Ep. 42 “We are in the waiting room of death”

Fascist flew by by AA Plastov

A Fascist Flew By by A.A. Plastov

In the next two episodes we’ll get a sense of life under German army occupation in World War Two.

Ten kilometres from Gerhard’s home village is the train station of Matveyev Kurgan. This is the station where Gerhard was rounded up and forced into cattle cars and taken to the distant front lines of the war.

Mius River

River Mius

Matveyev Kurgan today is a town of 15,000 inhabitants situated on the banks of the quaint river Mius, scarcely more than a creek, meandering across this rolling land on its way to the Black Sea forty kilometres south. It’s just a few kilometres from where Gerhard was born. For the German army the river was the last obstacle guarding the port city of Rostov, the gateway to the oil rich Caucasus and the approach to Volgograd, then known as Stalingrad. This wandering waterway became the ground over which more than 40,000 souls would perish in two short years. Six weeks after Gerhard was loaded into the Red Wagon, the Germans arrived here.

We can’t know what it was like to live on the front lines of the bloodiest war ever fought. Russian young people today are asking the same questions: what was it like when the Germans came? There are monuments, memorials and mass graves everywhere in this region.

Students in two Matveyev Kurgan high schools interviewed villagers who lived through the German occupation of their town and uploaded their history project to the internet on May 13, 2011. Much of the following pages comes from their work.

Interviewee Nadezhda Ivanovna Panchenko, born in 1927, was there when the Mennonites and all the other German settlers were evacuated:

It was very insulting to evict the Germans. There was a German girl in my class, we were friends. I felt sorry for her, but when I came to see her at the station, they did not let me. They were driven by bayonets, our soldiers were shouting at them, the women and children were crying. They were driven into freight cars, tightly closed and not allowed to look out of the windows under the roof.

It was incomprehensible and scary, the colonists were well treated here, and even when the war broke out, no one in our locality linked the Nazis to the local Germans. Deportation by such brutal means, treating as enemies those they considered to be their own, made us question the justice of the authorities.[1][2]

Gerhard’s sister born in 1926, could have been Nadezhda Panchenko’s school friend. It is possible Gerhard’s sisters Mariechen, 18, and Sonja, 15, who were still in the nearby Nikolaipol collective farm, found themselves on that train. Twenty-five-year-old Katja may already have been married to her first husband Nikolai Bergmann and, like Gerhard’s brother Abram, caught up in a different net. Even though there was nothing to tie them to the Nazis, they were “re-settled” to the East. Now the family was truly verschleppt (displaced), Gerhard’s father and brother having disappeared in 1936.

The Germans had prepared their attack by bombing the town in August 1941. As a child, Lidia Shatalov recalls seeing the first bombs falling and thinking “flying cucumbers.” People dug troughs in their gardens two feet wide and deep enough for an adult to lie down in. The best place to hide in the whole village was the underpass under the railway tracks. Mariya Voloschukova recalls arriving at the underpass crammed full of soldiers and civilians. Somehow she crept inside. They sat and waited. They heard the roar over the engines overhead and listened for the all clear. Someone in the silence said: “We are in the waiting room of death.”[3]

the waiting room of death

This is the actual waiting room of death as it is today in Matveyev Kurgan.

Fright of children in Stalingrad (the bombing)

Children watch the bombing at Stalingrad.

* * * * *

As the German advance drew closer everyone who was not already fighting at the front had to dig anti-tank trenches. Each day the diggers, women and children, walked eight kilometres to the site and eight kilometres back. There was no school. The work was difficult and dangerous. Five to ten minutes after the reconnaissance plane flew over, the bombers arrived.[4]

Soon the residents noticed that all the offices in the village were empty. No one was in charge anymore. Viktor Matveevich Moiseenko says his father was sent home from his job in the village grain elevator by Russians who blew it up to obstruct the railroad. Then they burned the remaining grain warehouses. These could have been the warehouses Gerhard was responsible for weeks earlier. The villagers doused the flames to save as much grain and flour as possible.

burnt grain

Ukrainian villagers foraging burnt grain destroyed by the Soviet army to prevent the Germans using it.

For the next three years villagers ate bitter-tasting bread made from burnt grain mined at the site of the fire.[5]

Militarily, the region was unprepared for war and undefended. The armies responsible for the defense of the south were surrounded and stuck at Melitopol, 300 kilometres to the west. People who had never held a gun were forced into battle. Often three or four “soldiers” shared a single pre-revolutionary rifle. Their names are listed in the local military registration offices as “called to the ranks of the Red Army,” then listed as missing.[6]

German soldiers remove one of many Soviet national emblems during their drive to conquer Russia on July 18, 1941.

German soldiers dismantling Russian symbols

For an entire week there was anarchy in Matveyev Kurgan. Viktor Matveevich Moiseenko broke into the pharmacy and stole tobacco and mints, and drugs for the women of the village. From October 9 – 13, 1941 the Mius was defended by 16-18 year old cadets and instructors from the military training schools in the region. Virtually all the students of the infantry school were killed at Pokrovskoye, 16 kilometres south of Matveyev Kurgan. Trainees of the artillery school were all killed at the nearby villages of Latonovo and Nikolaevka and the remnants of the cavalry school killed at Kurlatskoye. When reinforcements arrived, they were late, exhausted by the five-day-and-night march, and many were too ill to fight. Elena Motyzheva writes one German tank crew member found the tracks of his tank clogged with human blood and flesh.[7]

The rules of German occupation

The new rules

When the Germans arrived, new rules were posted.

Announcements

The populace is forbidden:

  1. To misrepresent the village of registration
  2. To leave the house from sun down to sun up.
  3. To leave the village unless permitted.
  4. To feed, help or take in strangers.
  5. To pass on German military information.
  6. To damage military or necessary infrastructure.
  7. To spread Bolshevik propaganda or to denounce the Germans.
  8. To steal from or defraud the German Army or its soldiers.

Whoever disobeys will be severely punished.

The populace is ordered:

  1. To always carry your identification.
  2. To notify authorities of the appearance of strangers or partisans.
  3. To surrender weapons, radios and telephones.
  4. To return found objects belonging to the German Army.
  5. To surrender Bolshevik propaganda.
  6. To fulfill your required work duties faithfully.
  7. To keep the streets clear.
  8. To work the fields and gardens.
  9. To report contagious illnesses.
  10. To thoroughly cover windows.

Whoever follows these orders will live well under the German Army. Special services of value to the German Army (such as exposing Bolshevik agents and partisans) will be rewarded.

Nadezhda Panchenko hid in the attic when she heard the Germans were coming. She believed the radio stories which said everyone would be killed and the girls raped. Her mother yelled at her to come back down, the Germans were already in the yard. It was October 17, 1941.[8]

GermanSoldierwithRussianWomen1

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Victor Matveevich Moiseenko says the children were forced to go through the library and tear out any page that referred to the Soviet government. The Germans were arrogant, called women and children Russian pigs, entered the homes with machine guns at the ready, pilfering whatever they wanted.[9]

Germans live in this house. Anyone, who harms their peace or property, will be shot

“Germans live in this house. Anyone who harms their peace or property will be shot.”

Thirteen-year-old Elena Beloshenko’s mother smeared soot on her face and body; the pretty girls were being sent to Germany or elsewhere. Antonina Grigorievna Shelkovnikova had a German soldier study the structure of her skull to see if she was a gypsie or a Jew. The German interpreter explained they hate the gypsies for their laziness and thievery, and the Jews for their cunning and idleness. Signs posted in the village said: Walking after 8 p.m. – execution, for a dead German – 10 Russians shot.[10]

Lydia Nikolaevna Shatalova’s mother told her the SS soldiers in Troitskoye were killing Jews and communists in the most horrible ways. Sometimes the buried victims alive and you could see the ground move for three days afterward.[11]

occupation of the home

Occupiers make themselves at home.

Some residents of the village decided to help the Germans and policed the village with fatal consequences later when the Russians retook Matveyev Kurgan. At the same time, a Russian partisan unit was formed. Catherine G. Dobrica remembers hiding five guerillas in the attic of their house for four months while the Germans were in the yard.[12]

At night it was the Russian planes that bombed the German positions in Matveyev Kurgan. After dark Antonina Grigorievna Shelkovnikova took her cows into the fields and watched as flares lit up the night sky and hundreds of bombs dropped. When she returned her house was destroyed and she had to find shelter in the neighbour’s basement.[13]

Russian woman watches building burn sometime in 1942 scorched earth

Burning villages 1942

One morning Katherine Reznichenko saw fires in the town. At first she thought the fires were accidental and ran to look for her sister, carrying her child in her arms. Then she noticed the Germans were dressed in black overalls and carrying torches and gas canisters. The cattle had been taken out, she could hear them mooing and the dogs were barking in panic. Her sister was nowhere to be seen.[14] Most of the roofs were made of reeds. Nadezhda Salomaschenko says the soldiers touched the torch to the roof, waited a few minutes and then moved on to the next house. An old grandmother lived next door and she begged them not to burn her house, but she was pushed to the ground and her house also burned. For three days Matveyev Kurgan burned like a candle.[15] Perhaps the Germans also burned Gerhard’s home village located a few kilometres east of Matveyev Kurgan. It wouldn’t have mattered, there was no one there.

* * * * *

On November 29, 1941 the Soviets launched a counter attack and took back Rostov 75 kilometres to the south and by December 4, the Germans were driven back across to the west side of the Mius and fortified their positions on the height of land overlooking Matveyev Kurgan.

Nikolaipol occupied December 4, 1941

Russian situation map on December 4, 1941. Gerhard’s village occupied by the Red Army.

Now Matveyev Kurgan lay in the cross fire zone between the German and Soviet artillery and the residents served Soviet soldiers. Again everyone who was able dug trenches. It was said the trenches could reach to Berlin. They also washed soldiers’ clothes and cooked their food and gave up whatever shelter remained to the Soviet officers. The Soviet soldiers’ food was prepared ten kilometres from the front and often the food did not arrive. Delivering the food to men in the trenches was a treacherous duty. Antonina Grigorievna Shelkovnikova saw a cook ride out to the front line with food for the men: “They fired dozens of shells until they killed the cook and the horse and the porridge is scattered. Still the men are hungry, so they steal.” One night the soldiers killed Shelkovnikova’s cow and brought the meat to her mother to cook. “Mom guessed where the meat came from. When she asked them about it they were silent. She was silent too and prepared the meat for them with tears in her eyes. War is war.”[16]

Residents of Donbass mourn the dead children

At the front children and soldiers were targets alike. Shelnikovka had grown tired of spending her days in the basement and wanted to go to her friend’s cellar a few hundred metres away. It was warm and she put on a red dress and started to run. Suddenly three shells landed nearby, and she received a scolding from the soldiers. Ivan Grigoryevich Stolbovsky’s friend Ivan Sosedkin was killed running across the street. “He was buried in someone else’s garden, we couldn’t get to the cemetery. His too is one of the forgotten graves of the victims of war.”[17]

Survivors of the Mius Front remember with pride they had not let go of their humanity in spite of the inhuman times. “Everyone said they were more compassionate and open to each other, that, despite the famine, neighbors tried to help others, looked after children, shared the last meal, went to visit, often celebrated, as they could, family holidays. This support saved many lives, people tried to remember the good. Indeed, in the face of the death that lay in wait at every turn, many troubles and petty accounts became unimportant …”[18]

It’s said the highest expression of humanity is to save a life at the cost of your own. There was  a large bomb crater near 12-year-old Raisa Stepanovna Gorbatkova’s house. The soldiers who lived in her house told her bombs never fall in the same place twice, so they used the crater as a refuge during bombing raids. “And so the Fascist planes flew in, and my brother and I ran with them into the crater. Then the bombs began to pour on us. And the soldiers, one was named Derevyanko and his brother covered us. His brother was killed immediately, and Derevyanko was wounded in the spine, the white veins peeped out as he turned his head. He was terribly wounded. We took him to the dressing station on Kooperativnaya Street, he lived for another two days, and then he died.”[19]

CivilianRefugees1

Evacuating the battleground.

Many inhabitants of the region had to evacuate the front line zone, causing hardships not only for the evacuees but also for the “hosts.” Villages receiving evacuees had to make room for them. Catherine Ivanovna Reznichenko and her pregnant mother were evacuated north to Marynivka and spent the night in the street in the rain and snow. In the morning the village council found a place for them, but they were unwelcome. “The hostess was a viper. We were allowed only into the cold corridor, the door was closed, there was no heat at all. My mother gave birth to Victor, she has nowhere to wash, it’s cold, the landlady does not let her into the house.” Then Marynivka was to be evacuated also, and the hostess also had to leave everything behind. Even though she had lots of food, now she was empty handed like everyone else.[20]

In the next episode Soviet recruits tragically try to drive German forces from Volkhovo mountain overlooking Matveyev Kurgan.

 

NOTES

[1] Stolbovskaya, O.I., scientific advisor, We Are in the Waiting Room of Death, the competitive work of pupils of the secondary school № 1 Maxim Stolbovsky and Vasily Khrutsky. Accessed at http://17mkurgan.wmsite.ru/ files/matveev-kurgan-3 on November 26, 2017. Translation by Google and Microsoft Translate, paraphrasing by the author.

[2] Meanwhile in Canada two months later, thousands of Canadian citizens of Japanese heritage were uprooted and forced to live in prison camps hundreds of miles from home. Most lost everything they owned.

[3] Stolbovskaya, O.I., op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Motyzheva, Elena, “Cruel and Scary Eyes of the First War Years at Primiusie,” Personal report of Matveyev Kurgan field trip of Rostov State University of Economics students and interviews with veterans, April 18, 2008. Accessed at http://17mkurgan.wmsite.ru/files/matveev-kurgan-3 on November 26, 2017. Translation by Google and Microsoft Translate, paraphrasing by the author.

[7] Motyzheva, op. cit.

[8] Stolbovskaya, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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