If your Russia is as rusty as mine you probably won’t know Nitschewo more or less translates as ‘Whatever’, an expression used throughout these memoirs by both the Russians and the author
“You are only a plennie” Wilhelm Max Rose was born in April 1905 in Patschkau, Silesia, Germany. Before World War 2 he studied Theology, married Charlotte and they had five children. Early in the war he volunteered as a combatant. In 1945 when a Captain Adjutant, he was captured in Konigsberg [East Prussia] and became a ‘plennie’ – a prisoner of war in Stalin’s Soviet Russia – until 1953. This is his personal graphic account of imprisonment written by him in the 1960s. His grandfather was named Schmitt and he uses his name in these memoirs.
On the face of it, this was always going to be a bit of an odd read. After all, how often do you come across a book written by a former German POW about his years of captivity in Stalinist Russia. You’d expect a grim read. You’d expect it to be dispiriting. You would probably expect it to also be somewhat embittered towards the Russians by want of the experience.
Instead, what you get is a unique and fascinating insight on a period of history and life in the early soviet union filled with humanity, compassion, and understanding that it really did not matter which side of the barbed wire fence you were on, in essence everyone were prisoners of Stalin’s regime. the ordinarily Russians had more in common with the ‘Plennies’ than you would ever expect. Indeed, it is often his fellow German prisoners who Wilhelm is most disparaging about, and with fair reason. This is not to say there wasn’t mistreatment by some of the Russian’s or that some of his fellow POW’s weren’t stout friends and allies. But nothing here is black and white, and by far his greatest fear was being betrayed to the MWD by his fellow prisoners.
What is most fascinating are the people, Russians and POW’s alike. There is much of the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ about this. If, as a writer, I made up some of the people you come across in this book I would face the accusation that they were not entirely believable. just as a random example, and there are many, a hard-faced camp guard is co-opted to escort take Wilhelm to Moscow. What follows is a bizarre road trip, involving the guard once beyond the camp becoming a cheerful bumbling nice guy who takes his charge to meet his family (who seem worse off that the POW’s in many ways), before a bizarre train journey, and a pub crawl around Moscow, until finally delivering him to his designation and becoming the ‘hard-faced camp guard again.
Then there are the doctor’s at the first camp, the strange collection of interrogators both good and bad through who’s hands he passes, his fellow POW’s who become communist activists in the camps in the hope of an early return home and so much more.
Real people are always so much more complex than characters in a novel, as is the author, there is an authenticity to this fiction would find hard to duplicate. It is an oddly uplifting read in places, you feel for the POW’s and the Russians alike, trapped in a system which cares little for either. It is fascinating from beginning to end and your left wondering what became of some of the other people Wilhelm crosses paths with in his years of captivity. I kind of hope everything worked out for Yuri, as well as for ‘Fritz’.
You will probably never read anything like this again, because there isn’t anything quite like this to be found I suspect, but you should read this. It was so much more than I expected, and difficult to put down, because every page left you wanting to know more.