I was a prisoner of war and a slave labourer
by Leon Budny
I was taken prisoner on 18th September 1939 in the Iłowo area, following the bloody battle on the Bzura river – and like all Polish soldiers I was hard hit by what befell my country. I did not expect, though, that my captivity would last so many years and that the Germans, so proud of their Ordnung or order, would repeatedly break this Ordnung and introduce new, unofficial, barbaric laws, those of the stronger over the weaker, breaking the accepted international laws regulating the treatment of prisoners of war.
Here are several examples dating to my first few days in captivity: from Iłowo the Germans marched us through Gąbin to Gostynin. There we spent the night sleeping on the ground, without any food. The following day we marched on empty stomachs to the Kutno area, with another night in the open. On that second night they brought some bread and just threw it blindly into in the crowd. It was army bread, so mouldy as to be inedible; those whose hunger made them eat it paid for it by falling ill. On the next day they marched the prisoners – several thousand of us – through Kutno. As the town people tried to pass us food, such as bread, fruit, etc., the Germans made us run, hitting us on the way with their rifle butts, similarly punishing those people who were trying to help us.
This way we reached Piątek, where we were herded into a school’s playground. There we spent two more nights in the open. It was here that I had my first taste of Nazi sadism. Instead of providing us with some simple food, they brought several barrels of salt herrings and onions and told us to eat as much as we wanted. Those of us who fell for the trick and, being hungry, ate the salty herrings, became very thirsty and went in search of water. The only working well in the school yard was guarded by the Germans who barred access to it. The guards, amused, pointed to a nearby ditch and told us to get water there. Some prisoners, unable to control their thirst, did just that. Unfortunately, following the battle for Piątek, the ditch was full of human and animal corpses; this could have started an epidemic.
After two days in Piątek we were marched to Zgierz, and there we were loaded on a freight train to Pabianice, where several thousands of us were placed in the Kindler textile factory. We slept in the factory hall. On the second day we were given our first cooked meal in the form of soup with a large amount of meat, most probably derived from animals killed in the battle. But we were too hungry to give it much thought. Those who ate large portions became ill, as evidenced by the latrines full of faeces with blood. The water from the ditch in Piątek might also have contributed. Some of the sick were removed, ostensibly to hospitals.
After several days in Pabianice we were registered, allegedly for a return home. Farmers seemed to attract particular attention and were given passes home. I was about to take advantage of this when I was informed that someone from Wągrowiec, my home town, was looking for me. The man in question was Dr. Modrzejewski, a dentist, now an army captain, who had also found himself in an officers’ prison camp. He warned me not to return to Wągrowiec, where the Germans were apparently looking for me. In fact, several of my colleagues in Wągrowiec had been killed by Germans in the first few days of September 1939. Dr. Modrzejewski also promised me that on his return home he would tell my wife that I was alive, which he did. I thus gave up the idea of returning home and when the Germans organised a train to take prisoners to Germany – I found myself on it.
During the journey I had another taste of Nazi sadism. When the train arrived, the Germans loaded us fifty or more per freight car, vigorously using their rifle butts. The car was so crowded that there was not enough room to sit down; we had to stand, with arms bent at the elbows. They gave each of us half a loaf of bread and nothing to drink. I had a flask full of water, but had to share it later with those on the verge of passing out. The cars were locked from the outside and the tiny windows were boarded up and further secured with barbed wire. We spent two days and one night in these conditions. All physiological needs had to be satisfied where we stood, and the stink in the car was unbearable. My place was near the small boarded-up window and I managed to find a crack the width of a finger through which I was able to read the names of the stations we passed and tell the others: Frankfurt-am-der-Oder, Berlin, Magdeburg, Hanover and Osnabrück.
We disembarked at 2 a.m. in a small station and were marched on a muddy road; we heard the sounds of repeated shots, mainly from the back of the column, and shouts of the guards. Many had needed help to get out of the cars and the stronger of us had to support them on the march. We got a message from the back of the column that anyone who would not, or could not proceed was peremptorily shot.
Eventually we reached a camp located on a swamp, the name of which I do not recall and spent one night and day there under tents. The Germans told Jews to step out, promising them passes home. About three hundred answered the call and were put in a separate tent. Later, under the pretext of issuing them with civilian clothes for their homeward journey, they took away their coats, any better items of clothing, and boots. Some of the Jewish soldiers could see that something was wrong and escaped during the night to our tents and stayed with us. The Germans continued to search for Jews, but we did not give them away and they proceeded with us to the next camp, Stalag VI C Bathorn. We spent about twenty days there, some of us in barracks, some in tents. This was a huge camp, also located in a swampy area. The inscriptions on the walls, even on the floors, in Czech and German, dated early 1939, clearly indicated that we were not the camp’s first inmates.
Food was issued: soup, army coffee and 200g of bread with a small portion of jam for breakfast and the same for dinner. Soon we were mustered into work columns and marched to dig peat outside the camp and work in a briquette producing plant. The peat works were very muddy and waterlogged. Soon sickness was rampant. The Germans kept threatening that shirkers would be shot. The guards were driving us hard, frequently setting their ferocious dogs on us. Some local civilians also worked with us, but the prisoners of war were assigned the worst jobs in the most waterlogged places – and were not being paid for their labour. From the civilians I learned that the area was part of the Papenburg administrative district and that the name of the railway station to which we were delivering the peat and briquettes was Aschendorf.
Several days later we were marched to the baths for delousing. Our clothes were steam-treated. Even here the Germans showed their cruelty. The floor of the baths was slippery, covered with mucus and faeces, with traces of blood here and there. We could only try and guess why. While we stood under the showers the guards first let us have pleasantly warm water, and at last we could have a good wash, until suddenly the water became unbearably hot and, crowded as we were under the showers, most could not escape and got scalded. Then suddenly the water became ice cold. This joke was played on us several times, so that our shouts merged into one loud roar of pain. As we were leaving, the guards mocked us, insisting that all they wanted was to kill the lice on our bodies. I need to stress that at this particular stage we were not infested with lice, yet the Germans kept referring to us as “Lausebande”.
Afterwards we were not allowed back to the barracks, but were marched several kilometres to the railway station, loaded into another freight train, forty per car, and taken to Stalag XI B in Falingbostel, north of Hanover. There we underwent a detailed registration, had our photographs taken and were given individual numbers. My number was 17082. In the previous Stalag we already had the letters “KG”, or Kriegsgefangener” – prisoner of war – painted with oil paint on the backs of our uniform tunics and trousers. Following the registration and a series of injections, we were marched back to the station and taken to the Uelzen region in Lower Saxony.
After disembarkation we were taken to a market place, where local farmers, as well as military and civilian authorities were waiting and individual prisoners were assigned to farmers. The farmers began picking their slaves: they paced among us, felt our muscles, asked what our occupation had been, whether we had previous experience in agriculture, whether we could speak German; in general they behaved like buyers at a cattle auction, not seeing us as human beings. I was eventually assigned to a short man with a small feathered hat, who knew from a guard that I spoke German. That seemed to please my future master. I became aware later that he was the Bauernführer, an important man in his village.
Loaded into tractor trailers or horse driven carts we were taken to Wrestedt, a dozen or so kilometres from Ueltzen, to Arbeitskommandolager or Labour Teams Camp 522, a branch of Stalag XI B in Falingbostel. We got there in the evening, when a throng of people waited outside the camp. I caught such remarks as: “They were supposed to bring some Poles here, but these don't look like Poles." I learned later from local people that Poles were supposed to be Barbaren, barbarians, Bromberger-bluthunde, or bloodhounds etc., instead of which they were facing a group of intelligent young men. But such was the Nazi propaganda, that to them, the supermen, we were only subhuman slaves.
The following day we were given a lecture on what was allowed (hardly anything) and what was forbidden. For instance we were not allowed to look at German women, while the penalty for approaching them was death. We were not allowed to eat with Germans, to enter a farmer’s dwelling, to wear civilian clothes, or leave the assigned place of work. What we were allowed to do was to work tirelessly and to carry out every order of the farmer or any member of his family.
Next, our detail, numbering over 100 prisoners, was divided into three groups. One remained in Wrestedt, the other two went respectively to the villages Esterholtz and Stederdorf, each about 3 kilometres from Wrestedt. On the way to our destination we were pursued by German children trying to spit on us. This stopped after a few days when they got used to us.
My farmer assigned me quarters in an outbuilding in which animal fodder was prepared, where a wooden box served as my dining table. In the fields, during the breakfast break, I had to eat by myself at some distance from the Germans. Should a guard decide that I was too close to them, I would get a beating. Even if a farmer asked a Polish prisoner to eat with him, he would as a consequence lose his slave. In time this rule was less strictly enforced, but one had to watch out in case an outside inspector saw a slave in too close a proximity to his German master.
But how to keep the required distance when a particular type of work had to be carried out with German women? During roll-calls we were constantly reminded to keep away from German women. Race defilement was punishable by death. We worked thus in fear of provocation by the Germans. And soon we were to find out that these were not idle threats. One day in the spring of 1940, we were not taken to our farmers, but were marched in a column, under guard, to another village, a dozen or so kilometres distant, where we were locked in barns. At midday we were taken to nearby woods and stopped at the edge. At about the same time a black van and a number of SS-men in passenger cars arrived. We were then marched into the woods and mustered in a semicircle. There were about 500 of us, prisoners of war. In the middle of the semicircle there was a man hanging from the tree. We heard horrified shouts from a group of prisoners working in another village. The hanged man was one of their group. Several dogs attacked the shouting prisoners. We were surrounded by dozens of guards with automatic weapons and machine guns. Eventually the dogs were called off by the guards and the shouts stopped. An SS officer stepped in front of the ‘gallows’ and read out the death sentence in German. The translation in atrocious Polish was provided by another German, making it sound like mockery. The gist of it was as follows: “This Pole hanging from the gallows got involved with a German woman. Any one of you who gets so involved will meet with the same fate – understood?”
This was in fact a bestial murder. According to his fellow workers the murdered man had no dealings with any German woman. But the farmer’s German servant had been stalked by a mentally ill German, a sexual deviant, excused military service. As that man was about to rape the girl and she was desperately calling for help, the Pole working nearby came to her aid and chased the madman away. The latter’s revenge was to accuse the Pole of attempting to rape the girl.
The whole performance was a kind of show trial designed to scare the prisoners. Several fellow workers had then to step forward, hold the hanged man’s hand and confirm that indeed he was their colleague. After this macabre episode we were marched in groups back to the village.
Another Polish prisoner was similarly murdered on a nearby farm. A number of cows went sick on a farm near Bodenteich and several died. The Germans said they had been poisoned and accused a Pole working on the farm of sabotage. Without further ado they hanged him on the farm gate. The body stayed there for several days, while the farmer’s family, unconcerned, continued to live in their house. The prisoners, while going and returning from work, had to march past the hanged man and follow the guards’ “heads to the right” order.
For our work in Wrestedt we were not paid in real money, but in so-called Lagergeld, or coupons, which could hardly buy anything.
The farmer for whom I worked owned about 15 hectares of land. His eighteen year old son was a member of the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, and his sixteen year old daughter belonged to the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or Union of German Girls. Neither the farmer nor any member of his family had ever beaten me, but I was worked to beyond my strength, while my meals were much inferior to theirs.
And thus working on the farm as a prisoner of war and taken every day under escort to the camp, ruled by the guards with their horrible dogs, I survived till the summer of 1940. One day they did not take us to work, but ordered a roll-call in front of the barracks. Several ‘blacks’ (that’s what we called the SS-men) arrived accompanied by some civilians, officials from Stalag XI B and from the Uelzen Arbeitsamt. They asked which of us would like to return to civilian life. We understood it as a chance to return home. Who would not want that? Those who wished to do so would have to sign a declaration, following which they would receive money to buy civilian clothes. I was bewildered by the chance of being reunited with my wife, who, together with our three children, had been expelled in February 1940 from our home in the part of Poland incorporated into the Reich to the remaining part of the country under German occupation, named the General Gouvernement. We did not realise that it was all just a trick. We asked politely for the return of our valuables, such as watches, rings, razors, etc. which, under the penalty of forfeiture, we had to ‘deposit’ much earlier with the camp authorities. This was simple theft, as none of the prisoners ever saw these objects again. We were now assured that we would receive them together with our travel documents.
But then we were told that we would have to work a bit longer as civilians; we would no longer sleep behind barbed wire, but on the farmers’ premises. We were also given fabric patches with the letter “P” on a yellow background with purple edging. We were told to cut them out and stitch them to our uniform tunics and trousers. Our protests brought only threats of severe punishment for those who would disobey. We were then told to return to our farmers. This was obviously a way to deprive us of our status of prisoners of war. In protest, in the evening we all returned to the camp, by then already deserted by the guards. Unfortunately, the prisoners working in the two outlying villages Esterholtz and Stederdorf could not leave their place of work and return to the camp. The farmers warned us that we might be severely punished, yet we kept going back to our barracks. Several nights later we were surrounded by Germans, some civilians and some in uniform. What happened then is quite indescribable, but as a result a majority of us were unfit for work the following day. The camp barracks were then boarded up and secured with iron bars and we had no option but to sleep on the farms. I was shown into a closet in the stables, next to horses. Every night we were checked by police, SA-men and the Hitlerjugend. We responded by slowing down at work and made a point of wearing our uniforms, though well worn by then, in spite of having been issued with some items of second-hand civilian clothes. Gendarmes frequently checked us for the patches with the letter “P”; those who did not wear them were instantly beaten up. Soon after, our entire group was moved to Siemkenmühle, an estate of several hundred hectares in a remote village of Schafwedel. About a dozen of us were billeted in a temporarily adapted store. Other men were assigned to individual farmers.
Another chapter of our persecution began. We were still wearing our uniforms. The patches with the letter “P” which the Germans made us wear were meant on the one hand to distinguish us from others and on the other to humiliate us in the eyes of the Germans. Thus we still had the letters “KG” in indelible oil paint on our backs and the letter “P” on our chests. As the latter was meant to denote a Pole, we decided that, proud to be Poles, we might as well ostentatiously declare the fact.
With an absentee owner, the estate was run by his steward. He was about 45 years of age and, though he did not beat or abuse us, he treated us as not quite human. For our main meal we were being given the cooked meat of sheep who either died of, or had to be destroyed because of various parasitic diseases. As the sheep on the estate numbered several hundreds, there was no lack of carrion. We decided to improve our lot by stealing milk in the cowshed, taking eggs from the nests, etc. At the same time we slowed down at work. One day in the nearby Bodenteich dairy a prisoner from another village handed me a rolled-up rag, told me to soak it in warm milk and pour the milk into the pigs’ trough. And this was what I did. Soon after the pigs became infected and some scores succumbed within a few weeks. At the same time we spread foot-and-mouth disease in cattle. Soon the entire
Bodenteich district was declared a closed zone because of the epidemics in sheep and cattle. This was our first successful sabotage.
In the spring of 1941 we were moved from the estate to the village itself, to individual farmers, having been replaced by Serb prisoners of war. I was assigned to Otto Harmus, a man of about 60 years of age, who owned a farm of roughly 15 hectares. One of his sons was wounded in the hand in September 1939 in the Polish campaign. Recovered, he went back to the army in the east. While on leave at home, he commended the bravery of Polish soldiers. The other son, Fritz, aged 33, was mentally ill and unfit for military service. I had a lot of trouble with this idiot. He tried to beat me up, even though forbidden to do so by his elders. He then threatened to denounce them to the Gestapo. One day I gave him a thrashing. As he threatened to call the police, his parents locked him up. Several days later he reported the incident to the gendarme visiting the village. His father denied it, told the policeman that his son was mentally ill and showed him the medical certificate. As it happened, the head of the village was my farmer’s nephew who then invited the gendarme to supper with some vodka. My skin was saved.
My farmer was old, his holding quite big and requiring a lot of work, in consequence of which he drove us mercilessly. My sleeping quarters were again a closet next to the cowshed. The food here was somewhat better. On some other farms our fellow prisoners were so badly treated that we had to feed them by stealing food on our farm.
We also decided to get better organised. Several of us worked out a plan for self-defence – just in case. We found out which of the farmers had weapons, such as hunting guns, where they were kept, and how to get hold of them should it become necessary. We split into groups without telling our fellow workers. They would be told when the time came. Still in Siemkenmühle we managed to procure a wireless receiver and listened covertly to BBC broadcasts and to the Wehrmacht news programmes. This gave us some insight into the situation. In particular after the outbreak of war with Russia we became more hopeful; the war, we thought, ought to end soon.
In 1942 more and more notifications of a husband’s or a son’s “heroic death for the Führer and the fatherland” were coming to the village. All males more or less capable of bearing arms were now being called up. The morale of local people was deteriorating. Some vented their frustration on their slaves, while others became less forbidding.
At the same time the attitude of German women began to change as well. The restrictions, of course, remained in force; foreign workers and prisoners of war were still not allowed near any German woman, but as fewer and fewer German men remained in the village, only the very old, young boys and idiots still left, the German women and particularly the young married ones, widows and spinsters sought solace with the good-looking Poles. And there was no lack of opportunities. After all the lonely German women and the Polish prisoners slept under the same roof and, as the farmers’ dwellings were usually connected with the various outbuildings, passing from a bedroom to the prisoner’s closet – or the other way round – presented no difficulty. As all doors were locked for the night, one did not expect surprise visits. Our men did not hold back their favours and set about ‘humanising the Nordic race’ to their heart content. On occasions when the woman was faced with an undeniable result, she would feign a close relationship with a German, even with an idiot, to point a finger at him as the putative father.
At the time several Polish prisoners escaped. The well prepared and well organised getaways succeeded. Before one embarked on it, one had to learn most of the common German expressions, remember the names of places on the intended itinerary, procure a suitable map or sketch of the proposed route with the greatest possible number of place names, establish which were the most difficult points to cross, accumulate money and food, prepare some civilian clothes, etc. One had the best chance of success when the start corresponded with an official absence, like a referral to hospital, which the ‘patient’ of course never reached.
One day I received a letter from a friend in my home town. He warned me that the German occupation authorities were looking for me and, aware that I had been taken prisoner of war, were trying to establish my address in Germany. I knew now for certain that I had to escape. As I had been aware that this might happen, I have been preparing for an escape for some time. I now got in touch with a German doctor who has been treating me, and with his wife. (The couple had their own account to settle with the Nazis, as in 1939, during a picnic organised by the young Nazis, a fight started between them and their opponents, in which the couple’s son and another boy were killed.) The couple were thus prepared to help me escape. The doctor reported that I needed surgery on my ear – the ear did actually trouble me for some time – and referred me to an ear and nose specialist. To cover himself, he sent me to a specialist in Lüneburg. The latter agreed that the operation was necessary, but as the hospital was reserved for German soldiers, the surgeon instructed the policeman who accompanied me to take me to another hospital, in Celle. On the way back via Uelzen we stopped at the railway station and my guard, a man of about 60, member of the Hilfspolizei or auxiliary police force, told me to wait at the station while he went to the local Arbeitsamt to make arrangements for our further travel. At that moment a train bound for Magdeburg rolled into the station. Without giving it another thought I boarded the train and started my journey in the opposite direction to the one in which I had first been taken to the camps as a prisoner of war. I could well imagine the fate of my guard as he returned to the camp without me. Going to the hospital I had taken with me a small suitcase with a change of underwear, some food and about 270 marks, all prepared with the help of mates who shared my secret.
After a number of scrapes, some truly dramatic, I found myself seven days later, i.e. on 29th September 1942, after three years of exile and slavery, with my wife and children. Having been expelled from their home and now deprived of all essentials, my family was in a pitiful state. But to start with all I wanted was a good wash and sleep. I spent several days in bed recovering.
As I possessed no documents, I went with my wife to the nearby commune of Brzozówka, in the Kraśnik district, where, helped by my wife’s connections, I managed to get a Kennkarte, or identity card. To this day I am not sure whether the document was authentic or an excellent forgery. I was classified as a 1940 deportee from the Wartagau, or Warta district.
The above description of my time in slavery as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany is of necessity rather brief. Many years have passed since those events, and many facts, details and dates have become blurred in my memory.