*Siberian Prisoner Of War*
The train swayed gently as it rolled down the tracks. Germany was known for its train system and I had grown quite accustomed to traveling by train. 1995 was a good time to be a soldier. I was in Germany for the first time in uniform and I was on my way to my German Aunt’s house to visit my brother. He had the luck of being stationed at a Top Secret Nuclear site and so I couldn’t meet him there, so we agreed to meet and Tante Lotta’s house. While I looked forward to the best cooking on the face of the earth I was lulled into feeling at ease.
Finding Tante Lotta’s house was a piece of cake after having lived in Schweinfurt as a child. My brother soon followed. Fat and happy after a wonderful meal the phone rang. Onkel Karl was calling to see if we would come and visit our other uncle, Onkel Horst.
It seemed a little odd with Onkel Karl doing the calling but we were not surprised. Everyone in the family new Onkel Horst wasn’t "quite right" since "the War". While WWII had not left too many physical scars on Onkel Horst it had taken a tremendous toll on his psyche. Despite that, he loved dearly his nephews as he had no children of his own. "I will make no cannon fodder for the government", I had once overheard him say. He had seen too many die.
Being brought up to respect our elders and truly liking our uncle we made plans to visit. It was dark by the time we arrived at his apartment that night but we were unafraid as we had been there many times before as children.
Knocking on his door we were greeted by Onkel Karl, again we thought this was odd but he was family and we thought maybe he had come to visit also.
We found Onkel Horst sitting in his favorite chair at the dining table, cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. The room was dark, but we could see he had not shaved in days. Nonetheless he was happy to see us and greeted us warmly with the obligatory German handshake. Sitting down at the table, the light caused an eerie glow to fall on Onkel Horst’s face.
Onkel Karl did most of the talking. He asked the usual questions. How did we like being soldiers? Did we have girlfriends? What did they look like? Somewhere in the conversation the topic turned to war.
The quiet filled the smokey room as Onkel Horst began to speak. "War, war is for the government to get rich and for the common man to get killed." Onkel Horst was 16 or 17 when he went off to war. 1944-45 found him in one of history’s worst campaigns. The Eastern Front, was a place were many a soldier lost their lives, both German and Russian. One of our uncles disappeared on the Eastern Front never to be found again. It was believed that he was one of many either blown to bits or buried somewhere in a forgotten mass grave.
He continued on.
"The first time they got me was not so bad", he said. The Schnapps added a strange ring to the tone of his voice. Speaking between puffs on his cigarette, he went on. "They actually gave us food." I had heard parts of this story before but never from him. He was first captured and taken to a POW camp in the nearby eastern portion of Russia.
The guards were lazy, he said. I escaped almost right away but I had nowhere to go. There were Russian soldiers everywhere. He was recaptured almost right away and sent further east and north to another POW camp. He was there for only a week before he again escaped. This time he was free for almost two days before he was recaptured. His next stop was Siberia.
Siberia is a miserable place to be in the winter and even more miserable in a POW camp in the winter. A chill rushed over my shoulder as I tried to imagine how cold it must have been. Another round of Schnapps, another lit cigarette and he again began to speak.
"Mamma’s boys. You could tell right away who were the Mamma’s boys were", he nearly spat out of his mouth with disgust. Being young and naïve we asked how and he said"they’re the ones that died first". I had heard my mother tell that Onkel Horst had seen many die, but now I was hearing it for the first time first hand. "They died like flies by the dozen" he continued. We knew better than to ask questions at this point. Our mother had told us how he had to share a bed with another prisoner. She had also told us how many times he woke up to find his bed mate cold and dead. The surrealness of the situation was getting worse and his voice drifted back into my consciousness. "We slept in bunk beds, he said. They were only about 50-60cm wide, made of wood with no mattress and we had to share our bed with another prisoner. Many times I woke up and my bed partner was cold, he said as if they merely needed a blanket. It took a few seconds for us to realize he meant cold as in cold and dead. The silence was like a freight train heading straight at you and you didn’t have enough time to jump out of the way.
My brother spoke next. I was grateful that he had the nerve to fight back the silence. "What did you eat", he asked in a feeble attempt to change the subject away from death. "Soup, he said. They called it soup anyway. It was water with maybe a leaf in it, sometime a cockroach but never a piece of meat. On Sunday we might get a little potato. The only thing else we had to eat was a little square of hard, old bread. The mamma’s boys were the ones who cried like babies about how empty their stomachs felt. He kept speaking as the contempt he had for those weak willed men dripped from his lips even today some 40 plus years later.
Some would do anything to get more soup. The water soup made you feel better for awhile because it filled your stomach. A steel gray look came over his face as the memories flooded back into his conscious spilling out his mouth like a waterfall of emotion. Death, misery and sadness filled the room like three evil sisters. Some of the mamma’s boys were so stupid they would trade all of their meager piece of bread for even just a little more of the water soup. Why did you do it we asked almost in unison. The soup was mostly water but the bread still had some goodness left, he said almost gleefully. Glee seemed like an odd emotion at the time, but I guess if one could so personally cheat death so many times, I guess glee would be an appropriate response. The realization of what he was really telling us swept in the room like an arctic wind. He had cheated death by allowing the other’s ignorance to kill themselves. Who ever said …"War was hell"… wasn’t kidding. The night continued with the darkness surrounding us closer and closer.
After many hours it was time to go. My brother and I walked in silence to the car, the nights conversation replaying itself inside our heads.
Some months later, I received a call from my mother. Onkel Karl had found Onkel Horst dead in his apartment. It was after the funeral as I was cleaning out his apartment that I realized what had really happened that night.
Onkel Horst new he was dying. Actually, he was slowly killing himself by not treating his diabetes. He had arranged that night because he new he was dying and quickly losing his mind. That is why he wanted us to visit and, also, that is why Onkel Karl was there to ask all the usual questions. Onkel Horst, from the depths of his insanity, wanted to see his nephews one last time. He wanted to leave his nephews something of himself. That is why he brought up the war.
While cleaning out his apartment I started to notice something odd. He was a single man but he had enormous amounts of food. While searching through his basement storage room it dawned on me what he had done. He had been preparing for WW III. The storage room was filled with survival gear. Maps of Europe, wool blankets, gold coins and the most expensive Grundig Short Wave Radio, I had ever seen. It was here where it finally hit me what he wanted out of that dark night.
He wanted to pass on to his nephews his greatest possession: his will to survive. He had survived warfare, freezing cold and prisoner of war camps entirely by his will. And while fearing another war he knew he wouldn’t survive, he wanted to give us something in hopes that we would survive, when the next war came. He had taught us that some common sense and the will to never give up would help us survive, even the worst of conditions.
Guten nacht, Onkel Horst. Schlaff Gut.
(Goodnight, Onkel Horst. Sleep good.)
Your loving nephew.
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