The Betrayed and Forgotten #SovietHell
It is the unedited footage taken by an American army camera unit at a prisoner of war camp in southern Germany in February 1946. A card, headed “Return of Russian Prisoners to Russia,” identifies the subject matter of the film and the location where it was taken. . . .
it recorded was a small part of a vast operation that was one of the most sensitive of the Second World War, the handing over to Stalin of large numbers of Russians who in varying circumstances found themselves under German control . . .
The fate of these Russians was one of the best kept secrets of the war. . . .
Many were executed on the spot. In some instances, Allied guards responsible for turning over their prisoners could see their bodies hanging in the forests where the exchange took place. Some were transferred on the same boat that had brought the British delegation to Yalta a few months previously. They were shot behind warehouses on the quay side with low flying Soviet planes circling overhead to help drown the noise of the rifle fire. Many returned prisoners were tortured before being shot. The remainder disappeared into prison camps for long sentences, receiving the worst treatment of all the Gulag’s inmates. Needless to say all were immediately stripped of the new winter clothing and personal equipment that had been generously issued to them by the British in response to the cynical demands of Soviet liasion officers. American and British officers were the appalled eyewitnesses to many desperate acts of suicide by Russian men and women who preferred their own death and that of their wives and children to falling into the hands of the Cheka/NKVD/GPU/KGB. . . .
The film in the National Archives is thus a unique visual document, an extraordinary witness to a dark episode in this century’s history. . . .
[After repatriating refugees] The Americans returned to Plattling visibly shamefaced. Before their departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many had seen rows of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees. On their return, even the SS men in a neighbouring compound lined the wire fence and railed at them for their behaviour. The Americans were too ashamed to reply. . . .
A few days later, on March 6, a photograph was published in the American forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, showing this same Russian. It’s an identical pose to a frame in the film. The caption to the photograph reads:
HURT: Russian repatriate Constantine Gustonon grimaces with pain after he slashed himself on the chest some 17 times in a suicide attempt to avoid being returned to Russia. He is held by Capt. Kenny Gardner, of the 66th Inf. Regt.. Gustonon’s was the first case of attempted suicide among the deportees from Platting [sic] to Russia as PWs.
The photograph is reproduced in Bethel’s book, described as “rare.” It is rare indeed, carried in only one edition of Stars and Stripes and with no accompanying story . . .
Russians interned at Dachau, site of the notorious Nazi concentration camp and not far from Plattling, had resisted their repatriation with a ferocity that stunned American military police, resulting in at least ten suicides. . . .
With the exception of Constantine Gustonon, the man who stabbed himself in the chest, we know no one’s name; but here are individual human beings whose images have been saved from the turmoil of a terrible century. A few lined and weary faces are recognizable, they speak for all of humanity, and who cannot single out among them a son, a brother, a husband?
“I took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Our soldiers felt very badly. I helped to fish out Germans from the sunken Bismarck, which received the greatest number of torpedoes in history. I saw the population of Malta sitting in the cellars for many weeks. I saw Malta being bombed incessantly and deafened by explosions of bombs and shells. They were exhausted from constant explosions and alarms. I lived through the sinking of my own ship. I know about jumping into the water at night, dark and without bottom, and the terrifying shouts for help of the drowning, and then the boat, and looking for the rescue ship. It was a nightmare. I drove German prisoners captured during the invasion of Normandy. They were almost dying from fear. But all that is nothing. The real, terrible, unspeakable fear I saw during the convoying and repatriation of people to Soviet Russia. They were becoming white, green and grey with the fear that took hold of them. When we arrived at the port and were handing them over to the Russians, the repatriates were fainting and losing their senses. And only now I know what a man’s fear is who lived through hell, and that it is nothing compared to the fear of a man who is returning to the Soviet hell. ”