Pappert (Memories from After the War: A Stolen Youth, 2016), a German soldier during World War II, suffers but perseveres as an inmate in a Russian prison camp in this memoir.
Even though the war had ended by 1945, Pappert, a lieutenant in the German army, was still in great danger as he tried to navigate his men through hostile Czech territory and find American troops to whom they could surrender. However, the Russians, who were well-known for their brutality toward prisoners of war, eventually captured them but promised that they would transport the Germans by train into American custody. Pappert knew this was unlikely and had no choice but to consider the risky prospect of escape. However, he couldn’t find anyone inside or outside the camp to collaborate with him, so he resigned himself to his fate—an exhausting march to an overcrowded train permeated by the stench of excrement and death. Eventually, he and his men were deposited at a Russian POW camp and subjected to grueling work in mines; he sustained himself with meager rations of soup and bread, which his captors sometimes withheld as punishment. Despite being only 20 years old, Pappert was an officer, and he became both a leader and an inspiration to his men. He writes that he found both strength and solace in his unwavering Catholic faith and often tutored his fellow prisoners in prayer. Still, he admits that such bleak conditions can eventually undermine any man’s morale: “Deprived of our meager evening meal, living for weeks in this camp of terror made us into human beings that no longer really existed.” Overall, this is an affecting tale, written in a spare prose style that avoids gratuitous sentimentality. Although it’s a sequel to Pappert’s previous book, it offers a self-contained story that can be read on its own. The author’s perspective—that of a German soldier who was never committed to Nazism, but believed in a “new Germany, the Germany of Goethe, Lessing and Kant”—is a rare one, and one may wish that he’d elaborated on this particular point. However, it’s a minor quibble in an extraordinary historical record.
A gripping story of overcoming adversity.