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Bis es kumt di nechome, geit arois di neshome. The soul departs ere solace arrives. —YIDDISH PROVERB Spring found me and my 500 fellow inmates still in the small slave labor camp at Polte-Werke at the outskirts of Magdeburg. We occasionally worked at clearing debris in the city but were mostly awaiting the imminent collapse of the Third Reich. On the morning of April 11, 1945, we unexpectedly found our camp unguarded. Four of us, led by my friend Mulya Atlas, immediately left the camp and set out toward the center of the city. After a fifteen-minute walk we found ourselves surrounded by the ruins of what once had been a residential neighborhood. Allied bombing had gutted much of the city. Entire blocks had been reduced to burned-out shells. Only the stairwells, chimneys, and outer walls of the lower stories remained standing. There was no doubt that Germany had lost the war, but the sight of everything the Germans owned being reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes was a joy to behold. We clambered over the piles of rubble and down into one of the cellars. All cellars were now connected, and one could move from building to building without having to go out on the street. We found frozen potatoes, which had baked in the embers when the buildings were on fire. We found some jars of preserves, which we ate with the unevenly baked potatoes. Having found some civilian clothes, we were in an exuberant mood. We had escaped and had only to wait for the Americans to arrive. We felt as if we were already liberated. On the next block we saw some shops in a small cluster of undamaged houses. I strutted into the neighborhood butcher shop and demanded meat. I promised to pay as soon as the Americans arrived. This did not impress the proprietor, and I left empty-handed. I  Liberation  142 THE WAR AND POSTWAR YEARS nevertheless felt transformed. We were the victors, and I wanted to make sure the Germans knew it. Our freedom had been made possible by an American armor column that had pushed toward Magdeburg. Anticipating the imminent fall of the city, our guards had fled during the night. But the U.S. advance halted just short of Magdeburg, and the city did not fall that day. The following day the SS guards returned to the Polte-Werke camp. The remaining inmates were taken on a death march to concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Some days later, because that camp was also in danger of being overrun by the Russians , the prisoners were driven on a further death march. Many were killed on the march.49 At night it grew bitterly cold, and after some time we decided to make a fire in a basement oven. We should have known better, but in our euphoria we did not think, and so our freedom was short-lived. Smoke from the chimney caught the attention of a German Volkssturm patrol—a local militia made up of old men and teenagers. Once again we were prisoners. Apparently, they were not quite sure what to do with us, so they marched us through town to a bridge crossing the Elbe River. At that point, no more eager than we were to cross the river, our escort told us to turn ourselves in on the other side, the eastern bank. We assured them that we would, and they returned to town. When we came off the first span of the bridge, we found ourselves on a small island. Flanking the road were attractive villas that had suffered only minor damage but nevertheless seemed abandoned. We selected one, entered the garage, and having barricaded the door with heavy boards, sat down to wait it out. We were certain the Americans and the end of the war could not be long in coming. Over the next few days the war seemed to be coming closer: we could hear artillery, and there were explosions nearby. We continued to sit, waiting for the Americans and the end of the war. The Americans had indeed liberated Magdeburg and reached the River Elbe. By agreement with the Soviets their advance stopped at the Elbe, where they waited for the Soviet troops to meet up with them from the east. But the bridge connecting our island to Magdeburg had been bombed and destroyed. Although we did not know it, we were stranded in a no-man’s-land between...


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