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Seven Years as a Soviet Prisoner of War
Adelbert Holl wrote two remarkable volumes of autobiography after he was released from Soviet captivity in 1950. ‘An Infantryman in Stalingrad’ is a detailed account of combat within the city from September 1942 to February 1943, when he was captured. He followed that with ‘After Stalingrad - Seven Years as a Soviet Prisoner of War’, recording his struggle to survive the ordeals of a succession of prisoner of war camps - and after the war, labour camps - in the Soviet Union.
Holl’s nightmare began when his position in the northern enclave of the Stalingrad encirclement fell on 2nd February 1943. From here began a series of marches to the first detention camp. These movements proved to be ‘death marches’ as the Russians simply did not have the facilities to care for the hordes of starving, wounded and sick men that fell into their hands. So a few days after capture, Holl found himself being marched back to the centre of Stalingrad, passing Gumrack, which had been the last airfield held by the Germans during the battle.
Won’t that damned Gumrak ever come? It is already getting dark and there is nothing to be seen. How many men succumbed during the night? When one is already at the end of one’s strength one hardly has an ear for other things. For every one of us there is only one thing: you have to keep moving forward, staying quite close to the stronger ones, otherwise you are lost!
Another man collapses further forward in front of me. Someone says it is Colonel von der Groben. Several young prisoners from his division hold him up and drag him along with them. At last Gumrak comes in sight. We breathe out. There are still 3 or 4 kilometres to go, but at least it is good to see it. Everyone pulls together and gives the last of their strength to reach the goal.
A RAVINE OF DEATH
At last we are in Gumrak. We are directed to a ravine for accommodation. A few weeks ago this ravine had been a dressing station. Now it is full of snow, otherwise we would not have noticed it. New Red Army soldiers have come out of their holes. They stand up on the edge of the ravine and are our new guards. I have no idea where I should go. There is deep snow everywhere. If I look up, I can see the grey-blue winter sky with the dark silhouettes of the soldiers. Someone tells us that we are to rest here for six hours. How can we?
Some stalwarts dig snow from a hole with a plank they have found, while others use their mess tins. Afterwards, like badgers in their setts, they cover themselves with everything available and try to sleep. If only I had the option of sleeping! For many of the men hunger is all-consuming as a result of the painful stress the march has inflicted, crushing their bodily strength. With the patience of angels they try to light their fires.
Franz is very exhausted. We too have to look for something to cook. While Franz flattens the snow in our part of the slope, I look for something to burn, but this too is difficult. What can one find out here on the steppe? Finally we are able to go ahead and cook. We start a fire with the steppe grass that I have managed to scrape together. Finally I lay on top the scraps of wood that I had found in the least likely corner of the ravine.
With constant blowing - there is no wind in the ravine - I ensure that the fire does not go out, as then all my trouble would have been for nothing, and if we wanted to eat we would have had to start all over again. Who counts the time necessary when one’s stomach wants to feel something warm again, even though it is only a handful of gruel boiled in thawed snow?
I have to keep throwing in snow until the mess tin is full. The snow around the fire begins to thaw, but the ground remains solid. I stand on it. What is that? An arm appears, a whole body. Can one be so insensitive? So we crouch next to a corpse and cook our meal, as we want to live. We hardly take any notice of the dead man. It does not bother us that he is completely naked.
I look around me. Everywhere is the same picture. We have been driven into a ravine that is full of dead soldiers. Whether they were German, Romanian or Hungarian, no one knows. They lie there completely naked. No one has tried to differentiate between them and they are all the same before the Almighty. The Russians simply let these men perish here. It is a ravine of the dead.
BACK IN STALINGRAD
The time must be already well advanced but which of us notices that with the continuing strain on our physical strength? We are asked if anyone is unable to march. It is said that those not capable of marching will go to a hospital, but after the experience of the last days I am sceptical, especially when I look around me in the ravine of death! Did the Russians handle the other wounded in the same way? It is easy to accept and yet I cannot believe that so many thousands were simply left to starve!
Fall in! ‘We are now marching only to Stalingrad city,’ it is said. ‘Only another 8 kilometres.’ ‘We’ll have a roof over our heads tonight.’ The words whirl around. Some men have crept into out-of-the-way holes in the canyon of death in order to sleep protected from the cold. And it is good that the snow had shrouded most of the corpses in the ravine. Again come the tortured, painfully miserable sounds of the prisoners of war that all of us dread. It goes: ‘Forward, no matter how, even if it is on all fours. Only don’t stay behind! ’ The last guards are not waiting, they have no desire to remain long and be well behind.
When one is at the end of one’s strength, then 8 kilometres may as well be 80 - it is all the same. We totter again along the road leading to Stalingrad past a couple of shot-down aircraft. Then come the first outlines of the city’s rubble, but how far away is it?
Our guards changed in Gumrak. However, these new ones are as sharp and inconsiderate as the old ones, perhaps worse, if that is possible. It is hard for us to remain as close together as the commander of the Red Army soldiers, a sergeant, wants. I suddenly take a blow on my back. It was this sergeant who had hit me with a thick stick.
A tremendous rage of despair comes over me. I want to take this churl who has dared to assault me by the throat. Besides I had got my share of blows with sticks last night. But common sense holds me back. I am a prisoner now and, apart from that, exhausted. Tears roll down my cheeks unceasingly. It is just as well no one can see them in the dark. Every one of us has enough to do.
This excerpt from After Stalingrad - Seven Years as a Soviet Prisoner of War appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.