From Bremen to Berlin, October 1944 to January 1945
Berlin-Friedenau, January 1945
Report by Peter Wolfgang Schaper (Wölf)
On Sunday, October 8, 1944, in the evening at about 11 :00 PM. our doorbell in Bremen sounded. A gentleman, who introduced himself as a member of the Jewish Community, stated that he was charged by the Gestapo (German Secret police) to inform me that I was to report on the next day at 12:00 o’clock in front of the police station. He explained that I was to dig trenches for the Organization Todt (a labor gang) in East Friesland. Aside from work clothes I should bring along a wool blanket and provisions for one day. Then he assured my uncle (Claus) and me that it was strictly a matter of three weeks, and that I could count on that as far as clothes outfits were concerned.
On the next morning I first notified my employer, who was the head of the machinist union for the circuit of Bremen. He, in turn, addressed himself immediately to the Gestapo, to try to get a postponement of the order to report. However it was useless, no exceptions were being made.
So, I packed my gear, and appeared at the appointed time in front of the police station. After we stood there for about an hour, an SS (military arm of the Gestapo) man came and read out our names. There were names being read of people who were well known in Bremen, as Professor R. Hess, a famous children’s doctor, whom I knew through my uncle; Dr. Heymann, a well-known professional engineer, etc. When this was finished, the soldier told us to “make ourselves comfortable, it would take a little while”. After four more hours, we were told that we would be sent to a camp in Farge and there would be taken over by the Organization Todt. – We were all “mixed Aryans” and so-called “interrelateds”, so that is ”pure Aryans” who had Jewish wives;) there were however also Aryans who had half-Jewish spouses in the Organization Todt, for example Hennes Frisch).
Around 1640 hours we left Bremen (by train) and arrived in Farge at about 2000 hours during an air raid. Our accompanying soldiers of the SS delivered us to the commander of the camp. [I remember marching along a dirt road from the railroad stop to the camp gates while the antiaircraft guns were booming and the sky was lit with searchlights]. The commander of the camp greeted us with the words: “This evening you don’t get anything to eat, so that you realize where you are!”. It soon turned out that we were in the penal camp Farge, well known in Bremen, where all those who were too lazy to work, were sent. The camp commander, Captain Schipper, led us then to a dark room, which turned out to be the de-lousing and shower room, as we found out by pocket flashlights which someone had brought along. ” So, here you can sleep tonight! But don’t open the window or turn on the electric light! Outside there are guards who have been instructed to shoot right away!” At these words, the door was slammed shut and we were left to ourselves. A joker in the crowd did, before the warning by the commander, open one of the windows because of the oppressive heat and humidity. Immediately a guard, a Russian (!) hit the frame with the butt of his gun. At night most of the guards around the camp were Russian prisoners of war, who obviously enjoyed making a lot of noise with their guns. – We fumbled around to find a somewhat more comfortable position to sleep, no one, however could stretch their legs out, but we did sleep being very tired from standing for hours in front of the police station.
At 5:00 AM the next morning we were awoken and served the so-called pumpkin soup. This was prepared by taking a pumpkin inclusive of seeds and rind, just as it was picked from the plant, and boiling it in buckets of water and some form of flour, this for a duration long enough until it formed a sort of sticky mass. As soon as we ate a few spoonfuls – the remainder went into the garbage – we changed into our work clothes. However it became soon apparent that one did not have anything for us to do, so we stood around all morning. At noon we received two slices, about 1 em thick, of bread with a pat of margarine. Then we were led to a U-boat bunker which was under construction. But there, too, there was nothing for us to do, and so we returned to the camp at around 1700 hours and “kept busy” until supper. During the afternoon 25 more people showed up, we, from Bremen, numbered about 50 men. In the evening we got pumpkin soup again, and then we went back to our ”bedroom’. Because of the extra 25, who, by the way were from Wesermiinde, there was less room now, but finally even this night went by.
On Tuesday, 30 young people were elected, including me, who went to the Flak (anti-aircraft installation). We had to dig a personnel trench around the anti-aircraft installation and fortify this with M.A. bunkers (?). We were treated relatively decently, here. We worked until noon, when a lieutenant came by to look at our work. He was satisfied with what he had done, which was understandable because up to now, Russians had done the work and they, understandably, were terribly lazy. The camp, officially named the “Work Reeducation Camp”, was renamed by the penal workers the Work Relaxation Camp, in keeping with the acronym. [I could make the acronym work in English, for once!]. One gave us the advice to ”work with your eyes”. The lieutenant then ordered the guards to be withdrawn. He was hoping that that would boost our productivity. However the “good life” lasted not very long. On the next day, as the soldier from the camp brought our “noon bread”, he had a terrible fit over the fact that we worked without guards. So, the lieutenant was forced to recall the guards to watch us.
We had worked four days by the Flak, when 1 became ill with a sore throat and had to go to the infirmary. On the same day an officer showed up with the lists for the transfer to the Organization Todt. This man turned out to be quite humane. He treated us like decent human beings and did not address us as “damned dogs!”, as was the case with all the others.
We were quite elated that we would leave the penal camp, but had to wait three more days. Others were still joining us from Wilhelmshafen, Kuzhafen, Emden and Oldenburg. These men told us that they had been arrested at their place of work, with the “exception of those from Oldenburg, who had the same experience as we, in Bremen. One can imagine what outfits these others had brought with them.
When the workers returned from the Flak on October 14, we could proudly report to them that we were scheduled to move on the next morning. 1 asked the officer in charge to let me go along, in spite of my illness. The doctor was also of the opinion that one could safely risk it. We were supposed to travel in two transports, one at 5:00 AM and the other at 7:00 AM. As the transports were now arranged – I was on the second one – the “Ustu” leader told us that he had managed to let the 70 year olds be dismissed.! They were discharged as of now, but could easily spend the night sleeping in the camp. Some left immediately, but the majority had to stay since the last train had left already. – In the evening we took our leave from all, acquaintances we had met. On the next morning we were offered, once again, a “feast soup”. The relatives of the inmates had, on the day before, left “love-packages” with sausages, cake, apples, bread, jams, etc. So that everybody could get something of this, everything was thrown onto a blanket, then cooked to mush with several buckets of water. It tasted a lot better than pumpkin soup!
[I also remember my time in the infirmary, where 1 met a very young Russian soldier, a prisoner of war, about my age. He had been captured in Russia and was sent here. I did not know what was wrong with him, why he was in the infirmary. He tried to learn German from me, while teaching me Russian. We got along quite well. He told me that he did not mind being in the camp, he would never return to Russia, because Stalin said that Russian soldiers should not be taken prisoners. They were better off dead.]
The first transport left at 5:00 Am, at 7:00 Am we 75 left the camp. When we were through the barbed wire and past the guard posts, we all breathed easier. We believed that we could look forward to better housing and better treatment. But, already at the station we got a strange idea of the “Organization Todt”. The car ordered for us did not arrive with the 5 o’clock train, and so it happened that we 150 had to go in one train which had a capacity of about 300 [?]. But we did not care, since we were gladly looking forward to being in Bremen. On the train we were told our route of march. We were to go via Vegesack, Bremen, and Hannover to Kreiensen. From there we had to ride another half-hour and then walk for 7 to 8 kilometers. At 9:00 we were in Bremen. I telephoned my uncle immediately from there. He sent me a good “mardisustenance” to the station. We were not allowed to leave the station. One was probably concerned, and rightfully so, that too many would not return. But our leader in charge, group leader of the O.T. Biehl, turned out to be very helpful, he managed to make it possible that we were given a decent soup to eat in the army waiting room of the NSV [?]. it was only a simple barley soup, however a feast for us. At 11 :00 o’clock we pushed on. In Bremen we were re-divided into two transports. The first left at 10 o’clock via Osnabriick-Hameln.
When we finally landed in Kreiensen, it got to be 1900 hours, all trains to Vorwohle, as our final station was called, had already left. We made quarters for the night in the waiting room and wrote the first postcards for home. From the AEL [?] we were not allowed to write. So here, also, the concern of our transport leader was evident. He also managed to drum up a train to Vorwohle at 2100 hours. Unfortunately we could not continue onwards from there, it was too dark.; we had to find night quarters for better or for worse. An employee of the railroad was kind enough to provide us with a room, 4 by 6 meters, at the switch station. We arranged ourselves in as good a manner as possible and a wonderful night began. If one stretched ones legs, one could be sure to hit someone else’s face or other body part. But also this night passed. At six o’clock it was time to go. Down by the station we learned that we could have gone on one more stop. At 7 o’clock we finally arrived at the camp. The first thing we saw was a mountain of pumpkins!! But, our fears caused by the sight, were softened as we received one pound of bread per person. That took care of the first hunger. We met the first transport in this camp, which consisted of four, not yet furnished, barracks. We had not been there for a whole hour when it was, again: “Ready to leave!” We were now finally scheduled to come to the camp where we were supposed to work. A long ”train” was set in motion, headed by a proud “Oberfront”-leader. We felt as if we were the elite bodyguard, itself. On the way we were American bombers flew over us and were told, for safety’s sake, to take cover. It turned out that at the time there was a raid on Hannover, which one could witness from the vapor trails quite nicely.
Toward noon we came to a place where trees had been cut down, and where in the empty places, cement barracks had been built. That was our final camp. As we arrived, a man appeared with jack-boots, riding britches and a hunter’s hat. We thought at first he was an official of the Gestapo. His greeting to us, however, taught us differently.
”Comrades”, he began, “I heartily welcome you to the camp Lenne! I have been put in charge as camp leader by the Gestapo. Life up here is without doubt bearable. You are free German workers, under the whip of the Gestapo! Work is very hard. Work hours are from 600 to 1800 hours. At 1230 there is an hour break. What I demand of you is a camaraderie.” And then he talked for half an hour about camaraderie and what that meant to him. In the meantime we got to feel very insignificant. The word Gestapo shook everybody up, mightily.
But then, as lunch break came around, our mood lightened up. The provisions here seemed fabulous to us. We also noticed “star bearers” [In these days all Jews were forced to wear large yellow Stars of David, with the word “JEW” written inside]. We found ourselves in a camp that was intended for Jews. These had been transported here in 1941 and 1942 from the Rhineland and were now in the camp Lenne since six weeks ago. Also the camp director was a Jew, probably meant to be a star bearer. Unfortunately he was terribly afraid to lose his job, so that he did not do anything for us. But otherwise the Jews turned out be very much our comrades. When one came to one of their barracks, one heard: “Come, comrade, fill your pipe” or “have a cigarette”. Actually they did not have a “smoker’s ration card” and their food rations had been shortened, just as at home. We helped them out, occasionally, in that we gave them some of our rations, among other things, shaving cream. – For us, even the youngsters got smoking rations.
We now had time to arrange our dormitories for two days. Then we were distributed to the firms, which did the work there. We did not see any more of the Organization Todt. 45 men were made available to the firm Kohlranz and Huter, and 100 men to the Franken Works. I worked for the Franken Works. We started, happily, at 6:00 AM, armed with a pick ax and spade, to dig a ditch, 50 centimeters wide and 1 ~ to 2 meters deep. The territory was very rocky and therefore we did not get much done. But, inside of a week, we had gotten the hang of it, so that the supervisors were sort of satisfied with us. – The purpose of our work was to lay a water pipe into the barrack camp. The camp was to be enlarged so that 4000 workers could be accommodated. At a distance of about 5 km, an underground factory was to be built. As soon as the waterline was finished, we were supposed to work there.
Three weeks passed, and we felt quite well. Then, one day, on the street where we worked, a car came along. It was, at the time quite wet, so that the mud sprayed in all directions. A lawyer, Sch., and a doctor, H., stood on the street. To avoid being splashed by the car, they moved back a step. Immediately the car stopped and from inside a voice yelled: “Who are you?” Nobody answered. Why should one give one’s name to a stranger? The stranger seemed to be waiting for an answer, when it did not come forth, the door was flung open and a tall man emerged. Sch. Noticed the Gestapo badge in the hand of the man and now had to speak up. Without a word, the man got back in the car and drove on to the camp. When, at lunch time, we arrived back up at the camp, we noticed right away that there was big trouble. The camp director cussed around a lot, but his knees were visibly shaking. He was a sad picture. Then came the address. In short, it came to the fact that the two men were ripe for being sent to a concentration camp, and, should the slightest provocation happen, they would be sent there. Also the Gestapo agent had caught someone in the inn in the village who had a visit from his wife. It was strictly prohibited to have visitors. Also this man was ripe for the concentration camp. Now, however came the main topic. All inmates were ordered to wear a red stripe, 2 em wide, on the left upper arm and on the right upper leg. The tailors could do the sewing (we had several among us, who were tailors in “civilian life”), the material will be furnished. – this time the lunch did not taste too well. We were just finished, when the Gestapo agent, Mr. Eisel, entered our barracks. “Are these the ones from Bremen?’, he asked the camp director who accompanied him. ”Yes, sir”, sounded the answer. “Well, we will trim you down to size!”, with that he disappeared. Now they also introduced a so called ”vacation pass”, without which no one was allowed to leave the camp. – The affair with the stripes did not advance with great speed as Mr. Eisel wanted it, thanks to our tailors. For the time being only the stripe on the upper arm was being sewn., and only on the jacket which everyone wore for work.
Two days after the unpleasant visit we were informed that we were made part of the Organization Todt. As camp commander we were given the officer Biel, who had been in charge of our transport to the camp. The director who had been in charge was made senior director. Biel turned out to be a great director, he really tried to stand up for us. For example he gave permission that some, who had decorations like iron crosses, were allowed to wear them, something which was forbidden since Farge. “I would like to see the one who denies you that right”, he said, “you did not find that in the street, but you earned it properly! Put it on and woe to those who don’t wear it!” – That was senior troop commander Biel.
One day we heard that someone in the infirmary had died of a bleeding stomach. In the same week there followed two other deaths. The first died of blood poisoning, which the Jewish camp doctor, who came from the Rhineland, did not diagnose until it was too late. This comrade was 20 years old, otherwise quite healthy. Blood poisoning and festering infections happened with us often through our work; this comrade had scratched himself on a rock, while working, and did see the doctor. He was bandaged superficially. When he returned on the next day, the signs of the poisoning were already there, but the doctor had to be made aware ofthat by another patient. On the following day the comrade was committed to the infirmary, where his hand was amputated. But it was too late, he died on the next day. – The third case was an occurrence of Dip theria. The ill person came to the doctor in the morning, at 7 o’clock, because he could not bear the pain during the night. He was turned back with the explanation that office hours did not start until 9 o’clock. At 8 o’clock, finally, the doctor softened and he immediately sent the patient to the hospital. They even supplied an ambulance. At 9’oclock the patient died. The third death case!
Now a doctor from Gottingen intervened, who was also an “interrelated” who worked with us. He announced that everyone who felt a sore throat was to report that immediately. Two days later my barracks partner, Susmann, an older man, announced that he had a fever and a throat pains. He had to go to the doctor and we should tell our supervisor. Soon, however, he returned to work, the doctor did not have the instruments and could not determine anything, so he could not certify him as unfit for work. The next day he was examined by the doctor from Gottingen., and he diagnosed Diptheria. So, together with another man he was put on a train to Holzminden. Here Susmann got a serum injection, however, because of overcrowding, he could not be admitted to the hospital, and was returned to the camp that evening. After two days, which he spent with us in the same room, it was made possible through the intercession of the doctor from Gottingen, to send him to the emergency hospital in Witzenhausen. He was put on the train with accompanying coworker, and arrived safely in Witzenhausen.
Soon I experienced throat pains. I went to the doctor and he looked into my throat with a piece of wood, he had no spatula. “No coating”, came the diagnosis. The same happened to the next one, who had suffered from sore throat for three days. Fortunately I did not have to work outside, since my shoes were totally tom apart and no one could fix them. I was put to work in the kitchen (!). Finally our barracks elder insisted that one would take a specimen. But, supposedly, there were no tubes available for that. So, for this purpose we would have to travel to Gottingen. Our camp director had already written out the vacation slip, when the senior camp commander appeared in the plan and said one would have to get permission from the Gestapo. All of a sudden the doctor had the tubes for the specimen. In a big hurry two of us got our specimen. Mine was positive, the other’s was negative. So, I was put on the train, without company, to Witzenhausen. I arrived at the hospital without incident, where the nurses were very unhappy about admitting me, at first, because it turned out that the patients coming from Leone, were full of lice. That was the case with me, even though I had no idea. Then I was well taken care of in the hospital, the eight weeks which I spent there were for me a rehabilitation time. From there I went, illegally, to Berlin Friedenau to my aunt Dora in the beginning of January 1945 and stayed there.
[Translated by PWS, from a German report, September 1999]
Thoughts and Reminiscences, Added on September 29, 1999:
Regarding the Susmann episode: after he was returned to the barracks, following his first trip to the hospital, I remembered that I had had a shot against Diptheria in Berlin. It was given to me by Dr. Rele Frisch (Hennes’ wife) who practiced with my aunt Mieze in Berlin. It was quite rare to get this, it had, I believe, just been discovered in the 1930s. So, I thought that it would be a good idea to get infected. I asked comrade Susmann to spit on a piece of bread he was willing to share with me. This would make certain that I would get infected and sent on: on a train, to a hospital. Better than Lenne camp!!! As you know: it worked.
I clearly remember my trip to Witzenhausen. I am sure I breathed a great sigh of relief as I left camp Leone for, what turned out to be, the last time. I remember the train ride from Vorwohle, in a third class compartment, all by myself. Fortunately for the German people traveling that way on that day. I must have gone through Kassel and I remember arriving at the hospital after dark. The nurse in reception stayed far away from me, as one can imagine, and ordered a Russian helper to get the clippers and shave my head. There I sat in my underwear rags, they boiled my clothes in the laundry, when a young nurse looked in and declared: “What a shame, all that beautiful hair!” The Russian “barber was not very gentle, and the clippers not sharp, so the affair was anything but painless and I felt bad because now I really looked like a prisoner! Then they stuck me in a shower and thoroughly washed me with strong lye.
Now Susmann, I think his first name was Karl, was quite a character. He had been a manger of hotels, from some disreputable ones to some quite elegant ones. He was eminently familiar with the red light district in Hamburg, one of the towns he called home, namely the Reperbahn. In Witzenhausen he taught me to sing in “Plattdeutsch” (a German dialect of ports near the North Sea.) and we entertained the nurses and other patients with our singing. He had also managed the Adlon in Berlin, a hotel that exists to this day! He and I began to be very close buddies. He taught me card games and daily amused me with wild tales out of his past. [One particular story I remember was about this hooker, whom young Susmann engaged. At the time he was managing the Adlon hotel. After they got their business dealing out of the way, in a dark street corner, Susmann had to go to work. As he is standing in the lobby of the Adlon hotel, who should walk in on the arms of a “sugar daddy”, but the lady he just did business with less than an hour earlier! The desk clerk was immediately notified that there were no rooms available for this couple and Susmann managed to get the young lady aside and told her, in no uncertain terms, that she could not do this in his hotel. How was she to know that he was the manager?!] He entertained all the nurses with his (other) stories and we became celebrities in the Diptheria ward, where everyone was isolated from the rest of the world. We were the only men, everyone else of the male gender was at the front! Susmann had some favorite expressions: When we played cards, the ten of spades was the “Jewish hearse”, when he got an enema, he had some wild story about an animal which only makes sense in German, and when the nurse came to take his temperature he said :the uvula has visitors. We spent Christmas Eve singing Christmas carols for the patients (some Jew, Susmann!!!) and then really got worried when we heard about the Ardennes Offensive. We used to meet in the men’s room to air our worries, so as not to be overheard with our anti Nazi views. Then, when the skies cleared in January, we felt better. One did not hear how the Battle of the Bulge turned out, all we had was the German propaganda. But the many con-trails, which we saw out of the windows, were encouraging to us. We could also see the vapor trails left behind from the V 2 launches near Kassel, although we did not know exactly what that was. Germany just told us that it was a “Get Even Weapon”.
I wrote to my uncle from the hospital. I did not think they censored the mail, but I had to be careful. He got in touch with the lady doctor in charge of our section, and inquired as to my progress. She was very nice and seemed to be wanting to help. It wasn’t until January, that she finally gave me to understand that she, also, was tainted with Jewish blood, that was why she was working in this area. We had to remain in isolation until three specimen, which were taken weekly, came back negative. So Susmann and I prayed for positive specimen. But after two of mine came back negative, the doctor examined me very carefully and declared that I had a significant heart murmur and should not be forced to do heavy labor. She handed me that information on a very official looking piece of paper, with swastikas all over it. Susmann had still positive returns on his specimen. He really was seriously ill at first, not like me: I never really felt very bad! So, when the third test came back negative I had to be discharged. I put my clothes on and was told to return to Lenne, but first to get my ration cards from the discharge office. There the innocent young girl asked me where I was going, and without batting an eye I said: “Berlin”. So she made out my railroad pass to Berlin. In those days travel by train required official permission, before one could buy a ticket. I don’t remember where my money came from, it must have been given to me by the hospital upon discharge. Neither do I remember where I got the hat, but it was a Hitler Youth hat, which hid my bald head. I said goodbye to Susmann and went to the railroad station.
I had to go to Kassel, first on a local train. As I was waiting on the [platform, an American soldier, somewhat beat up, showed up in the company of an SS soldier as guard. I really did my best to ignore them and stay as far away from them as I could: the last thing I needed was an SS guard! When I arrived in Kassel, I was told that there would be a train to Berlin, which came from Vienna, and was 24 hours late. As it pulled in the station, I saw that it was totally full. People were standing in the corridors. I had no idea how to get on. But two good natured German men opened the window and yelled at me to hold up my hand, they’d pull me up. “Always room for one more, kid!”. This is just what I needed. Near Braunschweig the usual Gestapo control got on the car . They yelled down the corridor: “Passports everybody!”. “You have to be kidding!” , came the answer from those around me. There was absolutely no way that anyone could walk along the length of the car. I don’t believe my feet even touched the ground. I had really lucked out!
As we pulled into Berlin, it was dark and there was an air raid in progress. We stopped outside the city in the suburbs. I had no plan as to how to avoid the passport control on the station. Now it came to me. I told the men who had helped me in, and who had been sharing food with me, to let me out, the way I got in, since I lived nearby and wanted to walk home from where we had stopped. So I got out and I really did know where I was and I marched along the railroad track toward Friedenau, where my aunt Dora, my mother’s sister, lived. In the black sky the flak was having its usual field day shooting at the British mosquito bombers. When I got to Dora’s apartment, the cook answered the knock on the back door, at about 11 or 12 o’clock at night, somewhat fearful. At that time of the night a knock on the door was never good news! And my aunt darned near fainted when she saw me!
Much later, in 1946 in Bremen, I happened to run in to a former inmate of Lenne camp. He told me that Susmann returned to the camp in February of 1945, told the officials that as far as he knew, I was still in Witzenhausen with positive test results. Before the American army liberated the came, several anxious inmates tried to escape to the American lines and were all killed by the guards. Susmann, being all alone and elderly, decided to stay after the liberation and to make his home in the town. The landscape is quite nice and beautiful, if you have your freedom! Just this year the Rhodes family and Mary and I rode from Berlin to Vienna on the train, along the same rail line I returned to Berlin on. Although we went through Kassel, I never recognized any of the landscape around there, which is just as well!