They manage only 15 kilometres that first day. The German soldiers, captured by the Russians, drag themselves northwards on foot, from Brandenburg towards Frankfurt/ Oder. It is July of 1945.
The soldiers are already exhausted and sick after the last battles of the War. Those who collapse during the march are shot; they are not worth anything where they’re going. But the gang of prisoners has a will to survive.
Their pace increases in step with the shots from the machine guns. A total of 310 kilometres will have been covered by the soldiers when they arrive.
17-year-old Rolf Pächnitz is among them. After the Nazi capitulation he is first captured by the Americans, but then ends up in Russian hands. He has no idea of what awaits him on this march towards the Oder region.
Thousands of prisoners of war are swarm towards the heavily mined areas near the Polish border. Rolf is placed in a battalion with some 500 other soldiers. They are issued with a wooden pole of about their own height. Fingerthick steel wire, sharpened into a knifelike form at its end, is wrapped around the pole. Using this tool they are to clear the endless fields of mines, work that none of them knows anything about. They soon learn, in a very brutal way.
There are antitank mines, land mines and, worst of all, the S35 mine. When they discover a mine as they poke through the earth, they must immediately find the next one in order to understand their placement pattern. Sometimes the mines are linked to grenades, resulting in a domino- like series of explosions.
All too often it goes wrong. Rolf remembers seeing a shoe fly past him. There’s a foot still in the shoe. The man next to Rolf has been hit. Rolf runs back along the path to fetch the shoe, keeping to the path and never stepping outside onto the unsafe areas. He finds it, brings it back, and tries to tie the foot back on.
He remembers their learning how the mines act, how the mostfeared S35 detonates in the air and kills everyone within 20 metres. How they learn to run right towards the explosion under this mine to reach a dead angle in relation to the spread of the mine. This can save their lives.
Explosions are heard constantly, screams pierce the air. The single little horse cart they can use is filled with wounded soldiers on the way back to camp, a distance of up to 30 kilometres. It takes six hours to walk there; most of the wounded bleed to death before arriving. The soldiers walking back are forced to sing by the Soviet guards in an attempt to stifle the screams. If the prisoners refuse to sing, the guards refuse to give them food.
The prisoners sing.
Rolf never thinks he could become one of the victims. He remembers this period almost as a dream, a reality he cannot relate to. Some of the men die of utter fear, he remembers.
But Rolf becomes very sick; he gets jaundice from some fish he eats, rotten fish that is several days old.
They manage to steal sugar and Rolf survives this way. He ekes it out with some wet bread made of maize and oats, a sort of watery soup they eat when they reach camp. When they’re lucky, the mines explode in fields of wheat, wheat that fills their pockets and then their stomachs.
Time passes. Soldiers die in great numbers. The survivors try to remember the names of the dead; it seems important that both names and lives don’t just disappear out in those fields. They ask each other over and over in order to remember. But the majority are soon dead. The survivors cannot manage to remember all the names.
After five months have passed there are only 150 men left in Rolf’s battalion. They had been 500. They are continuously promised their freedom. Anyone who digs up and detonates 100 mines is promised to be freed. But when they reach 100, the Soviets raise the stakes to 200. Then to 300. And so on.
Rolf detonates more than 500 mines during his months in the fields at Lebus.
Frost is what finally saves the last men in the battalion.
It proves impossible to dig the earth; they are sent to a transit hall where their fate will be decided. Rolf spends three weeks there. He is very weak due to jaundice, the cold, hepatitis and diarrhoea and is labelled “Unfit”
by the Russian doctor who examines him.
This saves him from being sent on to Russia. Instead, he is sent to Berlin in December 1945.
The police here decide to send him to work extracting uranium in a German factory.
It lies in Frankfurt/Oder.
Then fear sets in. Instinctive fear. An instinctive fear of the Russians, Rolf explains.
He disobeys orders, gets on a streetcar and over to the Western zone. He feels no fear of being captured on his way there:
“The only thing I thought about was getting away from the Russians.”