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World

Witness to history: A POW in France

His father survived the Battle of Verdun in World War One, and he himself became a soldier at the age of 18. In the spring of 1945, he landed in a POW camp for two years. He says he was lucky.

"For me, the war ended in Desloch," says Werner Schleef. In March 1945, the young soldier was on a farm in southwestern Germany when he heard the noise from the street: US soldiers. He saw German soldiers emerge from other houses. "We gathered outside," he says.

But he also remembers being surprised: "No one paid any attention to us," and when the Americans came, "we went like this," says the 89-year-old, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender.

Schleef's story is of a surreal meeting with the enemy on a beautiful spring day. He walked on and on, not feeling observed, not feeling he'd been arrested. After 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), everyone came to a walled graveyard. The Americans had placed baskets at the gate. "We threw our knives in," he remembers. "The German population brought us food. On the first night I thought, finally, I can sleep."

Schleef had been making his way back from France for seven months, walking mostly at night. He says he wasn't shocked by Germany's defeat. "I knew early on that we couldn't win this war."

70 Jahre Kriegsende - Fotos des 2. Zeitzeugen

Helga Schleef as a young girl with her baby brother

'How will I survive this?'

The principal of his high school in Bremen warned him and his fellow students before the war started: "Don't volunteer, you'll be called up soon enough." His history teacher was less direct. "If I tell you what I really think I'll end up in a concentration camp," he said.

Schleef says it wasn't like World War One: "In 1914, most young people volunteered and enthusiastically went off to war. We weren't like that." He already knew how terrible war was from his father, who had survived the Battle of Verdun in World War One. So it was with trepidation that he joined the army shortly after his 18th birthday in the fall of 1943. "When I became a soldier, my only thought was, how am I going to survive this?" He says it took a lot of luck.

France instead of Russia

After his infantry training on an island in occupied Denmark, Schleef was meant to embark on a mission to Russia. But it turned out there was a shortage of radio communicators, and Schleef was trained for the job and sent to join a team behind the front in France. "I never experienced the front as such," he says. "I never had to fire a shot."

During Christmas of 1943, he could hear the church bells of Vichy, before his company moved westward. His account sounds more like a vacation than a war: Bordeaux, Biarritz, eating mussels in the bay of Arcachon, hot springs in Dax. On July 20, 1944, he received radio reports of an attack on Hitler. "I only heard one soldier say that it was a disgrace." All the others were quiet. You couldn't say anything else, says Schleef, or you'd risk "being killed by your own people."

The retreat began at the end of August 1944. "The French people stood at the roadside and watched us leave. It was completely peaceful." Schleef says that his radio team was once targeted by fighter pilots near Loire; but they had enough time to run away from their car. "Then the car was gone." When he rejoined his unit, he got new radio equipment and a VW beetle, and the retreat to Germany continued on dirt roads.

70 Jahre Kriegsende - Fotos des 2. Zeitzeugen

Schleef says he was lucky to have survived the war

Back to France

After the gathering in the graveyard in March 1945, the Americans transported the German prisoners back to France. There they slept in airport buildings on sacks of straw. When the sacks were burned because of vermin, there were big explosions. "Two Germans were killed, because there were hand grenades inside," says Schleef. The prisoners had barely been searched.

Schleef knows that he fared much better than some of the German POWs in the East who ended up in Soviet prisons. He was also luckier than many soldiers in the West who were captured later. In the large Rheinwiesenlager ("Rhine meadow camps"), several thousand men died from hunger and disease. The Americans handed the prisoners over to the French, and the 19-year-old Schleef was selected to work in a coal mine. Again, he was lucky. Others were given the dangerous job of clearing landmines. There was also enough to eat. "French civilians didn't have as much food as the prisoners working at the coal mine," Schleef says. He remembers being treated in a friendly manner by the French guards, who were the same age he was. It was only the older generation - who had experienced World War One - that treated him with contempt.

A Protestant priest was among the POWs at the camp, and some of the men sang hymns with him and offered each other moral support. Almost 40 years after the war, the members of the old "camp church" gathered once more; they met regularly until most of them were too old to continue. In the first years after the war, Schleef found he could only really talk with others who had experienced the war. He had no connection to those who experienced it "only as a child."

Did he see the end of the war as a defeat or a liberation? "It was a defeat," he says. "I think it was a liberation for those who were in the concentration camps. I wasn't subjected to any particular hardship." His wife, Helga, interrupts. "For me, it was definitely a liberation," she says. She was eight years old when US soldiers entered Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. Although her family was not persecuted, she remembers living in constant fear of bomber raids. When the Americans arrived, it was the first time that she went to bed in her pajamas, instead of being fully dressed for the nightly run to the bomb shelter.

Legacy of the Nazi regime

70 Jahre Kriegsende - Mitglieder der Lagerkirche Kriegsgefangenschaft Frankreich

The camp choir continued to meet every year after the war ended

Schleef was released from prison in 1947. In the destroyed city of Ulm, "I saw for the first time that Germany had lost the war." He arrived back home in Rotenburg on Pentecost Sunday on a transport train loaded with coal for Denmark. In the countryside, the effects of the war were less visible.

But the terror of the Nazi regime had affected people everywhere. One example: the systematic killing of people with disabilities. Schleef knew many victims of the so-called euthanasia program, because his father had worked with disabled people on a farm in Rotenburg. The city's institutions counted a total of 547 people who had been rounded up by the Nazis and murdered.

Schleef gradually learned about the extent of the crimes committed by the Nazis. He and his wife read a lot about them, and he remembers visiting the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen. He learned about how the people there had suffered. In a German POW camp, he saw the mass graves of Soviet prisoners.

"We once asked my father at a family gathering if he would like to be 18 again," says Schleef's daughter. "He said no - that it hadn't been a good time for him." Today, Schleef is a grandfather many times over. Knowing of his father's experience during World War One and given his own experience of World War Two, he says his greatest wish for his children and grandchildren is that they never have to experience war themselves.