Johann Scheins

Johann Scheins was born in 1920 in Aachen. He was drafted into the army in 1941 and became a truck driver in the 16th Panzer Division, which led the advance to Stalingrad. Stationed at Gumrak in December 1942, his unit later withdrew to the center of Stalingrad where Scheins was taken prisoner on January 29, 1943.  Released from captivity in late 1949, he returned to Germany, physically unable to work for two years. Later he again took up work as a driver. Scheins lives in a small town near Aachen.

We got lost on our way to the small town near Aachen where Scheins lives with his wife. When we arrived after dark he greeted us from the kitchen window overlooking the street. He insisted that we take a tour of his small farm – vegetable patches, chickens, a rabbit hutch – before sitting down in his modestly furnished living room. A fierce man not looking or sounding his age, Scheins spoke about the war, Soviet captivity, and his postwar life in a thick Low German dialect dotted with earthy expressions.

When we had shat through our pants we got new ones from the dead.

What was the most terrible moment for you in Stalingrad? Can you remember?

We were so afraid we often shat in our pants. It was impossible. Honestly.

We just had an awful time. We didn’t need to wash our dirty trousers. We couldn’t wash them. And when we had shat through our pants we got new ones from the dead.

Did you soil your pants because of the constant shelling? 

Out of fear.  We were located here and the Russians were up there. I was taken prisoner in the Soviet prison building. The [Russian] tanks stood where the monument now is, you know, Mother Stalin [reference to the tall “Mother Russia” statue in Volgograd that was built after the war to commemorate the battle]. One could see Red Square from there. And I went there. I was always …curious to see what was happening. Always had my eyes wide open. The last room, it was half the size of this one, to the left there was a door that led to the exterior. I went in there and there a general sat, sort of in the same spot where you are sitting. He was wearing his cap and his coat. And he had such an odd expression on his face. The wall was there, the door was here. I entered, stood here next to the door. There were two people at the table. The general said nothing; they said nothing. They were afraid. They were officers. I then said: “What should we do now?” And then a staff sergeant, who could speak perfect Polish, entered at a trot. He was Polish, but a German Pole. He announced that four tanks, Russian T-34, had run over and cut the cables, that there was no longer any connection. There was nothing that could be done. One could no longer make telephone calls. They had run over the cable. We should surrender. The general then stood up. He adjusted his collar to make it neater. He was tall. He put on his cap. I stood here; he stood there. He just stood there, then he took his revolver – Long live Germany! Long live my country! – and he shot himself here and then fell forwards. I thought he would fall off the table. I stood right there. I had never seen such a thing: some white stuff came out at the top. The stuff that comes out of a herring when you cut it up. Not the bones. The white stuff.

Quite dense. Such a hole. He had aimed the bullet upwards. Blood started coming out. He bled to death. There he lay, on the table. And I then left. I left and went somewhere else, meandering through the bunkers.

When one sees something like that, what does one think?

No, no. We had seen worse before that. In the encirclement. A human being can tolerate so much, it’s unbelievable howmuch a human being can tolerate. And survive. The human being is the world’s most dangerous predator. Let me tell you. And in the other corner – there were the two floors that made up the basement. One floor below we had twenty-seven wounded men. Jupp from Remscheid, a professional boxer. …His knee had been shot. If you had touched his calf it would have swung from side to side. It hung just by the tendons. There were twenty-seven men there. Wounded. On straw and mattresses. And here the captain lay, a gentleman from Hamburg, I think his name was Meppmann. I’ve forgotten the name. I’ll be ninety. He lay there, he had a stomach bullet wound. …We placed him below, in our room. And then all of a sudden, at around 3:30 PM, two Komsomols came in, the Russian Hitler Youth. They wore a uniform, and had American boots on. You could have shot into those boots, they were still too large for these youngsters. And they wore camouflage jackets. And they had Russian guns. Those guns were unique. One could simply shoot and shoot with them. So those two came in. Two men. Chassy. Chassy – watches, watches, watches. Various things, various watches, various chassy. So every German took off his watch, and I took off my watch. My watch had a silver watchband. I placed it on the ground and laid my boots on top. That’s what I did. And one of the Russians saw that and beat me with his gun.

They then said: you need to leave the cellar. That’s what those two said: we have to get out, poshli! [Russian: “Go!”]. I and a few others then said: there are twenty-seven wounded people here, they can’t walk. They said that they would be taken to a hospital. I then said: Chto takoe [Russian: “What kind of?”] hospital? There is no more hospital here! It was all in ruins. You bandit, they yelled at me. They called me a bandit. … I then swore at them. More Russians appeared. We then all had to leave. We then stood 50 meters from Red Square. … And we then heard: rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. You could hear that from outside, when… the twenty-six, twenty-seven men, they shot them dead.

That was the day when you were taken prisoner?

Yes, January 29 [1943].

A soldier is worth a piece of paper. A tank costs a million.

How did you get to see Stalingrad for the first time?

It was on August 19 [1942]. No one had reached Stalingrad yet. We just had one armored vehicle, an infantry carrier. A coffin on wheels. Wheels in front, tracks at the back. There was a door at the back. It was like a tank. Or a coffin. Open at the top. There were three men in the half-track. We lost our way. We traveled from Peskovatka to Kalach. That was 54 kilometers. We said: “Look, the road to Stalingrad”. We drove on. And then we came across a dairy. We drove and drove. The weather was nice. We didn’t see any Russian soldiers. There were still occasional Russians here and there, going to work. Near Stalingrad we saw people coming out of a factory. … There were people there who could speak German. Stalingrad also had a lot of Volga Germans. They said: the Russians are back there. And we then took off, going back. Back to our unit. That’s where Lieutenant Hochfels was. And the other guy, First Lieutenant Melschütz. They made a huge fuss. But they were glad that we brought the tank back. The half-track. We had no other personnel carriers left. Well, a tank costs a million Reichsmark, a soldier costs a piece of paper.

A soldier costs a piece of paper. A tank costs a million. If we returned with the chains of the tank broken, we would say: “Tank not battle worthy.” Where is the tank? It’s standing here and there. Their faces would turn red. Our officers were angry. And they would yell: “A soldier is worth a piece of paper. A tank costs a million.” We could lose a hundred soldiers, but if we lost a tank, that was terrible. That was the attitude of our German officers. That’s why I’m angry with the officers. Most of them, most of them, you understand?

The Russians in front of us across the street. Then their loudspeakers broadcast again: “Comrades, cross over to our side! You’ll have a warm meal three times a day. And you can sleep with the most beautiful girls from Moscow and Leningrad.” That’s what the Russians said. In German. “Bring Lieutenant X, shoot him. Shoot First Lieutenant Y. They’re criminals. Don’t accept this situation any longer. Comrades, cross over!”

We had a Lieutenant Hochfels. We shot him ourselves. Our Lieutenant Hochfels. Shot him ourselves, the bastard. His father was a Protestant pastor in Mannheim. Not Mannheim, Koblenz. His father came to see me here in Floris. But I didn’t tell him how his son died. He was twenty-four years old, a Hitler Youth leader. Very dangerous. He came to us as a First Lieutenant. He was twenty-four, the know-it-all. Had no idea how to load a carbine. He was supposed to lead us. But this lieutenant made us do pack drills fifty meters behind the front line, in full view of the Russians. We were visible to them, and the Russians shot at us. He was really callous. So when he poked up his head we shot him.

We had 700 Russian prisoners in Bukovskaya, at Millerovo. And we didn’t know what to do with them. We didn’t want them around. We tried to get them to go back to Russia, but they didn’t want that. Well, we sent them back over to the Russians. It was a hilly landscape. The Russians shot all of them. They shot their own people. Because they had been prisoners of the Germans.

And I said to the Russians: “You have the flesh, but I will take the bones with me back to Germania.”

In an interview that I read, you talked about how in the last days of the Stalingrad encirclement 200 or 300 soldiers went out onto the frozen Volga river and collectively blew themselves up? You saw that?

Yes, I was there. They knew that the Russians wanted to kill them. They didn’t want that. So they got together and went onto the Volga, with handgrenades. They made a big hole, three meters wide. I was standing near a barge that was frozen in the river, and I watched. And they roared: “Long live Germany.” And then lit the handgrenades… A huge splash, 10, 15 meter high, pfft. Two, three hundred men – all gone.

What did you think to yourself when you saw that?

I always thought: I would never do that. No I wouldn’t. They can’t shoot all Stalingrad fighters, all 300,000 men. That would be impossible. The rest of the world wouldn’t allow it. The Americans were in Vladivostok. The world wouldn’t allow it. It’s not possible when there still is a war on. It’s not possible. They could kill a single soldier, but not 300,000 men. And I said to myself: you will not do that. Every evening I told myself that. And I said to the Russians: Posmotri [Russian: “Look here!”]. You have the flesh, but I will take the bones with me back to Germania. I weighed just 64 pounds.

[Scheins tells how he was taken prisoner:]

We were herded onto the square. 6000 men. We were taken to Beketovka. …For fourteen days we lay on the dead. In Beketovka. 45,000 died in 21 days.

So we were in Dubovka. There were another 34,000 dead. We stacked them up: eight men here, eight men there. And in the middle a space so that two horse carts could drive through there. And the people who were lying there, they were all swollen up. Their genitals became swollen. And their eyes and bellies. And we had to throw more dead bodies on top, like this, raz, dva [Russian: “one, two”]. When we did that the Russians enjoyed it. When the dead bodies burst there was a hissing sound. The yellow stuff sprayed all over us. It was warm in June. Then a typhus epidemic broke out, the plague …We stacked up 34,000 there. Dead.

Scheins comments about a postcard from the camp, which hangs framed in his house:

We were allowed to write 24 words. 25 words with our signature. We weren’t allowed to write more than that. It was like this: it was 1946. We were awarded the red flag. Cement factory “Bolshevik”. Russia’s largest cement factory. And we got the red flag. We had overshot our quota. And so Foreign Minister Vyshinsky appeared. A fat man. That must have been in ’47, or ’48. I was there till ’50, you know. He came to us in the factory. I was working at the oven, heating. Adjusting the heat. We had oil heating. 800 degrees. And then the foreign minister appeared. He had fresh red cheeks. I went up to him and said: “Tovarish Minister”. I asked him if I could send a postcard home. I had papa, mama and siblings and whether I could pisali [Russian: “write”], whether I could write home. They didn’t know where I was. – Where did you serve? I said I was in the 16th Panzer Division. Oh, krepko [Russian: “strong”]. Mozhno pisali [Russian: “You’re allowed to write”]. I should go to the politburo in the camp. And that’s where they took the picture. The photo had to be sewn onto the postcard. The Russians did that. And it took seven days for the card to go from Moscow to this place, Aachen.

This book. I was given it as a present in ’47. The man from Aachen, who also painted the postcard, he painted the book. But he died. And it’s all written in the Aachen dialect, you see.

You were allowed to take it out of the camp? 

I have the names of 108 people here, who died.  I smuggled it …That could have cost me my life. They felt up my ass with their finger and we had to push back our foreskins. They really checked us. Then again in Brest-Litovsk [the Soviet border town to Poland]. They opened our mouth and everything. We had to take off our caps; they checked our scalps. I had the book in my bag. There was soap in there, a loaf of bread and the little book. And then we had to take off our clothes. The table was here. The Russians stood there. There were men there and there. And we had to walk there. I took off my clothes. I then had to take off my pants. Cotton trousers. I placed the bag with its string here in the pants. They didn’t see that. And the Russians checked the pants last. I said: Kholodno. I’m cold. I snatched the pants. Davai, next! I held the pants and the bag in front of me and walked away. In Friedland [camp for returnees in West Germany], they were just speechless when they saw the book.

Scheins reads from the book:

Cement hymn

Where the Volga waves lap through the wide landscape
Where the chalk wall gleams at the high riverbank
Where the dark plumes pour forth into the firmament
Yes, that’s the curse of …[unintelligible word], yes,
That is cement!

Where grey waste heaps stand on meadows
Where grey steam escapes from all vents
Where one is far away from the rest of the world
This grey joint is called “Bolshevik”.

Where the plenny [Russian: “prisoner”] has to drag heavy trolleys,
Where work is always a great enjoyment,
Where one sinks to one’s knees in cement,
These grey halls, I’ll never forget them.

Where the dust makes breathing a terrible torment,
Where one can hear a thousand curses a day,
Where the walls are grey upon grey, where people say,
Oh, if only this life would end.

When the plenny years are over
And I’m back in golden freedom
I will always recall with mild horror
The far away Volga, the cement factory.

The little book also contains the verses of a plenny song:

Deep in Russia, where the bleak winds blow,
Where huts stand, surrounded by barbed wire.

Where the wolf still does wild deeds,
There the plenny’s heart beats a full rhythm.

His gaze travels far to the West,
Only the thought of returning home
Let him endure his imprisonment.

His home is also his greatest pain,
For it lies in ruins… like his heart.

Many years have passed by
Since the plenny saw his woman, his child.

Only the hope of a reunion
Keeps him strong in the darkest hour.

Where work is always a great enjoyment,
Where one sinks to one’s knees in cement

Nice poetry. 

We all wrote verses. My best piece is this one. Yes, if they had caught me, I as a twenty-five year old would have been… (does not finish the sentence).

Army spoons. From the Wehrmacht [German army]. And here is a fork. We had to remove the tines. I removed the tines and added a heart. Then it was khorosho [Russian: “okay”]

Photograph showing Scheins as a POW, along with a tin spoon bearing his initials and a wood carving he made in Soviet captivity

Photograph showing Scheins as a POW, along with a tin spoon bearing his initials and a wood carving he made in Soviet captivity.

I thank God that I returned home. I spent a year in Bonn in a clinic. I constantly suffered from malaria. And I then returned to my home and applied 54 times for a job with the district administration. Didn’t know what else to do. And then I went to Baasfelde. The Saar region. You’re familiar with the region? The coalmine there.

And Falen, the boss there, he was a friend of my father’s. My father had groomed his horses. He shod their hooves and so on. And then I worked at the coalmines as a metalworker. And he said: “You won’t have to work in the coalmine. You can work with the district administration.”

I said: “What should I do there?”

The head of personnel said: “You need to write a resume.” I said: “I already wrote one. Eight years of schooling, then Russia. Was a soldier. And now I’m here.”

“They’re looking for a driver. You’ll start working there as a driver. Report in the morning to Dr. Wunschek!” On a Saturday. They still worked on Saturdays. ’51.  Dr. Wunschek, the administrative director of the district, said: “You can start on Monday. Without application.”

The head of personnel said: “Herr Scheins, …You need to write a resume. That’s what is normally done.” I said: “I already wrote one. Eight years of schooling, then Russia. Was a soldier. And now I’m here.”

And then I was hired.

Wunschek, he was proper. Everyone feared him. He was untouchable. One couldn’t be friendly with him. I was the only person who would chide him if there was a reason. In the car.  I said: “Herr Doctor, the things you said, you will hear back from us about that.” He said:“Leave me alone!” I said “You will hear back from us.” “How dare you…” – “Yes, the voice of the people.” You see?

Later we got the car license plate “GK” for Geilenkirchen. “GK”. A private car, it was a Mercedes. He said: “You’re now driving a new car, GK-A1. A1 …What do you think of that?”

I said: “Herr Doctor, I didn’t want the license plate A1.”

“Why not?”

“Do you know what that means?”

“Crazy Asshole No. 1” [German: “Geisteskranker, Arschloch Nr. 1”]. You see? Crazy asshole No. 1. I didn’t want that license plate. Weelllll – then I was in trouble. He went around telling other people what I had said about him. That it was the voice of the people.

I was invited several times to Stalingrad. It’s definitive – I’ll never go there again. I’d rather walk with a dead man.

Does Stalingrad appear in your dreams?

I’ve only been speaking to you for a couple of days. I can say that I sit every day in my bed – for hours. All the memories surface. Always before Christmas. Terrible. Christmas was the worst time when I was a prisoner. On Christmas Eve the Russians would come in at 10 PM. They would count us. We then had to go outside – quickly, quickly. Nearly barefoot, only wearing socks. 20, 30 degrees cold. We stood outside half-naked. Just padded jackets on. And we had to form groups of five men each. Raz, dva – always five men.

Then the Russians started counting. The commander. And then they went back to the headquarters, in the house, to booze. Then they returned after an hour. Nichevo [Russian: “no problem”]. “Have you counted?” I said: “Nope.” “Count!” Then there was a new count. We counted from 10 PM, 11 PM till 2, 3 AM. The sentries stood outside with carbines. Then one man fell over due to the cold. Another man fell over… 10, 12 men, 16 men, the number varied, fell over. They had to be placed in front. So that they could also be counted. Oh, zavtra [Russian: “tomorrow”] it’s all over. Tomorrow morning he’ll be dead. We went indoors and they remained lying on the ground. They weren’t allowed to be brought indoors. In the morning they were frozen stiff – broken. Zavtra utrom – tomorrow morning it’ll be all over with them. Posmotri! [Russian:“Look!”] Look up, that’s where God is, He’s seen that and you bandits will go to hell.

I was invited several times to Stalingrad. It’s definitive – I’ll never go there again. I’d rather walk with a dead man.

If I describe all these things today, no one believes me. Not a soul. That we ate ass cheeks.

Herr Scheins, thank you very much for this conversation! 

Don’t leave, have a bite!

2014 © Facing Stalingrad. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, all text by Jochen Hellbeck, photos by Emma Dodge Hanson.
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