Interview recorded:Tostedt, Germany
Born June 17, 1937, in Lyck (today’s Poland). Escaped January 1945 from East Prussia to West Germany together with his mother, younger sister and cousins. In 1947/48 his father returned from the frontline.
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 was that way and one had to accept it and also, one should not have said too much.
Why should one have said too much?
How was it again? Listeners hear no good of themselves [saying alluding to the mutual distrust of people]. If you would have said Hitler is a criminal, it could have backfired easily.You would have been put up against the wall [=to be executed].
Did you ever witness an incident like that or was that something you were told?
Witness – no. All of them were true to party principles, all of them were in some kind of party, brownshirts and whatnot. That is how they were called and then 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 [meaning: he was critical of the regime]. And he once 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 or something similar were stationed. And they saw our relative when he came. He came by foot. And they immediately picked him up and we never heard something from him again.
Okay, so they checked on him and knew that he was doing something they did not like so they just picked him up?
Ja, ja. We were living outboards the actual village and when a solitary man came, he was carefully examined and they [observants from tower] were there right away.
And when did you escape?
I think it was the 21st January 1945. As far as I know that was a Sunday, a Sunday afternoon. It was also all dictated.
So it was not by 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, one rack wagon, which was prepared as good as possible. We had to take food for the horses with us, one did not know what was going to happen, we put bedding and food on it, everything what was possible to take with us. And more was not possible. And 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 stuff like sacks were we put in beddings as well. Those sacks were huge, probably about 2 centners [≙100kg] which we took with us. They were first brought to the train station and then we put the rest up the wagon and my grandparents left with that. And then we [mother, my grandfather, two cousins] waited inside of a church for the next train to arrive, which did not take place ordered anymore. The train did not leave at certain times, he was supposed to leave then, but actually left way later. That is why we spent the night in the church, because it was possible to heat it, otherwise we would have had to wait on the station platform. While waiting, one of my cousins went home to milk the cows, so that we had some rest milk. Had to be done, the cows were sitting in their stalls, screaming because they actually would have had to be milked already, fed already. Wicked, was simply wicked.
And your dad, was he part of the Wehrmacht?
He was in the Wehrmacht. He was a soldier.
Was he long gone when you escaped?
Yeah, he was drawn in right at the beginning of war. First, he was stationed in France, then Norway, Finland, and in the end, they put all armed forces to 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 is dad’?
Could be. I mean, I knew ‘where’ he was. And sometimes, he visited. I remember two or three times that he had been on front-vacation for fourteen days, three weeks. So I knew that he was at war, not where exactly, but at war.
So soldiers did get time off to visit their families?
Yeah, not on a regular basis or something, but I think if the situation allowed it – 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 that he came on a regular basis, no, no, no. Not like today, four month Afghanistan and then back, he came once a year at most.
To come back to the escape; Did you know, where you were escaping to or was it just leaving at first?
So yeah, that was our thought; leaving at all cost at first, but everything did not work the way expected anymore. The Russian already was everywhere and we had nothing to set against him anymore, not in the sky, nor on ground, he was everywhere. And with his airplanes, he has been far ahead, bombed everything what was possible. Nothing worked out ordered anymore. Surely, it would have been nice if we would have been able to go from here to there straight away, but it did not work out. It was going till some place then there the railway was destroyed and then we had to go back again. So that really was totally ungeordnet and nobody knew where it eventually would end.
For the lasting of your escape, did you ever get in touch, direct contact, with Russians?
(laughs) Yeah, immediately. That is something I remember precisely. That was in Pommern [region in Northeast Germany and Northwest Poland]. I do not remember exact places though. We were in a house and in front of it, there was a meadow. And then they came down there [on the meadow] with their airplanes.
* The annotations in square brackets […] were made subsequently by the interviewer.