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Personal Recollections

The Boy Who Lost the War

Alfred Reinhard Zimmermann’s Leidensweg

By Rosina T. Schmidt

Edited by Cornelia Brandt

Alfred R. Zimmermann was born on 18th of August 1929 in the pretty village of Wiechs in Wiesenthal on the northern slopes of the Dinkelberg Mountain. Therefore by 1941 he was 15 and just at the right age to be enrolled into the Hitler Youth Work Camp in his area. Two years later, at 17, he was already drafted into the German army.

His division was fighting the Russians in Caucasus and ended up in the High Tatra Mountains by 1944, where they had been fiercely defending their front line against the swarming Russians. However, it was a losing battle. First one flank fell silent, than the other, and at last only Alfred and another German soldier were defending the center all by themselves. Having seen a bomb heading their way, the comrade bolted out of the hole from where they were throwing the grenades and ran like lightening over the grassy knoll of the mountain crest to the thickly wooded area. Zimmermann was not far behind.

Unlucky for young Alfred a shrapnel hit him in the right foot, blew not only half of his heavy boot away, but half of his foot too and prevented the 18-year-old Wiechser warrior of escaping. He had been taken prisoner by the Russians and with other five heavily wounded German soldiers imprisoned in a close-by mountain hut, guarded by a lone Russian youthful combatant armed to the teeth. Zimmermann’s comrades were all in worse shape though. Somehow they managed to bandage themselves with their own shirts and belts, to reduce the life threatening bleeding.

On the second night Alfred heard the lone guard snoring in front of the wooden hut doors so he decided to try to escape. He managed to hobble down the steep mountain side for some 200 meters, where he hid under the low, thick green branches of a bunch of spruce trees, between which he found two saplings firm enough to make two crutches with the help of his knife. It was a blessing that he managed to hide the knife in his undamaged shoe when the Russians searched him. There, under those branches, covered with leaves, his heart beating wildly, he spent the next day, his 18th birthday.

It took young Alfred quite a few nights, exactly nine, to make his way through the Russian front lines hobbling on his crutches to reach the retreating German lines some distance of 230 km as the crow flies. His main staple food was the green leaves of the stinging nettles, which he chewed upon by balling the leaves together in order to prevent too many stings. Did his mother not make a stinging nettle soup in the spring and had it not tasted delicious? He tried to gather other weeds while under way, dandelions, wild leeks, all kind of roots and berries still hanging on the bushes. Having made it to the German lines, he was immediately taken to the field hospital set up into that town’s only hotel. Finally he received the badly needed first aid and surgery. Of course his wound was by now turning from bad to worse.

On May 8th 1945 the end of that ghastly WWII finally arrived. Two days later the Russian Army arrived as well, and threw every last German soldiers, no matter how wounded, out of the military makeshift hospital, as they needed those very same rooms for their own injured combatants. Even though the Russians kept all of the medical supplies, they decided not to keep the German doctors for fear that they might poison them.

All the German patients were stuffed, 20-25 per car, in some hastily collected freight train wagons and left standing on the railway trucks. There were over one thousand critically ill Germans laying on the wagon bare floors with no medical supplies of any kind. The doctors managed to lessen the suffering somehow by organizing for each patient one can of a weak soup per day as their only nourishment. Four days later, the train still stood there.

Somebody had a great idea to kidnap the train and bring them all home to Germany. Perhaps just said in jest, but the idea caught on with lightning speed. Unfortunately, a locomotive was missing, the engineer and the stoker as well. Just as the luck would have it, an engineer was found between the wounded, who just recently lost both of his legs during a bombing attack on the train he was driving. No problem. He was bound to a board and the board kept upright, so he was able to “stand”. His stocker was one of the patients also, having been wounded in the upper arm and shoulder, which were tied with diverse shirt strips to stall the bleeding.

Just who had the brilliant idea to kidnap the train, young Zimmermann could not recall, but as the night fell on the fourth day, the few able-bodied men, the male nurses and the doctors, went in both directions of the train trucks to see if they could find a locomotive. Luck was with them again. Only five kilometers away stood an engine that looked big enough to pull the long train. While some men stayed back to steal the coal for the engine and fill it with water, one run all the way back to the hospital train, as now they had to bring the engineer on his stretcher and the stoker back to the locomotive, drive the engine to the train and leave the train station before the snoring Russian guards would wake up. It was done as planned. Lo and behold, they managed to kidnap the train, creeping slowly in the westerly direction, as it was soon found out that the brakes of the locomotive were not working.

It was quite an odyssey. Each time they reached a broken bridge, they had to backtrack the train to the first switching station behind them and try another direction. At the switching places new problems occurred. No one was found who knew what to do. Many tries and misses were necessary. Food was the major problem, as there was none. So the ration of one can of weak soup per day was reduced by half. Yet there was abundance of hope that maybe, just maybe, some of them might make it home.

The engineer drove this route before and he recalled that there were ethnic German villages on that route, where they hoped to be able to find some help. It did take them a few days to reach that place and were overwhelmed with gratitude when all the villagers turned up, generously bringing baskets and baskets of food. They spent a whole day there, so the engineer and the stoker could catch up on some sleep. The journey continued with stops between the inhabited places, to burry all those comrades in the hastily dug up graves who did not make it since the last stop. Did any one count them? Was it dozen today or more?  Over 200 never made it.

On one occasion they passed an abandoned German train on a sideline, so they investigated it. The train was completely full, wagon-by-wagon, floor to ceiling with soldier boots. In the first car, however, there stood six sacks of confectionary sugar. What a godsend! It was divided immediately between all train cars, as once again they had a few days of fasting behind them. Alas, the water was missing to rinse all that sweetness down.

The train continued creeping along the back rail lines, hoping to find the bridges intact. After the longest 12 days they reached their first destination goal: The city of Pilsen on the Czech side of the German border, which was under American occupation. Sadly they were not given the permission to cross the border into Germany, but had to report back to the city of Carlsbad on the Czech side. A field hospital was available to them there. What a disappointment it must have been to those sick and starving boys. It was said that the negotiations were still ongoing between the Allies regarding what was to be done with the returning German soldiers.

All the grand hotels in the former spa city of Carlsbad were turned into the field hospital, and Alfred with two other comrades shared a room in the Maria Hof Hotel. After waking up the next morning he wanted to see out of the hotel window just where they ended up, but the comrade closer to the window beat him to the first view. Or almost. The moment his head appeared in the window he was shot from the garden below by a Czech soldier.  

Finally, it was Zimmermann’s turn for a medical checkup. One of the doctors was sure that the only way to save his life would be to cut off his right foot. The other wanted to try to heal it with medication first. Much of the gangrened muscle was cut off and Alfred was advised to put his hopes in prayers.

Two weeks later all the patients whose homes were in either the American or English occupied Zones of Germany could return home. The others had to stay. The French occupying force took all the returning German soldiers to their French Foreign Legion and the Russians sent them as slave laborers to their Siberian mines.

As Alfred's hometown was in the French zone it would have been best for him to stay in Carlsbad, but with all of his 18 years he knew that unless he returned home to his mother’s cooking and care without delay he would never make it to celebrate his next birthday. To Alfred’s delight, his roommate offered that Alfred assume his own address in Stuttgart, which was part of the American zone, as his first step homeward. For this Alfred is forever grateful.

It was still dark the next morning when 40-45 German-soldier-patients were crammed on each truck. The large truck colony left Carlsbad in a hurry, as the journey to Stuttgart would take a whole day with no stops in between. By the time they reached Bavaria, it was already noon and all of them were craving for water; even some food would have been nice. Alas, the Bavarians started throwing stones at the “boys who refused to fight and lost the war” to the horror of the returning wounded Fatherland fighters. By the time they reached Swabia they were pelted while the trucks raced on. This time not only with warm greetings but also with whole loaves of bread and other kinds of food. Manna to the starving boys.

Although the trucks drove non-stop they reached Stuttgart’s destroyed main train station and their final destination by 22h. Even though the curfew had started an hour earlier, by special permission it was extended and the news about their arrival spread like a wild fire. In no time family members, friends, sweethearts and ambulances picked everybody up but young Zimmermann and another soldier.  So the two returning Native soil fighters hid in the train stations ruins until the end of the curfew of the next morning.

Meanwhile Zimmermann found out that the French would let wounded soldiers go home without taking them into the French Foreign Legion, so he and hundreds of others stood a whole day in a line up in front of the French Army office. The line did not budge. Next morning our hobbling Zimmermann on his two crutches was in the line much earlier. So were hundreds of others. Just then a French soldier saw him and inquired about his destination goal. Zimmermann ended being one of only three German soldiers per day who received the permission to return home to the German French Zone. Lady Luck was on his side.

He has been put on a train and another odyssey began, this time all over Baden- Württemberg. From a train to truck to another train and to trucks again. Sometimes even having to cross the creeks and rivers on foot, as the bridges were bombed out, and climb again with his crutches on to the train waiting on the other side. After all that zigzagging, walking and riding in various trains, trucks and busses young Alfred reached his hometown’s train station of Schopfheim via Konstanz.

Alas, in Schopfheim too he received many hostile greetings “as the boy who lost the war”, specifically by young chaps who managed to keep themselves out of the war obligations altogether.  Eventually the returning Wiechser warrior hobbled his way up the Dinkelberg hill past the Sanatorium, past the cemetery where his ancestors lay buried, past the little chapel where he was christened and confirmed and to his mother’s kitchen on the Zimmermann’s homestead.

Mr. Zimmermann to this day did not set his healthy or even his damaged foot on the Bavarian soil. He has also not been compensated in any way or form for his war wounds.

So much for fighting for Fatherland!

*** Alfred Zimmermann died November 2006 on the very same Zimmermann homestead. ***

Interview with Mr. Zimmermann in Wiechs, April, 2000 by Rosina T. Schmidt . 

Mr. Zimmermann’s daughter-in-law is of Danube Swabian descent.