The battle for Stalingrad has been studied and recalled in exhaustive detail ever since the Red Army trapped the German 6th Army in the ruined city in 1942. But most of these accounts finish at the end of the battle, with columns of tens of thousands of German soldiers disappearing into Soviet captivity. Their fate is rarely described.
That is why Adelbert Holl’s harrowing and vivid memoir of his seven-year ordeal as a prisoner in the Soviet camps is such an important record as well as an absorbing story. As he moves from camp to camp across the Soviet Union, an unsparing inside view of the prison system and its population of ex-soldiers emerges. He describes the daily life in the camps – the crowding, the dirt, the cold, the ever-present threat of disease, the forced marches, the indifference or cruelty of the guards – in authentic detail.
The Soviets treated German prisoners as slave labourers, working them exhaustively, in often appalling conditions. The prisoners could only struggled to survive, to support each other, and hope against hope to return home.
This episode takes place days after their capture:
We are now marching alongside the railway line leading to Gumrak. An empty goods train trundles past through the night. It is going the same way — why does it not take us with it? I have long since given up any ideas of flight. Should I climb on a truck and kill the crew? It is all nonsense.
Under cover of a wall of snow I lie down at a bend in the track and make the attempt to see if getting away unnoticed from the marching column would be possible. The last ones have gone past, and also the guard. No one has noticed anything or taken any action. The cold creeps into my body and brings me back to reality. I stand up and hurry through the darkness after the others. It would be nonsense to flee here! I cannot take a single step from the road without sinking up to my thighs in the snow.
This night too is endless. The previous night we had to stand together in a narrow space in a great frost and now we are marching on without a break. Someone says that the next objective is Gumrak, where we can rest comfortably. I no longer believe it. The Russians have lied so far, but we have kept going anyway.
If there only were none of those damned sledges on which are the Red Army soldiers’ packs and some other things I do not recognise. A staff colonel doctor has with him a large trunk containing the instruments and medicines that he naturally cannot carry himself, and the trunk lies on one of the two sledges. Until now the relief of the sledge teams has gone in an orderly manner.
Franz is conducting himself bravely. One has only to look at him to see that this marching is hard for him, but he carries on. Sometimes I support him, sometimes someone else. How does it actually happen that I have to pull the sledges? Until now I have succeeded in avoiding them. I have had enough to do dragging my comrades along, but now I am stuck with it.
Behind us, my fellow puller and me, comes a guard, his slit-eyed yellow face disfigured by pockmarks. I do not understand what he says. I cannot understand a word. It seems like our ‘further’. I think it also has something to do with ‘forwards’, as to reinforce these words we take blows alternately with a rifle butt in our backs. How can I get out of this? For about half an hour — or is it almost an hour — we keep pulling in this manner. If it had been any longer my strength would have gone with it.
Why does this dog not drive us on with his voice instead of his rifle butt? At last! He has realised that we can do no more and has selected two other victims. Poor devils! I ensure that I get out of this Asian’s sight.
I am in no state to help anyone for the next hour as I stumble along like a dmnkard. Won’t that damned Gumrak ever come? It is already getting dark and there is nothing to be seen. How many men succumbed during the night? When one is already at the end of one’s strength one hardly has an ear for other things.
For every one of us there is only one thing: you have to keep moving forward, staying quite close to the stronger ones, otherwise you are lost! Another man collapses further forward in front of me. Someone says it is Colonel von der Groben. Several young prisoners from his division hold him up and drag him along with them. At last Gumrak comes in sight. We breathe out. There are still 3 or 4 kilometres to go, but at least it is good to see it. Everyone pulls together and gives the last of their strength to reach the goal.
A RAVINE OF DEATH
At last we are in Gumrak. We are directed to a ravine for accommodation. A few weeks ago this ravine had been a dressing station. Now it is full of snow, otherwise we would not have noticed it. New Red Army soldiers have come out of their holes. They stand up on the edge of the ravine and are our new guards. I have no idea where I should go. There is deep snow everywhere. If I look up, I can see the grey-blue winter sky with the dark silhouettes of the soldiers. Someone tells us that we are to rest here for six hours. How can we?
Some stalwarts dig snow from a hole with a plank they have found, while others use their mess tins. Afterwards, like badgers in their setts, they cover themselves with everything available and try to sleep. If only I had the option of sleeping! For many of the men hunger is all-consuming as a result of the painful stress the march has inflicted, crushing their bodily strength. With the patience of angels they try to light their fires.
Franz is very exhausted. We too have to look for something to cook. While Franz flattens the snow in our part of the slope, I look for something to bum, but this too is difficult. What can one find out here on the steppe?
Finally we are able to go ahead and cook. We start a fire with the steppe grass that I have managed to scrape together. Finally I lay on top the scraps of wood that I had found in the least likely corner of the ravine. With constant blowing — there is no wind in the ravine — I ensure that the fire does not go out, as then all my trouble would have been for nothing, and if we wanted to eat we would have had to start all over again.
Who counts the time necessary when one’s stomach wants to feel something warm again, even though it is only a handful of gruel boiled in thawed snow? I have to keep throwing in snow until the mess tin is full. The snow around the fire begins to thaw, but the ground remains solid. I stand on it.
What is that? An arm appears, a whole body. Can one be so insensitive? So we crouch next to a corpse and cook our meal, as we want to live. We hardly take any notice of the dead man. It does not bother us that he is completely naked.
I look around me. Everywhere is the same picture. We have been driven into a ravine that is full of dead soldiers. Whether they were German, Romanian or Hungarian, no one knows. They lie there completely naked. No one has tried to differentiate between them and they are all the same before the Almighty. The Russians simply let these men perish here. It is a ravine of the dead.