• Herbert Killian ,
    Vienna, AustriaMORE...

    I was born in Austria in 1926, in the city of Korneuburg. I attended high school in Stockerau. At fifteen, I was conscripted. At the time, I was not enthusiastic or fanatical, but I did admire the regime. I was happy and felt well-protected. For me, the war began in 1933. They supplied us with food vouchers. We were taught about the war in school, and we helped out, focusing on civil activities, like providing the population with water, as well as construction efforts. For twelve years, I was part of the Hitler Youth. As part of my duties, I supported farmers during their harvest seasons - this was because many farmers were also soldiers. As a consequence of this, our lectures were limited. The public required our service.

    In 1943, I was stationed at Wiener Neustadt, working for the Luftwaffe. We defended against American bombers. Later, I was transferred to a different unit in Poznan, Poland, that helped provide medical treatments. After this, I returned home and became an active member of the military. By June of 1944, we received orders to repel the invasion of France. But when I got to Paris, I was immediately sent home because the Americans had landed successfully. By that September, I was transferred to Slovakia, as part of an attempt to reassemble a Panzer division that had been destroyed during the Russian campaign. In December 1944, we moved to Germany, near the Eifel mountains, where Gerd von Rundstedt unsuccessfully mounted his counter-offensive. After this, we marched through Luxembourg to Belgium because most of the transportation had been destroyed. We were very poorly equipped at this time. We lacked winter equipment and we were starving. We spent much of the time on our journey hunting deer in order to feed the soldiers. Along the way, some farmers and other military units we passed provided some relief. We intended to meet the Americans in Bastogne, but we lacked the equipment and necessary support and failed. For instance, we had to sew our own winter clothes out of things like curtains and cushions. The population suffered because we were taking their stuff. The Americans detected us early and repelled us. I am very lucky that I wasn't wounded. Many other soldiers with me were wounded or killed. I was then tasked with gathering the wounded and caring for them at the hospital.

    There were three of us tasked with caring for the sick and I was the only one with a gun. We searched the grounds near the hospital, which was a territory that had been captured and subsequently abandoned by Americans, and we found food in the forest - breakfast foods, chocolate, things we hadn't seen for a long time. But when we found it, we were spotted by the Americans. I wanted to open fire, but the others asked me to surrender. We had no chance.

    They imprisoned us and we found ourselves sent to the camp that already had a lot of our fellow soldiers. They questioned us, hoping to find out if we knew anything about the "wonder-weapons" they suspected our military was developing. After that, they moved us to a former German airfield in Compiegne, France. We were integrated into a larger camp, which totalled about one hundred thousand people. We lived in tents, in January cold, and we had little food, no beds or winter supplies. Then one day, we received many supplies. They gave us straw for the ground, a stove, some more food. We were surprised by this. It turned out there was an independent commission arriving from Switzerland, consisting of Americans, British, Swiss and Germans. They were there to check on the quality of the camp. Once they left, the supplies were all taken from us.

    I had a friend in this camp. Together we decided to escape from our imprisonment. Escape was relatively easy, as there were few guards - it was basically an open field, so we just snuck away. After three days we met a young farmer who was inquisitive of where we were from, where we were going. We spoke little English, but we pretended to be Americans. He didn't believe us. When the farmer went to notify the authorities that we were hiding, other farmers from the village surrounded and captured us. One of them spoke German and treated us kindly. Much to our surprise, we were taken into a house and he cooked for us and we were allowed to eat as much as we liked. I asked why he was feeding us and he said he had been a prisoner of the Germans and they treated him well, so he wanted to give back something. We were hoping to be freed, but they still intended to hand us over to the French police. We were then taken back to the camp which we had escaped from.

    In March, we were asked to volunteer for a labor camp. I did so because I thought it would take me farther east, closer to Germany. I was lucky because I ended up in the city of Russ. I was tasked with maintaining the garden of the headquarters there. They provided me with plenty of food and it was not a bad time.

    There were three of us, as before, and one of us worked in the kitchen. He snuck us extra cans of food. We stored them in the yard and planned for another escape. We waited three weeks to leave, and this time we had plenty of supplies. We only traveled at night and no one detected us. However, one day, we were feeling thirsty and we had an orange with us, and two of us wanted to eat it and the other wanted to conserve it. He left after an argument over an orange.

    The  two of us who remained ran out of food by the time we reached Verdun. There, we passed some fighting grounds of the First World War. There were many signs warning us to beware of landmines. It was here that my friend decided he would rather surrender than continue the journey. We agreed to one more night and then he would surrender. Eventually, we discovered railroad tracks and walked along them, expecting a train to pass us eventually. Instead we came across a train that was starting up and we waited for it to begin departing and jumped on. The train was guarded by Americans and we lost each other there. I didn't know if my friend had gotten on the train. This was a cargo train and I found many boxes in it. I hoped they would contain food. I realized that someone was moving from car to car, and at first I thought it was one of the guards, but it was my friend coming towards me. When I asked him if there was food on the train, he said, "No. All of these boxes are filled with weapons." The train was headed east. It soon passed a train station and it was bright and there were many French and American guards. All but one of them overlooked us - a French soldier spotted me. I saluted him and he saluted back and nothing happened.

    The next day, as the train was crossing a large river, I said to my friend, "This could be the Moselle river," which I knew was the border. On the other side, the train decelerated to go around a curve and it was there that we jumped off. We watched it pass and at the end of the train there were American soldiers with machine guns. When they saw us, we saluted them and they saluted us back. We were very lucky. For a month and a half, we walked across Germany. We rummaged through the ruins of homes, searching for supplies left behind by their former occupants. This was 1945 and the war was over.

    By May of 1947, I was back in school. I lived in an apartment and the house beside us was occupied by a Russian soldier and his family. The Russian barracks was across from where I lived. One day in June, I was studying and heard a lot of noise outside. Some Austrian and Russian kids were fighting. I shouted at them and they left. Later, they returned, teasing me and throwing rocks at my window. I got into a physical altercation with one of the kids and got arrested. I was taken to Vienna and given a short trial and sentenced to three years, the maximum penalty for hooliganism. Over the next several weeks, I was shipped across the Soviet Union by train, all the way east. Because I wasn't a political or war prisoner, I was categorized as a common criminal and sent to a Gulag labor camp among murders and thieves, harder criminals. They took us by boat to Magadan, in the Kolyma region, where there was a goldmine. I lived in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius. I got weak from the scarcity of food and couldn't fulfil my duties. There was a quota and because I didn't meet it, they gave me even less food. After a while, my weight had dropped to just 36 kilos.

    One day I escaped the camp and survived nine days on my own without food. Based on my experience in France, I had thought that it would work out. I was lucky that after nine days, without orientation in the area, I somehow ended up back at the camp. I fell unconscious shortly after arriving. This was a psychologically difficult period. I didn't think I would ever get out. There were no Austrians. It was mostly Russians, some Germans. I was alone.

    Much to my surprise, I was eventually released from the camp.

    Immediately, I went to the police and told them that I wanted to go back home. The officer asked me if I had money and I said, "No. I have nothing, but I expect that the Russian government which has taken me here for free, will also take me back for free."

    The officer replied that when I was taken to Siberia, I was a prisoner.

    Now I was a free man and it was my responsibility to get back. I had to find a job, which was difficult, because I had no work experience. Luckily, I found one at a nearby hospital, utilizing some skills I learned during the war. After four and a half years of this, someone advised me to write a letter to the Austrian embassy. I did and got a passport sent to me. At this time, I was living in a barracks with a lot of ex-criminals, some of whom had been sentenced for over twenty years.

    The day we heard on the radio that Stalin had died, everyone was crying. I didn't know how to hide my feelings because I was happy he was dead.

    The passport I got was valid in all of Europe, but I wasn't allowed to travel beyond 20km of the town I was working in unless I transferred. I wrote letters to multinational corporations, asking to be moved from the area I was restricted to. I got permission, finally, in October, 1953. I soon sent a letter to the embassy and asked them to remit the money for my journey home. But I never heard from them. I hadn't spent much of my pay and had gotten extra wages from a labor dispute with the hospital where I worked. I traveled to the port, where the last boat was leaving the next day.

    After that, the water would be frozen for eight months and you no longer had access to the river. I couldn't get a ticket and the boat left without me. My permit to leave would expire in just four weeks. So I went to the airport, which was thirteen kilometers away, only to find out that there would be a three week wait. Frustrated, I went to an officer of the secret police and I lied, putting my passport on his desk, that I was an Austrian journalist and there was a conference going on in Moscow and I was stuck here. He looked at my passport and found no proof of entry, but he believed me and supplied me with a voucher to get my ticket for the next day.

    It was a small airport surrounded by mountains. The only way to get to this region, even to this day, is by plane or boat. There are no trains or roads. Every day, only five planes departed from the airport. They were small, seventeen-passenger planes. After we took off and were passing the mountains, I looked down and saw smoke - it was one of the airplanes, the exact one that had departed just before mine. The flight to Khabarovsk was five hours. I went from there to the Trans-Siberian rail station and found I couldn't get a ticket for two weeks. Luckily, I still had enough money for a direct flight to Moscow. There, I discovered that the ambassador of the Austrian embassy was a relative of mine, which I didn't know. I made it to Austria by train.

    I learned that my mother had died during my time away. There was no home waiting.

    It was a challenge reintegrating, from a society of criminals to a civil, European society. I had left home at fifteen and now returned at twenty-eight. After all this, I finally finished school. But I didn't want to socialize with anyone. I didn't want to speak to or meet new people. I wanted only isolation and so I decided to become a woodsman. I felt like a foreigner in my own land.

    At the end of the war, we did get to see American footage of the concentration camps and the massacres, and we thought it was propaganda - we laughed at it. None of us knew about the crimes of the Nazis. We only learned long after the war was finished, and even then we couldn't believe it. I only reconsidered my thoughts about the regime after I returned from Russia.

    One time, my sister asked me whether I'd like to see my father in the north. She recommended that I take a bus. I asked how far it was. She told me it was eighty kilometers. I replied that I didn't know why I should buy a bus ticket for that distance. I could walk it. 

    Eventually, I met a woman. I had lived for years among only men and they had been paranoid, some criminals, others spies. I just wanted to build a family. The forest where I worked belonged to a nobleman. I had to apply for his permission to have the marriage approved and he declined my request, so I terminated my employment and got married anyway. I am still with her.

  • Stadler Franz,
    Weberndorf, AustriaMORE...

    My name is Stadler Franz. I was born here in Weberndorf on March 1, 1921.

    After primary school, I attended further schooling to become a farmer. Unemployment had been high following the Austrian Civil War, so I worked for my parents. I was drafted in 1941 and went to work as a soldier for the Wehrmacht.

    I was in Russia most of the war. I can't remember many of the names of places there. In 1943, I was shot in the arm and hospitalized. I was transferred to France and my duties there were much easier. I had two horses and my responsibility was transporting supplies. My assignments were things like buying fish, even though I knew nothing about fish. I was kept from battle for a long time because I lacked mobility in my arm. I worked in France for an entire summer, which was quite nice.

    At the end of 1943, I was granted two weeks of holiday before being sent to Russia again. We were very close to the enemy lines and my gun jammed. I could see a Russian soldier. He shot me three times in the leg. I was quite lucky because the shots only grazed me. This meant I could be hospitalized again and avoid more combat. I got four weeks of leave this time. It was around May, 1944.

    I was to be sent back to Russia again in June. But we stopped at a training facility in Poland and joined another division that was returning from Russia. We were sent to France instead. When we finally reached the place we were supposed to be, we found ourselves surrounded. Sometime around Christmas, I sent a radio message to my parents. "I'm healthy, I'm doing fine."

    In March 1945, the bunker we were in was bombed and I was injured again. Shrapnel was stuck in the back of my head. I was in the hospital when the war ended and when I was well enough I was imprisoned by the French. Being held captive was very boring. There was so little to do. We were constantly searched. There was this saying that if you left the Germans with even a tin can, they would build a tank. I was with lots of Austrians. Finally, I was joined by some of the people who had been in my division. It was less boring with company.

    I was released in March the following year and transported to Salzburg. It wasn't very easy to get home from there. That part of Austria was under Russian administration. I was in American territory. I did not look forward to meeting Russians again. I'd already had enough of that. I stayed a while with my aunt and uncle and we tried to figure out a plan. There were rumors that the Russians were sending anyone returning from war that was still fit and shipping them to camps to work. I went to the police to get a passport, but they wouldn't help me get a pass. They told me instead to go to a different district in another part of Austria, where I could go to the Russians to get one of these licenses. I didn't want to do that. I managed to get a baker to smuggle me through in a horse carriage under some bread boxes.

    Within thirty minutes of my return home, the Russians knocked on the door. But by this time I had gotten rid of the uniform. I was hiding and didn't attract too much attention. The Russians would come and ask for food sometimes. We had to hide our guns and valuables. It wasn't so bad. I worked at this same farm I'm in now. I got married here. I had my kids here. But now my vision is going and my hands don't work as well as they used to.

  • Dr. Hans Ransmayer,
    Bischofshofen, AustriaMORE...

    My name is Dr. Hans Ransmayer.

    I was born and raised in Bischofshofen, in the alps of Austria. I spent my childhood there. During school time, I was a leader in the Hitler Youth. Along with the rest of my classmates, I was conscripted from the seventh grade onward. The whole class from my school joined the Wehrmacht in 1939. At the time, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the war. I trained in Germany to become a paratrooper.

    I was stationed in Braunschweig, then in France, where I was injured during a training exercise. At the time, the morale was still very good. And we were very strictly disciplined. On one occasion, some soldiers from my unit confiscated some wine from a vineyard. The day after the whole unit had to stand in the barracks and the French farmer was allowed to pick out the soldiers who took the wine and it was returned. Another time, we captured a French civilian that had been out after curfew. No one was supposed to leave their homes after dark. He'd hid from us under a car, but we found him and took him to a cell. The next morning we let him out with a warning. He was terrified.

    I was captured on the southern front on November 7, 1943. I was part of the Gustav line, a defense set up to halt the southern approach of the Americans and to allow for defenses in Monte Cassino to be set up. During an attack, many of my friends died or were injured, and the rest were captured. The Americans took our equipment. They took other belongings. But we were treated fair. We were sent to the south of France. There, I was inspected by Eisenhower himself. He was there one day and inspected the POWs. I was sent from France to Italy, to Africa, where I changed camps every couple of weeks to reduce the possibility of any escape attempts. This was a regulation in place for elite soldiers, often paratroopers or SS.

    Eventually I was sent to an interrogation camp near Algiers. Other German soldiers had nicknamed it "The Pressing Mill" - I was interrogated here for ten days by an English officer. Each prisoner there had one officer assigned to them. Some were French, others English or American. In these ten days, the officer could treat you as he wished. He could come with gifts of cigarettes and chocolate. Or with beatings. The officer interrogating me preferred violence.

    It was December and we were kept naked. It rained everyday. We were beaten and starved, isolated. One man in each cell for ten days straight. Afterward we were allowed back around the other prisoners. We didn't know why they chose those they had. Now I realize they wanted to claim a range of different people. Young, old, big, small. From every village, one dog, as I say. There were thousands of us and only twenty or so went through the heavy interrogations. There was no possibility of rest.

    Then we were sent to Norfolk by ship, then from there to the States. We were sent to Camp Grant, in Illinois, near Chicago. The conditions in the camp were very good. I was then transferred back to France by ship for repatriation. In France, I was kept in an American camp where I was again treated poorly.

    The prisoners in the camps were used for labor, there were many different types of labor. I was used as a translator in the camp administrations. I was paid 80 cents per day, camp money. We were able to buy some things from a small shop in the camp itself. It would have been impossible in Germany to think of some of the things there. Chewing gum, chocolate. But no cigarettes and everything came in small amounts.

    In November, 1947, we were transported by train from France with American soldiers to a small camp near Salzburg and were released there the same day. I returned to a very bad economic situation. It was difficult in the years after the war to get the things you needed for a normal life. Many of my relatives were in captivity or missing. My father had also been in a prison camp. He was a military doctor, and he was imprisoned a year longer. He died eight days after his release, after returning home.

    It was a very hard time for the family.

    I studied medicine after the war. I worked in mountain rescue, as a doctor and as a parachute instructor. I taught servicemen about parachuting. It was important for them to use parachutes to get to people in the mountains in the event of emergencies.

    I had three children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I am almost ninety-years old. Now to get to one hundred.