Memoirs From Siberia

October 5, 2011

My Great Grandfather was an amazing man.  He was an architect, an artist, a soldier who fought for Germany in World War I, a Jew who had to flee Europe in the 1930’s, a linguist and a great pragmatist.  I’m sure he was many other things also, but I have only been able to build a picture based on the bits and pieces of information I’ve been able to glean from his writing and from discussions with my Grandmother.  He fought on the Eastern Front in what is now the Ukraine as a part of the notorious Brusilov Offensive, considered one of the most lethal battles in all of world history.  In a botched gas attack against a Russian patrol, he was machine gunned through the legs and left behind by his retreating unit to be captured.  He did not describe in any detail where or how he received medical treatment, but ultimately he was transported all the way east to Siberia where he was held as a POW in a camp near Krasnoyarsk.  It took him 3 and half years to get back home to Germany, after which time he detailed his experiences in a fascinating memoir.

Ernest Gerson

Ernest Gerson, my Great Grandfather.

I am grateful not only for the fact that he survived and that ultimately in turn, I am alive, but also most thankful that he took the time and effort to document this enthralling and obviously world-changing period of his life.  There are frustating moments in the memoirs such as when, after describing some of the more colourful fellow prisoners in detail, he writes “…and as this is written for friends and family, it is not necessary to describe myself”, although in many ways this only serves to add further intrigue in terms of trying to understand exactly who this man was.

He provides fascinating insight into the behaviour and personality of some of his captive comrades, as well as his captors.  He makes humorous references to some of the stereotypical traits of the various nationalities imprisoned along with him, probably bordering on what could be considered non-politically correct in today’s world, and to his credit he isn’t shy about giving a bit of stick to his own tribe either:

The uneducated Germans in their multidialectal arguments quickly lost their tempers and abused one another with rude words.  Such disputes ended frequently in a brawl much to the amusement of the onlookers.  Others passing the barracks would say, “Listen how the Germans love one another”.

The story itself may be less interesting to anyone who is either not a historian, or not a blood relative, but I think there are some genuine gems in here.  It moves between absolute horror and hardship, to comedy gold, right through to sheer disbelief on the part of the reader (particularly when he describes how frequently the Russian soldiers themselves are in a worse situation than he is!).  Things go from sublime to ridiculous as he and another prisoner end up on a “maid run”, a sojourn by horse and cart through the rolling Siberian hills during the nicest weather of the year in search of the best (read: prettiest) Siberian girl they can find to become their live-in housekeeper.  After promising all the less-than-desirable ones that they ‘have the job’, they move on to the next village in hope of finding the ultimate beauty.

“I wish we had taken the hunchback at Teplorietshka or one of the old women in Savedienje.”

The truth is, it was a bizarre scenario he had ended up in.  At some point during his ‘imprisonment’ in Siberia, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, ending Russia’s involvement in WWI.  Unfortunately, that treaty did not include any provision for the return of German POWs, so he was left in a strange state as a quasi-prisoner with no trivial means of returning west.  Just to keep things interesting, the tail-end of the first World War gave birth to the Russian Civil War, and he was yet again forced to escape from what would have ultimately been forced conscription into the armies of the White Forces.  Understanding the complex geopolitical environment in which he was surviving is difficult at times, and even after multiple reads of the memoirs and much pouring over books concerning the political history of the Russian Empire, it can still be confusing to me.

His journey back home included walking many hundreds of miles with little food, working odd jobs including being a full-time Typhus victim nurse and subsequent body stacker, contracting the disease and nearly dying from it himself, and many many months of careful operating within the bounds of the various state police edicts and civil war constraints that controlled Russia at that time.

“We undressed them completely in the snow in front of the building.  There they lay, the emaciated, unclean bodies, bitten all over by the poisonous lice, mottled and spotted.  Two of us had to carry them inside, gripping their hands and feet.  If the shed was already too full with these stiffly frozen corpses to throw them on top of the pile, we had to climb on top of it.  To do so required indescribable moral effort.  This remains one of my most terrible war memories.”

The memoir’s themselves were first written in 1920 once he had returned to Hamburg.  In 1963 he translated them into English, and there were three known typed copies in existance in our family.  A cousin helped to type these into the computer, and a significant editing job was required due to the large volume of typewriter copy errors present on the originals.  I spent several months in 2009 going through the document, first highlighting the various place names and other Russian or Tartar words, and then going back to try and decipher these.  Nearly 100 years is a long time, and the Russian’s have a great habit of changing place names every time a new leader comes to the fore, so in many instances the task of working out exactly where he had been was non-trivial.  Most of the place names had only been heard by spoken word, so he had to write them back down phonetically, first into German and then later into English.  I trawled Google Earth for hours at a time, often getting out the ruler to gauge the ‘150 miles south’ or equivalent that had been described in the memoirs.  Wikipedia was more than handy for finding the historical names of places, some of which had changed as many as 3 or 4 times since he was there.  The language he uses is old-fashioned, and at times obviously written or translated by a non-native English speaker, but for the most part this just helps to add to the authenticity and feeling of the document.  I made a few edits to try and improve the readability, but kept things as original as possible wherever I could.

Places of Interest

The 7,000+ kilometre journey home

There are a number of small villages I haven’t been able to track down.  There is the odd word that I still don’t understand, and the odd timing or directional discrepancy that doesn’t make exact sense.  Most annoying are just the missing pieces leading up to his capture.  I know he wrote letters home both before and after he was shot, so perhaps if these are still in existance somewhere they will surface one day and answer a bunch of questions.

Long after his return to Germany in 1920, my Great Grandfather was smart enough to see what was happening with the rise to power of the Nazi party, and he moved his entire family out of the country and into what was then Yugoslavia.  From there they moved to Bulgaria and applied for Visas to the UK, USA and New Zealand.  The NZ Visa came back first, and they boarded a ship which arrived in Wellington just around the outbreak of WWII in 1939.  Being German, they were treated as enemy aliens and imposed with travel restrictions and a requirement to attend regular ‘interviews’.  My Great Grandfather eventually found work as an architect, forging a very successful career and becoming well regarded for bringing European influence to the houses he designed – something that prior to that time did not feature much in the New Zealand building scene.

If you’ve read this far, and if you are at all interested, you can read an edited copy of the 100-odd paged memoirs here.  If you are a Hollywood pundit and you think you could make this into a film, contact me and I’ll flick over my bank account details (all proceeds to go to the wider whanau of course).  :>