Memories

 
 

I WAS A PRISONER OF THE RUSSIANS
FOR THREE YEARS
(By Gerhard Vogel)

   I worked as a prisoner of war in a Russian coal mine at the town of Makeevka, near Stalino, about 150 miles north of the Black Sea. There, for the first time, I met Russian industrial workers for the Communistic System. Together with those civilians we re-built the mine, and later started digging coal.


    There I met a man.  I will name him Peter. He was a worker who could talk German very well. He was about 40 years old, married, with two children. He lived in an apartment house which could be seen when I looked out of the camp in which we lived. He and his wife had two rooms, which they shared with another worker’s family.


    Kitchens were rare. Everywhere I saw one cooking place for several families. The houses had no windows or doors, only holes, which they covered with old blankets. All rooms had electric lights, but there was no way to turn them on or off, so they burned all day and all night. There were no lamps, only a bulb hanging from the ceiling. In this town I saw no other kind of lights.


    Peter started working with us at 5:00 A.M. At 12:00 noon there was a rest of one hour. Work finished about 6:00 P.M., sometimes 7:00 P.M. Everybody had to work weekdays and Sundays. During the one-hour rest period Peter got one hot meal. The best of this was a piece of bread. There was also soup, consisting of about three pints of hot water with sauerkraut, or green boiled tomatoes or cabbage. After this he got one tablespoon full of mashed potatoes, and rarely, some small cubes of meat. Then he had eaten and was through. As I eat my wholesome meals here in Georgia, I still think of Peter.


    He wore two different shoes. And he was proud, for they were of leather. Others wore shoes of fabric with wooden soles. Two weeks was their life. As Peter had worn out one shoe, he tried unsuccessfully to barter for another. He did not care that it was different from the other. “Where do you barter?” I asked him, and he told us of the free market. I saw it. Men and women sat on the ground at a place in the town, and young and old came with their things. Single things they brought. A shoe, an old shirt, a skirt, broken glass pieces, Russian and German army clothes, and food. Old newspapers were of big value, for always there was a terrible shortage of wrapping papers for cigarettes made of Russian tobacco.  To my view all was rags, but in Russia these things were of much value.


    At this market Peter got his one shoe. But he assured us it was “his turn” next time to get a pair of shoes and a suit out of the Government store system, as a reward for being a good worker. We were as eagerly waiting for that day as he himself.


    One day it happened. We met Peter and he said, “Boys, I have got my new suit.” We asked him to tell us about its make, fabric and color. He made a face and said, “Are you blind? I wear it.”


I was shocked. It was a simple mechanic’s overall in blue, of poor quality. “And the shoes?” I asked him. “Well,” he said, “I had forgotten that I missed one day last year, and therefore my work-points were not enough to get the shoes.” But he was quite happy with his new suit, his only one.


The Russians used the point-system in industry. We POW’s worked by it. It worked this way: You are asked to do a certain amount of work. If you do it you get 100 per cent and your full ration of food. Those who don’t, get nothing one day, and have to care for themselves. At first when our quota of work was announced we made it easily. Then they increased the quota. On and on for months. When I left there they had increased the work system 800 per cent. The result was that sometimes I made my quota, and sometimes I failed.


    Then we all failed and got more hungry each day. Impossibly high quota norms were set up. This is the Stachanov-system, named after its inventor. Many of the Russians resigned themselves to failure, and preferred to starve. It is a deadly system on workers. Now, they practice it in Eastern Germany, and will extend it everywhere Russian despotism comes to power.


    Since Russian women have “equal rights” with men, they have to work like men. The Russian slogan is, “He who doesn’t work doesn’t eat.” Russian women are even busier than their male companions. They are very strongly built. Clothed with old pants and jackets, it is sometimes hard to identify them as female beings. They all have gray, lined faces because of the hard work they do. In the mine where we were they did all the hard work, as the men tried the easy-going way, and gossiped more than the women. My “foreman” was a woman, chief welder of the mine. I thought she was 60 but found she was 42. If there was a dangerous job to do, and Russian males were not available, as was often the case, she went down into the mine as we prisoners did.


    I learned her story. She had been married and was living in Odessa. One day the Secret Police took her husband, telling her nothing and giving her no reasons. She waited a while, then had to go to work. She looked for better jobs, and came to our mine as an electric welder.


    One day at another mine I met a group of Russians. One sidled up to me and said in low tones in German, “I am a prisoner like you. I have worked in Germany. We saw that things there were better than here, but we are not allowed to talk about what we have seen outside Russia.” His voice trailed away, and he returned to his group and guard and was gone.


    The war had ended, and Russian POW’s and laborers were being brought back from Germany. They were all made prisoners again…for re-education.


    We German prisoners saw these Russians guarded just as we were, saw them kicked and tossed around like us, and we wondered more and more. We saw that the ones who were freed were never allowed to go home to their families or to the districts from which they had come. In the eyes of their government they had seen to much of Western civilization and culture.



    So, they were looked upon by the Soviets as very dangerous, even though many of them had experienced bad conditions of work under the Nazis. They also had to throw away al the things they had bought with their small wages, and had to remove the European clothes they had on. All these items we saw rotting in the open in the Polish-Russian border towns.


    Even though these Russians had been mistreated and had lived under bad war conditions in Germany, many of them had adjusted to the Western type of life, and enjoyed it by comparison with life they had known in Russia.


    One thing especially is true of Russia. There is a need for all things everywhere. To get them, the people steal. But they don’t regard it as a bad or immoral habit. If you don’t steal, you will suffer. This is in a country where property is common property. Though punishment is severe for stealing, people do it daily, constantly. The government therefore had gunmen to watch the “property of the people” to keep back the people themselves. I thought there was nothing worth stealing, but I soon learned that one can come to such terrible need that he will steal to live.


    I was one day unloading freight cars, which held canned food. It was food from America. I remember the name “Oscar Mayer Product” on the cans of meat. Hunger is permanent in Russia, and I thought I would get one of the cans. Russian labor women and the prisoners worked, side by side. These Russian worker women are much thicker than European women, but even so, they seemed unusually stout. I quickly found out that they were stealing cans in large numbers, and stuffing them in their skirts and underwear when the guards turned away. They smiled and made signs for us to do the same. One after the other left the car to go to the rest room (the only step you could make without a guard), and hid the cans there, to recover them later. I ate some four pounds of the canned food without getting sick. I never enjoyed anything more.


    Another thing we stole was firewood. Zero temperatures in winter made firewood life itself. We prisoners got our wood at the mine. There was a woman guard, but as she always shot in the air while hollering, we scattered and were gone.


    But one day the men guards noticed we were stealing wood, and over the frantic protests of the woman guard, marched us out of the mine to their barracks, where they ordered us to drop the wood, for they too were cold. So, from that day on we had to get twice as much—for the guards and for ourselves. At the mine I first noticed plainly the rivalry between the civilians and the soldiers. Sometimes we were its victims, and were made even more miserable than before.


At the mine I noticed that Russian soldiers were not treated too well. They had to steal like us. But the civilians were responsible for the property of the mine and started quarreling when they found the soldiers were bartering lumber, which was needed for supporting the mine roof. Also the soldiers bartered tools furnished us. When they were caught stealing and had to drop the objects, they whistled for us and marched us out of the mine, and work stopped. Then the civilians would hurry up, always ended when one party shouted the other down, shouting and swearing and grimacing, and waving their fists. Though we didn’t understand all the words, we did enjoy this commotion very much. It The Russians or Communists shout loudly about racial discrimination in America. However, the attitude they actually have there toward all the many races within their vast land is worse than any situation here by far. The callous way they use these groups and suppress their language is typical. The Great Russians were favorites over all.


    I cannot close any account of what I saw in Russia during those years without telling the facts about old people and war veterans and hospitals as I saw them.


    One hospital I saw was as primitive as possible. The beds were fairly clean, but it had no equipment for operations or other medical treatment. Always they were short of medicine. When they got some it was always of one kind only. Later they received medicine of another kind. It was the same way with food. Half a year of this kind. Half a year of another sort.


    Any illness which rendered you unfit for work, made you worthless to the Communist system. So, at a time you would need better food to recover, you would get less, since you were not working. If you are a hopeless case—and they regard you as one very quickly—they don’t worry about you. Their attitude is: Look for a corner to go and die. If someone comes along and helps you, then you are the unusual case, and lucky. But few people are able to help. They are not much better off than you. So you die in the dust of the streets and are removed.


    The Communist attitude toward cripples and war veterans is cruel indeed. A crippled man cannot fulfill his quota, so he is dropped from the food list of the factory and fired. Soviet war vets—armless, minus hands and feet or blind—crowded the streets, factory yards and the gate of the mine where I was, all begging or bartering desperately.


    Many wore the Soviet war medals. They got no attention, no food and so far as I could learn no pension for their war service or loss of limb or sight. I remember seeing a veteran without legs, who crept on two short stumps through the dusty street, after getting off his flat wooden dolly or car with 3-inch wheels which he had made himself. When he had a long distance to go he pushed his body about on the movable platform with two sticks as a man might row. To keep from falling off, he tied himself on with strings.


    All these people were just dropped out of the ambulance hospitals as soon as it was obvious they would never be fit again for fighting or producing goods in factories. This is the workers’ paradise, remember.


Do you see why I have chosen the U.S. as a symbol of justice, progress and freedom?