The retreat from Yelets had extended for 200 kilometres to the northwest and the soldiers of the 134th carried General von Cochenhausen’s body a hundred kilometres to Orel where they buried him.
|GERHARD||After weeks of cold and hunger and fighting, we could at last once again undress to sleep. But that was the last December we could sleep restfully and securely. Suddenly someone knocked on our window and called us outside; and then we heard the shooting, as if the Russians were firing every gun they had. After a few moments we realized the Russians were just ringing in the new year with the various tracer shells and other guns. So we went back to sleep.|
Like most war veterans, Gerhard was not one to tell war stories. We learned that he had been in the war, but heard no tales of victory or defeat. It was a point of pride, he said, he had gone through the war without killing anyone. The past stayed in the past and the present was the best life he could imagine. Canada was the best country on earth and he was the luckiest person ever.
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What happened to Gerhard after the disaster at Yelets is unclear but we can trace his whereabouts by following the 134th ID.
|GERHARD||Winter of 1941-42 was an unusually cold winter. As a result the battles came to a standstill. German soldiers were not prepared for the Russian winter. Masses of snow had to be cleared from the roadways by Russian civilians and the Russians had a great deal of patience. In Spring the battles began again. The soldiers who survived the cold winter of 41-42 were given the War Merit Cross and I also received that medal.
In the Summer of 1942 I received my first two-week leave. While riding the train, I sat by the window and must have gotten a cold. I felt poorly for the entire leave but didn’t want to spoil my first ever vacation. On my way back to the front I had to make a transfer at Brest, but I felt very sick, so I reported to the medical corps. I was immediately put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital with a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius (107 F). A soldier is always thankful for every day or every hour he is away from the front and I was too. For two weeks I lay in the hospital until I was declared fit for duty.
On his return to the front, partisans bombed Gerhard’s train, but he was unharmed. In an old address book Gerhard noted: “winter quarters at the Zhizdra.”
German military records show Gerhard was still delivering supplies and ammo to the front lines during this period as part of the supply columns of 134th ID. The division, meanwhile, held a defensive position on the Resseta River near Ktsyn [53°38’20.82″N, 35°17’7.52″E] in western Russia for six months. In August, 1942 it moved 38 kilometres further west to protect a position on the Zhizdra River. The Zhizdra position was the domino that would topple Bryansk and continue the chain reaction of defeat. Here they built a 2.5 metre medieval log palisade and found themselves under continuous attack for most of a year. They buried their dead in a large cemetery in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the nearby town of Zhizdra [53°44’40.47″N, 34°43’53.13″E], deeply insulting the local population.
Its 10,000 residents were all but annihilated by the time 134th ID retreated after Germany’s loss of Kursk in August 1943. On their way out of town, the German army transported able-bodied residents to Germany and then systematically destroyed the city. Not a single building remained standing.
In the Pravda newspaper of August 19, 1943, the military correspondent P.Lidov wrote: “I cannot say that I visited Zhizdra because there is no Zhizdra.”
After the Soviets liberated Zhizdra, the ruined cathedral was replaced by a “house of culture” and the cemetery was levelled to become a square. So far none of the bodies have been recovered. In 2016 Peter Lindau of the German War Graves Commission visited the village requesting permission to exhume the remains of the buried German soldiers but was steadfastly refused.
The division retreated several hundred kilometres to Gomel [52°26’28.23″N, 30°59’16.25″E] and prepared to defend the west shore of the Ssosh River. On October 12, 1943 a few kilometres north of Gomel, the Soviets broke through at the village of Vietka [52°33’57.45″N , 31°11’7.12″E] and landed on the west bank of the river. Gerhard had noted “difficult battles at Wetka” in his address book. With heavy losses on both sides, the 134th ID closed the breach. Two weeks later, after receiving reinforcements, the Soviets attacked again, this time with four divisions, but again they were driven back at great expense. On November 14, 1943 the Soviets added tanks and air force to the attack and this time forced 134th ID to retreat another 85 kilometres to the west, leaving behind 69 officers and 2,173 men.
No sooner had they arrived at their new beachhead on the Berezina River near the village of Parycy [52°48’28.86″N, 29°24’46.50″E] than another attack threatened to separate the Ninth Army from the Second Army. Again the 134th ID closed the gap in the line.
The division stayed in the area until March 1944 suffering losses during indecisive battles. 134th was reinforced and moved north to protect the left flank of the Ninth Army. But after June 24, 1944 it didn’t matter anymore.
The Soviet army began the offensive which obliterated not just Gerhard’s division, but the entire Ninth Army in a battle known as Operation Bagration. At 2:30 a.m. hundreds of Soviet guns battered the German positions in a surprise attack. The infantry regiments were decimated from the sky as the Soviet air force flew unchallenged. The Soviet engineers prepared for the battle by building underwater bridges; immediately tanks and infantry were in the German zone. Once again surrounded, the division lost contact with its fighting units. The battle raged for three days. By June 27 most of 134th ID were dead, missing or captured. Perhaps everyone Gerhard had served with since 1941 was gone. Only a thousand men of the 134th ID escaped. Most of the generals involved were killed or captured. Lieutenant General Ernst Philipp, commander of the division, shot himself.
As luck would have it Gerhard was not present for the demise of his division. For the previous several months Gerhard performed other work. He was promoted to lance corporal on January 1, 1944 and joined the division’s military police soon thereafter serving in Feldgendarmerie Trupp C (motorisiert) 134.
Feldgendarmerie were the most hated soldiers in the German army, they were called Kettenhunde (chained dogs) or Heldenklauer (hero snatchers) partly because of the metal plate they hung on a chain around their necks and partly because of their unsavoury duties. Beside traffic control and population control, Feldgendarmerie executed partisans and apprehended enemy stragglers. Deserters found among refugees or hospital transports were shot. In the late stages of the war, Feldgendarmerie almost exclusively fought partisans, who were strong in Belarus.
Based on his military record, Gerhard served in the Feldgendarmerie only a couple of weeks. He was no good at it. Once when ordered to shoot two partisans he took them into the forest, fired two shots into the ground, and told them to disappear.
|GERHARD||As an interpreter in the Feldgendarmerie we interrogated people who were not for the German side. I wasn’t harsh enough to these people. When the captain was able to get more information out of the suspects than I was, he was furious and sent me to the front to deliver orders to the companies in the trenches. I had never seen barrages like this. In the trenches soldiers were praying and Catholics crossed themselves. No one held a weapon at the ready. How many died I don’t know, but the trench was destroyed.|
Gerhard recalls a wounded soldier crying out to be shot, but the battle went on and he was left to suffer. In the morning they gathered the bodies from the battlefield; who knows if the soldier was granted his last wish.
One night while posted on watch he heard a voice behind him:
|GERHARD||Have you got a cigarette, someone asked. I asked him where he was from and he said from Nikolaipol, Matveyev Kurgan. What a surprise I said, so am I. His name was Jacob Doerksen. We talked for a while. After I was relieved from my post I never saw him again.|
Two months before 134th ID was demolished, Gerhard had volunteered to attend interpreter school at Wehrmacht headquarters in Berlin. He was all-in with the German army. He’d served in a variety of roles and had been promoted; his superiors must have trusted him or they would never have approved his training as an interpreter.
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While Gerhard’s journey led him to participate in the German Wehrmacht, his Mennonite people were on a terrible journey of their own, incapable of invoking the faith they believed made them better than those around them, plunging into Nazi-dom in the faint hope of saving their only and final possession – their lives, if not their souls. In the next episodes things get pretty dark. We’re going to leave Gerhard behind while he goes to interpreter school in Berlin. Meanwhile we’ll review some of the resistance to Hitler’s evil regime, and dig into how Mennonites everywhere participated and collaborated in this regime to varying degrees. Be warned, it’s going to leave a mark.
 Information regarding the movements and activities of 134th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht was obtained from http://www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de/Gliederungen/Infanteriedivisionen/134ID.htm which cites Werner Haupt: Geschichte der 134. Infanterie-Division, Hrsg. vom Kameradenkreis der ehemaligen 134. Inf.-Division., Selbstverlag, Bad Kreuznach 1971; Werner Haupt: Gefechtskalender der 134. Infanterie-Division, Hrsg. vom Kameradenkreis der ehemaligen 134. Inf.-Division, Tuttlingen 1973; and Georg Tessin: Verbände und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen SS im Zweiten Weltkrieg 1939-1945, Band 7: Die Landstreitkräfte Nr. 131 – 200, 2. Auflage, Osnabrück 1979 as sources. Author translated and edited for brevity and clarity.