A Time of Retribution: Paying with Life and Limb for the Crimes of Nazi Germany
Part 4: Systematic Torture and Murder
Torture was systematic and murder commonplace in many of the Polish detention camps. An estimated 60,000 Germans are believed to have died in this way. Countless other candidates for deportation were beaten, plundered, and humiliated before being herded onto freight trains bound for the West. Many died from the violence and stress associated with these deportations by train.
The expulsion applied to all Germans. Poles who had been classified as German citizens under the Nazis' "German People's List" were made to undergo "rehabilitation" procedures. Anyone who was rejected by this process was deported as a "hostile element." A law enacted on May 6, 1945 threatened the death penalty for any Poles who aided such people.
The mass deportation continued until the end of 1946. On Dec. 17 of that year, some 1,800 Germans were chased out of the region in and around the city of Stolp (known today as Slupsk). At 7 a.m. they were told they had until midday to leave the city. One of those affected told the West German parliamentary investigators that most of their luggage was stolen from a courtyard "where a Pole stood with a whip in his hand, wildly lashing out at us." He recalled that some "men and women had to strip naked. Jewelry and valuables were taken off them." The last of the expellees were made to wait at the train station until late at night in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) before militiamen pushed and kicked them onto unheated freight trains.
Many Poles had themselves been driven westward by the Soviets during the Russian occupation of eastern Poland. Some of them therefore sympathized with the hounded Germans, and tried to help. The new administrative chief of Lower Silesia threatened to punish "the use of indiscriminate or excessive cruelty." But this had little impact on the brutality with which the Germans were thrown out.
Angry Protest from the West
Politicians and the media in the West protested against the violence. The first train-loads of misery were chugging westward even as the Potsdam Conference was still underway. At the Lehrter Bahnhof train station in Berlin, American GIs pulled about ten corpses a day out of the freight cars that arrived there. The arrival of a ship carrying 300 half-starved children at Westhafen in Berlin provoked angry protest. The US government is deeply dismayed, the State Department wrote in a cable to Poland, complaining about what US officials described as the massive misery and poor treatment of weak and helpless people.
In late fall 1945, German émigré Robert Jungk reported about the "land of death" in the east: "We literally breathed a sigh of relief as we left the Polish zone and entered the Russian-occupied area. We had finally left behind us the pillaged towns, disease-riddled villages, concentration camps, desolation, untended fields and body-strewn roads along which bandits waited to rob us of our last remaining possessions."
Because the Wehrmacht had only retreated from Czechoslovakia in early May 1945, more than 3 million Germans there suddenly found themselves completely defenseless. On May 5, an uprising of communist and radical nationalist groups began against the last remaining occupiers. Here too, ethnic Germans were hunted down.
The "elimination of the German minority," which the Czech government-in-exile had planned back in 1944, became the official policy of the Czech National Front, and one it pursued ruthlessly from early April 1945 onward. The main players in this were the partisans and forces belonging to the "Svoboda Army," which consisted of Czech units that had fought alongside the Red Army. Across the country, Sudetenland Germans, named after the German-settled region near the Sudeten Mountains, were forced to leave.
Thousands of Germans living in Prague were interned, robbed and mistreated. Else S., who was held at the country estate of a certain Prince von Lobkowitz, later described how she was forced to work "from early morning into the night" for 13 months. "Food," she said, "was available in the pig troughs. We were so starving that we even ate the poisoned rodent bate we were supposed to put around the potato sacks. One old man went to get a tin can from the garbage pile and was caught by a guard. We all had to line up and watch as the old man was made to strip to the waist, stand on one leg with his arms raised and shout: We thank our Führer -- all the while he was whipped until, covered with blood, he collapsed."
Armed troops fell upon the Germans in towns like Tetschen (Decin), Aussig (Usti nad Labem), and Königgrätz (Hradec Kralove), killing thousands in the process.
Excuses were easy to find. For instance, when fire broke out at a factory in Aussig, the finger of suspicion was immediately pointed at German saboteurs. Thereupon an armed mob staged a bloodbath in which an estimated 2,000 people -- mostly elderly people, women and children -- were beaten to death, shot or simply flung off the bridge into the Elbe River.
At 9 p.m. on the evening of May 30, 27,000 German inhabitants of Brünn (Brno) were given just ten minutes to dress their children and pack. Armed men then forced them into long columns headed out of the city for a march toward Austria. Women and children were interned on open fields for many months. A writer for Britain's Daily Mail newspaper reported that the field had "become a concentration camp." Such intimidation proved effective: Three-quarters of a million Germans had been chased out of the country even before their expulsion was legitimized at the Potsdam Conference.
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