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Open Features: Soldiers Who Knew No Mercy

....The next four days across the Baltic Sea in the overcrowded ship were not pleasant. With no hygienic facilities whatsoever and still under almost constant enemy attack from air and submarines, every moment was lived in terror. One night I went on deck to get fresh air when the alarm sounded and I witnessed two ships in our convoy being torpedoed and sunk in the icy waters with all on board, underlining our perilous state more than ever.

Finally we docked in Copenhagen, exhausted, filthy and lice-infested...

After almost five decades Ruth Kriszanowsky returns to Kaliningrad, formerly known as Königsberg, the city from which she fled in terror.

It was the evening of 10th July 1993 when I alighted from an Aeroflot jetliner at Kaliningrad airport. Forty-eight years had passed since I left this city which was then named Königsberg. We had been forced to flee just in the nick of time, and less than 20 kms ahead of the fast advancing Red Army, whose soldiers knew no mercy or pity on the unfortunate civilians who had not managed to escape in time. The few lucky enough to slip away as front lines shifted back and forth, told of unimaginable horror, torture and rape. Little girls and boys, old women and even pious nuns; no one was spared. At that time I was 16 years old, my sister eleven. We, our mother and the two sisters, were lucky to get away, aided by the depleted remnants of German army units without whose help we would have perished.

After three months of aimless roaming through forests and deserted, still smouldering villages, enduring incredible hardships in deep snow, frost and minus 20 deg temperatures, carrying our few possessions on our backs, we finally reached the seaport, hoping for and praying to find a ship that would snatch us from the jaws of hell. The Russians were now only 10km behind us. Shells and bombs detonated among terrified, panic-stricken refugees, and low-flying aircraft sprayed the crowds with machine-gun fire: it was a world plunged into total pandemonium.

That evening, as I left the shelter in search of food, I collided by sheer luck with a young sailor. He grabbed my arm and urged me to follow him to his ship, the last to leave the port. It was 16th April 1945. I begged him to wait a few minutes, as I had to fetch my mother and sister. We ran as fast as we could and luck was on our side; we were the last three allowed to scramble on board.

The next four days across the Baltic Sea in the overcrowded ship were not pleasant. With no hygienic facilities whatsoever and still under almost constant enemy attack from air and submarines, every moment was lived in terror. One night I went on deck to get fresh air when the alarm sounded and I witnessed two ships in our convoy being torpedoed and sunk in the icy waters with all on board, underlining our perilous state more than ever.

Finally we docked in Copenhagen, exhausted, filthy and lice-infested. We had not been out of our clothes for many weeks or even months, but now we were in relative safety. However, this was not the end of our suffering and the subsequent death for many of those who had escaped the ravages of war. But that is another story.

Let us now return to July 1993. Only two years had passed since the infamous Iron Curtain had been lifted by the new Russian Administration, and limited access was opening up for Western travellers.

We arrived at Kaliningrad as the sun was setting and trooped into a gloomy building, to be met by the sight of walls covered with cheerful welcome posters in German and very stern customs officials who could barely speak a word of German and absolutely no English. One of the officers examined my passport which had been issued in South Africa and gave me a long searching look. I felt myself shrinking like mouse under the cat’s ferocious state. Finally, he pushed the passport back under the glass and I said, ‘Spassibo’ (‘Thank You’ in Russian) which brought the ghost of a smile to his lips.

Finally we were through all the controls and climbed aboard a waiting bus where a Russian tour guide named Frau Maria greeted us in strongly accented German. She escorted us on the long drive to the ‘Baltic Tourist Hotel’, but as night had fallen we saw nothing except some distant glimmers of light, and we later learned that electricity was very expensive and in short supply.

It was almost midnight by the time we arrived at the hotel which claimed to be the second-best in town. Well, it was elementary at best, primitive in terms of Western standards, but despite the late hours we were offered a light meal and my 88-yr old mother gulped down two stiff Vodkas to revive her depleted spirits and ease the pain in her injured foot.
My room was on the third floor, and there were no lifts. The room was tiny, with a chair, a small table with a mirror on the wall above and a narrow lumpy bed. But it had a good tv set with English and German language channels. The bathroom, a total disaster, had no wash basin; the shower only worked occasionally and the three small, tatty towels were of the sort I use to clean my car. Fortunately, I had brought a toilet roll with me.

Next morning when we entered the dining-room we found all the curtains still drawn despite the sunny day. Later we learned it was to prevent passers by seeing the lavish spread laid out for us on the buffet. After a typically Russian breakfast of sausages, ham, black bread, butter and honey, pickles, boiled eggs and very bitter coffee, we boarded the tourist bus once more and went on a city sight-seeing tour accompanied y our guide Frau Maria, who looked after us throughout that week.

We stopped at selected places and camera in hand, I looked around utterly disheartened. I found myself in a strange city, dilapidated, dirty and depressing. Crumbling, ugly concrete buildings, puddles and potholes filled with garbage, with grass sprouting between the tramlines were a sorry indication of Russian life now. Here and there old ruins, left since the war, pointed accusing fingers at the sky. Skinny children pestered tourists for sweets, pens and coins, and old people in rags stood begging. No, this was not the city in which I had grown up. I experienced no wistful emotions and in fact felt rather detached like a foreigner in a strange land.

Next we stopped at the bombed and burned-out ruin of the big cathedral, partially overgrown with creepers and weeds. We were told of an ongoing drive to rebuild it, but that it was very difficult to raise the large sums needed. The remains of the once mighty castle that had stood on the hill above the city for more than seven centuries were detonated and razed to the ground in the late 1950s. Nothing that would remind anyone of the former German culture was to be left standing. A large hotel surrounded by fountains and lawns stands in its place today.

The use of public transport, although cheap, was not recommended and instead we hired a taxi for each day, and always it was the same driver Nicolai, so proud of his elderly white Mercedes. Luckily, Nicolai had a smattering of German and as he was quite affordable, only DM10 a day (approx 5800 Rubles), he was worth the expense.

One day we drove 30kms to the seaside resort where my parents once had a summer home. Alas, another bitter disappointment as there was nothing left of the former holiday colony. Large sections had been fenced in for military installations and through the trees I saw armed guards and dogs on patrol. The rest had been taken over by nature and had grown into a veritable jungle. The little Station House had disappeared, and although the railway tracks were still visible, they were overgrown with weeds and thistles. We visited a larger more presentable resort one day, and were told it had been the favourite holiday area for the party-political ‘Fat Cats’ so it was incumbent to keep it looking as smart as possible.
Shops were not always recognisable from the street and when you could find them they were not even remotely like those in the Western world. Food stores were simply disgusting, with meat adjacent to dairy, fish next to bread, all open and swarming with flies and insects; the stench was simply overpowering.

In another store, resembling a jumbled warehouse, one could buy almost anything. Clothes, cutlery, detergents, shoes, radios, crockery and small appliances, gifts and souvenirs, were all in wild disorder. Always, and quite unforgettable too, were the multitude of dogs. None of them were on leashes or aggressive, they seemed to be house dogs, but were just left to do as they pleased and most of them looked for human company and spent their time underfoot. Nobody seemed to mind.

Fruit and vegetables could be bought at markets or along the streets, Farmers brought their produce to the city at the crack of dawn, in donkey carts (not trucks) and everything was dew-fresh and unbelievably cheap. Half a kilo of delicious raspberries or gooseberries cost about 50 cents, a bunch of carrots 10 cents, and were measured out with enamel mugs and wrapped in newspaper cones like oversized ice-creams. My sister wrinkled her nose, (mother had trained her well) but could not resist the delicious aromas and the juicy plums.
At that time, the majority of Kaliningrad’s population consisted of people recruited from various parts of Russia and the Ukraine. They did not come to East-Prussia by choice, but by order of the State. All the people with whom I made contact during that week were friendly and congenial, even hospitable. Understandably, they welcomed us, our western currency and the coveted gifts of pantyhose, lipstick, soap, cigarette lighters and ballpoint pens as well as chocolate and chewing gum were eagerly and gratefully received as all of these ‘luxury items’ were completely unavailable in Russian shops.

Language was never a problem. We enjoyed long talks in bits of Russian, German and English and where words failed, we used our hands or facial expressions in the usual way. One day I met a very handsome Russian police officer and with gestures and sign language explained that I had been a baby in this town. A long chat, lots of laughter; then we shook hands and said, ‘Do Swidanija’ (By-By in Russian) and went on our way.

Soon the week had passed and it was time to leave and return to the airport. Another lengthy procedure , then ... ‘Did you buy any amber, and how much did you pay?’ Most of it I carried in my trench-coat’s deep pockets, and I just pointed to the earrings, bracelet and necklace I was wearing. The officer nodded OK and we were through!

A last goodbye wave to our guide Frau Maria, and then we were on our way home, up into the sky en route to Hanover and a reunified Germany.

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