A letter from Julia Pressel:
Dear friends of Simeon Pressel,
when my mother was moving I found a text, written in an unknown handwriting that I now want to share with you. Somebody seems to have written down what had been recorded from an oral narration. I remember one evening, maybe it was year 1969, when we were on a vacation in the Netherlands: my father was invited by the members of the Christian Community in Haarlem to share his memories from Belarus; in between he also played violin, pieces of Bach, that he had played in the imprisonment. A similar session seems to me be the root of this text.
Some parts of the audio playback seems not to have been heard and are also in the ”original” text marked with dots: ....
Other parts or words I cannot read, and are marked with (?).
Some words were underlined with a red pen, and are here shown in boldface.
I think that these underlinings originate from himself: in one place an incomplete word has been finished with the same red pen and I think that I can recognize his handwriting.
The text does not seem to be finished. Due to the many occasions of him talking in present, I have concluded that this session has been recorded relatively soon after he came home from the imprisonment, although signature and date is missing.
Russia in this text should be understood as Belarus.
I made the arrangement of this text on the 21st of august 2012.
The translation to English was made by Natalie Pressel Karlsson on the 22nd of March 2018.
As I here shall tell you from the three years of war imprisonment that I have endured, then will
go ... first ... as you might come to notice during my tale. The imprisonment was shaped in two ways (?). The first is that ... without what the companions experienced who stayed over there. Already within the first two years, more than half of the prisoners who came to Russia died. Later the conditions got a little better; that will be proved later concerning high resistance, special characteristics (?), new development; characteristics (?) to overcome just that kind of situations. How come that so many did not endure – a shock contains a lot. The most of us has already experienced some kind of shock and can imagine that a persons who gets exposed for these shocks from different directions ... not anymore have the time to overcome them and they will end up in a state termed grimness.
Already in the first camps that I went through I saw that the people did not take interest in their surroundings anymore, but dully pondered inwardly and mostly thought about when the next meal would be served. I read in someone’s diary: ”Today also nothing new happened; today we did not get any tobacco either; today the officers got tobacco but we did not!” That is what the average prisoner day looks like at this time. Very many prisoners were only concerned about this. I can say that I stayed completely free from this kind of prisoner ... One time I was on my way to think, in the summer when the swallows flew through the air, that their life was better than mine. Oh how foolish! ... On the contrary, when my imprisonment was approaching its end I got a kind of worry to return to the many possibilities of the freedom.
Now back to the camp, to one time in a camp that accommodated 10.000 people but where it most of the time resided 35.000. The people found somewhere a piece of a board or cardboard and from this they built a kind of windshield where they hid when it was raining. One time I experienced a cloudburst; the roof lifted and many bones were broken. The life for these people is not enviable. What distinguished my sleeping place was that it did not rain there. When you pass through this time, you can see miserable people crouching or laying on the floor. If one person picks up a piece of paper or something else, then somebody will immediately rush against that person and say that it is mine. Everything from a rock and upward has an owner. Another time these first days: you can see people who are sitting in a corner, holding a piece of fabric; this handkerchief will be washed sometimes and then the prisoner will have a concept about his own existence. I have seen this picture again and again.
Almost everybody lacks a meaningful employment. To work according to the Russians is completely meaningless. The people are working a little here and a little there. To perform to 100% ... there are people who are engaged to 60% or 80%. I realized that the estimation of each and ones working performance was wholly ignored because the supervisor was told how much he can regard as 100% etc. Sympathy and antipathy are in this situation very important. To work as a doctor ... fast ... you can also see sportsmen perishing miserably ... I saw a six-days-professional bike-racer die of ... ; then also a boxer who still performed the first summer; or a steeplechaser ... an elite tennis player.
The hours before death are easy to describe. From the outside it looks like this: the lethargy is increasing; in the beginning they still get up to eat, then others have to carry the food to them and one day they leave the food untouched; after this they get diarrhea: The last three ... the reaction to indicate. Then they are spiritually absent and you can barely tell how these people have died. This is what the death looks like for 99% of the war prisoners who did not die from diseases. One time only I have seen a death-struggle in relation to diphtheria. I have seen at least 100 persons die, when they wore away from absolute health and strength: they slowly withered away. I have seen almost completely no epidemics at all. Alone I had to take care of 800. Typhus (?); isolation was by that time still not possible.
In most of the camps it was bad. The sick, who by the doctors had been taken to ... got sooner or later fetched again by an officer. Regrettable contributed also the German staff to this and I will not keep quiet about that. One day a person was flogged out to work and he died the same afternoon; but according to the Russians this is normal. There was no happiness during the whole time. Later they introduced a hospital ward that was kept in an underground bunker. There were no windows, doors or lamps. Light came through an opening that was blocked by beds during the nights. The people lined up to explain there problems, mostly that was about the bladder. ”Doctor, there is a problem, I get wet all the time.” During this first summer in 1945 these problems were especially common; something that could not be explained.
After some time they gave us medicines and bags of straw, before that we slept directly on the floor. We got blankets; but they took them away again. The Germans were just as guilty for this as the Russians. The blankets were taken to be sold to others. Outside the fence that surrounded the camp were the civilians and the whole day this was a place for business: shoes were changed for some tobacco. But the Russian guards took everything from the civilians again so that they could not sell it to others. A young man sold his whole uniform three times, later he got a new one from a kind camp leader. This phenomenon is not possible to understand.
Many times I could only help through encouragement. I tried to pull the people back to reality again. I remembered from some text that a doctor ... on the strength, even the volume. Often no other possibility was left to me but to roar at people. There was no other way to get them back to reality. Another thing I could do was to give massage. I am myself a great friend of massage. Before I have occupied myself with it and it has turned out to be operative as long as the giver has healthy hands. The hardest cases I handled myself. I was searching for fitting assistance. The prisoner of war does only what he is forced to do. But soon there were a few who could give massage. Many times I let everybody who were working in my ward line up in the morning and everybody was to work the back on the person in front of him. In this way I found a very talented masseur. I noticed him and later he became my first caregiver and masseur.
From this camp in the forest I was moved to a hospital due to sickness of my own. You have to wait one to two days for your turn. Most of the people arrive on a Saturday but have to wait until Monday until they can see a doctor. In the waiting room there is always a few who dies. When I was sent there the first one died already before we had left the forest camp; the next man died on the train; the third one when we were being unloaded; no one during the waiting time. In the end the sick person got undressed and lost in this way all his private property. He gets his spoon, tobacco, towel and perhaps also his toothbrush back, if he owns such ”luxury”. After this it is time for a bath. There is a kind of wash house with something like buckets. The holes in them are stuffed with some fabric to make the water flow slower. This is what is called delousing. After this the sick person is taken inside the barrack, in his underwear, snowstorm or not. The toilet is outside, with a roof over it. Apart from that it is open for any observation; all the feelings of shame have by time disappeared completely.
After I had endured a winter there, with a ... then summer came and the doctors got opportunities to go out in the forest (the hospital was two filled barracks); in the beginning voluntarily with the group who was searching for firewood. The Russians have their own principle: every day you only gather as much firewood as is needed that day. The Russians do not work in advance! – The same situation with all the necessities. – In the beginning the soldiers were hiding pieces of firewood under their pillows, but the firewood commander was searching through everything. The work was most of the time easy to do before noon, and then the afternoons were free. Soon the first strawberries and blackberries were gathered and by this time the camp management had had time to become more humane. Consequently I got opportunities to gather medicinal plants. I got home with many bouquets and herbs. In the beginning the Russians were a little sceptical about my activities, but later I got the official task to set up a large supply of medicine.
Those who were not very sick came with me. The Russian traditional medicine is well considered, it is promoted by the universities and it is based on scientific basis. I have in the few pieces I could read about this found the right ... I remember for example that it said in one text that in garlic, onions and other plants used for flavoring there is a substance that in short time (five minutes) has a sterilizing effect. In the end we were allowed to go out every afternoon and bring the less sick ones with us. Each doctor brought 5-10 people out after lunch. The surroundings there are completely flat and hopeless. I could rescue all my books and bring them back to Germany.
In the spring we were surprised by the nightingales with a nice concert in a way I have never experienced. Hundreds of nightingales broke out into a jubilation, day and night. The nights were rather bright. The closest village is called Polrzk. Only for one hour after midnight it was twilight. It felt similar in the forest where the plants were cheering. In the surroundings there was a morass, because of this there was such force. Every doctor had his favorite area and I liked the forest, my favorite forest. Now it was beautiful to see the people thaw a little in this nature. Often they lost themselves strongly in the nature. But they also soon were more alive again.
Now I want to tell about what I tried to do. I want to use the expression: to open up a human being! This opening could already be seen when they were thawing up in the nature. I had gathered a small circle of people around me with whom I could read Faust by Goethe, part one and two were available. Only one of them knew anything about Dr. Steiner; it was a man from Silesia. Over time the circle grew; we had lectures. The craft-masters were asked to talk. Later, when there were three or four in the group, I started to talk directly about the anthroposophy with them. ”Morgenstern.” Now we started to make the long winter evenings shorter by talking about other things. Soon everybody had learned something by heart and it gave us a solemn moment with Morgenstern, and the directions of Steiner. Soon it was necessary to go through some subjects in closer detail. Because of that we chose to give each evening its subject. The next time another from our circle were in charge of the evening and tried for one hour to make everything come to life for the rest of us. It is clear that we came each other closer through these attempts, not only in relation to me but between each and one of the circle we experienced an opening that otherwise did not exist there. Now you must imagine what a liberation it must be when it becomes possible to through this force break out through the ceiling. You must try to mediate an experience like that to the other people too; and also find a way out to M. in this environment and with these conditions of living!
Porridge per person, two tablespoons. After the sickness I also got this porridge: the quality was excellent and the quality of the nutritions was on the whole particularly good: mostly potatoes. The bread is mostly very tasty, but baked very juicy. The whole atmosphere and the crowding and the hardships, it must be broken with help from an offensive spiritual stimulus. This could not happen without the help that I had already found through the antrophosophy and that I had to take from my memory. I call this attitude to be offensive. On the other hand I had plenty of time there, and since I was healthy again the summer 1946 there was not a day when I did not do the evening review and other meditative stimulus. Review = depiction of a prisoner behind barbed wire.
The last year my activity was much greater. By this time the supply of provisions had become much better; the way of living was different. We furnished a big barn as a hospital with separate beds and a decent bathroom was also available. I had even put a bathtub there. Now I prepared a storage of medical supplies and when I left the camp I also left 30 different kinds of medicines, a large attic with healing plants. The production of the homeopathic medicines had some problems in the beginning. Soon the Russians were asking for them. – Quicksilver D6: I cured the son of the director of the hospital (?) with it, and after that my supply of medicine was considered harmless.
Community treatment: My infirmary now got a room of its own. When I came there in the morning with 20-40 and often up to 70 patients I felt already on the way there as an inner trial, how much strength can I give these people? But in this ward we did not only try to cure the diseases but we were also striving to help the sense of connection among us. In advent we did not only have the lectures but we sang Christmas carols and we had devotions by a Catholic priest. We read Faust and the works of Goethe and his language could then be a special experience. Later I could due to this experience also read out loud from books by Meister. Everybody were nicely employed! Later we read short stories; and poems were available.
In the end shortly about how we shaped our holidays. Christmas is the height of community, and so are the three Christmases that I have experienced in Russia unforgettable for me. At the last Christmas gathering the priest (my caretaker) talked first, we sang in between. By then we had obtained songbooks and music sheets. Then I said a few words. I put the light in the sky that had arrived with the atomic bomb in Japan, against the heavenly light in Bethlehem that has brought light to the deliverance of humanity. Then some of the patients talked. In the end we played a few pieces that my caretaker and I had practiced together. We also had a beautiful Christmas tree.