Soviet PoW in Germany

Some ten years ago I began the enormous task of researching the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war in the hands of the Axis in World War II. I worked through masses of material in various languages, and grew familiar with the fate of Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, etc, in Germany, Italy, Finland and Bulgaria. It was horrible. I’d never read about such suffering.

World War II was total war. Few were spared some misfortune, many were the war’s victims. Some of those victims have been forgotten, but few have been more forgotten than those members of the Red Army who became prisoners of war of Hitler’s Germany. Statistics, based on Germany’s own records, show that out of 5,700,000 Soviet soldiers captured by Germany between 1941 and 1945 3,370,000 of them died in captivity.

Soviet prisoners of war were the responsibility of Germany’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, an organization which stressed that it fought a clean war and that Hitler and the SS were to blame for the darker aspects of the conflict. But, on the Eastern Front, and in the Army’s treatment of Soviet prisoners in particular, there was no question of honourable warfare. And no question that international law, which did in fact protect Soviet soldiers (contrary to what is often claimed), would be applied to troops whom the Germans saw as untermenschen.

In the winter of 1941 hundreds of thousands of prisoners starved or froze to death in Wehrmacht camps throughout the occupied territories.

The commandant of Stalag 318, a Colonel Falkenberg, noted on September 11, 1941: ‘These cursed Untermenschen [sub-humans] have been observed eating grass, flowers and raw potatoes. Once they can’t find anything edible in the camp they turn to cannibalism.’ ‘The prisoners live in the open air,’ a witness to conditions at the Karolowka camp reported. ‘At the camp the hunger is so terrible that a mile away they can be heard groaning and shouting ‘Food.’ They eat grass. Dozens die from starvation.’ A Hungarian tank officer recalled: ‘I woke up one morning and heard thousands of dogs howling in the distance. I called my orderly and asked, ‘Sandor, what is all that moaning and howling?’ He answered: ‘Not far from here there is a huge mass of Russian prisoners in the open air. There must be 80,000 of them. They are wailing because they are starving to death’.

Others were selected as communists, Jews or agitators and were handed over to the SD for ‘special treatment’. Even the sick and wounded were disposed of. Some officers were used as experiments for the first gassing at Auschwitz.

Those who survived were exposed to a life of unrelenting brutality.

By 1942 the German leadership was aware that a labour shortage was crippling its war effort. Initially Soviet prisoners were seen as contaminated by communism but, given the demand for labour, pragmatism saw the widespread drafting of Soviet prisoners into German industry. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war laboured away and incarcerated in terrible conditions, vulnerable to draconian punishment.

Few in the West show much interest in this dark episode of European history. It was the forgotten holocaust. If there was any mention of these victims in the West’s narrative at all it was some absurd comment that when the PoWs returned to the Soviet Union they were put in the Gulag. That simply isn’t true, but it is a statement which typifies how political the history of World War II still is.

I became too depressed by the whole subject. I published a summary of events, which can still be found on the internet. This account by Lieutenant Lukinov, a Soviet lieutenant captured by the Germans and taken to Germany to work as a slave labourer, is the only other published result of my researches back then.

Lieutenant Lukinov’s division was scattered in the summer of 1942 and he, along with many of his men, were swept up by German units and sent westwards into captivity. This is his account of his ordeal and it is a unique insight into life and death on the Eastern Front from the point of view of an ordinary Soviet soldier.

On 15 July 1942 (how well I remember that cursed day) we came across some peasants in the forest and asked them for some food as we were famished. The peasants did not give us anything, but told us that people in the village of Istruby had got hold of some food from a looted warehouse. They also mentioned that there weren’t any German troops there. We knew that the Germans always posted sentries around the villages they occupied and, after observing the place for some time from the nearby forest, didn’t spot any sentries. One of my men quietly crawled the length of a fence to the first house and reported back that the house was empty. Then we trooped out of the forest and headed for the village.

We had barely made it to the ‘empty’ house when some German soldiers rushed out of it, shouting and shooting their submachine guns. They fanned out, cutting off any escape into the forest. We were trapped. I was in the process of attempting to fire my pistol when one of my men grabbed my hand and shouted:
‘Don’t shoot, they’ll kill us!’.
The Germans seized me and started beating me with rifle butts, knocking my pistol out of my hands. When I was on the floor they kicked me and stamped on me with their boots. They were shouting but I couldn’t understand what – I had other things on my mind. But I caught their general meaning:
‘He wanted to shoot! We should kill this swine! But not here, let’s do it behind the barn, there is a pit there’.
At the time I was wearing a private’s greatcoat – I wore it over my officer’s uniform so that I would not stand out among my men. As the Germans reached down to pull me up and drag me off to this hole, they grabbed the greatcoat which, inevitably, got torn. They saw my officer’s uniform, my Lieutenant’s insignia and my field map case of yellow leather. They stopped pulling me and started staring at me.
‘Are you a commissar?’
I barely managed to answer,
‘No, I am Senior Lieutenant’.
The Germans bent down and continued to interrogate me, while I lay on the ground, weak and indifferent to my own fate. The Germans were talking among themselves. Then one of them, evidently an NCO, said:
‘He is not lying. This is an officer. We should take him to HQ. There is an order that if we get an officer, he should be taken to HQ’.
So there was no more beating. They pulled me up and took me somewhere, sometimes pushing me along with the butt of rifle. I staggered along, although I could barely move my feet, weakened as I was by hunger and violence.

I do not remember how long it took to get to the HQ or how far we walked. My men were no longer with me. They had been taken somewhere else and I never saw them again. We entered another village which – I found out later – was called Razboynya (Place of Thieves) –  quite an appropriate name. Next to the village, in a clearing, I saw the neat rows of German military tents.
The soldiers took me (or rather dragged me) into some tent, which served as some kind of staff room and had a large table and stools. They removed my greatcoat and belts, took out everything from my pockets and put it all on the table. Some German officers soon arrived. They carefully searched through all my belongings, papers and pictures. Luckily I carried my Communist party ID and Officer ID, which stated the number of my regiment, in my boots, and the Germans did not find them. One of the German officers then attempted to interrogate me in very bad Russian, often switching back to German. The first question was whether I was a Commissar or not. Upon my replying in the negative they carefully examined the part of the sleeve of my tunic where political officers had stars. Maybe I had just removed the stars and some stitching remained? Then they asked me whether I was a member of Komintern, whether I was a professional officer or drafted from the reserve; what my ethnic group was, and whether I was a pure Russian. Then they switched to asking me where my General of Division was. I could barely answer the questions, I felt very dizzy and weak.

The officers seemed curious about my photographs. They paid special attention to a picture of my wife sitting by a window. They then took away all my possessions, my belts, gun holster with pistol, my map case and compass. I was then taken to a small compound fenced with barbed wire. Behind the barbed wire I saw some pitiful shelters made of old boxes and sheets of rusty corrugated iron. Russian prisoners of war, who were working for the German unit, lived there. These men greeted me very warmly. They went to the German canteen and brought a pot of porridge and a loaf of bread for me. They also warned me that I should be careful. There was one German guard, who was searching among the prisoners for anyone who looked like a Jew. Then he would take them to a forest and shoot them. The other Germans disliked him but did not prevent him from carrying out his evil business. It turned out that the guard had already asked the other prisoners about me as my dark hair seemed suspicious to him. But they managed to convince him that I was Russian.
The following morning I woke up and could barely understand where I was. But soon the pain from the beating, which I felt in my entire body, reminded me that I was a prisoner! My hosts, the captured soldiers, were taken away for work early in the morning but they kindly left a bowl of porridge and piece of bread out for me.

Soon I was added to a convoy of prisoners heading west. We marched under heavy escort. Those who were wounded or exhausted and could barely walk always suffered from the threat of execution. In some places, in the ditches which ran along the edge of the roads, we saw decomposing bodies in Soviet uniform. We were lucky to be captured in the summer. Those men captured in the winter told us that the German guards frequently removed the prisoners’ felt boots. They would literally knock a prisoner down and take his boots right off his feet. The prisoner’s friends would give him clothe to wrap his feet in, but it did not help for long. The bootless prisoner would soon start to freeze, then would lag behind and the guards would shoot him. The Germans also removed fur hats and sheepskin coats. Prisoners deprived of such protection caught pneumonia and died.

After several hours’ march we arrived at a large POW camp in the town of Sychevka. There crowds of hungry and unshaven men stood behind the barbed wire fences. The wounded, sick and dead were crammed into barracks and lay together on flimsy bunkbeds. The camp had a gallows and some prisoners who had been in the camp for a long time told us that an execution had just taken place shortly before our arrival.

The first thing the Germans did to us was search us. They took away all our remaining papers and burnt them before our eyes.. At the same time they removed our watches, pen knives, bandages, money and rings. That night one of the bunk beds collapsed under the weight of the sleeping prisoners, crushing those who were on the bottom level. It all happened in complete darkness, as there was no light. Men were dying in complete darkness without any medical help. Here I met one of my men. Our group was being taken to a barrack when all of a sudden a soldier shouted to me that he was happy to see me alive and thanked me for not deserting them and for staying with them till the end. I recognized the soldier. I used to be tough on him due to his indiscipline, but his kind words here, in German captivity, really touched me.

We were sent from one camp to another. From Sychevka we went to Smolensk, and from there to Lesnaya – further and further west. The worst camp was near Lesnaya station, in the region of Molodechno. We arrived there on 4 August 1942. Before the war it had been a vegetable warehouse with long wooden warehouses; these had been turned into barracks. Each barrack was ringed with barbed wire and seemed a distinct section of the camp. At the camp entrance there was a small building which housed the guards; beneath this was a deep cellar, which was for some reason called  the bunker. Anyone placed under arrest went straight to this bunker. An administration block, kitchen, stores and bathhouse (which did not function anyway) were located outside of the camp. The watchword in the prisoners’ barracks was clearly ‘divide and rule’. Some barracks housed Ukrainians others only Tatars. Both ethnic groups were granted a more privileged position compared to the bulk of Russian prisoners. They were better fed and were granted the right to work outside the camp. We Russians were fed very badly. Twice a day we were given a spoonful of porridge, which was boiled from unprocessed rye. Once a day they would bring a barrel of cold water and this would be immediately emptied. The weather was hot, and we were all very thirsty. I won’t mention washing, this was just impossible. The camp was guarded by German soldiers and Ukrainian Polizei.

Probably the worst thing about this camp was that it was here that an individual’s fate was decided: who would live and who would die. They were searching for Jews, political officers, military judges, party workers. The interrogations and investigations were carried out in the guard house by a Sonderfuerer, a Gestapo official. He could speak quite good Russian and did not need an interpreter. One by one the prisoners were dragged before him for interrogation and most of the time they ended up down in the bunker. Those that were thrown into the bunker, were stripped to their underwear. Their shoes and clothes were taken away by the Polizei..

When the bunker was full, a special vehicle would arrive from Molodechno. It looked like a normal truck at the front but behind the driver’s cab it was a sealed container with a door. The Germans and Polizei would drag the half-naked and barefooted prisoners from the bunker, and push them into this box with their rifle butts. The whole camp watched the spectacle from behind the barbed wire fence, trying to see where the truck would go. If it turned left it went to Molodechno prison. If it turned right it went into the forest. Some Tatars in the barracks next to us told us through the barbed wire that they were often sent to the forest to dig mass graves and bury the dead  there. As the truck went to the forest its exhaust fumes would be directed into the box containing the prisoners and by the time the truck arrived at its destination they’d all be dead dead. They were thrown into a grave and hastily buried. The Tatars also told us that there had been a few cases when some of the prisoners had survived the journey but that they’d also been thrown into the pit.

At dawn on 24 September 1942 we were woken up and taken down to the railway station so that we could be despatched to Germany. Our departure was proceeded by another long search. There were endless examinations whilst we stood in ranks. Under threat of execution we were ordered to turn in penknives, razors and scissors. Whilst they were searching me I showed them some small scissors and asked for permission to keep them. The guard grabbed them from me murmuring that we were being sent to Germany to work and not for ‘cutting our nails’. Then they removed any remaining belts and shoes. We were issued with wooden clogs that the Germans had piled up in the goods yard. It was impossible to run or even walk for a long time after this. It was at this moment that those who had deserted, and been given a German ‘pass’, were allowed to retain their leather shoes. I should say that in the entire group of prisoners there were only two or three such deserters.

Whilst on the way to the station we had been guarded by a large German unit armed not only with submachine guns but also with light machine guns. They were probably afraid of a rebellion or mass escape attempt. We were taken westwards, while the sun in the east was rising and warming our backs. Near Molodechno we marched past a Jewish ghetto. It consisted of a collection of hovels surrounded by a barbed wire fence. A huge red-haired guy standing stood next to the entrance of the ghetto carrying a whip. At the station a Jewish girl was cleaning the platform. On her front and back there were David’s stars made of yellow clothe – the sign that Jews had to wear.
We were loaded into dirty goods wagons which were equipped for the transportation of passengers and we had to sit and sleep on the floor. Small windows were covered with barbed wire and the door was kept shut and locked from the outside. I can no longer remember how many of us were there in the wagon, but not all of us could lie on the floor at the same time. Loktev, Semenov, Smirnov and I kept close together, and even here, in these awfully cramped conditions, supported each other both morally and physically. The train started moving. They were taking us abroad. What an irony of fate! How many times had I dreamt of going abroad as a tourist or on a business trip. And now I was being taken abroad as a prisoner, by force!

An incident took place right at the start of our journey. As our train was passing through a forest we heard rifle shots and the train came to a juddering halt. German soldiers ran back and forth along the train, cursing as they went. After a while a single rifle shot was heard and the train resumed its course. Later we found out that one of the prisoners had cut a hole in the floor of one of the wagons and that several prisoners had managed to escape before the German sentry, posted one the last wagon of the train, spotted them and opened fire. Everyone in that wagon was searched and they found a knife on one of the prisoners. They took him out and shot him – we’d heard the shot. We admired the brave men who had escaped, envied them and wished them luck.

We did not know where we were being taken. In an attempt to guess, we drew a map of Poland and Germany on a piece of plywood with the remains of a pencil. From the names of the cities we passed through we tried to draw our route. We saw that we were being taken through Poland into south-western Germany. Once or maybe twice a day we were taken off the wagon whilst the train waited at some station. Some foul soup was poured into our canteens – just to make sure that we would not all starve to death. Whilst we were out of the wagon, the train was searched. I saw a German soldier find our map and show it to his Unteroffizier.

I remember once, whilst we were at Volkovyssk station, a German cook dishing out the foul soup, was  being selective. If a prisoner was blonde, he would get a full canteen of soup. If the prisoner had dark hair, then he would get half a canteen or even less. In those days my hair was dark and so I also got only half a canteen. This was racial theory in practice and as understood by the German cook.

Our train would frequently stop at stations or just in the open. Once a military train with Italian soldiers stopped on the opposite track. This train was going east. Italian soldiers opened the door of their wagon and began to talk to us in a friendly manner. We waved back at them from the small window in our wagon. Then Italians even arranged a concert for us, playing a mandolin and guitar. It was clear that they had no hostile feelings towards us Soviets or towards the country they were going to fight. On the contrary, they seemed friendly. The concert was however interrupted by an Italian officer, who shouted at the soldiers and apparently ordered them to shut the door. He wore a blue sash and was evidently the duty officer. We saw small donkeys being taken off the Italian train to collect water. The Italians had buckets made out of transparent plastic, something we saw for the first time.

We were taken through Poland, seeing a bit of Warsaw. Flags bearing the swastika were hanging from the balconies of some houses. But our train quickly went into some tunnels. A Polish railway worker, cautiously looking around, approached us whilst we were in the tunnels and asked where we had been taken prisoner. Before Warsaw the Polish villages had looked poor, wooden huts were covered with thatch roofs. After Warsaw Europe started: clean brick houses with tiled roofs. Then came Germany. Among the many cities we saw I remembered Chemnitz.

I also remember that one late night, when it was already dark and our train was standing in a small German station, most of us were already asleep, wrapped in greatcoats, sitting and lying on the floor of our wagon, which was horribly packed. But I was awake and could hear people strolling about on the platform and some women laughing. The warm wind brought in the scent of some summer herbs. It was all so near and at the same time so far away, locked, as we were, in our prison on wheels.

On the sixth day of the journey – 30 September 1942 – we arrived at our final destination the small town of Muensingen in the south-west of Germany. We were so exhausted by the journey and by hunger that we could barely move. But it turned out that we were luckier than the ones who had arrived before us. They told us that their freight train had been on the move for ten days, and the train was so packed that for most of the time the prisoners had to stand. They hadn’t been allowed off the train and had been given almost no food.
The town was really a fairy-tale medieval city. But the camp to which we were brought was nothing of the kind. The camp consisted of filthy barracks infected with lice and ringed with barbed wire. It was the awful abode of starvation. They were serving soup made from partially boiled cabbage and issued just one small piece of bread for the entire day. The bread was red as it had been made from beetroot. The camp was run by traitors, Ukrainian and Russian Polizei who looked like a gang of criminals. For their daily entertainment they arranged the beating of unfortunate prisoners. For instance they would only distribute half the soup in the cauldron and then announce that it would be possible to get a second helping. Men mad from hunger, ran to the cauldron. A fight would follow and the Polizei would start beating everyone with their long truncheons.

The Germans issued a special green card to each one of us. This contained our personal data – our height, the colour of our hair and eyes, the names of  our parents and their ethnic origin were noted down on the card. They were still looking for people with Jewish or Gypsy blood and anyone like that was going to be liquidated. Two photos were attached to the card and the impression of our fingerprint was also added. Apparently, this was exactly like the system used in German prisons. Each one of us had to wear a rectangular dog tag made out of aluminium. This had a 5-digit personal number to identify the prisoner and also bore the number of the camp (in this case Stalag 5a). The dog tag was divided into two by perforations. If a prisoner died the tag was broken, one part remained around the corpses’s neck and the other was kept for accounting. Everything was done with German efficiency. I might also mention that German soldiers also wore dog tags with a number, but their dog tags were oval-shaped. Later those prisoners who joined the Russian Liberation Army (i. e. Vlasov’s army) were also issued with oval dog tags. But we clung on to our rectangular dog tags to prove that we had not been involved with Vlasov units.

After we were registered and our numbers were hung around our necks, they started placing us into various labour kommandos so that we could be sent out to work. We all wanted to get out of this cursed starvation camp as soon as possible. Some dreamt of being assigned to work in a sugar factory, where they might eat some raw beetroot. We four stuck together during this distribution and we were assigned to a team of some thirty men. It was considered an officer’s team, although only half of the men in it were officers. The others were privates and NCOs who thought they would get better conditions if they were placed in the officers’ team. No one could check their rank anyway – all our papers had been destroyed.

Because of the horrible food in this camp we started to have diarrhea. I had to get up several times during the night and go to the latrine, which was some distance from the barrack. One night, as made my way  there, a German guard, rather short and fat, barred my way. I stopped and instinctively asked: ‘What do you want?’ He cursed me, and I had to go around him in order to continue. On the way back, I heard this guard telling another: “How do you like that? These swine dare ask us what we want! We just want them all to die!’

Ever the survivor, Lukinov didn’t die. Instead he spent the next three years as a slave labourer working on German railways. Housed in a primitive camp near Stuttgart he and a work commando of fellow prisoners were responsible for repairing track after Allied bombing raids. Conditions were atrocious and the Soviet prisoners were literally at the mercy of their German captors. In April 1945 these captors led the prisoners westwards before abandoning them on 24 April. The next day, at 05.30 in the morning, Lukinov and his fellow pows were liberated by an American unit.