I have an interest in the plight of refugees in general, but particularly in the fate of German nationals who were forced to flee their homes in the face of advancing Russian forces at the end of the Second World War. Their sad story is almost unknown in the English speaking world.
I have used this theme in the following fictional short story. I hope you find it worth reading if not thought provoking.
(Images of the flight of refugees before the Russian army are from Google Images)
To speak of those times now is difficult. So I will write of them instead.
My home is gone, as is my homeland, my family, and my life. After all, what is life without meaning? What is life when all around drifts past unconnected: When every bridge to belonging and love has been demolished? What is life without a reason to exist, without your own story, to shape, to build on and to leave for those who follow you? What indeed!
I no longer live with love. I am no longer in the midst of family. I have my mother tongue and my memories but I live among strangers. Mostly they leave me be to get on with life, so they think. But there is no life. Instead I wander through the days untouched and unnoticed. Like a pinball in slow motion I rebound repeatedly. A word here and there and I’m gone. Never a conversation and never a touch. When I think about it, even a pinball is real. It is solid and it is noticed. It has a definite purpose. I think maybe I am more like a wraith than a pinball. A vapour cloud forms shapes for the moment and drifts itself out of existence. Maybe that is me!
I am lost, just as my homeland is lost, but I have this one chance to tell my story. If you will allow me to touch you with my memories, I might be touched in turn, and who knows – maybe something good will come of it all.
Once I lived in a town in what was then called East Prussia (Ostpreussen). The town no longer exists and nor does East Prussia. Both are now part of Poland, and rightly so, if you read history books. Who am I to disagree? I’ll leave the assigning of fault, blame and guilt to others more qualified. I want to tell you my story, not argue the high moral ground.
You see, my town was my world in January 1945. All that I knew and loved as a twelve year old was there. My school, brothers and sister, mother and father, neighbours. We were not well off as a family but we wanted for little and we could dream of a future.
There were troubling signs and rumours of course, even for a 12 year old. My parents must have known more but they gave no sign of it. Life continued that cold January as it always had, and as far as I was concerned, as it always would. There were certainties you see. Mother, father, siblings, evening meals, school days and weekends. These were given and a part of the natural order of things. Not that bad things didn’t happen. Traffic accidents, bombs dropped from planes on the nearby cement factory where the Russian prisoners worked, and even the dark bruises on the face of our neighbour Frau Abel, all pointed to cracks in the certainty that all was well and always would be. It is possible I want to remember my home not as it was, but as I would like it to have been. In any case I can’t be sure what is right and true. It is painful to think back to these times before my world collapsed and died. I don’t want to spend any more time describing what was, but no longer is.
I want to tell you what happened to my town but I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know. I can remember towards the end of January the weather was, even more than usual, cruelly cold. The cold air carried sounds further than normal and I remember hearing thunder in the distance, but there were no clouds. I asked my mother who looked at my father. He said not to worry. So I didn’t.
I don’t know how long after this, but it can’t have been long, when the first vehicles, army trucks full of exhausted and dirty men, lumbered down the street outside our house. Their horns were sounding and some of the soldiers were shouting for everybody to get out quickly as the Russians were coming. My parents turned to neighbours for their advice. Someone suggested asking the police. No one knew what to do. After all, we couldn’t just run away from our houses and all we owned!
I remember the fear clutching the adults and the confusion everywhere. I was more interested in watching the column of vehicles, some with soldiers hanging on the sides and tailgates.
After a time, father decided that mother and we children should go to the train station with a change of clothes and some food and try to travel west to aunts and uncles who lived near Berlin. He would stay with some of the other neighbourhood men and try to see that our house was saved. They were unarmed. The Russians were human beings after all. He would follow when things had settled down and it was safe to do so. I remember them arguing, but the time for debate was evaporating.
Quickly our panicky little family group led by my tearful mother with myself and my two younger brothers and sister joined the growing herd of people carrying what they could, and we headed toward the centre of town where the rail station was. We would not see our father again. I read much later that the first Russian soldiers to enter the town were particularly brutal with civilians they found left behind.
Amidst increasing chaos we reached the railway only to find out there would be no more trains that day (or any other as it turned out). Mother talked of returning home but some of the neighbours who had joined us advised strongly against that. Instead we started to walk along the rail line, along with what seemed like hundreds of others. We were not prepared for a long walk in the cold and quickly began to complain of sore feet and freezing fingers. Already there were people throwing suitcases away and hurrying to get ahead in the crowd, for the sound of rumbling thunder had now changed. We could hear distinct detonations. Everyone knew we needed to get way fast from what was following us.
Someone suggested that following the rail line might not be so clever. We could be easily followed and just as easily seen. So our family joined a fragment of the crowd in turning away from the line and toward a nearby stand of trees. We had gone barely a few hundred meters when the sound of powerful screaming engines made us look skywards. Two small planes seemed to be diving out of the sky down towards the rail line. We stood in shock. People still on the line did not stand in shock. They started to run in all directions just as the first bullets slammed into them and the snow around them. Quickly we turned and ran faster than we thought possible toward the trees which were still about 100 meters away. This was unbelievable! Fear battled with outrage as we thought of what had happened to the people on the line. Why did the planes do that? They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t doing any harm. Reaching the trees we collapsed on the snow along with about twenty or so others, mainly women and children. The old men and women hadn’t been able to run as fast and some of them had been swallowed up in the firestorm. Others simply lay exhausted and curled up in the snow.
There wasn’t time to think, and anyway, as I was fast discovering, there are some things the brain just can’t take in they are so monstrous. Blankly, a bit like rabbits in a spotlight, we looked at each other, or at least the adults did. I for one just stared at the ground and hoped it would all go away. So, disoriented, shocked, and frightened our group huddled together under the trees and looked at towards the rail line where the column of fleeing people reformed and continued to limp westwards.
I remember following the column with my eyes back in the direction we had come from. Incredibly, the shapes and sound of armoured vehicles (unmistakeable to a well informed twelve year old boy) appeared a couple of kilometers from us. They were following the refugee column and they were firing on it! Not content with the mayhem and death that caused, some of the vehicles drove into the column, crushing young and old alike. Those spared had no choice but to trudge onwards. There was nowhere they could run to. I experienced pure terror and I think I vomited; dry retched anyway.
Our small group, now thoroughly terrified, began to run into the forest, even though we were also exhausted physically. We left what remained of our luggage behind. I don’t know how long we stumbled. When we thought it was safe, we began to fall to the ground or prop ourselves up against a tree while we tried to process all that we had seen. We had no real leader, there were no obvious solutions, and we were tired. We spent the night huddled together, freezing, tired and terrified. Just before morning silent pale figures appeared out of the mist and spread out around us. We were very quickly awake and terrified.
One of them walked in among us, looked at our faces and pulled me out of the huddle. I was so frightened I could barely stand. I stood shivering with buckling knees. My mother protested but was warned to be quiet by the pointing of several muzzles. No one spoke at that stage but the men wore uniforms and it was a little while before I realised they were Russian. It seemed they were not sure what to do with us but any dilemna was solved shortly by a command from the leader which was followed by a deafening cacophony of shots and screams. I closed my eyes and covered my ears, and crouched down, trying to disappear into the snow.
I was alive. To my shame I did not, could not, look at what had happened to my mother and my brothers and sister. I continued to look at the ground and I trembled, not knowing, but suspecting they were about to kill me. Instead I was grabbed by the arm and dragged away from the area, to follow the soldiers who were now moving on. It was only later, when the terror subsided, that I realised my family was gone and that I was entirely alone. I was in the midst of a group of armed men but I was entirely alone in a way that I have come to know well in the years since.
I’ve often tried to understand why they destroyed my family and the others with them. Were they keen to eliminate witnesses to the atrocities on the rail line? Doesn’t make sense. Surely there would have been many other witnesses. They didn’t kill all of the refugees! There were too many even for them! Was it a spur of the moment thing? Did they not know what to do with us? I mostly gave up wondering. What remained was only a cold and considered hatred. A hatred I kept to myself.
Why did they not shoot me? I don’t know that either. Perhaps I was a trophy? A curiousity? An exhibit?
I spent the next few months doing menial duties serving and clearing tables in the mess, always following the advancing front. After the surrender of German forces I was brought back to the Soviet Union were I remain to this day. They educated me, or should I say, trained me as a translator. All of my everyday needs were looked after in the new worker’s paradise. In time, I think they came to trust me, even if I would never be one of them. I became a Soviet citizen. See what the enlightened forces of marxism can do Comrade, even for a child of fascism!
I do what they expect of me. I do it dutifully without complaint. I have ceased to live you see. I don’t even hate as well as I used to. I simply exist. The human pinball exists. An enigma to all, including himself.