“Just One More River To Cross”

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World War II was ending with more of a whimper than a Waterloo for the Anglo-American forces in Europe. The Battle of Berlin was shaping up just 60 miles to the south of where I stood, but, by design, the American and British forces were to have no part in that carnage. I was unaware that Roosevelt and Churchill had ceded this piece of real estate to Stalin. What I did know was that I was a prisoner of the Germans in an area where three warring armies were converging, that thousands probably would die in the next few days, and that if I did not want to be counted in that number, it would not hurt to do a little advance planning.

Although the Oder River was 50 miles to the east, the intense shelling of the Russian artillery was deafening and had been for days. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the targets of that fearsome barrage. German survivors later told me that a major purpose of that bombardment had been to make them keep their heads down while the Russian engineers built bridges, during the night, just a few inches below the surface of the recently thawed river.

When the real attack came, they said, any German soldier who dared look up saw Russian tanks crossing the river as though skimming on the surface, followed by hordes of infantry who seemed to be walking on water. The German main line of resistance simply crumbled, and the Russians were across the Oder, in force. Their last obstacle before Berlin, in the spring of 1945, was gone.

Meanwhile, back at Stalag IIA, near Neubrandenburg and its satellite slave labor camps, known as Kommandos , we prisoners were told that we were being evacuated at dusk. We should drop our picks and shovels, go back to our barracks, gather what possessions we could carry, and get ready to move out. We knew from that order that the Russians were indeed across the Oder. We were glad but couldn’t help feeling apprehensive.

Later that evening I, along with about 200 other POWs who had spent the past four months at Kommando 64/VI, bade farewell to the place where we had been employed building roadblocks in the snow and gouging tank traps and ambuscades from the frozen earth of the bleak, featureless Baltic plain. We were marched to a nearby assembly area where all the prisoners in the region were being gathered. Ultimately, there were about 3,000 women slave laborers—mostly Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs, and assorted other Europeans, primarily Eastern but a smattering from the West—and perhaps 3,000 American men, who had spent the last months of the war in the comparative luxury of Stalag IIA; a few hundred Frenchmen, who had been given their parole and had been allowed to work in town unguarded; and several hundred Americans, who, like me, had been held as slave laborers in the Kommandos satellite to Stalag IIA.

 

During that spring night, as we relaxed on the hillside, my thoughts turned to picnicking. All we lacked was fried chicken and deviled eggs. (Hungry men fantasize about food, not women.) Then we all had ringside seats for the fireworks display as the first Russian tanks entered the town square through its picturesque medieval gates. Shellfire from the tanks quickly set some ancient, desiccated wooden structures ablaze, and the fire spread almost instantaneously throughout the town. In the flickering orange light of the burning buildings, I could make out Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth)—the last reserves still available to the once-mighty Wehrmacht—moving forward with their puny rifles. The tanks, which were not the main body but only a reconnaissance in force, swept through the token resistance, swatting the armed children aside like so many gnats, never once pausing as they continued ahead to work mischief on the German rear.

 

After the Russian tanks departed, we settled down for the night. Each group of us had a different plan for the next day. Most of the Slav women wanted to go east, toward their former homes. The Americans and the French wanted to head west toward the Elbe River and the advancing American and British armies. So did most of the Germans, who knew that to be captured by the Russians meant life imprisonment at hard labor. The handful of Slav men in our ranks generally opted for the American side, rather than the Russian, presumably because it was known that the Russians did not look kindly upon those who had surrendered rather than fight to the death.

Sleeping that night under the spring sky was an indescribable joy. It was the first time in about six months that I hadn’t had to sleep behind barbed wire, under guard, or in an unbelievably crowded boxcar with locked doors and no sanitary facilities. When I awoke, it actually seemed possible to smell the dawn. But before I let myself get too carried away, it seemed wise to review my current circumstances and how I could best avoid occupying one of those unmarked graves along the roadside.

For the time being, the most prudent course of action seemed to be to stay with this crowd as it moved west. To use a now vastly overworked word that nobody had heard then, there was real synergy in our group. The former camp guards wanted to get to the Elbe as much as we did. I congratulated myself on having learned German; I was able to provide communication between us.