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Erwin Jöris . . . A German With Many Years In Hitler’s And Stalin’s Prisons

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Part 1

(Editor’s Note: In this three-part article, Dr. Hickson details the life of the late Erwin Jöris, a prisoner of totalitarian regimes, and explains how his life offers lessons for us today. In part three, she comments on how his experiences show the need to resist gradual violations of our privacy and freedom of thought and speech, before they are further eroded or effectively destroyed.
(Maike Hickson holds a doctorate in French literature from the University of Hannover.)

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Erwin Jöris, a former Communist activist and frequent political and military prisoner of two 20th-century dictatorships, recently died in Cologne, Germany, at the age of 101. The author of this article and her husband came to know him personally, and memorably witnessed several talks he gave to Swiss groups in the 1990s, calmly speaking about his extended life in the various prison camps of Hitler and Stalin.
A friend of mine, Dr. Andreas Petersen (who was so kind to assist me greatly in my own doctoral research), interviewed Jöris and deeply researched his fuller life over the course of many years, taking the pains of traveling as far as Russian Siberia, to be able to reconstruct on more than 500 pages a life that reflects in so many ways the life of men immersed in the inhuman political systems of the 20th century that strangled humanity in Europe and in more distant Russia.
In 2012, Petersen published, while Jöris was still alive, his biography, Deine Schnauze wird Dir in Sibirien einfrieren (Ein Jahrhundertdiktat. Erwin Jöris, Wiesbaden 2012). The title translates as “Your Snout Will Freeze Up in Siberia and Shut You Up.” The book was the basis for several theater pieces and films about Jöris’ life and suffering.
I propose first to describe Petersen’s biographical and historical research and then to present some reflections from a Catholic viewpoint. It is important to note that Jöris lived all his life in a thoroughly secular surrounding and that his biographer, too, has a mostly scientific-academic positivistic way of describing the events. Yet, the historical events that are presented largely through the eyes of one “witness of the time” (Zeitzeuge) are worth presenting and discussing, especially for an American audience. It will bring us back to the beginning of the 20th century, and to the far-reaching consequences of World War I, particularly upon German society.
Erwin Jöris was as a young man a woodworker, who was entirely socialized in a Communist atmosphere, at home, in the youth movement, and in the schools he frequented. Born in 1912, he grew up in Berlin during a time, in the capital of Germany, which was shaken by the effects of World War I, joblessness and depression, and then inchoate revolution. Many young workless men were drawn to either the Communist or the National-Socialist movements, which both offered a strong organization and a sense of belonging in a time of change and hopelessness.
Jöris’ father was himself a Communist, and he sent his son to one of the first socialist reform schools in Berlin, called Die Weltliche, which means “The Secular.” Here Jöris imbued a secular-socialist worldview, deepened by the local prominent social-democrats who would come by to give talks.
Within the Communist movement, Jöris took soon responsible positions for his region, playing an active part in the anarchical fights between Communists and National-Socialists which so much contributed to the deracination of a country and to its further radicalization: People thus yearned to be able to walk the streets without the danger of being shot or of witnessing a political manifestation that ended in a tumult, or worse.
It seems that Jöris did not have any deeper conscientious problems with his involvement in violent actions against his enemies, which often led to their being gravely wounded, sometimes worse. Somewhat vaguely he mentions, in an interview for a German newspaper in 2012, that these violent fights might have even contributed to the rise of National-Socialism. He participated in raids of Nazi headquarters and offices, where they fought man against man. Nothing in his moral and civil upbringing seems to have guarded him against such behavior. However, he did not participate in the raids where the Communists simply shot National-Socialists. (As Peterson shows with the help of statistics, the Communists were by far crueler in these fights between two revolutionary movements, with many more killed victims than from the side of the National Socialists.)
Jöris describes how his party intentionally and insistently heated up the situation and encouraged such deadly incidents. Yet, it is noteworthy that, still in 1932, both parties even worked together in Berlin in their attempts to weaken the less radical (and provocatively weaker) Social Democratic Leadership in Prussia.
As soon as the larger fight was politically decided in favor of Hitler’s movement — he ascended to power on January 31, 1933 — the life of fear, flight, and prison started for Jöris himself. From 1933 until 1956 — for 22 years — he mainly would remain in the state of being a hunted man, imprisoned and molested. Yet, in all of this, he kept a sense of humor and defiance, and had a strong will to survive, which was helped by his strong health and body.
First, in March of 1933, he was captured (after he secretly distributed material against Hitler) and put into prison by the National Socialists for supposed conspiracies and violent actions, for which he had to stay in the concentration camp at Sonnenburg near Küstrin (now Poland) for seven months. During this imprisonment, he was fairly well treated, with sufficient nutrition and visits by his family, even though at the concentration camp in Sonnenburg the watchmen were first from the SA (Sturmabteilung, the Brownshirts) and then from the political SS (Schutzstaffel). As he later found out, many of his Communist comrades did not come back home from these camps and were picked out and killed.
One specific incident that Jöris witnessed himself was the death of one prisoner, most probably after torture, whose corpse was not only displayed in the courtyard by the National Socialists, but also ridiculed. The guards marched around the body, sang lullabies, but then later gave him a public burial on the cemetery nearby, and accompanied him with solemn faces. (Jöris describes this scene in a well-made documentary that is added in the form of a DVD to the biography of Petersen, where also his as well as his wife’s face and character come to life, with their good humor and spirit.)
After his release, it was clear that, as a still active Communist, he could not survive for long in Germany. Too many of his comrades had already received their death or lifelong prison sentences. He was ordered by his party to immigrate to Moscow, to be prepared by the party for future activities against Nazi Germany and then for the further establishment of the Communist rule in Europe. He left Germany in the beginning of 1934. Yet, it was not long after he arrived in Moscow that he realized how much he had been deceived by the propaganda he had heard. For, he saw starving people, long waiting lines, waiting for the most essential foods, joblessness: and a repeated authoritarian insistence upon an increasingly irrational ideology.
Having his own independent and stubborn mind, and always prone to speak it, he soon got into conflicts, first with party members themselves. He soon realized that too much was not openly discussed, yet still kept in silence. He was sent into the Ural Mountains, to Sverdlovsk, to prove himself as a good and loyal Communist, where he worked in a huge factory for machine production.
Here he saw the inefficient system of the industry with its quota goals and its many misproductions and failed constructions: buildings collapsed or burned down, and much material was squandered. Yet, none of these faults were ever admitted by the Communist Party, but, rather, they were blamed on a supposed conspiracy of Trotskyites or Fascists. The Stalinist show-trial system was spreading, with its mind-destroying fears and suspicions and treasons. Everybody feared to be under suspicion of partaking in a conspiracy, personal contacts dried up out of a fear that the other person could be himself a traitor or a spy.
Jöris managed to survive in this atmosphere for several years, from 1934 until 1937, when finally he was accused by the Stalinist regime of plotting against the state and of being a Nazi agent. In the fury of this ideological hatred, every former prisoner of German concentration camps was regarded as a possible Nazi agent. Jöris himself had been long estranged from the Communist Party and had established close personal ties with Russian workers and their families. He also was less and less able to repeat the false slogans about the suffering of German workers, in sharp contrast with the supposedly thriving Russians, because he knew more and more of the truth. Compared to Soviet conditions, the German workers were living under much better conditions.

A Wounded Soul

In August of 1937, Jöris was sent into several Soviet prisons, among them the Lubyanka, the most feared prison of the Soviets. In the face of so many accusations without any foundation in reality, he wondered about the difference with the German camp he had known: There he at least had known why he was imprisoned and who his enemy was. The Soviet accusations against him were so far away from any reality and based upon so many reports of civil spies and co-workers that he was deeply shaken. The random accusations nearly broke him down. He had a hard time to figure a way out, even how to defend himself in a rational way.
In his cell, which he shared with several dozens other people, so crowded that he could barely even sit down, let alone sleep, he heard of all the sentences inflicted without a trial, for five, ten, or twenty-five years in prison. The evil face of Communism. The prisoners were starving, had not enough space even to sleep, and no idea about their future. A terrible psychological torture. Some hundred thousands of people of different backgrounds were imprisoned in these years 1936-1938, and, altogether, there were more than two million people killed, as Petersen reports. A monstrous state.
In the midst of this suffering Jöris describes some of the Russians as great-hearted people, who shared some of their own extra food with him or gave him a jacket so that he was able to go out into the cold fresh air. They also were very musical and sang in the evenings in chorals with three voices. One feels reminded here of the wonderful impressions Maurice Baring had in the beginning of the 20th century during his visits to Russia. (See Robert Hickson, “Maurice Baring’s Memorable Perceptions of War in Pre-Bolshevik Russia and Constantinople,” by searching for “Maurice Baring” at catholicism.org.)
Much had happened since then, and much of the famous Russian Soul had been wounded and dehumanized by the long time of the Communist oppression. One noteworthy observation of Andreas Petersen is that Stalin himself killed far more members of the German Communist leadership than Hitler ever did! The revolution eats up its own revolutionaries.
The same is applicable to the Polish Communists, as Petersen reports. Only 100 of the formerly 4,000 members of the Communist Party in Poland, who had fled from Hitler to the Soviet Union, survived the persecutions under Stalin.
In February 1938, Jöris, still a German citizen, was unexpectedly sent back to Germany, exiled from the Soviet Union for his lifetime (so they said and so he thought!). The Soviets knew very well that that meant for him another imprisonment by the National Socialists, as soon as he would enter upon German soil: for they would likely suspect him right away to have worked in Russia for the Communists.
And, indeed, as soon as he arrived in Germany, he was imprisoned and questioned about his possible collaboration with the Communists. As he put it: “For months, I had feared that they would put me into the Gulag because of ‘fascist activities,’ and now I wound up again in a [German] concentration camp because of anti-fascist activities” (261-262 — all quotations come from the book by Petersen, unless otherwise noted. Translation and comments in brackets by M.H.) At this time, Jöris was 26 years of age, and most of his adult life was filled with political propaganda, activities, and persecutions. Again, as before, the Germans treated him in a better way than the Soviets: good and sufficient food, light, fresh air.
Not only this, but also the juridical procedures were different, as Jöris himself candidly describes: “At the trials in Russia, one was always guilty, and one only had to sign, what they had invented. In Germany, I was innocent, until proven guilty” (268).
Jöris had even more good fortune this time, because the investigator from the Gestapo was a man with compassion. He convinced his superiors that Jöris had been thoroughly healed from his Communist dreams. After several months, in February of 1939, Jöris was set free, and without another prison sentence. Indeed the National Socialists knew that those Communists who had survived the Soviet Gulags were now only grateful to be still alive, and that they would be unlikely to be involved again in Communist underground activities.
As Petersen puts it: “The persecution of his followers and their expulsion back into the land of the deadly enemy was [unwittingly] the greatest gift of propaganda that Stalin possibly could give to Hitler” (270-271). Petersen adds that, after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, Stalin even sent 500 additional German immigrants back to Germany — straight to the Gestapo.
This strange kind of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, and the ideological contradictions it implied, appears several times in Petersen’s book. The first shock for many Communists as well as for National Socialists came exactly when this Pact between Hitler and Stalin became public and better known. How could they explain to themselves that suddenly their main enemy, who was always painted in the blackest color, suddenly became an ally? Jöris, who at that time, in August of 1939, was already cured of his own Communist illusions, describes how his former Bolshevik comrades were shaken.
But, also from the side of the National Socialists, people were asking: Was not Hitler’s main foundation for the incipient support he had received from the German population his specific promise to protect them from, and to fight against, Bolshevism? It shows again, how naked power trifles with the true hopes and the illusions of the citizens.
Jöris witnessed with his own eyes how Russian trains transported then huge amounts of oil and other resources to Stalin’s new ally, Germany. In his view, only Russia’s resources made the large expansive wars of Hitler possible. “With the oil from Stalin, Hitler was able to conquer half of Europe” (284).

Closed To The Truth

In June of 1938, Jöris was a free man. He returned to his parents and helped his father in his coal business. Yet, he had the sadness of not being able to share all his experiences and sufferings with his parents, who quietly mistrusted him and for a long time still clung to the objectively false propaganda of the Communists. They were not open to hear the truth about the dreamland Soviet Union, not even from their own son.
Additionally, Jöris was under suspicion from his old Communist friends, who did not understand why he had returned from Moscow. He himself held back in his criticism of the Soviet Union, because he did not want to appear to be a National Socialist agent, nor even to bring forth arguments that could be used by the National Socialists. He was indeed in an awkward situation. When it happened that he told others about his grim experiences in Russia, he never knew whether people believed him. This lack of understanding even from his parents led to conflicts with them.
Jöris commented: “If Alfred [his brother] and they had led me into a neutral hiking club, and not into the Communist Youth Movement, I would not have wound up in the end in Moscow! They have brought me into this, and afterward I was the idiot!” (281). Indeed, very painful moments for the heart of a man, after so much suffering and misery. Finally, some of his comrades from Moscow who had been expelled, as well, were better able to convince his own parents of at least parts of the truth.
All of this was not yet enough for Erwin Jöris’ life. In May of 1940, almost a year after the start of World War II in September of 1939, he was drafted. Having been a Communist, he was ordered into a medical unit, where he could not do, even potentially, too much damage. After a relatively short stay in France, Jöris was sent with his company in June of 1941 to the Eastern Front. (Irony of history: Now Jöris was fighting as a soldier against the country he once so admired!)
He had a heavy heart, inasmuch as he had many Russian friends and never would have wanted to do harm to them. He knew how to distinguish between the governing elite and its lower accomplices, and the simple population. He had painfully to witness how upon their arrival in the Ukraine, the population greeted the Germans with joy and relief and the hope to have been freed from the Soviet oppression.

German Racialism

Unfortunately, the Germans in their racialist cultural views looked down upon the Slavs and treated them accordingly. Jöris clearly saw that they thereby lost important allies who were more than willing, at first, to help them in their war against Stalin. For a while, Jöris had to supervise 40 Russian prisoners of war, who were willing to help the German troops. Here he felt the old bonds with the Russians come alive, and he looked to make sure that they were protected and well treated. It was also a dangerous task for these Russian prisoners to appear to help the German enemy, because if the Soviets ever would get hold of them, they would be immediately shot.
The longer the war lasted, however, the more the resistance within the Ukraine against the German occupation grew, and the partisan groups sprang up everywhere. The danger of being attacked grew daily, especially at night. It was 1943. Jöris, who often had to do jobs as a driver, was exposed to these dangers. One time, when the dark came too fast and Jöris decided to stay overnight in a farmhouse close by, he offered practical help to the farmer who had a broken workshop table. He called him out of the house, to give him some material, yet this poor head of a family then feared for his life, because he thought that he would, of course, be shot.
When he saw that Jöris, instead, wanted to help him, he fell gratefully into his arms and gave him milk on his way back to the military camp. These are little glimpses of humanity in the middle of a terrible war, but they also show the terrible fear that abounded.
With the loss of Stalingrad in early February of 1943, the German retreat started. From the summer of 1943 on, Jöris and his troop were on their way West, followed by the advancing and everywhere conquering Russians. He felt compassion and pity for his Russian helpers who were now in great danger of being killed by their fellow countrymen. Jöris was able to organize a transport for wounded soldiers for which mission he also had a road privilege and could pass all the other military vehicles and foot soldiers and flee from the growing numbers of aircraft attacks.
Arriving in April of 1945 in the vicinity of Berlin — near to home — he was in the middle of one of the major battles around Berlin which was won by the Russians. So close to home, but he was again captured and taken back to Russia as a prisoner of war. He had survived, unlike 70,000 other German soldiers, one of the last larger battles of World War II on German ground. For days, the prisoners of war had to walk eastward, without food or much water. Transported then in trains for animals, with no sanitary installations for days, they were nearly dying of hunger and infections. They went toward Moscow.
Andreas Petersen sums up: “In summary, one million out of the 3.5 million German prisoners of war died in Soviet prisons, every third one. Of the five million German prisoners of war of the Allies, only 100,000 died” (329).
Jöris observed how in these Soviet war prison camps the Communists made use of the organizational experience of the National Socialists: The former National Socialists were given the duty to organize the other prisoners. A painful thing indeed for those who had at least hoped and thought to be relieved from the oppression of the National Socialists.

Smoking Ruins

Because of a wound in his leg that would not heal, Jöris was not long to be in the Russian prison camps near Moscow, where the prisoners had to work hard in the forests to cut wood for the winter. And so, he was now sent back to Germany and, in January of 1946, he was unexpectedly released from imprisonment. He was greatly relieved because he feared that the old conspiracy story against him and the previous Soviet sentence against him would come up again and would send him to the Soviet Gulags.
On his travel back to Berlin from Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, he witnessed thousands of displaced persons, wounded soldiers, children, the elderly, all without home and shelter. The cities he passed were destroyed, everywhere came smoke out of the remaining ruins. When he arrived at home, he found his parents, who had somehow survived the terror bombing (more than 40 attacks just on one quarter of Berlin), in their own apartment, yet in a house that was half-destroyed. No window glass. Freezing temperatures. Hunger in Germany.
He stayed with his parents in the only room that was intact, with a slice of bread and a potato a day and dripping water from the holes in the roof. The father wanted him to help in his coal business, and did not even ask his son how it was in the prison camps. A strange indifference and coldness. Jöris heard of the terrible raping of German women by the Russians — alone in Berlin 90,000 cases — and the pillaging of the goods which were still preserved in German private households.
Everywhere there were war-wounded and handicapped men.

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By CAROLE BRESLIN Part 2 As we saw in part 1, the ecclesiastical career of Angelo Roncalli up until 1953 had already shown him to be a man dedicated to the Church. Frequently he had to serve the Church despite family tragedies. Wherever the Church asked him to go, he went obediently without complaint. Despite the many persecutions, sacrifices, and…Continue Reading

Catholic Heroes… Pope St. John XXIII

By CAROLE BRESLIN Part 1 Although rare, it is not unknown for a poor man, who had no connections and did not seek to develop them, to rise above all other men in stature and in influence over mankind. Such was the case of the sharecroppers’ son, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Throughout his ecclesiastical career, he was obedient and kind, but…Continue Reading