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Gustav


Interview by Eric Tobey

This interview was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

The following interview was conducted on April 12, 1992, and the veteran was the ex-father-in-law of my Alsatian room-mate.  The veteran and his family had traveled to the US for a visit before my room-mate was planning on going back to Alsace for good.  Although my room-mate was very hesitant about the meeting I proposed, when the time came the veteran was more than willing to talk; in fact, he was literally bubbling over with recollections.  The veteran had no qualms about even using his name in this article; the absence is due to the request of my room-mate.  The hardest thing about this interview was the fact that Gustav spoke very little English, German, and the Alsatian dialect.  Some of the hard-to-follow passages are probably due to bad translations on my part.

How did you enter the German Armed Forces?
I was a drill grinder in a small factory in Mulhouse.  The Germans called this city Mülhause.  It was the main city in Alsace, which was French territory at the time.  Alsace is the region between the Vosges and the Rhine River.  My wife's family were inn-keepers and we lived over the inn.  The Germans came in 1940, it didn't matter too much because this type of thing happened every so often to Alsace.  Germany, then France, then Germany, then France again.  My son was born in November 1941.  The Germans made us give him a German name.  My wife wanted to name him after her father Gerard, but we had to name him Bernhard.  While I was working hard in the factory, my wife was messing around with the German officers who came into the inn.  One day I came home and one was sitting in my parlor chatting to my wife.  Nothing bad about this.  I went into my bedroom to change my clothes and found his cursed hat on my wardrobe.  I went into the kitchen and threw it into the wood-stove, then ran out the door.  He was walking down the stairs towards the inn.  I pounded him to a pulp (gefügig machen).  Next morning they arrested me and threw me in jail.  This happened in January of 1943.  In March or April I look out and see this Waffen SS officer looking into the cells.  He walks into my cell.  He looks at me and smiles: I was 180 centimeters tall (about 5' 11"), blonde hair, blue eyes, lots of muscles.  Just what they wanted.  He looked magnificent too, with a leather coat and smart uniform and gloves.  He says, "would you like to get out of here?"  Of course I said "Yes, yes!"  He says he could get me out to join the Waffen SS, and said jail was no place for a strong German man.  He asked me if I would fight the Bolsheviks.  Of course I said "Yes, yes!"  I wanted to get out of there.  Then I was off to a camp near Prague in Czechoslovakia.

Tell me about your training.
Once we were having an inspection (Appell).  One of my tunic pocket buttons was not sewn on tight to my uniform and was hanging down by a thread.  Those buttons were never sewn on tight enough, you had to do it yourself.  The Oberscharführer came up to me and said, "you are not in order."  I said that I didn't think that one thing really mattered.  Now he yells at me "Think? You are not supposed to think!  We leave the thinking to the horses because their heads are larger than yours!!"  After this camp I went to the Ostfront.

What unit were you in?  What was your job?
I was in the 3rd Kompanie, Deutschland Regiment of 2nd SS Division.  The name of the division was "Das Reich."  This is a very famous unit in France.  In the summer of 1944, some of them killed some people in the Gascogne and around Limoges (in France).  To this day there are some places in France where they still do not like Alsatians because of this.  Today, Germans take holiday in these parts, but Alsatians are not always welcome...

...I carried the tripod (Dreibein) for a machine gun.

What happened to you on the Eastern Front?
That winter the Ivans were laying guys low (umlegen) one after the other.  We were really getting pounded.  Bad weather too.  Then they began to transfer a lot of the people from our division back to France for a vacation.  But not us.  They said it was because we had not been there as long as some of the others, but we knew it was because we were Alsatian.  They took the Germans out, and left the Alsatians, the Czechs, and so on...

Then there was a big attack.  The Red Army scattered us.  I threw away my pistol and equipment and hid in the freezing water under a bridge.  The Russians marched over the bridge.  I came out and headed for safety.  Then big shells started coming down: Psssshhh TOOM!  I thought that I was done for.  Then a Panzer stops and a guy waves me over, tells me to get in.  I got in, and then the Panzer gets hit and wounds me badly.  My whole side and one leg were all torn up.  The Panzer men pulled me out and took me to the Hospital.  Then I went right back to Prague in Czechoslovakia, almost the same place that I started.  Close to the end, they moved all the patients to a camp in Austria.

Where were you when the war ended?
Still in the camp in Austria.  I'm hobbling around outside on my crutches when the French army came into the camp.  A tank pulls up, the hatch opens and a man comes up.  He says in Alsatian: "Gustav, is that you?"  It was my sister's boyfriend André, he was in the French Army.  He recognized me, but I did not recognize him.  He knew where to find me.  He took me to his commander who said, "what the devil do you think you are doing in the SS?  Keep your mouth shut or you might regret it."  Then they sent me straight home.  I was lucky, some men spent a long time in French prisons...

When I got back, the inn where I lived was in ruins, my relatives were living in the cellar.  It was very wet and cold there.  My son had died of a lung infection because of the living conditions.  My wife was gone, she had gone to Germany before the Allies had come.  I didn't know any of this, because I hadn't gotten any mail after the liberation.  I tried to find my wife for years after the war, there is a Suchdienst in Bonn who will help you find missing people but we never found her.  This made it very difficult to get a divorce.  I think she may have died in Berlin in 1945.

I was so depressed, everything was ruined.  I had to keep quiet about what I had done during the war.  But my grandmother always said, "Kopf Vor!" (heads up).  You can get through almost anything.

You still have to be careful with your war service in France.  They have reunions (of the 2nd SS) but I never went to one.  My friend had a good government job until he went to a reunion and someone found out; he lost his job.  If some of my customers found out, they probably wouldn't do business with me.

How were Alsatians treated in the SS?
About the same as anyone else.  There were a lot of non-Reich-born men in the SS.  Sometimes they criticized our dialect, though.  I don't have any trouble understanding German, but sometimes its hard to speak it like a German.  I felt sorry for some of the Czechs, some of them spoke better German than I, but some of them could barely understand what you said to them.  For some reason the Germans thought that the Czechs made better soldiers than the Alsatians; they were likely to promote them first.  You would meet Army troops and they would say "Oh ho!  The SS has got the Alsatians!  Good!  They can have you.  We don't want you!"  And of course the NCOs would yell at everybody.  We would be sitting in a woodlot after barely saving our skins from the Ivans and they would come up and yell "Get up, you Faule Hünde (lazy dogs)!  Get to work!  Build positions!"  That's what they would call us - Faule Hünde.  Ha ha.

What kind of food were you given in the SS?
Have you ever had Frontkameradensuppe?  Sometimes we still eat it for nostalgia.  It is made from beans, potatoes, and ham all boiled together.  It is supposed to be good when it is cold.  In warm weather, you put a little vinegar in it so it will keep a little longer and taste good cold.  You put some of it in your Feldtopf (mess kit ?) and off you go.  Eat it warm or cold.  The name "Frontkameraden" comes from the ingredient - the beans, potatoes, and ham are the "Frontkameraden."  We also got cabbage soup, and "Eintopf" (stew?).

We had this soldier named Gaenzenbittel who was always hungry.  Once he comes into our hut begging food.  I said wait a moment, I have hot sauce made of beets and horseradish.  I gave him a slice of bread with a thick layer of Hrin smeared on it.  Gaenzenbittel says Thunderation!  Apple butter!  Then he throws it down his gullet.  The look on his face, Ha ha.  He looked like he swallowed a grenade!  Ha ha.  His eyes got as big as tractor tires and he was running around yelling, "Wasser! Drink!"  Somebody handed him a beaker of vodka, which he threw down his gullet.  Then he passed out.  Ha ha.  Soldiers have rough humor!  When he woke up he says "Gushtie, what did you want to do, kill me?"  Ha ha ha.  Gushtie is short for Gustav in Alsatian.  We laughed so hard that our sides hurt.

He got even later.  We were going to have a gas-mask inspection.  Some men threw their masks away and put their papers in the can because it was waterproof.  Before an inspection, the soldiers who had thrown their masks away would find one to borrow in another company who was not having an inspection.  But I never threw mine away.  While everyone was running around to find a mask, I would rest.  We are in formation and the Scharführer gives me the command.  I whip my can around and pop the lid.  The Scharführer reaches in and pulls out a pair of ladies underwear.  Huge ones, big enough for a cow.  He's standing there, they are blowing in the breeze.  No mask, someone pinched my mask, Gaenzenbittel pinched my mask.  This was not funny to the command, but even the Scharführer looked like he was going to laugh.  Inspection over, we got extra work.  We had to dig holes for Panzers.

If you didn't keep your papers in your gas-mask can, where did you keep them?
I kept letters in my tunic pockets, but I did not get many letters.  My other papers I kept in my pistol holster.  When you had heavy winter clothing on, it was almost impossible to get papers out of pockets on your inner garments, but your holster was always on the outside.  It was fairly weatherproof, too.

What is your strongest memory of the war?
There was a big Russian attack in a snowstorm.  It was my first big battle.  You couldn't see very far in front of you.  The Russians came out of the snow in solid waves.  They were yelling too.  We were at the MG, laying them low by the hundreds.  But they kept coming.  We would change the barrel so it wouldn't melt, and we'd set the barrel in its case so it would cool off.  We were firing so much that the barrel would burn through our gloves when we changed it.  Then the whole gun would get hot.  If the gun had a hang-up, we were done for.  But the gun kept going.  OOrah, oorah!  Bzzzow!  That was the Russian's cheer: OO-rah.  When the gun stopped firing, you'd think you were deaf but I can still hear the sound of the snow as it fell on the barrel in the case: psst, psst, psst.  The snow helped to cool the barrel.  I can still hear it, psst, psst, psst.

Did you ever collect souvenirs from the enemy?
No, but after the war, my kids used to bring stuff into the house.  Rusty old helmets, guns, grenades, bombs.  Some of the old stick grenades, you know, with the rotten handles still attached.  They didn't know.  I used to punish them, but to them they were toys to be found in the woods.

Did you sing in the SS?  Do you remember any of the songs?
Yes, we sang quite a bit.  I remember "Erika" and "Der Blaue Dragoner".  There were a lot more but I don't remember them.  I haven't heard them in years.  Not too long ago I heard "Der Blaue Dragoner" on a TV program.  It struck me and made me sad.  I don't remember singing at the front, though.  We were too busy and too cold.  We also liked to listen to the radio.  They played a lot of very good music on the radio, they had special times for certain types of music, almost like a concert.  We would hear classical music like Beethoven or Wagner.  They also put on little shows for us, with comedians or singers.  One comedian told some jokes about Frenchmen, of course it didn't go over real well with us.  Then he switched to jokes which made fun of the Russian soldiers.  This didn't go over real well, either, because the Russian soldiers were nothing to be laughed at.  We felt like yelling: "if you think they are so funny, come to the front with us and then tell us what you think!"

What kinds of uniform and equipment were you issued?
Helmet, uniform, belt, breadbag, canteen.  The usual stuff.  For the winter we got thick boots like the Russians but ours had leather bottoms.  The Russian boots came apart very easily but ours did not.

How do you feel today about your war experience?
The war came and I was in it, the same thing happened to a lot of people of my generation.  You Americans are so naive!  Like that bumper sticker (this was on a car in our apartment parking lot: it read "What if they had a war and nobody came?").  As if you can avoid the war if it is being fought in your back yard!

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