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The Potsdam Schoolboy's story

The Sack of Coffee-beans

Photograph of Heinz as a boy While fleeing from the War Front my mother, my sister and I still had our pillow-case full of raw coffee. For this I had had to climb into a huge food waggon in a military train for my mother while we were still on the other side of the Elbe struggling through the chaos of shortage and surplus of military supplies. Sacks of coffee, sugar and beans were stored there. The coffee appealed to my mother.

"Everyone can help himself to his heart's desire" called a German soldier from under the waggon. "Pretty soon there won't be much more of it to be found anyway." He had been ordered to prepare the truck for the explosion ensuing a short time after....

Whilst I was shovelling the coffee into the pillow-case I was greeted by the noise of shell and rifle fire from all directions, interrupted by several large explosions. It was impossible to make out whether the noise announced the approaching Russians, or whether drunken soldiers were firing into the air for fun or shooting at the land-mines which had been laid, or whether the SS who were hidden in a villa on a little hill not far from the bank of the Elbe, were trying once again to shoot at those German soldiers who were trying to reach the American-occupied west bank of the Elbe over the cracked arch of the shelled bridge at Tangermunde...

A short time later this whole freight train with all its good things was blown up in the middle of the milling mass of people. The German military had carried out the order not to let anything fall into the hands of the Russians. But now we had got our pillow-case safely over the River Elbe and it gave us, gram by gram, pound by pound, good service in reserve currency.

We hid it (the coffee) as if it were a pillow right at the bottom of our pram. And my mother counted out the coffee beans whenever she could get something edible in exchange for them, a jug or milk from a farmer or just a place to sleep for the next night.

As quickly as we could we left this place where the horrors of war seemed to have caught up with us all over again. It was difficult then for people to behave in a rational way that we, more than fifty years later, take for granted. The instinct alone, the absolute priority which everyone feels inside for survival, dictated one's behaviour. And the need to reach freedom, to get away from the war and all its cruel consequences.

So my mother set off towards the South, to Weida in Thuringen, her home town, where she sought safety and where she firmly believed she would meet our father. Over 300km, nearly 200 miles, lay ahead of us, on foot, on country roads in the scorching sun, our remaining treasures of clothing, blankets and food all stowed in a large-wheeled pram, which we found abandoned along the way and which accompanied us to the end of our wandering through the Germany of 1945. It was like a dream to us; a landscape seemingly unaffected by war. Every day brought a new adventure.

But I, Heinz Barthel, a small German boy of 8, had always to ask myself....

In which village or town will we spend the night?

Will we meet friendly, sympathetic, helpful people?

Was this really peace? Will it last for all time?

And when the grown-ups said "If it's not one thing, its another?" what did these dark words mean?

But most of all, what now will the winners do with the losers?

Heinz Barthel
17th August, 1997

Heinz has written another story about this period :