Authors: Tony Hernandez
Dedicated to everyone who was violently taken from us too soon and now rest in the arms of our Lord
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!
Part I of IV
Week № 13 of 1945
26th March through 1st April
Reichsgau Danzig—West Prussia
For all the bad news that was coming to them, at least the weather was improving.
The snow had mostly stopped, a welcome break; but the cold hadn’t followed along. The days were warmer, but that was just a ploy—to give a soldier a false sense of comfort before the freezing nights that lay ahead, Otto Kunkel thought.
Otto had been a young man when this war started. Not in that many years had passed since he'd begun to serve, but in that the men around him were so much older. That was nearly three years ago, and all those men were now dead. That meant that he was now a senior man in this Second Great War.
Even though Otto was just twenty-three, he looked more a child of nineteen. His hair was a dark brown that matched his eyes; his pale skin almost doubled as the morning frost. His face had been made even that much more youthful when their commander, Erich Ingersleben, demanded that all men stay clean shaven.
Unteroffizier Erich Ingersleben was the man in charge of their small, nameless
, a German prison camp for prisoners of war. A slightly portly man, Ingersleben seemed to be the only person with a smile on his face at the camp. Maybe it was because he was always the first to eat whatever little they had. Maybe it was because he enjoyed playing a small god, ordering and tormenting the men, German and Russian alike. Whatever the case, Ingersleben was a man that no one wanted to cross. It was debatable whether he was at his worst when he was upset, or when he was grinning, with secret plans behind his eyes.
Otto and his men were starving. There was nearly no food as the war waged on around them. Supply lines were cut, and even if they had been open, word was, there was no ammunition, fuel, or food to be shared. And that’s what made the men he was looking at all the more strange. Not his fellow countrymen, but the prisoners of war that they had captured.
Otto was one of the guards in charge of watching the Soviet prisoners of war in their makeshift stalag. The prisoners were no quitters, far from it. They had fought to the last man and, only when faced with certain death, did they reluctantly give themselves up.
They were in the eastern part of Germany, just outside the Free City of Danzig—no longer free; now a part of the new Third Thousand Year Reich. At the moment, it technically
Germany. And that’s what everyone was fighting for, wasn’t it? Single lands that were claimed by the many. But for now, he and his men lived here and held their rifles here, so to him, he was in Germany. How much longer that would last was another question all together.
The prison they had made for their prisoners wasn’t really a prison at all. There were long, tall wooden poles, and those poles were held together with barbed wire. But any man with even half his strength could knock it over. No, the real things that were keeping those men inside their square cage were the men with the guns outside, men like Otto.
A man with half his strength.
Otto thought about that. He knew it wouldn’t take much for a healthy man to knock over those wooden poles and wire, but inside, there was not a healthy man to be found.
The Soviets were being starved to death. Not intentionally, so the story went, but there was no food. It had been days since they had given the prisoners a proper meal, yet there they stood, and poorly at that. They weren’t standing so much as they were in more of a huddled crouch.
“I don’t know why we keep them,” Josef Wernher said.
Grenadier Josef Wernher was the stalag’s unofficial second in command. He had teeth that were small and black from all the cigarettes and coffee he drank—the only real meal he ever really wanted. He kept his ebony black hair a bit on the long side on top, slicked back with the oil that came of never washing it. His eyes were wild and green. “We’ve shot prisoners before. Why not shoot these ones, too?” he said.
“You really do hate them, don’t you?”
Wernher gave Otto an incredulous look. “Of course I do! Look at them! They’re Russian! I disagree with the Führer on one thing, and that’s that the Jews are less than animals. Well, they are, but the Russian is lower than them. Jews, rats, and
the Russian. In that order.”
They exchanged a smile.
“If anything, I like them,” Wernher said.
“You like them?” Otto asked.
“Yes! More than you, obviously.”
“You just said they were worse than Jews!”
“I know what I said,” Wernher said, between puffs of his cigarette. “I also said I wanted to kill them, which is merciful. I mean, look at them, those—” he was searching for the right word to describe his disgust at what he saw— “pigs,” he said finally, spitting in the prisoners' direction.
Was Wernher more kind to these men that Otto? He wasn’t sure, but he did realize that Wernher did have a point. Letting them live like this was far more cruel than just killing them.
There was one man that gave Otto and the rest pause, and that was because calling him a
was strange in itself.
Gemeiner Kurt Lafenz was a Nazi just like the rest of them. Underneath his dirty blonde hair, his bright blue eyes looked like a frozen sky. He was a fierce-talking person, like any of the other men, and shared their bloodlust for the Russians. He was like any of the other men except for one thing: he was just twelve years old.
Hitler’s Youth had always been a staple in the Third Reich, but it was always just a segue for children to become soldiers and, more importantly, a way for them to learn and become indoctrinated into National Socialism. It was like a school: half ideological class, half hands-on work. Many parents loved that their children had been chosen to be a part of Hitler’s Youth. It gave them something to do while the war waged on, and for many, it seemed like a bright investment. After Germany’s victory over Europe, if not the world, someone would have to be in charge of this new world order, overseers of this new utopia. Hitler’s Youth promised to be those people. They would be saved from the fighting, yet would have all the steely resolve of the previous men who had fought. That was the thought, anyway.
What had been a parent’s dream had become their nightmare. Soon, Hitler’s Youth had gone from a social club for children to a full-on military regiment. Germany was losing men—military-aged men who could do the fighting. There were no more husbands. Just children and old men, and the elderly were more cumbersome in a fight than help. So that left the children: Hitler’s adopted children.
For many inside the Hitler Youth ranks, it was a dream come true. They had trained to fight, only to be told that the day would never come, or to be patient. Their country’s misfortune was their good luck. They now had the chance to play a fighting part in the war and even be remembered as having saved Germany. It was more than they could’ve imagined.
Lafenz was one of those youth. He had come from another division and was passed down as men where spread across the lines. He and a small band of his fellow Youth had started by defending Berlin. They had slowly moved east, losing Youth along the way, either to battle or to reassignment—until there, at the camp, was Lafenz, all twelve years of him, with battle hardened men.
The men had accepted him at first, but, like any group of men asked to take a child on as an equal, their curiosity had gotten the best of them.
One day, some of the men began taunting him, pushing him around in a circle. Otto tried to stop them, but he himself was held back. The frustration and anger inside Lafenz's eyes was a stark contrast to the laughter of the men tossing him around.
And then it happened. One of the men keeled over in pain. Now it was time for the men to hold back Lafenz and protect the man on the floor.
From somewhere, Lafenz had pulled out a hammer he had hidden on his person and slammed into the foot of one of the men. The other men tried to take the small hammer from the even smaller child, but they were welcomed with swings of rage.. Finally, Wernher calmed him and everyone else down. He told the boy he could keep the hammer and that no one would bother him again.
When Ingersleben heard about that afternoon’s tussle, he went over to visit the injured man. No one could hear what Ingersleben said to the man in his ear, but everyone heard the man scream as Ingersleben squeezed on the broken foot. He was obviously not happy.
From that day on the men had more respect for Lafenz and his hammer. Even the man who now carried a limp because of him. It seemed at times that Lafenz was Ingersleben’s favorite, much to the jealousy of Wernher. There was a genuine competition as to who would be Ingersleben’s true right-hand man. No one was sure who the winner would be, but most figured that death would be in store for the loser.
They were in a strange no-man’s land. The evacuation of the east had started in earnest, with all women, children, and elderly being taken away from the Eastern Front towards the safety of mainland Germany. But to men like Otto, it seemed that there was no such thing as a safe place anymore. To Otto, it seemed that these families were running from one line of fire to another.
They were several miles out from Danzig, where much of the fighting had arrived. But even that wasn’t the real goal. The real fight was for Königsberg, much more to the east of them. Both cities were important, as they were both gateways to the Baltic Sea, but it was Königsberg that held the higher importance, as it was the capital of East Prussia. It was a significant target for the Red Army and one that Germany could not lose. Would not lose.
But just because Danzig wasn’t as precious to the German hearts and minds didn’t mean that its ports were any less valuable to the Reich. To the contrary. Danzig was the bridge through the Polish Corridor, reuniting a divided nation. And the ports were better maintained and established in Danzig.
But the smell of the Baltic Sea was far from Otto’s or anyone else's noses. They were to the southwest of Danzig. Away from the sea. Away from the refugees. Away from the world.
They were on an island in the sea of nowhere. To the north of them was a tree line that went as far as the eye could see. To the east, west, and south was nothing. Just tall grass with the odd hill here and there to break up the monotony.
But they did have a small gathering of trees. Too small a gathering to be called a forest, but the trees acted like an anchor to the stalag. It also made them stand out. From whichever way someone came, be they friend or foe, it was easy to see the small gathering of trees and the small, outdoor prison that was next to it.
The days were long and they seemed to carry with them the same events, day in and day out. After a while it was hard to tell who the real prisoners were—the Russians or their German captors.
The days felt like weeks, if not months, Otto thought. It was easy for everything to meld into one long, slow event. But after a while, it became easier to see how each day differed from the one before. They were miniscule changes, but after days on end, they became more pronounced.
The Germans had informal names for the prisoners. There was the Doll, a man who seemed to never blink and just stared at them in a slack jaw that drooled. Where his body found the moisture was anyone’s guess.
Then there was the Cougher. The prisoners seemed to surround him the most making some to think that he was the impromptu leader of the herd. At first, he was most men’s pick as the next to die but he never died. His long wheezing cough turning from a sign of weakness to now becoming one of resilience.