Interview recorded:Tostedt, Germany
My name is Hans-Jürgen Symanski, I am 78 years old and escaped from East Prussia to West Germany.
Do you have any memories regarding your life before the escape?
From my childhood – yes. Back then, I was eight years old and I still remember some of it.
For example what?
What kind of [farm] animals we owned, where we used to play, where I went to school.
Did you live on an actual farm or was it only for your own needs?
Well, we were able to live from it [what they produced], we lived from it. During the war, we had to ‘pay’ dues, so everything produced on top of our quota [what officials considered to be their personal need] was given to the Wehrmacht etc.
Did people talk about what was going on; did your parents tell you why there was war, that there was war or did you just understand it by yourself?
I think I was too young for that. So as far as I can think back, people did not talk about it – it was a fact. It just was like that and one had to accept it and also, one should not say too much.
Why should one not say too much?
How does the saying go? “Listeners hear no good of themselves” [German proverb alluding to the mutual distrust of people]. If you had said Hitler is a criminal, it could have backfired easily. You would have been put up against the wall [executed].
Did you ever witness an incident like that or was that something you were told?
I never witnessed anything like that, no. They were all true to party principles, they were all in some kind of party, brownshirts and whatnot. That is what they were called and they had those armlets with the Hakenkreuz. No, we personally did not witness an incident like that. Indeed, what I witnessed was that we once had a relative, I am not sure about how old he was, but he had to be in his 20s and he was a bit underground [critical of the regime]. Once he visited us, without letting us know before. In our neighborhood, there was something we called the tower. It was an observation tower where people from the Wehrmacht, the party or hell knows what were stationed. And they saw our relative when he came. He came by foot. They immediately picked him up and we never heard of him again.
So they checked on him and knew that he was doing something they did not like so they just picked him up?
Well, we were living on the outskirts of the the actual village and when a solitary man came, he was carefully examined and they [the observants from the tower] were there straight away.
When did you escape?
I think it was 21st January 1945. As far as I know that was a Sunday, a Sunday afternoon. All of that was ordered.
So it was not by your own choice?
By choice we would have been gone already. But that was not allowed. That would have been cowardice in front of the enemy. We would have been guilty of an offence. It was not possible, you were only allowed to do what was ordered.
What were you allowed to take with you?
Good question. We had two horses and one rack wagon, which was prepared as good as possible. We had to take food for the horses with us, because one did not know what was going to happen, then we put bedding and food on it, everything what was possible to take with us until there was no place left. Then, my grandparents left with the rack wagon and the horses, while my mother, myself and my two cousins went by train; it was organized that way. But we were also allowed to take something like sacks with us, where we put in beddings and other things as well. The sacks we took with us were huge, probably about 3 centners [≙150kg]. They were first brought to the train station and then we put the rest up the wagon and my grandparents left with it. Then we waited inside of a church for the next train to arrive, which did not take place in an ordered manner anymore. The train did not leave at certain times like 17.45, it was supposed to leave then, but actually left much later. That is why we spent the night in the church, because there was some heating, otherwise we would have had to wait on the cold station platform. While we were waiting for the train, one of my cousins went back home to milk the cows, so that we had some rest milk. It had to be done, the cows were sitting in their stalls, screaming because they should have been milked and fed already. It was bad, simply bad.
How about your dad, was he part of the Wehrmacht?
He was in the Wehrmacht. He was a soldier.
Had he been long gone when you escaped?
Yeah, he was drawn in right at the beginning of the war. First, he was stationed in France, then hell knows where… he also was in Norway, Finland, and in the end, they put all armed forces to the warfront in Russia.
Did you stay in touch during that period of time?
I think from time to time, we received letters from him. I am not sure about that. I was not interested in that.
Did you never ask where your dad was?
Maybe when I was five or six years old. I mean, I knew ‘where’ he was. And sometimes, he would visit us. I remember one or two times that he was on front-vacation for fourteen days, three weeks. So I knew that he was at war, but not where he was exactly.
So soldiers did get time off to visit their families?
Yes, but not on a regular basis, it was more like five minutes to breathe. I never got to know how things were going at the front, my father never spoke about it, when he came back after war imprisonment, but he didn’t come home on a regular basis. Not like today, four months in Afghanistan and then back home. He came home once a year at most.
Let us return to the escape. Did you know where you were escaping to or did you just want to leave in the first place?
At first we just wanted to leave, but nothing worked the way expected anymore. The Russians were already everywhere and we had nothing to set against them anymore, not in the sky, nor on the ground, they were everywhere. They were far ahead with their airplanes, bombing everything possible. Nothing was functioning the usual way anymore. Surely, it would have been nice if we had been able to go from here to there straight away, but it did not work out. [The train] went up to a certain place, then [it turned out] the railway was destroyed and we had to go back again. This was a real chaos and nobody knew where it would end.
Did you ever get in direct touch with Russians during your escape?
(laughs) Yes, immediately. That is something I remember precisely. It was in Pomerania [region in Northeast Germany and Northwest Poland]. I do not remember, where exactly, though. We were in a house and there was a meadow in front of it. They came down there [landed on the meadow] with their airplanes.
* The annotations in square brackets […] were made subsequently by the interviewer.