From Stalags to Forced Labour
by Stefan Fikus
It was 14th September 1939 when we were marched through the streets of Bydgoszcz to a prison camp, pursued by threats and curses of the German population of Bydgoszcz. The Wehrmacht escorts took us to the manège of the 15th regiment’s of the light artillery riding school, to join several thousands Polish civilians already there. We, the prisoners of war, numbered about two hundred. The civilians were crammed into the stables and barracks of individual platoons. The Germans locked the Jews separately in one of the stables.
Soon after our arrival we were issued with a quarter of a loaf of Polish army bread each, but the bread was green all over with mould. In the evening we were given a cup of bitter ersatz coffee made of acorns.
The nights were already getting cool and all I had to wear was my summer drill uniform. We slept close to one another for warmth and frequently had to get up to urinate, which we did on the other side of the wall, guarded by and elderly Home Guard, rather fierce and prone to shouting. The younger guards were even worse. All that we heard from them was: “Schnell, schnell du ferfluchter Hund”, or hurry up hurry up, you damned dog.
To get lunch we had to stand in long queues together with civilians, being pushed around and sworn at by the guards. There were five priests, apparently from Furdon and Bydgoszcz, among the civilians, who became special targets for the spiteful guards. The latter seemed to loathe the sight of cassocks and took as a particular target an elderly priest, a cannon, I believe, cursing, pushing and prodding him. When the priests were coming back, rather awkwardly carrying their bowl of soup, a furious Nazi hit one of the priests with the butt of his rifle, spilling the food in the process, and that infuriated the German even more. The shouts and curses of the guards continued unabated while we washed our dishes under the pump.
There was an epidemic of dysentery and typhoid fever among the civilians locked up here. Nobody seemed to take care of them, they lay there, suffering, and only the dead and the terminally ill were taken out from time to time. In the end, to prevent the epidemic getting out of hand, the Germans began to organise a sick room. We were sent to scrub two barrack rooms and to haul in some beds, following which Polish doctors were brought there. Several seriously ill patients began to be transferred there every day. Many of them died. “All these dogs should croak,” we heard the Germans comment.
In the centre of the barracks yard were the kitchen and some other premises. Our officers and those of the Polish civilians whom the Germans referred to as “dangerous bandits” were locked up in their cellars. They were taken out daily for a short stroll, with their hands at the back of their necks. Among the officers I recognised lieutenant Iżyński from the signals squadron of the 16th regiment of Wielkopolski lancers. I was surprised that we were the only two from our regiment.
Several days later two dishevelled prisoners were brought to the camp by a Volksdeutsch with a “Hilfspolizei” armband. After two weeks of wandering in the Tuchola forest, totally exhausted, they gave themselves up to German authorities. They were Marceli Wielewski and Walenty Machut from Kościerzyna, both soldiers of the battalion of National Defence.
The Germans were seeking prisoners for work, for cleaning the barracks, the square, etc. and promised double food rations. Hungry as I was, I volunteered. We were taken to clean the barracks of the 61st Regiment of Infantry. I found some Polish coffee briquettes and, in the rubbish bin, two tins of meat. We went through all the nooks and crannies searching for boots and clothes. Eventually I found a knapsack, a raincoat, a towel, a pair of foot-cloths, a field cap and a short woollen coat. From there we were taken to clean the barracks of the 62nd Regiment of Infantry. For the first time in many days I ate a real soldier’s dinner: a piece of pork cooked with cabbage.
Next we were made to put up a fence and barbed wire entanglements round the barracks in which we were lodged. While on this job I saw Germans tormenting Jews, making them fill ditches full of human faeces using their bare hands, while the soldiers kept abusing them, shoving them into the shit, repeatedly hitting them with their rifle butts. The walls of the barrack stables bore bullet scars and traces of blood. It was here that Poles accused of fighting German saboteurs and spies known as the "fifth column" were being shot, as well as any Pole denounced to the police by the German population of Bydgoszcz. Some civilians told us terrible stories about the barbaric behaviour of Germans. The guards tried to keep us away from civilians using their riffle butts and even the sharp ends of their bayonets.
Several mornings later the Germans loaded us into lorries. When the lorries stopped for a moment at the food shop in either Chocimska or Świętojańska Street – I don’t remember which – we were surrounded by Polish civilians who tried to cheer us up and encourage us to keep our faith during captivity. They bought some iced pastries and threw them to us in the lorries. From there we were taken to a village called Kruszyn and passed on to the Arbeitsamt (Labour Office). The first day passed without any food; the kitchen was not yet in operation, it had to be constructed. We spent the day cleaning the local inn and bringing straw for our bedding.
Autumn arrived with its rainy days. Our clothes soaked through and through, we were feeling very cold. After the 5 a.m. reveille on the second day we had to queue for ¼ kg bread and 100g of sausage. At 6 a.m. we were marched to work repairing the Kruszyn – Bydgoszcz highway. We came back at dusk, to stand for an hour in the soup queue. My jobs varied from carrying stones to carting and scattering gravel, etc., all to the accompaniment of orders, loud curses and humiliating remarks by the local Volksdeutches. During lunch break, when the Germans were enjoying their meal, we were feeling faint with hunger.
The work took us in the direction of Bydgoszcz and further and further away from Kruszyn. Our work squads were frequently passed by peasant carts taking potatoes and cabbages to the market. Hunger drove us to helping ourselves in any way we could. Those who had some money would ask the passing farmers to buy them some bread; those who didn’t simply stretched out their hands. The Polish peasants could see what was happening and always had some food for us.
When work took us to the small village of Pawłówek, a couple of Polish children, a boy and a girl, started visiting us every day bringing a basket of bread and butter and a jug of milky coffee. I wondered who these children were. One day I asked them who was sending them. “Our parents,” they said. I have often thought in later years of this noble and selfless help. The children also told us of the persecution of Polish inhabitants of their village. Soon I saw it with my own eyes. There was a farm close to the highway, the Polish owners of which had run away before the advancing German army. The day I was there the exhausted owners happened to return home, only to be unceremoniously thrown out by the German now in possession.
After three and a half weeks’ work on the highway we returned to the barracks of the 15th regiment of light artillery, but could hardly recognise our surroundings. The courtyard was divided by a 3 metre high wire fence and barbed wire, the outside wire fencing had its height increased and on each corner stood turrets fitted with search lights and machine guns. Soldiers with naked bayonets patrolled the outside perimeter. The manège and the stables were crowded with Polish prisoners of war of all branches of service and various regiments. I don’t know what happened to the large number of civilians imprisoned here before, it was said that some had been released and others taken to the forest and shot.
The nights were really cold now. There was not even enough straw to sleep on and I had to lie on the bare stone floor of a stable. Most people had colds and were coughing non stop. I kept walking to and fro most of the night in order to keep warm. We were all shivering – each night seemed to last an eternity.
It was common knowledge by then that the Polish army had capitulated and that all we could expect was captivity, though rumour had it that some prisoners would be allowed to go home.
The food was most inadequate. Some hard tack, jam and acorn coffee in the morning, a very thin barley soup for lunch and nothing but ’coffee’ in the evening. Hunger pangs and the overwhelming cold would keep us awake at night. The patriotic inhabitants of Bydgoszcz were trying to come to our help, bringing us bread and other victuals, in spite of German threats and violence.
Four days after our return from the work on the highway, i.e. on 23rd October 1939, we were called out to the courtyard and mustered in threes, then in groups according to our administrative districts. It looked that I and my friend Franek Serbinowski would have to part. About 10 a.m. the Germans opened the gate surrounded by sad and sobbing citizens of Bydgoszcz, bidding farewell to their soldiers. The armed escort with their dogs were apparently taking us to the railway station in order to send us home. But the number of armed guards, the people outside crying as if we were being taken to the scaffold, made us anxious. All through my captivity I remembered the citizens of Bydgoszcz. Their heroism amazed me. In spite of all the harassment and abuse they had enough guts to come to the very wires to bring us food and encouragement and keep up our morale.
We were marched along Artylerzyści Street in the direction of the cemetery. Just past the bridge the column turned right and stopped by the loading platform, with railway tracks on one side of us and the cemetery on the other. A while later a freight train rolled into the Bydgoszcz railway station. Polish voices and even singing could be heard coming from inside the wagons. The bridge, the wagons and the platform were all guarded by armed Germans. The train arrived from Grudziądz, the wagons, already full of soldiers, were opened and now we were added, a dozen or so per wagon. It was a very tight fit. The wagons were locked and we were on our way. I pushed my way to the tiny window to see which way were we going. So far we were going south, past the main station, past the bridge on the Brda river, past the station of the narrow gauge railway to Okole, after which the train veered west, via Piła and Jastrowo.
About 3 p.m. a small station Borne (Grosborn) came into view and behind it large army barracks and some pine woods. The train stopped, seeming to wait for something. Then it moved again, only to stop for good. The wagons were opened. A rush of fresh autumn air and with it came screams and short barked orders, “Aussteigen! Los! Los!”, or out, out, get out! Move, move! Before us, on a slight rise, lay a camp with a large gate, with a line of a pine forest behind it.
We were now about two thousand Polish prisoners of war; we were marched in a column to the camp courtyard. Other Polish prisoners were there already, working in the kitchens, baths and on other jobs. We were mustered in a double line for roll-call and inspection. Our belongings were checked and sharp instruments like knives, razors etc. were confiscated, as well as all spare coats, boots and uniforms. I had to give up my pair of beautiful, hard wearing, army boots. We were facing barracks numbered 28, 29, 30 and 31. I, along with some others, was assigned to barrack 28. It contained an iron stove, a table, several stools, the floor around them being covered with straw. We just fell on the straw, our heads spinning. It was very crowded. We’ve had nothing to eat all day and were hungry. Many of us, including myself, had a cold and had to keep going out to urinate. During the day one went, accompanied by a guard, to the latrine, but during the night one just relieved oneself against the wall of the barrack. Too many were going out, too frequently. Latrines became a kind of meeting place, where one would talk about the situation we have found ourselves in, about news from home and about the chances of escape. But groups were quickly dispersed by the guards, who also warned us about approaching the fence. There were two rows of fencing with coils of barbed wire between them and the machine gun turrets in the corners of the camp were equipped with search lights, each constantly sweeping its segment. The barrack next to ours had cellars, used for the storage of cabbage, potatoes and root crops. Having discovered it, prisoners began filching potatoes; the guards soon realised what was going on and on the second day, having caught a man red handed, gave him a terrible beating before our eyes.
On the second day we were called to the common room in order to register. The large hall was decorated with flags, swastikas and slogans. Behind a long table covered with red cloth sat officers and interpreters, some in civilian clothes, some in Polish uniforms. The walls were decorated with colour posters showing a vanquished Polish soldier with the slogan “Anglio – to twoje dzieło,” or "England – this is your doing", implying that Polish soldiers had been led astray and deceived by British promises. Nazi propaganda kept stressing that Great Britain was entirely responsible for the Polish defeat – Germany had no choice but to destroy Poland, because Poland in alliance with Great Britain intended to destroy Germany.
Reveille was at 6 a.m. First we were made to run “on the double” to the washbasins. This was followed by breakfast consisting of coffee, 100g of bread and 50g of jam. The time between this and lunch was usually spent reminiscing about our war experiences and bitterly contemplating the calamity that befell us and which we found hard to accept. The afternoons were also spent inside the barrack, some people still talking, others playing cards or chess. The fug inside was quite intolerable and windows had to be kept permanently open. I’ve had my fill by now of frontline stories, of the cruelty of war and of human nature.
The following day after breakfast we were ordered to get ready for delousing. We had to hand in all our clothes and before proceeding to the baths we had our hair clipped.
The nights were getting cold, there was ground frost, but the days were still nice and warm. Prisoners were allowed to walk only on pavements between the buildings, but forbidden to approach the fence, at the risk of being shot. During these walks I was usually thinking about my present position and contemplating the chances of escape. The camp was situated on a hill-side with the forest up the slope. To the south the terrain was flat with a small village on the right. The sun shone straight into our eyes, thus Poland had to be on the left. But how could one get out of here and escape? Having had a good look at the fence and its barbed wire entanglements, I concluded that even a night-time escape was impossible. The camp was too well guarded and too brightly illuminated. All that was left to the thousands of us, prisoners, was to wait patiently for what fate had in store for us.
On the sixth day since our arrival in Grosborn we were called again to register in the same big hall. We were asked the day and year of our birth, our last permanent address and details of our army service. All our documents and Polish money had to be handed in, ostensibly to be returned to us after the war.
Next a German officer addressed us through an interpreter: “Those of you who consider yourselves German or whose ancestors were German may step forward and be placed on the Volksdeutsch list. Those people will be released and allowed to go home. I shall repeat once again: whoever feels German and can speak some German can apply and once this can be verified he will be released. Understood?”
The promise to return home, to the family, was very tempting and prisoners whispered to one another, but the condition of signing the Volksdeutsch list did cool our ardour. There was a civilian with an armband, apparently from Gdynia, whose name I don’t remember, who kept walking between the prisoners, trying to talk us into joining the Volksdeutsch list. In the end one man with very good German stepped forward and declared that he did feel German. More whispers followed. This sudden conversion began to spread depression among the prisoners, reminding them of the lost campaign, of the fall of Poland which would, we feared, never regain her independence. Then another man stepped forward. His German was limited to “ja” and “nein”. A Polish-speaking German non-commissioned officer standing nearby asked where he came from. ”From Warsaw, Sir, but I do feel like a German.” “A fine German,” jeered the NCO “who can’t speak a word of the language. Stay here after the assembly and we shall talk.”
We were mustered in a column and marched back to the barracks. The prospective Volksdeutsch soon returned to jeers from all sides: an alleged German who would choose a comfortable life, a traitor, a renegade, volunteering to become a Volksdeutsch. There were Pomeranians among us with really good German who have yet kept faith and chose captivity. We were now all given numbers – mine was Stalag II C 23 b 101.
The next day a German soldier came in shouting: “Alles raus! All out! Stand in ranks, we are leaving!”
We packed our belongings for another journey into the unknown. Probably even further from home. But we were glad to leave, in a way.
At the Borne (Grosborn) station we were loaded into freight cars and the train moved off, going west. We crossed the Odra river. Would the train stop in Szczecin? No, we were still moving. But a while later we heard the stamping of German army boots, the screech of doors opening and the familiar shout, “Alles aussteigen!” or all out! We found ourselves on the platform of an unknown station. It was dark, strange, we felt trapped.
A portly, burly man in glasses, with a stick in his hand and cigar between his fat lips, approached our group. He was saying something, gesticulating widely. One of us, Edmund Dominikowski, understood, in spite of the local dialect, that the man was looking for people to work on his estate. “I need thirty men and I had that number assigned to me,” he told the guards.
The name of the station, as we now found out, was Pasewalk.
We were being shuffled like a pack of cards, prodded with a stick like cattle, looked at closely, our muscles felt, body build inspected. At last thirty of us were selected and marched to the other side of the station to the waiting tractor and trailers. We were followed by four guards, two soldiers and two civilians with white “Hilfpolizei” armbands.
Packed on to the trailers, we were surrounded by the armed auxiliary police and Arbeitsamt officials. The tractor moved off into darkness, into rain and wind, throwing sparks from its upright exhaust. We were starved.
After a lengthy and tiring journey, chilled to the bone and hungry, we found ourselves among the buildings of an estate. “All follow me!” ordered the fat German. He took us along a stone cemetery wall to some outbuildings and then up a steep staircase into a large room, or rather a sleeping space in what must have been a granary. Straw lay on the floor under the windows. Next to the wall on the left stood two long tables with four benches sufficient for thirty people. The place was forbiddingly cold.
A German with the “Hilfpolizei” armband and a rifle on his shoulder informed us that the owner would be coming soon. Indeed he arrived with another man. Both held sticks in their hands, both looked arrogant, strutting like turkey cocks. The owner did not beat about the bush: “I’ll tell you all that you need to know here, in the Third Reich, as prisoners of war from a conquered country. So: you are prisoners of war with no state authorities to appeal to and no rights. As prisoners you must carry out all demands and orders of your supervisors, the camp command and state officials. You have no rights whatsoever (kein Recht!). We can do with you as we please, we can even kill you. If you work well and behave as we expect you to, you may find us responding appropriately. If anyone tries to escape we shall do our best to catch him and all he can expect is a bullet in the head. The same punishment will be meted out to anyone who dares to attack a German or approach a German woman. We shall provide your food, adequate in my opinion. Those who will not work will get no food. Apart from that you have no right to demand anything and no right to voice any complaints. Any communication will be conducted only through your guards. Understood? I want it all translated into Polish. Who is your interpreter?” We all looked at Edmund Dominikowski. ”I could try,” Dominikowski stepped forward. “Translate word for word!” the German ordered pouting his fat lips. His name was Wilhelm Kruk.
Having listened to Dominikowski’s translation we understood that we were slaves and standing before us were our masters.
Wilhelm Kruk pointed to the first man with the "Hilfpolizei" armband, “this is your guard, Krazy,” and then to the other, “and this is guard Tütz. You will obey them. They have the right to shoot any prisoner attempting to escape.” He then addressed the other man who had come with him: ”Herr Köller, you will come every day and present the prisoners’ work plan for the day to Herr Krazy.”
So now we knew. It was all spelled out to us and translated. We felt despondent. No rights, just work and more work…
The day of 30th October 1939 was coming to an end. We just had our introduction to the place called Schlepkow, where we were to work for the Nazi Germans for many long years, in fact, until the end of the war.