NB: This was originally written on January 31, 2015
We had about thirty inches of snow a few days ago in a record blizzard-type storm. It actually made blizzard status and is among the top five total snowfalls recorded since record-keeping times. The very morning of the storm, my dog Rachel went to a new home. She’s pictured on the blog several times and I’ll put a final picture of her with this entry. She went to what we call doggy heaven because she went to friends of friends, living now on a cul de sac with four homes and no traffic. Her new family has a farm with five acres of land for her to run on. She has a boyfriend next door, a lab that she met on her initial interview. They immediately became friends, took off on an excursion and spent the whole of the visit playing together–people be damned. Her new family called the same afternoon to say they wanted her, and next day, storm day, she was off. I had fallen about ten times walking her, and while she’s missed here, she’s in a better place and a better space. When asked about her sleeping quarters, response was that they had a king sized bed with plenty of space. In our house she slept in her bed downstairs in the living room. That, a friend, five acres and being able to go from one house to another as the dogs on that cul de sac do says it all.
So I had to blow the snow twice that first time just to get a semblance of a cleared driveway and walkway. Then it was shovel to just start to get at the curbs so I would know the borders. A third pass with the snow-blower cleared it out so that I only needed to shovel to make the edges at the curbs.
It wasn’t too cold those first two days of cleaning and the wind had died down too. But since then we’ve had one full dusting which required a complete run over the property with the shovel and then a small snow of about an inch which required another shovel-job. During that last shoveling, it was cold and winds gusted every now and then. The snow kept falling while I shoveled and while I worked the first craziness set in.
I was shoveling uphill and into the wind. Since there wasn’t much snow, it wasn’t hard work, and since I’d layered my clothes and wore a hat and a hood over it, I was was warm enough, even sweating.
“I’ll bet the Germans didn’t have to shovel the snow,” I thought. “I’ll bet they made the prisoners do it. I’ll bet the prisoners didn’t have warm clothes or gloves,” I thought.
This was all in reference to my father. He was a POW from 1942-1945, or a “Guest of the Third Reich” as I’ve learned in the time from yesterday to this morning as some of the other prisoners referred to it.
My mind went wild as I worked. I didn’t actually know what the weather was like where he was, didn’t even know the name of the camp he’d been in. I didn’t know what living conditions were like, how he was treated, what he went through. All I knew were a couple of stories he’d told and a couple of other people in my family told. My father, even when asked directly, never spoke about his war experiences, and from what I’ve read on the internet last night, I surmise a lot of WWII POW’s were/are the same way. But he once told me that his army days were the best days of his life, and if most of my life I’ve thought of myself as pretty messed up and pretty crazy, that statement coming from him gave me a good idea where my craziness came from. How could being a POW for more than three years lead to the best years of his life?
So here’s what I’ve learned.
His POW record is public. I found it on the internet. His serial number was just as I remembered it, just as I remember my Aunt Bella’s phone number from when I was a little kid. She gave us a dime each to call her in an emergency and before she let my brother or me go out of her apartment we had to prove we had memorized her number. Dickens 2-0484. In those days, the first two numbers were the first two letters of words–my childhood home phone was BA9-6920, the BA being for Bayside.
He was in Stalag IIIB Furstenberg in Prussia from 1k/1942 to 07/02/1945. His record states that the detaining power was Germany, but we know that he was in an Italian camp first and was recaptured after the Italians fled. There are pictures and maps, but I could not recognize his face in any of the pictures. He was a private. From what I’ve read now of other prisoner accounts, corporals and higher did not have to work, but privates worked 12-hour shifts doing hard labor and only received the same rations as those who didn’t have to work. Did my father have to do hard labor? What did he have to do?
Jews were treated more harshly than other prisoners. They knew my father was a Jew because one of the stories he told was about his intake. The two men before him were Jewish and lied to the Germans. My father said that by the time of that intake (he’d been in the Italian camp before this one) he didn’t care anymore if he lived or died and so he told the truth. The next morning the Germans shot the other two men but they let my father live. Did they torture him? Was he beaten? What did they do to him? I know he was starved because he came home totally emaciated and the government kept him isolated to fatten him up. Only my mother (but I wasn’t born yet) and his mother were allowed to see him for the first six weeks he was home.
“Crazy,” I thought. “I think shoveling snow is hard. Compared to what he went through…”
It’s impossible for me to imagine what my father went through. No matter what I find from other people’s accounts, it’s impossible to imagine or understand. It’s even hard to find direct historical accounts of Stalag IIIB, although I’ve spent hours looking so far.
So much is crazy and so much is unimaginable.
And then comes the Final March. This was the final craziness. It answers to the weather, what started this for me this time. The Germans did not want to set the prisoners free as the Russians advanced upon them and so they took them from Stalag IIIB on a forced march toward Berlin. One account I saw indicates they marched the first twenty-four hours non-stop through blizzard conditions. The Germans took any warm clothing the prisoners had for themselves, just like they took what they wanted from the Red Cross Aid that came, when it came, and so many prisoners died along the way and many more suffered frost bite. They marched and marched, The Guests of the Third Reich did, to no avail for the Germans since they had to abandon the prisoners and flee anyway.
Update: We’ve had three more storms since then and more coming including a major one predicted for Monday. Each time I clear the snow, I think about my father. I know now that at the very least he had to march through that blizzard unprotected by warm clothing, and each time I think this my plight seems so minor, so nothing. I think that no matter what has happened in my life, although sometimes really hard for me, it pales in comparison to what my father went through. I’ve had this particular thought throughout my life and it leads to many more thoughts.
Farewell to Rachel. I know she is loved where she is. She was made strong and healthy with us and she was greatly loved.