The Devil’s Laughter

(The following is from my book, Rape Hate—Sex & Violence in War & Peace)

Traumatic as first encounters were, when the Soviet shock troops moved off many Germans would concur that the experience had not been as bad as feared. While rapes had occurred and while many German men of military age had been marched east or shot on the spot, the front line soldier was far more concerned with fighting and survival than with loot, rape and revenge. Not so with those who followed. In numerous instances, before Red combat officers and men pushed on they turned to the helpless civilians with stone-like faces:

“The Mongols are coming. . . . Very bad men. You go quick. Go quick.”

Composed largely of Mongols, Kazakhs, Kalmuks, and other Asians, as well as convicts and Jewish commissars, these men who formed the second wave of troops were regarded, even by their own comrades, as utterly merciless. Terrified by the news, many Germans did attempt to flee and move in the wake of the first Soviet wave. Most, however, found themselves trapped and could do little more than hide young girls and once again pray that their worst fears were unfounded. After a wait of sometimes days, but normally only hours, the dreaded second wave arrived. There were no preliminaries. Unlike storm troops, who cautiously entered towns and villages and slipped nervously from door to door, the rear echelons burst noisily into communities atop trucks, tanks or peasant carts crammed high with loot. Often wildly drunk, many wore a bizarre array of stolen clothes and gaudy jewelry. Adding to the chaos were herds of bellowing cattle and sheep.

It was almost like a scene from the Middle Ages—a migration, no less,” said one stunned observer.

Soon after the “carnival columns” halted in a German town, hell on earth was unleashed. “It seemed as though the devil himself had come. . . ,” a witness from Silesia wrote. “The ‘Mongol barbarism of the Asiatic plains’ had come not in a propaganda phrase but in the flesh.”

While flames shot up from different corners of the towns and gunfire erupted as citizens were murdered in the streets, the invaders soon began kicking in doors to homes, shops and churches. “[A] whole horde of Asiatic-looking fellows appeared and started searching the cellar… ,” recalled one priest. “The place was a dreadful sight by the time they had finished. The room was already full of smoke and I begged one of the Russians to let us out. . . . Were they going to let us be burnt to death? After a while, however, a more civilized-looking Russian appeared and I repeated my request. He led us out to . . . the courtyard of the convent. The noise was deafening—the raucous shouts of the Russians, the crackling of the flames, the crashing of beams and brickwork.”

Many horrified Germans tried to greet with a smile their strange visitors. Revealed one woman from a boarding house in Berbitz:

As a precaution, the landlord, Mr. Grebmann, had lined the vestibule with liquor bottles in the naive hope that his house might thereby be spared from ransacking. To the succeeding troop of slant-eyed Mongolians, the tenants brought their jewelry and watches. Hysterical, Mrs. Friedel embraced one of the greasy Kirgis and drank with him from the same bottle, and the elderly Mr. Grebmann patted them familiarly on the back. . . . One of the Mongolians held up my Tom’s tall leather boots triumphantly, the other one put my rings into his pants pocket. . . .

Scarcely had this second detachment left the house and we were beginning to breathe freely, when fists once more thundered at the door: thus it kept up the whole day. The house doors were not permitted to be locked any more. Each took what he wanted either in a more or less harmless or in a malicious way. Soon we and the Russians were wading knee-deep in thrown-around clothing, laundry and bits of smashed dishes . . .

As soon as a new detachment of Russians entered the house noisily, we squatted trembling about the round table in Grebmann’s living room. One of the soldiers sat at the table with us with pistol disengaged and demanded schnapps or vodka, while the others rummaged around the house. . . . [N]o one dared to speak. We women sat with downcast eyes and lowered head. Someone had told us never to look a Russian in the eye, otherwise we would be lost . . .

Before long the inside of the house looked as if a band of robbers had lived there. . . . The fellows had cut the beds up into little pieces, slit open the upholstered chairs, thrown furniture around; had slashed pictures, despoiled books, cracked eggs against the wall; had poured liqueur over the rugs, torn curtains down, and scattered the entire contents of all the closets and drawers all over. One of the most painful shocks for me was to see how two of the ruffians with their heavy boots kicked the chest in which I had my beautiful porcelain wrapped in tissue paper and cotton wadding. They were all treasured pieces. . . . My most beautiful piece . . . was used by one of them as a toilet.

As a rule, the Soviets generally sought out gold and jewelry first, with an especial eye for “uri,” or wristwatches. It was not unusual to see Red troops laden with necklaces and gold chains or sporting as many as a dozen watches on each arm. When the people had been plucked clean of valuables, interest usually turned to liquor. In their mad quest for “wodka,” soldiers greedily imbibed everything from fine wines and champagne to rubbing alcohol and perfume. Red troops, observed one woman, were “crazy for anything even smelling of alcohol.”

And then. . . .

Rape was a word that [had] occurred again and again in [our] conversation,” admitted Lali Horstmann. “It was an expression which caused no pang of fear in our times for its meaning was purely figurative—‘to be ravished’ belonged to the realm of lyrical poetry. Now its original sense was terrifyingly restored and brought us face to face with a new peril.”

Suddenly the door of the room we were in was opened and some soldiers entered,” a frightened boy recalled as he sat with a group of women huddled in a dark room. “One or two matches were struck and I saw that there were about eight Russians in the room who were obviously looking for women.”

The child continues:

As I crouched there in my corner I saw one of the Russians coming towards me. The match he held in his hand went out. I felt, rather than saw, a hand reach out towards me. I had a fur cap on my head, and suddenly I felt fingers tracing curl-like movements on my temple. For a brief moment I did not know what to make of this, but the next instant, when a loud “No” resounded through the room, I thanked God with all my heart that I was not a woman or a girl.

Meanwhile the beasts had spotted their victims and shared them out. Then they suddenly started shooting at random. But it was dark in the room and no one could see where the shots were being fired or who was hit. I heard wails and groans and voices calling out to me to help, but there was nothing I could do. Right next to me poor defenseless women were being ravished in the presence of their children.

Merely because a female had been raped once was no guarantee she would not be assaulted again and again. “Many of the girls were raped as often as ten times a night, and even more,” said a witness from Neustadt.

There was never a moment’s peace either by day or at night,” added another victim:

The Russians were coming and going the whole time and they kept eyeing us greedily. The nights were dreadful because we were never safe for a moment. The women were raped, not once or twice but ten, twenty, thirty and a hundred times, and it was all the same to the Russians whether they raped mere children or old women. The youngest victim in the row houses where we lived was ten years of age and the oldest one was over seventy. . . . I am sure that wild and hungry animals would not have behaved any differently.

Wrote a girl from Posen who desperately clung to a cousin for safety:

When we were lying in bed at night we kept hearing steps coming up the stairs. . . . They beat on the door with their rifle-butts, until it was opened. Without any consideration for my mother and aunt, who had to get out of bed, we were raped by the Russians, who always held a machine pistol in one hand. They lay in bed with their dirty boots on, until the next lot came. As there was no light, everything was done by pocket torches, and we did not even know what the beasts looked like.

Like hunted prey leading predators from their young, some mothers instinctively sacrificed themselves. Recorded one little girl, ten-year-old Mignon Fries:

[S]he told us in a stern voice to go outside to play and under no circumstances to come back in. No matter what we heard, until she herself would come for us, no matter how long it took. Fearfully we looked at her even though we didn’t know exactly what we were afraid of. . . . We went outside and stood around for awhile not knowing what to do, just listening to the noise in the apartment. My mother had just closed all the windows but we could still hear the soldiers talking, laughing and shouting. Then the music started and before long the soldiers were singing. . . .

The day gave way to evening, it got rather chilly and still we were outside and the “party” got noisier. Every once in a while a soldier would open a window and throw an empty vodka bottle outside. Sometimes the music would stop for a while, but the singing and shouting continued. As it got later and later we became very hungry and cold, but having been raised in an atmosphere of strict obedience we didn’t dare go back in the house against our mother’s orders and just huddled against the wall of the shed in the garden trying to keep each other warm. . . .

The music and the singing broke off as suddenly as it had started. . . . Within minutes it was all over and all the soldiers left the house. . . . But it was a long time before our mother finally came out to get us. She was very pale and hugged both of us very tightly for a long time and we could feel her body shaking.