(Editors note; survival not only meant for the Sudeten Germans surviving the harsh expulsions from their homeland by Czechs and Soviets but also surviving the inhumanity of the Nazi regime in the Sudetenland. Despite the accepted wisdom, a great many of the Sudeten Germans were profoundly anti-Nazi.)
AN ALMOST FORGOTTEN CLERGYMAN
by Walter Exler
More than 4,000 Germans lived in Müglitz,/District of Hohenstadt in Schonhengsgau (Moravia) during the German occupation. One of theme was Chaplain Hans Kostron.
Today, at age 92, Melanie Penka/Ulrich precisely recalls the happenings in the Müglitz church, on Corpus Christi 1942. The former acolyte Franz Tollran agrees wholeheartedly with Melanie Penka that on this splendid Sunday the festively decorated church was filled to the last seat. Amazing, since it was during the short period of wartime victory celebrations when Nazi leadership was striving to develop the Sudetenland into a model pagan administrative district. Not a few Catholics had left the Church or at least had turned their backs on it. It became fashionable to praise National Socialist neo-paganism and to wave swastika flags. Church processions and relocations thereof had long been forbidden and Church flags had
to remain locked up in the sacristies or parish houses.
Thus the 1942 Corpus Christi procession in Müglitz had to take place only within the narrow confines of the church grounds. Priests could no longer dispense a blessing from the former four altars in the city of Müglitz. As Melanie Penka recalls, Chaplain Hans Kostron was to celebrate the Corpus Christi mass …
According to Melanie Penka, “We in the church waited over fifteen minutes beyond the starting time. Many concerns arose until the sacristan, who also lived in the chaplainry, appeared and informed the community that Johannes Kostron had been picked up by the Gestapo. An atrocious provocation of Nazi leadership against the resolute flock of Catholics in Müglitz! “
But the bells of Müglitz did not sound an alarm if indeed they had not already been sacrificed to the Moloch of war. It was indeed a sad Corpus Christi. And when reflecting on 1942, Ernst Kukula, born the son of a farmer in 1934 in Müglitz, concludes that after the arrest of Chaplain Kostron every thoughtful Catholic realized that National Socialism and Christianity were incompatible. Fear abounded. One felt increasingly as in an “underground community.”
What had Chaplain Kostron done? As an active singer with the choral society in Müglitz, as an arresting preacher, as one engaged in sports, and as a teacher of religion he was beloved in the community and fully integrated with it. To the Nazis he was a thorn in their eye. “The small petty Nazi functionaries” who saw an antagonist in the thoroughly German-oriented Chaplain Kostron, envied his full church and his appeal to young and old in Müglitz. A reason for the Gestapo staff in Moravian Schonberg to take Johannes Kostron into “protective custody”!
With his sermons and his work with the youth Kostron must have been in the sights of the secret state police for quite a while. Accordingly, on February 14, 1942 he was warned “about anti-National Socialistic youth training and youth work.” In addition the former acolyte Franz Tollran tells of a eulogy by Chaplain Kostron in the community of Schützendorf In it he praised a dead man who had loyally maintained his Catholic faith as had the popular fighter pilot Werner Mölders, killed in …1941. Mõlders made the sign of the cross before every hostile flight, … The Catholic Mölders criticized the neo-paganism of National Socialism in his own way. Allegedly, he had threatened to return his military decorations if Clemens August, Baron of Galen, Bishop of Münster and later cardinal, assertions turned out to be true. ” that the National Socialists justified killing the sick and the handicapped because they were “unworthy lives”.
After his arrest Kostron was questioned for four weeks in the prison of Troppau (Moravia) and on July 10 was transferred to the concentration camp of Dachau near Munich. “We had no fear of the concentration camps and the name, Dachau, meant absolutely nothing. At first we thought that the chaplain was imprisoned in Tachau in Egerland (Bohemia),” exclaimed former community member Melanie Penka.
A petition by first lieutenant Emil Kostron, a brother of the chaplain and teacher in Alt Moletein, who in 1942 was recuperating from a war injury in the hospital in Olmütz, did not lead to the priest’s unrestricted freedom. The chief of the security police in Berlin replied: “I regret to have to inform you that a release of your brother in light of the severity of the charges against him is impossible. He failed to heed a police warning and misused his office as clergyman through continued hostile and provocative utterances about the state in order to undermine the stability of the home front.”
The community had lost its most beloved priest. He was one of their own. He came from Schildberg in the vicinity of Müglitz .. He understood the mentality of the flock entrusted to him and felt intertwined with them. Johannes, born on January 27, 1912, was the youngest of the once nine children of the farmer Franz Kostron and his wife, Josefa. Josefa Sula came from Zerhof, the Czech linguistic enclave between Friesetal and Schonhengstgau. (Moravia). She was reputedly a woman of strong faith. Her granddaughter Wilma Emenet nee Tonn of Schildberg,… recounts that she spoke only Czech with her children in predominantly German Schildberg.
After six years of elementary school education in Schildberg Johannes attended the Boys’ Seminar (Gymnasium) in Freudental from which he graduated in 1932. Theological studies followed with Czech seminarians in Olmütz. On the feast day of Cyril and Methodius on July 5, 1937 he was ordained a priest by Archbishop Leopold Pecan in the cathedral of Olmütz …. He then immediately began his service as chaplain in Müglitz, which the Gestapo commandant abruptly ended on June 2, 1942.
According to Reverend Emil Valasek (Der Kampf gegen die Priester im Sudeten/and 1938 bis 1945 [The War against the Priests in the Sudetenland 1938-1945], Konigstein, 2003), 108 Sudeten German priests, who were his colleagues, shared the fate of Johannes Kostron. These places of confinement were termed concentration camp, reformatory, prison, or labor camp, where those who wielded power at the time also incarcerated many officials of the Catholic Church This was all the easier for the Nazi government since the concordat between Germany and the Vatican did not apply to the Sudetenland. The Nazis termed concentration camp detention as “protective custody.” Thirty-seven of the 108 priests did not survive it.
They were murdered, as was the Vice Superior of the Archbishop Priests’ Seminary in Olmütz and the Director of the Boys’ Seminar in Freudental, Karl Schrammel (Sudetendeutsche Zeitung 39/2007). Not a few died from the results of their inhumane torture in the concentration camp.
Johann Kostron survived. At one of the first Müglitz homeland meetings he told his trusted
compatriots in Fulda (Germany) that for a time he would not be able to lead any parish community. He tried it shortly after his release and served as chaplain until 1947 in Hohenpeissenberg in Upper Bavaria. But the traumatic experiences in the concentration camp at Dachau could not yet be harmonized with administering a parish. Thus he then served at the invitation of Reverend Josef Kentenich as pilgrimage priest in the Schönstatt Convent near Vallendar in the bishopric of Trier (Germany)…
Another befriended Schönstatt priest of Chaplain Kostron was the parish administrator Reverend Josef Fischer of Gross Stiebnitz (District of Grulich, Bohemia). For some time he had used the familiar saying adapted in the Reich from a children’s prayer: “Lieber Gott, mach mich stumm, dass ich nicht nach Dachau kumm.” (Dear Lord, make me mute, that I do not to Dachau come) and applied it to his work with the regional Hitler Youth. In 1941 Reverend Fischer was taken to the SS-controlled Dachau concentration camp.
It was he whom Chaplain Kostron met first when in June 1942 he shared the same fate. Reverend Fischer – introduced Hans – as he was called in the camp — to Josef Kentenich, the founder of the Schönstatt religious Movement. Kentenich had arrived in Dachau in March after already spending several months in a Koblenz jail. In contrast to many other Catholic clerics, Kentenich was from the beginning a resolute opponent of National Socialism, which in advancing neo-paganism presented a danger not just for the Church. Adolf Hitler could not be baptized Baron von Galen, Bishop of Münster reputedly said as the Nazis had come to power. Schönstatt groups formed around Fischer and Kentenich in the Dachau concentration camp, which also included Hans Kostron and Deacon Karl Leisner, whom Pope John Paul II in 1966 declared a martyr and a saint.
Fischer and Kostron also rendered services to the Schönstatt community from inside the camp. Since Hans Kostron could work in the camp’s financial office, he risked sending “black mail” out of the camp for Kentenich. This gave Kentenich the opportunity to keep in touch with his Schönstatt colleagues in Vallendar. For Kostron and his contact at the bank in Müglitz, discovery would have meant certain death. Chaplain Kostron along with Reverend Kentenich was released from the camp on April 6, 1945 as the American troops were drawing closer.
After a term of service as chaplain in Hohenpeissenberg, Hans Kostron served in Vallendar (District of Mayen-KoblenzlRhineland-Palatinate) and with Reverend Kentenich was involved in pilgrimage activities including that as director of men. Nonetheless, he still hoped for a return to his diocese of Olmütz as did many of those driven from their homeland still thinking of the expulsion as a passing historical misunderstanding. These hopes were not fulfilled, as we all know…
After the transfer he once again traveled with the brother of Gertrud Maus, his long time pastoral co-worker, to his homeland. Without much ado he visited his old theater of activity in Müglitz and his birthplace of Schildberg with its Church of the Ascension in which he had celebrated his first mass. Perhaps also Zerhof, his mother’s place of birth. As a Schönstatt priest he had dedicated himself to the heavenly Virgin Mary. His symbol in his workers’ circle, “Hände Mariens” (Mary’s Hands), became in Dachau “opferstarke Hände‘ (strong offering hands). This he achieved in the almost three years of SS Dachau hell. He maintained his priestly dignity and his humanity. His sympathetic understanding linked with a practical view of things and an impenetrable sense of humor permitted him to help, to comfort, and to stand by with his “opferstarke Hände. ” There were many suffering comrades in the camp, whose deaths
he reported to their relatives in Schildberg and Moletein, to those in the Schönstatt Movement, as well as to his community of St. Karl Borromäus, Letters, which Chaplain Kostron wrote from Dachau to his relatives in Alt Moletein and Schildberg, reflect his deep faith and also the horrors of the concentration camp.
On October 16, 1992 Reverend Johannes Kostron died after a stroke. Not only should we Sudeten Germans not forget this bold man: a priest who was convincing not only with words but also with deeds. Intended for the school inspector in Müglitz, who had spoken against the Church, he shouted from the pulpit in 1942: “In Russia our people are dying and in our homeland we are creating a new paganism. One calls one’s self a believer in God but notices nothing of God.”
- The fate of the German minority after the Second World War in the former Yugoslavia
(Editor’s note: The following report is from the Vicar Rev. Paul Pfuhl from Filipovo, district Hodschag (Odzaci) in the Batschka, in the former Yugoslavia. ( See map # 21). As distinct from the expulsion of their German minority by the East-European communist countries, in the case of Yugoslavia, they were all either placed in concentration camps or in forced labor camps. See Chapter V of the book: Source: Das Schicksal der Deutschen in Jugoslawien, Bundesministerium Für Vertriebene, Flüchtlinge,und Kriegsgeschädigte, 1954-1961, Bonn, Germany; Translation from the German: Ulrich Merten))
Overview: The events in Filipovo after the invasion of the Red Army. and under the
Partisan regime to the end of March 1945; the murder of approx. 240 men on the 25.
November 1944 by a partisan commando.
I was requested by the prayers of a Belgian Passionist father, P.Trudo Goorts, to write down, on 4 December 1947,my experiences in Yugoslavia from the beginning of the ‘I’ito partisan regime up to my escape from the camp Gakovo. ..everything that occurred in the Batschka and the Banat, ( in the former Yugoslavia). .. in this … terrible period….
In April 1941, Yugoslavia was over-run in a few days by the troops of Hitler.
The state disintegrated… Serbia, with the Banat, which previously belonged to Hungary, was occupied by the Germans . The Batschka and the Baranja, which until 1918 likewise belonged to Hungary, were incorporated into the Hungarian state in Easter 1941.
Thus it remained until the autumn of 1944 when the Russians coming from Rumania
penetrated this area and attached themselves to Tito’s partisans, after the German
and Hungarian troops had withdrawn without fighting,.
At this time, in October 1944, the via crucis of these German people began, in this region, their homeland, where they had already lived almost 200 years,. .Expecting the worst, a great many, perhaps a third of them, fled before the advancing Russians and Serbs, and arrived with few personal possessions in the West, in Austria and Germany.
It was a sad sight to see these human columns on the roads. With horses and carriages, on which their few possessions were stowed , with whatever fitted on top of such a horse drawn wagon, going towards winter and an uncertain future. Whoever saw such a column, surely would never forget it. Nevertheless, as it turned out later, those who left chose the better fate.
Most, however remained in their homeland. They had lived as good neighbors almost 200 years with Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Ruthenians. Slovaks, Jews and gypsies. All these people were represented in these regions in which the Germans settled, a commonwealth of nations known nowhere else in the world. There were individual villages, where members of four and five peoples lived peacefully next to each other at the same time..
Their religions also differed. In many villages there was not only one church, but several. For example: In a large community in this area, Batschka, (Werbass) where Germans, Serbs, Hungarians, and Slovaks lived together, there were seven churches: Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Methodist and a Jewish temple. In addition, several houses of prayer of different sects were present. Catholic priests had often to preach in two or three languages Sundays and holidays.
Conscious of having done no injustice, the Germans stayed mostly in their villages, but with great concern as to their fate, when the Russians and the partisans came. Generally, they hoped that probably only the first days would be uncertain and difficult but that normal conditions would come again.
First the Russians came. If they were sober, they hardly harmed anyone. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of wine and brandy in our area and the soldiers were rarely sober. Therefore, there was hardly a woman or a girl safe from them, and many, who did not want to submit to them, paid for it with their life. Of my former pupils in a German village where the Russians marched through, two were shot; also a young woman and her mother. Who knows how many were injured in their honor, who could determine this? Some women and girls were victims of successive attacks by these brutes. There were several well-known cases, where the poor victims died from it.
The Russians, however, soon departed. Tito’s partisans shortly followed them, and with them began the extermination of the Germans. Their hate was not only directed at the Germans, but in the beginning at least, also in the same degree at Catholic priests. While the Russians did not harm the priests, but were eager to maintain a correct attitude,
the partisans, in their first days in our diocese (Batschka) on the Theiss River, horribly killed 12 priests, mostly Hungarians..
In the following pages, I would like to describe, what I experienced, in these days, as
an eyewitness up to my escape from the concentration camp, Gakovo
I was a vicar, in a purely German, catholic community in the Batschka, the area between the Danube and the Theiss Rivers. … At the time when the Hungarian and German armies were retreating, more than half of the men and boys between 18 and 45 years were drafted into the Waffen SS.*
Filipovo, the community where I was active as a vicar, was spared from the advancing Russian army because it was not located on a main road. Thus we were also saved from the rape of women and girls. From the time when the Hungarian military left until the first partisans came, approximately ten days passed during which time we were without any governing authority. Everyone was in a state of high tension, and the population awaited, full of great concern, the arrival of the partisans.
When on 20 October, the first ten partisans, half in civilian clothes, half in uniforms of every kind, with a submachine gun or a rifle in their hands, walking in the middle of the road, came into the village, hardly anyone showed themselves. All were afraid to be somehow noticeable. Suddenly, a little girl with flowers in her hand jumped in front of the passing soldiers and gave her flowers to the first partisan. He took the child in his arms and kissed her. Everyone drew a deep sigh of relief when this incident became known, and all received new hope. Individual men were called to the town hall
and from this group a provisional municipal board was appointed. . Thus it
appeared that all fears were groundless·.
But this calm did not last long. Already a few days later, the town crier with his drum, went through the village: all young men and women were required to work on the two airfields located nearby. .. Then new regulations came: All radio sets, bicycles, motorcycles, and typewriters had to be delivered to the authorities. This was still rather painless, however, even if one was cut off from the outside world and one could no longer receive news of family members, who were away.
It was more painful when individual partisans went into the houses and carried away whatever pleased them, clothing and bed linens, and no one could complain. Soon partisan groups went from house to house and requisitioned clothing and utensils, whatever they wanted….Nevertheless, the majority of the people took this calmly, for after all, one could purchase everything again, later on, and in addition, one could always take precautions and hide some of the good pieces in the roomy houses.
The first paralyzing shock came over the village, when at the beginning of November,
a young woman was shot “under martial law” in front of the parsonage. Her
husband had been drafted into the SS, and a young partisan officer was billeted one night in her home. The next day, a search of her house was made, and allegedly, in the
rear of the building, some cartridges were found. …The woman was then called
to the town hall and informed that she was condemned to death. The judgment was immediately executed… When it became known what had happened, fear spread, because we suddenly became aware that we were unprotected and delivered to the arbitrary action of revenge-seeking brutes, for everyone was convinced that it had been an act of revenge by the partisans, because the woman probably did not give in to the desires of this individual.
Then on 25 November, the darkest day ever broke over this peaceful community. In the early hours, some farmers wanted to drive to their fields, in order to sow the autumn seeds. They were prevented from doing this by the partisans who had encircled the entire village, and were driven back home. After mass, the town crier with his drum went again through the village and announced that all men and boys from 16-60 years had to appear immediately before the town hall. Anyone who did not come and was discovered by the partisans, would be shot on the spot. In front of the town hall, the town crier announced that priests also had to present themselves . At that time, we were four priests in the community…. Up to now, we were exempted from the usual required appearances.
Therefore, around 9 o’clock approximately, 350 men and boys gathered before the town hall. There were no more men in the village because they were either far away from their homeland as soldiers, or they were away from the community doing forced labor, mostly on the airfield near the local district town.
We saw some partisans with hate-filled faces, others walking aimlessly back and forth, badly dressed, half in civilian clothes, half in uniform, with submachine guns hanging on their chests or rifles on their backs. Nobody spoke to us. We stood around in small groups and wondered what would now happen. Most accepted that it concerned the recruiting for forced labor, only that perhaps now it would be for a longer period of time and further away… Around 10 o’clock we were ordered into a fenced yard around the church
and ordered to assemble in rows of four. A long table was brought in at which sat several Serbian clerks. Two partisan officers… together with the police commander of the community walked back and forth before us. Suddenly the police commander came to us and told us to line up in the back….We three priests were joined by the two physicians,… the pharmacist… and a professor. Starting now at the front, the individual men and boys had to step up to the table where they were listed and then separated into two groups and placed on the other side. We looked on from the rear and tried to figure out on what criterion this separation was based. We could not understand it, however. We only saw that the group along the church became ever larger, while the group along the road increased only moderately. In the smaller group were also the two male teachers of the village,… who later, however, had to change over to the other group. We also came to the conclusion that those who were better dressed mostly went to the larger group…
Now, however, it appeared to the officers that it was going too slowly. They stepped in front of the rows of those who were not yet listed, asked details of their occupation, and then sent them to the table to be registered. All of these came to the larger group
by the church wall. An officer also asked a young man his occupation and when he heard that he was a hairdresser, he did not have to go to the table, and could remain.
Then they also came to us. One of our priests, who previously was a pastor in Paracin in
Serbia , had recognized one of the partisan officers before, when we were still in the courtyard, and spoke a few words with him. He told us that the above officer, in former times, was an assistant hairdresser in the same Serbian city and often cut his hair and shaved him. His name was Slavko. This Slavko then called this priest to the side and said he could go home. On the way to the exit, the priest asked if he could at least let us two priests leave, which also happened somewhat later whereas the two physicians, the pharmacists and the professor had to report and were integrated into the larger group . Meanwhile, in the courtyard a machine gun was mounted, and more and more partisans joined and brought a stretcher and spades. Now everyone suspected that terror faced them, and hardly a word was spoken. Some Partisans were busy with the machinegun, when suddenly a salvo was loosed over the heads of the men and penetrated the church wall. It created a considerable fright and even the officers were startled.
From a window in the parsonage, I could follow what was happening a few steps from me. There were now three groups: the largest, about 240 men and boys, along the church; a smaller one, of approximately 30-40 along the road; and the rest were those who did not yet have to report to the table and who were next to the parsonage. Finally, it seemed that they had enough people.. Those, approximately 240 men and boys, who stood along the church wall, had to line-up in rows of four. About eight partisans went to the head of the column, others went along side, and the rest dismounted the machine gun, and took the stretcher and the spades, and placed themselves at the end of the column. They then left at about 16 hours. The other two groups were driven into the church where they spent the night.
Of the 240 men and boys who were taken away, no one ever heard from them again. Only many days later, reports seeped through that all were cruelly massacred about 5 km from the village. Because none of the Germans in the village were allowed to leave without permission… no one knew that something similar had occurred several days previously in other German villages. – A depressing fear prevailed everywhere. One could hear different things, but resisted believing it.
Certainty came to me over what had occurred outside the village when a woman, whose husband was also there, visited me completely disturbed and told me hesitatingly, what her son-in-law had told her: He had to do forced labor as a driver in a neighboring village. In the early hours of 26 November he had to harness his horses and, with another man on his wagon as well as some partisans who climbed on it, drive to their village. Shortly thereafter they turned on to a meadow and there they had to load their wagon with blood stained clothing and drive away. They also saw newly turned earth. They were instructed, however, not to say a word otherwise they would be shot immediately.
A young man from the district of Hodschag later related how the murders took place,
…The same had occurred there several days previously. There, 180 men had been caught and locked up in a house. In the night, they had to take off their clothes and stark naked, were driven from their village under a strong guard. There they had to dig a pit.. When this was finished, the Partisans fell on them with spades and rifle butts and beat them into the pit. When the young man saw this, he decided to flee. Stark naked, he ran away and was lucky; the shots fired on him missed and the dark night hid him from his pursuers. Only after a long time, after eight months, he showed up again, having hid himself in his parents’ house. He was only found when his parents were driven from their home. Much later he related what had happened.
Gradually nevertheless, the truth came out, as some villagers later went to the meadow and there allegedly saw some times a leg, then a head appear out of the frozen soil, nevertheless no one really wanted to believe it. Voices were raised from time to time, that this or that Serb from the neighboring villages… had seen one or the other of the kidnapped men. On investigation, however, it soon turned out that it was not correct or only an unfortunate attempt to console oneself. One of the partisans, who was there when the 240 men were liquidated, …later told a woman. whose husband was also in the group, that the Filipovoer must have been pious people. When the woman asked why, he told her what happened that night. When the men were beaten down… they prayed and tried to mutually comfort each other. – Minister Wagner …came to know one day in Stanischitsch a Serb who was there during the liquidation of the Filipovoer men. Minister Wagner tried to find out from him details of what had happened, but he did not respond only saying : “Strasno je bilo!” (It was horrible!)
Those were our best ones, who found their death: Family men with ten or more children, our strong young men, who successfully opposed to the end their recruitment in the SS…students…,
But there still was no end to fear. The plundering of the houses continued; and soon here and there a man, of those who remained, was taken away, from whom no one ever heard again.
Thus Christmas approached. Everyone who could was in church… Hardly was high mass over, when the drum sounded again, and this time it broadcast that all men from 18–45 years and all women from 18-30 years had to report in the afternoon in front of the town hall, bringing with them clothing, blankets and meals for several days. Again, any one who did not come was threatened with death. However, not all reported, and some were dismissed because their work in the village was indispensable, including several mothers with children under two years. But nevertheless, there were about 110-120 people who gathered in the evening, and then led away by the partisans into the night. The goal of their march was again unknown. There must have been too few, however; therefore on the third day of Christmas , another campaign was undertaken, and again some 100 people were taken away.
At first one sought comfort, assuming that these people, – mostly girls and women, there were only a few men left in the village, would be sent to Hungary for trench digging and that they would return home in the foreseeable future. Only gradually it seeped through that they were all sent to Russia to perform forced labor…
The summit of suffering, nevertheless, was not yet reached… One was cut off from the world…. One did not know anything about the war and nothing from family members who served as soldiers in the German and Hungarian armies, and nothing from those who were in Russia. Time and again, people were taken away to work in other villages, without one knowing whether and when they would return. No mail brought any signs of life. … But still no hunger prevailed; all the cattle were still in the village. – Only the horses had already been partially taken away… – in the affluent farms, there was still enough poultry, and in the attic lay two years’ harvest …
It was in the middle of March, two weeks before Easter, when one day a
column of over 900 persons, those still remaining from the German neighboring village of Karavukovo, were brought into our village with bundles on their backs. Within a short time, a period of only one to two hours, they had to leave their houses and farms, and with the few belongings that they could gather in so short a time. They were herded together and had to leave their village under partisan guard. They were distributed, in all their hardship, to individual houses in our village, and it was gratifying to see the willingness with which they were taken in…
Two days later came another column, this time about 1,500 people, mostly older men and women with their children, who were expelled from Prigrevica Sveti Ivan.. Again, one day later, came the rest from the same community, also more than 1,000 people. They could also be housed, and there were now houses in which 20 to 30 people from different families lived together. It was commented at that time, that these people had to leave their village because it was too close to the Danube and the war front.. Generally, one believed that they would soon be released to return home… One question was raised again and again; when do we go home again? – But it turned out completely differently.
* I would like to add for those not knowing (local) conditions, that only a relatively small number of men went voluntarily to the SS. All others were forced to, often after serious mistreatment, but were registered, however, as “volunteers”. To illustrate this case: my own brother opposed to the last, unjustified demands to join the German military “voluntarily”. In the last days of September, 1944, Moslem Bosniaks, under the leadership of SS·Officers, came into the village and drove all youths and older men, who up to now were able to avoid being drafted into the SS, and took them away. My mother as a result suffered a heart attack and died after two days. Although my brother was imprisoned in the neighboring community, he was not allowed to go to the funeral, since one wanted to prevent him showing himself at home, because SS·Soldiers had beat him half to death.
The internment of the German population of Filipovo and some neighboring communities, at the end of March and June 1945;- conditions
in the concentration camp Gakovo to December 1947.
Holy Saturday, March 31 1945. suspecting nothing, we celebrated in the church the mass of the resurrection.. At approximately 9 o’clock we left the church and saw large groups of people with bundles on their backs who had been driven from their homes in the lower end of the village by partisans. It became clear that the end of our village had come. All, both native residents and those that were brought there only days ago had to leave their homes and go to a meadow, which lay above the village. While there was time, backpacks – wisely prepared beforehand – were stuffed with anything that might be of use and residents took one last look at everything they owned. Those who delayed too long were hurried by the partisans with blows of rifle butts Only the parsonage and the sister cloister were spared: We could remain at home, we were told at the municipal office.. We were now 5 priests in the parsonage :… In the cloister there were 10 sisters.
We priests discussed what should be done in this situation, and decided that two of us, Vicar Johler and I, would go with the villagers. In the municipal office, we were told that it was completely up to us: we could go with them or remain. We were given a document stating that we were going voluntarily. We then packed our backpacks and followed the people to the meadow above the village.
There were approximately 5.000 people on the meadow where the business of tearing families apart had begun. .Those who were young and able to work were placed to one side, children and old people to the other. Many mothers were separated from their children and assigned to the work force. Grandparents and neighbors had to care for the children.. To the honor of the mothers, it must be mentioned that a great many, in an unguarded moment, stole back to their children ….
In the afternoon, those able to work were led back to the village under partisan guard and assigned to homes that had been vacated. But first, they were submitted to a control, and everything which they had of value, such as good dresses or bed linens were taken away from them. – Later they had to take all furnishings out of the other houses and gather them in one place, take care of the cattle, and work the fields. All of this under constant supervision, with very bad food and many dangers,… Most, nevertheless, got along well, and knew how to find food and clothing and survived one and a half to two years.. . There were nonetheless more deaths than normal and some were also shot.
We, the two priests, joined the old people, the mothers and the children – and were led to a lane on the edge of the village. Partisans stood in front of each house, so that nobody could go in and perhaps take something away for themselves. They were then led in small groups into a house where they had to unpack their backpacks. Everything that had a certain value was taken from them. Their clothing was also controlled, and what the partisans liked, had to be taken off. Especially, however, they were on the look-out for money and jewelry. Even the wedding rings on their fingers had to be unhesitatingly delivered. To make the people submissive and fearful, so that nothing would be hidden, a senseless shooting was undertaken by the partisans. This dragged on into the evening.
Among the mustered partisans were some Croatian Catholics from the surrounding villages …many of whom only participated in this action with aversion. With them one could talk.. I asked them whether they knew where the people would be taken and what was awaiting them. They probably knew but dared not say. Only one had courage and confessed to me that the people would go into a concentration camp and would probably be starved there and killed. He also asked me whether we priests were compelled to go along. When I told him that we went along voluntarily, he urged me to go back because in any case, we would not be permitted to remain with our parishioners. Nevertheless we were firmly decided to go along. We were not required to go into the house where the others were being plundered, and could not get past the partisans in order to join them but were able to talk to a Serbian official from the local town council who was friendly to us. and he asked if we knew what we were doing. When I said to him that our conscience forced us to share the lot of the believers, and endure their fate with them he said that we certainly could not go with them to their place of final destination, which he did not disclose. These people were considered fascists and Nazis, and therefore taken away as punishment. If we went along voluntarily, one would consider us as their leader and we would be separated from them. What would then await us, I could certainly imagine.
The plundered people were taken to the railway, forced into cattle cars and taken away. Gradually it became known that Gakovo, a village close to the Hungarian border, was their place of destination. The whole village was converted into a concentration camp for Germans. Over one-half of the people could not be accommodated in one train and had to wait two more days. In the company of a partisan, I returned that night to the parsonage to discuss with the three other priests, what we should do. We now decided not to go along, since there was little possibility that we could remain with the people. To the credit of the nuns, it must be noted, that they took in the sick left behind, turned their convent into a provisional hospital, and cared for them until they either died or later were also taken to Gakovo …
The remaining people had to do very hard work – slave labor – on their own fields and in the hemp factories with insufficient food and under much harassment from their overseers. Some months later, orthodox Serbs were brought into the village from the southern regions of Yugoslavia and settled into the unoccupied houses. … Thus with time
our workers were freed up and gradually brought to the concentration camp, Gakovo. The last remaining Germans left their village, which for them was once their homeland and meant everything to them, at the beginning of 1947 ….
The meager news, which filtered down to us from Gakovo was overwhelming.
Over 17,000 persons were concentrated there in a village that previously had only 2.600 inhabitants.….
At the beginning of summer 1945, old people and children were brought to Filipovo from six German communities and interned there…..I don’t know why they were not taken directly Gakovo, but most likely there was no more room. They were separated from those able to work, and interned in the lower part of the village and assigned empty houses. The people imprisoned there, just as in Gakovo, were not allowed to leave their assigned part of the village, nor was anybody allowed to visit them. There were guards day and night who prevented any one from leaving the camp. Prisoners were also not allowed to go to church, and were no better off there than in Gakovo. Nevertheless, the food was somewhat better, and from time to time, some knew how to steal through the chain of partisan guards and bring some food into the camp from elsewhere. But still, the energy of many was soon exhausted, and we shortly heard of the first deaths. Thereupon I went to the commander and asked him for permission to bury the dead and to look after the sick. Despite the fear that this would not be allowed, after much negotiation .. permission was received and from now on I was able to go into the camp at any time. . Therefore, I could assist the patients, and bring them medicines – malaria prevailed in the camp – and bury the dead….
The children and old persons, who were interned in Filipovo remained there until the beginning of October, when they were likewise sent to Gakovo, where there was now space available for them, due to the many deaths that occurred there daily. (Until early November there were on average 15-25 deaths daily in Gakovo.) In Filipovo from June to the beginning of October, 250 of the 1.500 interned died. They could all be buried in single graves according to church ritual, except two, who were shot….For me, now only the pastoral care with the workers remained.
The news from Gakovo became ever sadder. Famine became more oppressive and the numbers of dead increased. A plague of lice gained the upper hand… diseases broke out: malaria, stomach and spotted typhoid. Due to starvation, they found their victims easily.. The number of dead rose rapidly to over 50 in one day. One of the first victims of
typhoid fever was the German village physician, who until then had cared for the patients…
Some days before Christmas the message reached us that vicar Johler in Gakovo (who had previously been sent to the camp as chaplain by the bishop of the diocese) became sick from typhoid fever. . and could not continue his pastoral care as he could not do all the work alone… Thus the time had come for me to go to Gakovo. On 24 December 1945, I arrived at the district town of Sombor, near the camp’s location, and received permission from the authorities to go to Gakovo. Without this permit, nobody was allowed to enter the area of the camp. As there was no train, I had to go on foot and arrived in the evening around 6 o’clock. The guard that called to me at the entrance to the village and to whom I presented the permit, could probably not read and assumed, I was the physician, who was expected in Gakovo.. Thus I came without problems through the chain of guards. ….
In the parsonage building, I went first into the room of the ill vicar. Due to his high fever, he did not recognize me immediately. But after I told him that I had come to help him, he did recognize me and said to me several times in a weak voice: “Thank God that you are here.” …Although he was only 54 years old, he died at the beginning of January 1946.
I had my first meeting the next day with the misery and wretchedness of the camp,
on Christmas, in the church. With all three holy masses the church was full… during the short sermon I saw I their starved emaciated faces ,,,their protruding eyes a result of hunger, illness and suffering. …
In the afternoon, I saw the patients. The furniture had been removed from the houses and a bit of straw spread in the individual rooms on which the people had made their camps. Each room, an area of 15-25 square meters, …(1 meter = 3.3. feet). often accommodated more than 20 persons. For a long time, the original inhabitants of Gakovo could not come to terms with the fact that their village had become a concentration camp and that now so many people lived there. When the Gakovoers spoke of the “camp people” , then they sounded irritable. They could not resign themselves to the fact that these were nothing other than people whose freedom had been taken away. Much discord was caused by this attitude.
The conditions which I witnessed in the individual houses were shocking, Everywhere patients were lying , tormented by high fever. Most were victims of typhoid and weakened by hunger. Typhoid fever caused many to hear with difficulty. On the day of St. Stephen, I attended approximately 60 patients. Although I worked all day, many patients could not be attended and died. How could one avoid this?
In the afternoon of the same day I was a witness when approximately 10–12 men
and women from the Baranja region were shot in the cemetery.. They had fled from the camp in order to cross the nearby border to Hungary and succeeded in going unseen through the chain of guard posts which had been established at the edge of the village. They were caught at the border, however, and brought back into the camp. There they were thrown into a cellar, where a rather large number of other camp inmates were imprisoned. In the afternoon around 2 o’clock they were called out – a woman, who was not of this group, probably believing that she would be released, joined them – and were told that they would be shot. They were then led directly to the cemetery. I was in the cemetery at this time, to bless the graves of those buried on this day and the previous., when this group of men and women,- including the woman mentioned above – was led past. One man had attached to his chest a large sign on which it said, “We will be shot, because we wanted to go over the border. This will happen to all those who have similar intentions. ” As they were led past me, I gave an absolution, and made the sign of the cross. A partisan saw this and laughing scornfully said to me in Serbian: “Pope, ne pomaze in nista!” (Priest, that will not help them!)
I still thought that perhaps this would not end seriously. Several times in the past, someone would be told that they would be shot, and then taken to the cemetery. There he had to lie down in a mass grave, and some shots were fired over him. Then he was allowed to come out again, not permitted to go back to the village, but brought to a camp close to the district town. This time, however, it appeared to be serious. These victims had to lie down in the mass grave, then some shots were fired which ended their lives. Immediately thereafter, they were buried…
On St. John’s day, I celebrated mass at 8 o’clock, when suddenly behind
me in the church there was a loud noise. Partisans shouted into the church, came in
and drove everyone from the church. As too few people showed up for work on this day, the partisans were furious when they saw the people going to church. An older woman wanted to steal away outside, but was seen. A partisan followed and arrested her. She was taken to the cemetery and shot.… Now not many people dared to go to church. From now on, there were mostly only old people and children…
The Gakovoers were still buried with a funeral procession, and mostly had coffins roughly made out of boards. . Also the church bells tolled. This was stopped soon after my arrival at the camp, and the Gakovoer had to resign themselves more and more to the fact that they were also prisoners in the camp. The other (dead) were mostly sewn into some blankets by members of the family, and another member would then take it in a wheelbarrow to the cemetery. It was a shocking and depressing sight to have to watch, with the feet often dangling from the cart, while the husband or wife pushed. Later there were more and more dead, with no one to take them away. Then horses and carriages would drive through the village and the dead were put on the wagons, often in several layers, as one formerly brought sheaves together. They were stacked in large heaps in front of the cemetery and had to remain there, until buried by the grave diggers in mass graves. For some time, there was no more space in the cemetery and mass graves were dug behind it. The dead were buried there, one close beside the other. If a layer was full, dirt was thrown on top of it, and a new layer started. There were mass graves with more than 300 corpses buried in several layers. Only those who could pay or give food to the grave diggers, who were also from the camp, could receive a single grave. The grave diggers were practically without supervision, because only rarely an official or partisans came to the cemetery. They had nothing more to do with the dead. ,… So it is said to have occurred that grave diggers sometimes opened the blankets in which dead were sewn, and traded the clothing of the dead for food. It is no wonder that these people became so insensitive from this work, because they had to do it from early morning until late at night.
The greatest time of distress occurred around Christmas and New Year 1945/46.
Suddenly there was a halt in the supply of food which already was not sufficient to prevent hunger or maintain strength. Three times daily a thin soup was given; in addition, everyone still received a piece of corn bread, often made from spoiled, moldy corn kernels. Around Christmas, this bread was missing, and some days no cooking was done. Instead of bread, people received a handful of corn kernels or even raw corn cobs.
I do not know exactly any longer, how long it was that no bread was distributed, as I fell sick later. Nevertheless it was rather a long time.. At that time the death rate curve rose rapidly and increased daily beyond the number of 60 and up.
Probably nobody would have been able to easily count the sick and weak patients
in the individual houses. Those persons met on the street looked like corpses as they weakly stumbled along, No one would have recognized an old acquaintance. All interest was dead. It would have been pointless at that time to ask who died in their house; they would probably not have known. Several cases were known, where a child died next to its mother, without the mother noticing it. It was shocking to hear mothers asking for their children, who already lay some days in the cemetery. People lay about in unheated rooms, and many longed for nothing more than the release of death.
In those days, the cellar in the partisan barracks, previously a large inn, was a feared place for all halfway healthy people. Whoever did something that did not please the partisans or the officials, would be put into this cellar where some had to remain up to 14 days. Often there were so many, that they could hardly find a place to sit. The air was terrible, because nobody was allowed to occasionally go out to perform their needs. The cellar was only opened once or twice, then all were allowed to go outside and receive something to eat. Those who did not go in fast enough again, were hit with rifle butts, and received a kick that sent them head over heels down the steps. Many remained lying down there with broken limbs. …. Many also ended their life in this cellar, some
were killed,, and some of these tormented humans committed suicide. .
Those children who were without parents – and their numbers increased each day-
came into the so-called children’s homes in which some girls and women had to take care of them. But here also, it did not look any better than in the other houses. The children there also lay on straw, and the food was not noticeably different than that of the adults. Thus it developed, that many children suffered from malnutrition and scurvy. If the children became ill, they then went to the so-called children’s hospitals. … Although they had beds, there were far too few, so that often 3–4 children had to lie in the same bed. These children’s hospitals were probably the saddest sight in the camp. The children were starved so that only skin and bones showed, lying in their beds, often too weak to call out, even their crying was not that of normal children. ….
It broke the heart of many mothers that they had to watch their children decline into misery, without being able to help them. Many mothers died of hunger, because the little food they had was given to their children and they rather suffered hunger then to let their children suffer. Others, courageously, stole out of the camp at night in order to beg for some food for their children from the surrounding Croatian, Hungarian and even Serb villages. In those days the women exchanged everything that they still had hidden of value. To the credit of Croatians, Hungarians and even Serbs, they by and large showed themselves to be very helpful and gladly gave something. The fact that some of these begging women succeeded in returning successfully unnoticed to the camp probably saved some child or even some adult from death by starvation. Often, however, it occurred that they were caught by guards, which ended badly. What they had was taken away from them, and they were often beaten bloody. They were, moreover, thrown into the cellar. Because more and more people stole from the camp in order to beg, the commander gave the order that all would be shot that were caught while begging. Despite this prohibition women continued to steal out of the camp.
In Krusevlje, a neighboring village, also was converted into a camp, two women were taken prisoner. They were taken to the municipal office, and were shot there in front of their children. Afterwards they were loaded on a wheelbarrow and taken to the cemetery, while their children went alongside. One of these women was not yet dead, and on the way to the cemetery came to, saw her children next to her and said to them: “Children, I must .die, because your mother loved you so. Remain good.” A partisan came to her and shot a bullet into her head. Later, the children came to Gakovo into the children’s home. When I asked one of these children, of approximately two years, “Rosi, where is your mother?” she said: “Shot”.
But not only women sneaked out at night from the camp in order to beg, but also children from 7 years old and upward…. Usually when it became dark they stole through the chain of guards, spent the night in a hay field and continued at daybreak to go into the next villages. In the evening, they returned to the hay field and either waited until early the next day or crept directly into the camp. I would like to mention that it was winter and the winter of 1946 was very severe. . Several children, while waiting until they could return to camp, froze to death and were later found dead by the drivers. If these begging children were caught, then everything was taken away from them and they were driven away with blows of sticks. The commander of Gakovo only later had some human feelings… and let the children with their begged food go home.
One day, at the beginning of March, DDT ·powder was distributed in the camp, and all inmates were ordered to use it in order to attempt to eliminate the lice plague. This powder helped a great deal. In the shortest time, the lice – carriers of the plague and sicknesses – were destroyed….
Once the DDT powder was used in the camp, the number of daily deaths sank rather rapidly. Suddenly there were no more than 15 to 20 deaths. This may have been due also to the fact that one day it was announced that camp inmates could receive packages.
Now it was proven that between the Germans of our region and those of different nationalities in the same region, no enmity existed, but rather a spirit of good neighborliness This was because the packages which now came into the camp were
mostly gifts from non-German individuals, who remained in freedom. They were gifts from acquaintances and neighbors, who all condemned what was happening to the Germans in their neighborhood. I would like to mention here that only a very small number of the Croatians, Serbs and Hungarians, Slovaks, and Rutthenians in our settlement region agreed with what was happening in the camps….The many gifts, with which many a German life was saved, are probably a proof of it.
The worst time for the camp was now past, but it would still be two full years, before the camps were dissolved. ….The lice troubles were past, the food was somewhat better, although not yet sufficient by far; there were fewer sick and dead. Some, those who often received packages, looked relatively good. Also at this time, the first gift packages came from overseas, sent mostly by relatives. Despite all terror, some people succeeded in giving relatives in the USA some sign of life. In addition, the drivers, camp prisoners who were responsible for the camp horses and who often came to the neighboring villages and the county seat under the supervision of one or more partisans, knew how to organize a brisk trade. So some articles from stores, which, in one way or the other came into their hands, were exchanged for food. People became ever more resourceful. More often than once, these coachmen were caught, whereby everything was taken away from them and they landed in the cellar. But from this time, this trade did not cease. … Some times, they even brought, hidden under the straw in their wagons, whole slaughtered pigs into the camp. Since the packages came into the camp, some people also had money again, gifts from the different nationalities of our region. . …
What made this trade possible, may be attributed to the fact that the first group of partisans were replaced by young soldiers who came from South Serbia. Most were Moslems, who were dissatisfied with communism in their homeland and were therefore sent out of their country. From one group of soldiers, I learned that under the pretext,
that they were to be brought to parade before Tito in Belgrade, they had to leave their homeland and come as guard soldiers to the camps. They openly expressed their opposition to communism and therefore had pity on the old people and children. They were also mostly prepared to shut one eye if they noticed someone taking something into the camp….. Later, in the summer of 1947, I had an unusual experience with such a soldier. He stopped me on the road and said to me: “Pastor, if you want to flee, come to me, I’ll come along. Then if anyone comes near and tries to stop us, I’ll shoot him down” He would most certainly have done it. But I wanted to know nothing about it.….
1n summer 1946 more and more of those Germans came into the camp, who had been held back to work in the villages. The former German villages were now settled with Serbs from Bosnia, Dalmatia and also from South Serbia. So the Germans who ‘till then were the farm workers could now be sent to the camps. .. This had a very bad effect on the economy of Yugoslavia. The new inhabitants of our villages were mostly shepherds in their previous homes and understood very little about agriculture Harvests were less than a third of what the Germans had produced. .
Now young people also came to Gakovo, and there were more workers than were needed for the maintenance of the municipal works of Gakovo. At this time there began a “slave market” in Gakovo. Each morning, all camp inmates able to work had to assemble before the administration building. Those that were needed to work in Gakovo were taken away. The others were sent to work with Croatians, Hungarians and Serbs, who had paid the administration for their services. Generally, the camp inmates went along gladly, because they were able to leave the camp, received better meals, and could often bring food back into the camps in the evening. Only one had to be lucky not to be caught. Otherwise everything they had brought was taken away from them. As discipline had been loosened somewhat, prisoners could sneak away more easily and work independently for the locals for food and other supplies – and sometimes money – which could be brought back to camp. The money was especially necessary for those planning to escape across the near-by border.
As the cruelties occurring in Tito’s camps became known abroad, escapes across the border to Hungary were tolerated more and more. Until then, it was deadly to cross the border, and many paid for it with their lives… Now it became suddenly different; more and more attempted to go over the border. Yes, there were men and boys – in addition, to women and even children under 15 years old – who undertook to guide people over the border. People gladly gave their last valuables to get away. . In some nights, up to ten groups escaped, groups of different sizes, often more than 50 people. When the camp commander saw this, he sensed a profitable business. He secretly contacted two men who received a certain concession to bring people over the border….Now we had two different types of guides, the so-called “white” guided escape, whose participants had to pay 1.000 Dinar, of which the leaders had to deliver the largest part to the camp commander, and the “black” guided escape by the above mentioned men. boys and women. With the “white” guided escape, one came through more reliably. . because it came with knowledge of the camp commander who alerted the camp guards not to see these groups; the same arrangement was also made with the frontier guards. The “black” guided escapes were conducted always with the danger of being caught but they were more economical. If such a transport was caught, the escapees came into the cellar for one or more days but could try it again later. Some people I knew made up to eight attempts until they finally succeeded in getting away. ….
In the other camps the possibilities for escape present in Gakovo soon became known. Therefore many let themselves be transferred to Gakovo and from there took the road to freedom. Many new faces were seen in Gakovo but the number of camp prisoners hardly changed. I don’t know how many thousands passed through Gakovo to Austria and Germany but it was a great many. One day the inmates of a whole camp came to Gakovo. These people must have suffered much more than ours in Gakovo, because when they came here they were surprised that grass still grew in the ditches next to the streets. I was a witness, how one of these people pulled up and ate some grass. There, where they were – they came from the Banat, from the camp Molin – it was apparently not permitted to receive packages, so these people looked very emaciated when they came to us.
But here we priests also lost our freedom. At the beginning of Octobers 1946
the commander summoned us to his office and advised us that we, since we were Germans, from now on would likewise be interned and our legal documentation would have to be returned. On my protest that he did not have the right to intern us, according to what I read in the newspaper, he hesitated, returned the documentation, and said he would consult with the Ministry. Now we knew that it would only be several days until our freedom ended… One day the commander ordered us to his office, presented us a document from the Ministry of the Interior in Novi Sad (Neusatz), which stated that we as Germans had to be interned. We had to return our legal documentation, and lost our freedom. – For the sake of the truth, I must state that the commander behaved very correctly to both of us priests ….
In the middle of May Vicar Johler, who worked almost two years in the camp Gakovo, decided to flee with his mother and siblings. The escape already succeeded with the first attempt. So I remained alone, first somewhat with the fear that one would inquire, where the Vicar had gone, but nothing happened.
I continued to attend the sick. Now the critically ill were brought to the so-called “hospitals”. There, some women had to care for them. These houses were really places of horror. Hardly anyone was ever discharged as recovered from there. There the patients lay on straw, up to 15 in a room. The food was insufficient, and hardly any medicine was available. If their life was coming to an end, they were taken to a stable and left in their misery, until death released them. Often one could hardly bear the stink, which prevailed there. Every week I came at least twice to these “hospitals” – there were altogether five…
Fewer and fewer people were in the camp. In the summer 1947, there were scarcely 4,000. Also this number continued to change frequently. New ones continued to come, and the escapes continued.
Later in the year 1947, one noticed a new attitude in the behavior of the camp authority. Escapes became more and more difficult. All the “white” guided escapes had been stopped some time ago. One went eagerly to the “black” guides. Now an advertisement appeared for work in Serbian mines. All young people could present themselves for this work. In addition. they would receive their freedom and could go there with their families. They would receive a wage there, just like the other Serbian miners, and they would become free citizens of the State. Few, however, presented themselves so the authorities adopted other methods; they simply recruited younger, stronger men who were then sent away with their families. Rumors that the camp would soon close also became more frequent.
For me the time had come to consider what I wanted to do. By no means did I want to remain in Yugoslavia if the camps were closed. It was my obligation to remain in the camp as long as I could do some pastoral work. But I had to consider the probability that I would be sent away. Since I saw that the forthcoming closing of the camps was not empty gossip, one day I decided to also go across the border, in order to reach the West….
On December 4, 1947, at 6 o’clock in the evening, we began our trek. It was a clear winter evening, the sky full of stars, without moonlight. We were 23 individuals, mostly old people. Fortunately, we came through the chain of guards and out of the camp. Then the way continued on a dirt road toward the border. Suddenly a fog arose, and we hardly saw more than a few meters before us. The fog, however, was the most dangerous road companion. Repeatedly it happened that groups attempting to escape found themselves in the morning close to the camp, after wandering around the whole night. We also lost our way, and the woman (who led us) had to admit to me that she did not know any longer, where we were. I decided that we had to go to the right, where we came to a road which led to the border. This was very dangerous, because any moment a partisan could come along and take us prisoner. But we had no other choice. As we were going along the road, we saw suddenly two men on the opposite side of the road coming from the border. We could only assume that these were border guards. But we were really lucky. It was my youth leader from Filipovo, who had already repeatedly crossed the border. Now he returned again in order to go to Filipovo to remove the youth group banner from the church and take it to Austria.(it is presently kept in Vienna) .He explained to us the way, and we could continue. Around 10 o’clock we came close to the border. From a distance we could hear dogs bark and a soldier singing. Just as we came to the border, the fog lifted. Over us appeared stars again, but on both sides on the ground there lay quite dense fog. With an anxious heart we crossed the border and came, around 11 o’clock, to the first Hungarian village. There I went into the parsonage and remained there until the following morning. Then I reported to the Hungarian authorities.
I did not have to go to a refugee camp, but could live in the parsonage of my fellow student colleagues. . One week before Christmas, I traveled by train through Hungary, and came to the Austrian border and was allowed to cross it the following day after some difficulties.
(Editor’s Note: The below narrative is a chapter from the book, “Winzig, Germany, 1933-1946: The History of a Town under the Third Reich, by Rita S. Botwinick, Praeger, Westport , Connecticut and London, 1992. This chapter relates the fate of the people in Winzig, a small farming town in Middle Silesia, under attack by the Red Army in the waning days of the Second World War, their flight to the West and the subsequent Soviet and Polish occupation culminating in the expulsion of its inhabitants to Western Germany.)
The Death of Winzig
Germany’s declaration of war against Poland was accepted in Winzig with neither surprise nor enthusiasm. Mobile units of the army had rolled through the town since the late summer of 1939, and the Propaganda Ministry had tried in vain to stir up some patriotic passion. For several months preparations for the prospect of war had been in progress. Ration books for food, gasoline, and other essentials had been distributed, and blackout drills were practiced routinely. The entire economy was geared up for war production, and finally, the armed forces were placed on alert. Most of the Silesian people were nervous about the chances of a Polish breakthrough. The Polish border, after all, was not more than an hour or two away. Was a breakthrough by the Polish army a possibility? No one dared to voice this fear in public. When victory over Poland was achieved within a mere three weeks of fighting, the people of Winzig shared in a general sigh of relief. But even then there was no jubilation. The declaration of war by France and England spoiled the hopes of a “little war,” and like families everywhere, Winzigers dreaded the predictable slaughter. One of Winzig’s own, the oldest of the Scholz boys, had served in the army in the Warsaw area. When he came home on leave, he presented his mother with a sewing machine and a fur coat that was almost, but not quite, spoiled by a bullet hole in the back. Neighbors came to admire such fine gifts and tried to hide their envy. It would be no problem at all to sew
up that little puncture.
The great victories of 1940, culminating in the defeat of France, though thrilling and gratifying, could not appease the disquieting remembrances of World War 1. Hadn’t their armies then won many great battles and in the end lost the war? There could be no rejoicing until the nation was at peace and the soldiers were home once again. In the meantime, there was much work for everyone, because only the best of everything was good enough for the men at the front. Winzigers, like most Germans, experienced no great privations until the winter of 1943-44. During the first four years after the fall of Poland, there were personal tragedies, of course. Sons and husbands were killed, and there was great weariness, sometimes exhaustion, as the demands upon the civilian population grew ever more burdensome. However, the rhythm of life on the land remained basically unaltered. Unlike the victims of the countries they conquered, the German people experienced no brutalization, no starvation, no enslavement. Until the bombing raids of the Allies brought death and terror to the cities, life was tolerable, even though the hours of work were stretched to the limit and sometimes beyond. On the farms, children and the elderly lost the luxury of play and rest and women were more visible in the fields. In their clumsy shoes and full skirts, their hair tied back with cotton kerchiefs, they plowed and reaped like men. During 1943 foreigners, more precisely slave laborers, from the subjugated nations began to arrive in the region. Notwithstanding international law, some prisoners of war were also pressed into service to support the German war economy. Polish, Soviet, and French workers
were distributed among the shorthanded farmers and large estate owners. It is safe to assume that, for the most part, these unwilling “guests” of the Reich had a better chance to survive than the families they left behind. They ate and slept in quarters provided by their employers, for very little or no payment at all. Individual treatment varied from generous to contemptible, according to the disposition of their masters. In the absence of any young or even middle-aged German men, rumors were rife that some of Winzig’s maidens found some of the foreigners quite appealing.
Allied air raids caused another change in the life of a small Silesian towns and villages. The increased frequency and intensity of the bombings of larger cities produced a major population shift. Women and children were evacuated from urban centers to. rural areas. Silesia was considered a particularly safe haven. Between 1939 and 1943 its population increased by 232,000. In addition to strangers sent by government-organized transports, relatives and friends of Winzigers sought refuge from aerial attacks in many small towns. Every spare room in hotels and private homes was occupied by new faces. The hospital, too, was enlisted for special duty. As Breslau’s medical facilities were overstrained with war wounded, long-care patients were distributed in the countryside. For example, the Catholic nursing sisters of Winzig’s hospital were assigned some forty patients suffering from tuberculosis.
The presumption that the eastern region of the nation was secure ended abruptly with the Soviet counteroffensive of 1944. Suddenly the distance to the eastern front was shrinking with every news bulletin. Even the most sanguine observers saw that the westerly progression of the Red armies was aimed at the Reich itself and that German arms were unable to stem their advance. More than ever, Joseph Goebbels’s assurances of German invincibility had a hollow ring. The entire military situation was failing in the east and the west. The seams of the Thousand- Year Reich were splitting open. Italy fell, Normandy was invaded, and air attacks became routine. Defeat, a word the Germans had reserved for other people, was rediscovered in silence and in fear. When the specter of military collapse loomed as a distinct possibility, an attempt was made on Hitler’s life. On July 20, 1944, a small faction of army officers, in association with several civilians, tried and failed to assassinate Hitler. The fuehrer, who had become a half-mad caricature of his former self, nevertheless was still capable of unleashing his fury. One hundred and fifty officers .were executed immediately, and when his killers had completed their hunt, several thousand Germans were murdered, often by cruel, even bizarre methods.’ The miscarriage of the plot aborted the hope for an immediate armistice. The war would go on until total defeat.
The eagerness of the Gestapo and SS to carry out Hitler’s orders and assassinate such men as the renowned General Rommel confirmed the weakness of the anti-Nazis. Today’s Germans have elevated the plot to be a symbol of protest against the Nazis. It is depressingly true, however, that the German people failed to use this opportunity to overthrow the regime. The destruction would continue into the very heart of Berlin. And it is also true that the conspiracy was a result of Hitler’s mismanagement of the war rather then revulsion with the atrocities committed by Germans throughout the length and breadth of Europe. So the plotters and many who had no part in the scheme, were hung from meat hooks with piano wires. But the German people did not rise up. Not then, not ever! Even in defeat, the Nazis could still count on obedience from the very people they had so shamefully and shamelessly betrayed.
The debacle of July 20 underlined the grim consequences of waging war against the Nazis from within. A number of elements combined to prevent the conversion of anti-Nazi conviction into successful anti-Nazi action. Fear, of course, played the primary role and the events following July 20 confirmed the legitimacy of that fear. In 1944, after four years of war, physical and mental exhaustion were also taking a heavy toll; people just hoped to get through another day. Deeply rooted ideals of loyalty, obedience, and patriotism incapacitated others. The fanatical loyalty to Hitler of men who would lose everything if Hitler fell paralyzed opposition from within the Nazi hierarchy. There simply was no one except Hitler to command the center of the stage.
As Allied military forces pushed toward the German center from east and west, Goebbels, Hitler’s ever-faithful slave, was promoted. His newest and final designation was that of “Plenipotentiary for the Winning of the War.” With that title came great power. The entire Nazi party machinery was at his disposal to attempt to stop or impede the Allied invasion forces once they were on German soil. Critical decisions concerning production, distribution, and allocation of materials were now within his prerogative. He had become a warlord whose domain theoretically exceeded, and actually often conflicted with, military determinations. Goebbels gave the Gauleiters, administrative party hacks, the power to determine when civilians in their districts could be evacuated to escape the invading armies of the Allies. These men were politicians who based their decisions on falsely optimistic propaganda rather than military or humanitarian considerations. In the final weeks of the war, the fate of hundreds of thousands of Germans would be in their generally inept hands, adding immeasurably to the misery of the people caught between two opposing armies.
The German forces were unable to halt the advancing Soviets. In an act of desperation, Goebbels called out the Volkssturm. Men between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five who were not already in uniform were mobilized into this paramilitary service. Exemptions granted earlier were revoked, nor were disabilities allowed to disqualify anyone. The party, through its civilian Gauleiters, controlled the Volkssturm. Some of these units of boys, older men, and the physically impaired, were commanded by SS officers, and a few were attached to retreating army units. Goebbels declared that these defenders constituted a human wall that would protect the frontiers. In Silesia, several components of this human wall served with General Glaeser’s Fourth Panzer Army. Other units were ordered to dig ditches, presumably to prevent General Konev’s First Ukrainian Army from breaking through.’ The directive to remove the remaining men from the civilian population for such absurd work seems, at first glance, a pathetic gesture, but on further consideration this was a particularly cruel blow. At the very time that the evacuation of the region was imminent, women and children were deprived of the moral and physical support of men.
The front moved inexorably closer to Winzig as 1944 neared its conclusion. The Soviet offensive stabilized temporarily along the Vistula River in mid-October. From this region the Nazis had forcibly ejected many thousands of Polish landowners, settling German families in their place. Now these Germans were put to flight, seeking refuge within the boundaries of the old Reich. As they streamed westward, they described their terrifying encounters with Soviet troops. For years Nazi propaganda had promoted dread of the “uncivilized hordes” from the East. But this was different: these were actual victims reciting in agonizing detail murders, rapes, arson and the roundup of the able bodied for slave labor. As groups of fleeing women and children passed through eastern Germany, fear intensified for the Germans awaiting permission to escape from the path of the invaders. Unless and until the Gauleiter issued the decree of evacuation, they were trapped.
Despite the clear and shocking evidence that Soviet troops were hammering at the gates of the nation, it was a crime to speak of, or prepare for, flight. Instead of planning for the obvious, the Gauleiters still clung to the unrealistic promises of their leaders. Events in Gau Wartheland in western Poland· were a prologue for the disaster to come. That Gauleiter’s fear of offending his Nazi superiors caused 674,000 Germans to be caught in the middle of the fighting. The civilians in the area were ground between the German and Soviet armies, and thousands of people died needlessly.
The myth that the fatherland was inviolate died hard. Wishful thinking kept alive the expectation that the Fuehrer would, at any moment, unveil the secret weapon that would end the war. Reports of serious contention among the Allies cropped up from time to time and fanned a glimmer of hope for an early peace. Even the notion that the total exhaustion of men and material on all sides would bring an end to the slaughter found disciples. Surely, so folk wisdom asserted, the fighting would stop before it reached German soil, just as it had during World War I. Only in nightmares did the possibility
of invasion take form.
The town of Winzig was located on the east side of the Oder. It was a generally accepted understanding that if the unthinkable happened, then the Oder River would serve as the last fixed barrier against Soviet troops. What, then, was to be the fate of the German population on the east side of the Oder? Because the mere raising of such a question was treasonable and because the government maintained its policy of deceptive platitudes, no solution was offered.
The Soviet offensive crossed into Germany in January 1945. By the end of the month, all the territory east
of the Oder was captured, with little German opposition. General Zhukov crossed the Oder with 180
divisions during his thrust toward Berlin. General Konev, to Zhukov’s south, advanced into Silesia.
The Oder bridgehead at Steinau, a few miles from Winzig, was in Soviet hands on the twenty-third.
The German High Command ordered the destruction of the bridge, but General Nehring’s Twenty-fourth
Panzer Corps and von Sauken’s Grossdeutschland Army were unable to retake the position. With the exception
of the fierce battle for Breslau, the only significant struggle between the German and Soviet forces
in this sector took place in Steinau. The great expectations of Nehring’s army, his so-called wandernde Kessel,
or movable fortress, remained unfulfilled. His was a paper army composed of remnants and survivors of
other decimated or exhausted units. Even when Nehring was reinforced by von Sauken, he was unable to
carry out his orders to stem the Soviets at Glogau. His momentary resistance at a site not far from Winzig
changed nothing in the overall history of the war. While German soldiers, still obedient to their officers,
were vainly trying to follow impossible commands, conditions for noncombatants were deteriorating rapidly.
The winter of 1944-45 was an exceptionally cold one. Refugees from the combat zones struggled westward amid bullets from friend and foe. Snow and ice and contradictory official directives compounded their trauma. The anguish that the Nazis had visited upon millions of Europeans had turned like a boomerang to strike at German faces, but they were the faces of the old, of women and children. Streams of refugees pushed west in horse-drawn wagons, loaded with a few treasured belongings and the all- important bales of hay. The able-bodied walked to ease the burden for the horses because the death of a horse would often forecast the death of the owner.
Father Willinek, Winzig’s Catholic priest, left us a picture of Winzig during those weeks:
Never to be forgotten is the image of the endless flow of the dispossessed from the eastern provinces. They entered Winzig from Herrnstaedter Street, their caravans almost silent in the thick snow as they moved toward the Ring. Then their trek to they knew not where turned into Wohlauer Vorstadt, winding its way to Steinauer Strasse, toward the Oder and its bridges. Alas, these refugees often found a momentary happy respite in the deserted homes of our townspeople who had moved northward on Saturday or Sunday. For a few hours their houses came to life. Stoves were lit, food that had been left behind was cooked, and the homeless children found toys that gave them a temporary illusion of safety.
For how long would these wanderers keep the goods they carried in their wagons? … their draft horses tired, items were pulled off and ended up in the ditches along the road.
The fighting front was mere hours away, and still the order to evacuate was not given. Gauleiter Karl Hanke of Lower Silesia was still trying to prove his faith in the fuehrer by refusing to organize, or even to permit, an orderly withdrawal of the population. The brief hope that the “magical” General Schoerner could provide the miracle of holding back the Red Army had no substance. The plan to make a stand along the Oder disintegrated, and by the end of January all of Silesia was in Soviet hands. General Konev crossed the river and pushed north and west toward Berlin. Silesia’s civilians were among the approximately 5 million Germans left to fend for themselves as the Soviet forces advanced. German scholars have amassed volumes of documents on their fate. Among these records, the fate of the people from Winzig is but a single note in a mournful chorus. The figures listed below are admittedly approximations, due to the chaotic conditions of the flight:
German population of Silesia at the beginning of 1945 4,700,000
Remained behind or overtaken along the way 1,500,000
Fled to Czechoslovakia 1,600,000
Fled to Reich territory: Saxony, Thuringia, Bavaria 1,600,000
Fugitives from Silesia had better chances of escaping the war zone than their counterparts from the northern regions of eastern Germany. The Silesian-Czech border remained open, while Pomeranians, East Prussians, and West Prussians found
their routes toward the center of the Reich blocked by the Soviet armies. Winzigers, like most refugees from Middle and Upper Silesia, trekked south into the Sudetenland. Although the Czechs could hardly be expected to welcome them with open arms, the area accorded them relative safety.
Eastern Silesians, that is, Silesians living on the east side of the Oder, totaled approximately 700,000 people. Of that number, about 600,000 were in flight during a four or five day period in January of 1945. Although the most terrifying danger, entrapment in the midst of battle; was not commonly encountered by these groups, the flight was a test of physical and emotional endurance. Several factors combined to challenge even the most intrepid of the refugees:
- The winter of 1945 was a particularly harsh one.
- Political expedience delayed the proclamation of evacuation orders; in some cases such orders were never issued.
- Transportation facilities, particularly trains, were unable to handle the numbers clamoring for service.
- The absence of men placed extraordinary burdens on the women.
- The general confusion was further compromised by the lack, or inadequacy, of official instructions.
A typical directive to evacuate read as follows:
Attention! Fellow Citizens! The situation makes it necessary to depart. The population has two choices of transportation. Citizens can use their own vehicles or use the special trains that will leave at specified intervals. The first train is for mothers and their children under six years old; the next train is for pregnant women and the seriously wounded war casualties. Next the elderly and their companions may leave. Following that a special train for mothers with older children will be provided. Lastly, all others except members of the Volkssturm, that is, males between the ages of sixteen and sixty, may depart.
What to take: the minimum of necessities weighing not more than twenty-five kilos excluding bedding. Take eating utensils and warm clothing. Children must wear name tags for identification. Remain quiet and orderly and help one another.
The most cursory examination of the order revealed its flaws. What mother would be separated from her children? What was the destination of the various trains? Who qualified as a companion for an elderly person? Would there be food, shelter and medical care during and at the end of the journey? Railroad tracks as well as the stations were frequently under enemy attack; therefore, only those who had no other means of transport trusted their lives to the trains. But most tragic was the fact that very few trains were still running. Most people assembled at designated points and waited in vain.
Winzig’s farmers owned horses and wagons, and for the most part they followed the general regional pattern of heading west and south. Those without their own means of transportation had no choice but to try their luck with the railroad. Cars were useless. There was no gasoline for private citizens. In later years a number of townspeople recorded the experiences of their flight for a small publication, called Heimatklaenge, a newsletter by and for Winzigers in exile. Father Willinek led the effort to give a sense of continuity to his former congregation and their neighbors through his “Sounds from Home.” Its pages provided an outlet for a common sense of loss and gave voice to the dream to return
to the good old years of the past. Friends who were separated since the flight found one another and shared their memories. Two individual histories concerning the escape from Winzig first published in the Heimatklaenge are offered here. The first article was written by Father Willinek, the second one by Elfriede Matschke, the wife of a farmer near the Vorstadt. Their stories are representative of the fate of hundreds of thousands of Silesians during the last days of January 1945.
Father Willinek’s last day in Winzig was indeed harrowing. What solace could he offer his distraught parishioners? No one knew what lay ahead. And yet, he was more fortunate than thousands of others who also had no private means of transportation and were forced to escape on foot. When it was obvious that the government could not provide transport, these unfortunates, with their children and a few possessions in their arms, streamed westward in the snow of mid-winter.
The father described his departure as follows:
I was at breakfast with members of my family on Saturday, January 20, 1945, when the merchant
Franz Heinse entered. With obvious excitement he reported that the immediate evacuation of
women and children had been ordered. The news was like a thunderbolt. By a twist of the hand of
fate our accustomed way of life, our usual order, our whole culture was ended. Even though we
had been burdened with the war and had feared for our safety under the Nazis, there was still
meaning to our lives. With a minimum of time we were ordered to look through our possessions and
select the few things of value to be taken along. Each family had to part with many things that
normally enrich one’s life.
The order to leave suddenly changed the relationship between worker and employer. No master could assume responsibility for his workers anymore. Farmers could not continue to care for the livestock in their barns. Fortunate indeed were the employers who could count on aid and advice from their workers and share with them the expulsion. The true meaning of evacuation was, after all, expulsion. How strange! About eight days before the evacuation order was issued, a master baker in our vicinity was arrested because he advised someone to pack his bags. He was charged with defeatism. It was also interesting that several of the big shots had already disappeared with bag and baggage before the ordinary citizen was permitted to leave. It had been carefully explained to me by the mayor (Lang) that I too must leave when the town administrators depart. Only the Volkssturm was to remain behind. During the night of January 23, however, when my sister and I went to the train, I saw no Volkssturm. What we did find were hundreds of fellow sufferers and a single railroad employee. We all followed with great anxiety his hours of pleading with the authorities to finally secure a train. No doubt that man was responsible for getting us out of town. Oh, my, what promises had been made by the Nazis during the last three days.
Those still in Winzig on January 22 should assemble at the Ring. Army transport would remove everyone. No transport came, not even for the hospital and its women and girls suffering from lung diseases. In the evening an army vehicle finally arrived for the bedridden patients. They were taken to Lueben, where their particular fate was sealed and they were forever free of concern over their future. [According to Father Willinek, the patients were set upon the ground in a
field and then shot to death].
We were told that Silesia would not be given up by the army, not even the right bank of the Oder River. In fourteen days we would all be permitted to return. Our evacuation was a temporary military necessity; that is what I was told at the town hall on January 21. ..
Those were turbulent days. The ever–increasing demands made on me were sometimes too much for me; I freely make that admission.
To those who today criticize, sometimes vociferously, the action of the people, to them I can only say: If you were not in a position of responsibility toward others and yourself, if you were not called upon to make hurried decisions, then you cannot sit in judgment today without being suspected of hypocrisy. Even historians will do well not to make judgments except in the light of the circumstances of that time.
Several of our fellow sufferers in Winzig managed to evade the order to leave. These were mainly elderly people who did not believe themselves well enough to withstand the hardships of flight. Perhaps they were confident that their politically pure hearts would earn them mercy at the hands of the victors. They gambled for high stakes, health, safety, life itself.
I do not know how many of those who remained behind survived the onslaught. But I do know that in those January days the following suffered a quick though painful death: Mr. Schoepe and daughter, Miss Zapke, Mr. Danke, the two sisters Polaski, Dr. Loele,
his wife and their housekeeper. The list is incomplete. It does not include the many who died during the flight, nor those who perished in the final exodus ordered by the Poles.”
The Winzigers who had milled about the open railroad platform were able to board the train secured by that single heroic railway employee. They headed west, first stopping in Liegnitz, then progressing deeper into central and western Germany. Most of the families who fled by train remained in
the same general area. The last stop of the train was a new beginning for many Silesians. There, however, they were outsiders, intruders in the towns and villages of their resettlement. The local western Germans accepted them with a full gamut of responses, from outright hostility to sympathetic
understanding. But they survived.
The fate of many of Winzig’s farmers took a very different turn. Since they owned horses and wagons, they generally opted to flee with their teams, individually or in small groups. The wagon made it possible to take essential but bulky items such as featherbeds, pots, and pans and perhaps some family
treasures. The intent and hope of these trekkers was, first, to get out of the battle area. Second, since the initial wave of Soviet soldiers would surely vent their fury on the German population, it would be best to await events in Czechoslovakia. Finally, when some sort of provisional government was in
place, they would return. They hoped the horses would survive and they would be back in time for the spring plowing. Perhaps even some of the livestock they released into the woods might pull through. •
Elfriede Matschke was one of the thousands of women who had to make the fateful decisions of that last January of the war. The men in the family had been claimed by the government. Her farm was just outside of Winzig in the hamlet of Froeschen. She described her ordeal as follows:
On January 23 at noon my dear mother and I were the last to leave Froeschen. I drove through Brunnwiese, Krischwitz, from there to Wischitetz, Krehlau, and on to Steinau. There I crossed the Oder. By then it was evening and I did not know which way to turn. Where could I go? I decided to go to Lampersdorf …. There we spent the night in a cow barn. On the 24th Liegnitz. .. We stayed there until February 7. The Russians were approaching. We moved on toward Kossendau, where we remained until the 11. But there we had to hurry; the Russians were shooting over our
heads. On to Goldberg and heading for Neukirch.
We were now encountering our first mountains. My wagon had no brakes at all. That caused a dangerous situation. We arrived in Neukirch in the evening and spent a terrifying night.
On February 12 it was rumored that the Russians were about to arrive. Here, in Neukirch, we tended our first wounded. We moved on at four in the afternoon. The German army was always alongside on the road, overtaking us. At nightfall, in Rosenau, it was again said that the Russians were on the way. Next morning, despite the snow, we pushed on until we reached Schoen au and the Hohenliebenthal. We remained there until the 5, but we were refused provisions. We moved on again, through the Johannes Valley and over the Kappellen Mountain. All without brakes. Dreadful, it was dreadful!
When we arrived in Berbelsdorf my horse became very ill. Some of our soldiers were very helpful. The roads had become very icy. We stayed until the 12 of March and then moved on to Herischdorf. We stayed for two days but were quartered in two different places in that brief time. We always slept in the wagon. Our journey now proceeded to Voigsdorf. There I was called to stand horse muster.”
One of the horses kicked my hand. My injury was quite severe. But fortunately I was allowed to
keep my horse. And that was very, very important. My bay mare was, however, still ailing. I treated her every day as best I could without medication. While in Voigsdorf, I had to report for work on the defense bulwarks in order to get feed for my horse. In the morning I worked alone, in the afternoon I had to report with my horse.
We stayed in this town until the armistice. That day we fled, but the Russians sent us “home.” That meant Voigsdorf. The events of that day cannot be described. I could never live through another day like it.”
Elfriede had been in flight for over three months. She had no difficulty recording, in her matter-of-fact style, the details of her ordeal, all except her first encounter with Soviet soldiers. She had not forgotten; she simply could not relive the pain by committing it to paper. Certainly she cannot be blamed for the need to spare herself, but the chronicler of the history of Winzig cannot be granted such leave. The events concerning the entrance of Soviet troops into Winzig are an essential part of that history. The record of the Russian troops as they crossed into German lands constitutes a harsh indictment. But the judgment of history must be tempered by understanding. It is too facile to simply say that actions speak for themselves, because that would give an incomplete picture. The results
must not be too far removed from their causes. The crimes committed by Soviet military personnel must not be viewed out of context. And the context consists of unspeakable atrocities committed by the Germans in the Soviet Union. Upon crossing into German soil, the rage of many Soviet soldiers was unchained in an orgy of hatred. Everything German was abhorrent. Every German was responsible for the war. Always illogical, revenge is a powerful propellant toward ignoble action. And there was much to avenge. The Soviet Union suffered greater losses in the war than all other participants, Allied and Axis, combined.
Not all Winzigers obeyed the order to evacuate. About thirty refused to leave their homes. Most of them were old and sick. Fear of the unknown dangers of the open road was greater than their fear of the Soviets. The circumstances concerning Dr. Loeie, his wife, and their young housekeeper,
however, were extraordinary. The doctor believed that his professional services would be useful to friend as well as foe and would grant him immunity from harm. Since his anti-Nazi politics were well known in the community, he persuaded himself that the Soviets would value his skill and his life. On
the evening before the first Soviet soldiers stormed into town, the doctor discussed his rationale with Hugo Kliem, on old friend who had also decided to ignore the command to evacuate. During that last meeting between the two men, Dr. Loele referred to the poisons so neatly arranged in his medical supply cabinet. As a last resort, suicide, quick and painless, was his final option,
Hugo s tiny, wizened wife was too ill to travel, so the couple remained in their house on the Vorstadt, Kliem survived the first onslaught of enemy troops and provided a firsthand account of the confrontation between the remnant of Winzigers and a segment of Konev’s army. A paraphrased synopsis of Hugo’s narration follows:
There were no German soldiers around Winzig when a detachment of Konev’s army entered on January 23. The nearest battle was around the Oder bridge in Steinau. Although the civilians huddling in their homes posed no threat to the invaders, the Soviet troops either did not realize this or did not care. Twelve of the residents were killed, probably on the first day of occupation. It was never known whether the shootings were ordered by officers or were carried out by soldiers who acted on their own. It is safe to assume that none of the old and sick Winzigers provoked the wrath of the invaders. It is reasonable, but by no means certain, that members of the Red Army killed the civilians in acts of individual violence. It was Kliem‘s clear impression that the shootings were done without fear of reprimand or court-martial; no inquiry was made to ascertain the facts surrounding the deaths. Something about Kliem, perhaps his white beard and defiant attitude, must have impressed the Soviet captain in charge. With the aid of his translator, he questioned Kliem concerning his political views. Apparently the captain was satisfied, because he settled down in Kliem‘s house and made it his temporary headquarters. Kliem and his wife were allotted one room for their use and were not molested by the soldiers. As thousands of Germans in
occupied eastern Germany were to learn very soon, the protection of an officer was essential in
the prevention of multiple rapes and in the preservation of life itself during the chaotic first days
and weeks of occupation.
Kliem worried about the Loeies. He needed to see for himself how they fared during the first
days of occupation. When he walked through the doctor’s front door, his heart grew heavy in his
chest. The always immaculate stairway was muddied from many boots. In the doctor’s waiting
room the furniture had been smashed. Then he saw three bodies sprawled in the surgery. Hugo
Kliem wept as he straightened the widespread legs of the dead women. From the expression on
the faces of his friends, he assumed that they had taken their own lives. The rapes had been
committed upon corpses.”
Kliem feared that the bodies of the two women might still be used by Soviet soldiers, and the
thought haunted him. He was old and very weak, but driven by the terrible images in his
mind, he went back to the Loe1es’ house several nights after his first gruesome discovery. He took
with him a spade and‘ small handcart, the kind he had used to deliver milk to the creamery in
another lifetime. One by one he dragged the stiffened bodies down the narrow staircase, heaved
them onto the cart, and pulled his dismal load to the cemetery. The ground was frozen and Kliem
was exhausted but he would not abandon his task until he had scratched a shallow grave for his
The livestock left behind by the fleeing farmers was slaughtered by the Soviets. Even Kliem could
not persuade his captain to spare his animals. Some of the cattle were used to feed the troops but
much of the butchering was senseless. The intent was clear; destroy the means of future German
survival. That meant that later waves of Soviet troops soon would find the larder empty.
Winzig as well as many other Silesian towns was not occupied by a permanent command. Rather
they were used as brief way-stations for the masses of soldiers moving west. Each incoming
group plundered the homes and barns until nothing was left. As new officers commanded the
local scene, different rules and regulations applied to the civilians. Kliem and his
wife were banned to a small, unheated attic room of their house, other Winzigers were driven
entirely from their homes. Beatings were commonplace, and no woman, regardless of age
or appearance, dared to show herself.
Close upon the heels of the regular army, Winzig was invaded by an army of a different sort. Kliem
called them joygirls and noted that among them many different nationalities were represented. He
judged them severely, but we know nothing of the circumstances that caused these women to
become camp followers and will refrain from any judgment. Apparently protected by the Soviet
soldiers, they made themselves at home in Winzig’s bedrooms and kitchens and remained as long
as there were soldiers interested in their services.
On the 28 of January the fires began. Most of the houses around the Ring and the city hail burned
to the ground. Fires also leveled much of the Vorstadt and the Bahnhofstrasse, as well as the
hospital. Within a few weeks, ninety-four buildings were reduced to ashes. Kliem believed that the
men of The Red Army committed deliberate arson. Other survivors blamed the careless disregard
for safety with which the soldiers built fires to keep warm.” Perhaps both points of view contain some truth.
In the irrationality of war, the public utilities were destroyed. For years to come Winzig would be without electricity and without running water or gas. Neither the skilled manpower nor the necessary equipment would be available for decades in order to repair the damage. Some of the people of Winzig who had heeded the evacuation order were unwilling to travel very far from town. They had no destinations in mind and hid wherever they could when the Red Army was near. For weeks or months they crisscrossed the familiar terrain, sleeping in barns and sometimes in the dense woods. The home and land they had abandoned exerted upon them a magnetic force, keeping them wandering within a well-defined orbit. Alois Stiller, a farmer from the Vorstadt, stayed within fifty kilometers of his house. Unfit for military duty because of an immense hernia that spilled over his trousers down to his knees, he left just ahead of the Soviets. After several weeks alone or among strangers, he decided in February to return. Did his house and barns still stand? Had any cattle survived? Of course, it was dangerous to be back on the road, but even his horse and wagon seemed propelled by his longing for home.
Alois was among the first of a streamlet of Winzigers who filtered back that winter and early spring. They expected to reestablish some form of their accustomed life of hard work and deprivations. But they would be on their own soil. Whatever the hopes of the returnees, they quickly turned into
disillusionment. The Winzigers arrived in a state of shock from the hardships of the flight only to find that they owned absolutely nothing. All property left behind had been confiscated by the Soviet military authority. Furthermore, the returnees’ very existence depended on the willingness of the occupation forces to let them live, to permit them to dig for the half frozen potatoes they ate that winter and be housed in the sheds and huts assigned to them. Each new arrival was greeted with
bittersweet joy, to be educated at once to the realities of life as a conquered people. Alois recounted that, despite the hunger, cold and the constant insecurity, the growing band of Winzigers shared their stories, food, and clothing with unforgettable comraderie.
The Germans who had lived through the Red Army invasion generally viewed the Soviets en masse as objects of hate and fear. It was simpler, more comfortable to apply the broadest stroke of the brush; “they” were uncivilized brutes. To admit that individual Soviet soldiers differed widely in character and behavior required the capacity to reject blind hatred and sweeping judgments. No doubt it was difficult for survivors of the first breakthrough of the Red Army to credit any of the invaders with humanitarian acts. But such acts of kindness were performed. Alois Stiller gave the following testimony:
When the evacuation was ordered, Frau Sirp, an elderly woman, had been unable to leave home. When she heard shots being fired, she ran hysterically into the fields, where she collapsed. Russian soldiers found her nearly frozen to death. They turned her over’ to their
medics who nursed her back to health.
Soviet control of German territory east of the Oder-Neisse line was short-lived. In the ensuing months the region was gradually turned over to Polish authorities. In the case of Winzig, Poles were given official control on May 22, 1945. Actually, both Soviets and Poles formed a joint administration
until the late summer. Other Silesian towns experienced the substitution of command somewhat earlier as well as later in 1945.
Several generalizations concerning the months of Soviet occupation emerge from the abundance of eyewitness reports.
- The first impact of the invading troops was the most dangerous moment for the population. Civilians were shot; property was destroyed without pattern, plan, or purpose. Although looting was common, only small items, such as watches, were carried away by the soldiers. Larger items soon had to be abandoned along the road during the westerly movements of the troops.
- Women were raped without concern or consideration for age or appearance. Many victims felt that
the Soviet troops treated such sexual abuse as a victor’s justly earned prerogative. In Winzig, three
women who sought refuge in the ruins of the house of the veterinarian, Dr. Schote, lived through months of sexual terror. Their experiences were repeated thousands of times from the border to Berlin.
3.In the occupied east the few remaining men, and in some areas even the strongest women, disappeared to do slave labor in the Soviet Union. Although the age limits for deportation differed somewhat from locality to locality, the effect was the same: only the weakest were left behind. The fate of the deported workers depended on where they were sent, what functions they performed and how their taskmasters chose to treat them. Many thousands never returned. Some were shipped as far away as Siberia. In the overcrowded trains, hunger, cold, typhoid and bloody diarrhea exacted death tolls as high as 50 percent. Those who endured were, for the most part, permitted to go home within a year or two.
In Winzig, all men under the age of seventy were scraped together for slave labor. Even the misshapen Alois Stiller was slated to go. He was saved by an amazing coincidence. A man of Russian parentage. who had lived in Winzig years ago returned to the town as a translator for the Soviets. He remembered Alois and struck his name from the deportation list.
4.A considerable number of evacuees returned to their eastern German hometowns and villages after the German surrender on May 8. These Silesians and East and West Prussians were unaware of the negotiations among the victorious powers that gave the Soviet Union a free hand in the eastern territories. For the most part, the Silesian returnees were those who had followed the southerly evacuation route to Czechoslovakia. When that area fell to the Soviet Union, they decided it was better to live in defeat at home than among the unfriendly Bohemians.
5.The Soviet occupation administrators made no appreciable effort to distinguish between Nazi and anti-Nazi Germans. All were held equally responsible for the disaster of Hitler’s regime. Clearly, those Germans who had suffered under the Nazi felt betrayed. When Polish occupation forces replaced the Soviets, this policy was continued.
6.The abuses suffered by the Silesian population cannot be attributed to military necessity. With the exception of the city of Breslau, the area fell without significant fighting. No resistance was
offered by civilians, no snipers, no refusal to obey orders. If one word could describe the state of mind of the defeated eastern Germans that word would be fear.
In May of 1945 the semi-official count of returned Winzigers was 81. A year later their number was 450. Often they came home to die. Both the Soviet and Polish administrators required hard work from the survivors in return for scant rations and inadequate shelter. The death toll from nutritional deprivation and lack of medical facilities was obviously high. The daily allotment for working adults was 300 grams of nonfat food plus 300 grams of dry bread. Children received nothing at all. Those over seventy were given provisions until July. After that, they received no more rations. When typhoid hit Winzig the mortality rate soared. Karl Schwerdtner a man well respected for a lifetime of devotion to the Lutheran church, recorded events during these disastrous months. His diary shows this entry for September 6, 1945:
We have deaths every day …. The dead are placed
into plain coffins and rolled to the cemetery in two-
wheeled carts …. Often without mourners; the old are
too weary, the young must go to work.”
Among the victims to be placed in a grave in the Protestant cemetery was Hugo Kliem’s twenty-four-year-old daughter- in-law. Her’s was one of the daily funerals during the month of September. The contagion abated in October, and it was possible to conduct the internments with some dignity. By
virtue of the single-minded Schwertdner and a sympathetic Polish commander, the devastated church was cleaned and the cows driven from the chapel in the cemetery.
The documentation of Winzigers confirmed that 1945 was their most calamitous year. Meeting the most essential, almost primitive needs for food, shelter, and medicine created over- whelming problems. Their bodies were underfed, overtired, and easy prey to illness. After the typhoid came scabies. As the months since the first breakthrough added up, unwanted babies were born to the rape victims. Especially among the young girls, the death rate due to childbirth complications was high.
In addition, the returnees had to cope with crushing emotional problems. Where were the missing members of their families? That, of course, was the overriding concern. What would become of them? Every conversation between old neighbors questioned their own and their homeland’s future. When would a peace treaty be written? How long would the occupation forces remain on German soil? Surely the pre-Nazi boundaries of Germany would be recognized.
But there were some disquieting signs. Polish families were moving onto some of the farms. They brought their tools and livestock, as if Winzig was going to be their permanent home. Many of these arrivals had been uprooted themselves. They had been forced to migrate from eastern Poland. Their land and homesteads were recently handed over to Soviet farmers. What did these population transfers mean?
By February of 1946, Polish sovereignty was complete and the Soviets withdrew from Winzig and adjoining districts. The Polish authorities demanded rent from the Winzigers living in parts of their own or someone else’s house, to be collected retroactively to July 1945. But even the most insistent tax
collector cannot exact money from people who have nothing. It was not an auspicious beginning.
Despite the political, economic, and emotional obstacles, civil life was reawakened in Winzig during the Polish interval. It centered about the church. Father Willinek had not been permitted to return from his Bavarian refuge, but the Protestant minister had made his way back. Reverend Boerner was in his
seventies and in poor health, but his resolve was strong. With the aid of Karl Schwerdtner, he restored the church and its weekly services. Since he was the only minister in the entire county, he met the needs of a widespread flock. His work was crowned in March of 1946, when the church rang with the
prayer and song of a large congregation celebrating the confirmation of forty children.
Spring gave the optimists a ray of renewed hope. Many of the 450 Germans in Winzig were permitted to return to their empty homes and overgrown gardens. Hoes, rakes, and precious seed were shared, as vegetable gardens were restored. Some of the farmers plowed and sowed their land-a remarkable effort
with scant equipment and few workers. Though there was still no mail, nor electric or gas power, no doctor or pharmacist, no school, no Catholic Church or goods in the shops, the land was there with its promise of a harvest.
There was even cause to commend the Polish authorities in their handling of the timberlands. The vicinity of Winzig had beautiful and valuable forests, and the Polish District Control reinstated the former chief forester, Guenzel, to his position. He was permitted to return to his fairy tale house in the woods and encouraged to preserve and plant in the best tradition of his profession. The eighty men of his work force were not unhappy slave laborers but were paid a decent wage. Perhaps an omen for a better future?
The answer to that question came soon enough. The farmers had often wondered who would eat the fruits of their labor. Now they knew. As soon as most of the meager harvest was in, the sword of Damocles fell upon the Silesians, the East and West Prussians, and the Pomeranians living east of the
Oder-Neisse Line. The uncertainty, the endless and conflicting rumors, were finally laid to rest. The Polish government had decided to expel the approximately 3 million returnees. From East Prussia to Upper Silesia, notices were posted: Germans must leave within a few hours or, at best, a few days.
Assembly points were designated, weight restrictions for portable personal property issued, and transportation was provided. But before boarding the trains or trucks, the expatriates were subjected to several so-called “searches for weapons” of their bundles. Actually, the Polish militia used this
opportunity to steal whatever items took their fancy.” …..arrangements had been made with the British occupation administration to receive the dispossessed into their zone of western Germany.
The day of departure for the people of Winzig was August 16, 1946. With so few possessions, packing required little effort. Leaving the land of one’s ancestors was quite another matter. The farmers walked their familiar fields one more time. If they were left with nothing else, these memories must be
sharp and clear. The Polish newcomers, so recently ejected from their own land, understood. Several tried to express their sympathy. Then a pathetic line formed to wind its way to the railroad station. When the last of the group boarded the train, the little German town of Winzig died. In its place new maps indicate a Polish village. Its name is Winsco.
(The author was born in the small town of Winzig , now Winsko, in central Silesia. After the conquest of Poland by German troops in 1939, she and her family fled the Nazi persecution and took refuge in the United States She was sixteen years old at the time. At war’s end, her family learned of the expulsion of Germans from Silesia by the Polish government and sent CARE packages to former friends and neighbors because these refugees had nothing.. Many years later, Ms. Botwinick attended a reunion of displaced townspeople and continued to stay in touch with several. At this year’s reunion of former Winzigers, she found signs of a growing relationship between Poles and Germans who share a mutual interest in their former and present homes. Ms. Botwinick has taught European history for more than 50 years and is delighted to be part of “Hands Across the Border”, played out at this moment. )
THE FLIGHT ACROSS THREE BORDERS
by Hubert E. Kostron (Whitestone, NY)
It was May 9, 1949, the war had ended and by morning the Russians had reached our village of Herautz, District of Hohenstadt in northern Moravia. Immediately our horses were taken from the stable and hitched to the Russians’ wagons; several days later the cattle from the entire village were driven to the railroad station. The women always had to remain out of sight lest they be violated, but the worst was to occur when the Czechs arrived at which time all German properties were confiscated. Our farm was one of the
first to be seized. We three, my mother, Paula Kostron nee Rotter, my seven-year-old brother Erhart and I could retain one room for which we had to work in the fields. My father had not lived to experience this catastrophe.
After the harvest I, now sixteen years of age, was sent to a slave labor camp in Aussee, Moravia where I , with about thirty other men, worked in an iron mine. My mother, in the meantime was able to move in with her brother. The labor was difficult and the accommodations poor. To my advantage, I could speak Czech fluently and was therefore assigned to a group of Czech piecework laborers. They often brought me some food in the mine thus enabling me to maintain my strength on the job.
After several months we heard that the camp would perhaps be closed but no one knew where we would be sent. I feared that it could possibly be the camp in Moravia where conditions were particularly bad. I had become good friends with Walter Wollmann from Hohenstadt, whom I could trust, and together we began talking about flight. Naturally this involved great risk as we considered our options: (1) Silesia into Polish
territory was the nearest, (2) Austria via southern Moravia or (3) Bavaria through Czech-controlled Bohemia which was the furthest and the borders too well patrolled. After due consideration, we opted for Silesia.
Our camp had earlier been a school building located on the side of a mountain with the cellar in back and entirely aboveground. There an exit through a window and down the lightning rod wiring was the only possible route of escape from the house. During one night from Saturday to Sunday we took off with me leading the way and Walter immediately in back of me. Fortunately snow was still on the ground, cushioning our landing a bit. On a cloudy night we crossed snow-covered fields and meadows running
parallel to the street in the direction of Schildberg and after about five hours reached my uncle Franz Kostron’s farm where we hid under the straw in the pigsty. In the morning, when my cousin Herta Janisch nee Kostron came in to feed the pigs and I was certain the coast was clear, I addressed her. Fortunately she recognized my voice, otherwise she would have possibly have been frightened and run out.
The next evening we continued on to Herautz, my hometown. My cousin had notified her mother who met us at the cemetery from where she went with us to her brother, my uncle Rudolf Rotter. Later she prepared a meal for us and also gave us some food to take with us on our way. We then continued along forest paths to Rothwasser in Moravia to my classmate, Gerhard Kuttich (“Kuttich Bauer”). His farm, located partially up a mountain and closer to the forest, had not yet been occupied by the Czechs. Gerhard was also in a
labor camp but his mother and sister let us in. Here we spent the rest of the evening and the next day. The following evening we continued to the border. With the town of Grulich to the right, we proceeded in the direction of Nieder Lipka near the train station, beyond which lay the border. From a small hill we could already see the lights; fortunately it was cloudy and dark, thus enabling us to circumvent the Czech
customs’ house without being observed.
We likewise avoided detection at the Polish customs’ house. Now we were not only at a state boundary but also at a strategic watershed. To our right lay Schneeberg with the source of the March River to the south and that of the Neisse in Glatz to the north. To the left behind the mountains are the two sources of the Adler River, which flow into the Elbe with tributaries eventually feeding into the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
Our thoughts, revolved around our next lodging. The clouds had dissipated a bit and one could again better see the houses and feel the cool wind from the north against our faces. Finding accommodations for the night, however, proved unsuccessful so we tried our luck as intruders as we slipped through an open barn door and hid under the hay.
In the morning we heard the voices of Poles at their stable work and waited until all had gone for breakfast before we slipped away. After walking for more than an hour, we reached a railroad station and there boarded a train to Glatz. We had German currency (Reichsmark) with us, which was still accepted. The journey from Glatz to the west was more difficult since the trains were not running on a regular schedule in addition to which there were many Poles around, even including a trainload of soldiers. Walter and I spoke
Czech with each other and asked the soldiers how we might get to Gorlitz. To our astonishment they took us as friends and let us join them. Our next goal: crossing the Neisse River! (the new border of Germany).
Russians and Poles stood guard over the only functioning bridge, which still carried traffic. At the railroad bridge the rails were only connected from one shore to the other and a mass of twisted steel planks of another bridge were lying in the water. In addition the melting snow had contributed to the river’s raging current. Here we experienced our first bad luck. As we were considering our situation, a Polish patrol passed by and took us along. Without charging us for any misdeeds, they detained us in the barracks for six
days, where we had to clean the facilities and split logs for firewood. The only advantages were the warm food and the ability to again wash properly.
On a dark rainy night after our release we managed to work our way across the damaged bridge. At first we had intended to travel in the direction ofHofbut were discouraged from doing so by knowledgeable locals, who noted that it was difficult to cross the border there. Rail connection was somewhat better than in Silesia under the Poles, so we then traveled in the direction of the Thuringian Forest with the intent to enter Bavaria from there.
In a village in theThuringian Forest near the border we found a group which included a man who had knowledge of local conditions and who offered to lead us across the border, but to no avail. Even here the rapid currents caused by the melting snow made the small streams difficult to transverse. Suddenly the Russian spotlights went on and fortunately for us we were in a hollow and in the shade. We then came to a field barn with an unlocked door, where we spent the remainder of the night.
In the morning on the return trip we were met by a Russian patrol and a lady in our group wanted to bribe them by giving them a bottle of whiskey. That was the end of the day at which time they quickly marched us to their barracks. This time it cost us three days of work as with the Poles. Walter had a letter from his brother from Austria, and as he explained to the Russians, he was an Austrian and wanted to go home. We were then separated and he could travel to his brother.
Later I met two East Prussians, father and son, and together we tried to cross the border by day at another spot via forest paths. We came to a large spruce tree lying across our path and as we were just preparing to climb through is branches, we saw the Russians about 150 meters ahead of us. Happily they did not spot us, so we crept silently through the forest in the opposite direction of the path in order later to get to the path
again. After a while I turned around at which time I got a shock: two Russians were in back of us, one of whom was kneeling and aiming his gun at us. It was only a matter of seconds before one of us could have been shot. We got a few pokes with the butt of the gun and went along with them. This, however, reinforced my belief in a guardian angel although I will never forget my fright. Again the venture cost us three days of chopping wood and cleaning.
The two East Prussians no longer want to continue, so I went on alone at night. From a distance I could hear the Russian patrol and simply went into the dark forest until they had passed, then came to a bridge with a turnpike across a small stream. Mission accomplished! I avoided the American guards by making a wide arc around them, soon came to a village, knocked at a farmer’s door and asked if I could perhaps spend the night in his small stable. The people undoubtedly felt compassion for the sixteen-year-old youth and gave me a hearty supper. Then they send me to the night watchman of a factory in the village who had a room with army cots for this purpose. The next day I took off for the refugee camp in Bamberg. Here everyone was examined and deloused. We were to be accommodated in the countryside, but I wanted to go to the vicinity of the Alps, so I traveled further to Rosenheim and there in the vicinity of Pang found work
and accommodations with a farmer. With a certificate from the local mayor I had to report to the Refugee Office in Munich. I was told: if you want to pursue agricultural work in Bavaria, you will be welcome, and on February 27, 1946 I got my authorization for residency.
After about two and one half months the postal service between Czechoslovakia and Germany was restored and I could write to my mother. Now as father I can understand how much happiness the letter must have brought her. The news traveled through the village with lightning speed. “He had achieved his goal, he is in Bavaria”!
(Narratives Nos. 1 & 2, courtesy of Hubert E. Kostron, of Whitestone, New York)