“The Volga was burning...”

Survivors from Stalingrad think back … and time and time again there was also brotherliness and benevolence, which opened a window to life

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

1988 was the time of perestroika – the time when the East-West conflict was overcome – and years of the most severe economic crisis were lying ahead. The City of Cologne entered into a city partnership with Volgograd, with the aim of establishing closer contacts and of fostering human and cultural exchange. Immediately afterwards, the “Verein zur Förderung der Städtepartnerschaft Köln–Wolgograd” (Association for the Promotion of Town Twinning Cologne-Volgograd) was founded in Cologne, and the “Mir Working Group” was formed. The exchange was lively and deepened when the Cologne Association was founded a few years later in Volgograd.

Soviet forced labourers in Germany. (Picture keystone)

In 1991 the “Peace Working Group” made contact with former Eastern workers (“Ostarbeiter”) from the city which had been called Stalingrad, who had been deported to Germany for forced labour at the time of the battle in autumn 1942 and in winter 1943, and who had not yet received any serious compensation. Within the framework of this project, the association arranged correspondencies, provided humanitarian aid and, in urgent emergencies, also helped directly. A fund collected donations and soon had considerable financial resources at its disposal. In 1998, the “Peace Working Group” addressed a survey to its elderly friends in Volgograd who had witnessed and survived the Battle of Stalingrad as young people or had been deported to Germany for forced labour. They were asked to write down their memories of that time. The response and the number of reports were enormous. As early as 1999, the people of Cologne received their friends from Volgograd as visitors, and readings took place in the “Theater am Sachsenring” and in the newly founded “Lev-Kopelev-Forum”. These were attended by inhabitants of Cologne together with the contemporary witnesses who had travelled there. In 2002, the association published the documentation at hand with fifty impressive personal reports both in the Russian original and the German translation.

Reports from the war: Hunger, cold, death ...

Fifty testimonies are available today from contemporary witnesses who witnessed the time of the battle as young people. They endured the most adverse circumstances holding out, or were “collected” by German soldiers as able to work, and sent to Germany as forced labourers. This concerned young women in particular – the men were in the army. These reports should be heard and read. They are a memorial for reconciliation and peace.
The authorities in Stalingrad were surprised by the rapid advance of the 6th Army in the summer of 1942 and failed to evacuate the city’s civilian population in time. In addition, Stalin had forbidden evacuation and escape because it would have weakened the morale of the troops.
Galina Mikhailovna (then 21 years old): “The 23 August 1942 was a Sunday. The morning was quiet and warm. But at noon the sky became black with airplanes, and the bombing began. It was hot, many houses were made of wood, and terrible fires broke out. Houses were on fire. [...] Houses collapsed; the earth was burning; the Volga was burning.”
“And the planes were screaching and they went on and on dropping bombs, they went on and on. My father was killed on 19 September; we buried him in the yard.”
Konstantin Dmitryevich (then 12 years old): “On 23 August 1942, the first massive bombardments of the city began. As a result the city was practically destroyed. The supply was interrupted. [...] The oil depot was destroyed; hundreds of waggons were destroyed on the railway embankment. [...] For days, sometimes even at night, I went into the houses that had been destroyed in this hail of bombs, looking for food. – Wheat, flour ... At night I dragged home water from a spring. Various vegetables grew in the vegetable garden next to our house. [...] As a result of all these things, we were constantly witnessing the deaths of many of the city’s inhabitants. We took shelter from the bombings and the shelling in an earth hut or in a tunnel under the railway embankment. [...] But every day it got worse for us. Klava, my little sister, became ill, and my strength, too, was dwindling from hunger. Sometimes I went to the German kitchen and collected potato peelings. Once I brought a dead dog with me, somehow we skinned him and ate him. But mostly we went hungry for several days together. [...] One morning we woke up and our mother was dead. Somehow we dragged her out, laid her in the snow next to the wall of a destroyed building, covered her with rags and then filled the ground with snow.”
Konstantin comments on the desperate situation of the German soldiers in January 1943, when the 6th Army was locked up by the Russian army, and no longer had access to any supplies: “The Germans, lice-ridden, starved to death, frozen to the marrow by the cold and the strong wind, became like wild animals. All the warm things they were able to take from the inhabitants they kept for themselves. The Germans took scarves away from women, tied them together to form blankets, and wore those. On their feet, they wore straw boots.” (p. 304–306)

Abduction to forced labour

After the beginning of the battle in August 1942, there were still many civilians in the city. A small part managed to flee across the Volga. This was dangerous. The river was under constant bombardment by the Wehrmacht, because supplies for the Russian troops were transported, and their wounded brought to safety, over or along the river. Other inhabitants tried to leave the city and find shelter with relatives in neighbouring settlements. They did not get far. German soldiers collected those capable of work – especially women and young people – and shipped them to Germany as forced labourers. Mothers with children as well as old people were distributed to the collective farms in the region.
Galina Mikhailovna: “They packed us close into goods wagons – so many of us that we couldn’t even lie down on the long journey, we could only sit. The train stopped in the open for us to relieve ourselves. In Germany we were sent to a distribution camp. Factory owners, farmers, households and others who lacked manpower could request us. On the sleeve of our left arm we all carried the inscription OST (EAST) – in large white letters, and we were kept separate from the forced labourers from other countries. We were deployed for a lot of different work – often even without guards. For where could we have fled to?”
The female forced labourers were also used in armament factories – here mostly with strict guards, because the women knew that the weapon parts they assembled were meant to kill their father, son or bridegroom. It would have been all too understandable if they had not tightened a screw firmly enough or done something similar.
Some of the Russians also described the end of the war. Their journey soon took them back home – to the destroyed Stalingrad, and once again, there followed years of deprivation. Some of them also complained that, like the prisoners of war returning home, they were received with mistrust in their home country and even had to accept disadvantages – probably because they had not resisted the enemy to their death.

Real human reports – different from today’s war coverage

The media reports on today’s wars are usually not very realistic. They tell us that has been further bombing – for one or the other reason, which is usually not very convincing. The reports do not talk about the people who are directly concerned. But this is exactly what books like the one in hand do. The Stalingrad book by Heinrich Gerlach “Durchbruch bei Stalingrad” (Breakthrough at Stalingrad) should also be referred to here. The manuscript was confiscated by the Soviet secret service after the Second World War and discovered only a few years ago in archives in Moscow. It is also worth mentioning the book “Margarethes Wolken” (Margarethe’s clouds), which describes the experiences of a young woman from East Prussia who had to work for several years in a coal mine in Siberia as a young forced labourer and today – at the age of 91 – says of herself, that she has had a “happy life”. Also for her, the support of her family – “Margarethe’s clouds” – and lots of instances of human sympathy that she also experienced in these difficult times – opened a window to life. Both books were discussed in Current Concerns (cf. No 26 of 28 November 2018 and No 15 of 2 July 2019). These books touch us deeply because they honestly describe war and its consequences. Also, over and over, the floor is given to humanity, to human feeling. In my opinion, this is the road to peace.

Three examples from the book in hand “… and the Volga was burning”

Raissa Gavrilovna, then 16, was assigned to the older German worker Willi as an assistant on a milling machine in a factory. He could not speak Russian and she could not speak German. So they communicated with the help of a dictionary. Once, Willi told her to by no means turn on the machine because he wanted to adjust something. But she understood him to mean exactly the opposite, and he was seriously injured. His shrill cry of pain startled the workers all over the factory floor, and they all came running. Raissa: “I was very frightened and trembling like an aspen leaf, drowned in tears, as I was standing between the Germans who had rushed towards me. He was taken away; they were saying things I didn’t understand, all talking and screaming across each other. After some time Willi came back with his hands bandaged; he said something to the others, and everyone split up. He wiped my tears off, said ‘good’, ‘good’, it wasn’t my fault. Had he said the opposite, it would have been my end. There were good, considerate people also among the Germans.” (p. 77)

To be purchased at: Städtepartnerschaftsverein Köln-Wolgograd c/o Eva Aras, Paffrather Strasse 18, 51069 Köln, Tel. 0049 0221 68 52 57
info@wolgograd.de or www.wolgograd.de.

Lyudmila Jakovlevna (at that time 17 years old) also has something conciliatory to report: She and her friend met a German who had been a Russian prisoner of war during the First World War. He had not forgotten that he had been treated in a friendly manner there. “Sometimes he gave each of us a piece of bread, and sometimes he invited us to his home, although he was taking a risk in doing this. Galina and I crept there secretly, covering the EAST mark on our sleeves. His friendly wife always entertained us, even though their lifestyle was anything but lavish. But we will remain grateful to this family for the rest of our lives.” (p. 101)
Vasilyevna (then 13 years old): “After so many years, I must say that I have no grudge against the German people. Thanks to the common people many of us survived. The Hitlers, Goebbels and Stalins pass away, the people remain. The people will always be there, and they will be friends, no matter what nationality they are.” (p. 92)

New edition of the book “... and the Volga was burning” in 2018

2018 was the 75th anniversary of the events of Stalingrad. The Association for the Promotion of Town Twinning published a new edition of the 2002 documentation. This time, commemoration events and readings took place in Volgograd –visitors had come from the two twin cities Cologne and Chemnitz, and they lived as guests with Russian families.
Such events are important because new political and military fronts against Russia are being set up. The country is no longer invited to the G-8 conferences, its right to vote in the Council of Europe has been withdrawn, there are sanctions restricting economic and political contacts, gas pipelines were planned but are not to be built ... Chancellor Merkel and the other members of the German government were conspicuous by their absence from the commemoration ceremonies. Neither was the Bundeswehr represented. If you try to find out more about this, you will soon find what you are looking for on the internet. Michael Henjes of the Federal Ministry of Defence allowed himself to be quoted as follows: “Stalingrad is a myth that is not so present today. In the Bundeswehr this is no longer an issue. The threads have been capped.” (“Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung” of 1.2.2018) Such statements are in fact outrageous. Does Henjes wish to go down in history as a “Stalingrad denier”?
Why do high-ranking Western politicians regularly visit the military cemeteries in the West, but refuse to respect the dead in Stalingrad? About 140,000 German and many more Russian soldiers and civilians were killed at that time and lie mostly in mass graves. – In the West there are huge cemeteries, especially from the First World War. Hordes of tourists visit them daily. Why the difference? – The soldiers in Stalingrad also fulfilled their military duty and were not able to choose where and when they were to be killed. But they obviously do not fit into the games of today’s often hypocritical power politics.    •