By Web Ruble
Quiet. It could be a good sign. Or it could be a bad one.
He didn't know yet. However, that day in April 1945 he would long remember. Moreover the visiting uniformed hero of the day -- if he ever could find out who he was -- he would nominate for sainthood.
Friedrich Sandburg, now in his second year at Forstenstadt Concentration Camp, forced his weak, aching body to stumble out the door.
Once a strapping 6 footer and a 200 pounder, he was now down to a skeletal 121. He was just 32, but had some problem in his joints as walking was painful. Energy? He had none. Shortness of breath and abundant misery were his constant companions.
However, today something told him he had to make an unusual effort to get out and see if anything was happening that would be different from the tortuous existence he and fellow prisoners had been enduring.
He was not a death's door like so many in his barracks. But he thought he was not far from it. He and friends had heard whispered reports that the Germans were losing the war. They had seen many non-German-looking aircraft overhead and they heard bombing. One thing, at least was obvious: The Germans were not sweeping to victory across Europe as the Nazi propaganda would have them believe.
Nevertheless, such alleged reports did not encourage him or compatriots much. They would all die long before allied troops happened upon them. Even though they hadn't been fed in two days, they still held unreasonable, outside hopes. One didn't dare to court hope too much, however. The colossal letdown afterwards would be crushing and fatal. Yet hope was the one thing to which they must cling.
He ambled slowly across the muddy track and past the "cow sheds" as he and prisoners called their dingy, wooden, lice-ridden dwelling places. He came to the central open area that appeared to collect even more mud. He wanted to see who and what were guarding the barbed wire.
At first the guards had been Gestapo. Then soon it had been crisp-uniformed soldiers -- most of them SS. Later they had been replaced by old men and boys in the Reich's army. The commander of the latter had been a reasonable man. He had mentioned to one of the prisoners that more soldiers were needed at the front, wherever that was. Then in the last few months, those old duffers and peach-fuzzed youth had been replaced by nasty, loud-speaking women, also in trim uniform.
That's when things really deteriorated. The women looked terrified and acted brutal, showing no mercy. Prisoners were stripped, whipped, beaten, and tortured. It was almost daily routine. Those women guards had demanded removal of prisoners’ shoes. Most complied. The prisoners -- Jews, Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Rumanians, homosexuals, gypsies and people the Nazis called misfits -- thus had to get around in the snow, ice and icy-cold mud in bare feet or rags. Many feet were swollen black.
However, that was of little consequence because many -- perhaps most -- wire-thin, gaunt prisoners were so weak they couldn’t budge. Some could not get out of the racks that were called beds. Still others could not even lift an arm.
This was not an execution place. It was a holding camp. All were waiting...for what? Probably shipment to a death camp like Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Bergen-Belsen. However, few had been so transported. It was like a forgotten camp in the wooded rolling hills, dotted with small German or Polish villages. It didn't need to be a death camp, as all would surely die soon anyway of starvation or disease.
It was with this omnipresent reality that prisoners went about their daily twilight existence. One day blended with another. It never ended, and many doubted it ever would. They would lie in their bunks or hang around the open areas -- sometimes even in the rain -- in solemn groups staring off in vague, undefined hope. Prisoners, of course, died daily. Corpses were removed three times a week by prisoner work crews.
Most survivors to date expected death. Yet there was still this mysterious aspiration. Call it a God-promised collision with destiny. Perhaps some could last until one day when guards would abandon the camps. The gates would open...to what? Freedom? Starvation?
One way to stave off despair for still another day was to try to get out to learn any changes that might give prisoners cheer.
For Friedrich Sandburg today was one of those days. Something told him – he was a convicted anti-Nazi German -- to make the effort. Get out and see. He was one of the few with the curiosity and strength to do so. He stumbled into the open muddy yard, trying to see who was guarding the gates and the wire. He couldn't see. He had to get closer. He moved perhaps 100 yards. Stopped again. Still he could see nothing. Then he decided to tap his last scrap of energy to get clear over to the barbed wire fence line. He finally got there, arriving in unspeakable exhaustion.
Still he couldn't see who for sure was there. Then it dawned on him. The reason he couldn't see was because they were not there! The guards -- women and a few young boys -- were gone! The day had finally come! No guards! Rumbling guns were now heard in the distance. What to do? Excited beyond belief, he needed to get back and tell the others. But his legs and body were spent, about to collapse.
I'll just sit and rest here for a minute...oh, where are the others?
Then he saw a soldier. He, at least, was a uniformed man. But the uniform looked different. Sandburg squinted. The man, armed with a strange-looking submachine gun, approached the fence. He saw Sandburg and walked to the wire. Sandburg hobbled over. The man with a red star on his cap spoke to him in broken German.
"The fascists have left. They go in a hurry. Bolsheviks coming. They in the next village. I am one of 10 Soviet soldiers on a patrol. Others will be here soon. But, believe me, they will not be your deliverers. The first ones will be friendly, but they will not stop. They will keep going to chase and kill the fascists. The others who will follow will be uneducated clods and rabble. Many of them will be uniformed criminals. Some are not even Russians but people from the Steppe. Others are undisciplined and may act like animals. They no doubt will rape the women in Camp Lucetz over there and perhaps brutalize you. The gates are open. Go now. Don't wait. This is your chance."
The strange soldier, who spoke such passable German with a Russian accent, looked at Sandburg. The Soviet in the baggy, soil-colored uniform, was an older man, perhaps a retread from czarist times, with a thin, serene face. Through the flesh-tearing wire he handed Sandburg a package and stepped back. Bleeding from the hand, he gestured toward the gate. "Go!"
Sandburg, in shock, looked over at the gate. It was open! Another Soviet on patrol had opened it. The Soviet soldier departed, but turned and waved. Then he was joined by several others and vanished into the field.
What to do? At first Sandburg thought he should notify the others so as many as possible could leave ahead of arrival of the main body of Soviet troops. But it may take him too long to tell the others and leave before more Soviets came.
He was in agony. Oh, God, what should he do? Was it every man for himself and this his chance? No. He must tell the others. Even though he didn't call himself a Christian, his sense of right and wrong told him he must do so.
At that moment he saw several of his skeleton-like comrades shouting to others behind them. Moments later a few were stumbling as fast as they could toward the open gate. It wasn't clear where they intended to go. Although most prisoners didn't even know geographically where they were, they apparently sensed they had to get out. Others, bewildered and weak, stayed behind.
Sandburg had to make a decision. The word was out, the guards were gone; the gate was open. Now most prisoners knew it.
Somehow he scraped together enough energy to stagger out the gate into the open field, and stumble across diagonally into a patch of trees. There, in the first birches, he collapsed in tears. He knew he was deserting fellow prisoners. His body was aching. So was his heart. His lungs were tearing and bursting. He gasped for air and climbed into a denser thicket.
He heard the commotion. The Russians had arrived in numbers. There was some shouting and even a couple of shots. Sandburg peered out from the bush in emotional tatters. He saw lots of Soviet soldiers. Many were by-passing the camp and dashing across the field. Others were entering the gate. There was nothing he could do.
Just stay out of sight.
Then, he noticed he was still carrying that strange package. He stared at it. Finally he opened it. Inside was a large biscuit to eat, and below it was a blue wooden six-pointed star of David and a wooden cross.
A note in German: Whoever you are. God blesses you.
(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)
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