English Version

Life must be understood backwards,
but it must be lived forward.

Sören Kierkegaard     

Excerpt from

Flight and Expulsion

From East Prussia 1945

 

A Documentation

Publisher: Kreisgemeinschaft Osterode Ostpreußen e.V., D-37520 Osterode am Harz

Translated by Ingrid Luchini (pages 67-73), Las Cruxces. NM, USA

The Refugee Tragedy on January 22 and 23, 1945, near Grünhagen in the District of Preußisch Holland

Autor: Heinz Timmreck

The tragedy of Grünhagen happened almost 58 years ago. It is therefore somewhat problematic to describe one’s own experiences accurately after such a long time. I have already reported on the events of January 22 and 23, 1945.[1] Thereupon I received reports and phone calls and was prompted to look into that tragedy more closely. Even though it is probably no longer possible to completely solve the mystery of that tragedy, I have tried to summarize these reports as follows. I would like to thank again all those who have called or written me concerning the train accident.

Trains were the Last Hope for Thousands of People

Despite the continuous advances of the Russian troops within the framework of the winter offensive, which had started on January 13, 1945[2], no one was permitted to prepare for flight or flee. Otherwise those people would be subject to severe penalties. There was no planned evacuation of the population. As a result, the people hat the rapidly advancing Russian units on their heels and were forced to hastily leave their apartments, houses and farms. Due to the imminent encirclement of East Prussia, the refugees from the districts of Neidenburg, Osterode and Mohrungen tried to reach the safe harbors in the Bay of Danzig by trek or the last trains.

Even on the evening of January19, 1945, when die first enemy troops had already penetrated into the southern part of the Osterode district, the district command of the NSDAP (Nazi Party) again issued a ban of fleeing. During the following night and on January 20, orders were given to the population to flee within a few hours. From January 19 to January 21, several refugee trains departed from, among others, the stations at Osterode, Hohenstein, Gilgenburg and Liebemühl[3].

Mrs. Edeltraud Köhler, née Gresch, from Osterode reports that she left the station by train at dusk and arrived in Wittenberge on January 27. There was a stopover in the big shop area of the Berlin-Schöneweide Railroad Repair Shop[4] and then the train rolled on via Dirschau and subsequently along the Pomeranian coastline. Her grandfather, Wilhelm Zebrowski (a switchman), left Osterode the next day with the last railroad employees in a train, which consisted of a locomotive and a passenger car. They reached Berlin. Since the switch towers were not manned, the switches had to be thrown by hand.

Horst Melzer from Osterode, who was 18 at the time and on a short furlough, also reports that switches had to be thrown manually. His neighbor Tomaschewski (?) from Olga Street was a locomotive engineer who took him into the locomotive of the refugee train, which left in the dark on January 21. Horst Melzer sat at the left window of the locomotive and was on the lookout because there were no signals. This train also reached Wittenberge.

The ill-fated train left Osterode on January 21 towards evening when it started to get dark. This train consisted of freight cars and, due to many stops; it did not reach Mohrungen until the morning of January 22, 1945. It was there that men from the Volkssturm (People’s Army), who were probably for the most part from Hohenstein, left the last car of the train. Refugees who were waiting at the military ramp got into the car, which was no longer occupied. Food and coffee were obtained from an Army warehouse: soup was also distributed. Since the locomotive had been uncoupled, the train could not leave Mohrungen before Monday evening, January 22. Near Grünhagen, it collided with a hospital train that was stopped at the station.

According to the statements of Ulrich Gehrke, the last refugee train left Osterode around 6 p.m. on Sunday, January 21, 1945. Just beforehand, the station had been turned over to the Army. At that time, there were already Russian tanks in nearby Buchwalde. Russian artillery fired over the station and the explosions could be heard on Lake Drewenz. This train went via Liebemühl to Mohrungen and could not leave there until the evening of January 22. It then continued via Dirschau and reached Leipzig.

Ruth D. and Günter Stanke boarded a train in Osterode on January 21, 1945, before it got dark. This train took them to the Wanderer Factory near Chemnitz.

Mrs. Inge Koeppen, née Schönsee, reports the following: On Sunday evening, January 21, she was in Liebemühl and boarded a refugee train, which consisted of cattle cars. Another refugee train with open dump cars was also at the station. Her train did not continue towards Miswalde until Monday evening, January 22. Since there was enemy fire, her train had to roll back to Liebemühl. The next attempt was to go towards Maldeuten. Shots could also be heard in that location, and then the train stopped. This story is corroborated by Günter Wienczkowski from Locken, who had boarded the train in Mohrungen. A German sergeant using a flashlight is supposed to have prevented a collision of another train with the two ill-fated trains. The distance between the stopping and the stopped train is supposed to have been approximately 20 meters. Rosemarie Trzaska, née Saborrosch from Hohenstein, whose family sat in the last car of the refugee train, also reported that an approaching train was stopped with the help of her mother’s flashlight. The distance between the two trains could only have been approximately 10 meters. Elisabeth Murawski, née Kossmann from Waplitz, who had gotten on board in Osterode, and Margot Monien from Pulfnick, who had gotten on board in Mohrungen, also were in a refugee train, which had stopped before Grünhagen.

Walter Mathiak was able to go from Freiwalde via Grünhagen to Güldenboden. His train was a freight train, which had been made available in Maldeuten on January 22. In Güldenboden, he was able to board a military train from Königsberg, which took him to the west.

On January 22, Erwin Kreft from Saalfeld boarded a refugee train, which had been put together in Miswalde. This train was supposed to take the roadway to Elbing via Maldeuten and Preußisch Holland because the two Roadways from Miswalde to Elbing and to Marienburg were overly congested. During the night from January 22 to January 23, it had to stop about 200 meters from the station at Maldeuten because the roadway was blocked by a long refugee train and the two ill-fated trains.[5]

The exact number of the overcrowded trains which had left Osterode can nowadays no longer be determined. Acting Repair Shop Chief Ernst Braun from the Osteroder Railroad Repair Shop reported the following: From 0.30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on January 21, 4 trains left with more than 10.000 people on board (workers, foreign workers, relatives and a few refugees). They reached the west.[6]

Christiane Zinner, née Duscha, and Edelgard Bruns, née Balla, left of one of this trains in the late afternoon. Christine Zinner got off the train in Pasewalk and Edelgard Bruns got off in Massow near Stargard.

Collision at Grünhagen Station

 Mrs. Hilde Bruhn, née Klautke, from Schertingswalde near Mohrungen, vividly describes in a letter dated December 23, 1945, her experiences during the flight, which had occurred only 9 months before. On January 21, the family was informed they had to be at the Mohrungen station the next day. She describes the train accident as follows[7]

…Well, we didn’t leave Mohrungen until 7 a.m. At that time, the Russians weren’t far away. Then we reached Grünhagen and there, the accident occurred. Our train collided with a hospital train, which didn’t have permission to enter. Well, something broke in our car; it was crushed to half its size. Well, dear Liesbeth, you can imagine that: in our car alone, there were at least 15 dead. Soldiers came and broke the car open and carried us all out. I just don’t know how I got out. I was convinced my feet were broken. Our luggage was totally demolished. I still remember that Siegfried died right away; he suffocated in his baby carriage. So did the little daughter of Aunt Anni’s sister Toni.

 After the accident, Frau Bruhn´s family first walked to Preußisch Holland and then they walked along the track until they reached Güldenboden where they saw several refugee trains. The family took one of the trains and reached Berlin.

Max Teichert, District Chief Inspector, summarized various eyewitness accounts as follow.[8]

The collision occurred during the night. An indescribable chaos broke loose. We could not expect help from other people. It was everyone for himself. Several hundred bodies were lying in the rubble and in the adjoining fields. We could not even estimate the number of injured persons. Entire families perished. No one knows their names. The chaos grew to gigantic proportions when someone screamed: “The Russians have arrived.” From now on, it was: save yourself if you can. Men, women, and children were trying to escape into the forests and surrounding villages by crossing the fields, which were covered by deep snow. Russian troops fired at the fleeing people with their machine guns.

 Stationmaster Friedrich Hopp from Grünhagen station experienced the tragedy as follows:[9]

A hospital train coming from Maldeuten arrived at the Grünhagen station around 11 p.m. The locomotive engineer asked the stationmaster about the roadway conditions towards Preußisch Holland. He was especially interested in the grade of the roadway. In the tense situation, all signals were go and the locomotive engineers were ordered to follow visual rules. While the hospital train was stopped at the station, a refugee train from the region of Allenstein/Osterode collided with it. The locomotive engineer of the refugee train had not been attentive to visual rules. During the impact, several cars of the hospital train were heavily damaged. The survivors from these cars were transferred to the undamaged ones. This process took several hours. The undamaged portion of the hospital train left the station around 2 a.m. on January 23, 1945. The person giving this report (the stationmaster) served as a guide.

Soldiers and station personal ordered the passengers to leave the trains, which were standing, on the elevated railroad embankments. Mrs. Martha Schwichtenberg-Böhl from Mohrungen who lost her left arm during the Russian attack writes as follows:

Since our train was stopped on an elevated embankment and since we could not see anything in the dark night, we tumbled down the embankment, had to look for our children or for shoes and pieces of clothing which we had lost while falling and without which we could not survive in the bitter cold. There was much screaming and crying. We advanced only very slowly in the deep snow. On our way, we saw that cars were rammed into each other and that helpers tried to rescue the injured in the light of flashlights.

Announcements were made that everyone should go to the station because a replacement train was expected. People walked trough the deep snow past the injured and the dead; it was –20° C to –25° C (-4°F to –13°F). There they waited patiently, crowded together, without protection against the blizzard that had started. They waited for the promised replacement train, which never arrived. Christel Wiesjahn, née Fröhlich, reports that her mother lifted her little sister several times and dropped her on her feet to keep her from freezing. Other mothers did likewise. Big wheels of cheese were rolled out of a dairy that was located next to the station. Pieces of cheese and warm milk from large kettles were given to the hungry and freezing people. Some refugees found shelter in the dairy and various buildings of the station.

At daybreak on Tuesday, January 23, tanks appeared from the direction of Maldeuten. Erwin Kreft from Saalfeld reports as follows:[10]

It was already light; suddenly there was a tank on the road next to a curve. It fired once; the grenade must have exploded farther away in the forest. Then the tank started to move again and more tanks with linen cloths around their cannons appeared near the curve on the road. I counted 5 tanks; small tracked vehicles filled with soldiers were driving between the tanks. They were still quiet because the German soldiers among the refugees did not budge. Well, it was rumored that those could only be German tanks. The soldiers climbed out of the tracked vehicles and ran across the fields to the abandoned first refugee train, which was about 200 to 300 meters away from the crowd. And then everyone saw that those were Russians. Panic broke loose; everyone ran about; it was total confusion. Women were screaming for their children and children were screaming for their mothers. Many ran for the forest that was located a few hundred meters away. I ran, too, and stumbled trough the deep snow across fields and through corral fences trying to reach the forest. Many mittens were hanging on the barbed wire fences. Their owners had lost them while climbing through.

According to some estimates, there must have been 4000 to 7000 people on the station grounds.[11] The chaos was made indescribably horrible when the Russian tanks fired upon the waiting and fleeing crowds.

Georg Loyal from Schlappacken wrote.[12]

 The people dashed panic-stricken into a ditch next to the station and sang: “Lord, take my hands”. Then the next shots were fired.

There were many injured, wounded, dead bodies and no help. People had to fend for themselves. A child was born in one of the buildings. There was no doctor, just a nurse, Emilie[13] Kaminski, who did self-sacrificing work under primitive conditions. Liselotte Schulz from Mohrungen reports the number of dead to be 140 and Friedrich Hopp says there were 150. Mrs. Gertruda Otulak, née Scheffler, from Pulfnick, Mrs. Anna Badziong from Osterode, and Rosemarie Trzaska, née Saborrosch, from Hohenstein, even report that there were Russians in German uniforms (partisans?). Georg Loyal from Schlappacken und Edith Mischok, née Labenski, from Osterode provide almost identical descriptions of one of the many tragedies. A boy in a HJ (Hitler-Youth) uniform had gotten both legs caught during the collision and could not free himself from his desperate position. When people tried to extricate the boy through the use of tools, a Russian soldier with a cocked machine gun and menacing gestures prevented them from doing this. No one dared help the boy again so that he finally bled to death.

Only very few succeeded in escaping this inferno and reaching the German lines. Among them was Ruth Kretschmer, née Watschke, from Mohrungen. She and her mother took a route, which led them away from the fighting until they reached scattered German troops. They went by train from Schlobitten to Königsberg via Pillau and from there the steamer “UBENA” took them across the Baltic Sea to Kiel. On the other hand others ran around in circles because they did not know the area. Luise Scheffler, née Hippler, from Pulfnick and her 5 children were among those. The Russians did not stop firing until white handkerchiefs were waved. Then some Russians appeared and shouted “Chadi damoi” and demanded watches and jewelry. The people who had stayed behind at the station slowly moved with raised hands. Klaus Silz from Buchwalde (Kreis Osterode) reports that the Russians tore the German soldiers’ epaulets off and then arrested the soldiers. It is unknown what happened to those prisoners.

Other passengers of the ill-fated train had similar experiences. They were the following families: Braun from Pulfnick, Kunze and Messerschmidt from Osterode as well as Schulz, Pörschke and Schiemann from Mohrungen. The latter had already been evacuated from Lyck to Mohrungen in the fall of 1944 and now had to flee again.

The victims of the train accident in Grünhagen were for the most part refugees from the districts of Neidenburg, Osterode, and Mohrungen. Since streets were clogged and since the Russian troops advanced rapidly and fired at the trek line, many refugees abandoned the trek; they tried to reach the west by refugee train. Among those were the Loyal family from the district Gumbinnen in Mohrungen, the Schönsee/Koeppen families from Osterwein, Saborrosch from Hohenstein and Wienczkowski from Locken. But not all were as lucky to get on one of the last trains. An incredible number of desperate people were left behind at the stations.

To summarize: Due to the accident, the hoped-for rescue did not come about for the passengers of (1) the hospital train from Mohrungen; (2) the ill-fated train from Osterode; (3) the train from Osterode that could be stopped in time before the ill-fated train; (4) the train from Miswalde that got stuck near Maldeuten

 

 The above version is from 2003. An extended version is only available in German at the moment.

[1] Osteroder and Buchwalde from January to October 1945, Osteroder Zeitung, No. 96/November 2001, page 48 ff. Contrary to my report, the ill-fated train did not run on a mine and it was not a locomotive but a long refugee train which had stopped before the ill-fated train.

[2] Top Command of the Army.

[3] Documents from the East 2, no. 32. page I ff., Federal Archives, Bayreuth.

[4] RAW – Railroad Repair Shop.

[5] Documents from the EAST 1, No. 38, page 149 ff, Federal Archives, Bayreuth.

[6] Osteroder Zeitung, No. 35, page 335 ff., Dezember 1971.

[7] News of village of Grünhagen, No. 38/1999.

[8] Documents from the East 1, No. 38, page 255 ff., Federal Archives, Bayreuth. The name (signature) is not legible.

[9] Grünhagen chronicle- History – Documentation, Georg Schneider, 1995.

[10] Documents from the East 1, No. 38, page2-55 ff., Federal Archives, Bayreuth.

[11] Edith Mischok heard about 4.000 refugees at the station and Erwin Kreft says there were 5.000. This number is based on estimates by German soldiers. However, according to Ernst Braun (See page3), there must have been a total approximately 7.500 people on the ill-fated train and the two trains which had stopped before Grünhagen and Maldeuten.

[12] Drama of Grünhagen, the Long Way from Schlappacken to a New Homeland, Georg Loyal, May 1997.

[13] The Grünhagen Chronicle says “Margarete” but according to Manfred A. H. Hahn, the correct name is Emilie.

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