The Death March of Bromberg (Part 2)
Contrary to expectations the column of Bromberg deportees also stayed in Thorn for the night. The forced march of fifty-eight kilometers seems to have exhausted the guard troops to the point where even the bad news arriving from the front fails to make them eager to move on quickly. The leaders of this group try without success to obtain some food from the city for their people. After they have finally found a seemingly humane guard who, after much persuasion, accepted their collection of one hundred zloty and agreed to buy some bread for them in the city, they waited in vain until nightfall for him to return. But finally they realized with a sinking feeling that this lousy fellow had cheated them out of their last bit of money. And even water was withheld from them, no matter how much and how often they begged for some, so now they have gone without anything to drink for thirty-six hours.
If at least they were completely amongst themselves - but they too have been seeded with Poles from the start. Some of these are simply criminal convicts, but others are spies deliberately chosen for this purpose, and many of them speak German without an accent. In the middle of the night the convicts, hoping to gain points with the guards, begin some childish anti-German antics. Even though they are really nothing more than fellow-sufferers, their Polish hatred demands expression even in this situation. And so they form a little chorus and bawl their taunting songs:
"The Germans wandered through the woods,
A soloist pipes up:
"The Germans so much water drink
"A German died, he died
"Quiet now!" one of the prisoners calls. "Time to sleep..."
At that they jump up angrily, and the choir leader yells: "Quiet? You'll get enough quiet soon, you rotten dog corpse, just wait a bit... And anyone that doesn't croak during the march will be beaten to death at the end!" Then he and his fellow convicts begin to shout in unison, bawling a number of well-known sayings, including this one: "What a Pole can drink in one day is a German's lifetime fortune!"
And then: "Where a frog croaks, you'll find a German..."
And finally: "The Germans buy land with their butter, build houses with their cheese, trade clothing for their buttermilk, and live on their whey!"
Then they switch to regaling each other loudly with the latest news from the front. One of them bellows into the hall: "Have you heard the latest? Our ulans are already at the gates of Berlin, the Polish fleet crushed the German one at Gdyngen, and the French have already marched into Frankfurt! That's the end of you Germans for all time, you're going to become Polish all the way to the Elbe River..." But even this unbearable night comes to an end, and in the early morning light they are already being prodded to their feet again.
Once again the first test for them is another running-the-gauntlet, and in the light of day it seems even worse. When they are finally walking across the open countryside again, with the dust enveloping them once more in gritty clouds, a young girl walking beside a women holding a four-month-old infant realizes that the baby must have died a short time ago. The fluff-haired little head hangs limply, and the little arms dangle loosely with the mother's every step. For a while the girl hesitates if she should tell the mother, but when she sees how exhausted the woman already is, she begins cautiously, carefully: "Wouldn't you like to lay the little tyke down under a bush somewhere, in the beautiful green grass?"
"Whatever for?" the mother asks.
"But it's... it's already..." the girl says timidly.
"It's what?" the woman flares up. "It's sleeping... don't you see... it's sleeping..." And she presses the drooping little head against her chest, sees very well that it falls back again right away, but presses it tenderly to herself again, over and over.
Only now does the girl realize that the woman has already lost her mind. "Do lay it in the grass," she says again, "else you're going to collapse soon! Look over there, that's a nice willow bush, the angels will come for it there..."
But the woman shakes her ravaged head and carries her child on and on. Her eyes are wide as on the threshold of death. "I can't leave my child... my first little child... here underneath a bush, just like that..." she whispers, presses the little head to herself, lets it fall back again, presses it to her chest again...
The road they have been traveling since the morning is the road to Chiechozinek, the well-known Polish salt-water spa. Not far from Chiechozinek is the town of Slonsk; as yet this peasant town of Lower Saxons has been left in peace. It is yet to become the Town Without Men. The marching column's Commandant, who accompanies his prisoners on a bicycle, has ordered the guard troops to question all passing soldiers to make sure that they are not deserters. And so this death march is accompanied now by a secondary man-hunt, as runaways from the demolished Polish army are already everywhere. The Germans take a small measure of comfort from these many arrests and think, with an inner smile: they're not going to capture Berlin with an army like this!
Steps drag, the dust clouds rise, thirst turns to agony. Two old men collapse almost at the same time. The policemen stab at them with their bayonets for a while to force them back on their feet, but when even that does not prod them, they shrug and leave the two where they have fallen. The entire column passes by them, takes one last look at their faces, which are almost not human any more - so badly has thirst split their lips, so viciously has dust inflamed their eyes and hunger emaciated their faces. Hardly has the last of the column passed them before several shots crack through the air... Whoever falls, dies - that's the law - not only here but in all other such death march columns.
Shortly before they reach Chiechozinek, one young man, Schreiber from Bromberg, asks to be excused for a moment. "Excused - what the hell - crap in your pants!" one of the guards yells contemptuously. "The time of playing the gentlemen is over for you Germans, and it's high time you realized it..."
Aren't they all sick up to here of this life - does it really still take much to make them toss it aside on a scornful impulse? Before one of his comrades can jump in, Schreiber takes a razor blade he had kept hidden on his person, and slashes his throat. The blood spouts in a heavy fountain from his carotid artery, and before anyone can catch him he sinks backward into the dust. There is a sudden stop, the Commandant leaps from his bicycle and runs towards him, foaming with rage: "You damned zwab, do you think you're going to die when you want to, or when I order it?" he roars down at him and kicks him in the side so that he shudders and curls up with every kick, and with every shudder the blood spurts farther from his throat. A few women sob, one shrieks and faints.
"Doctor Staemmler!" the cry passes down the column.
In a few moments Dr. Staemmler arrives. With a great deal of effort he has managed to obtain permission to help the weakest of the prisoners a bit with his medications. Though he was forbidden to take any of his instruments along on the march, he carries a few necessities in his pockets, including some tonics against sudden faints. He kneels by the moaning would-be suicide. The cut is not irreversibly fatal, the artery can still be clamped. Gradually even the Commandant calms down again and even gives permission to carry Schreiber to nearby Chiechozinek. And so four fellow-sufferers take a coat, place him carefully on it, and carry him along like that in the column.
On the large square in front of the main hotel, between the hotel and the mighty fountain, the spa's symbol, another mob awaits them yet again. But here it is primarily the soldiers, and again chiefly the ulans, at whose hands the Germans endure their maltreatment. After all, a larger cavalry unit is stationed in Chiechozinek. To prevent the same prisoners from always fielding most of the blows during these marches through the towns, the prisoners have taken to switching places from one day to the next, alternating between the insides and the outsides of the rows. And so the day always begins on an especially gloomy note for half of them, namely for that half walking on the outside...
For a while they march through the town, through the streets lined by gardens, past many a villa, and finally they stop outside a gate behind which stands a long wooden house. It is a former Polish youth hostel. All eight hundred of them are crammed into this house, the women separately into a few rooms and the men into a large hall-like room. Once again they get nothing to eat, but thank God some still have a few small rations left, even if that makes for only a few crumbs for everyone. After much negotiating they receive one pitcher of water - it too makes for only a scant swallow for each. Before they can finally stretch out on the bare floor they must endure a severe body search. All razors must be turned over, and all pocket knives, as well as all other metal objects, just as the members of the other death march had to at the start. "Anyone who holds anything back will be shot at once!" the guards scream over and over.
Gradually, night falls, and the air in the overcrowded room grows thick again. Nobody may leave here either to answer the call of nature - one more torment to add to the thousand others. But fortunately few of them still have any such needs - after all, where should they come from, without anything to eat or drink? The men let the urine run down unnoticeably, and general weakness obviates any other needs anyway. Only some few unfortunates suffering from dysentery have a dreadful time of it.
By midnight the air has grown so stifling that some prisoners begin to lose their self-control. The signs of madness increase. A couple of prisoners keep shrieking senselessly at short intervals. Dr. Kohnert has posted a few sturdy fellows by the door to keep anyone from rushing outside in a frenzy. This measure saves several lives, for time and again one or the other tries to force his way out. "I want out, I'm suffocating..." yells one. "I'm thirsty, I want something to drink..." yells another. "I want to go home, I don't want to go on..." begs a third. To top it all off, the even more dreadful screams of the women can be heard from the adjoining rooms. But there as well, some invincible ones have joined forces and physically hold those who have surrendered to insanity back from the gate, for anyone who sets foot outside is instantly shot. Even during this night the women cannot make the young mother realize that her child is long dead; she still holds it zealously fast. Every now and then she opens her dress, holds the drooping little head against her wasted breast, presses the infant's shriveled mouth firmly against it and says in a singsong voice: "Can't you see how eagerly it's drinking..."
And so this second night passes as well. The march continues in the early morning, but before the march-out the guards remove the prisoners' handcuffs. This is by no means done out of a sudden merciful impulse, but out of the realization that, when handcuffed together, the prisoners cannot take cover quickly enough when enemy planes approach. Often enough someone tried to go one way while the partner to whom he was handcuffed tried to go in the opposite direction, and often one of a pair stumbled and therefore the other could not get off the road either. For the men the removal of their cuffs is blissful relief, and suddenly everything seems much more bearable. It was high time for their hands as well, for everyone's wrists are raw; the sharp meal edges had dug deeply into their flesh due to the never-ending tugging, and in many cases, due to the dust, the sores have even filled with sweaty pus.
They are now marching towards Nieszawa. The day grows unusually hot, and the agony of thirst is not long in coming. Many of the guards have levied bicycles for themselves, and like the Commandant they ride slowly alongside the column, rest in the vanguard in the shadow of a tree until the last row of prisoners has passed them, and then ride ahead again to overtake it suspiciously. Before they reach Nieszawa the deranged young mother is finally delivered from her torments; suddenly she stumbles a little and drops forward onto her face, still clutching her dead infant in her arms. Those who walked beside her can see right away that she is already dead - the rearguard will have no extra work dispatching her. She had kept walking for her baby's sake until even the last ounce of her strength gave out.
Half-way to Nieszawa German planes approach again, and only few moments later everyone has taken cover in the ditches. "Thank God," says young Gersdorff, "finally..."
"It was about time!" brawny Adelt adds.
"Indeed - otherwise one might almost think the Poles had really taken over Berlin!" mocks Dr. Kohnert, unperturbed as always.
"That's nonsense, of course. I mean the rest period," says Adelt. "We should get an air-raid rest every half hour or so. Many would regain their strength as a reault, and a whole lot more of us might survive this march."
"I just keep thinking about the British," says Baron Gersdorff, as though to himself. "All this blood is on their hands, because if it weren't for their Guarantee..."
"Definitely!" Dr. Kohnert agrees. "The Poles would never have taken the chance of this war if they hadn't been backed by the British Guarantee. An intelligent Polish officer once told me, 'Despite all our megalomania we're not a nation of suicides!' There can be no doubt that if it weren't for England we would have reached a sensible agreement that really addressed Polish and German needs. But now the Poles will lose everything they had - was that really a service of friendship on England's part?"
"That's exactly how it is," somebody lying nearby says quietly. "It was England that killed my sons, it's England that herds us through the dust here, England that forces us to go without water until we lose our minds, it's England that lets us starve here until we collapse, and it will be England that smashes our heads with rifle butts in the end..."
At that very moment the planes scream right over them, and a light bomb explodes nearby. Something whizzes over their heads, and someone tries to suppress a scream - it's the gray-haired man who was just talking about England. A jagged metal fragment protrudes from his shoulder, but it only went in a little way and can easily be pulled out. A comrade does him the favor. The old man doesn't make a sound at the painful wrench and only says hastily: "Give it to me, it's mine..." And he holds it in his hands and says in a tone of tenderness that somehow also moves the others: "A German fragment... from a German bomb..." And finally he hides it under his shirt, against his chest, like something rare and precious...
later, already near noon, the towers of Nieszawa appear. Apparently the plan is to
wait for something here, but the only place that can be found for the column to
stay is a huge garbage dump on the outskirts of the city. Here the eight hundred
are finally permitted to rest, and so they drop with relief onto the ground between
the mountains of garbage that fill the entire surroundings with their stench.