Thursday, April 3, 2014

Frank, Part XI: Stalag IV-F

Wehrkreis IV POW Camps
From Stalag IV C blog (http://stalag4c.blogspot.com/2008/12/les-stalags-iv.html)
Unfortunately, no key for the map exists, but it seems to indicate the sub-camps
that existed for each individual POW camp.

Although Frank Strukel's initial stay at Stalag IV-B seems to have been short-lived, it is the only Prisoner-of-War internment camp listed in his official military record. This is not surprising. Movement from camp to camp was common amongst prisoners, and the only one of official record was usually the one in which initial registration was conducted. This became a sort of black comedy amongst the prisoners. The "shoe leather express" could take soldiers hundreds of miles in the opposite direction along the same roads they had walked just weeks before. Depending on levels of overcrowding, need of prisoner-based labor, and movement of the Allied forces, prisoners were shifted randomly and unexpectedly. The better part of Frank's experiences as a prisoner-of-war are largely unknown and undocumented. The only clue we have regarding his experiences after his registration at Stalag IV-B was a single line of text featured in an article in his home newspaper upon his release: "After several weeks of walking from one camp to another...he was transferred to Stalag 4-F at Plauen..."

But Stalag IV-F was not in Plauen. Stalag IV-F was in Hartmannsdorf bei Chemnitz in Saxony, about sixty miles southeast of Frank's initial imprisonment in Stalag IV-B. Plauen was yet another fifty miles further southeast. But the nature of Stalag IV-F was very different than the previous camp in which Frank had been living. Stalag IV-F was much smaller and less crowded, but it served as a hub for many work camps surrounding it. Some prisoners from Stalag IV-B were given the option of leaving for a work camp if they were deemed strong enough to serve a purpose for Nazi Germany, so perhaps Frank volunteered to leave the dismal surroundings near Mühlberg. Once at Stalag IV-F prisoners were given work detail in the cities surrounding Hartmannsdorf or at local factories or reservoirs. Some were shipped out daily to work on railroads or dig trenches for pipe, and were returned nightly to the same cold, unheated wooden huts that Frank had become accustomed to already. The winter was still dragging on, bitterly cold, and the condensation from the body heat in each hut would freeze on the ceiling at night, only to rain down on the prisoners as the sun warmed the roof in the morning. After walking hundreds of miles with frostbitten, diseased feet, many soldiers' boots had long since fallen apart. Either the lack of foot ware or because they were too painful to wear, often boots had been substituted with a cloth wrap for a sock and a wooden plank tied to the foot with a leather strap. Although less confining to pain-wracked feet, it did nothing to shield them from the continuous cold or protect them for extended walking.

Rations were no better at this camp than in any other. Breakfast was black coffee. Lunch was a piece of black bread. Dinner was a slightly clouded water that substituted as soup. Red Cross packages that made it to the soldiers filled them with delight and misery. Those who attempted to eat the rich chocolate or reconstituted powdered milk or the tinned meat were often greeted with severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and explosive diarrhea from foods their emaciated bodies were no longer able to accommodate. But even those who experienced some discomfort from the occasional splurge knew that if they kept it down, their bodies would welcome the additional calories. Those whose bodies could not, used what they could to barter for bread and potatoes. These were not frequent deliveries. One prisoner remembers only four deliveries in which he had to share with four of five of his buddies during his entire four-and-a-half months as a prisoner.

A British POW sent to Stalag IV-F recalls being used as labor at a nearby electronics factory in Mittweida. His fellow bunk mates were shipped off daily, one to dig trenches for water pipes, the other to work in a joiners' shop to help machine operators, stack timber and deliver finished furniture and coffins to customers. The treatment of British, French, and American prisoners was dictated by the rules of the Geneva Convention, and as a consequence a soldier could invoke certain rights inherent under these guidelines. Russians and Poles could not. Additionally, the German civilians seemed to harbor a particular hatred to the Russians that they did not inflict upon their Allied counterparts. As a consequence, prisoners of the Soviet army were often treated with far more cruelty by both the military and civilian population. A 2004 statistical tabulation showed that nearly 60% of Russian POWs held by Germans died in camps, compared to only 4% of British POWs. According to one American POW interviewed by historian Stephen Ambrose, "The German plan was to keep us alive, yet weakened enough that we wouldn't attempt escape."

What Frank was doing in Plauen is not known. A British POW from Stalag IV-F was marched every morning to the train station and sent with other prisoners to Reichenbach or Plauen to work on the railroad. They would clear sections of track of snow and ice, dig out old ballast and then ram new stones and support under the track to level it and fill it back in. He and his fellow prisoners benefitted from the food stores and sacks of sugar they occasionally stumbled upon in train cars as well as coal blocks they could stash into the camp at night to build a fire for warmth.

But the vast majority of prisoners, including Maurice Rainville of Company B, 275th Regiment who had arrived in France with Frank Strukel just a few short months before, were sent to Stalag IV-F from IV-B and "assigned to slave labor at Plauen, a city near the Czech border. We worked for civilians who came in every day and signed up for as many of us as they needed that day. Sometimes these guys were very rough." And so it was likely that Frank was used in whatever capacity was deemed fit for him by whomever owned him for that day.

As January faded into February, and the snows began melting into March, the tidbits of news that filtered into the camps and were whispered amongst the prisoners made it apparent that the Germans were failing. The American army finally succeeded in crossing the Rhine River on 7 March 1945, and Patton's troops captured Mainz on 20 March 1945. The Soviet army successfully ended the German offensive in Hungary on 16 March 1945, and they captured Danzig on 30 March 1945. It was apparent by now that Germany was under attack on all fronts. How much Frank and his fellow prisoners knew is unknown, but it was impossible not to hear the murmurings and gossip amongst the German civilians while being worked to exhaustion in Plauen. Perhaps it was this flicker of hope that kept Frank going in his final days of captivity. Entering his third month as a prisoner, there was little left of him to physically endure much more. His 5'6" frame was carrying only 85 pounds, and what was left of his army-issued clothing was all but tatters and fragments. But there was still hope.

And at home, his family heard nothing.

3 comments:

  1. Mikey! I just binge-read this entire blog. From the first entry to the most current. I LOVE it. You write so well and I'm so interested in these people! If I ever meet your mom one day, it will be like we're already family!! You express something (twice, actually) that really struck a chord with me when you talked about being in a cemetery and feeling the hum of thousands of untold stories all around you. I have felt that as well: in cemeteries as well as just walking the streets of Manhattan. Everyone has a story. A few will have theirs told. And how wonderful that you can work doing something you so obviously love and that is so important in the grand scheme of things. We all want to be remembered. We are lucky there are people like you out there to make sure that some of us will be! Can't wait to read more! Much love to you, Mikey!!

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    1. You're the best, John. Your comments made me all misty-eyed. Thanks for that. You keep singing, and I'll keep telling stories, and the world will be a far, far better place!

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  2. my great granda was in that camp thanks for letting me read yr story gives me an insight in what he had to do in them awful conditions

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