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The years of living dangerously

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The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War (University of Manitoba Press, 2013) is a unique account of a life shaped by Stalinism, Nazism, migration, famine, and war. The book follows John Werner. Born in the Soviet Union just after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was named "Hans" and grew up in a German-speaking Mennonite community in Siberia. As a young man in Stalinist Russia, he became "Ivan" and fought as a Red Army soldier in the Second World War. Captured by Germans, he was resettled in occupied Poland where he became "Johann," was naturalized and drafted into Hitler's German army. There he served until captured and placed in an American POW camp. He was eventually released and then immigrated to Canada where he became "John."

The following is an excerpt.

At three in the morning of 22 June 1941, all hell broke loose. Ivan awoke to a tremendous crash. The air was choked with dust. The barracks where he slept had suffered a direct hit by bombs. Those soldiers who could, ran outside, where they were greeted by a terrible scene in the early morning light.

The military compound, which also had a tent city of troops, was a mass of confusion and death. As the sky brightened, the air filled with German Stuka dive-bombers. Wave after wave of Stukas tipped their noses into a dive. The siren mounted on the airplane's belly began to scream as the plane picked up speed and grew in intensity until it released its deadly cargo and broke off its dive. Ivan ran to the garage to his tank, which was always fuelled up at the end of each day's training, and began maneuvering through the confused troops to the previously determined assembly point outside the city. He needed to cross the Neman River, but the bridge had already been bombed. He was finally able to cross at an emergency bridge, which brought him to the assembly point in a young forest. Here confusion also reigned. One high-ranking officer rode by on his horse dressed only in his underwear and barking out meaningless orders. Ivan simply advised the officer that there was no way of recognizing him without a uniform. He only seemed to realize then that he had no clothes on. The German artillery could be heard firing in the distance, with each volley coming closer to the forest, now teeming with confused soldiers, tanks, guns, and trucks. The air was full of Stukas. Hiding was almost impossible. Inexperienced soldiers ran out into the open screaming like wild animals, and the airplanes came and mowed them down with their wing-mounted machine guns. Rather than finding even a small bush or hollow to hide behind, they just ran right out into the open. Ivan hid his tank as best he could and crept under its sloping protective armour each time a wave of Stukas descended on their position.

Operation Barbarossa, as Hitler had named the attack on the Soviet Union, had initially been planned to begin in May but had been delayed because the German army had to assist the Italians in the campaign in Crete. In the weeks before 22 June, there had been a steady build-up of German forces on the border with the Soviet Union. Slowly, more than three million soldiers, more than 7,000 guns, and 3,350 tanks inched their way into position during the nights before the massive attack was launched.

It took hours that Sunday before any semblance of organization returned to the Red Army or orders arrived to deal with the German attack. It would take until 9:15 p.m. before General Timoshenko's order for the Soviet armies to attack the invaders arrived at the front. Local commanders were left to their own initiatives, and by 10 a.m. the commander of the 11th Mechanized Corps had committed the 29th Tank Division to a counterattack. The confusion, however, had disrupted everything, and Ivan took his tank into battle with a crew of recruits who had been trained on anti-tank weapons but had never fired a tank gun. He also became the tank's commander since there was no one to assume that role. That meant the tank essentially had no main gunner, not as big a problem as it might have been because they were also terribly short of ammunition since the Germans seemed to know where all the ammunition dumps were and systematically blew them up. As a result, Ivan's tank was issued only five shells for the counterattack. The division, which had assembled southeast of Grodno, was to counterattack in a northwesterly direction together with the other tank division of the corps and its infantry division. Both of these units, however, were some distance away and in an even worse state of organization.

The 29th Tank Division counterattacked alone, and, though it was later described as one of the more successful Soviet attempts to stem the German tide, it managed only to push the attacker back seven or eight kilometres. The division and the rest of the 11th Mechanized Corps did not last long. An operational report on the evening of 22 June suggested the unit was still fighting at 3:45 p.m., had withdrawn by 5 p.m., and by the next morning had seemingly disappeared. The headquarters of the 3rd Army had no information on their whereabouts. In my father's accounts, the counterattack was almost useless. With little ammunition and an inexperienced crew, his tank was soon ineffective, and Ivan retreated to try to get fuel and ammunition.

He recalled stops in Lida and Baranovichi, two towns east of Grodno, to try to get ammunition.

There were tragedies all around, and Ivan was in the middle of them. An officer had asked Ivan to transport his family to the rear. Although families were to be evacuated on transport trucks, all available vehicles were clogged with people. Since they had less than the normal four-man complement, there was some room, but having the woman and her two young children in the tank complicated everything.

On the morning of 23 June, the crew attempted to drive their tank to Minsk, but by noon they were forced into hiding because of the unending attacks from airplanes. They stopped in a wood, and the woman and her two children decided to walk to a nearby village to get food and supplies. Ivan and his tank crew hid the tank as best they could and waited for nightfall to continue their retreat. By evening, the woman and her children had not returned, and together with an officer from another tank crew they set off to the village to find her. Before reaching the village, they came upon the family. The mother had been shot, likely by strafing airplanes -- she was dead. Her two children were at her side crying and begging for their mother. There was nothing left to do but bury the woman and attempt to find someone to care for the children. The other officer went into the village and managed to find a family to take the two children.

There was little time to appreciate or think about the horror of the scene. Night was falling, and there was evidence all around them that the attacking Germans were steadily advancing and that they were in danger of being surrounded. The only way out was toward Minsk. Ivan and his crew managed to find some fuel and set off to drive east through the night. By this time, travelling on the roads was almost impossible. There were burned-out and abandoned vehicles everywhere. One could not drive on the road for even a hundred metres. Ivan had to drive the tank in the ditch because the road was filled with dead horses, abandoned cannons, vehicles, and people trying to escape from the front. They tried to travel during the day but made only about 20 kilometres before a bomb from a Stuka fell near them, spraying their tank with dirt and gravel. Some stones lodged in the tracks, and they "played dead" until nightfall before prying the stones out so they could continue. They were only able to travel by night, and finding fuel and food became an overriding problem. When they caught a whiff of what smelled like roasting bread, they and everyone else in the vicinity descended on what was left of a burning bread truck. In the fray, Ivan managed to get only one bag of bread, and it was so hard it could not be bitten into. The crew reasoned that, if they saw frogs in the puddles in the ditches beside the road, the water could not be too unhealthy. They brushed aside the slime and dipped the bread into the water so they could eat it. During the night, likely the night of 25 June, they ran out of fuel and were forced to sit in the open in plain sight of German airplanes.

In the early dawn hours of 26 June, they peered out of their tank anxiously, watching the sky for airplanes. Suddenly they saw soldiers in the forest a short distance away. In my father's recollection, there were about 20 of them in black uniforms with a skull and crossbones on their foreheads. Although this suggests they were members of the Totenkopf Division, the feared Death's Head division of the Waffen SS, there were no Totenkopf Division units in the area in 1941. The black uniforms likely belonged to regular Panzer troops mopping up what had become a huge encirclement of three Soviet armies.

At first, Ivan's crew thought the figures emerging from the forest were fellow Soviet soldiers, and they were going to get out of the tank to try to get help to continue. Ivan cautioned his inexperienced crew that the Soviet Red Army had no armed units that he knew of with black uniforms. As they approached, Ivan heard the unmistakable sound of German, the language of his childhood and that of his personal thoughts. When he thought he heard discussions among the soldiers about blowing up his tank, he made a quick decision to surrender, a decision suggested to him by his mother before he left Siberia. Stalin's soldiers were not to surrender. According to my father, they all knew surrender meant instant execution if the long tentacles of Stalin's iron grip ever caught them.

Ivan jumped out through his hatch and rolled into the ditch nearby, landing right near a German soldier, who was too surprised to fire his weapon.

He calmed down when Ivan began to speak to him in German. The soldier could not come to terms with what confronted him. "Are you a German spy in a Russian tank?" he asked. Ivan explained that he was a German from Russia.

Hans Werner teaches Mennonite Studies and Canadian History at the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of Imagined Homes: Soviet German Immigrants in Two Cities. John Werner was his father.

His book, The Constructed Mennonite, will be launched Wed., May 1, at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 7:30 p.m.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 J16

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