In a U.S. Death Camp, 1945
Werner Wilhelm Laska
I was born August 31, 1924, in Berlin. When the National Socialists came to power, I was eight years old.
From 1930 until 1940 I attended school in Berlin. I did not join the Hitler Youth, but suffered no disadvantages because of that. At age twelve I became an altar boy at a Catholic church in Berlin. In fall 1942, I was drafted, like virtually all German men born in 1924, into the German Wehrmacht. After 10 weeks of training I was transferred to Infanterie-Lehr-Brigade 900, which had just been assigned to Russia. From December 1942 until April 1943, we fought the Red Army in southern Russia. After that we were regrouped and christened "Panzergrenadiers." Our next action was in northern Italy and in Yugoslavia. At the beginning of 1944 my unit and others were assembled in France in order to form the new "Panzer-Lehr-Division." On March 15, 1944 we went to Hungary to foil a coup d'état. In May 1944 we moved to France, near Chartres, awaiting the Allied invasion. We were in action from the beginning of the invasion of June 6, first against the British, from July 1944 against the Americans. I myself always fought in the front-line. With great luck I suffered only two injuries, to the knee and to the head, but approximately eighty percent of my comrades were killed or wounded. The remnants of the Panzer-Lehr-Division fell back fighting to Lorraine, where we rested, then fought again, in the Battle of the Bulge. We passed Bastogne and reached St Hubert, but then we ran out of gasoline and ammunition. The Allies' total air supremacy was for us deadly and terrible. Again we had to retreat, after suffering very heavy losses. The Allies pushed us back just across the Rhine River. Unfortunately, the Americans were able to seize the bridge at Remagen and form a bridghead on the other side of the Rhine.
My unit then consisted of a sergeant and about 40 men, from four or five different companies of our "Panzergrenadier- Lehr-Regiment 901." The situation was already chaotic. Our 40 men were completely cut off from company, battalion, and regimental headquarters. Our next action was against the Remagen bridgehead. Since we were all experienced soldiers, we worked according to the following plan: in the morning-we always stayed in the next village from the American camp -- we destroyed the first American tank when their armor began to move. We still possessed a 7.5 cm gun on an armored car. Then the Americans would stop, and we would retreat. The Americans would call in artillery and aircraft to bombard the point from which we had fired on the lead tank, but we would no longer be there. We played this game for a while. But the Ruhr Pocket became smaller and smaller; our regimental staff retreated from the north and we from the south. Smoke and fire were in the air everywhere.
We soon knew that our time had come! The roads were packed, and the Allied fighter planes were strafing everybody non-stop! They made no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Anything that moved was fair game.
On April 12, 1945, our unit decided to give up, not to die in the last minute. There were about 30 or 35 of us. On that day, in late afternoon, we arrived at a house, standing isolated near a creek. We parked our five vehicles, and then went down into the cellar of that home. Some bottles of "hard stuff" went with us, so that we could welcome the Americans in a friendly mood.
I myself did not go down to the cellar; I stayed outside to have a look around. I wanted to be alone. My entire time in military service passed before me; the final step remained to be taken. I remembered all the things that had happened, the good and the bad, on and off duty. We had met nice people, and above all, nice girls. In Hungary, in Italy, in Croatia and in France I had served Mass in Catholic churches, an altar boy in German uniform. Of course, my belt and my pistol had to stay in the sacristy during the Mass. In those days, the Mass was said in Latin. The native priests were always delighted.
I was interrupted in my reveries by shooting and explosions near the house and the creek, in which I took shelter under a small bridge. After that I heard tracked vehicles rolling over the bridge. Then silence. My only weapon was my pistol, but we had decided to surrender. When it was completely dark I approached the house, where the others had been in the cellar. But I must admit that I had not much hope of finding them still there. The vehicles did not allow me a clear view. I heard a voice, but I could not recognize the language. It was unlikely that these soldiers were my comrades. I climbed up through the garden and approached the voice. I heard something like "Anthony world, Anthony world," so by now I knew: "Americans"! I approached the soldier from the back and got around him. Suddenly he discovered me and was very much alarmed, rather than frightened, because I didn't have a weapon in my hand. Seeing my pistol on the belt, he said to me: "Pistol, pistol." I took it off my belt and gave it to him and noticed that he was relieved. He told me then to wait in the garden, while he went into the house to inform his company commander. After a short while he came back and ordered me to enter the house, then follow him. We went upstairs into a room where what looked to be a company staff was assembled. All the men had short haircuts -much shorter than in the German Army -- and looked like farm boys. They asked me only whether I belonged to the same unit they had found in the house.
Another soldier led me into a little closet in which I had to pass the night. I could not sleep at first because of the new situation and my feelings; later I fell asleep anyway. The next morning the same fellow woke me up and directed me downstairs to wait in front of the house for a truck.
The American guards who arrived with the truck were nasty and cruel from the start. I was forced in with kicks and punches to my back. Other German soldiers were already on board. After a drive of an hour or two we arrived at an open field on which many German servicemen were already assembled, in rank and file. As we got off the truck, a large group of Americans awaited us. They received us with shouts and yells, such as: "You Hitler, you Nazi, etc...." We got beaten, kicked and pushed; one of those gangsters brutally tore my watch from my wrist. Each of these bandits already possessed ten or twenty watches, rings and other things. The beating continued until I reached the line where my comrades stood. Most of our water-bottles (canteens), rucksacks etc. were cut off, and even overcoats had to be left on the ground. More and more prisoners arrived, including even boys and old men. After a few hours, big trailer-trucks -- usually used for transporting cattle -- lined up for loading with human cattle.
We had to run the gauntlet to get into the trucks; we were beaten and kicked. Then they jammed us in so tightly that they couldn't even close the hatches. We couldn't even breathe. The soldiers drove the vehicles at high speed over the roads and through villages and towns; behind each trailer-truck always followed a jeep with a mounted machine gun.
In late afternoon we stopped in an open field again, and were unloaded in the same manner, with beating and kicking. We had to line up at attention just like recruits in basic training. Quickly, the Americans fenced us in with rolls of barbed wire, so there was no space to sit or to lie down that night. We even had to do our necessities in the standing position. Since we received no water or foodstuffs, our thirst and hunger became acute and urgent. Some men still had tea in their canteens, but there was hardly enough for everyone.
Next day the procedure began as on the day before; running the gauntlet into the cattle-trailers, then transport to the next open field. No drinking and no eating, but always fenced in - there is an American song: "... Don't fence me in ..." - as well as the childish behavior of most of the Americans: Punishing the Nazis! After the first night, when we were loaded again, some of us stayed on that field, either dead or so weak and sick that they could not move any more.We had been approaching the Rhine River, as we noticed but we had still one night to pass in the manner related. It was terrible!All this could not have been a coincidence. It must have been a plan, because, as we later learned, there was nearly the same treatment in all camps run by American units. During the war we heard about the "Morgenthau-Plan" and the "Kaufman-Plan," and exactly that seemed to have been happening to us in those moments: the extermination of an entire people!
The next afternoon we crossed a bridge and were unloaded at an almost completed camp near Andernach (a small town on the Rhine River). There were already barbed wire fences around the enclosure. Within it were cages for several thousand people. We were driven into the cages and left alone. Water-pipes were installed in each cage to pump water from the Rhine into the camp. We had to wait many hours before we could drink it The problem now was the lack of cups or containers among all but a few. We almost fought for the first drink, which really stank from the chlorine which had been added. After the first drink our hunger became enormous. The little grass in the cages was eaten immediately away by the human cattle.
I was with two comrades of my former company; we decided to stay together. Our possessions were one overcoat and one tent-cloth. In order to prepare for that first night, we had to scrape out a hole in the ground, in the earth, to get some cover against the wind. Against the rain we had none.
The weather in April/May/June/July 1945 was pretty bad: hot days, plenty of rain, and even snow and frosty nights. There at Andernach we had more space than on the three previous nights, but only enough to lie down on.
We did not sleep much that night, but discussed our future and the chances of survival under those circumstances.
Nobody can imagine how human beings can live in open air, on a field with little space, bad water and hunger rations for days, weeks and months. Concentration camps had, at least, barracks with heating, with beds, with blankets, with washrooms, with toilets, with warm meals, with bread, etc ...
The men in the cages were divided into thousands, then into hundreds, and finally into tens for better distribution of rations. In one corner of each cage the inmates had to shovel a ditch as a toilet for all the men in the cage; of course, in standing or crouching position in open air. A layer of disinfectants had to be added every day. Facilities for washing were non-existent. Passing the nights was a great problem for each of us. None could sleep all night through -- the longest one could do so uninterrupted was three or four hours. Every night 30 or 40 per cent of the inmates were walking around at any given time. The ground had been frozen and wet; we three comrades had only a tent-cloth and an overcoat for lying on and for cover. Sometimes in our hole there would be a few inches of rain water, in which we had to lie throughout the night All three of us had to lie on one side; turning over on to the other side had to be done in unison. The position in the middle was the best, so every three days each of us got it once.
On the second day in Andernach, we received our first food ration. After hours of desperate waiting, each of us at last received a spoonful of raw beans, a spoonful of sugar, a spoonful of raw wheat, a spoonful of milk-powder and sometimes -- not every day - a spoonful of corned-beef. If somebody "organized" a few boxes he could perhaps cook or warm up some of these raw foodstuffs. But for these empty boxes one was almost murdered. Of course, all the raw beans and wheat-corns were counted on distribution, as was everything else, too. In such situations a human being can easily become animal-like. Everybody was waiting the whole day long for the moment of the ration distribution. Then the battle for each tiny corn began; it must have been the organism's survival instinct One's only interest was in food and water; how low can human nature sink?
After two or three weeks in Andernach, a large part of the inmates was transferred to the two camps of Sinzig/Remagen, north of the camp at Andernach. We were packed in box-cars and transported along the Rhine by train. The final capacity of Sinzig was about 180,000 prisoners, that of Remagen approximately 120,000. Both camps were almost adjacent, and were called "The Golden Mile."
Sinzig was 4 kilometers long and 800 meters wide, with two rows of thirteen cages each, and in the middle a passageway; the cages were approximately 300 by 300 meters. All four sides of every cage had two barbed-wire fences, almost 3 meters high; in between those two fences ran a barbed-wire roll. Watch-towers with mounted machine guns were posted at all four corners. The Rhine River was just 100 yards away Each cage held 7,000 people.
The "open-air" situation was exactly the same as in Andernach; likewise the water distribution, the toilets, the holes in the ground and the food-rations. Inside, all inmates had to keep 3 meters from the fences. Several prisoners who had come too close to the fences were shot; the guard did not shoot only once, they shot ten or twelve times -- so those who infringed the 3-meter line invariably died.
My two comrades and I were put in cage 17, on the Rhine side; when we first entered, there was still grass and some clover on the ground but only for minutes -- the hunger was too enormous!
After that, there was mud and only mud all around! We had to scratch a new hole as a bed for the three of us.
Every morning a truck passed by the cages to pick up the dead from the previous night, those who were either shot within or on the fences, or dead from hunger or typhoid, dysentery and other sicknesses. Of every ten attempting to escape, eight were shot and two got through. The youngest inmates were 13 or 14 years old, the oldest around 80. Sometimes the Americans picked up everybody whom they could find in the streets. Our impression of the Americans was that of gangsters, even worse than the Nazis had described them in their propaganda. We knew that the treatment of the American prisoners in Germany during the war had been excellent, unless they tried to escape. We did not occupy America, we did no harm to the Americans; why this hatred and this revenge? To play the savior for the suffering peoples in Europe would have been worthy. If only America had done the same before the last war, and also after 1945 throughout the world. Torturing defenseless children, women and men has nothing to do with glory!
One should not forget that the Germans treated the Jewish American prisoners in the German camps exactly as the other Americans.
The month of May in 1945 was rainy and cold, snow fell on at least two days. Sleeping in our holes became a horror for all of us. We got weaker and weaker, our bodies consisted almost of skin and bones.
At the main gate there was one cage with girls and women who were suffering even more than we did. These were females who had been in the Wehrmacht in the administrative or medical services. Everybody in the camp was trembling and shivering that May 1945. The youngsters, of whom a few thousand were in the the camp, had to walk the central alley (4 km long) and back every day with several bricks in their hands, just for the sport of the Americans. Many of those kids collapsed and could not stand up anymore.
On several days we saw injured prisoners who had been chased out of military hospitals and put in our camp. A ghostlike parade of men with crutches, empty sleeves, blind eyes marched the alley. We first thought these must be phantoms, but they were no spooks! One could also find in Sinzig former KZ-inmates, anti-Nazis, deserters, et al.
Occasionally, American soldiers came to the fences and traded cigarettes and C-rations for jewelry and watches-only a few of us possessed such things -- and some conversations took place. When the Germans asked them why such treatment was administered, the answer was always because of the concentration camps -- no mention of gassing at that time. Our men argued that the situation in the concentration camps and the one in our camp could not be compared, because one day in Sinzig was the equivalent of twenty days in a concentration camp. They had barracks, beds, wash-rooms, toilets, heating, hospitals, warm meals etc., etc. As our punishment for the killing of Jews we had none of these facilities, the Americans told us. Therefore, they treated us like cattle or beasts. Many deaths in our camp resulted from the collapse of our holes dug for shelter, as well as from typhoid, from dysentery, from hunger, from approaching the fences, from attempts to escape, etc.
Our day's work waiting a few hours in a line for water in the morning; waiting many hours for the food-ration in the afternoon. In general, waiting for death.
Those who had not hated Americans before now changed their minds completely.
After three or four weeks we received our first ration of bread. But one loaf of bread for 40 men; several days later we got two raw potatoes.
Outside the camp the Americans were burning food which they could not eat themselves.
The attempts to escape and the shooting by the fences increased the longer we were in the camp; the desperate situation must have been the reason.In the middle of June 1945 the Americans began to release some prisoners. People who lived in the Rhineland could get discharged. At the end of June 1945, our cage 17 and the opposite one, 16, became the last in the entire camp, as cage 19 was emptied.
We speculated that the Americans must release everybody soon, or all of us would die in the next one or two months; there was no other alternative!
In the first days of July -- after being in this hell for over 80 days -- I got a fever and fell very ill. All others in the cages who had displayed those symptoms died shortly afterwards. My fever must have reached over 40C (104F); I had to refuse the daily ration because I couldn't eat anything. I knew that my chances of surviving in the camp were nil: there was no hospital. I had survived all the battles and combat in the war with two small injuries, but now my hour had come! I then decided not to die slowly within two or three days, but instead to die quickly, on or at the fence. The chances of getting through were 2 in 10. I let two of my comrades know that they should see next morning whether I had been shot or whether I had been lucky. Giving them the address of my parents, in order to notify them in the first case, I made ready to escape or to die a quick death that night. After 84 days under these conditions, death might be a relief.
After sunset I loitered near the fence of the former cage 19, at a place where the barbed wire seemed to be a little looser than at other points. Along the whole length of the fence there marched four single American sentries, each with about 70 meters to guard. Beside the four guards a jeep -- with headlights and a mounted machine gun -- drove back and forth along the entire length. At both ends of the fence were the watchtowers, also with machine guns. At that moment there were many bullets in store for me. At a point shortly after midnight, when the guards and the crew of the jeep had just been relieved, one guard passed me, just as the jeep came from the other side and blinded, for a moment, the next guard coming up. Now I went, or better, tore through the first fence, then jumped over the concertina wire and through the second fence -- my fever forgotten, and bleeding all over mybody from the barbed wire. I left most of my uniform on the wire, but at the moment I felt nothing. Yet I was awaiting any second the hits in my body, then the sounds of the gunfire. Behind the fence I crept meter by meter, across the path of the jeep, still awaiting the shots. Suddenly I fell in a hole. It must have been 20 or 30 meters past the guard-line. By now, I could not move; I just lay in that hole shaking. I could hear the guards and the jeep going back and forth. My uniform was in rags and shreds, my hands, my chest, my legs, my back and my chin were bleeding. There were shots, but from other cages. After an hour I was able to creep out of my hole. I reached the other end of the cage, about 300 meters away. It took me about two hours to negotiate the different fences and escape the camp.
I had to cross railway tracks and a main road to reach the hills. I climbed on all fours, and had to rest again for four hours. A woman found me and told that there was an isolated farm in which escaped prisoners could always find first-aid. I finally reached this farm and found experts who knew how to treat men like me. There were seven or eight other fellows there, all escaped from Sinzig or Remagen. We were put up with blankets in the stable. As my first nourishment I got tea, then oatmeal gruel, and after several days, bread, milk and some meat. After 3 or 4 weeks I could leave my saviors with gratitude.
I learned during that time that a few days after my flight the French had taken over the camps and transported all the prisoners to France for slave-labor.
After approximately six weeks of freedom, the French caught me in a village and sent me to France to work in coal mines and other nasty places, where my ordeal continued. In 1948 I escaped to Spain, where I was again imprisoned in the famous concentration camp "Nanclares del la Oca" and returned to France.
On January 7, 1950, the French discharged me to Germany. Shortly afterwards I immigrated to Canada, where I lived until 1960.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pages 166-175.