The German POW: an Encounter with History
A chance meeting on a train brings a tale of survival and remembrance, overshadowed by history
It was a Monday morning when I stepped onto the overcrowded train bringing me back to Vienna from Budapest. I found a free seat and stacked my luggage overhead. The train was already leaving the station when I noticed an old man walking toward me along the aisle. The skin on his face was pale and wrinkled, his head thinly traced by very few white hairs. He sat down next to me and opened the paper bag in his hand. His knotty hands grabbed at the baguette sandwich and fed on it like a starving man. It looked as if he had not eaten for years. Only when he was done did he turn to face me.
Then he handed me a piece of chocolate.
"Do you know the most delicious food I have ever tasted in my life?", he asked me. His accent was German… or was it...? I wasn’t sure. "That was also on a train…" And he launched into his story.
It was the end of World War II: They had been at sea for two weeks and had landed on the coast of Virginia before heading inland on a sleek, comfortable passenger coach. The seats felt like heaven. But it was the food he remembers best, "plentiful and delicious far beyond any of my dreams," he said.
"Pure cotton underwear"
This, he remembers thinking, was what it meant to be a Prisoner of War in America.
He had been born in Hungary and moved with his family to Germany in 1919. Drafted into the German Army in World War II, he was captured on the Western Front in 1944. For months, he and his comrades had suffered from starvation and cold, as Germany was increasingly unable to afford supplies for the Army. As soon as he fell in American hands, he was provided with new clothes.
"For the first time in my life, I wore pure cotton underwear!" he exclaimed, still amazed. He had been wearing the same clothes for months. "I will never forget how soft it was, that cotton on my skin," he said, rubbing his fingers together as if the fabric was still in his hand. "To be captured by the Americans was the luckiest occurrence in my entire life." Life in the camp had been astonishing. There were doctors, and books, and even organised athletics. He was allowed to work outside the camp knotting nets for fishermen to earn coupons to purchase tobacco or toothpaste.
"It was not too hard work; the weather was pleasant and the girls on the street beautiful!" He smiled, and tipped his head. The first prisoners to arrive in 1943 had been Italians, captured during the North Africa Campaign. Always keen for a soccer match, they were also skilled at procuring any and all items from outside the camp. By the time the Germans arrived, the local population was already accustomed to the POWs and the prejudices had softened, although he heard of episodes of violence elsewhere.
It was only much later that he realised just how fortunate he really was: Germans and Austrians captured by the Allies fared far better because of the Geneva Convention of 1929, which guaranteed food, clothing, and medical care to prisoners equal to that of their captors. According to Gunter Bischof and Stephen Ambrose in Eisenhower and the German POWs, the annual death rate of German POWs in U.S. hands was 1%, in French hands 2.6 %, while for American POWs in Japanese hands it was 27% and for Germans in Soviet hands between 35-50%.
Forced to return to Europe
As our train approached Vienna, I had just enough time for the one more question, one I had been almost too afraid to ask. The 11 million German POWs had come from all branches of the Wehrmacht, including the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), Luftwaffe (air force) as well as Waffen-SS (the combat branch of Hitler’s elite corps)…
"I was in the Waffen-SS," he answered, looking away, as he began to gather his things. "When the war was over, I did not want to come back to Europe. However, they did not allow us to remain."
By late 1945, he was back in Vienna and saw with his own eyes the "terrible conditions" in which Europe had been left. "Everything was destroyed," he said, rising to his feet with an effort. And with that, we shook hands and said goodbye.