Towards the end of World War II, 800,000 German women and girls were deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. A visit to the abandoned camps near the Russian-Finnish border.
KARELIA — "They picked us up, sometimes they just dragged us off the street and forced us onto the truck. I am still wearing the same jacket I had on the day of my arrest. Although I am tightening it around my body, I am terribly cold. The cold is not only outside but also inside me."
Decades later, Martha Grüner wrote down her memories of the "women's camp 517/2" in Karelia. She was one of more than 800,000 women and girls who were deported to the Soviet Union in 1945 by the Red Army as war reparations, or "valid prisoners of war", as Germany put it. They slaved away and died in camps between Ukraine and the Arctic Ocean, Kazakhstan and Siberia.
One of these camps was Padosero in Karelia, a historically disputed area now divided between Finland and Russia. In the spring of 1945, around a thousand German women were sent there for forced labor. Most of them, like Martha Grüner, came from East Prussia and were still minors. The Red Army had picked them up randomly and put them in crowded freight cars. Many did not survive the week-long journey to the camp. Others arrived sick and half-starved in Karelia, where there was still lots of snow.
"It was not until 1946 that we were equipped for the Russian winters. For the time being, we had to walk to the camp in our old, dirty clothes, which were soon soaked through by the snow," Martha Grüner wrote in her memoirs, which were published in 2008.
"One hundred and eighty women and men died in Padosero," says Anatoly Antonovich. The businessman from the nearby city of Petrozavodsk takes care of German war graves as a volunteer.
Also a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Antonovich says that the graves of German prisoners of war leave him no peace of mind. Many of the estimated 4,000 graves are still to be found, he says. For the Pudosch district, east of Lake Onega, there is a list with names and burial places that Antonovich searched for for several years. He says that when the snow melts, sometimes the small mounds become visible.
Karelia is full of graves.
"There are about a hundred graves in Podporozhye in the middle of the village," he says. The villagers know about them and have volunteered to take care of the graves. But Antonovich wishes that German authorities would help them mark and maintain the sites.
The first snowflakes of the season are falling silently in the clearing of a pine forest. A large cross and small headstones mark the cemetery, which was established in 1997. A blackboard says: "Here rest prisoners of war — victims of the Second World War". The camp was located a few hundred meters away, by a lake. Today there are peaceful weekend cottages. "Attention, stray bears!" warns a sign at the entrance of the forest.
The fate of civilian German forced laborers in the Soviet Union is a little-known episode of the war. The Nazi regime forced into labor millions of men and women from its occupied territories, mainly from Eastern Europe. But the Allied forces also relied on forced labor to rebuild after the end of the war. A total of four million laborers were used in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland, but also in France or Denmark. Most were men, prisoners of war, but a quarter of them were women. And of these at least one in four did not survive hunger, diseases, the cold and the hardships. Yet there are no exact numbers.
Barracks in Padosero, Russia — Photo: Friedemann Kohler/DPAZUMA
Karelia is full of graves. This remote Russian area on the border with Finland became part of the "bloodlands," as U.S. historian Timothy Snyder describes the zone on the Russian border where no German soldiers fought, but where thousands later died as prisoners of war.
Karelia is also where the Soviet camp system originated. Tens of thousands of people were shot dead during the worst years of Stalin terror in 1937-38, in places like Sandarmoch or Krasny Bor, near Petrozavodsk, or murdered through hard work and starvation. Historian Yuri Dmitriev, chairman of the human rights group Memorial in Karelia, has uncovered these places.
There are memorial sites there today. But in Russia, under President Vladimir Putin's rule, an attempt is being made to rewrite the history of these places and exonerate Stalin of his crimes, say local historians. They say that Sandarmoch's history is being changed, turning it into the place where Finnish soldiers shot Red Army soldiers. Historians like Dmitriev and his colleague Sergei Koltyrin say they are being targeted and vilified in a lawsuit in Petrozavodsk for alleged child abuse.
An attempt is being made to rewrite the history of these places.
The story of the Padosero women's camp was written by Yuri Tschuchin, the founder of Memorial in Karelia. He was a former police officer and found documents and lists of names. Barbed wire surrounded the camp and its ten barracks in 1945, but it was hardly guarded. A Russian teenager with a gun monitored the women's work in the forest. "Forced labor was nothing but slavery," writes Martha Grüner. "A 16 -year-old girl was to help rebuild the ruined Soviet Union. It was laughable."
Sometimes the workers received a meager salary. Or they tried to exchange their German clothes for food. But shortly after the war, the Soviet villagers had hardly any food left to exchange.
Ursula Seiring, from East Prussia, was also deported. In her book "Thou shalt not die," she writes: "In the morning, we had 125 grams of bread and tea, in the evening we drank watery soup. Then we would search each other's heads for lice. The bugs tormented us all." Some were so desperate that they took their own lives.
For the German War Graves Commission, the cemetery of Padosero symbolizes all victims of forced labor. The same is true of a cemetery in Petrozavodsk, representing all prisoners of war camps in Karelia.
Yes, even in Padosero, it is a villager who sometimes sweeps the path to the cemetery.