Following the failed bomb plot against Hitler in July 1944 the SS had gone to great lengths to track down all of those who were suspected of involvement. The hunt extended not just to those directly participating in the plot but to all those who were sympathetic to the cause. The widespread use of torture meant that the Nazis soon had many names to investigate. And the net encompassed not only the suspects but their families as well.
Fey Von Hassel was the daughter of the German ambassador to Italy who had been arrested for his anti Nazi views. She had been arrested and sent first to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Her two young sons had been taken taken from her, destined, like many other children of Nazi prisoners, to be given new identities and adopted by ‘good Aryan’ families. Now along with millions of others, they were travelling west to escape the advance of the Red Army.
As a ‘special’ category of German prisoner, the group that von Hassell was travelling with, which included elderly relatives of von Stauffenberg, enjoyed better conditions than most other prisoners. It turned out that they were better treated than many other Germans who were not prisoners, at least they were on a train, sheltered from the winter weather:
This time we had more space, for the Hungarians were put in a separate wagon. We made everything as bearable as we could — thick straw on the floor and the stove in the middle. The train remained stuck at Lauenburg station all that night, but early the following morning it began to trundle forward. It was a fine day, so we rolled along with the doors open. I sat perched on the steps, gazing out at the passing countryside, fighting off unsettling thoughts about my children.
At the curves I could see that the train was extraordinarily long and seemed to be carrying everything: prisoners, troops, refugees, and even cattle, which I could hear mooing at the far end. We took advantage of the frequent stops for obvious reasons. But because the train would always start again without warning, I was terrified of being left behind or having to jump into a wagon filled with strange people.
The idea of using these opportunities to escape did not occur to me, nor, I think, to anyone. The thought of being alone in that frozen countryside, without papers, money, or food, was enough to put one off the idea immediately.
When night fell, the doors of the wagon were kept shut. It never took long to fall asleep, since we were always tired due to the lack of food. If any of us needed to relieve ourselves, we would delicately approach an old tar can propped up in one of the corners for that purpose. When the can was used, everyone, as if on order, turned their heads to the wall. Embarrassing moments, but sometimes rather funny!
Time after time on this journey we would leave a town just before it was occupied or a station just before it was blown up. But the train continued on its way, untouched.
At one stop some of the men went with the guard Kupfer to one of the genuine cattle cars at the back of the train. They brought back about twenty liters of fresh milk. The taste was heaven, and the cows were no doubt happy to be relieved of their burden.
Trainloads of refugees passed us, but many more people trudged along the rails on foot, begging desperately for a place in the wagons. The weeping of the old, the wailing of babies, and the whistling of bombs were ever present.
At one point, at a small country station where we halted due to an air raid, a Wehrmacht officer knocked on the door and yelled up impatiently:
“Open up immediately! Some more people must be put in this wagon.”
Papke answered, “Impossible. I have orders to let no one inside!”
“That is idiotic,” shouted back the officer. “There are women and children out here half-frozen to death. They must find shelter!”
“We are traveling with the prisoners of kin under the special protection of the Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler,” barked back Papke.
“Oh, my God, that Heini!” exclaimed the officer angrily. “I’ve had it up to here with that pig!“ Obviously experienced in the ways of the SS, the officer laughed bitterly and gave up arguing. Papke sat silent inside.
Instead, we were tremendously encouraged by the soldier’s disrespect for Himmler and began to laugh and tell jokes about our little Reichsfuhrer. For once Papke did not dare react. It was dark inside, and there were many more of us.
It is astonishing that in the midst of that seeming chaos, with refugees everywhere and constant bombing, soldiers were still being sent to the front, others were taking leave, and rail lines were being repaired. Our SS guards were still following their instructions to the letter. Little though we realized it, another two months would pass before the Nazi war machine would finally break down.