I WAS A SLAVE-SCIENTIST IN RUSSIA (Sep, 1955)
Here is part two.
I WAS A SLAVE-SCIENTIST IN RUSSIA EXCLUSIVE!
An eyewitness report on the fate of German scientists enslaved behind the Iron Curtain.
By Dr. Otto Maar
FOR six months we have been imprisoned in the Bautzen detention campâ€”the first six months of a 25-year sentence to which we were condemned by a Soviet Military Court for supposed espionage and “anti-Soviet propaganda.” We squat all day on our bunks, because the cell is so small that we cannot move around in it.
One begins to run out of conversation after half a year and the only break comes at meal- times. It is an advantage to have studied physics and mathematics; you find many problems to ponder and in the seclusion of a cell it is easier to think out many of these than when free. But it is tiresome to solve differential equations in your head. A kingdom for a scrap of paper and a pencil!
It is two o’clock in the morning; although the cell is brightly lighted we are fast asleep. Suddenly a heavy key is turned in the lock, a noise that electrifies us. Before the cell door is opened we are wide awake and alert. We have had experience and we know that a visit from the Russian guard, especially at such an unusual hour, bodes no good. If something in our cell displeases him, we may all land in solitary. If he is making his customary search, we may lose valuable bits of our pitiful possessions. A multitude of unpleasant possibilities await us when the key turns in the lock.
The guard appears in the doorway and calls my name; as I answer he merely says, “Dress! Come along!” I roll out my bunk, jump into my uniform and walk out of the cell. My heart is beating in my throat and my whole body trembles.
On the way we are met by a guard and another prisoner, obviously on his way back to the cell. As the two come near us, I cough and whisper in front of me, “What is it?” “Scientists,” says the other. This little talk costs me a kick and a curse in Russian. But I am briefed on the picture. They are taking specialists for some work project. If you remain in Germany, very nice. But if you end up in Russia. . .
In a comfortless basement room sits a Russian in civilian clothes. In a toneless voice and in good German, he asks me to sit down. He takes up a folder, on the cover of which my name appears in Russian, and he turns the pages. After a while he asks me about my profession and my experience up to now. I don’t know how to answer. I try to discover what he knows about me. I describe my education and I throw in a little he or two to see how far I can go. The examination continues: “What did you do during the war?”
I do not like this question because I had worked on the development of an acoustic torpedo and later was technical advisor for acoustic-guided missiles. Naturally I don’t want to let that out here. So I answer, “I trained technical assistants.” The man sneers: “Were you so engaged for the whole war?” Naturally I cannot make that seem credible. “I took acoustical measurements in the Baltic. We had to do research on the transmission characteristics of sea water.” He raises his finger to show me that this answer pleases him better. It is clear that he knows something about me. I realize that the acoustic- controlled torpedo is known to the Reds and I determine to speak as much as possible about things that are already known, saying nothing of things about which they are ignorant. So I describe how, in Danzig Bay, we tested torpedoes which automatically run in the direction of the sounds of ships. In our experiments we had been unable to follow the path of an electric torpedo at a depth of 12 meters, so we had equipped it with reflectors and launched it by night. Then the light spots on the water enabled us to follow its course. At launching tests with predetermined convoy lines this torpedo rushed underneath the target ships, darting from one to the other; I was so busy measuring the sound range of the ships that I could not pay any attention to anything else that went on.
Again I inject a couple of lies: “I was present at a number of test launchings but I never saw the inside of a torpedo.” That is a smooth lie; my listener accepts it. He slaps the folder shut, rings for the guard and I am taken back to my cell. The next victim is brought in.
Weeks go by and I think less and less frequently of my night examination. Either the whole thing has been dropped or else I am of so little interest to the Soviets that they have given me up. It is now December and our thoughts turn to the outer world where Christmas preparations are beginning. The relatives of the countless prisoners will tearfully endeavor to prepare some Christmas cheer for their children. How many more Christmases like this are there to be? In Bautzen alone there are 6,000 prisoners and all are condemned to 25 years. We know that Bautzen is not the only disciplinary camp and we also know that many more prisoners are in the Soviet Union, living under more hopeless conditions behind barbed wire.
Then one day the key again turns in the lock. Again my name is called and this time it is “Pack everything together. Hurry! Hurry!” Again my heart starts beating in my throat. While I pack in great haste, there are parting words with my cellmates. “You know my address. I have yours in my head. If you have the chance to get news to my family, remember that perhaps I will go to Russia. Good luck.” The cell door clangs shut. I stand with the guard alone in the hall. The journey has begun.
On The Way East In the room into which I am taken there are about 20 prisoners with their bundles. We discover we are all scientists and technicians. Each of us receives a piece of bread and a spoonful of marmalade. We swallow the marmalade quickly and put the bread in our bundles. We are handcuffed, then loaded on an open truck and told to he on the floor. A canvas is thrown over us. At the last moment armed guards with dogs climb on the truck. So we travel through the streets of Bautzen.
Our prison wagon is coupled to a passenger train to Berlin. The truck is unheated and we freeze; it is December 14, 1949. In Oberschonhausen we are taken into a prison overnight.
Next day we go back to our truck. After many hours we are coupled to a freight train and start away; our train rolls on and on. Suddenly there is a halt. A train goes by us, stops in the station and the loudspeaker announces: “Frankfurt.” As we start off again we know from the noises of the train that we are passing over the Oder Bridge. No one says a word. Our homeland is behind us. Before us lie 25 years of imprisonment in a foreign land.
We go in chains through Brest-Litowski, accompanied by heavily armed Red guards with dogs. Far ahead there are a few guards who make the crowds stand with their backs to the streets so that no one can see us. We are marched into a prison that surpasses in horror everything we have as yet run into. No artist could ever imagine anything more gruesome than this cheerless, window-less building. We are all locked together in one cell and notice that we have acquired some additions from Sachsenhausen. Now we are 34 menâ€”engineers, mechanics and two glass blowers.
Our morale has sunk lower since we crossed the Russian frontier. Only young Horst L. from Sachsenhausen is optimistic and unaffected by the hopelessness of our situation. While talking with him I learn that he is an excellent high-frequency expert. He has some tobacco and a newspaper, a gift from Russian officers whose radio apparatus he had repaired in camp. For the first time in a year we smoked again. Although it is only Machorka we enjoy it and our morale improves at once.
I also like George N. from Er. He is the oldest of us and gives an impression of calm. He tells us how he had offered to develop an ultrasonic apparatus for fighting cancer for the Russians. His plans interest me and I tell him I am an ultrasonic expert. “Then you are certainly assigned to the project,” he says and I realize that my words at the examination at Bautzen have sealed my fate.
“How long in your opinion do we need to finish it?” I ask George N. I am no doctor but from my professional experiences I know that ultrasonic medicine is still in its infancy and there is nothing certain as to what will come from it. At least it is clear to me that the cancer project is a difficult and extensive task. George, on the contrary, calculates that we will finish it in two years. As I express doubts, he refers to his horoscope which forecasts a two-year stay in a foreign country and then freedom. From this moment onward I cannot believe that he is a scientist.
At The End Of The Journey We spend three weeks on the journey, experiencing all the joys of such transportation. But finally we arrive at Kutschino, a veritable land of sunshine compared with what we had experienced so far. Kutschino is an outer suburb on the eastern border of Moscow, surrounded by forests and very little built up. There is a suburban railway station there and the trains run directly past our camp.
The first thing that strikes us is the courtesy of the guards. The search of our possessions is a mere formality here; the guard merely puts his hands in our bundles and rummages around a little.
Then we are taken to our lodgings. There are no cells but actual rooms; the doors are not locked and we can circulate freely. In the corridors there are prisoners standing around and gazing at us, full of curiosity; our arrival is obviously a welcome break for them. From some rooms comes the sound of music and singing. There are real beds here, a luxury we can hardly believe. The prison houses about 500 prisoners, mostly Russians but also Letts, Esthonians and Poles. We are so worn out with Bautzen and the journey that we make a pitiable impression. So they come to us from all sides and bring white bread, butter, sausage, sugar and cigarettes. Many speak English, others German and so we manage to understand each other.
From our German comrades we learn that Kutschino is a model camp in which only scientists and technical men are housed. But we learn also that one can very quickly find oneself back in one of the ordinary camps. The fact that we are in the Soviet Union weighs on our spirit a little but for the time being, at least, it is only Moscow and not Siberia.
Next morning, when the other prisoners go off to work, they tell us to stay in the prison; someone will fetch us. For half the morning we loaf around; we eat, smoke and shave with borrowed kits. Finally a guard comes and takes us to the Chief Engineer, Colonel Dobroschanski. When my turn comes he asks me very politely how I am. I tell him that he could not expect me to be well, that I have been through a trial and have come from a prison where the bread basket hung extremely high. The interpreter informs me that we shall have time to recuperate. Have I any wishes? My first concern is to write home. But no luck.
“You will not see your home again, reconcile yourself to that. You are only burdening yourself unnecessarily. Why do you want to write? You cannot do anything else except work well here; that is the only possible way to improve your situation. Furthermore, you will not find things bad here.”
These are the words with which the Chief Engineer prepares me for the future. I ask him whether he believes that under such conditions one can work scientifically. Condemned to such a fate, life would have no further meaning. Then, what incentive would one have?
“You have still 25 years to get through,” he answers, “and when that time is past you will have neither the desire nor ability to return to Germany.” His tone is compassionate, almost paternal. “I cannot help you. You are being punished and I have nothing to do with that; I cannot change Soviet laws. No one wants to change them. I can only warn you. If you do not work well here you will pass your 25 years in Workuta. And believe me, you are better off here.”
Other interviews run along the same lines. When we are all through, the guard leads us to the yard. A valuable planing machine is upside down in the mud and we are to get it out. It must have been there a long time as the mud is now frozen and the heavy machine is embedded in it as firmly as if covered with concrete.
While the cross-pickaxes are being fetched, I go over to Karl H., a prominent Communist prisoner. I say to him, “See, this machine belongs to everyone who passes by, that is why no one cares about it. If it had been paid for out of some individual pocket, it would not be lying here.”
It is astounding, all the stuff that is lying around this yard and being ruined. Film projection apparatus, telephones, refrigerators and so forth.
In The Laboratories After a few days we are assigned to workshops. Here are all kinds of laboratories, small and large production shops and a very well-kept library. In the laboratories quartzes are cut, as they are used for stabilizing frequencies; projectors (reflectors) are made; synthetics, ceramics, and insulation materials are developed. A whole section works on apparatus for so-called “border protection.” In the production shops telescopic receivers and magnet phones are built. Everything possible is experimented with here but there is no uniform organization.
The whole camp is barely one kilometer, long and about 500 meters wide. Around it runs a wall, and five meters away from it is a low barbed wire fence. At certain places along the wall are observation towers. Not only prisoners work here but also many “free” persons, including women and girls. Most of them live in Moscow and come to work on the suburban train.
I go to work in two laboratories concurrently. One is a medical laboratory apparently only just opened, as there is practically nothing there except the rooms and furniture. The top man of the section is the prisoner George N. who promises the blue skies above and is laden with grand new plans. His ultrasonic cancer project has been forgotten. Now George has another big ideaâ€”encephalography. He will detect the minute electromagnetic impulses of the brain and make them visible on a screen. Something like that was done in Germany and George has doubtless read about it.
Mayronowski, the Russian Colonel in charge of the section, is all fire and flame; he believes that with such a device thoughts could be read. George encourages this belief. I try to caution George to be careful but he does not want to hear any warnings.
We are a wonderful group, understand each other splendidly and we have a Chief who cannot check us. Horst L., the high-frequency expert, begins to build a huge amplifier; that is all he has undertaken to do so nothing can happen to him. I begin to design ultrasonic transmitters of various frequencies and powers. The scope of their tasks is clearly outlined for Werner and Gunter. We are all assured for the time being. Only George keeps us anxious; he is maneuvering himself into a fatal position. He thrusts our warnings aside. “Leave me alone, I shall get along beautifully.” He cannot be shown, we can’t shake his faith in his horoscope.
In the forenoon I work in the boundary “line-projector” section where devices are developed for guarding Soviet frontiers. It consists of three laboratories. The Chief is Major Schdanow, who regards prisoners as the scum of humanity, is basically suspicious and is one of the most dreaded officers in the camp. The technical brains of the section is Major Arapoff, a prominent authority, very polite when contact with the prisoners is limited to technical questions. The chief of my laboratory is Major Malutin, a good-humored moron who has a little technical knowledge and tries on the whole to live on good terms with the prisoners.
After a few days I get an individual interpreter, a splendid fellow. His name is Aljoscha and he is serving a 15-year sentence; he has been a major in the Red army. His first words are: “Don’t trust anyone hereâ€”not even your best friend. The only one you can trust here is your mother.”
My first job in the boundary “line-protector” section is a mirror-testing device with which parabolic hollow mirrors in production can be tested by unskilled personnel. For a few days I juggle with a small case, an indicator, a little red lamp and a bell. The mirror to be tested is placed on the case and a crank is turned until a short bell tone is heard. If the mirror has no defect, nothing more happens; otherwise the indicator moves and a little red lamp lights up. The chiefs are enraptured; they take turns playing with it several times a day.
The device needs some improvements; it is at the stage of a good laboratory sample but is still too unhandy for practical use. I tell the chief this but he doesn’t understand me at all. He says that it is too late for changes and improvements as the apparatus is already sold. I protest that a * reputable firm would not sell it. Malutin shakes with laughter, slaps me on the shoulder and tells me that I apparently want to get a prize. A young lieutenant takes the apparatus to its testing place and returns two days later. The factory has found a production fault in it. The acting Minister has said he would like to see the builder of the apparatus but changed his mind when he heard that I was a prisoner.
In the medical lab it is so comfortable that we volunteer for evening work. Each of us has his own table and a desk lamp and no one disturbs us. Gunter can draw very well and he finishes a pack of cards.
He is in love with Nina, a young laboratory worker who is supposed to superintend us on these evenings, and as she is not unresponsive she pays no attention to our activities.
Meanwhile I obtain permission to use the library. It is unusually well arranged. Hardly one of the German standard works in physics, mathematics and technology is missing. Many books have the names of former German owners; among them are acquaintances and high school companions of mine. In the Russian language I discover Robert Pohl’s volumes on experimental physics. I recognize the illustrations and formulas; it seems to be a verbatim translation under the name of a Russian author. An unabashed plagiarism but in time I shall grow used to that.
All the more important science periodicals and books from England, America, France, Italy and Switzerland are here. I learn from the American periodicals how synthetic quartz is manufactured, I find precise descriptions of the newest types of aircraft, detailed articles on military problems, rocket technology, and armored combat arms, and I am surprised at the public manner in which Americans appraise everything. The high point of my discoveries is the 26-volume work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which the development of radar during World War II is described. I had been introduced during the war to the development of this enormously important technique but I had never been able to obtain any deep insight into this field. For that I had to come to Moscow!
(Editor’s Note: In the second part of Dr. Maar’s remarkable account of his imprisonment in Russia, to be published in the October issue of MI, he describes the Top Secret “border protection” device he is forced to develop for the Soviets . . . numerous suicides amongst the enslaved German scientists … how the prisoners outwit their Red captors . . . the state of scientific research at Kutschino . .. how Russian engineers cover up their mistakes . . . his transfer to the dreaded prison camp at Workuta and his eventual return to Germany .)
Here is part two.