Martin Bonneß: Childhood and Years of the War
Neugersdorf from then until today
Fate of many families after 1945. (This too belongs to the history of Neugersdorf.) Excerpt from my life’s story: childhood from 1941 to 1956
Outbreak of World War II, September 1, 1939. German troops cross the Polish border. March 1940: German troops occupy Denmark and Norway. Two brothers from my father must go to the front, (Richard and Willi), mother’s brother Herbert too.
In 1940, my brother, Wilfried, was born. Fears and worries about the future overshadowed the happiness of my parents. Fortunately, father did not need to join the Wehrmacht, because as a farmer, he contributes to the supply of the population. The levies on cereals, crops, and livestock were specified and monitored. All farmers in the Reich had great problems with ordering their fields as many young men had to die so senselessly at the front, as well as my father’s brothers Richard and Willi.
My grandfather, Hermann, died on April 10, 1941 at the age of 67 years old in Zernin. He died 6 months before my birth and had not experienced the death of his sons, Willi and Richard.
On June 22, 1941: the beginning of the German attack on the USSR (Russia). Father’s second youngest brother, Willi, married before he had to go to the front in Russia. A few weeks later, my father received the news that his brother, Willi, was killed in action in Russia on July 14, 1941.
Later in 1941, I came into the world. From my father’s family in Russia, the 18-year-old son of his sister Ida and her husband also fell. On July 15, 1944 father’s brother Richard fell at Saint George in France. The Second World War was always grim, for the German forces began a costly retreat. Soviet troops invaded East Prussian territory.
On January 23, 1945, the transport of refugees, soldiers, and wounded from East Prussia began from the ports in the Bay of Danzig. By the end of the war, two million would be evacuated. About 14,000 refugees were killed in sea transports.
Many of our relatives tried to leave our homeland in the countryside before the arrival of the Russians. By the same sea route to leave, fleeing people also came to Zernin. A young woman with two sons, ages 10 and 12, was quartered at my parents’ farm. Her husband had fallen. Her parents also died during the escape. These two boys played a lot with us.
My parents and all the villagers were stuck in a bad situation, they were not allowed to leave their farms since this had to be arranged by the NSDAP. To leave the villages prematurely could be punished with the death penalty. One had to wait until it was too late. Where else could one go? Everywhere was the front. Without adequate food, at -15 °C, without hope.
On March 4, 1945, Russian troops occupied Zernin. Many inhabitants fled. My father, who had been temporarily in hiding, was captured. At the edge of our village, a prison camp was built by the Russians. Here were all remaining in the village: men and prisoners of war, including my father (250 prisoners behind barbed wire). The prisoners had to stay until they had harvested the grain, after which they were taken to Russia. Very many refugee treks marched in the direction of Kolberg in the hope of being able to leave the embattled territories with a ship before leaving the city for the Russians. There were still 75,000 refugees in the city. The fight was everywhere; the city was bombarded by blanket coverage from groups of Panzers and Katyusha rocket launchers (Stalin’s organ). Kolberg was encircled and besieged on March 4.
The remainder of the inhabitants of Zernin (mostly women and children and us) had to leave our village. No one knew where to go (neighboring villages or in the woods). After the fall of Kolberg on March 18, 1945, some of the German inhabitants were allowed to return to Zernin at short notice, except in the farmsteads where the Russian military had lodged. For example, on our farm, the Russian commandant held his officer’s quarters.
After the occupation of Zernin: Russian soldiers had come to our farm. We children clung to our mother, then 38 years old. She was abused and raped before our eyes. The 12-year-old son of the woman quartered with us was shot out of sheer lust for murder because he wanted to push his mother to protect her.
When the deadly shots fell, none of the battered women knew whose children were killed, because during the multiple rapes they heard the screaming and whimpering of us children, which fell silent after the firing. What must have happened in that moment to my mother’s psyche…
The brutal crime in our barn, two defenseless mothers, before the eyes of us children and the murder of the older boy left behind a trauma in our children’s souls. Then we were chased away from the farm. There was raping, abusing, murdering and looting everywhere.
Mother, who was physically and mentally injured by the multiple rapes on her own farm, wandered around with us children for days. We could have been caught between the fronts. The front around Kolberg was everywhere. Every minute, we were in mortal danger. We had nothing to eat and drink.
Since we gave mother no opportunity to take warm clothes for us, we froze pitifully. It was a very cold winter. Mother was constantly fearing death. Wilfried and I, we were luckily still too small to understand everything that was going on around us. Since mother with us could not come back to our farm, we found short-term a lodging at our neighboring family, Paul Otto, in the next few days.
Here, too, mother was raped by newly arriving soldiers. Mrs. Otto had to suffer the same fate. Her husband, Paul Otto, had resisted the Russians to protect his wife and mother from being raped, and he too was shot dead. The rape of the present women went on.
All the farms of Zernin were emptied by the Russians. Nothing was left to us; furniture and other belongings were partially loaded on trucks and taken away. During the siege of Kolberg, the Russians had set up gun positions in the surrounding fields, from where they shot into them with Stalin’s organs and other guns until the fall of the city. On March 18, 1945, the totally destroyed city was taken by the Russians. After the guns fell silent and the fighting Russian units moved westward, mother went to her parents in Neu Bork to find out if and how they had survived the fighting. Luckily we still had our dear mother, and she still had two children. Unfortunately, father was missing. I remember, it was a horrible walk, we only had what we carried on our backs. It was a distance of about 10 kilometers. The road to Kolberg was flanked by military equipment, shredded people, horses, and cows. It stank horribly. The city center was in ruins, the smell of burning and decay everywhere. We were very brave. Our little feet hurt; we were hungry and thirsty.
Mother, who was mentally broken, came with us after several hours full of fear and anticipation with her parents. They lived, nothing had happened to them until then. Before we came to our grandparents, Russian soldiers had occupied the village and searched all the farms. With our arrival was also the grandparents’ yard thereon. There was a room in the house with a locked door. Grandfather did not have a key, because in this room, a fleeing Nazi had been quartered a few days earlier and then fled with possession of the key. The Russians violently opened the door and found a picture of Hitler in the left-behind Nazi backpack, which was to be the death sentence for my grandfather (Otto Ramm).
The man dragged him into the yard and placed him against a wall. A firing squad put their guns on him and waited for an order. Grandmother now went to grandfather and stood in front of him, both knelt down and prayed. The order did not come, that commando would have to kill two old defenseless kneeling and praying people. For that, my mother was raped again, this time in front of my grandparents.
The joy that grandfather was not shot before our eyes did not last long, and sometime later he died as a result of the commotion. My mother was no longer mentally strong enough to endure all of this, and she suffered her first nervous breakdown. We stayed in Neu Bork until the funeral. In the hope that our father would come back, mother went with us back to Zernin. We stayed with the Otto family again. In the meantime, father had fled from a prisoner transport in Russia at the risk of his life. In an adventurous way, he managed to come back to us. He was half-starved and had typhus, but he was alive and we were very overjoyed that he was back with us. Mother’s sister, Irma, with her husband and daughter Christel were now also expelled. They wanted to get through Köslin to the west. Our father was too sick. He wouldn’t have survived the expulsion so we all stayed behind together.
May 6, 1945: Germany surrenders. This damned war is over now. The initially established Soviet command centers are dissolved and come under Polish civil administration. Father and mother are then back to their farm. There was nothing left that was not nailed and screwed down that the Russians hadn’t taken or destroyed. After the withdrawal of the Russian military, Poland arrived. Thousands of Polish families, some of whom had their farms in areas that Russia annexed by the Poles, were resettled and assigned the farms of displaced Germans.
Father’s cousin, Richard, son of grandfather’s brother Fritz, was slain in 1945 in Damgardt on the bridge to Pustar of Poland. His wife later lived in Görlitz (DDR).
Something terrible happened in the short time until the expulsion from Zernin. We played with children of a refugee trek (who were stuck here) who had found a hand grenade. Wilfried and I sequestered ourselves a bit when the hand grenade exploded and killed two children. After the shock, we went back to our playmates and saw their tattered bodies. Our mother, who was near us, had heard the explosion. She was shocked because she thought it had hit us.
Wilfried and I had a guardian angel in that moment. Our father was getting healthy again, unfortunately, it was too late for us. The Oder had become the Polish border. The newly established Polish authorities would not let us move west. Our farm (headquarters) was to be assigned to a Polish family. We and the Otto family, where we still lived, must finally leave Zernin.
We are obligated to become a forced laborer to a Polish family who took over a German estate through relationships in the neighboring Mechenthin. The family that had no idea about agriculture should and now wanted to lead the estate with us. Other workers were not readily available to him, therefore this Gut (manor, estate) must inevitably be run down. This Polish farmer (?), called Wosikowski, he was a ruthless sadistic and work dodging man. Father and mother had to work hard; they were often mistreated. Wilfried was five years, and I was four years old. In the warm months, we had to go out into the pastures with our cows from morning to night. Our task was to take care that the cows did not run away or go into a cornfield. When this happened, we had to drive the animals back with a stick. Often we did not succeed. Mother had to weed in the adjacent fields or collect stones and lay them in a closed field car. The meadows on which the animals grazed reached to the shore of the Persante, it was a natural drinking trough. Once a cow got stuck in the mud; Wilfried and I were flogged again. Mother was always afraid that we could drown in this river. The Pole noticed how Wilfried and I tried to drive a cow out of a field. He came roaring with rage with a team of horses to us to throw at the stones collected by mother. Mother who noticed this in time came to our aid. Wilfried got (hit by) a rock; a stone flew past my head. Before Mother could bring us to safety, she too was hit by stones. They were stones of a size that would have killed us if they had hit us on the head. The Pole, who always had a gun with him, and his son often beat mother and father together and threatened them with the gun. To intimidate us, they did target practice. They consciously shot past us children and enjoyed the fear of my parents.
Father reported the treatments of the Poles to the Polish administration. There he had been rejected and insulted. Nothing was undertaken. We continued to be tormented, abused, humiliated, and living in constant fear of death. They made us hungry. There was no hope of escaping this tyranny. He could have killed us children every day, he got away without punishment. He still needed my parents for work. There were not many Germans left because they were expelled and many were murdered. Our mother was so driven into madness. Many desperate people plunged into suicide.
It came in the year 1947
The year began as the year 1946 ended. Wilfried was now seven years old, and I was 6 years old. We had to go back to the pastures with the cows. We had no shoes that fit us, so we ran barefoot in the warm months. For some reason, I wanted to stay with mother who worked in the garden. The Pole noticed this and came to me with a whip and hit me. I tried to escape the blows and ran around a corner of the house, which I did not notice–here was one iron rake with the pointed side up. I came in full-run and was seriously injured by two prongs that had drilled into my foot. Instead of the Pole ceasing from threshing me, he continued to follow me with a whip like mad. Mother, who came to my aid, was beaten and kicked. She took me in her arms and ran from the yard. With a piece of her apron, she put a bandage on me. We both sat at a ditch for a while and wept bitterly until the Pole found us here. He now had a hatchet in his hand and threatened to kill my mother with it. Fortunately, she was able to avoid his blows. She called me to go to Wilfried who was already herding near the cows. He had run to meet us and hid in a cornfield. He had also watched as our mother was almost killed with an ax. There was no mercy. I hobbled in the direction of pasture with great pain. Mother under lashings to her work. What was cruel to us children was what mother had to endure every day through Poland. The Pole had threatened my parents in our presence, often with a hatchet or a pistol.
At some point, my dirty and inflamed wound also healed. Our injured souls have never healed. I still remember that Wilfried and I were often locked in an attic. Here it was the about 18-year-old daughter who with the help of her brother tied us to a wooden support of the roof trusses, pulled down our trousers, and cleared our backs, then beat us with bundles of thin ropes. They only stopped when our backs showed bloody welts. Father now went to the next higher administration to report the abuse. As a result, they locked him up for a few days and brutally abused him. When father was back with us everything went on as usual. However, for the Polish neighboring families who also had German forced laborers, the sadistic behavior of their compatriot did not remain unnoticed. Now they also complained to their administration so that our Pole was warned. One day, Mr. W’s son was arrested for stealing a cow from his neighbor.
In July 1947, the victorious powers and the new Polish government decided to expel all remaining Germans. One asked us to leave the new Poland. We were glad that this family Wosikowski had to let go. The abuse and the forced labor had an end now.
We survived, hoping it would not get any worse…
Familie Bonneß + ihr Bauernhof
Großeltern mit ihren Kindern Bestandszeichnungen 1945
For the original text in German, please refer to Martin’s prepared PDF on his childhood and years of the war.