“Margarethe’s Clouds” and “The Power of the Humane”

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

There are several reports about the fate of the German population in East Prussia after the collapse of the Eastern Front in January 1945. Some of them have also been made into a film. The best known is probably the report on Countess, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, who left her estate near Königsberg in January 1945 and led a large trek with refugees to the south.

The book “Margarethes Wolken” (Margarethe’s clouds) is something special. It describes the world of a youth who had to try to cope with the events of that time. The author, Maria Josefa Martinez, visited 91-year-old Margarethe (born in the winter of 1928) and spoke with her about her life; about the more or less happy years of her childhood in Labiau, a village near Königsberg in East Prussia and about the hard years afterwards. Her father was a Social Democrat, who at the time was quite realistic about political developments. His political attitude did not correspond to the zeitgeist of those years, and he therefore had to bear disadvantages and make ends meet for his family with odd jobs: “No, the Russian and the rest of the world are not our enemies, Hitler is our enemy. We will be called to account.” Or when the “Wehrmacht” attacked the Soviet Union in 1941: “What Napoleon failed to do, Adolf will fail to do also”. “We, the Germans, will have to pay for this.”
Margarethe was an attentive and good student and once wanted to become a teacher. She experienced fellowship with the “Jungmädelbund”, the Young Girl’s Leage, the Hitler Youth for girls. She did not understand much – for example, when Jewish schoolmates simply did not come to school one day, or when a jew closed his shop and emigrated to America. The war came with quick victories at first. In 1941 the “Wehrmacht” attacked the Soviet Union. Margarethe wanted to attend teachers’ training in Königsberg. The parents did not allow it. Bad times would come for her and she would not be able to finish her education. “’Not now,’ her father said, ‘I will certainly be enlisted again, and you must hold together as a family.’”
Soon the first strokes of fate hit them. Her sister’s husband had fallen in battle before Moscow. They had married a year earlier and had a two-month-old baby. Why do people say “fallen” when he was killed? Margarethe did not understand this. After “Stalingrad” her situation worsened more and more. After school, Margarethe had to complete a compulsory year on a farm. The farmer was in the party, leader of the local farmers and also occupied prisoners of war on the farm. Party notables often visited the farm. In 1944 the mood in the family became more and more oppressive. Italian prisoners of war built a tank trench in front of their house, and father Paul was called to the “Volkssturm” [territorial army raised at the end of WWII] at the age of forty. At Christmas 1944 her father was given leave and the family made preparations for an escape, which was strictly forbidden. Pets were slaughtered, the meat salted, valuable objects buried and much more. Margarethe was given a beautiful, bright red angora sweater. It should be mother’s last gift to her.
Father Paul, like all soldiers, was not allowed to tell where he was deployed. When letter contact broke off, nobody had any idea where he was and whether he was still alive at all. Many were simply missed in the chaos of war and their deaths were not recorded anywhere.

 Panic und flight

Margarethe worked for her “compulsory family” on the farm. The farmer railed against “escape traitors”, but she noticed that behind the farmhouse there was a packed covered wagon. Göbbels’ war propaganda even claimed that the Russians would kill all Germans and that determined resistance was, therefore, indispensable. Soon the thunder of the cannons were audible. The first grenades hit the barn and the stable, which were soon ablaze. Dead and injured animals fought for survival and fled in panic: horses, cows, sheep, dogs, chickens, swans and geese. In a hasty departure, the trek of the refugees set off south, knowing that there was no turning back. The main roads were barred by the army, so they had to use side roads. In the confusion, Margarethe found no way to return to her own family and was forced to join the trek.
The difficult conditions and the cold in January 1945 prevented her from making rapid progress. More and more refugees joined the trek, forming a 9 kilometre long train that was slow to move forward. Nobody really knew the way. Thus, it happened that in the morning they marched off and in the evening they returned to the place where they had started in the morning. They had walked in circles. It was mainly a trek of women, children and old people. Most of the men were in the military service. Especially babies, small children and old people died in large numbers in the January cold and from hunger. They lay in the snow. Nobody was buried.
Russian soldiers soon caught up with the trek. Now rapes were committed. Younger women were particularly at risk. The older women of the trek hid 16-year-old Margarethe in the evening under some straw if possible, where she must not move. “Otherwise you will be raped,” they said. Because she did not know the facts of life, Margarethe did not know what that meant. She believed that she would be killed by the Russians in a particularly cruel way, as the propaganda claimed, the Russians would kill all Germans anyway. Margarethe was raped several times.

Back to Labiau

By chance Margarethe met her mother’s sister in the trek. She reported that her mother and her siblings were still in Labiau in their parents’ house and that they were probably still there. After a long wait, they had left without Margarethe – but to the east in the deceptive hope that the German soldiers would protect them. Later, they went to Königsberg in the hope that it would be safer there. They experienced and survived the bombing and shelling of the city. Once again, with good luck they returned to their house in Labiau and awaited the arrival of the Russians.
Margarethe left the trek, which moved on further south and returned to her parents’ house as well. The family, reunited, awaited the arrival of the Russians. They did not kill them, as the propaganda had claimed, on the contrary: “A Russian soldier really takes care of us in a small way. He brings us food every day. Sometimes he gives us potatoes, sometimes a piece of meat.” However, they may not move freely. Nothing happened for a few days. Margarethe was ordered to work on the road construction. The soldiers were waiting for orders, her mother correctly suspected. “The main thing is that we are together.”

Labiau is “cleared out”, the family separated …

Eventually those orders arrived. A soldier told them to prepare themselves for a long journey. Labiau was cleared out. The Soviet leadership had apparently decided to deport the civilian population of East Prussia, insofar as they had not fled, and to integrate those capable of work into the camp system of the prisoners of war, who had the task of helping to rebuild the Soviet Union, which had been destroyed in war.
Margarethe experienced something most dreadful. The soldiers separated the family, dragged Margarethe onto a truck and simply drove off. “Mama! No, no, no! Let me out of here!” All screaming and crying was to no avail. The journey continued in a freight train towards the Urals. Margarethe reports: “That was the worst thing I have ever experienced. [...] I did not know anyone, I was completely on my own for the first time in my life. There were no peers in the wagon either.” She cried incessantly until a woman told her that everyone here feared for his life. The supply and the hygienic conditions were abysmal, so that many died in the train. In the mornings, Margarethe nudged her neighbour to make sure she was still alive. Then the wagon door opened and a soldier commanded: “First dead people out, dawei!”

Forced labour

Margarethe came to a kolkhoz, a state-owned agricultural holding. It was also very hard there. “We had to build our own earth barracks to have a roof over our heads. I was full of lice and had scabies, we were covered in dirt and looked pathetic with our shaved heads. Every potato that was not guarded during the harvest we gobbled down raw and covered with soil and stones.” After a few months, the journey continued to the interior of Siberia, to the Kopeysk labour camp with about 2,000 prisoners or forced labourers – mainly women and about 100 young prisoners of war. They came from different countries and had to extract coal together with Russian workers in the coal mine. She worked here for 3 years underground; without hearing anything from her family and without even knowing where her parents and siblings were living.

The Red Cross gives hope

In 1948, after two years, she received a small pay so she could buy something. During this time people from the Red Cross came. They took her personal details and assured her that they would search for her family members. During the war, the soldiers were not allowed to tell where they were deployed. Therefore, after the war nobody knew who has been where. The Red Cross did a magnificent job: Soon Margarethe received a card from her sister but with bad news: her mother had died of hunger and cold during her hard labour. There was no grave. Soon a second card came with the message that her father was alive and in Schleiden in the Eifel. He had been wounded and soon released from captivity and had found shelter with a nice family. Now Margarethe had only one goal, to return home and that was where her father was. When someone told her that she could travel earlier if she worked hard, she worked double shifts in the coal pit. “So when we were back above ground after sixteen hours of work, we could hardly ‘gasp’, let alone stand straight on our feet.” In 1949 the time had come, probably less because of the good work than because of the political decision in Moscow to close most of the camps. In November 1949 Margarethe, 21, could pack her things. It was not much more than what she was wearing on her body. After a three weeks’ journey, she was able to embrace her father. The best days of her life followed, Margarethe said. Nothing came of her original plan to become a teacher. She had to earn money and soon found work in a paper mill. She met a nice man, got married and had two children that later founded their own families. Thus, Margarethe could experience a lot of joy with her grandchildren.

The power of the humane

Ms Martinez, the author of the book, asked Margarethe what she thought about her life? “The question of what became of me, I already told you: a happy woman. It is anchored in my soul. I am a happy woman because I have born two wonderful children. It makes me especially happy that my father, whom I still miss very much today, has seen my children grow up. That is happiness!”
The reader inevitably wonders how such a thing is possible. Can you look back positively on such a youth? In the words of the 91-year-old today, no bitterness can be heard, no resentment or even hatred of the Russians, on the contrary. What might be the reason? It is noticeable in Margarethe’s stories that even in the darkest moments she repeatedly met something humane for which she was open and which gave her inner support. Her father’s positive attitude towards the Russians enabled her in these difficult times to conceive the humanity she repeatedly experienced with the Russians.
Often, however, she had reason to despair and she could not accept her fate: On the trek to the south, soldiers raped the 16-year-old youth several times. A Russian officer stood up for her and told her that he would punish the soldiers. The next day, however, he was no longer there because the war had not yet ended. Another Russian officer also promised her to do something about the injustice. What’s more, he gave her a tip: the women should tell the soldiers that they had typhoid fever. They were afraid of that. That worked.
The Russians had also experienced a lot of violence. Of the five million Russian prisoners of war, for example, who were in the “care” of the Wehrmacht and the SS, only two million had survived. Margarethe heard about this only later and today judges thoughtfully: “I remember very vividly what happened to us girls as a result of the rape. Sometimes I do not know whether I should think of fate, shame or even a just act against the murderers of all the Russian people. Whereby, it was not human and just.”
Also in the coalmine in Siberia, again and again, she met people who helped her to survive. It was the “power of the humane”. Margarethe was allocated to a Russian worker as a “shoveller”. The fact that he was tall and stout and that his clothes were darned peculiarly frightened the young woman and made her panic. The Russian, however, turned out to be a fatherly, caring friend who protected her and looked after her. The Russian “pikeman” knocked the coal out of the tunnel walls, which Margarethe had to shovel onto a conveyor belt. In the women’s camp, too, there had always been older women who kept an eye on her. By now, she no longer had her own shoes but wore work shoes, a kind of galoshes. To protect her from the cold and injuries, however, it was necessary to wrap her feet with rags that had to be dry and clean. Someone among the women placed such rags, carefully washed and folded, on her galoshes. The hunger and the cold were very bad in those years. “Her” Russian brought food from home and helped as best as he could.
When she fell ill with typhoid fever, she experienced a community and care in her barracks that saved her life. The women prevented her from being taken to the sickbay (because she would surely have died there) and organised the nursing themselves. For this, they stole small pieces of coal from the pit, which they crushed and made a household remedy: a “muddy mash of bread, water and coal dust”, and with the coal, they made sure that the stove burned for an hour every day. Margarethe survived.

Maria Josefa Martinez. Margarethes Wolken – Ein Leben, Treibgut Verlag, Berlin 2018.
(ISBN 978-3-941175-87-7)

She reports with respect about the Russian camp leader Nikita Chita, who was responsible for her barrack. He was a “fine man”. He was proud of his barracks, where there was a shower with warm water. That was very important to wash off the coal dust after the shift. Occasionally he organised the Komsomols’ band (youth organisation of the communist party) and tried to teach the women the Russian national anthem. Other times, on his patrols, he “lost” his matches, which the women needed to heat the stove for the sick Margarethe. “Without them I would not have made it, because they could well have ignored me in the struggle for their own lives.”
The most important thing was the firm inner support of her own family. The connection has never broken off. Not even in the years when Margarethe did not even know where the others were. The “clouds” in the sky were the link to them. “Somewhere there are my father, my mother and my brothers and sisters. They also see these clouds and think of me. Even in delirious fever while suffering from typhus she spoke of her “clouds” through which she was in contact with them. “[…] I always imagined very vividly how Papa and Mama would see this sky and think of me now.”

“Power of the humane”

The book is something special. Margarethe was supposed to go to school like other girls and later become a teacher. Why did she not become a bitter woman who cannot accept her fate? No, she even says that she had had a happy life. I think the “power of the humane” has made the terrible more bearable, alleviated her fate, pushed despair into the background and later helped her to build a new home in a new environment. However, that alone is not enough to explain it. Margarethe had a firm inner support in her family and in her faith and was therefore open to turn towards people. In this sense, she concludes her life story:
“What has become of me? Still a happy woman! I am grateful for my family! I am grateful for the future I had”. “[...] Today when I wake up in the morning, startled or calm, I look out of the window full of gratitude and humbleness and watch the clouds in all weather, enjoy the spectacle of nature’s light, listen gratefully to the sounds of the morning – and then I get up again.”     •

“The humane to power!”

ww. Why only new wars over and over again? – A few weeks ago, Current Concerns presented Heinrich Gerlach’s book “Durchbruch bei Stalingrad” (Breakthrough at Stalingrad). Gerlach was a teacher in Lyck, also a village near Königsberg. As a contemporary witness he describes the fate of the German soldiers in Stalingrad and their captivity afterwards (cf. Current Concerns No 26 from 28 November 2018). Margarethe describes the fate of the civilian population, the horrors of flight and years of forced labour. Both have lost their homes. Both lost sight of their family for years and did not return “home” until 1949 – to a homeland (Heimat) they had to re-create for themselves. As contemporary witnesses, they left us two valuable documents that should give us food for thought. Such books are genuine and show how war really is and what its consequences are. Unfortunately, there are still many wars today. The media reports often remain on the surface and even present the war as an everyday occurrence or as politically necessary. Many politicians do the same. Today we are once again upgrading our equipment. The US demand that Germany doubles its military spending. No objection from the government. Nuclear non-proliferation treaties are terminated, new, more modern atomic bombs and missiles are built, which bring even more “successful” death and destruction and destroy the livelihoods. New tanks hit even better, and new fighter jets bring their deadly load even faster and more precisely to the target. New military bases are being built in the East, as if we didn‘t have already enough of them and although NATO has promised not to expand to the East.
Politically, a new front against Russia is being established. Putin has to serve as the enemy stereotype, and the Crimea is mentioned again and again. It was not Putin who organised the coup on Maidan in Kiev and brought about a regime change by force. Moreover, in a referendum the people of Crimea were able to say what they want. It is actually a democratic process that offers itself as an alternative to power politics and is unfortunately used far too little. – Why has the population in Ukraine and in the two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (who cannot come to terms with the new political conditions) not been allowed by now to vote on a statute of autonomy? The Minsk Treaty provides for this. What kind of politicians are these who prevent this and still expect benefits from military force, even though war – as has been proven a thousand times – almost always leads to disaster? –Margarethe has experienced it as one of hundreds of thousands and tells it in her book. It is very good that an eyewitness like Margarethe speaks today!
The question inevitably arises: Why don’t the young people who today take to the streets for the climate also demonstrate against the war, which threatens people’s livelihoods even more severely and directly?