Mining Iron Ore
by Stefan Michalak
Our destination was not disclosed. On the order of the almighty Arbeitsamt, we were on our way to forced labour. Września, together with our loved ones, was already behind us. The picturesque quiet plain of Wielkopolska, bathed in the rays of May’s sun, was passing outside the train’s windows. This May day of 1940 is forever engraved in my memory. Grief and bewilderment were written all over the faces of my fellow travellers. We all came from the same town: Kazimierz Owczarzak, former official of the District Authority, Bolesław Rosada, who used to play in regimental orchestra of the 68th infantry regiment, Kazimierz Hańc, a salesman, Władysław Wawrzyniak, a lawyer’s clerk, Bronisław Gronikowski, a worker, the brothers Brunon and Waldemar Mansfeld, who refused to sign the Volkliste, and others I knew by sight. At 17 years of age I was the youngest, while the oldest was about 25.
We were on our way to a country unknown to us, the country of the enemy. In Jarocin we were joined by a large group of people from that district, including those from Nowe Miasto, Mieszków and other places. Following a tiring journey, with many changes of trains, via Leszno, Cottbus and Halle we arrived in Kassel. That was the end of our travels. The guards mustered us all in front of the station, where our fate was to be determined.
Hańc, Owczarzak and I had agreed to stay together if at all possible. Unfortunately, representatives of various German companies moved round the crowd of the newly arrived Poles, picking workers for their enterprises. I felt like a piece of merchandise. The selected people were formed into separate groups and loaded onto lorries which promptly left this human market. Kaimierz Hańc was separated from us quite early on. Much later I learned in a letter from my family that he had been sent to a coal mine near Kassel.
Our journey ended in an iron ore mine near Hebel, a village in the district of Homberg. The mine of poor quality iron ore has recently been brought back into operation to feed the needs of the munitions industry. Its grounds were fenced off, forming a whole complex, which included a gate-keeper’s lodge, the shaft, garages, the lamp store, washing facilities in a separate barrack, a canteen barrack and several residential barracks. All of them painted green.
Lumps of ore were embedded in greasy, wet clay. It was all very slippery and heavy. Water covered everything, flooded the galleries at all levels. Pumps were constantly in action to protect the gallery structures and to make the earth give up its iron ore. All this was taking place under the watchful eyes of German foremen. This was hard labour of the worst kind.
Several days after our arrival we were issued with documents: Arbeitskarte polnisher Arbeitskräfte. On the second page it said in Polish: “This work permit is valid only for the stated place of work and for only 12 months from the date of issue.” We were shocked – this implied that we had actually applied for this work and were kindly allowed to take it up. And only for a limited period. My occupation was given as Schlepper or loader. In this deceitful hypocritical way the Nazis were trying to give a semblance of legality to the multi-million foreign forced labour force. Together with the documents we were also given small linen squares with the letter “P”, to be worn on our outer garments. We were not permitted to leave the grounds of the mine.
Days, weeks and months passed. We worked in three shifts, both the local Germans and we, Polish deportees. They were professional miners, while we carried out auxiliary and heavy jobs. This heavy work underground, together with insufficient nourishment, endangered our health and life. The only help in our constant struggle with exhaustion and home sickness came from the solidarity and friendships within the group. We became a closely knit community, its members always ready to help one another, to listen to each other’s worries about their loved ones and to keep alive the hope of survival in our present adversity.
Kazik Owczarzak and I thought constantly of the chances of escape. The day came when we decided to get ready and time our escape so that we would spend Christmas Eve with our families.
In the meantime we had been joined by a large group of French and Belgian prisoners of war. They were housed in separate barracks, but we worked together.
In December 1940 Kazik and I started mailing parcels, several days apart, to our families. This way we were running down our belongings in preparation for our escape. On 21st December we worked on the morning shift and that same evening we were on the train travelling east. We had no travel permits. One night we spent sleeping in a haystack. We covered part of the way on foot. Nevertheless, three days later we were celebrating Christmas Eve with our families in Września.
I did not foresee then that I would pay dearly for this escapade. As advised by friends, I left for Poznań and took a labouring job on the railways. Several weeks later I learned that Kazik Owczarzak had been arrested and that the Germans were looking for me.
They picked me up at work in August 1941. After the interrogations in the headquarters of the Poznań Gestapo in the former Soldier’s House I was taken to Fort VII (Konzentrationslager Posen) and several weeks later, in a special prison wagon, with other prisoners, to Berlin. From there, in stages, via Halle and Kassel to Wabern, all the time under escort and in the special prison car. At the final destination the local gendarme confirmed by signature the receipt of the prisoner and took me back to the very same mine from which I had escaped. Kazimierz Owczarek was already there.
I was made to go underground on the same day. I did not feel well. I was listless and sluggish. Several days later I found myself in hospital in Wabern, with acute pneumonia. Three weeks later I was back at work. But not for long.
On 21st November 1941, during the first shift, I was badly injured in an accident: my right thigh was crushed. I lost consciousness. I was taken to hospital in Treysa in the Kassel district. Already on the third day a uniformed German came to see me in hospital requiring me to sign an already filled-in form. By signing it I would be accepting the responsibility for the accident. My explanation that the fault was the machinist’s and that there were witnesses was rejected out of hand. The machinist was German – I was just one of the sub-humans. By that time I could not care less. I signed.
My treatment following the operation lasted six months and I was eventually discharged on 12th June 1942. The document which ended my exile as slave labourer in Nazi Germany bears the same date.