January 1945 East Prussia
It was one of the coldest winters in memory. On New Year's Day the Baltutt family of Osterode, East Prussia was listening to der Führer's New Year radio speech, a rambling address proclaiming that despite the setbacks there will be ultimate victory: "The present German Reich, like all great states of the past, may meet with setbacks on its path, but it will never stray from this path."
Like most war-weary German families, the Baltutts listened to the speech without much conviction. Father Otto was home from his munitions factory job for the holidays, but would be leaving for the week once again in a few days. They didn't realize that this was the last speech that they would hear from the Führer's own mouth; when the Führer spoke to the nation for the last time on January 30, they would be far behind Soviet Army lines and Adolf's irrational pronouncements would be the least of their concerns.
The Military Situation
Things on the Eastern Front in January 1945 were looking decidedly grim. On January 9th Heinz Guderian, one of the few German generals with the courage to openly disagree with and even argue with Hitler, arrived at Hitler's war headquarters in central Germany, called the Adlerhorst or Eagle's Eyrie, to make him aware of the danger.
Guderian's staff had developed an estimate of what the Army faced in the east, and the numbers were chilling. The Soviets outnumbered the Germans heavily in all respects: troops; tanks; artillery; aircraft; and supplies. Guderian attempted to convey the gravity of the situation, but Hitler and his sycophants, Göring and Keitel, refused to believe this "defeatist" talk. After a brief outburst between der Führer and Guderian, Hitler denied permission for some absolutely necessary front line adjustments, and so the disgusted general prepared to return to his headquarters.
Before Guderian departed, however, Hitler attempted to soothe his general's ruffled feathers by complimenting him on his work in developing a strong reserve on the Eastern Front. But Guderian is not charmed. He states flatly: "The Eastern Front is a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse." He returned to his headquarters in Zossen in a very black mood. His words would prove to be prophetic.
Guderian's staff had a good idea of when the Soviets would open their expected winter offensive, and it had become clear that it was only hours before the assault would begin. The reports were that the Soviets were shifting from a defensive to an offensive posture: they were clearing their defensive minefields at night, and tank formations had begun moving forward, closer to the bridgeheads leading into East Prussia. It was almost time.
And in the early morning hours of January 12th, far south of Osterode it began, and soon the entire Soviet encirclement of East Prussia began to actively press inward.
No Defeatism Allowed
The civilian leader of East Prussia was a cruel Nazi Party hack named Erich Koch, whose civil position carried the title Gauleiter. His competence consisted almost entirely of keeping Hitler happy; otherwise his leadership served primarily to increase civilian casualties and waste scarce resources. While serving as the Imperial Commissar for the Ukraine his regime had been so oppressive that he had been dubbed "the second Stalin", a nickname of which he was reportedly quite proud. This man had put out the order that no civilians were permitted to either flee or even prepare to flee without orders. To do otherwise was to show a lack of faith in the German military, and was defeatism — something punishable by death.
Marshal Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front had been heading northwest towards the Vistula River, but on the 20th he unexpectedly received orders to change the direction of his assault to directly northwards. Now his forces were pointing directly at the city of Elbing, and this put Osterode and the Baltutt family squarely in his path.
On this day, by a coincidence, Gauleiter Koch finally issued the order that civilians were now permitted to flee. It was however too late for an orderly evacuation, and the civil services became quickly overwhelmed by the huge number of those wishing to evacuate. Coupled with the panic caused by the speed of the Soviet advance, civilians caught in the middle of combat, and the bitter winter weather, many thousands of refugees died during the evacuation period.
The Refugee Train
Gertrud Baltutt and her four girls had walked to Osterode's main train station in order to see if they could board the train that was now there. Miraculously, this train had apparently come from East Prussia's capital of Königsberg, where Herr Baltutt worked during the week, and Otto found them waiting on the platform. This was an unexpected relief, since he should have been home three days earlier, and Gertrud was afraid she would never see him again. Rejoicing to be back together, they all returned to the house. The train was not expected to depart for some hours.
At the station Otto had been surprised that the family did not have any luggage or anything packed for the journey, but his wife informed him that they had been instructed to leave their traveling packs at the curb, where it was to be picked up by the Hitler Youth for delivery to the train station. He shook his head at this idea, since he knew that virtually nothing was going according to plan, so they headed back to the house. Of course the packs had remained where they had been laid. They retrieved the packs, got the sled and loaded everything they needed on it, and returned to the station. The train stayed in the station until after dark, and then finally departed — the next stop was Mohrungen, 20 km north.
Just about the time the Baltutt family was boarding the train, the Soviet Army completed its capture of the town of Tannenberg, just a little more than 20 kilometers to the south-south-east of Osterode. Tannenberg's capture was a small milestone for the Soviets, since it contained a victory memorial to the World War I battle, the Second Battle of Tannenberg, in which German forces decisively defeated a Russian army. Now, it was turn-about.
It took nearly 18 hours of stop and go travel for the Baltutt family's train to reach Mohrungen. While Mohrungen was only 20 km north of Osterode, as the crow flies, the distance as the train rolls was more like 30 km. Once in Mohrungen, the train sat on the rails near the town's main train station until near sunset before setting forth again, its next destination being Preussisch Holland, another 20 km to the northwest.
About the time the train departed Mohrungen, the first Soviet tanks arrived in Osterode, passing through without resistance. Rokossovsky's change of direction had caught German forces by surprise, and there were few combat units in a position to oppose him.
The Grünhagen Train Accident
Because of wartime conditions, at night the trains had to travel "on sight", meaning lighted signals were kept dark, and the trains themselves kept their all their lights off, including their headlights. This avoided possible attack by enemy aircraft flying at night. Of course it also slowed the journey enormously, and increased the likelihood of collision.
This danger was realized in the darkness of the early morning of January 22nd , as the train carrying the Baltutts came to a sudden halt. It was an emergency stop, and just managed to avoid ploughing into the back of another train which was stopped because it had earlier run into another train. The stop was sudden enough that everyone in the family thought that they had collided with another train.
What had happened was this: a military hospital train had been stopped at the Grünhagen train station when a refugee train driven by a less careful engineer failed to stop in time. The resulting accident had railcars piled up "as high as houses", as Gertrud said, with many killed and severely wounded. Not long after the Baltutt family's train had come to its screeching halt, a few German officers came to require able-bodied men to come to help with moving wounded and dying soldiers and civilians away from the wreckage. Otto Baltutt was one of those who went forward to help. The others waited for two or three hours in the cold and dark.
Onward on Foot
Finally, Otto returned and told the family that they had to get off the train because it was going no further. Until they could find some kind of motor transport, the rest of the way was going to be on foot. They piled out of the car, loaded the two youngest daughters, Irmgard and Waltraut, onto the sled with most of their supplies and extra clothing, and started out for Preussisch Holland. They had one additional member of the party who joined them from the train: a young woman named Grete, whose elderly father had died on the train, and whose mother had urged her to continue onward alone.
Otto led the family group so as to avoid the sight of the train accident, and they headed northwards, roughly paralleling the railroad tracks. It was still quite dark, and very, very cold as they trudged through the snow. They passed one farmstead after another with lights on, but they found that nobody was home in any of them. Finally they came to one which was still occupied. This one was lit and warm, and the family there was welcoming to refugees (of which there were a number taking temporary shelter from the weather). So the Baltutts stopped there for a few hours to rest and warm up.
After the sun was up, they left the farmhouse and headed onward to Preussisch Holland, which was a just kilometer or two further on. Before they arrived they noticed battle noises for the first time in the distance behind them, and then they came to a road which was being used by other refugees streaming westwards. The road was densely crowded with people walking, on horseback, and riding in horse- or ox-driven wagons — it wasn't safe to try to cross to the other side, since no-one would pause in their flight to make way. So the family simply joined with the stream of refugees that was headed into town.
By the time they had entered the outskirts of town, the distant battle noises were approaching closer, and because she was cold and wet Gertrud decided that it was time to seek shelter. This was just as the family had reached a neighborhood with some rather large and fancy houses. Otto wanted to continue on — there had been talk at the site of the train accident that another train might be waiting at Preussisch Holland's train station — but his wife refused to move one step further unless they took shelter in one of the houses they stood among. So the matter was settled.
The house they selected was fairly freshly abandoned — based on tire tracks, the occupants had fled just a few hours before. Otto broke out one of the small glass panes in the front door, reached in to unlock the door, and they were in. They found that the home had belonged to a very well-off family, the father being the chief chimneysweep for the town and the area around it. The furnishings and decorations were very upper middle-class, and the Baltutt family were feeling very out-of-place there, so much so that rather than exploring the two story home, they first stayed in the front room and kitchen, as if they were just visiting and expecting the owners to return any moment.
Except for a company of Russian tanks which drove around the town in a reconnaissance towards the city of Elbing on that first day, it wasn't until the next day that the first Soviet troops arrived in Preussisch Holland. A Soviet tank drove down the street and stopped in front of another nearby house owned by a mother and her two daughters. They had apparently waved at the tank's occupants as they drove by, whereupon they stopped for a visit. After they moved on it was discovered by other residents that the women had been molested and were then either murdered or they committed suicide. This was a foretaste of what was to come.
The Russians are Coming
The next day, mother Gertrud had gone outside to collect some snow to melt for water, when she was approached by a Russian soldier pointing his submachine gun at her and shouting in Russian, which she didn't understand. She stood there in fear, but all the soldier did was rip her earrings out of her ears, and move on. She quickly returned to the house.
The family had by now gotten semi-comfortable in the house, and all had been sleeping in the master bedroom on the ground floor. But as Soviet troops began to stream through town, looting and smashing, the family now stayed huddled in the bedroom.
The first troops to burst into the home held the family at gunpoint, and having seen what was to them the opulence of the house, demanded if they were capitalists and the owners of the home. Fortunately, Otto had learned Russian from prisoners he had worked with at the factory in Königsberg, and he spoke to them and told them that they didn't own the home, and were a common worker family who had merely taken refuge there. Since the photos of the owners were upon the walls, and the Baltutts were clearly not them, the Russian soldiers took them at their word, and spared them. They did, however, take whatever movable items of value there were in the house, and smashed much of what they couldn't carry away.
More troops followed these first ones, and each time Otto had to explain to them the story that it wasn't their house, and no they weren't capitalists. This ability to speak their language largely protected the family from the soldiers who were streaming through town on their way to the front, in these first couple of days. For Grete, however, and from this time forth, life became a living nightmare.
Whereas there were many Soviet soldiers who treated the German civilian population appropriately, incidents of rape were legion. British historian and author Antony Beevor describes it as the "greatest phenomenon of mass rape in history", and has concluded that at least 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia alone. In many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. In some cases, girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 were victims. This made Grete's attempt to disguise herself as an old woman quite hopeless, and until Otto and Gertrud were able to build a hiding place for her in the coal cellar, she was constantly in danger.
Gertrud herself might then have become subject to rape after this, as a substitute for the now-missing Grete, but for a happy event: the house was fortunately commandeered for a headquarters by a rather humane Russian officer named Shakirov.
I've spent a good deal of effort trying to find out more about Officer Shakirov, but with little success. Neither Gertrud nor Rita described anything about him that I could follow up on, except for the fact that he had been a tailor in civilian life. I don't know what his military rank was, what unit he belonged to or commanded. He was some kind of authority in an armored unit, and from the way he was described, he was probably a senior staff officer, and most probably either the commander of a regiment or the chief of staff of a larger unit, such as a division or corps. It is clear that his unit was part of the 5th Guards Tank Army. In any case, for a period of about two weeks the Baltutt family was under his protection.
When the house was taken over for a headquarters, Shakirov came to Otto and offered his wife the job of serving as the cook for his staff officers. In return they could stay in the house for the period it was being used as a headquarters, and would be under his protection. This protection wasn't perfect, however. For one thing, Grete seemed to be outside of it, and she had to stay hidden. But the one time a young Soviet soldier tried to take Gertrud away to take the place of Grete, she was able to intimidate him with the name of Shakirov.
The Soviet officers in Shakirov's unit frequently invited Otto and Gertrud to eat and drink with them, and some of them also enjoyed playing and singing with their little daughters. They seemed to be particularly entranced by the youngest one, little 4 year old Waltraut. Rita and Gertrud both remember one particular officer who had gathered all four little girls around him and in his arms, telling about how he much he loved children, and that he had lost his own little children to German soldiers who had drowned them in a bathtub.
Shakirov Moves On
Eventually Shakirov's unit had to move on. By this time the German forces in East Prussia had been cut off from the rest of Germany by overwhelming Soviet force, and now it was time for the 5th Guards Tank Army to redeploy in the direction of Berlin. Officer Shakirov came to Otto and explained that the family now had to leave. The house would be taken over by an infantry unit for its headquarters, but this new unit did not want to have any Germans living in the house. So the family gathered their scarce belongings together, and went out towards the main part of town looking for another place to stay. Much of the town had been destroyed by this point, but not all of it, and they were quickly able to find a residence above a furniture store.
They were only in this new residence for a week when they discovered that there was a demand for German civilians to register with the town Kommandanteur. A Russian officer had shown up a few days after they took up residence above a furniture store, and informed them of this demand, but neither Otto nor Gertrud had taken it seriously. But when out scavenging for food a few days later they found posters in both German and Russian giving that date, February 13, 1945, as the deadline for civilians to register. And the punishment for failure to register was to be summarily shot.
Otto wanted to go do this immediately, but Gertrud was not convinced. The fact that the penalty for not registering was death finally convinced her, and telling the girls what they were about to do, off they went. They expected to register and then come back right away. But they never returned.
What Otto and Gertrud hadn't known was that the Allied leaders had gotten together in the Russian seaside resort town of Yalta, in the Crimea, to discuss what would happen after the Nazis were defeated. One of the points they agreed to was that each Allied country would have the right to take German civilians to use as forced labor to help rebuild their countries after the war. It was this forced labor provision that put the Soviets on the hunt for as many Germans as possible that they could ship eastwards.
It was also at Yalta that it was decided that the eastern parts of Poland would be given to the Soviet Union, and in compensation, Poland would receive the southern half of the German state of East Prussia, as well as the German states of Silesia and East Pomerania. So the ground on which they stood on that day was, after over 700 hundred years of German rule, now Polish territory.
It is at this point that the family's story splits into three parts. The four children continued on living in the house over the furniture store, with the two older girls scavenging food from places in the town, and their parents being separately carried into the Soviet Union. One day about two weeks after their disappearance, a boy came as a messenger from a Herr Baltutt, asking for Frau Baltutt to come and bring some food. The two oldest girls excitedly spread a few slices of bread with lard, and hurried to where they had been told their father was.
Otto was at that time working with a number of other forced laborers clearing rubble and debris from a street in the town, while under armed guard. Edith and Rita were able to speak briefly with him, telling him that their mother had also not returned. This news was hard with him, but all he could do was tell his daughters that "one of these days we shall be together again". They were then directed by the guard to depart the area. On subsequent days they searched again for him, but fruitlessly. To this day no one knows what happened to him, except that he never returned.
Gertrud spent 3½ years in the Ural Mountain area of the Soviet Union doing things like logging, making bricks, constructing log barracks, harvesting crops, digging peat, and clearing roads. She was fortunate to return! Of the nearly half-million German civilians who were taken into the Soviet Union for forced labor, nearly half died there. And a large number of those died before they ever reached their destinations. Gertrud tells us that she was loaded into a car of a train at least a couple of miles long, and that every car was stuffed with a couple of hundred people — so many that in the beginning no-one could sit or lay down, but only stand. These were mostly women. It took about six weeks for the train to reach its destination in the Ural mountains, and besides being given little to drink and eat, they also suffered dysentery and cholera, so that by the time they reached their labor camp, there remained alive only three Russian and three German women in her car. All the rest had died, and their bodies tossed out beside the train at various stops along the way.
As a side note, the Russian women had been captured by the Germans and brought to Germany to work as forced laborers, and their "liberation" by their own people had resulted only a change of scenery. Stalin regarded those who worked for the Germans, even at gunpoint, to be traitors, and these were sent to the labor camps.
The story of the four sisters is contained in the book, Yesterday's Sandhills, by Rita Baltutt Kyle. Mother Gertrud did survive her experiences in the Soviet Union, and eventually returned to Germany, where she was able to be reunited with her daughters. Her story is told in The Bones of My People, which is based upon a recording that her daughter Rita made of her telling her story, and which was later translated into English by Mike and Waltraut Clark. This rough story was then edited by Mike Clark into its final form.
A Note About East Prussia
During the time of World War II, East Prussia was a state or province of Germany, just like California is a state of the United States.
Because the English place names "Prussia" and "Russia" are so similar, many Americans think they refer to the same place. This is not the case at all. The problem grows out of the difficulty of pronouncing foreign words and place names, and so alternatives come into use in many languages. For example, there is a large city in Germany called Köln. The "ö" sound in German is unfamiliar to English speakers, and so they use the French name, "Cologne" (pronounced "Kuh-loan" in English), in referring to this city. Another example is the Italian city the Italians call Venezia; in Germans it is "Venedig", and in English it is "Venice".
"Prussia" is the English version of the old Germanic kingdom named "Preussen". This is actually pronounced: "Proy-sen". So, it doesn't really sound anything like "Russia".