Following the German retreat in Russia

A German picture from January 1942 of a pile of frozen corpses, stated to be Russian, stacked in the snow.

A German picture from January 1942 of a pile of frozen corpses, stated to be Russian, stacked in the snow.

Another view of the same scene, picture taken near Cholm.

Another view of the same scene, picture taken near Cholm.

As the Germans retreated from many of the areas west of Stalingrad and sought to improve their lines of defence, the Soviet authorities were uncovering the effects of their occupation. Travelling with them was British journalist Alexander Werth. On the 10th January 1943 he entered the small Russian town of Zimovniki which the Germans had only just left:

The streets of Zimovniki were deserted now, and there was a fair amount of damage from shelling. It was a pleasant little town, with trees lining the wide streets, many cosy-looking little wooden houses, and a few modern buildings.

At the crossing of the two main streets stood the pedestal of Lenin’s statue, but, with the exception of one leg, Lenin had been removed. Behind the Lenin statue was the clubhouse, and on the other side of the street a fairly large cinema. The street signs, painted on rough boards, were some in German, others in Rumanian.

The clubhouse, a large hall for meetings and entertainments, with a gallery round it, had all its windows blasted. The place had been used as a barracks by the Germans. The whole floor was covered with bundles of straw on which the Germans had slept.

The galleries and the rostrum were still decorated with fir-tree branches, and the tables and the heaps of straw were still littered with the remains of what looked like a New Year celebration – dozens of empty wine and brandy bottles, mostly French, empty tins, German cigarette and biscuit cartons.

Here, on one of the tables, also lay a pile of German newspapers and magazines. One of them, showing German soldiers basking in deck-chairs on a verandah overlooking the sea- was this Anapa? – had as its main feature a touristy article on ‘Der Herrliche Kaukasus und die Schwarzseekuste‘. So they had already been making themselves at home in the Caucasus!

The magazine was only three weeks old; now they were beating it from the Caucasus as fast as their legs would carry them …. To the right of the rostrum were several school desks, and a piano with its keys no doubt deliberately smashed. The whole place was like a pigsty.

Outside there was still a notice beginning with the words: “People of Zimovniki, we have come to liberate you from the yoke and lawlessness of the Bolsheviks….” The rest had been torn away.

While I had been inspecting the clubhouse, some of the others had gone across the street, into the little park at the back of the cinema. Some came back looking rather white. In the park, Russian soldiers were digging a common grave for the Russians who had been killed at Zimovniki.

There, in the park, seventy or eighty Russian corpses were placed in rows, in horrible, frozen attitudes, some sitting up, others with their arms wide apart, some with their heads blown off, also some bearded elderly men, and young boys of eighteen or nineteen, with open eyes. How many common graves like this – “brother graves” the Russians call them so well – are dug every day along these two thousand miles of the Russian front?

See Alexander Werth: The Year of Stalingrad

The damage to Zimovniki was not too bad, the Germans had left in a hurry. As 1943 progressed they would become practiced at the comprehensive destruction of everything that they had to leave behind.

There was plenty of evidence of the behaviour of the Germans in the occupied areas, not just from the accounts of the people who were liberated. Photographs found on the bodies of the German dead clearly showed what was going on. A German picture from January 1943 showing the mass execution of 'partisans'.

There was plenty of evidence of the behaviour of the Germans in the occupied areas, not just from the accounts of the people who were liberated. Photographs found on the bodies of the German dead clearly showed what was going on. A German picture from January 1943 showing the mass execution of ‘partisans’.

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