Fifty Years After

 By George Kaiser, Düsseldorf(Part Two) 

  Up until the departure of the train from Arad, I still hoped that I would be released because I was too young.  It was midnight and January 30, 1945 had begun with us packed inside the cattle car.  It was my seventeenth birthday.  I had become seventeen years old and now officially old enough to be deported.  The fact that many others were in the same position was of little comfort to me.  The way things worked out, the matter of age was actually secondary, the real issue was achieving the quota of deportees that had been set.  Only the sisters Eva and Susan Herber were released in Arad because they were ill clothed to face the gruesome winter ahead of us.  In all likelihood they had a guardian angel whose outstretched arms protected them.


  During the last call for those boarding the train the suitcase of Nikolaus Poth, the baker, called “Uncle Bäck” by everyone, went missing.  That was a hard blow for him for it meant that he had lost all of his clothes and food.  Even though this was reported to the sentry, his suitcase could not be found in the darkness.  Uncle Bäck was dependent on the kindness of his fellow villagers during the following long journey and was never abandoned by them.


  When all of the men were on the train a group of Soviet soldiers reported in.  They seemed very young to us, between 14 and 16 year olds.  They were children without parents who had been raised in Stalinist orphanages.  They wore fur coats, felt boots and thick bindings wrapped around their lower legs.  The Russian caps they wore had large earflaps and there was large red five-pointed-star sewn at the center.  They were armed with machine pistols.


  After the doors of the cattle car were locked from the outside, they took their post in the area around the braking apparatus at the far end.  These children were to be our guards on this long and tortuous journey towards uncertainty.


  Following the sound a shrill whistle the locomotive shuddered and we experienced the train getting underway.  The long endless train set out on its long endless journey, whose final destination was unknown to us.


  Some time next day our train drove into Rimnicul-Sarat, a city in Moldavia along Romania’s eastern border.  We all had to detrain here and take our luggage with us.  This was the cause of a faint glimmer of hope for we thought this meant we would remain in Romania and not be sent to work elsewhere.


  We were set up in rows and columns of men and women and were led through the city to a camp.  Our guards were to our right and left and onlookers stood on the sidewalk, most of who were men with large black hats and long flowing beards.  We were scolded and spit upon by them and some were successful in landing a good kick at one of us.  They called us Hitler’s swine and pieces of plaster and rocks were thrown at us.  Our Russian guards tried to clarify to the Jews that we were only Antonescu’s stooges, but that did not help much.  This went on all of the way to the camp and when we got to the entrance there was a hostile group awaiting us screaming, “Heil Hitler!”


  As we stepped into the camp yard we were met with the steam from huge boiling kettles.  They were filled with bean soup and smoked ham.  It was our first warm meal and we received cold rations for the next day.


  On the same day we were once again loaded into Russian cattle cars in the same groups as before.  The guards also remained the same.


  In the interior of these Russian cattle cars there were bunks set up at both ends, far too few for 82 persons assigned to the car, so that we only got to lie down on them to sleep, once every three nights.  The others spent the night sitting on their suitcases or other luggage.  There was also a tin furnace in the car, but there was no wood or anything with which to make a fire.  Beforehand, these cattle cars brought Russian soldiers westwards to the Front, but we were now traveling eastwards with them.


  Before the train got underway we heard the sound of dogs barking outside and the sound of steps on the hard frozen snow.  It was the last security check making certain that all of the doors were locked.  A salvo of shots was the signal that the security procedure had been concluded and that the train could get underway.


  On January 31st, we arrived in Iasi (the capital of Romanian Moldavia) and we were parked on a secondary track.  Next to the track was an open field, where we could relieve ourselves.  Inside the cattle car we had to form columns of men and women in order to be counted and then we had to take a step to the right and be counted again and both lists had to be handed over to the Russians by the Romanians.  During this count it was discovered that three persons were missing.  The count had to be taken several times, but the result was always the same.  We had to detrain again and an officer counted each one of us personally.  It was futile, there were still three persons missing.  Even after several warning shots our total count did not increase.  We had to board the train again.  Shortly afterwards we heard loud swearing and screams of, “Come quickly!”  The door of our car flew open and two young people, actually children, were thrown inside.  They were siblings, the boy was about twelve and the girl was fourteen and they said that they were Italian.   Right afterwards an older man was lifted up into the car because he was unable to do so alone.  He had a long flowing white beard.  He was a Romanian railway worker and was called Vitovsky and spoke German quite well.  The two children were sent home about a month later on a military train.


  We received food to eat at Iasi, it would be the last meal we would eat in Romania:  a sentry opened the door of the cattle car and ordered that two men get off the train to go and get some food.  He pointed to me and said, “You Fritz.  Come here.”  I jumped out of the cattle car and landed on my stomach.  After much effort Heinrich Gottschick stood next to me.  We had little trust in the young soldiers because they swore at us so much.


  While we were being counted, another cattle car was attached next to ours and had a sign designating that it was “the kitchen”.  That is where we got the food:  80 liters of greasy soup with mutton and a lot of paprika.  We dragged the food to our car in tin tubs.  In order to stir the thick brew we found a stick on the railway tracks.  There was enough soup because only a few attempted to eat this unfamiliar fare, because we still had enough fresh sausage from home in our suitcases.


  From a distance we saw some people standing by a well and drawing water.  After several requests we were allowed to go to the well in the company of two guards.  We were allowed to stay for a while.  In order to wile away the time, the soldiers showed us their guns.  Using their machine pistols they shot the glass transformers on a telephone post that shattered into thousands of pieces.  We were then allowed to look through their field glasses to show us how easy it would be to shoot us.  One of the Russians took off my fur cap and pressing his thumbs against my temples laughed and said, “If you try to escape, your head will shatter just like the transformers and you will never see Russia.”  A man with a wooden leg had to translate that from Russian for us.


  On the night before our departure we received warm unsweetened tea from the Russians as part of their “official welcome to Russia”.  We left Iasi on February 4, 1945.


  The doors of our car were locked and as long as the train remained standing still, the cold was unbearable.  The people wrapped themselves in their covers and wore their coats and extra clothing.  As soon as the train got underway and it became night, the icy winds of Russia blew through the windows that provided air in the cattle car.  The people sat packed together on the floor and you could hear people praying out loud or quietly, “Dear God.  Loving God help us.  Save us.”  One would have to ask oneself where all of these gods suddenly came from.  Even those I knew well, who had never acknowledged God, were now calling upon Him for help.  Others called out for their left-behind-loved-ones.  It was all a great clamoring of misery and weeping.  We all now knew that it would be a long time if ever before we would see our loved ones again.  After a short silence, in another corner Swabian catholic women prayed the rosary and began to sing their familiar Marian songs.  This would happen every night and at the same time our guards pounded against the wooden walls of the cattle cars with their rifle butts to drown them out, along with Russian curses and a steady flow of swearing.


  After we had traveled for a day and night we were put on a railroad siding and unhitched from the locomotive and train.  Only military trains heading for the front lines traveled on the main track.  Soldiers and munitions were now the priority.  At some point the doors were opened and we were allowed off of the train to meet our bodily needs.  In the deep snow, in the bitter cold, women and men, the told and the young, were packed together in the open field watched over by the soldiers.  We were allowed to empty the bucket we used on the train.  When the train was moving there was no other alternative except to use the bucket, as two people held up a cover to give some privacy.  At first this was very difficult for us, but after a few days it became rather normal and routine.  The biggest distress it caused was the overwhelming smell that we had to learn to live with and eventually we even got used to that.


  Once due to exhaustion and cold I could not tell if I was awake or asleep.  For a short period of time reality seemed to escape me and I dreamt that I was helping my mother preparing the bake oven.  I saw myself as a child standing in front of the red hot bake oven, I watched the rising flames and could smell the burning cornstalks.  In my dream I ate her fresh cheesecake.  How true the old proverb:  hungry geese dream of oats.


  As I awoke from my dream I saw large group of men standing close together.  By looking more closely I noticed that a flask of raki was making the rounds.  Only when I was really awake did I learn what had really happened.  George Brandt, better known as Juri Bacsi, was the man who had brought out the flask of schnaps from under his coat and he probably had very little difficulty coaxing the others to join him so that the Russians wouldn’t get it.  To ward off the cold the men reached out for the flask and after less than three rounds it was empty.  The raki was all gone and Juri Bacsi said, “He who gives little honor, isn’t worthy of any himself.”  He was priding himself of his generosity.


  Because our luggage was close by, my father crawled around looking for it and eventually a three liter jug put in an appearance, which naturally contained more raki.  My father then challenged him and said, “We all know that you are stingy.  You can’t satisfy the whole bunch of us with one liter of raki.”  There was a lot enthusiastic laughter, which unfortunately caught the attention of the guards at the door of the cattle car and they were quickly in the midst of us and they tried to find out what had been going on.  None of the men dared to answer.  After a quick search of several men they got a good whiff of the smell of schnaps and one of the sentries asked if we had any vodka.  Actually one of them screamed at Nikolaus Poth and he replied in great fear, “Not vodka.”  Then my father took the risk and said in Russian, “I have some vodka.”  Hearing that the Russians were really angry and called my father an old devil because he had not ever mentioned that he spoke Russian.  “Because of that you will get a well earned punishment,” they said.  At that moment we heard a loud blast of whistles.  The sentries had just enough time to jump off of the train and lock the doors of our car.  Our train was in motion once more.


  An uneasy silence followed and everyone thought about the threatened punishment, until someone came up with the idea that we could bribe the Russians with some of the raki.


  After a long night and ice-cold journey our train came to a sudden halt and made the brakes squeal.  We could not see anything through the wooden slats that formed the wall of the cattle car, but we were very much aware of a lot of noise, and concluded that we were at a large railway station or depot.  We could hear many voices and above all a host of orders and commands.  On the neighboring track there was another train that was heading in the opposite direction than we were, heading to the Front either in Hungary or Romania.  A group of soldiers came towards our cattle car and we could hear the crunch of the snow under their boots as well as their singing and swearing, a tell tale sign that they were all drunk.  The sentries opened the door to our car and ordered my father to get out.  We were all very scared.  As he jumped off of the train at the door, he lost his fur cap, which greatly amused the Russians.  One of them held up the cap and said, “Put it back on, before your ears freeze, before you even get a chance to experience a cold Siberian winter.”   It was only now that it dawned on us that they had come for my father to act as an interpreter.  The Russians boarded our train and offered to exchange their Russian money for any Romanian currency we had.  But we were too distrustful of them.  It was only when they offered us cigarettes that we cautiously took out our money.  We believed we actually made a favorable trade with them.


  The little Italian boy who had been left with us, cried bitterly and his whole body trembled.  The women had clothed him in whatever they could spare themselves.  When the guards saw him, they asked him how he was doing.  He simply said, that he was very cold.  The older men offered some schnaps to the Russians, but they only drank once my father had first drunk some.  They were afraid that we might poison them.  Their tongues became loosened as they drank and said that they would give us some firewood if we would give them one of the girls.  It took awhile for us to realize that they were just joking.  Eventually they left and climbed down from our car and told us to behave ourselves.  When they returned and opened the door I happened to be standing directly in front of them.  They ordered me, “Get down here with another boy.”  A train loaded with wood stood nearby.  Our guards unloaded six planks, about three meters long and carried them along with us to our cattle car.


  An old blackened tin furnace stood inside our care, presumably left behind by the Russian military, but we had not had a fire because we lacked wood.  We were instantly rich:  we had firewood!  What do you do with three meter long planks without a saw or an axe?  The guards wanted to deal with us and buy tobacco and we asked for an axe in exchange.  Shortly after that we had an axe.  They had confiscated it from the next car that was a kitchen.  They also brought some boards and slats, but they gave strict orders that we only chop the wood during the journey so that the commander would not become aware of what we were doing because if discovered the wood would be taken away and the soldiers would be punished.


  We were able to do well with selling our schnaps, and we wanted to buy cigarettes with our money, much of which was actually worthless.  At least a third of it had expired as legal tender.


  The six wooden planks took up a great deal of space in our cramped and packed cattle car.  So we set them in such a way that as many people as possible could sit on them.  Now that we had an axe, we chopped a hole in the floor of the car and using some blankets we set up a privacy wall around it and used it to meet our sanitation needs.  This greatly bothered the Russians because they were afraid we would use the hole to escape.


  The longer the journey lasted, the deeper we went into Russia and the colder and more frigid it became.  The snow kept getting deeper.  At times we thought the snow was smoke, but we knew that if we saw smoke there must be a village consisting of a few houses and only the stone chimneys were visible in the deep snow.  To the right and left of the train tracks all we saw was snow and destroyed military equipment:  tanks, cars, canons and then more snow.


  Our train seldom halted and as a result we received less tea and warm food.  Instead, we received cooked, cold, heavily salted beef.  Out of hunger we ate it.  But it was not the hunger that was bad, it was the thirst that followed after we ate.  There was no water, the wells along the tracks were frozen.  So it was the snow that covered the roof of our car that was our only source of moisture.  We stuck our hands out of the windows as far as we could reach and would scratch as much snow as we could and ate it.  When the train came to a halt once more, we filled our dishes and containers with snow and drank it after it melted if we could wait that long.


  Once the train halted somewhere we heard ship sirens wailing.  It was snowing and we had no idea where we were.  We had the idea that now we would be loaded on board ships.  When it was daylight our train started out slowly and we crossed a wide expanse of water.  It was on March 1, 1945.  We did not know what kind of enormous river this was.  When we asked the guards about it they sang the Volga River song.


  Gradually it was becoming warmer outside and our cattle car was more bearable.  The train halted less and less and we went on and on.  And always the same sound of the locomotive wheels buzzed around in my head…I am taking you away.


  But our sense of well being was about to be disturbed as each one of us, one after the other became restless.  A strange sensation vexed our bodies and we had to scratch constantly.  At first we were ashamed to do so in front of one another, but we finally had to admit that our underwear was filled with lice.  One morning our train had halted somewhere and the sun shone through the windows of the car.  I took off my shirt and held it up close to the window to catch the rays of the sun.  Like little white pearls the lice eggs glistened in the sunlight.  From them would emerge the many-legged creatures that tormented us and I found three thriving lice that I crunched between my fingernails.  It was much the same for my father.  People formed a line and waited for their turn in the sunlight and carried out the same procedure.  As I write these words now, I can feel the sensations running up and down my spine as if I was back there.  I took off my shirt and held it in the sunlight and exclaimed:  Thank God there aren’t any now…”


  At first we threw the lice infested clothes in the hole in the floor, but we soon realized it was useless because the lice reproduced rapidly from one day to another, so that we simply had to accept it and live with it.


  We could not determine where the lice had come from.  There was a quick verdict some of us came to, that the source was several young men, of German origin, like ourselves who had been in the Romanian Army and had been packed into our train while we were still in Romania.  Among them was Michael Gottschick (Linkert-Gottschick) who was assigned with us from Semlak in the same cattle car.


  Our journey was long and we endured a lot that was unpleasant.  On March 7, 1945 our train halted once more and we did not know where we were, but we had arrived at our destination, deep inside of Russia, in the far and distant Ural Mountains.  And it snowed and snowed.  The thick snowflakes flew into our eyes and we had to cover them with our hands so that we could see.  We stood out in an open field and the wind whirled all around us.  We stood there rooted to the spot facing the unknown in this unending, white wilderness that awaited us.

(Continued:  Fifty Years After:  Part Three below)


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