The Price
Chapter 8

Out of the Frying Pan…


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Most of the men were gone, conscripted into the Red Army and killed or missing in action. I began to understand why we had been brought to Russia: our labor was to replace that of the men who'd been killed. We who had destroyed Russia were to help rebuild her.
Because there were between six and eight thousand German POWs in Tabor, their latrines were beginning to contaminate the water supply and the people wanted them gone. That's why they were loaded onto the trains. They were being taken to the Soviet Union. The train was crowded; they had very little food, and almost nothing to drink.

When they arrived at their destination, they rushed down to the scummy Volga river and drank lots of water, which gave them all diarrhea.

They were taken into the middle of nowhere, where there was a pile of building supplies left behind by the Germans, and told to build themselves a place to stay. At this time they meet a bunch of locals who speak German. Their ancestors had been sent there by Catherine the Great one hundred years earlier. They were mostly women; the men had all been conscripted into the Soviet Army and were either dead or missing.

"I began to understand why we had been brought to Russia," says Karl-Heinz, "our labor was to replace that of the men who'd been killed. We who had destroyed Russia were to help rebuild her."

They built their barracks, and several buildings for a kitchen, bakery, and so forth. In the end, however, "it was a typical labor camp." Since it was an oil-producing region, they were forced to dig trenches for pipelines and build pumping stations.

The oil and gas bubbled up out of the ground, and they shoved a piece of pipe down into a gas vent to make a heater for their barracks, which was good since it got so cold that trees would freeze and split right down the middle. Despite the below freezing temperatures, they were still required to dig trenches. "Some days we only dug out a few handfuls of frozen dirt all day." Some of the POWs also lost fingers and toes due to frostbite, which would often result in punishment, since the Russians suspected they were just trying to get out of work.

Karl-Heinz informs us that there were other camps nearby. Some held Russian civilians who had committed minor infractions, and others were re-education camps for those Russian soldiers who had been POWs to the Germans, and had "been exposed to western propaganda."

Karl-Heinz here describes the food they received during this period: slimy black bread, watery cabbage soup, slimy black potatoes, and coffee. They all looked forward to their one scoop of millet gruel they received at dinnertime. He says they were "really slowly starving to death," and that when he was eventually released, he weighed only 104 pounds, despite being over six feet tall. Many people died from malnutrition and related diseases.

A "Russian medical commission," mostly women, would make them strip down every two months, and they would check to see if there was any fat left on their buttocks. If not, the person might get sent home.
It is sad to imagine people being so hungry they would eat anything, and so thirsty they would drink anything, as these men were. The real miracle is that any of them survived. Karl-Heinz does point out, though, that the Russians really didn't eat any better than the rest of them. It was a miserable post-war period, and the means of production had been greatly disrupted, not that the Soviets ever really had it good before that.
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