As the War Ended
|photo by Hank Burroughs, courtesy of Peg Burroughs
Associated Press photographer Henry Burroughs (Bay Weekly Profile Vol. IV No. 45: Nov. 7, 1996) shot this photo in Berlin of prisoners of war walking home to Russia from Germany on September 24, 1945. On leaving Berlin in 1949, Hank worked out of Washington for 30 more years. He moved to Shady Oaks in Southern Anne Arundel County in 1961, and lived there until his death in 2000.
by Eugene Melnitchenko
Recent commemorations of the end of World War II bring to mind our own childhood recollections of May 1945. There are many such stories, each similar and unique, that have yet to be told. This is Eugene’s story, one of many.
Why tell this story now, 60 years after the fact? The world has changed a great deal in the last 60 years yet humankind’s inhumanity hardly at all. There are lessons to be learned from history, and we, as children witnessed many devastating events.
We want to tell this story now, because we want to acknowledge the suffering of the oppressed and the sacrifices of the Allied soldiers who liberated Europe.
We and I have lived all over this great country — New York, Dallas, Baltimore, Los Angeles — but we chose to retire on the peaceful banks of the Chesapeake Bay, near our children and grandchildren. Our family, gardening, fishing and writing are our passions.
We took Ziggi’s advice. We won.
—Eugene and Helen Mann Melnitchenko
I had just turned eight when World War II ended. My family was interned in a small POW camp on the Mecklenburger Bay in the German port city of Luebeck. The camp was constructed hastily during the war on sandy gravel for prisoners to service the harbor. It was a gray, depressing place, devoid of trees or grass. A tall barbed wire fence surrounded five dingy wooden barracks and a small assembly area in front, with two towers guarding them, one over the main gate, the second in the rear facing the harbor. Guards with machine guns and rifles manned the towers at all times.
The barracks were painted olive drab, peeling at war’s end, with rough concrete floors. Double-decker iron cots with straw mattresses lined two sides of their faded white walls, with a small corridor between them. The dingy yellow blankets covering the cots were worn with holes, some patched by the prisoners.
The small cast-iron stove in the middle of the corridor, with a long metal chimney extending through the ceiling, never gave enough heat during the cold winter months when the northern winds blew, even when we had coal or wood to burn. Often we didn’t.
The latrine with seven open concrete commodes and five washbasins stood on one side of the barracks and a concrete shower, also open, at the other. The smell of human waste and lye soap hung in the air. I hated going to the bathroom or taking showers with the naked men, who sometimes teased me.
Most of them were Russian, but there were also Polish, Ukrainian and Yugoslav prisoners. They were marched each morning to load and unload ships in the harbor, constantly bombed by Allied planes that sometimes missed their target and hit the camp. “The sons-of-bitches built it so close to the harbor on purpose,” the prisoners grumbled.
By war’s end, some labor prisoners from Eastern Europe were added to our camp, including my grandfather, the camp’s physician, my grandmother, the camp’s cook, my mother Vera, the interpreter, and me. OST — East European slave labor — stitched in blue on the left side of our dingy clothes distinguished us from the POWs.
Each barrack housed about 70 prisoners, by war’s end fewer as the Germans stopped replacing the dead, which suggested to us that the war was not going well for them. Men and a sprinkling of boys occupied four of the barracks; the women, who worked in the nearby warehouses, had the fifth to themselves.
I slept in Caserne One with my grandfather; my grandmother and my mother were in Caserne Five. I rarely talked to my mother, startled every time I saw her from a distance. I would wave to her and she would smile sadly in return. Frequently, I fell asleep softly crying so no one could hear me, missing her.
The military prisoners wore the uniforms in which they were captured. Some, having worn out their shoes, intricately wrapped and re-wrapped their feet in rags. In the summer, it was hot down in the hulk of the ships where they worked, and in the winter very cold, which, together with malnutrition, provided many patients for my grandfather’s small clinic.
My grandfather wore the same striped tie and dark hat each day. An ancient gray jacket, hanging loosely on his thin frame, matched his neat beard. He walked straight among the prisoners, supporting himself on a gnarled cane. I heard the prisoners call him a principled man who did his best with what he had, few medical supplies and little help from the Germans. The camp’s denizens showed their gratitude by sharing their homemade cigarettes with him, loose tobacco rolled in yellowed newspaper.
The Will to Win
A dozen Polish boys maintained our camp’s utilities, feeding the boilers with wood and keeping the sandy, open assembly area clean. They wore blue and white pajama-like uniforms with a yellow Star of David on their left chest.
Everybody had a function in the camp. I scrubbed the latrines and helped my grandma in the kitchen peeling potatoes when we had them. I preferred turnips, the staple of our diet, as they did not need to be peeled.
The Polish teenagers tried to stay physically fit by playing soccer with a ball made of rags and by running around the camp with railroad pilings, which they used to keep the boilers burning. They used the open sandy area in front of the camp as a playing field. Its main function was 6am roll calls, which assembled working details for the docks.
One day, as they were kicking the ball, I asked one of the teenagers “Ziggi, what’s behind that stupid running?”
“To confuse the enemy, of course, and to keep our spirits high,” he replied. With dark curly hair and sad eyes, he was tall for his age and skinny from malnutrition.
“The Nazis can control us, our surroundings, what we eat, what we wear, but as long as our minds are strong, they cannot destroy us.”
Ziggi spoke Polish, I, Ukrainian, but we understood each other and became friends. From time to time, we shared a piece of bread my grandmother sneaked into my hand in the kitchen. Ziggi turned out to be my first soccer coach.
“Look, kid, before you can play soccer well, you have to learn its basic skills: kicking, passing, trapping, heading, dribbling, volleying and tackling the ball.” He demonstrated each skill separately and had me repeat them until they were performed to his satisfaction. When they were, he explained and demonstrated the next steps and I would practice them. We dribbled one on one, amusing the guards. Ziggi would purposely elbow and trip me on the sandy gravel to toughen me up.
“Kid, you have to be more confident, more aggressive. These Nazi bastards are killing your will to fight. You’re not an untermensch, remember that! Don’t be afraid of me, or anyone else, bigger or smaller. Outwit your opponents with your brains. You have to have the will to win. In soccer, as in life, winning is the only thing that counts.”
I listened carefully, fascinated by Ziggi’s wisdom and skills.
|In the excitement, it took us a while to notice that there were no guards on the towers, although the machine guns were
still in their mountings.
Major Kurt Richter and Assistant Commandant Capitan Richard Müller, both middle-aged men, managed the camp efficiently. Richter, a strong, stocky man, his chest full of medals, was a former infantry officer, wounded several times in battle, while Capitan Müller, the smaller of the two, was an administrative officer and more an academician than a military leader. Richter, a strict disciplinarian, followed the rules, while the more flexible Müller often negotiated with Richter on the prisoners’ behalf.
“Herr Major,” I sometimes heard him say to Richter, “these Slavs are primitive; they don’t know any better. After all, they are not familiar with our superior German ethics and culture. Please be patient. We’ll retrain them to work more enthusiastically and efficiently.”
To survive in Luebeck, one had to belong to a group, families of men who looked out for and protected each other’s interests with other groups and, of course, the Germans. Captain Sergey Novikov, the ranking POW, headed our group. It included Countess Vyshnevska’s butler Danylo, Slavko Shemchyshyn from Lviv, Kolia Soloviov from Moscow and my grandfather. Countess Vyshnevska was my grandmother’s cousin and, together with her daughter Lydia, lived in the women’s barrack. The Bolsheviks had shot the count during the Revolution.
Captain Novikov, a thin man of medium height with sandy hair, was a chain smoker. Unofficially, he was in charge of the camp on the prisoners’ side, but most often he consulted my grandfather, the doctor, and they made their decisions together. They were bunk mates, my grandfather sleeping on the bottom due to his age. The old man was closer to the prisoners, which made the implementation of their joint decisions easier.
Slavko Shemchyshyn, a clean-cut young man, well educated, taught me to read and write in Ukrainian, while Kolia Soloviov, my bunkmate, a highly emotional and excitable young man, was a homeless blotnyak from the streets of Moscow.
Kolia had an excellent tenor and the Germans allowed him to keep his seven-string Gypsy guitar, one of few musical instruments in the camp, harmonicas being the others. The camp’s musician, he often entertained the prisoners at night before the lights were turned off. He discovered that I had a natural soprano, since my voice had not yet changed, and encouraged me to play the guitar and sing along with him. We practiced scales together.
Being drafted into the Russian Army at 17 was better, he told me. “At least we had regular meals.” He was captured during his first battle and was not shot “because of his youth and musical talents,” he said. “I clowned with the Germans.”
The Shock of Freedom
|A dogfight above the harbor — with aircraft releasing their rounds of fire rat, tat, tat, tat — shattered the eerie quiet of the camp.
I noticed the declining traffic of ships in the harbor and the diminishing work on the docks. By that time, the prisoners already suspected that the Germans were losing and the war was ending. Then, on a warm day in the early part of May 1945, I woke up just before dawn and knew that things were different. The guard who woke us every day with the insulting call of schweine-hunde ausstehen, swine and dogs get up, did not show up, and even at six in the morning the camp was unusually quiet.
Since the lights did not go on and the camp was still covered by darkness, all prisoners stayed in their barracks.
“Sergey Ivanovitch, what do you make of it?” I heard my grandfather ask. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That this is finally ending and we have survived?”
“Da, we may have.”
“Let’s make sure our people don’t panic and preserve some kind of order in this group. Without the German guards, I’m not sure how our people will react to freedom. Some of them have not known it for over three years.”
“We’ll do our best, Doctor,” Novikov responded while puffing on his hand-rolled cigarette.
A dogfight — three aircraft above the harbor, releasing their rounds of fire rat, tat, tat, tat — shattered the eerie quiet of the camp. A high-pitched screech followed as the planes swerved to avoid pursuers.
As darkness gave way to light, one by one the prisoners left their barracks to observe the spectacle. The fight was so close in the blue sky we could see the markings on the planes: one Messerschmitt with a swastika and two Mustangs with stars on their wings. The prisoners liked the odds, never mind that several months ago the Americans had hit our camp hard and some prisoners were killed.
In the excitement, it took us a while to notice that there were no guards on the towers, although the machine guns were still in their mountings. “They must have left in a hurry, sukiny syny, the sons of bitches,” someone mumbled.
Finally, the German plane gained advantage and shot down one of the Americans. The pilot ejected into the bay below. While we watched him splash into the water, the second Mustang closed in and blew the German plane out of the sky. The pilot didn’t have a chance; he probably was fried by the explosion.
“Lucky devil,” a prisoner next to me whispered.
“Yeah, for where would he land if he survived, now that the Allies are taking over?” another agreed.
The second American plane flew over the camp at low altitude, almost touching the barbed-wire fence, to a rousing hurrah! and applause from the prisoners.
Just then, Capitan Müller came out of his office, tucking a white civilian shirt in his military trousers, and walked toward the crowd.
“Hang the son of a bitch!” several prisoners shouted, grabbing him from all sides.
“Now, friends, be reasonable. Doctor, please talk to them.” Though his face was sad and haggard, there was only a trace of fear in it. He spread his hands. “I was always fair with you and only stayed behind to help you get organized under the new conditions. I still feel responsible for you. Please use my administrative skills. I could be useful to you in the new Germany.”
“It is not you, Müller, they are going to hang, but what you stood for during the past three years.” My grandfather shook his head. “When he decided not to run, did he really believe they would spare him, durak, the fool?” he mumbled under his breath and turned away.
I could almost taste the black bile rising in the prisoners’ throats.
“Hang the bastard!” they cried, the women louder than the men, and dragged him by his arms to the front gate.
“Are they really going to hang the captain?” my eyes large, I whispered to my mother. “He’s really not a bad person, is he?” In a place where kindness was rare, Müller sometimes slipped me a piece of hard candy. My mother averted her eyes.
“I am not a common criminal!” Müller screamed, his face turning white. Regaining control, he brushed himself off and wiped the trickle of blood running from his nose. “I will walk,” he said firmly.
They formed a tight circle around him and marched him to the gate. Kolia Soloviov ran up with a rope. Solemnly, Captain Novikov put a noose around his neck, the crowd hoisted him up and let him hang. A few quick jerks and he was still. The ragged band applauded. Tears ran down my cheeks as I buried my face in my mother’s skirt.
“What’s wrong with you, kid?” Kolia slapped me on the back. “The bastard was our enemy and deserved to die. Grow up, already.”
Shielding me with her body, my mother turned away from the scene.
“Let’s go, son,” my mother hissed, but I stood frozen to the ground, my eyes huge saucers.
“Let’s get out of here!” she pulled my arm stiffly as I put one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.
The gate, with Capitan Müller hanging on it, swung open and prisoners gingerly ventured out.
“Come on, son,” she urged me, clasping my hand, and headed in the direction of the bridge over the canal. A rumor had run through the crowd about the imminent arrival of the British. She said she wanted to be among the first to greet them.
We walked quickly, leaving the others behind, our footsteps echoing through the empty cobblestone streets. A window opened here and there, sleepy heads emerged, but the frightened citizens of Luebeck did not venture outside.
“Halt, stop!” A young German Navy captain, who had barricaded himself with sandbags in front of a three-story brick house, stopped us before we could cross the bridge.
A tall muscular blond man with a small trimmed beard, he wore his dress white uniform, with an Iron Cross around his neck, his chest a rainbow full of ribbons. He was armed with a submachine gun in his hand, several grenades hung around his belt and on the pavement next to him, a large machine gun was mounted on its tripod facing the bridge.
“Halt, fraulein!” he said again with authority. “You and the boy may not cross this bridge, and I order you quickly to go back to the camp because there is going to be a battle on this bridge.”
By our shabby clothes and the OST patches he could tell we were camp prisoners, and he spoke civilly only because of my mother’s good looks. With deep blue eyes and dark hair, a lifetime ago she was a rising actress. The determined look in his eyes told us he had decided to die.
|The gate, with Capitan Müller hanging on it, swung open and prisoners gingerly ventured out.
“But you are only one and they will be many,” my mother said, clasping my hand tighter. “Besides, you are still so young and full of life. Why kill yourself for a lost cause?” she smiled at him pleading.
“Do you see that tall ship in the harbor?” he pointed with pride. “That is my ship; I am her captain. I trained several hundred German marine officers on that ship, many of whom died sacrificing their lives for the Fatherland. I owe it to them and the German Navy. Before I became her captain, I commanded a U-boat, sending many enemy ships to the bottom of the ocean.” He pointed to his chest. “I earned this Iron Cross and all these medals through my devotion to the Fatherland. I cannot betray it now. Without this uniform and my ship, my life would be meaningless.”
Not comprehending, I stared at the captain’s ribbons. Then my eyes took in another man with a pistol in his hand creeping behind the captain. I heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath. The man aimed, fired …
Confused, in shock, the captain must have thought my mother had set him up. He gasped: “You did it, you bloody bitch … should have known better, shot you both … you are all … alike…” His submachine gun dropped to the ground and he reached for his Luger holster. Trembling, my mother and I squeezed our hands tighter. Huge sobs escaped my small frame.
The man behind the captain shot him twice more, in the head and back, aiming for the heart.
The captain staggered to the ground as blood splashed on my mother’s blouse and onto my face. I wanted to run, to escape the acrid smell of gun smoke and the animal taste of blood, but my mother held me. I tried to wipe the blood from my face as the smell of blood and smoke gave way to a fresh breeze from the bay.
My mother’s hoarse voice came as from a distance. “Warum? Why did you do it? Warum? “He was so young, accomplished and proud! I could have convinced him not to get himself killed.”
“Young woman,” I heard the rough voice of the stranger. “I have three families in this building with children just like your boy here. I am as much a German as he is, but this fool would have destroyed himself and us. This is our home. He wanted to die bravely for the Fatherland, and he did, but not at our expense. The British would have destroyed our homes and us.” He bowed to us, turned and, with firm steps, walked into the building, closing the door behind him.
We stood on the bridge for a long time, my breathing becoming more normal as we looked at the bluish water below, a swirl of red going out to sea. The sky was clear and only seagulls’ cries disturbed the still, salty air.
|~ About the Author ~
Eugene Melnitchenko is a former Marine sergeant who, using his GI benefits, received a BA from City College of New York, earned a Master’s degree in philosophy and an MBA in economics and finance from New York University, all at night while working full time. He started on Wall Street as a messenger and progressed to investment analyst, research director at such leading investment firms as the US Trust Co. in New York, Principal Financial in Dallas and Legg Mason in Baltimore. He was a three-time Wall Street Journal All American Analyst and finished his career as the research director of Sutro and Co. in California He now lives in Owings, where he and his wife, Helena, are writing a novel, Playing Fields.