After the First World War the Baltic Sea port of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) had been a Free City, separate from the rest of Germany, under the League of Nations. The situation had been resented by the largely German population. Then, when the Nazis invaded Poland, it had been re-integrated into Germany and most of the Polish and Jewish residents had been evicted to make way for more German ‘settlers’. Now it was the turn of the Germans to move out.
Hans Gliewe was sixteen years old when he, his mother and younger brother had arrived in Danzig on the 9th March. They had struggled to find shelter from Russian bombing raids which destroyed all their luggage. In the house that they eventually sheltered they found other refugees who had terrible tales of the way that the Russian invaders were behaving, the Red Army troops had even told them that the follow up waves of occupying troops would be ‘even worse’. Then they were evicted from their house by the SS. The Russians were estimated to be less than two miles away.
They got a lift in an Army truck to the nearby port of Gdynia:
There was just a few small private cutters that had got out of the Navy confiscation order somehow or other. In front of the port commander’s place people stood in long lines. He looked at us sadly and said, ‘I have no more ships for you. Over there, in the barracks, there are thousands already, waiting.’ Then he smiled grimly and said, ‘A few cutters are still sailing. But I’m afraid you can’t afford them. They charge a thousand marks a head.’
Mother still had eight hundred marks for the three of us. ‘All I can tell you,’ said the port commander, ‘is to wait here in camp. Perhaps you’ll be lucky … perhaps…’
So we went into the camp. We opened the door of one of the wooden barracks. A cloud of stench came to meet us. Hundreds of people sat in there, crowded together on filthy straw piles. The washing hung from strings across the room. Women were changing their children. Others were rubbing their bare legs with some smelly frost ointment.
My brother pulled Mother’s coat and said, ‘Please, Mummy, let’s go away from here.’ But we were grateful to find room on a pile of straw next to an old, one-armed East Prussian who had come down along the Frische Nehrung.
Near me lay a very young woman whose head was shorn almost to the skin and whose face was all covered with ugly sores. She looked terrible. Once when she got up I saw that she walked with a cane. The East Prussian told us that she had been a woman auxiliary; the Russians had caught her in Roumania in the autumn of 1944 and had taken her to a labour camp. She had escaped somehow and trekked up here. He said she was only eighteen or nineteen. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help looking at her.
A few hours later we couldn’t stand the barracks any more and ran away. We preferred the cold. We went to the port. Mother tried to make a deal with one of the skippers. But he would not take anyone aboard for less than eight hundred marks a head. He’d rather go back empty. Mother was ready to kill him with her bare hands.
By the time it got dark we were so cold that we went back to the barracks in spite of everything. We found just enough room to sit back to back. Next to us sat a woman whose child had just gone down with dysentery. Next morning it lay there, so little and pale.
An Italian prisoner of war who worked on the piers told us that a small ship from Koenigsberg had arrived and was docking a little farther up the coast. The woman next to us went to take the ferry and go over there. She left the child behind with us and promised to come back and fetch us. She kept her word, too.
When she came back she told us that she had met an acquaintance from Koenigsberg who for five hundred marks and her ring had promised to smuggle her and her child on the ship. He could do nothing for us, but she would not forget us. And she did not forget us.
We ran away from the barracks for the second time and paid an Italian to row us over to the dock where the ship was. He looked at us sadly, and said in his poor German he would like to go home, too. On the dock we waited near the ship, and finally our ‘neighbour’ from the barracks— she made out we were her real neighbours — persuaded her acquaintance to smuggle us aboard, too.
Most of those on the ship were from Koenigsberg. Some of them had gone ashore and were now coming back. We walked along with them as if we belonged. Then we hid in the cold, draughty hold of the ship. We huddled close together, but still we were terribly cold. But we did not dare to move, let alone go up, for fear they would recognize us as stowaways.
The night went by. The rumble of artillery over Danzig grew very loud. A man who had been up on deck said the sky was all red with the fires. We were so happy and grateful that we could lie in the draughty hold of the ship. But we were shaking with fear that we would be found out and put ashore.
Then the ship pulled out, and we breathed again.
This account appears in JuÌrgen Thorwald: Flight in the winter