Given the length of the article, I will post the translation in several parts.
“Father, shoot me”
Millions of people – women, children, old men – fled from the Red Army in the last months of the war. For hundreds of thousands the trek west ended in hell – they drowned, were shot or raped.
In Nemmersdorf no one lives any more who can still remember. The place is now called Majakovskoje, Russians are now living in the small houses with gray roofs. Of the bridge across the Angerapp river only some stones and one of the pillars remain.
Who could fled in time back then – or at least thereafter.
Thereafter? Was there even a thereafter?
On 21 October 1944, when an advance unit of the Red Army fell over the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf, history ended for millions of Germans. The massacre of Nemmersdorf was the premonition of flight and expulsion, which led everything to fall apart into hate, hunger, humiliation, fear. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even two million, did not survive the catastrophe.
When on 21 October the morning mist was still lying over the East Prussian landscape, the Soviet tanks of the 2nd battalion of the 25th tank brigade rolled down the Gumbinnen alley. The exhausted Red Army men had been fighting for days on end. The Wehrmacht was stubbornly defending the eastern borders of the Reich.
For more than three years the Landser had conducted Hitler’s war of annihilation on Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and Latvian soil – and been thrown back. Now Stalin’s troops for the first time entered German settlement areas.
At Nemmersdorf, before the Soviet tanks on the small dike leading to the bridge across the Angerapp, there crowded the carts of peasant families who had fled from the surrounding farms and communities. The way west led across the river.
When he saw the bridge, the commander ordered full speed. At 7:30 it had been taken, the tanks leaving behind on the dike a mess of horse cadavers, the wood of the carts and probably also human bodies.
Gerda Meczulat lived on the other side of the river. Her father Eduard, 71, had decided against fleeing. The Meczulats didn’t have a cart. Together with other villagers they procured shelter in a cellar.
What happened there has not been completely clarified until the present day. Gerda Meczulat later reported that the first Russians entered the cellar in the early afternoon. They searched the hand luggage, but were unexpectedly friendly. One even played with the children. But in the evening an officer appeared and in a harsh tone ordered the Germans outside.
“When we came out there were soldiers on both sides of the exit with rifles ready to fire. I fell down because I have polio, was dragged up and felt nothing more in all the confusion. When I recovered my senses I heard children scream and rifle shots. Then it was quiet.”
Gerda Meczulat survived heavily wounded, because the soldier who wanted to shoot hear aimed inaccurately. She was the only survivor.
When the Wehrmacht took back the community of 637 souls on the next day, they found at least two dozen corpses of women, children and elder men. Red Army soldiers had shot them or bashed in their heads.
How many women were raped? Is it true that people were nailed naked to a barn door? Or was that just the propaganda of Dr. Goebbels, who quickly blew up the massacre into proof that the Soviets were “wild beasts”?
About the details of the horrible events at Nemmersdorf historians and expellee politicians are arguing to this day, often with rage. Deniers? Revanchists? Nemmersdorf has become a symbol of German suffering.
One thing is certain: On 21 October 1944, in the fourth year of the war against the Soviet Union, Nemmersdorf showed that the people of perpetrators had become a people of victims.
Yet at this moment of German history the catastrophe could still have been stayed. Mass panic, death marches, frozen babies eaten by hungry rats, hundreds of thousands of raped women, more than 33,000 people drowned in the Baltic – all this horror came upon the population only because Adolf Hitler and his unscrupulous warlords and Gauleiter still rambled about the final victory.
Defending every square meter of ground in the East to the last breath: this phrase became a reality in the most terrible way.
What would have been, if …? 2.5 million Germans lived in East Prussia, 1.9 million in East Pomerania, 4.7 million in Silesia. There would have been many weeks time to bring them into safety, before the oncoming of that murderous winter which became so cold that exhausted refugees simply froze to chunks of ice by the side of the road.
But in Hitler’s Germany it was forbidden to run away in that golden October of 1944. At a Gauleiter seminary in Posen Himmler had announced that an expansion of the Germanic empire to the East was of course imminent. “It is for certain that we are here creating the plantations of Germanic blood in the East.” What an image.
It was thus a certainty for the East Prussian Gauleiter, Erich Koch, that preparations to flee could only be a particularly infamous kind of sabotage. Civil servants and mayors of the Gau got instructions to report anyone who planned anything in this direction.
And there was the hope, against all reason, that it wouldn’t get all that bad. Nemmersdorf, after all, had been retaken. Air attacks there had been hardly any here in the East – and wasn’t it an autumn of splendid beauty?
“The light so strong, the sky so high, the distance so mighty”, thus the physician Hans Graf von Lehndorff described in his notes from that October the mood in his home, the land of amber.
And yet everyone knew that it was all over. Never again would they see the storks that in these days flew away from East Prussia in southerly direction.
Premonition of a catastrophe: Ownerless animals threaded the meadows, coming from farms further to the East which had already been abandoned by their owners. On the fields at Preußisch Holland there were strange constructions under a makeshift camouflage of canvas.
Here were the lands of the young Marion Countess Dönhoff, who secretly had horse carts equipped for the flight west.
In the bureau of Dr. Wander, the mayor of Insterburg, the letters from the superior entity at Königsberg piled up: top secret and to be placed in a safe. Only when the code word “lemon butterfly” was issued, these letters were to be handed to craftsmen and representatives of the economy in Insterburg: they contained the instruction to send machines and supplies – but not people – to the west.
When the mayor on the day after the events at Nemmersdorf asked the Gau leadership in Königsberg to send transportation trains for refugees from the east who were already crowding the station, he was mockingly asked if he had a fever.
The nagging sensation, even when decorating the Christmas tree, that life was coming to an end and all would go down, started proving accurate shortly thereafter: On 12 January 1945 Russian tanks entered East Prussia, and there was no stopping them. No more time for “lemon butterfly” – now the people were fleeing westward in panic. The trains leaving Königsberg station were overloaded already on the first day.
It was mostly women and children who left their houses and farms in a hurry. The men were either serving at the front, or the were considered, under the supervision of the NSDAP, as indispensable for the “Volkssturm”, the last defense contingent.
Three days later almost nothing functioned anymore. The snow-covered streets were crammed with refugee treks, a long line of canvas carts drawn by horses or people, and thickly dressed figures who had departed from their homes with their most important possessions, a few bags and buckets full of food.
All they owned they had left behind, the houses unlocked, the cattle unbound. And whatever little they brought along they would also lose in time.
No chance to overtake. The treks dragged along slowly, the horses slipped on the frozen streets. Waiting for hours on end at railway crossings, where military transports – from the front, to the front? – barred their way. Standing for hours on end in the icy night. In the backs of the panje carts the elder, wrapped in blankets, had frozen to death already during the first nights. The goal: the Vistula crossings at Marienburg and Dirschau. For to the Vistula, so a wild hope went, the Russians wouldn’t make it.
Fear of the conquerors blew across the hills with the biting northeast wind, from East Prussia to Silesia. East of the Oder special trains were bringing masses of people to the apparently protecting city of Breslau. The last transport made it through on 18 January, from then on people had to go by foot there as well.
18 January: On this day Russian tanks were already rolling through the Warthegau, formerly Poland, recently annexed to Germany. On the previous evening a train with women and children departed westward from Posen, but as the evacuation started much too late, the refugees were now stepping on their frozen feet. The treks were standing on the street, with the refugees fearfully listening to the typical noise of tank tracks – the Russian ones.
With the horses up to their bellies in the snow some families tried to get out of the queue through the fields. They got stuck, tried to survive the night in a barn, but soon the frozen pampers of the babies were frozen. Then the children died. They could not even be buried, because the earth was frozen rock hard. Wild animals took them from the sides of the road. And the snow kept falling.