet regime! — here lay the cause of it all. People were intoxicated with the opportunity to pour choice swear words upon “the great father and teacher, Stalin, the Central Committee, the Politburo, commissars, political instructors, secretaries of oblast committees and district committees, and the NKVD. Those who were simpler were completely satisfied by using foul language, while those who were “better schooled” severely criticized
Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, collectivization, and the whole socio-political system of Communism. They would recall the terror by the secret police, the dispossession of the kulaks, and the 1932 famine Stalin had created. It was possible to curse and criticize what had recently been experienced, while defending, even in a very mild form, the life and the way things were in the Stalin empire was becoming increasingly harder. After a few weeks of captivity, the customary address of “comrade” could result in someone being spat upon. Everyone became “sirs.”
Antisemitism, which had been hidden under the Soviet regime, but existed latently among the people, started manifesting itself. The forbidden “Yid” replaced the legal “Jew.” In central Russia before the Revolution there was no antisemitism among the people and in society. It was actually manifested in areas of the Pale of Settlement. But the disgusting phenomenon of pogroms that would sometimes arise there was condemned in wide circles of the population. Russian, and the later all-union, antisemitism started developing and spreading due to the increasing presence of persons of Jewish extraction in all the governmental and party institutions, especially in the punitive organs. For the people their “Ivan the Communist” was a “son of a bitch,” but some Abram or Isaac acquired the designation of a “bloodsucking Yid” or “Christ seller,” Antisemitism was persecuted and severely punished in the Soviet Union, but this simply added oil to the fire. And so, the people’s identification of the Soviet regime apparatus at all levels that had long been hidden and penalized surfaced with great force in captivity. But nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of war prisoners reacted negatively to the cruel persecution, pursuit, and destruction of Jews. The Gestapo used the camp police to discover Jews in the camps.
In Polish territory, near the town of Sedlec, at the edge of the Podlesie district, a large assembly camp for Soviet servicemen was set up. A parcel with three huge tents which could accommodate around three thousand was fenced off for the commanders. Adjacent to that over seven thousand Red Army soldiers were gathered in an open field fenced off by barbed wire. Eight wooden observation posts with machine guns loomed over the camp. As in all the other camps, the power in this camp belonged to the camp police, which consisted of prisoners.
The existence of the police created totally unnatural relations among the prisoners and inhuman living conditions, In the camps of Soviet war prisoners the Germans put the internal administration in the hands of camp commandants who were prisoners and relied upon the camp police, who were under them. The most repulsive characters, even according to Soviet standards, were chosen to be commandants and policemen, whom the prisoners called “polizei.”
Notably, the camp police had significantly more influence upon the life of the imprisoned commanders than upon the life of the ordinary Red Army soldiers. One of the causes of this was the deep division among the “Red officers,” who did not trust each other and were afraid of each other. One polizei could easily control between seventy and a hundred imprisoned commanders, but the same polizei, who was dealing with a much smaller group of imprisoned Red Army soldiers united into a single embittered mass, would often lose control over it. There were frequent instances when Red Army soldiers would beat up a polizei, and rather seriously, who attempted physical violence.
The camps around Podlesie ran out of food products for the prisoners, and their delivery was delayed. They stopped giving bread, and there was even nothing out of which broth could be cooked. No one was getting raw millet. The imprisoned commanders tried to convert grain somehow into food. They would use stones to grind it into flour, and boil broth out of it over campfires. They did not exhibit any disobedience. But the Red Army soldiers were another matter. After a three-day millet “diet,” shortly before evening roll call, a crowd of soldiers suddenly rushed to the barbed wire fence and toppled it. People started running every which way. The guards opened fire from submachine and machine guns. It was said later that a few hundred people were killed. No one ever found out how many prisoners were actually killed and how many were caught. But everyone knew very well that four polizeis who had found out about the preparations for the escape and tried to warn the Germans about this simply had their necks wrung.
In each camp the polizeis exercised full control over the prisoners. Everything was in their hands — the kitchen, sanitation, administration, work distribution, trial and punishment. Officially the prisoners were supposed to address them as “mister policeman,” and among themselves they referred to them as the “secret police.” The slightest retort or a disobeyed command could result in a policeman beating a prisoner to a pulp, even killing him sometimes. The polizeis would confiscate anything of value from the prisoners — watches, decent boots, leather belts, good greatcoats, and uniforms. Those who were submissive would get a piece of bread or a pot of broth in exchange, while those who resisted would get beaten. The polizeis tried to worsen the prisoners’ difficult life conditions, lower their morale, and hurt them physically. So, the prisoners’ worst enemies were not the Germans, who took care of the guard duty outside the camp, but the former Red Army lieutenants and captains. Sometimes the German convoy escorts even defended the prisoners against exploitation by the polizeis.
In the fall of 1941, a group of prisoners in the camp for commanders in Biala Podlaska was working on planking sidewalks between barracks. The work was supervised by an imprisoned lieutenant policeman. He was armed with a long lash and, as if bragging over the art of his mastery of this weapon, whipped prisoners with it. He did so without any reason, simply for his own pleasure. A German lance corporal, watching what was taking place, walked up to the policeman, took his lash, and started examining it.
“It’s well done,” he said in German. “It’s beautiful, a work of art.”
Flattered by the praise, the policeman started explaining how to make such a lash. The German stepped aside and suddenly lashed the policeman.
“It’s beautiful and whips well. Isn’t that so?”
The German whipped the policeman’s shoulders and back, accompanying each lash with the question,
“Really, don’t you enjoy this?”
Having been sufficiently lashed, the frightened policeman wanted to run off, but the German ordered him to stay. Then he pulled a knife out of his pocket and cut up the “work of art” into pieces. Throwing them aside, he said,
“You, my boy, are too small to play with such toys.”
In December of 1941, the mortality rate in the camps was very high. In Zamostie, where there was another “officer’s camp,” those who had died during the night were picked up each morning in the barracks and taken in carts to the “little gravesites,” the name given to the huge pits dug out outside of town. If the last pit was not yet filled with corpses, it was not filled in until the following day. The work of digging the massive graves and transporting the dead from the camp was carried out by the prisoners under the command of two policemen. The German convoy simply accompanied the sad procession.
Once a Karaite, a member of a Jewish sect that rejects the Talmud, was included in a group of prisoners who digging the pits. The Germans did not persecute the Karaites as Jews, but this time one of the polizeis latched on to the Karaite and made fun of him. He forced the Karaite into the deepest part of the pit, where the workers were usually replaced every fifteen minutes, and would not allow this small and frail person any replacement or rest.
“I don’t understand why the Germans make such a fuss over you, for you’re still circumcised Yids. You’ll croak right here! I won’t let you alive out of this pit! It’ll be better if you laid down right now,” the polizei told him.
Each time the poor man tried to climb out of the pit the polizei pushed him down.
Suddenly, a German soldiers came up to the policeman and pushed him into the pit with great force. The infuriated polizei tried to climb out, but the soldier poked him slightly with his bayonet and ordered him to take the shovel from the Karaite.
“Now you work,” he ordered.
To the delight of all the prisoners the soldier had the policeman working without rest to the end of the day under the bayonet’s threat.
“Here’s who will be forgiven all his sins in the next world,” one of the prisoners commented on the event.
Such incidents were not exceptional. Even the enemy Germans were repulsed by watching certain prisoners whom they had provided with power making fun of their own companions in distress who had no rights. At times the policemen would refrain from displaying cruelty if German soldiers were nearby.
The barracks were packed with prisoners to capacity. Some of the barracks had three-tiered bunks upon which prisoners would sleep, firmly pressed against each other. Even under the bunks, which stood only half a meter from the floor, all spaces were taken. In barracks that had no bunks, the men slept on the floor so densely that just to change sides an entire row would have to do it simultaneously at the command of whoever was senior in that row. But the eight to ten policemen would be in a barrack room with nice comfortable beds equipped with pillows and blankets. There were tables, individual dressers, and chairs.
In the kitchen where food was prepared for the prisoners a German soldier would stand guard, watching the cooking process. The distribution of the broth or dry food to the barracks was conducted by the police. The polizeis would brazenly grab everything that was better and more edible for themselves and provided rather tolerable nourishment for the campsite “elite” at the expense of the whole mass of prisoners. This was like it was in the USSR, with “closed distributors” for the few, in conditions of hungry existence for the many. Besides, the polizeis would barter the items robbed from the prisoners “under the wire” for bacon, good bread, sugar, fresh vegetables, fruit, and even beer and vodka. Any work team going outside the camp was obliged to share with the police all the products it had, whether they were received legally or stolen.
Even the camp sanitary section was totally in the hands of the police. The medical personnel, doctors and orderlies, were “farmed out” to the police. The sanitary section was allotted food according to the listed number of patients. Many of the patients ate almost nothing. Death notices were taken to the commandant’s office intentionally late by one day. This resulted in the entire personnel of the sanitary section receiving several portions per person. The worst thing was to end up in the sanitary section with “gold in the mouth.” Those who had gold crowns or bridges usually did not recover. They were taken to the “little graves” quite soon, and the gold would end up in police hands.
When Western literature or films tell of the imprisonment of servicemen of allied armies, about their life in camps behind barbed wire, the relationships within the camps, what is always emphasized is inner cohesion, sharpened patriotism, conscious discipline, the preservation of army traditions and norms of behavior, and, of course, the absolute readiness on the part of all prisoners to defend their rights and demand that the camp administration observed international laws and rules regarding the treatment of prisoners.
The International Red Cross stood behind each Frenchman, Belgian, Englishman, or American. Soviet prisoners had nothing —neither the International Red Cross nor rights. They were all left to the mercy of fate by their government, which had declared that Soviet prisoners do not exist. And their fate was determined not so much by the military administration of the army that had imprisoned them, as by the people to whom the Germans transferred the internal administration of the camps, i. e. those same polizeis.
Who were those people, or rather non-people? Why did they seethe with such burning hatred toward their yesterday’s comrades in the service for “the armed forces of the Soviet Union?” Why did they consistently and persistently, at times with virtuosic creativity, transform the murderously difficult life conditions of the prisoners into an absolute hell? What drove them? Or rather, who drove them?
Gradually suppositions started arising among the prisoners. Although there was no direct proof, suppositions gradually started being transformed into absolute certainty that the camp police in the German camps for Soviet war prisoners were agents of the NKVD.
The fate of Communism was hanging by a thread. Over three million Red Army servicemen voted with their legs against Stalin and the Soviet regime. Many of them surrendered into captivity only because they felt that nothing could be worse than the Soviet regime. The army’s political leadership was confronted by the necessity of convincing the fighters and commanders that the Germans were not only worse than the Soviet regime, but also that it was better to die from an enemy bullet at the front than to be tortured to death in captivity. Information about the lot of prisoners filtered through to the front. That is why the appropriate organs made efforts toward the maximal worsening of the condition of the Soviet prisoners in the camps. Specially prepared personnel who spoke German and had all the features allowing them to gain the Germans’ trust were sent into captivity. It was they who took over the camp police.
We can understand why, as they beat up the latest victim, they would say, “So did you think that you would be saved in captivity? No, you rascal, you’re mistaken in your calculations! Here, in Zamostie, even Kolyma will seem like heaven!”
The rumors kept growing and unraveling that the polizeis were nothing more than NKVD agents, for they had the same methods and the same aims. And hatred for the Soviet regime, for the Lenin-Stalin party, for the Communists, and for the “leader of the people” erupted with new force.
The first encounters by the mass of Soviet prisoners with the hard reality of German camps made apparent the negative qualities of those who were raised by Communist doctrine: “Existence determines consciousness.” The existence was a hungry one, without rights or hope, and there was only one thought in consciousness — to eat at least once to satisfaction. “Animal existence” justified “animal behavior.” Moral criteria and human conscience were put on the back burner in people’s consciousness and yielded to wild animal instincts.
When prisoners were being transferred from camp to camp in Poland, one of the “interim points” was the city jail in Baranovichi. The commanders were in the jail building, while the adjacent territory, fenced by barbed wire, was the place for many thousands of soldiers. The commanders were fed twice a day with broth made from wheat and rotten fish. This broth could not be eaten without squeezing one’s nose. For many the food brought on nausea. Considering “commander delicacy,” the Germans would give mustard to those who wanted it. Three or four spoonfuls of mustard would somewhat neutralize the stench of the broth. The soldiers were given the same broth, but only once a day, and without mustard.
Once, apparently wishing to be entertained by a wild spectacle, German conveyers brought an old bony nag and gave it to the prisoners. The translator said, “Here’s meat for you. You can cook it on campfires. Are there butchers among you?
About a hundred men announced they were butchers right away. They rushed upon the horse and literally tore it to pieces. Just stones and the prisoners’ hands served as weapons of slaughtering the horse and dividing up its carcass. A half hour later all that was left of the horse were the bones and the hide.
And here is another example of “existence determining consciousness,” but at an officer level this time.
About three weeks after being in an interim assembly camp almost three thousand captive commanders were brought to Zamostie, to the “officers’ camp.” A column of extremely hungry, dirty, ragged, bearded, exhausted, and embittered commanders, under reinforced convoy, were led along the streets of the town, which had been emptied of its inhabitants in advance. The camp gates were wide open.
Vats containing soup were lined up in long rows in the yard between the barracks, and a German soldier with a scoop stood behind each vat. Despite shouts from the guards, in a few minutes each vat was surrounded by a solid ring of prisoners. They held out their pots, empty cans, and even their caps to the distributors. They were becoming intoxicated by the smell of food, by just the single thought that here was a chance to satisfy their hunger. The crowd became thicker. The German distributors started hitting those who were closer with the scoops. Then someone fell. The resulting scene was horrible. Almost all of the vats with soup were overturned by the crowd and their contents spilled and created puddles in the sand. Several shots rang out. The German soldiers used rifle butts and sticks to drive the crowd away. When noise quieted down, the command “Achtung!” resounded. The camp commandant came out and said the following with the help of an interpreter:
“I am astounded by your total absence of discipline and dignity. Officers, even if they are dying, must be able to bear themselves appropriately to their position. I wanted to deny you food for the whole day but was told that you didn’t get food yesterday. Therefore, I ordered soup to be cooked again, and you will get food in three hours.” The commandant paused and then added: “Polish soldiers were able to behave with dignity in a similar situation.”
In a couple of days some Poles who were working in the commandant headquarters explained what the German officer had in mind. In 1939 a large group of captive Polish soldiers was brought into this camp after marching on foot for fifty kilometers. They were also met with vats of soup, but they refused to eat until they had the opportunity to clean up and wash. But we don’t know if they were fed the previous evening and with what. Probably, not with raw millet.
There are no statistics or information from “reliable sources” regarding how many Soviet soldiers perished in German camps in the winter of 1941, since such “reliable sources” did not exist, and neither do they exist today. There is only the testimony of individuals who survived that winter in captivity. From the approximate calculations regarding the two camps, we can probably get an idea of the mortality in all camps of Soviet war prisoners, since the conditions of their maintenance and treatment were almost the same everywhere.
Thus, in the camp at Zamostie there were about six thousand prisoners by early October of 1941. In April 1942 2,900 prisoners from this camp were sent to Germany. From October to April about eight hundred men were removed from the camp, including freed Galicians. Consequently, about 2,300 prisoners were left at the “little graves.” That was more than forty percent!
There is comparable data for another commanders’ camp as well — for Biala Podlaska. In the fall of 1941, it had no less than nine thousand men, and in the spring of 1942 the remaining 5,500 prisoners were taken to Germany.
The mortality rate in the camps for soldiers was even higher. According to the prisoners who survived that winter many of them were kept not in camps but in fields surrounded by barbed wire, in dugouts or under hastily constructed awnings. In one such camp near Peremyshl, when the weather turned freezing in November, over two thousand men froze to death! Here’s what the survivors said:
“We dug out wide trenches and dragged the corpses there. We worked for three days.”
The first two or three months were hungry ones, but tolerable. The daily portion for each person included a half pound of bread, a liter of watery soup with pearl barley, rutabaga, two or three boiled potatoes, a small pat of margarine which was sometimes replaced by a miniscule piece of sausage, a tablespoonful of beet jam, and two cups of coffee substitute. The Germans said that this amounted to 1,300 calories, but the prisoners estimated this to be a maximum of nine hundred calories. The camps had no bath houses, sanitary facilities, or laundry. Public toilets were set up in the middle of the yard over dug out holes.
Louse infestations started just a few days upon the prisoners’ arrival. Prisoners lit campfires in the morning, “roasted” the parasites out of their clothes, and tried to destroy them on their bodies and hair. The prisoners’ bodies were bloody from scratching, and many were starting to fester with abscesses and infections. The sanitary section could not handle the endless crowds needing first aid.
By the end of December disinfection chambers were built in the camp. All prisoners were sent through “delousers” and bath houses, entire bodies, including heads, were shaved, and clothes and linen were disinfected. The lice mostly disappeared.
However, the food worsened with each day. The potatoes and vegetables that had been prepared for winter were poorly covered and froze. The frozen potatoes rotted, and there were less of them in the soup. The barley was almost all gone. The bread quality got worse, and the flour was being replaced by some kinds of admixtures. A real famine had begun. All thoughts of each prisoner were focused on one item — on food. Everyone was infected with starvation psychosis at various levels of intensity.
This was reflected, first of all, in the methods of distributing the food received from the kitchen for the inhabitants of barracks or separate rooms. Rules for conducting the “holy” ritual of food distribution, guaranteeing absolute fairness, developed on their own.
After the camp and barracks police skimmed off the top, the “distributors” took over. They had to be experienced and irreproachably fair. The proportion of the liquified part to the thick one had to be absolutely uniform in each portion. With measured movements of the scoop, having the capacity of one portion, the distributor thoroughly stirred the contents of vat and took a portion at a certain moment. Fifty people watched his movements tensely and enviously.
Bread was distributed in three-pound loaves, and each loaf had to be divided into six uniform pieces. What was complex about this kind of division was that each portion had to keep uniform proportions of crumb and crust. First, both heels were cut off and the middle part was divided into six parts. Each heel was divided into three parts. Thus, each portion contained a large piece, the “middle,” and the additional heel. Then these portions were thoroughly equalized according to weight on self-made scales and were laid out on a table or on the floor. The distributor would point to a portion and ask the senior one in the room, who had his back to the portions, “to whom?” The senior would say a name. This was done not according to a list, but randomly, each time changing the order. Thus was the basic and unshakeable law of fairness fulfilled.
Hunger provided all the prisoners with a single sensation of an empty stomach. Everyone was equally exhausted and hungry, and everyone sought ways to preserve life. And various people found these ways differently. Psychologically similar individuals came to light in the camps, forming specific groups with general features.
There is an expression [in Russian] that says that a person is “reaching the point.” This is said about someone who is dying. In the camp the designation “reacher” appeared. If someone says that “the person is reaching the point” this usually means that he will die soon. In the camp a reacher could live comparatively long, and, sometimes, having survived hunger and all the illnesses, stayed alive till the end of captivity. The word “reacher” had a sense that was deeper psychologically than just a designation of a person’s physical condition.
The reachers included many individuals with higher education who were knowledgeable in issues of nutrition, calories, energy use, etc. Some of these reachers declared that they needed to economize each of their movements, since physical effort requires energy use, i.e., calories, which were contained in a ration at a rate that was four times less than was required for human life. For this reason, they tried to spend all of time in a lying position in the bunks, and, even having equipped themselves with some kind of container, would empty their bladders right there. Such reachers would perish in large numbers due to the weakening of all vital functions of their organisms, being continuously immobile.
The so-called “jackals” were direct opposites of the reachers. These people were essentially psychically ill. They would lose control over themselves due to constant hunger spasms in their stomachs, and spent all day wandering around the camp, especially around the kitchen, storehouses, and the refuse pit in the hope of finding something edible. A piece of rotten potato, of a beet or a rutabaga, a paper with an oil spot, or a bone — the jackals categorized all this as edible and immediately swallowed it without it being washed. They were capable of stealing food from other prisoners, which was the worst crime in the camp. If a jackal was caught in the act and beaten up for the theft, he accepted his punishment submissively as he tried to swallow the stolen item as quickly as possible. Their main victims were the reachers. The jackals died from stomach ailments, dysentery, and poisoning more often than the other prisoners.
The two groups, the reachers and jackals, were ugly extremes among the prisoners. Most prisoners were somewhere between these extremes and the healthy center, if that can be said.
The healthy center consisted of people with a certain supply of common sense. They were self- disciplined and possessed willpower. There were plenty of them, about twenty per cent of all prisoners. They would wash in the morning, many of them would shave, trim their hair, and wash their clothes.
They would treat any ‘food” with caution. They would clean and rinse it and would try to cook it before eating it. These men readily took on any work in the camp so as not to rot alive on the bunks. They would get sick less than the others. Those fifty to sixty per cent of the general mass of prisoners who remained alive after the 1941-42 winter were basically from the healthy center. They turned out to be victors in the process of natural selection.
Actually, the main reason that those who remained in the “little graves” perished was typhus. In the second half of January 1942 an epidemic of spotted typhus and typhoid fever began in the camp. The Germans imposed an absolute quarantine upon the camp. Typhus spared no one. Reachers, jackals, men from the center, polizeis, orderlies, and even doctors. The Germans would appear in the camp wearing rubber overalls, rubber gloves, and masks thickly sprinkled with some sort of yellow powder. Yesterday’s living were dragged out of the barracks as tomorrow’s corpses, loaded onto carts, sprinkled with the same powder, covered with tarpaulins, and a certain percentage of Soviet commanders “missing in action” were taken to the “little graves.”
“Husks” also increased the prisoners’ mortality rate. It turned out that the prisoners’ food rations could be reduced even more. Supplies for feeding the prisoners that had been prepared in the fall were only sufficient till the end of January, no matter how much the Germans stretched them out. Husks, waste matter from sugar production, started being delivered to the kitchen. This was cellulose from sugar beets after the juices were extracted. In farming it is often used to supplement the feeding of cattle as an admixture to normal silage. It was cooked for the prisoners with the addition of rotten potatoes and rutabaga that had frozen through, and remains of parts of horses and cows not usually used for food. The human stomach is incapable of digesting this, so this resulted in an increase in stomach and intestinal ailments.
Dysentery and scurvy were added to typhus and husks.
There were ten suicides over the winter. Some hung themselves, while others slit their wrists.
Typhus disappeared just as suddenly as it appeared. Those who died were probably the ones who had no natural immunity against that illness. In the middle of March, the quarantine was lifted, and the food, just as suddenly, significantly improved. The food still left the prisoners hungry but was tolerable. And the entire atmosphere of camp life changed as well.
The Germans became more polite and undertook energetic activity. There were daily registrations and repeat registrations. Lists of Ukrainians and Muslims were drawn up. Professional registrations were conducted of artillery men, signalers, agronomists, mechanical engineers, linguists, and those with academic degrees. Rumors started that the entire camp population would soon be taken to Germany. The Germans did not refute the rumors.
The prisoners’ fear of the camp police disappeared, and they stood up to the polizeis. At one point a polizei came into the large barracks with a corridor at its full length, and in response to an answer a “Mr. Prisoner” gave that he did not like, since it seemed to him “not particularly polite,” slapped him in the face. Something unusual took place. “Mr. Prisoner” struck “Mr. Policeman” on the ear. This was not all.
The gathered crowd blocked the exit from the barracks and forced the polizei to apologize to the prisoner. There were cries of “If you don’t apologize, you son of a bitch, you won’t leave the barracks!”
At another camp, a so-called “hospital” camp, that was also in Zamostie, someone turned on the hot water faucet over a policeman who was bathing in the bath house. The polizei was totally scalded and taken to the sanitary section, where he died in a few hours. And an actual murder took place two weeks before the prisoners were shipped off to Germany. The victim turned out to be one of the cruelest and malicious policemen in the camp. Early one morning his body was found in the toilet with his arms tied behind his back. His head had been lowered into the refuse pit to his shoulders, and his whole body was covered with blood. Apparently, he had been savagely beaten over a long period. There was an inscription written in coal on the wall that said, “All vermin will get the same treatment.” The Germans filled the camp with soldiers and even the town police appeared. All prisoners were formed up. They were threatened and yelled at with demands that the murderers be delivered up. Two days later everyone calmed down, and the Germans forgot about the incident.
The polizeis started walking around the camp in twos or threes and got clearly nervous whenever words would reach them from the crowd of prisoners which had been written on the toilet wall. The previous roles were reversed. Now it wasn’t the polizeis who terrorized a frightened, stratified, demoralized, and submissive mass of prisoners, but the prisoners, having rallied and sensed their strength, and having survived the winter, terrorized the polizeis.
Again, talk began among the prisoners about the past and the future, and interest in the present appeared again. Conversations were now not only about broth and rations but about what was happening outside the camp, at the front, and about Germany’s situation and the war’s perspectives. Direct interaction with the Germans at registration and various committees picking out specialists provided an opportunity to obtain various information. The number of prisoners capable of communicating in German was growing, and interpreters started speaking much more openly.
Depression was already being sensed among the Germans. Moscow and Leningrad turned out to be inaccessible. The Red Army was making advances here and there. American aid to the Soviet Union was growing with each month. It was now becoming clear to many that Germany’s victory in this war was quite problematic. Few already doubted that this captivity could be survived, and the question arose in all its magnitude — what would happen to those who survived this captivity, if the war concludes with a victory by Stalin and the NKVD?
As before, the German command had no definite plan regarding Soviet prisoners. During the final month before the transfer to Germany there were endless regroupings and moves from barrack to barrack.
Various groupings were being created. There was an engineers’ barrack, one with signalers, and another with Muslims. And in a few days, groups were created according to other features. Suddenly, selected engineers and signalers, whose registration cards indicated that their nationality was Ukrainian, were moved to a barrack that was named “Ukrainian Village.”
Something totally amusing happened with this Ukrainian Village, if the word “amusing” can be used in describing the life of war prisoners. There was no national difference between Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians in the camp. Men were moved into the Ukrainian Village automatically, according to the registration information. About a thousand men were put together. No one knew what this was for, and no one was interested. Suddenly, some national Ukrainian organization in town sent its “brothers” a gift of two carts containing bread, eggs, honey, apples, onions, and jam. These items were unloaded and distributed to all official Ukrainians under German supervision. The next day everyone in the camp whose last name ended in –enko or –sky announced that they were Ukrainians. Even some whose last name ended in –ov, declared that it made no difference, referring to famous Ukrainians such as Dragomirov, Kostomarov, or Efremov, and announced that they were “true” Ukrainians. A great deal of excitement was aroused in the camp. Everyone tried to obtain official recognition of “favorable” national designation before receiving the new gift for the “brothers.”
But the gift did not follow. It was rumored that the Ukrainian organization which had sent the gift started demanding that the Germans release the Ukrainians on bail. The organization was driven off. Soon the Ukrainian Village turned into a regular barrack with a “mixed” population.
After the quarantine was lifted and registration began talk began among the prisoners about “holes in the barbed wire fence.” That was a reference to the possibility of gaining “freedom.” Although there were no official announcements about this, such a possibility clearly did appear. A prisoner would say to another, “I signed up today for a special group and will probably leave soon. If you want to spring out of here, talk to Officer So and So. Only keep quiet about this, it’s a secret matter for now.”
There were actually two “holes.” The Germans were recruiting men for rear guard units to oversee bridges, roads, railways, and train stations. Volunteers were brought to the Germand command barrack.
Two officers, who were totally conversant in Russian, would speak with them. If the conversation satisfied the Germans the prisoner would be transferred to the “hospital” barrack. Everyone who was preparing for guard duty received full army food rations. They were dressed in captured Polish military uniforms, were given regular training, and much time was devoted to restoring their physical preparedness and front-line service. Prior to the liquidation of the camp in Zamostie over two hundred prisoners enrolled in this group.
The other “hole” was the opportunity to apply for enrollment into a Russian military anti-Communist organization, which was something like the Russian Army that was forming. Those who wished to get a better idea of this opportunity would return after meeting with representatives of this organization with mixed feelings. Enrollment was being conducted into a detachment of a certain Smyslovsky. He recruited a group of 37 in Zamostie.
The overwhelming majority of the imprisoned commanders of the “fall selection” refused to take advantage of the “holes” and were taken to Germany from Zamostie. The general attitude of these prisoners remained anti-Soviet, and extremely so. They blamed the Germans even less for the high mortality rate in the winter months than “their own” Soviet government and Stalin, the “leader of the people.” This had its own logic.
Here is what they would say: “What can we say about the Germans? Nothing else could be expected of them. They were handed a few million of our kind. What could they do with them? They bore no responsibility before anyone. For them prisoners were a ballast, and they fertilized the Polish soil with our bodies. Who is to blame? Moscow, of course, that narrow-minded cretin, Dzhugashvili! We’ve been betrayed.” Although that was what they said, they were in no hurry to enroll in the German guard units.
Everyone was thinking that once they arrived in Germany they would start working and encounter free individuals, which would give them the opportunity to find out and understand what was happening in the world, and somehow find their place in it. Everyone wanted to first “take a look.” And those who escaped to freedom through the “hole in the fence” wanted to “take a look” as well.
For instance, two friends who had served in the same Soviet military unit and were imprisoned together, having survived typhus and the horrible food, decided their fate differently. One went into the guard units while the other decided to go to Germany with the entire mass of prisoners. Here is their farewell conversation: “So you’re leaving. You’ll be working for the Germans? I didn’t expect this from you.”
“Hold off condemning me, first hear me out. Counter to common sense, I have survived. It’s kismet! There I was in the recovery barrack doing a lot of thinking. And I came to the decision that I would take advantage of any opportunity to get out from behind the barbed wire. That was my wish. I can no longer stay in this rotten pit. Maybe this is a psychological hangup, but I no longer have the strength to live like a caged animal, hungry and weak-willed.”
“I’m not condemning you, it’s your business. But aren’t you in too much of a hurry? Maybe you should take a closer look and see what’s what?”
“That’s just my point. How can you take a closer look? The horizon is blocked by barbed wire and the backs of German watchmen with rifles. How can we choose a path? What do we know? Only that back home the scum from the Kremlin keep choking the people, By fate’s decree we have sprung into a totally different world that’s unfamiliar to us. What do we know about Hitler, about National Socialism, about Germany, about Europe? Absolutely nothing. To decide what to do we have to take a closer look.
To take a closer look we need to be on the other side of the barbed wire. That’s where I’m going.”
Yet another policeman was murdered during the night before the special train left with the prisoners. He was found in the morning behind the barrack where the intimidated polizeis, who had lost their power, were living. He was choked with a piece of rope. The Germans did not delay the lineup and the column’s exit out of the camp to the railroad station. The policeman’s corpse was taken to the morgue.
The trains did not go to Germany right away. One of them, after days and nights of slow transit with lengthy stopovers, ended up at the Ostrov Sviatokrestensky station. The prisoners were to live here for a month in a precautionary quarantine prior to being admitted into Germany.
The quarantine was in a dismal ancient jail at the Lysogorsky Monastery, 35 kilometers from the train station. The road there was very difficult. An incident took place during the march which emphasized the total irresponsibility of the Germans regarding the life of the Soviet war prisoners.
When the march began in the morning the prisoners, having had a good breakfast, walked briskly and were even singing. But the general frailty quickly set in, and the column slowed down more and more.
The German convoy, under a young lieutenant’s command, was becoming rougher, and the soldiers started beating those who lagged behind. During the second half of the trip a very young prisoner who apparently was beside himself suddenly bounded out of the column and ran down the slope of the hill we were on. Of course, he could have been easily caught and returned to the column, but the convoy commander had another idea. He stopped the soldiers who were about to go after him, let him run about fifty steps away, and shot him to death with his rifle. Then he turned to face the column and bragged about his accurate aim. Even the German soldiers were stunned by the senselessness and cruelty of the cold-blooded murder.
In Zamostie the policemen were given a separate train car, the penultimate one in the train. The last car was a passenger one and carried the German soldiers. In the Lysogorsky jail the polizei group also stayed separately from the prisoners, in a small storage unit by the administration building. Each time one of the polizeis came out into the jail yard the prisoners would whistle, curse, and threaten him with remarks like “We will do all of you in.” And a polizei was murdered right there in Lysogor. He was thrown down a steep cliff that bordered the jail yard on one side at a drop of at least one hundred meters. The Germans found his corpse in the morning, and after this German soldiers patrolled the area around the unit night and day.
A month later the prisoners, with their strength back and health restored, marched on foot down the mountain to the Ostrov Sviatokrestsky station. They were again loaded into freight cars, fifty in each. The policemen again got a separate car. The very first night their entire group ran off. Probably, having taken advantage of not having been searched, as were all the other prisoners, they brought along certain tools. During the night they made a hole in the floor of the car and when the train was moving slowly uphill in the Carpathian Mountains one policeman after another slipped out onto the railbed. The escort riding on the platform of the last car sounded the alarm, but by the time the train stopped the entire group of runaways disappeared in the mountain forest, The polizeis did not bring themselves to go to Germany. For many this incident amounted to additional proof that, even if not all polizeis, at least their main leaders were NKVD agents, sent especially into the war prisoner camps.
When the prisoner train reached Germany, the car doors remained open all day. Crossbeams were installed in each doorway, and two escorts sat in each car. Someone decided to boast of Germany to the prisoners. The country was not yet devastated by allied aviation, and the men, who had never seen Europe, could not stop admiring the good condition and wealth of what they saw as they came through industrial towns and agricultural areas.
On June 7, they stopped at the Hammelburg station in mountainous Bavaria. The central camp for war prisoner officers was located there. Along the way, the escorts related that the camp contained over thirty thousand French, British, and Belgian officers. According to what the Germans said, this was not a camp but a resort. It contained comfortable barracks with separate beds, bathhouses, libraries, and sports fields. There was decent food and an endless stream of Red Cross packages with clothing and food. The prisoners listened to the stories and shook their heads in disbelief.
All this turned out to be true, but only for the imprisoned officers of all nationalities except for the officers of the Soviet “nationality,” This God-forsaken “nationality” was situated in the so-called “Russian block” of the Hammelburg Camp. They were congested and received hunger rations that were much worse than the ones at Lysogor. True, there was a bathhouse, a place to do laundry and a great deal of sunshine and pure mountain air. There was also an inhouse police, but its attitude was formally polite and it was occupied only with the maintenance of general order in the camp. There were no sticks, whips, or curses. And there was no contact with the “colleagues” of other nationalities, and no one even saw them. The blocks of these “favorites of fortune” were on the other side of the camp’s huge territory, behind the camp administration buildings and the barracks of the military guard.
Imprisoned generals of the Red Army were in a small building behind a special fence in the “Russian block.” They never appeared on the grounds of the “Russian block” and the police kept everyone away from them. It was said that at one point Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s son, stayed there.
Another building, also outside the “Russian block,” held the office of the political party known as “The Russian National Labor Party.” Certain prisoners tried to establish contact with this organization, which the Germans probably recognized. However, it was not easy to obtain permission to visit the party office. Various rumors abounded. Some said that this Russian national-socialist organization was totally under Gestapo control. Others claimed that this was the nucleus of an extensive national anticommunist movement that had as its goal the overthrow of the Soviet regime and the creation of national anticommunist armed forces, which, as an ally of Germany, should take part in military action against the Stalin regime. It was also said that this party’s program proposes the creation of special groups that would be transferred to the Red Army’s rear for subversive activity and anticommunist agitation. But all this amounted to mere rumors and guesses without any confirmation, simply provoking endless conversations among the prisoners, who had remained isolated from the life and events beyond the barbed wire.
Nonetheless, sparse news reports filtered into the camp regarding what was happening in the occupied regions. The prisoners found out about the slaughter of the Jews in Kiev’s Babi Yar, the anti-German partisan activity, the cruel executions by the Germans of the civilian population in the occupied regions, Germany’s growing difficulties, and the American-Japanese war in the Pacific Ocean.
Having improved a little physically while in quarantine before being sent off into Germany, the prisoners were again gradually returning to a state of hunger and depression. They saw obtaining employment as their only salvation. It was known that all Red Army prisoners who had survived the winter were working either at manufacturing plants or in agriculture. But officers were not yet being sent to work.
And then, as if someone had specially chosen the date, June 22, 1942, which was the first anniversary of the war, at the morning formation of the entire “Russian block,” the main interpreter read the order of the camp command. The order said that during the coming months all imprisoned officers of the Red Army, from the most junior lieutenant to colonel, would be sent to jobs, taking account of their civilian or military specialty whenever possible. Work assignments would be mandatory. Anyone not complying with the order or found to be agitating against it will be severely punished. Prisoners must go through special committees which will determine the workplace for each person independent of his wishes.
The committees started working the next day, and the camp quickly started losing its population. Even though this seemingly was the realization of the hopes of leaving the camp and of changing the “imprisoned” position to a position of “a worker under compulsion,” the very fact of the absence of rights among the imprisoned Soviet officers as compared to the privileged position of the officers of other countries provoked a new outburst of indignation and accusations directed at the Soviet government and, of course, toward Stalin.
To preserve life! Not only to preserve it, but to use it for something large and important. In the days before everyone left for their jobs rumors were spread regarding the start of some kind of organized movement among the prisoners which was being led from the generals’ barrack. Only one thing was clear — if the Germans allow any kind of organization, it will be something anti-Soviet.
A signaler colonel expressed well the general hopes as he was leaving for his work assignment:
“God helped us to stay alive, we survived! Perhaps He will help us also to use it in a good way. I hope that our generals will come up with some solution. Why, there are many of us! If the matter is handled correctly, Russia can be freed of Stalin, and Hitler can be kept at a necessary distance from Russia.
Perhaps it is for this that God did not allow us to perish over there, in the camps in Poland.”