Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

Prisoner of War

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

In the morning of 18th April 1945, the last day of my life as an active soldier, the sixty-odd men still remaining of the originally battalion-strength Einheit Frencken were positioned along what can be called a "thin red line" on the western (roughly) side of a canal somewhere between the rivers Oder and Neisse. Ever since our Battalion arrived in that area late in January, for almost three months our movements were confined to the triangle formed by the (now Polish) city of Nowa Sol in the south-east, the German city of Forst on the western bank of the river Neisse and, in the north, the point where Neisse flows into the river Oder.

Of course the segment defended by our small group was rather short and so, even without being briefed about the situation, we have noticed that very early on the second day after our arrival on our right flank were digging-in some Hungarian troops (by-the-way, wearing Danish uniforms because they could no longer be supplied from their own stores) and on the left arrived an under-equipped, hastily-formed unit of – perhaps one company-strength, composed of a mix of old men and underage boys, some looking not older than sixteen, many not even wearing a steel helmet.

As I was about to find-out, not all of these fellows were German either. The Russians were pressing hard, they needed to establish a foothold on our side of the canal, and for about eight hours, which seemed to last forever, we were preventing them from doing that. Our fight was taking place, roughly speaking, along the edge of a cultivated pine forest running only about 20 to 50 metres from the canal. Of course, we have paid a heavy price as one-by-one our friends ended-up face down on the ground, behind trees, crumpled in hastily scratched-out foxholes, or draped over man-high bushes, still clutching their rifles in dead hands.

During the many hours of intense fighting a terrible lot of ammunition was exploding throughout the area and many scattered fires were started by incendiary shells. Even though, especially in those times, all forests in Germany were pretty well picked clean for firewood, there were still a lot of fallen dead pine needles and minor dry twigs on smaller trees close to the ground and this waste was burning all over the place, producing more smoke than fire. The season was a rather wet springtime. If it had been summertime, we would have been incinerated in a huge forest fire.

Nothing very valuable was gained by our valiant and costly effort, because on both our flanks by midday or soon after, the Red Army did succeed in establishing a bridge-head and soon our little band found itself encircled. Finally, at about three in the afternoon the last surviving Feldwebel (aust.: Warrant Officer) assembled the last remaining 17 men (incl, himself) and made a decision – "Scatter and, singly, or in twos or threes, make your way back to the Headquarters. Good luck to all of us"! Of course, we only had a faint notion of where our HQ might be by this time, but – scatter we did.

I was running alone, along a barely-defined forest path through the burning and smoking under-growth, my face camouflaged by sweaty soot, lungs choking from smoke, my eyes watering. Suddenly, as I emerged from one of the thicker clouds of smoke, I saw, about 50 to 80 metres up-ahead, a group of what I thought were some of those Danish-clad Hungarians and I kept running towards them. I noticed though, that they were shouting and motioned to me pointing repeatedly with open hands to the ground. It is amazing how fast the human brain can work, when everything depends on speed.

I have recalled my fathers' description of his capture during the first World War and he mentioned this same gesture as well as words which I remember as: "Brosi vintovku!" (engl.: Drop your rifle!). I instantly dropped the dangerous thing, all the faster because it was fitted with sniper sights. I stopped dead in my tracks and slipped from my belt the demountable telescope in its protective container, threw that away, and started lifting my hands high up in the air as is customary in such situations. And just then my brain arrived at the point when it had recognised the utter absence of any future for me and, somehow, I still had enough fire in my belly to decide that I did not want to die humiliated. And so, instead of surrendering with my hands high in the air, I used the rest of their movement to lift the steel helmet from my head.

I dropped it, reached for my field cap, which I was carrying folded under the flap of my food-bag and placed it on my head. Only some time later I realised, that this was not the smartest thing I ever did, because right front centre of that item of headgear was the scull emblem of the Waffen-SS. As it turned out, however, it did not make any difference to what followed. The Russians were motioning to me to join their small group and as I came close enough they checked me out for hand grenades and such stuff, which I wasn't carrying. Except, perhaps, for the last couple of clips of rifle rounds in my pocket. Then the man leading the small band, young fellow in his early twenties, "Starshina" (engl. Sergeant) asked me: "A shto ty takoy?" (engl.:And what are you?) Just about then I noticed that they had already captured one of those rag-tag band of "Werewolves" fighting for a while on our left flank. He was a very young boy of about 16, unluckily for him a White Russian volunteer. Poor lad, he probably never saw the sun rise again. Also, they probably became aware during the recent few hours of the Hungarians nearby. Hence the question "What are you?" My spirits slowly began to rise, as I answered "Ja Slovak." (engl.: I am Slovak).

Then he barked at me:" What do you mean – Slovak -, you're wearing German uniform." Please bear with me-. At the time I had never heard of Ned Kelly and I had not heard anyone quote Neds' famous "Last Words" and yet, I have answered the sergeants question with (in Slovak) "Taky je zhivot!" (engl.: Such is life!). Then he asked me if I had any cigarettes on me. Luckily, I did have an almost full packet. I handed it to him, he took one out, passed the packet around and when there remained about six cigarettes still inside, he retrieved it and handed it back to me.

"There are honourable soldiers in all armies"

This I really did not expect and I began to hope that I shall survive the experience. Surely they would not bother handing back those cigarettes to a man they were about to kill. I didn't know it at the time and only heard perhaps a week later, that two days earlier, on the 16th of April, Stalin himself issued an order to all frontline troops prohibiting summary executions of captured enemy soldiers. You can say that I have survived to tell this tale only thanks to Stalins' realization that his reputation as a bloodthirsty animal was already "…bad enough, thank you!"

So, here we were, a group of about ten Russians with one Maxim water-cooled machine gun, the sergeant holding a submachine gun and the rest of his group armed with rifles and hand grenades, and in the middle two disarmed prisoners, when, suddenly someone started shooting in our direction. Most likely it was a group of perhaps three of my scattered former comrades. We were standing in a shallow depression in the forest and when the bullets started flying, we threw ourselves to the ground. The Sergeant then told me to stand up on the rim of the hollow and call out to the men firing at us to lay down their arms and surrender.

Nothing bad will happen to them if they do so. For a brief moment I noted with some satisfaction that I had no difficulty understanding exactly what he was telling me in Russian, but then I realised that I now found myself in a no-win situation. If I do as I am told there is no way those fellows will surrender, - I knew that in their place I wouldn't. What they will do is – shoot at me. On the other hand, if I don't do as I am told, the Russians will very likely shoot me. So, considering that the Germans were about 80 metres from us and the Russians could reach me with their rifle butts, I opted for calling on my old friends to surrender.

I comforted myself with the fact that, after all, nothing bad has happened to me, at least up to that point, and there was no obvious reason why they should be treated differently. I had barely opened my mouth, when one or two short bursts from a sub-machine gun brought me down. One bullet hit me in the upper thigh. My luck held though, and I have suffered only a flesh wound. The bullet passed through muscle tissue and came out only about 12 cm from where it entered. But – it was a wound caused by a german bullet and above all I was wounded obeying the orders of a Russian sergeant.

There are honourable soldiers in all armies and I was fortunate enough to fall into the hands of some of them. Soon after that we have disengaged and I was taken to a roadside first aid station. My wound was cleaned and tightly bandaged. I found that I was able to walk with only a slight limp and so, with a small group of other "walking wounded" and accompanied by a lone armed guard we have set out away from the front line, which now meant that we were finally moving east - or north-east, however, not as conquering army, but as prisoners of war. That evening we were interrogated and then spent the night on a heap of straw in a stable only recently vacated by goats – as our noses told us, and the following day we have travelled on the back of an open truck to the city of Swiebodzin (now in Poland). At the time its german name was Schwiebus. Here, in an abandoned factory for "virtual" rubber dinghies the Russian Army has set up a field hospital.

It didn't look at all forbidding or in any way unfriendly. And why should it? – It wasn't a prisoner of war camp. The factory complex consisted of about five large buildings, with a lot of vacant land in-between. It was enclosed by a high wire fence, but this had a number of gaping holes in it. It was not guarded beyond two single man sentries posted at the two entrances to the (now hospital-) grounds. The largest of the buildings in its three levels housed the wards, operating theatres, accommodation for the doctors and administrative offices, as well as the cookhouse. On the other side of the main entrance carriageway stood a smaller, two-level building. The portion of the ground floor closest to the gate and to the cookhouse on the other side of the carriageway was given as accommodation to us – about 120 PoW's.

At the time of arrival in the hospital all of us were wounded, or sick, but with each new day more and more of us were recovering, largely thanks to the non-discriminating care given to us by the medical and nursing staff in that place. We were given materials with which to construct rows of bunks, tables and benches, also straw and hessian bags to use as mattresses. Besides working on our home comforts, we were helping with the loading and unloading of stores and equipment, with kitchen duties and also in the wards and operating theatres mostly by assisting the nursing staff in manhandling the patients and constantly carrying them up and down staircases, because the elevators weren't in working order ( or were non-existent, - don't remember which). Then there was also the melancholy duty of digging the graves for the poor unfortunates who "didn't make it". Seldom a day passed without one or two funerals, but as can be expected, after such a long time spent at or near the front and so many funerals hardly anybody shed any tears anymore.

My pathetic little wound healed after a few days but no-one was mentioning any transfer to a PoW camp. The hospital was run by medical, not by military men and we were treated more as cheap hired help, than as captured enemies. One of the first tasks, which kept me busy for a couple of days, was the painting of huge banners for the coming celebration of the traditional communist 1st of May holiday. All through – especially - the first two weeks in captivity I didn't miss a single opportunity to strike up a conversation with one or another of the Russians in order to improve my Russian language skills.

Very soon this effort was well rewarded. One evening, in the first few days of May soon after our 6 o'clock evening meal, Major Lugovskyj who was in immediate charge of us, prisoners, came into our quarters and asked us to "fall-in" outside our building on our little parade ground, where he wanted to form us into several groups, one to each designated part of the hospital grounds, to give the place a bit of a clean-up. He had only just received a tip-off from a friend in the right place, that the next morning an inspecting group will arrive at the hospital.

Now, according to military tradition, each group of PoW's, such as we were in our hospital situation, is headed by a senior ranking officer. Our top man, a Captain, I think, and his sidekick, a man with some kind of Russian background, speaking fluent Russian and performing the function of interpreter, both have decided not to co-operate and told the Major that according to the Geneva Convention PoW's are not supposed to work after their evening meal. The Major controlled himself and pointed out that he is not ordering us to do this, but asking us nicely. The German Captain still refused, so the Major asked for volunteers. About 30 or 32 of us, including myself, have stepped outside and the Major jotted down all our names, and then we cleaned up the grounds.

"after the departure of our fellow PoW's to Russia"

It took us a fair while, I remember that we have finished the job by the light of electric torches, but by the next morning we were very glad we didn't stick with the captain. No sooner the inspecting Commission departed, we were called out to line up on the parade ground where the Major separated our small co-operative group to one side and the defiant rest with the Captain (who knew his rights) and his loyal interpreter were informed that the following day they will be travelling by train to Russia. Then he turned to me and gave me the authority held until then by the Captain and I have also taken over the interpreters' job. I was still a Prisoner of War but I felt as though the world was my oyster.

With the number of prisoners now down to less than forty, which included a few remaining bedridden cases, our lives took on an even more peaceful character. We went to work in the morning and enjoyed our rest at night. We had good food and enough of it to eat, soft enough beds and warm enough blankets, even plenty of books to read. German books, of course. It is true that we all wanted to go home and couldn't, but neither could the Russians who kept us there. My work consisted of little more than allocating men to the various tasks in the morning and for the rest of the day I just had to ‘stick-around" somewhere close where I could be contacted if needed.

One day, about three days after the departure of our fellow PoW's to Russia, around noon, I was sitting on a piece of grassy high ground outside our accommodation block, overlooking the road, the front fence and the nearest gate, when from the direction of the city, on my left, came at a fair clip a horse-drawn carriage carrying some five or six polish officers, all obviously drunk, waving bottles in the air, shouting and singing. As the horses approached the sentry at the gate they yelled: "The war is over! Now you can all go home to Russia!" It was Tuesday, May 8th 1945. The Russian soldier calmly unslung his submachine gun and fired a burst at the Poles. The singing and shouting stopped and a few seconds later the wagon with the bleeding revellers turned into the second gate into the hospital grounds in search of first aid. And that was the first day of Peace in Schwiebus.

The remainder of our stay in that city, or rather on the outskirts of it, were rather mundane. We kept on performing our daily chores, and after work amused ourselves with board games and books. It was a major stroke of luck, that the period of our stay in Schwiebus coincided with the warmest part of the ("European") year. Winter in that place, without adequate heating, would have been a lot harder to take. At one stage we were ordered to build an open-air stage and seating for about 150. We have built it, including dressing rooms and when the entertainment troop arrived, the Commanding officer, near-7-foot tall Georgian colonel, a medical man, invited all of us PoW's to sit on the rear benches and enjoy the show. When a group of Georgian dancers took the stage, he walked onto the boards and joined them in a dance. And there we were, clapping in the audience as our CO, our "jailer", entertained us.

There were amongst us a couple of quite gifted artists, who wanted to decorate the area which was serving as out dining room. I myself had dabbled a bit, mostly with watercolours; while still at school, so I managed to obtain from our Russian "masters" some paints and brushes, varnish and oil, - not necessarily the best quality, but quite serviceable – and each of us painted a large mural on one of the three walls. The fourth was just about all taken up by the high double entrance door to what was originally one of the rubber factorys' work halls. One of us produced an exotic seascape. The other an alpine scene, snow-covered mountain peaks with a few cows grazing in the foreground and I have chosen an italian garden, complete with a domed white marble music pavilion. I had painted that picture as a watercolour a few years earlier at school.

As the months passed, our uniforms began to look rather shabby, so we got stuck into another project. During our bitter house-to-house fighting in Forst I had "rescued" a thin but very helpful zippered windcheater, which I wore since then under my uniform tunic for extra warmth. Now, after six months, it too was reaching the end of its' usefulness. It was decided that we shall use it as a pattern for British-style battledress-like blouse. There was practically limitless supply of white coarse linen-type material in the storehouse of the factory. It was used in the manufacture of the sausage-shaped main body of the rubber dinghies this factory was producing during the war. Old Major Lugovskyj fixed us up with a quantity of needles, the necessary thread we obtained by unravelling some of the linen, the only things we couldn't get were zippers. But there was no shortage of buttons everywhere.

One of our fellow-PoW's was a tailor in civilian life, He took my windcheater apart and using it as a pattern, cut the linen to measure for all the fifteen or so men who wanted to replace their uniform jackets with their own "creation". The tailor himself was sewing together my new blouse as a step-by-step demonstration to the keen students of his "class of ‘45". And he managed to re-cycle my one and only zipper. Our new garments still left us looking somewhat "uniformed", but we did look a little less German, which was at least psychologically good all ‘round.

In August I had, what has turned out to be my last bout with malaria and I was admitted to the Russian ward in the hospital. I can not speak too highly of the care I have received. Perhaps to some people it may seem odd, but I speak the truth and if my story tends to balance out – to some degree – stories told by other captives of the Russians, then so be it.

One day Major Lugovskyj called me to his office and told me that the long awaited orders finally came for the hospital to be repatriated back to Russia. He thanked me for the trouble-free time we have spent together in that place and announced that we shall all be released to go to our homes, because – as he put it – if the hospital needs the help of PoW's in its' new location, there are plenty of our fellows in Russia already. But then he also said something else: "There are amongst you two or three SS-men, what do you think, shall we send them home too?."

The old fox knew very well that I was one of them, but it was never in all that time discussed. So I said to him: "Why not, they have families too." That's when he owned-up and said: "I know that you were in the Waffen-SS, and I don't want to make anything of it, but just to satisfy my personal curiosity, would you mind showing me the tattoo that you all are supposed to have somewhere on your arm?"

I showed him my blood-group tattoo and that was the end of the meeting. We called our men together, the Major announced the good news and asked us to be patient for just a few more days. We had to help dismantle the hospital, move the remaining wounded, load everything on the train, and only then did we receive our discharge certificates. I still have mine. It is dated – 13th October 1945. The following day on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon we have arrived in Frankfurt (Oder). At the halfway point across the bridge over the river Oder our two Russian sentries said Good-bye, handed us our eating utensils ( they included knives, you see…) and we were free men again.

© 2006 Milan Lorman