Lucky Soldiers

Kevin Ostoyich

Kevin Ostoyich

Valparaiso University

Prof. Kevin Ostoyich was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2018 and was previously a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2017. He is Professor of History at Valparaiso University, where he served as the chair of the history department from 2015 to 2019. He holds his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Prior to moving to Valparaiso, he taught at the University of Montana. He has served as a Research Associate at the Harvard Business School and an Erasmus Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He currently is an associate of the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Chicago, a board member of the Sino-Judaic Institute, and an inaugural member of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum International Advisory Board. He has published on German migration, German-American history, and the history of the Shanghai Jews.

While at AICGS, Prof. Ostoyich conducted research on his project, “The Wounds of History, the Wounds of Today: The Shanghai Jews and the Morality of Refugee Crises.” The Shanghai Jews were refugees from Nazi Europe who found haven in Shanghai, and thus escaped the Holocaust. For this project Ostoyich has interviewed many former Shanghai Jewish refugees and has conducted research at the National Archives at College Park, MD, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Valparaiso University he co-teaches a course titled “Historical Theatre: The Shanghai Jews,” which fuses the disciplines of history and theatre. To date, students of the course have co-written and performed two original productions based on the history of the Shanghai Jewish refugee community: Knocking on the Doors of History: The Shanghai Jews and Shanghai Carousel: What Tomorrow Will Be. In addition to his work on the Shanghai Jews, he is currently working on projects pertaining to the experiences of ordinary Germans during the bombing of Bremen, German Catholic experiences in nineteenth-century Württemberg, German Catholic migration, and U.S.-German cultural diplomacy during the first half of the twentieth century.

Click here for an article by Ostoyich on the Shanghai Jews.

He is currently trying to interview as many former Shanghailanders as possible. If you would like to be interviewed or know someone who might want to be interviewed, please contact Professor Ostoyich at kevin.ostoyich@valpo.edu.

Part Four of Rubble Child’s World: Stories from Bremen’s Ruins

In this 75th anniversary year of the end of World War II, AICGS is pleased to present this four-part series of ordinary Germans’ recollections of that time.


Introduction

George H. Jordan, Jr. did not like the movie Commando.[1] He made this clear to me as the Arnold Schwarzenegger film played on the television. The former bodybuilder turned action hero on the screen was making glib one-liners after killing people and wearing war paint while shooting up and cutting up countless extras with a wide assortment of closely-filmed weapons. Cutting sharper than any of Schwarzenegger’s blades, though, was George’s criticism as he exited the room: “War is not like that at all.” George had served in the United States Army during the Second World War, and he told many stories of his time of service. As I channel back to those stories told decades ago, I am struck by how none of them glorified the experience or focused on death. George tended, instead, to tell stories that provided a lesson of some sort about humanity, the awfulness of war, and how surviving a war is based more on luck than valor. During the last stages of the war, George served as a member of the Military Police and often had to guard soldiers. The one story that he told more than any other, was how he often played Ping Pong with the prisoners. George H. Jordan, Jr.—my grandfather—loved his fellow man, regardless of the circumstances and the score.

Although the two accounts below were written by former German soldiers of the Second World War, there is much in them that reminds me of the stories George H. Jordan, Jr. told me long ago.[2]

Soldier #1: A “Lucky” Soldier’s Tale – “War and War’s End”

Always lucky

It was common practice at the time to be conscripted upon the conclusion of one’s apprenticeship. As a 17-year-old, I joined the Hamburg Infantry regiment in Rendsburg in April 1943. Basic training and courses ensured that I was not ordered to Russia until mid-1944. The 376th Regiment was positioned at the time in the Baltic region and was one of the last units to retreat over Riga’s Düna [Daugava] bridges to Courland. We were indeed trapped, only the sea route over Libau [Liepāja] was still open. Twice, the Russians had managed to scar my face (bombshell and hand grenade shrapnel left their traces). However, upon the third time it was harder, a group of “Ivans” shot a bullet through my cheeks at night. The senior physician who later examined me congratulated me with the words: “You, lucky one, are going home.” However, I was far from there. The ship for the voyage was lost during the air raid on the port, while we were awaiting our embarkation. Two days later, the “Steuben” came, formerly the passenger liner “General von Steuben” of the Hamburg-South. This hospital ship had received bomb hits as well shortly before entering Libau. However, we were happy to be able to exchange our cattle car which had been hit by shrapnel for the salon of the “Steuben.” This journey to Gotenhafen [Gdynia] transpired in thick fog and was probably the last. For this ship as well rests on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, sunk through enemy action. So began for me a long railway journey in the hospital train. Through Poland, Upper Silesia, Sudetenland, and the Giant Mountains [Krkonoše]. The final station for the three of us infantrymen still remaining on the train was the Pines Field Hospital [Kiefernlazarett] in Breslau [Wrocław]. I was now 14 days en route when the doctor took off [what was] still the first dressing and explained to me, “nothing more to fix, it had healed, or better, grown over.”

Here, in the military hospital, a farmer wrote an application for harvest leave, and he thought I could give it a try as well. Given my mother, indeed, had two cows and was alone, perhaps I might be lucky. I, thus, sent my request with the next letter to my mother in Mittelsbüren; the “village farm leader” at the time had to certify this and send it back to Breslau. Meanwhile, though, the front advanced closer and the gun noise could already be heard. A military hospital train took us across Czechoslovakia to Arnsdorf in Saxony. After a nose operation came the next relocation to Radeberg near Dresden—a type of recuperation ward.

One day the orderly room sergeant came up to me and asked, “Did you submit for leave?” —- “No, why would I do that, I have leave every night until I wake up” —- “Nonsense, harvest leave.” This conversation transpired exactly two weeks before Christmas. “Yes, you may go immediately, it is approved.” Then I remembered my application from the beginning of November in Breslau—harvest leave. What a path this paper must have taken in order to finally reach its addressee! Given we all had a good relationship with each other, I requested, “Could ya [He used the informal with the sergeant] please leave the certificate in your writing desk for another week and a half, otherwise I would be back here a day before Christmas.” —- “Sure, it will be done, you are too late for the haying anyway.”

I arrived two days before Christmas 1944 in the Bremen main train station, where it was compulsory to report to the commandant upon leave. Thus, a sergeant here took my leave certificate, but immediately I received wide eyes: “Harvest leave???” Sergeant and certificate disappeared through a door, in order to come back with reinforcement in the form of a major. Yes, now I snapped my heels together and readied for the storm. “Harvest leave.” However, a hand stretched out to me. “Well, [Name of Soldier #1] my son, you want to help your mother with the root crop harvest??” —- “Affirmative! Sir Pasto—Major Sir!” Before me stood our old Mittelsbürn pastor, who had confirmed me back in the day. The sergeant got really squinty-eyed and skedaddled, and I received my Christmas and New Year’s leave.

Back to the recuperation unit in Radeberg, then one day, healed. The marching order was now for Bremen. I thought it a mistake, for my unit was positioned in Rendsburg. But my sergeant explained to me that the replacement battalion was in Bremen. Then, just before the devastating air raid on Dresden, I went through this city.

In Bremen

Arrived here in Bremen, I had to report in the barracks in the Vahr. “No, your unit is stationed now in Huckelriede,” and correct, here they were responsible for me, but not for long. A week later I went to Achim, in order to train Volkssturm leaders on weapons in a so-called evening course. But this also did not last long; back to Bremen, barracks Stader Straße.  New assignment: Supervision of the construction of anti-tank trenches and field fortifications by umpteen thousand foreign workers. The Englishman in the meantime sat in Brinkum and could observe everything from the airfield. He also then sent steely greetings in the form of artillery barrages to us. Among the workers there were dead and wounded. Upon the firings everyone ran for cover, but fewer and fewer came back from the streets (Nollendorfer Str., etc.) Evenings, at the distribution of ration vouchers, almost everyone was there again—except those, primarily Dutch, who had preferred to set off in the direction of their homeland. We sympathized completely with these people. But our mission soon came to an end. The enemy bombarded Bremen once again. Thus, when I wanted to go to my room in the evening, the whole Stader Str. barracks block was closed off, supposedly a dud lay in front of my bed. Renewed alarm induced us (there were always three of us) to visit the above-ground shelter behind the barracks square. But it was a continuous alarm and bombs fell repeatedly. When at night it finally grew quieter, we thought of lying down in a small barn not too far from the shelter, because the two shelters were completely overcrowded. Only one was against this and said, “I will not partake in such nonsense.” Well good, none of us then. Renewed buzzing later indicated that the night was not yet weathered, so we streamed back again into the shelter. When we stepped out into the open again after several heavy detonations, the barn was gone. (Lucky.)

The Stader Str. barracks was now no longer for us. So we moved again into a school in Gröpelingen. No one knew anyone else, there was a constant coming and going, sometimes unauthorized, sometimes skillfully from the military hospital recovery company’s administrative staff. Anyway, we were not a unit, they called this at the time, a bunch. A chief paymaster with the War Merit Cross (in infantrymen jargon “far from battle medal”) was our company leader. The company did not count twenty men at that. One day this company received the order to set off in a march in the direction of Hollerallee, in order to report to the city commandant in the shelter there for further missions. We arrived there late in the evening. In the middle of the night, our paymaster received the order to march with his company to Mahndorf and set up a new position here against the advancing enemy. As armaments we received (only still about ten men) Italian carbines with twenty rounds of ammunition. Right before the Schwachhauser Heerstr. a cyclist came up to us and asked me: “Where do you want to go? There is an English tank in front of the underpass at the Schwachhauser and others are rolling in the Dobben.” The rest of our club were now searching for cover behind a villa. I now received the assignment, given I had front-line experience, to do a reconnaissance patrol, with the warning, “Don’t bolt, you are my last local expert!”

Thus, I moved out, up the railway embankment, and I laid between the tracks. Then I saw the silhouette of a tank. Our chief thought, indeed, it could only be a German one, but ours did not look like this. So I had to wait a little longer, because the day was soon to dawn. But our company leader was in a hurry, he still wanted to go to Mahndorf, so he followed me with the rest of the troop. I waved him over to me. “Where is the tank? How long should I still wait?” “The tank is there!” “Come on, everybody else too!” So he slid in front of me down the railway embankment and the rest as well. The vehicle was 50 meters away. You could not imagine what would have happened, if one had pulled the trigger there. I now went back down the railway embankment and had to go through the underpass, which was provided with blast walls in the pedestrian area. So I then went in the direction of the tank and stayed covered behind an advertising column, which stood about 25 meters from the tank. According to the lettering and design, clearly one of the enemy. My chief payer[3] crested this monstrosity and looked into the turret hatch—then the front door flew open and a few Englishmen stormed out with submachine guns: “Hands up!”[4] There stood my leader now on the tank with hands raised. I took advantage of the commotion and ran from my advertising column toward the tunnel. Then I heard clattering and rataplan, but I got myself behind the shrapnel shield intact. So, what now??? Back to the Hollerallee bunker. But before I got over to the Bürgerpark, a tank stood at Am Stern, thus now as small and fast as possible over to the other side of the road and I was safe under cover of trees. Indeed, now I stood there as the defender of Bremen, everyone went into captivity and I was 12 kilometers from my home. “Nope, I’m goin’ home!”[5] And so, I marched, always under cover of the railway embankment, in the direction of Burg. Civilians I questioned along the way told me “Tommy is rolling on the Heerstraße.” But, thank God, the race was over in Oslebshausen, at the Vacuum Oil, the advance was over for the time being. I surrendered my carbine along with ammunition to the fish in the Waller Fleet. And so I arrived at home with my mother three kilometers ahead of the English.

I arrived at home with my mother three kilometers ahead of the English.

Now, indeed, came the eight-day ceasefire; Mittelsbüren lay at the time in no-man’s land. German soldiers had still retreated behind the Lesum, on the St. Magnus side, the Hüttenstraße was guarded by the English. After about a week, I saw the advance of English armored reconnaissance vehicles and jeeps to the village from Grambke over our three-and-a-half-kilometer-long country road. So I quickly got out of my uniform (it flew under my bed) and, as a civilian, sitting on our garden bench, I was anxious to see what would happen now—nothing at all—the Englishmen went right by into the house without saying a word, looked into all the rooms, while from the vehicles the machine guns were aimed at our house. However, that did not hurt, as long as nobody played around with the trigger. And, without a word, they moved out.

But then, after a little while, the Americans came. In the meantime, someone in the village had typed a temporary discharge notice for me. Indeed, nobody had a stamp or official seal, thus only the signature of a major, that was my identification.

Then one day, again jeeps and armored cars, now with Ami-personnel. Two soldiers searched the house, an officer came to me in the parlor and demanded identification. I showed him my Labor Front identification with a large cogwheel on the front, but no photo. No, he was not satisfied with that and demanded another form of identification in accent-free German. Then I got my streetcar pass, which let me ride as an apprentice for a penny. No, that was also no good. After I had presented further student and Young People [a section of the Hitler Youth] identification, he said: “Get your discharge notice!” I got it, never had I and never again have I seen an American laugh so. While laughing he blurted out: “You wrote this yourself, and now go get your pay book!” I got it. During an attack in Russia, three tiny pieces of shrapnel penetrated my pay book, two of them were still lodged behind my photo, I had left them there as souvenirs, that aroused his great curiosity and interest. He asked how we had managed with them there, how our rations at the front were. More than an hour he spoke with me, and by the end he knew all about how and why I was with Mother. I think we were just about the same age. Upon his leaving, he shook my hand and said, “I’ll come back,” but he never did.

Indeed, now it was probably the time to finally get an identification; however, the police who were responsible at the time were in Lesum. In Burg the bridge had been blown up, but a temporary pontoon bridge accommodated the traffic. American columns drove inexorably in the direction of Bremerhaven. As a civilian, one was checked. Thus, I took with me again my Labor Front identification and cycled to Lesum. That is, I wanted to. The guard at the bridge had never seen such a thing and apprehended me. There I stood now with my bicycle under guard at the bridge. However, two cyclists wanted to drive across the bridge between the columns, my guard put down the carbine and sprinted after them, that was my chance. Bicycle up and out, the next house corner already gave me cover, so I rushed back to Grambke. Here I encountered an old farmer, who asked, “Where then are you coming from?” I told him my story. “Oh,” he said, “my Hinnerk also drove yesterday to the Police in Lesum, he has still not returned.” No, Hinnerk had the same misfortune as did I, only he was still in captivity for six months. To be sure, it was forbidden to cross the Lesum and the Weser by boat, nevertheless, an old ferryman brought me across and, thus, I finally got my identification.

Postwar Period

I was, indeed, the first returnee; my school friends arrived little by little. We now had American occupation in our village of 280 inhabitants. Six men were quartered in the tavern in the middle of the village. We got along with them very well, it became a genuine friendship. The curfew of the time did not apply to us, quite to the contrary, we celebrated with the Amis every week at night. An accordion player and a drummer among us looked after morale and dancing. And once the wine was gone, we sat with our friends in the back of a truck in the direction of Bremen— there the Americans had a large wine depot. Indeed, we all had a large pent-up desire with respect to dancing and merriment.

The curfew of the time did not apply to us, quite to the contrary, we celebrated with the Amis every week at night.

However, a problem appeared more and more: the former foreigners’ camp in Grambke. Some of our Poles who were employed in the village came back, in order to resume working voluntarily. However, in the camp a so-called bartering took hold, and cyclists were compelled to give up their bicycles to the foreigners standing on the path. At night cattle were driven from the fields into the camp, slaughtered, and bartered to German black marketeers for radios, sewing machines, and the like. My mother as well had one of her two cows stolen from the field. Now a watch was called into being in the village. Twice a night, two men with replacements went out on patrol. This was agreed upon with the Americans: “If you need help, we will help.”

Indeed, one night it happened that a group of Poles were observed as they moved on cart paths in the direction of Lesumbrok. We then blocked the return path. After about two hours they came back, driving six cows and also heavily packed with sacks. Now we wanted to try to snatch away the booty from them, but what we did not know was the gang was armed and shot at us. What they did not know was so were we, and we shot back. Now, for their part, they threw away the sacks and we found around thirty slaughtered chickens and five stuck pigs. In the meantime, our friends, the Americans, were awakened, and, with them, we blocked the only crossing of the country road. The Poles had collected their sacks again and appeared before us. The demand “Come on” was answered with shots. But now, on our side, the Americans cocked their carbines and shot over the heads of the bandits. Five came forward with hands held high, the rest sprang into the canals and ditches and disappeared into the dark night. The Amis now commanded the five to carry the pigs into the village, but one said that the sack was too heavy, so the American with the name [Name of American Soldier] traded his carbine with one of us for a walking stick, and after one stroke of the stick, the sack was no longer heavy.

Nobody knew where the theft originated. Inquiries elicited no information. The chickens and pigs were prepared for consumption, and, given there were refugees in the village, the things were distributed to them. But three days later, a farmer arrived from the neighboring village and asked me: “Do you know where there are slaughtered pigs around here?” Yes, I knew this well, they were eaten. “But why are you only coming now?” “Well, I have Wilhelm on the farm, and he still fed the pigs for three days without once looking in the stall, but given that nothing was going to the trough anymore, he had a look over.”

The international fraternizing was probably then brought to the attention of the general staff; our friends [Name of an American soldier] and [Name of another American soldier] and their comrades were replaced one day. The new masters were unapproachable to us. We had to come up with our own security, five Italian carbines with twenty rounds of ammunition were given to us by the military government, like it had been for me once before. But, both times, I did not need to fire a single shot.

The foreign worker camp was dissolved. Transports went from the Burg train station toward Rome and Warsaw.

One day, though, it went like wildfire through our village: “Come quickly to Burg train station, there are three wagons standing there with radios, bicycles, and sewing machines, see if yours is there.” A train official had FORGOTTEN to couple these with the repatriates’ passenger train to Warsaw, or somebody else had decoupled, the question was never resolved in the village. However, several rode their old bicycles again.

So, little by little, peace and quiet came to our village, but unfortunately only for ten years, then came Klöckner.[6]

Soldier #2: May 8, 1945

The 8th of May 1945, was for me the fifteenth day in Russian prisoner-of-war captivity, and if it is hardly possible for me today, after almost fifty years, to recall a specific day of captivity, three days in their sequence still remain entirely clear before my eyes: the day of capture, the 8th of May, and the day on which I was released from captivity.

On April 25, I was taken prisoner in the fighting around Pillau [Baltiysk] together with many comrades in an entirely hopeless position at the Pillau port.

A long, exhausting foot-march on dusty roads with nights spent under the open sky, but always in cool, dry weather, guarded by cursing Russian soldiers, who menacingly waved their Kalashnikovs, led us to Königsberg. The small towns and villages through which we moved were almost all destroyed and deserted. On an unscathed wall there still stood a Goebbels propaganda slogan: “It is always darkest before the dawn!”

From the oncoming Russian troops, who drove on trucks in the direction of Pillau, we were ridiculed and cursed. We were struck more deeply though by reproaches that were repeatedly called out at us by columns of German women, of whom one saw what they had been through: “Why have you left us in the lurch? Why have you let this happen?”

We moved through the fully-destroyed Königsberg. Aside from male and female Russian soldiers, the city, which consisted only of ruins, seemed to be totally deserted. The Immanuel Kant Monument loomed almost unscathed among the desert of ruins in front of the university.

On the outskirts lay relatively unscathed barracks, which were to be the accommodations for us and many hundreds of fellow captives for a few days.

We were lodged tightly confined in the attic, sleeping lying next to each other on the floor. But at least we had a roof over our heads, and that for us, after the march through dust and ruins, was like a gift, we could wash for the first time after our capture. The many with foot ailments could be provisionally cared for by German medics who were also imprisoned.

The healthy, to whom I thus belonged, were, after the endless roll calls at dawn, 6 o’clock Moscow time, assigned to clearing-up operations, to disassembly in factories and workshops, and occasionally to the renovation of lightly-damaged apartments. We had to load valuable or only unscathed furniture onto trucks, which left Königsberg in the direction of Russia.

We were witnesses to pointless vandalism to which paintings, mirrors, and porcelain fell victim. But we were not treated badly by the guarding soldiers.

In the barracks we encountered always new masses of German prisoners-of-war, so that soon all rooms and also our floor was so overcrowded that one could hardly still move.

So our stay in Königsberg was soon at an end, and one morning a new foot-march began, the destination of which was a barrack camp at the former Stablack military training area. The interpreter had told us that we were going to stay here only a short time until our further fate was decided.

One found oneself in a strange state of limbo.

For the first time in recent weeks, in which only the safeguarding of the most primitive necessities of life had been considered, one could reflect and ponder. One found oneself in a strange state of limbo. The immediate danger to life and limb, which had accompanied us day after day during the defensive battles in the last months, was over. But the uncertainty about that which lay ahead of us was greater than the feeling of having once again escaped from this.

On the march even the slightest items of our personal possessions had been taken from us, wristwatches having already found their fanciers within the first half hours of our captivity. My riding boots were likewise taken from me; at least I had the fortune of obtaining a pair of poorly suitable American shoes in need of repair. They prevented me from having to do the march with rags wrapped around my feet, as many comrades had to endure.

It was more important for us that the treatment by the guard personnel proceeded correctly. Not without influence on the depressed mood were the pronouncements made to us by German soldiers in well-fitting uniforms without insignia, the members of the “National Committee of Free Germany.” We would be going back home in the foreseeable future. First, however, we would have to make our contribution to the reconstruction of the destroyed Russia. We, however, were to be treated strictly in accordance with the regulations of the Geneva Convention. It all sounded very confident, and yet, too many times, we had already experienced that a lot could transpire between nice words and reality.

The days began again at the crack of dawn with roll calls that sometimes dragged on for hours. Aside from the cleaning of the lodgings and the barrack grounds and occasional so-called political education in Marxism-Leninism, there was hardly anything to do. It was striking to us that we were warned to part with our sympathies for the fleshpots of American and English capitalists. Salvation could only come from Russia and its great hero Jossif Wissarionowitsch Stalin [Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin].

There was thus plenty of time for conversations, sometimes as well for passionate arguments between old Communists and National Socialists who still believed in the Führer. The attempt of a German officer who was also in captivity, instead of useless quarreling, to set up language lessons in Russian and to learn more about the history of this country was banned already after the first lesson by the Russian camp commandant as alleged preparation for escape.

Comforting to us is the thought that the American and English troops, who certainly already had taken Bremen, would not carry out an orgy of violence, such as that which accompanied the path of the Russian forces throughout East Prussia.

When it got dark, given the barracks were without artificial lighting, thoughts turned to the homeland. We had not received post for months. Before the capture, we had still been somewhat informed about the advance of the Allies through radio dispatches. Meanwhile, we could discern the reality behind the wording of the Wehrmacht reports. What was it like in Bremen, how were the wife and the immediate family? Had they survived the bombing attacks and now the clashes that are presumably being waged in the city? Comforting to us is the thought that the American and English troops, who certainly already had taken Bremen, would not carry out an orgy of violence, such as that which accompanied the path of the Russian forces throughout East Prussia. They would also be spared the horrific misery of the multitude of refugees wandering between the fronts or the often lethal attempt under the attack of Russian planes to escape over the frozen lagoon in the freezing cold. The worry over our future weighed down on us though. One thing had become clear to us in these two weeks: We were completely and utterly at the mercy of a power whose people were not only foreign to us due to their language, but also unpredictable to deal with. This feeling of uncertainty, of the constant preparedness for unforeseeable twists and turns of behavior, did not leave me until the moment that I, at the end of my captivity, was able to cross the boundaries of the Russian sphere of influence.

One day passed like the other, and we hardly knew the correct date anymore. The highpoint of the day was the distribution of meals: mornings a pound of bread and 20 grams of sugar (as fat substitute), with a container of tea-like drink, at noon every day the same, thin barley soup augmented with sugar beet pulp, and evenings once again a container of the so-called tea drink.

In the late afternoon of one of these days filled with musings, but also of discussions over guilt or innocence regarding our current situation, the interpreter called us to report to the parade ground. All prisoners had to line up in rows of five. As the interpreter explained, the Russians placed great stock in the lineup being conducted parade-like in former Wehrmacht discipline.

Then a group of Russian officers, among whom there were higher ranks as well, came before us. A voice accustomed to giving commands from its midst gave the command in German: “Stand to attention!” An old, white-haired colonel stood in the middle of the square and called to us:

“German soldier,

War busted – Hitler dead!

All right?”

We stood numbed. Tears came to my eyes, but not because we had lost the war; that it was lost, I had long known already. All the same, I was deeply shaken to experience the end in this way and at this place, and my thoughts went back to the five lost years and the many good comrades who had given their lives for a meaningless cause.

Tears came to my eyes, but not because we had lost the war; that it was lost, I had long known already.

The Russian colonel and the other officers departed; but he let us know through the interpreter that he was disappointed by our behavior. He had expected from us acclamation after this good news.

We went back into our barracks, and everyone dwelt on their thoughts; not much was spoken. But then a wild victory party broke out in the Russian quarters. With guns of all caliber, with submachine guns and rifles, a monstrous fireworks was conducted that set us in fear and terror, especially given the throaty shouts and singing indicated that there was a lot of alcohol involved. We knew by now the disinhibiting effect that spirits exerted on the Russians. They would then be even more terrible to us. Fortunately, though, nothing happened this night.

Two days later, we were relocated in the large transit camp in the Georgenburg stud farm near Insterburg. On the way we experienced moments of terror. The guards suddenly made us stop and ordered that we strip naked, lay the clothes down by the roadside, and then await further instructions in march formation five meters from the street in the meadow. Our predominant thought was: Now we are going to be shot. But nothing of the kind transpired. The whole thing only had the purpose that the security guards could calmly search the pockets of our clothing for any possessions that still might be there. After they had pocketed the by now paltry booty, we were able to get dressed again and the march was resumed.

My personal possessions now consisted only of a handkerchief, a comb, a spoon, an empty tin can for the daily soup, and a photo of my wife, which had been charitably left to me. I could not help but think of the cynical words Dr. Goebbels had once exclaimed regarding the increasing losses to the civilian population in buildings and household effects through the bombing of the Allies: “We march now with light luggage!”

The relocation in the giant transit camp Georgenburg would bestow upon me unlikely good fortune. Initially, I was assigned to coal-loading work at the Insterburg train station. It was hard, difficult work, which was conducted in alternating shifts of around 800 men in the morning or at noon with a march of somewhat more than an hour to the workplace and afterward back to the camp. This daily march, the strenuous hard work with insufficient nourishment, reduced me almost to a skeleton. At one of the regular examinations of work-fitness that was conducted, it was granted that I was to carry out only the lightest work.

Again a late afternoon would have a special meaning for me. As I returned with a work group of 100 men from gleaning upon the abandoned manor fields, where we had searched for the stalks still left from the harvest of the previous year, it was said, “Everyone go immediately for a medical inspection!” That was unusual at this time, but one was no longer surprised by anything.

We were, as usual, led naked by the female doctor. It was a Jewish woman, who could have been around the age of my mother. Her task was to recommend release for those who were unfit for work. Now, I was probably very emaciated at the time, but had no nutritional edema that could lead to release if a doctor approved it. This female Jewish doctor classified me, in my estimation, out of pure humaneness, into the group of the released persons unable to work and probably by doing so saved my life. In my condition, I probably would hardly have survived the coming winter in the unheated camp. That same evening, a freight wagon received us fortunate at the familiar Insterburg Train Station, and the next morning the journey to freedom commenced. So I was already back in Bremen in mid-September 1945, a good fortune that still seems implausible to me.

On every 8th of May, I think with the deepest gratitude of this tiny female doctor, who, in a time filled with feelings of revenge and hate, did not forget the duty to humane action.

Conclusion

There was a lot more to George H. Jordan Jr.’s war experience than Ping Pong. Although lucky, he did not come back from Europe unscathed. As he put it, while in the war all he wanted to do was come home and take a bath in whipped cream. He did love his sweets so. My grandmother—Arna Jordan—who will be celebrating her 102nd birthday in August—and my uncle, Barry Jordan, have told me more recently that the whipped cream story put a sugary covering over a deeper psychological wound. For quite a long time after he returned, George did not wish to do anything except play cards. When Arna gave birth to Barry—the first of two children—George realized that if he was to be a proper father, he would have to do more than eat sweets and play cards (although both would remain in his life in moderation). In the years that followed, he became a wonderful father, baseball coach, grandfather, friend, and storyteller to all who would listen. I am grateful to have heard his stories. They taught me that the depictions of war should go beyond glib one-liners, weapons, and war paint. They also taught me that there is much to be learned about life by listening and reading the accounts of ordinary individuals. His accounts—like those of the two German soldiers above—where full of unexpected twists, emotional nuances, and take-home messages.

Thankfully, in 1994, the Bürgermeister of Bremen called upon the ordinary Bremer to send their reminiscences of the end of the Second World War. The nine accounts presented in the four parts of this series provide a rich portrait of a time and place that may seem both distant and close to our own. I hope these accounts have provided moments of surprise, reflection, and curiosity among readers. I hope, too, that the narratives work to caution against underestimating “ordinary” individuals in history, for the lessons they teach are, indeed, extraordinary.


Kevin Ostoyich dedicates this article to the memory of his grandfathers, George H. Jordan, Jr. (January 5, 1918 – July 11, 1994) and Steven M. Ostoyich (June 21, 1921 – February 7, 2009), both of whom fought for the U.S. Army during the Second World War.

Kevin Ostoyich wishes to thank Marion Alpert and all the wonderful archivists and staff members at the Staatsarchiv Bremen for being so welcoming and helpful over the years; Susanne Dieper of AICGS for fielding translations questions; and Dean Jon T. Kilpinen of the College of Arts and Sciences at Valparaiso University for his ongoing support.

The research for the “Rubble Child’s World: Stories from Bremen’s Ruins” series was conducted while Kevin Ostoyich was a guest professor at Reutlingen University. He wishes to thank Regine Lechler-Fiola, Richard Schilling, and Baldur Veit for their friendship and support.

The texts in this article were translated from the original German by the author.

[1] Directed by Mark L. Lester (1985).

[2] The two accounts presented here were submitted in response to a call from the Bürgermeister of Bremen in 1994 for the citizens of the city to send in materials pertaining to the end of the Second World War in preparation for the 50th Anniversary of VE Day in 1995.  Over 100 individuals sent in materials, which are presently housed in the State Archives of Bremen (Staatsarchiv Bremen). The archival reference number for the collection is 9,S 9-25. Note: The identities of the two authors and the American soldiers in the stories have been withheld.

[3] He uses slang “Oberzahli.”

[4] “Hands up!” is written in English in the original.

[5] He writes this in Plattdeutsch: “Nee ick go no Hus!”

[6] Klöckner – A steel works established in Bremen in 1957.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.