My Grandmother Cilli, the Forced Soviet Labourer
Joseph Stalin moved people around like peas on a plate. In 1943, he instructed Ivan Maisky – Soviet ambassador to the UK, and deputy in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs – to create a task force on the issue of postwar reparations. Maisky’s report, issued in August 1944, proposed the employment of German civilian labour in the USSR as part of war reparations.
By the summer of the same year, the Red Army had reached the Balkans. Here it encountered the first areas inhabited by ethnic Germans, and Stalin set out to do what Maisky had outlined: that all able-bodied Germans in Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia were to be interned. Over the next weeks and months, over 100,000 people were deported for forced labour to the USSR.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin made it clear that he intended to continue to employ German civilian labour, and neither Winston Churchill, nor Theodore Roosevelt, raised any objections. In the same month, after Red Army troops entered the German provinces of East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, the Soviet State Committee for the Defence of Germany issued another decree: that the field troops of the NKVD, the Soviet secret service, were to mobilise all German men between the ages of 17 and 50, and suitable for physical work, again, to be used as free workers in the USSR. By 20 February 1945, 28,105 people had been taken from areas to which the decree applied. However, there were not enough men left for the NKVD to fulfil their quotas, so they brought the women instead.
One of those women was my grandmother, Cäcilie (or Cilly as everyone called her), who was taken from her parents’ farm in East Prussia, and spent four years in labour camps in the Soviet Union, returning to West Germany 1949. Later, Cilly kept telling me stories about her lost homeland and even small snippets from the camps. Sadly, she died in 2009 after suffering from Alzheimer’s in her last years, but her stories stayed with me. I decided to retell some of them, and explore the past myself.
I followed her tracks to the east, first travelling to Poland, and from there took the train via Moscow to Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where she spent most of her time in various camps. On my return, I wrote Babushka’s Journey, about two very different journeys, one in winter and war towards an uncertain future, and my own story on the Trans-Siberian Railway in summer.
All families in Eastern Europe and the Balkans are related to the stories of the Second World War, and once you start digging into the past, you find that even today these stories lie just under the everyday surface. The war remains an unending repository of buried memory, which will keep families and historians busy forever. Cilly’s story, is a small one from this war and its aftermath; nothing more and nothing less.
My book is not a case of showing that “Germans suffered too”, but I want to make clear that today, and more than ever, there’s the need to engage with the often harrowing facts of WW2, to avoid any chance of repeating it.
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