Excerpt

History of a Disappearance

Filip Springer (trans. Sean Gasper Bye)

April 5, 2017 
The following is from Filip Springer’s book, History of a Disappearance, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye. Springer is a self-taught reporter and photographer. This journalistic debut of his was shortlisted for the Ryszard Kapuściński Literary Reportage Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. He was also winner of the third annual Ryszard Kapuściński fellows contest for young journalists.

Winter

It started innocently enough. Few of the townspeople thought Hitler’s rise to power would bring misery on the whole of Germany. Probably no one at all foresaw that misery spilling out over almost the entire world. People’s lives have improved rather quickly. Now business-owners in Kupferberg are getting government commissions and everyone is producing to meet the army’s needs. The quarries in Jannowitz, which employ a large number of the town’s inhabitants, are also stepping up their output. Word is the blocks crafted in the stonemasons’ workshops beside the train station are going all the way to Berlin, where they’re being used to build the Führer’s new Reich Chancellery. The unemployed are being hired for jobs the government has initiated.  The nearly seven hundred inhabitants of Kupferberg quickly forget the years of poverty during the Great Depression.

Disconcerting rumblings periodically reach the town. The first set of changes is made in the local administration. The office of Mayor vanishes, and a Town Leader arrives. Among his duties is reporting all the townspeople’s temperament and political sympathies to Party representatives. Particularly vital is ascertaining the mood among the workers—the greatest danger is a Red Plague. Communism masks itself behind labor unions, only to suddenly transmute into squads of anarchist terrorists, intent on obliterating the Führer’s great deeds. Therefore, they must be destroyed quickly.

The parochial schools are closed down and the children are required to attend the new public school. It’s located in the old Catholic school building and is run by cantor Müller. One day he brings to class a flag they’ve never seen before. The black stripe represents the German nation; the white one, the white Aryan race; and the red one, National Socialism, he explains. The flag will hang in the classroom—it will hang there every day, unlike the old black, red, and gold flag, which the cantor only hung up on Constitution Day. Starting in January of the next year, each class will begin and end with the Nazi salute.

Now the Germans are, as Rudolf Hess puts it, “the most modern democracy in the world, built on the confidence of the majority.” Confidence in the Führer. This confidence has to be confirmed accordingly, so new officials also have the duty of maintaining lists and documentation confirming citizens’ Aryan blood. Each inhabitant of green Kupferberg must go to the police station and fill out the proper declaration. On this basis they will be given a new identity document. If they have pure Aryan blood, the document will be brown (some say Brownshirt-colored). If even a drop of Jewish blood flows in their veins, their document will be yellow, and they themselves will be put in the special register of Jews.

 

Fall

A year before the Hitler Youth’s loathsome roll call in front of Father Rother’s house, Hugo Ueberschaer, a retired police lieutenant from the faraway Silesian village of Pless, arrives in town. He decides to leave Silesia and hole up in the mountains right at the moment when the so-called Nuremberg Laws are coming into force in Germany. Now people are openly dividing themselves into these superior and inferior categories. The beast is running wild. First the Party dispensed with its political enemies, now it was tackling race enemies. Perhaps Ueberschaer hopes the beast won’t catch him here, that great History will pass him over. Or maybe now he’s so tired he’s simply seeking a quiet nook where he can spend his old age and die at peace with life. One way or the other, he finds what he’s looking for in Kupferberg, at least to begin with. He rents out the beautiful house at number 25 on the square, the one Krün the merchant built five centuries ago, and from which a secret passage was said to run all the way to Castle Bolzenstein. Yet Hugo Ueberschaer does not dwell long in the sanctuary of these ancient walls. Perhaps the hustle and bustle of the town and the noise of endlessly shrieking youngsters on the square irritate him. Or perhaps he merely seeks solitude? On the outskirts of town, on the old road leading to Waltersdorf, he finds himself a run-down hunting lodge and decides to renovate it. The lodge is in a fairy-tale setting. To get there, you have to leave the square, cross next to the cemetery and the school, and then go beyond the last few houses. Then the road begins to meander gently along the mountainside. After a ten-minute walk, Hugo Ueberschaer reaches his rather luxurious hideaway.

The view that unfolds in every direction from there is enough to cheer even the lowest malcontent. Far below one can see the main road to Waltersdorf, while by looking the other way and lifting the gaze slightly, a panorama of the Falcon Mountains comes into view. Though there are many beautiful spots here, a more beautiful one than this would be hard to find.

The lodge itself is built of wood, but it stands on a raised stone foundation. Inside, it contains two large rooms and an attic. Ueberschaer installs a wardrobe painted with folk designs, cleans the house up, and makes some minor repairs. In the attic, he decides to install a spacious library, and bit by bit he transfers his collection from the house in town. It soon turns out there is not enough space in the attic, meaning the first floor becomes piled up with books as well.

So early every morning, no matter the weather, Hugo Ueberschaer sets out from number 25 and heads for Mr. Flabe’s bakery. He also stops at Reimann the merchant’s, then finally embarks on his daily ramble. He walks in an unhurried, dignified manner, with a slight limp. He’s made friends fairly quickly with the people of Kupferberg, and now he greets them with a nod of the head and a smile as they poke their heads out of their stores, saying, “Guten Tag, Herr Oberst.” Yes, a retired policeman is able to enjoy the respect and kindness of his neighbors.

Karl Heinz Friebe is one of those waiting somewhat longingly for the elderly gentleman to appear on the steeply sloping street. The boy is three years old when nearly all the men vanish from the town, including his father. The draft has just been reintroduced in the Reich, and Heinrich Friebe is called up. Only children, women, and the elderly remain in Kupferberg. Hugo Ueberschaer sets himself apart with his gravity, gentility, and the general esteem people hold him in. He is certainly someone to admire. And Little Karl Heinz admires him with all his heart.

 

Spring

The Greater German Reich is so great because it has just increased in size by the addition of Austria, which from now on is called Ostmark. Apparently over 99 percent of Austrians were in favor of joining in the Führer’s great work. Some of the soldiers entering Austria are sons of Kupferberg. In letters, they report the whole operation has run peacefully. Their worried mothers can breathe a sigh of relief.

But not for long. The beast’s rumbling approach is increasingly audible, coming this time from the south, over the mountains. In the fall, military columns make their way from Breslau to the Sudete mountain passes—when the Führer gives the signal, they are to spring to the aid of the Germans living in Czechoslovakia. In border towns on the far side of the mountains, demonstrations, riots, and protests are ever more frequent, with people singing Deutschland Über Alles and giving the Nazi salute. On September 29, the leaders of Europe sign a document that will go down in history as the Shame of Munich and German forces will enter the Sudetenland. So the beast is now just beyond the mountains.

Precisely—beyond the mountains. A person standing in this green town would feel sure the whole world is beyond the mountains from here. You can go up Chaussy Hill and take in an impressive vista of the Giant Mountains, the Falcon Mountains and the Leaden Mountains. Everything important happens on the other side of them. Austria has ceased to exist somewhere beyond the mountains, Czechoslovakia is dismantled beyond the mountains, and Kristallnacht has struck the world beyond the mountains as well. In Hirschberg, twelve miles away, on the night of November 9, 1938, 146 Jews fear for their lives as their synagogue burns, their cemetery is destroyed, and Jewish stores are plundered. Synagogues go up in flames in almost every city and town—in Breslau, Brückenberg, Gottesberg, Striegau, and Trebnitz. Across the Reich, ninety-one Jews die at Nazi hands, and thirty thousand are arrested and sent to camps whose existence no one speaks of openly—though they have already started operating.

There are almost no Jews in Kupferberg. But there are some who must account for their Jewish ancestors: half-Jews, quarter-Jews. One of them is Haenisch the pharmacist. He and his son will come to pay for their partly Jewish blood. But on that infamous night, the people of the village sleep soundly. The greater story is happening beyond the mountains.

Yet Karl Heinz Friebe has no concept of any of this, and even though as they speak the beast is beginning to rage somewhere far away, his only concern is whether today he will see Oberstleutnant Ueberschaer marching to his hideaway. He is there, too, on September 1, 1939, keeping an eye out as he does every day. Neither he, nor the old policeman, nor Flabe the baker, nor Reimann the merchant, nor even little Karl Heinz’s mother has any idea that day is the start of their personal tragedy, and the first beginning of the end of green Kupferberg—for there are still a few beginnings of the end yet to come.

 

Fall

Mr. Ewald Nieke the schoolmaster and Woike the cantor disappear. Mr. Wendler takes their place—he has a penchant for holding sports practice in a gym in the attic of the school. There, a parquet floor has been laid down, so only children with athletic shoes participate. In Karl Heinz Friebe’s class, some of the the children have no shoes at all, so most gym classes take place, at best, in socks. The children don’t like Mr. Wendler much, but this is also because he is much more zealous than his predecessors about holding roll calls where they must hold their arms extended toward the Reich flag.

That fall, soldiers come to the town and remove the bells from the steeple of the Catholic church, as well as the clock mechanism. The hands on the clock face stop for good and never move again. Karl Heinz observes this with curiosity; later on, Mr. Wendler explains to him in class that it will all be melted down to make German guns.

The clock is not really needed anymore—since war broke out, people have measured time a different way. The rhythm of their days is marked by the arrival in town of the mailwoman, Ida Klein. Although she looks inconspicuous, Ida arouses simultaneous dread and hope, for no one knows what she’s carrying in her bag, who will receive letters today, and what those letters will contain. Perhaps the latest news from sons and fathers—this is met with joy, and quickly checking to see when the letters were sent. Sometimes no letters come—this is met with concern, though people tell themselves this means nothing yet. But there are also letters from commanders. These are what the women of Kupferberg fear the most. Those letters come five times to the Rüffers at number 11. Ida Klein knocks at the door of the Seifert, Schmidt, and Kriese families three times, and the Fischers and Mr. and Mrs. Rose twice. In the fall of 1941, Ida Klein also knocks at Mr. and Mrs. Friebe’s door. The letter she brings consists of the brief notification that their beloved father and husband Heinrich has given his life for the Fatherland. He gave it in the Soviet Union, where the Fatherland and its Führer bade him go. The Reich will be forever grateful to him.

Karl Heinz doesn’t know his childhood has just ended. His father’s death is part of the Führer’s greater plan. Now the brave German nation will also do battle in the East, and the Soviet Union will become its greatest enemy. Yet the burden of this effort, undertaken in the summer of 1941, will also fall on the shoulders of the people of Kupferberg. Not just because many of them will lose their lives there (Fischer, Friebe, Kriese, Hain, Hartmann, Kosmaly, the Rose brothers, the Schmidt brothers, the younger Rüffer, and Seifert). When the Eastern Front is opened, Kupferberg begins experiencing shortages. And in most Silesian villages like this one, refugees are arriving from German cities where Allied bombings are increasingly frequent. But the bombers can’t reach Silesia—it’s out of their range—so it’s fairly safe here for the time being. But people are also getting poorer.

Karl Heinz Friebe is now the only man in this family, and an exceptionally important task has been entrusted to him: obtaining milk. To fulfill this duty, every few days the boy rises before dawn and sets off for Jannowitz. There, he somewhat hopelessly does the rounds of the local farmers. This does not usually lead to the intended result and little Karl must walk farther, through Rosenbaude all the way to Seiffersdorf. For a seven-year-old, this is an almost two-hour trek through the mountains. The effort does not always pay off, for Seiffersdorf is suffering shortages of milk and other goods just like Kupferberg. So that means little Karl Heinz must walk to Kauffung. By then he will be so tired his haggard appearance will soften the heart of some farmer, who will sell him a little milk. From there back to Kupferberg will be a six-mile hike. If he manages to catch a car heading toward home, he can arrive before nightfall. But that isn’t always possible. These expeditions are especially arduous in winter, when Karl Heinz must press on through deep snow in search of milk. Thank goodness at that time of year he can sled down to Jannowitz, and he eagerly makes the most of that meager portion of wildness and joy. He takes the old road there—the main one running past the brewery and the two stone crosses is closed for sledding. Only cars are allowed on it, but there are not so many of those (fuel is getting scarcer), so it remains empty. Meaning at any given moment, a military convoy might come rolling along it.

 

Spring

Mr. Wendler disappears. Young Miss Franzky takes his place. She lives in the yellow two-story villa near the brewery and is the daughter of its owner, old Georg Franzky. It’s not long since she graduated from high school, but helping hands are needed all over town, and so she is entrusted with teaching the children. Everyone greets the decision with joy—the Franzky family enjoys great respect in Kupferberg, and Mr. Wendler was never well liked here. People will only think warmly of him two years later, when he turns up dead somewhere on the Hungarian-Romanian border.

Gisela! Gisela Franzky! Karl Heinz Friebe loves her with a love as great as a seven-year-old’s love for his teacher can be. Little Karl does absolutely everything for Gisela; in the evenings he pores over his book in hope the next day her brown eyes will give a glimmer of acknowledgement, and maybe even approval. After school, little Karl Heinz hides in the bushes and waits until Gisela leaves school. This is when the young teacher abandons all the seriousness and sternness she is forced to maintain in front of the children. She looks around intently to see if anyone is watching, and next she does what she herself forbids her students to do—she squeezes under the fence and races through the meadow, taking a shortcut home.

One day, when as usual the boy is hiding in the bushes near the cemetery (where he has the best view of the school and the meadow), instead of seeing Gisela, he spies a black car stopped in the road, and two soldiers with strange crackling devices walking around what remains of the Adler mineshaft. Karl Heinz Friebe decides not to budge from his hiding place. If he knew what he was looking at, he would certainly observe much more closely. But he doesn’t know. He finds out years later, but by then it will be too late.

However these observations lead him to confide in his grandmother. She lives on the Hochgasse, right beside the Lutheran church. The boy likes to walk along there, he often plans his route so he can pass, slightly awestruck, along the avenue of Swedish whitebeams leading to the double-doors of the church. When the boy’s grandmother learns what he saw, she merely places a finger to her lips. Best not to see, best not to know.

 

Summer

Father Rother disappears. Someone overheard a BBC radio transmission coming from the presbytery. Or maybe they heard nothing at all, they just wanted to point a finger? Or they had no choice? Regardless, when a Gestapo car parks in front of the presbytery, everyone knows they won’t see Father Rother ever again.

A few months after this event, Gisela Franzky arrives at school in tears. Karl quickly manages to work out what has made her upset—news gets around here exceptionally quickly. It’s a small town, people are suspicious of one another, the authorities are keeping their eye on everyone. Everybody knows everything, especially about those who have already found themselves under scrutiny. A series of setbacks for the previously-undefeated Reich have meant there’s a certain palpable nervousness in town. Government radio is still reporting the Germans are not retreating, only regrouping to previously-determined positions more amenable to counterattack. But those brave enough to secretly listen to Feindsender—transmissions broadcast by the Allies—know the Reich’s situation is increasingly desperate. Old Georg Franzky is one of these brave listeners. Yet his lack of faith in Goebbels’s propaganda costs him a great deal, for the Gestapo catches him red-handed listening to Swiss radio, and he is taken away to Hirschberg. This is why Gisela is so upset. Under interrogation, Georg Franzky is beaten severely. After a speedy trial, he is sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. Gisela, and all the townspeople, know this could be tantamount to a life sentence. “Radio criminals” are enemies of the nation, and the government combats them with absolute ruthlessness. Kupferberg is shaken. Now that the priest and Mr. Frankzy have been taken away, not a single person in the town can feel safe.

The pharmacist Kurt Haenisch absolutely does not feel safe either: he is half-Jewish, and so one of few in the town with a yellow government ID. He constantly encounters unpleasantness from Party members. If there were another pharmacy in the town, his family would have certainly been driven out of here before 1939. Pragmatism, and perhaps personal connections and sympathy as well, trump ideology. Yet the Haenisches’ Jewish roots don’t prevent their two sons enlisting in the Volkssturm, the last intake of draftees into the German army, a real popular movement made up of people from the so-called “final category.” The older boy, Ulrich, trusts the Führer unreservedly. When they return home from the front on short stays of leave, he greets his father with a Nazi salute. Perhaps Ulrich’s zeal in showing his love for Hitler is the Haenisch family’s salvation.

 

Winter

The situation beyond the mountains is getting worse. By 1944, the Soviet counteroffensive has reached the Vistula River. It stops there, though not for long. On January 12, 1945 at five in the morning, “Stalin’s organs” begin to play on the banks of the Vistula. A thousand Katyusha rockets give the Red Army the signal to attack. It won’t stop until it reaches Berlin. Over the next few days, panic breaks out in the furthest-flung eastern provinces of the Reich. Since mid-January, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Upper Silesia—mainly women and children—have already been heading west. On January 20, all across Breslau the civilian population is ordered to abandon the city immediately. The scene on the streets is like Dante’s Inferno. There’s not space on the trains for everyone, so thousands set off on foot in sub-zero temperatures.

Helena Szczepańska is also among the refugees. She’s eight years old and the youngest of five siblings. Until now, she and her mother have lived in Niklasfähre, on the border of Upper and Lower Silesia. Thanks to their German ancestry—and despite their de-facto Polish ethnicity—they are evacuated along with the other Germans. They stop for a day when they reach Schurgast, and then walk westward for almost two weeks. On February 1, 1945, they reach a small town on top of a hill—Kupferberg. Helena will remember this place well, for during their almost three-week trek through Silesia, Kupferberg is the only place she and her family get to sleep in a heated building. Everywhere else they sleep in barns, sheds, cellars and God knows where else.

Starting in early 1945, a post operates in the Black Eagle Tavern giving out hot meals and tea for refugees from the East. Before long, Kupferberg’s population has grown to nearly a thousand. The authorities estimate there are almost twenty thousand refugees in the region around Hirschberg. Watching them, young Karl Heinz Friebe wonders if he, his mother, and little sister will share the same fate. The feeling of hunger hasn’t left him for some months, and the supplies they’d prepared that summer are slowly running out. Bread, milk and sugar are getting harder to find. It’s true the authorities have issued ration cards, but they’re no use, because finding anything to buy with them borders on a miracle.

The townspeople and the refugees generally believe even a trek over the ringing frost is better than falling into the Communists’ clutches. People can remember the films and photos shot by German soldiers in the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf in the fall of 1944, just after retaking it from the Soviets in a ferocious battle. This is how one of the soldiers who marched into Nemmersdorf described what he saw in the pages of the German press: “At the first farm, there was a hay-wagon off the left side of the road. Four naked women were nailed to it by their hands, in a pose of crucifixion. Two naked women were nailed to the door of the barn, also in a pose of crucifixion. All in all, we found seventy women and children, and one old man, seventy-four years old. They were all dead. You could see they’d been tortured horrifically, except a few who had been shot in the back of the head. Even babies had been killed, their skulls smashed in. The bodies of all the women, including girls from eight to twelve years old, showed signs of rape. Even an old, blind woman wasn’t spared.”

No wonder news of the Russians’ approach makes people desperate to escape. The ones who can no longer flee resolve to commit suicide. There are hundreds of these cases in the towns and villages of the Reich. Entire villages and hamlets hang themselves. Entire families hang themselves; mothers kill their children and then take their own lives. They don’t know that, although the Red Army has committed unimaginable crimes in Nemmersdorf and other places, the descriptions in German propaganda are strongly exaggerated. The authorities are trying to induce panic in the nation, terror of the savage hordes from Asia. You don’t negotiate with a horde; with a horde you fight to your last breath, because falling into the clutches of barbarians from the East is a fate worse than death.

When routine bombardment of Breslau begins in early February, in Kupferberg the decision to evacuate is made. Karl Heinz Friebe dresses warmly and makes sure his little sister is equally bundled up. A blizzard is raging outside. They take the remaining food from the house, as well as their most essential possessions; they don’t know where they’re going. They clean the house, lock it behind them and pocket the key. They know the first section of the route perfectly. They have to leave the house, pass the brewery and then the two stone crosses, which at this time of year barely peek out over the snow banks. They take the road down toward Jannowitz. If it weren’t for the war, there they’d get on a train and go wherever their hearts desired—but at the station, they’re shocked to discover the trains aren’t stopping there, just slowing down a little only to speed up again a moment later and rush southward. The fountain has also vanished from the front of the station; a deep crater now lies in its place, and the walls of the surrounding houses are pockmarked with rounds from machine guns. Karl Heinz Friebe looks at all this and doesn’t understand what the little fountain in Jannowitz had to do with the war going on beyond the mountains.

The refugees don’t get onto a train but instead into military trucks waiting at the station. They spend the next few hours packed together, trying to withstand the deadly cold forcing its way through the canvas roof. Finally, just before dusk, they reach Gablonz and are quartered in the gymnasium of the local public school. For more than a week, every morning they will pack up their possessions and wait for their transport westward to depart. They know their destination; everyone here says there’s nowhere safe anymore, but the least dangerous place is Dresden. That’s exactly where most trains and columns of refugees from Silesia are being directed.

So they wait patiently. Every now and then another family will disappear from the gymnasium where they’ve ended up living, and new ones will arrive in their place. A large share of the nearly six hundred thousand refugees passes through Gablonz. The ones who’ve stood eye-to-eye with Red Army soldiers have terrible stories to tell. One of the refugees will later write in his memoirs:

The terrifying news magnified our fear. We heard blood-curdling stories about young men and old people being murdered, women being raped regardless of age, nursing mothers having their breasts cut off, pregnant women having their wombs cut open and the still-unborn fetuses ripped out, deep wells being filled with the bodies of living people, eyes getting poked out with bayonets, tongues being cut out, crowds of Germans being burned alive in barns or houses, militiamen being driven into captivity by powerful tanks and armored cars charging them from behind, and many other stories that would make your hair stand on end. [1]

Yes—compared with all the horrors talked about in the school gymnasium in Gablonz, the thought of escaping to Dresden is a true comfort.

Finally it’s their turn. They head out the afternoon of February 13. They have almost a hundred miles to cross, but the train they get on stops constantly, because there are already Soviet planes about and there’s a danger they’ll bomb the tracks. But the refugees are moving. They leave Kupferberg, and their fear, behind them somewhere. Supposedly it’s safer in the west. They’re going farther from home, but farther from danger too. Dresden isn’t far now, almost within reach. But when night falls, the whole convoy stops completely; they turn out the lights and everything is enveloped in darkness. In the air they can hear a terrifying hum growing louder and louder, as though a giant swarm of bees were waking from their winter sleep. Karl Heinz Friebe presses his nose against the frost-covered window of the train. The other passengers do the same. They look up to the sky, but can’t make anything out. After a moment, they see the first flashes far to the west: one, a second, a third. Soon they won’t be able to count them anymore; the flashes transform into a golden glow taking up almost the entire horizon. There’s a rumble from afar, but it’s muffled enough inside the train that they can still hear the children crying. They would be able to hear whispered conversations too, but no one speaks. They all stand and watch. It’s the night of February 13, 1945 and right now several hundred Allied planes are carrying out the carpet bombing of Dresden. Over the next two days, they will turn the city into a heap of rubble and take the lives of twenty-five thousand people. Those who managed to get onto the earlier trains leaving Gablonz will also be among the dead. The train from which Karl Heinz Friebe is watching the glow in the west has stopped ten miles from the city, because it was one of the last to leave.

They can’t go to Dresden. That city is gone, so where to now? Breslau is under siege, just like Posen, Thorn, Danzig and Königsberg. They head south, slowly. They come to Gablonz again; there’s chaos and weeping at the station. They don’t get off there. The train will go somewhere, a train has to move, the train will take them away from there. They’re on the road the next few days; Karl Heinz Friebe loses count, he’s hungry and cold. It’s quiet on the train. They’re in Bohemia; they’re getting as far as the border of what used to be Austria. Suddenly an alarm sounds: there are Soviet planes in the air and people are fleeing the train. It’s winter, there’s snow and a town in the distance. They run; the planes are getting closer. Karl holds his sister with one hand and his mother with the other. His greatest fear is losing one of them. The planes fly low overhead and fire their machine guns. First they shoot at the train, then they turn around and fly over the town. People scatter in all directions. They run up to the first houses they see—there are walls and cellars, they can hide there! But no. The whole town closes its doors to them. No one lets them in. They can pound their fists, they can shout and weep, but they can’t go in. They can only lie curled up against a wall and hope the planes shoot at the people lying in the street. Once they’ve flown off, the grown-ups lead the children away, and then pile up the corpses in one place. The train will be able to move on.

They travel this way for three weeks—Bohemia, the Sudetenland, Silesia. Finally, at the beginning of March, they reach Hirschberg, where they also meet those who survived the bombing of Dresden. They don’t want to hear their stories; they’re going up the mountain—returning home. Lomnitz, Schildau, Boberstein, Rohrlach, Jannowitz. On the way, Karl Heinz asks the farmers if perhaps they have a little milk to sell. Finally, the two stone crosses, the brewery building, the key from the pocket. Home.

 

Spring

Columns of skeletons appear in the area. It’s the evacuation of a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. They come from Hirschberg, Bad Warmbrunn and Landeshut (where after a day’s march they end up back where they started and the SS-men fly into a rage). In Bolkenhain, they undergo selection first. A prisoner from that camp later testifies he saw living people thrown into ditches with lime, and the Lagerführer personally kill some prisoners with poison injections.

Kupferberg is out of the way; maybe if the women’s camp in Märzdorf were evacuated, the four hundred women would pass through the town on their grim march. But that camp operates right to the end, until the Russians liberate it.

Bolkenhain is thirteen miles from Kupferberg, Hirschberg is a little closer. It’s eleven miles to Landeshut and barely six to Märzdorf. That’s not beyond the mountains anymore. That’s here.

There are other camps here too, small factories, individual farms where French, Belgian, and Polish prisoners work. They’ve been brought in throughout the war. They were meant to work for the Reich and be glad they were alive. Now it’s said they can’t wait for the Russians to come, so they can point out who treated them the worst.

The Nazis disappear too. One night, in a panic, they load up a van, gather up all their documents and head out of Kupferberg toward Bohemia. The mayor of the town is among them; they’re all Nazi Party members. After a few days, they return beaten-up, with no van, shabby and resigned. The ring of encirclement has long since closed. There’s no escape; the only thing to do is wait.

Explosions can already be heard in every direction; planes appear more and more frequently in the sky. Once they find out the Russians have captured the German airport, no one looks at the symbols on the planes’ wings anymore; they all just go straight into the cellar and wait. Yet not one bomb falls on Kupferberg. A plane is shot down and falls on the rail bridge just beyond Jannowitz, meaning the route to Hirschberg is cut off too. The townspeople are constantly being thrown into panic by word the Russians are coming: one more town will join the ghost of Nemmersdorf. As February turns to March, the Germans successfully retake Striegau from the Russians. The streets there are covered with the corpses of civilians who didn’t manage to evacuate.

Helena Plüschke, one of the inhabitants of Striegau, later recalls when the Russians captured the town:

A Russian patrol bursts into the house. They chase out the women and girls. They catch them all, street by street, and take them to the school. There, it’s hell on Earth! The nightmares still linger in my mind: drunken soldiers, a gun in one hand, a torch in the other—on the hunt. German women are their main prey. Women from Striegau and nearby are held in schoolrooms for entire days, imprisoned and tortured. In over-crowded rooms, their tormentors select their victims. If anyone resists, they drag her down the corridor by her hair to the “slaughterhouse.” Every two or three hours, a special team appears to pick out women for the officers’ quarters […]. Those who return from there are mental, and sometimes physical, wrecks. I am a victim once again. Luckily, I manage to protect my eleven-year-old daughter. I wrap her in old rags and hide her behind a pile of junk. The torture begins by asking whether I am a Nazi. My denial is answered with a powerful blow to the face and then a whipping. They hold a pistol to my head and force me to drink; ironically, it’s German rye vodka. It doesn’t take long before I’m engulfed by drunken intoxication. Whatever they’ve done to me I don’t feel until the next day. Now I’ve completely lost my will to live, and I’m finished. I throw up a few times, and then lie apathetically among the other women who’ve met the same fate.

* * * *

Since the Nazis have fled, Richard Fürle becomes the mayor. (He doesn’t know he’ll be the last in the history of Kupferberg.) When the news of Hitler’s death reaches the townspeople on April 30, a meeting is held in the Black Eagle Tavern. The mayor appeals for everyone to stay calm and reasonable until the war ends, and he abolishes the requirement for them greet one another with the Nazi salute. When he returns to his office, an officer of the Waffen SS division currently stationed in Kupferberg is already waiting for him there. The officer accuses Fürle of treason, and puts a pistol on his desk.

“Mr. Mayor, I think you ought to carry out the sentence yourself. Otherwise, I will be forced to do so.”

“If you do as you intend, you can be sure you will not leave here alive,” answers the mayor.

The officer looks out the window. By now a considerable crowd of townspeople has gathered in front of the mayor’s office. After a moment’s silence, the officer takes the pistol off the desk and leaves. Soon the SS-men abandon Kupferberg.

On May 9 at about five in the afternoon, the first Russian motorcycle patrol rides into Hirschberg. They’re shot by the one SS post in the town, making up the sum total of shots fired in defense of Kupferberg. That same day, Karl Heinz Friebe, walking on the road to Rudelstadt, spots the first Russian soldier. The boy stands stock-still; the soldier would probably have done the same, if he weren’t completely drunk and barely able to stay on his feet. So here they are! Karl runs toward the town and prays the soldier won’t shoot him. A moment later, all the inhabitants of Kupferberg are sitting in their cellars, shaking with fear. They’ll spend almost twenty-four hours down there, because the Russians won’t enter the town until the next day. They drive up the road from Rudelstadt and Märzdorf in tanks. They evict the inhabitants of a house at the bend in the road right next to the brewery, and set up their headquarters there. That’s where the Germans are to come hand in any guns they have, and any radio receivers too. The ghost of Nemmersdorf claims its first victim: in the cellar of the Black Eagle Tavern, the first young woman hangs herself.

 

 

[1] Zygmunt Dulczewski, Andrzej Kwilecki, Pamiętniki osadników Ziem Odzyskanych [Memoirs of the Settlers of the Recovered Lands], Poznań 1970.

 

From HISTORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE.  Used with permission of Restless Books. Copyright © 2017 by Filip Springer.


  • Ron Heard

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