Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ever wonder what life was like...

...for a German World War II officer in a Soviet Prisoner of War camp? I didn't think so. But here's an excerpt from Soldat: Reflections of a German officer, 1936-1949. (The author, Siegfried Knappe, was actually grateful to be there and not in one of the labor camps, in which "the Russians routinely starved and worked German prisoners to death.")

Once a week we got a bucket of warm water to take a bath with. We called that day Banya Day ("banya" is the Russian word for "bath," but for us it was a word for all the pleasant little things that we missed). When we had our Banya Day, we went into the bathhouse and got a tiny piece of soap, which had to last us a week, until our next Banya Day. The soap was a brownish substance that did not work very well. We got a wooden bucket that held perhaps two gallons of warm water. We took the bucket of water to a room, where we undressed and washed; then we rinsed off in a cold shower. We had small towels that we kept from one Banya Day to the next. We could have a bath only once a week, because only so many people could go through the bathhouse in one day. Once a week for each of us was probably the most they could accommodate; as it was, we had to rush so everyone could get his turn. We also got a shave at the same place on our Banya Day; the Russians kept the razors locked up, of course, but we were shaved by a barber (a German prisoner) when we had our bath each week.

Our haircuts amounted to being shaved bald with clippers from time to time. This, at least ostensibly, was to prevent lice. If one person had lice, they shaved everybody. It was an indignity at first, but we got used to it. I got someone who could sew to take the material of the red stripes from my pants and make me a skullcap like the Pope's, and whenever they shaved me bald I wore the skullcap until my hair grew out again. The German Activists* did not like that, because it was made from the red stripes of a general staff officer's trousers, but I did it in spite of them.

Probably the worst aspect of prison life after the loss of freedom and the hunger was bedbugs -- millions and millions of them. There were so many of them that they went right on biting in the daytime. There was no point in trying to kill them, because there were so many. The biggest ones were almost as big as ladybugs. In the winter, when we were counted inside, we could see the bedbugs crawling on the bunk posts as we stood at attention. We finally persuaded the Activists to mention it to the Russians. After that, we had to move out every two or three months so the Russians could fumigate the barracks and kill the bedbugs. Then for a few days we would have some relief, but the bedbugs would gradually begin to build up again. The Russians just could not get rid of the bedbugs completely, and for those prisoners who were allergic to bedbug bites it was pure hell. During the worst times, some of the men would be literally covered with bites.

I found a way to sleep without being bothered by them. I bought a horse blanket for ten cigarettes and sewed it together like an envelope, with an opening toward the center from both the top and the bottom. I would get into it so that the only opening, at the center, was beneath me. It was difficult to breath through the thick blanket, of course, but it was far better than getting bitten by bedbugs.

* The camp "was actually run by Germans called Activists, who were collaborating with the Russians."

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