Past lives on
Minsker Diana Pavlovets contacted me regarding Fritz Schmenkel — a Hero of the Soviet Union whose memorial plaque was removed from the facade of Building 4 on Svobody Square some years ago. It commemorated his contribution to the partisan movement and his execution in 1944
Commemorative plaque. In autumn 1941, German anti-Nazi Fritz Paul Schmenkel voluntarily joined the Red Army to fight the Nazis, becoming a soldier of the ‘Death to Fascism’ partisan party in the Kalininsky Region. Taking the pseudonym Ivan Ivanovich, he became deputy commander of the ‘Field’ sabotage-reconnaissance group in the Orsha District of Belarus.
Fritz was born on February 14th, 1916, in the German town of Warsow, to the family of a worker. Before the war, he worked at a brick factory. He shared anti-Nazi opinions and, in 1938, refused to join the German army, so was imprisoned. By October 1941, he had been sent to the Eastern Front with the 186th division. In November 1941, he crossed the front line to join the Red Army and was met by partisans. He took part in all their major operations — exhibiting bravery, heroism and fearlessness.
In June 1943, Schmenkel was appointed deputy commander of the ‘Field’ sabotage-reconnaissance group, performing special tasks in the Orsha District. In December 1943, he was sent to the German rear but was seized by the Nazis in 1944. On February 15th, 1944, he was sentenced to death by a military field court — executed one week later in occupied Minsk.
By the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (the Soviet Parliament), dated October 6th, 1964, Fritz Schmenkel was posthumously named a Hero of the Soviet Union (the highest prize in the USSR). A commemorative plaque was installed in 1965 on the facade of Building 4 on Svobody Square in Minsk (the Nazi HQ for their rifle division and secret service). It read: ‘An active participant of the anti-Nazi fight and the Great Patriotic War, the German citizen and Hero of the Soviet Union Fritz Schmenkel was sentenced to death in this building in February 1944 by his Nazi executioners’. However, several years ago, the plaque was removed — probably due to reconstruction — and has not been replaced.
Minsker Diana Pavlovets contacted us to voice her concern at this oversight.
Poor child… Diana grew up in the war years, experiencing the horrors of Nazi occupation first hand. She remembers them well.
“In early 1943, when I was 12, my native village Chichkovo in the Navlinsky District of the Briansk Region was burnt to the ground by the Nazis. Fortunately, unlike Khatyn (a former village in the Logoisk District of the Minsk Region, burnt in the spring of 1943) people survived. I was marched to a labour camp with my mother, passing scenes of suffering along the way. We paused at a German village where, being on the verge of malnutrition, I knocked at a door and pushed it open. I felt warmth and a concerned female voice wailed in German, “Poor child, poor child…” The woman gave me something to drink and found footwear and clothes… Afterwards, I returned to the column. I can still hear her voice, crying “Poor child, poor child…”
Diana cannot remember the name of the village but, after the war, made efforts to locate it. She and her husband visited former East Prussia (now the Kaliningrad Region of Russia) but in vain.
“My mother was a teacher, as was a male prisoner — who had just one arm. One night, in the town of Prussia-Eylau, the man told us that we were being sent to Koenigsberg, where we’d be thrown over the bridge. Together with a small band of women, we decided to save ourselves. The Germans were retreating at the time, so all was chaos and our column was disjointed. We hid in the cellar of an old palace building in the town, living like animals. In fact, the Germans had other things to think about than our escape. When I saw ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ (a famous Russian TV-series) it brought back so many disturbing memories. There is a scene where a nun gives water to those in need; somebody had given me water while we hid in the cellar…
Down there we heard so much noise and shooting. German soldiers were tearing their epaulets off to disguise their nationality and rank. Suddenly, there was silence! Everybody stood still and the door opened. A military man appeared in an unknown uniform and began uttering obscenities in Russian. As a teacher of language and literature, I don’t use such words myself (or approve of them) but nor do they shock me, having heard them at that early age in that context.
Diana was carried from the basement in somebody’s arms, being unable to walk or stand. She and her mother were sent to a Soviet filtration point, where the girl fell terribly ill. At the first chance, they returned to the suburbs of Minsk, to find relatives. Her father returned from the war, later becoming headmaster of Plissa village school in the Smolevichi District.
Language of Anna Seghers. “I went back to school, but took only three classes. I decided to learn German, even though the sound of it terrified me. Our German teacher had been through the camps herself and her daughter was ill. She was miserable and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by not attending her classes. After so much hardship and loss, I couldn’t help but feel happy in my new life; the whole world was thrown open to me.
I went on to study German at the Faculty of Philology at the Belarusian State University. Our teacher was strict, brought up with old classical traditions, and always seemed to pick on me, saying I didn’t work hard enough. She kept me so busy that I didn’t have time to think about anything other than pleasing her. She asked me to translate a book by German author Anna Seghers — an anti-Nazi novel called ‘The Dead Are Ever Young’.
The German language and the war became compartmentalised in my consciousness. In fact, I loved Anna Seghers’ book, which showed new aspects to what had happened; I read it three times and, when I had to choose a topic for my dissertation, selected the works of Anna Seghers.
Hans, the hero of the novel, is the son of a worker. He is sent to the Eastern Front and joins the local anti-Nazi opposition, where he saves a partisan’s life. However, he is betrayed and killed. When I recall the woman in the German village, who warmed and fed me, I think that she could have been the mother of Hans… Wonderful stories happen in life… The story intertwined with reality for me, since I’d seen so many similar scenes as a child!
When I grew up, I made friends with German people of my own age, who had also been children during the war. The barrier was insurmountable with older people, though I remembered good Germans as well as bad…
Live pages. Diana became acquainted with the widow of Schmenkel at a public event. “My life was calm, with the trauma of the past pushed behind me. In 1966, I read an article about Fritz Schmenkel and a trip his wife and son had made to Minsk after the war. Then, I saw the commemorative plaque in Svoboda Square. In my mind, Fritz Schmenkel became associated with Hans — who wanted to join the partisans. I found magazines in the library and read them; it was so interesting.
Afterwards, my interest died away — until my grandson went to Meinz in Germany, where Anna Seghers had grown up! I’d never perceived her as a real person; only her heroes were alive for me.
Several years ago, I attended meetings of a public association for past Nazi prisoners and learned that they were twinned with the city of Meinz. Franz Blum, who supervises student exchanges between our towns, came to visit and was interested to know that people in Minsk knew about Anna Seghers. He promised to find a copy of her book in German for us.
Mr. Blum later brought the book to Diana and she is proud to read it. She asserts, “The commemorative plaque to Fritz Schmenkel should be returned to its original place...” Mr. Blum has invited her to visit Germany, which makes her a little nervous; the years may pass but the past lives on...