|Mathias Schenk, an 18-year old Belgian served as Sturmpionier (assault engineer) in Wehrmacht during the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Members of his unit were assigned to various SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger platoons as demolition engineers.
In 2002 Mathias Schenk story was made into a documentary film titled Mathi Schenks letzte Reise nach Polen (Mathi Schenk's Last Journey to Poland) directed for ZDF by Dietrich Schubert.
Initial translation: Piotr Dawidko, Grzesiek (Alphabet 76),
Grzegorz Hermanowicz, Alfred Światły. Final translation: Elżbieta Kańska.
“In Warsaw I partook in 19 fights on knives and bayonets. In cellars. Cellars were a second Warsaw. When you fight in a cellar, it's quiet, you don't see anything. I was faster. I killed that Pole. Warsaw – my most terrible experiences.”
Summer of 1944. Mathi Schenk and Peter, his friend from the army, are eating bean soup at some inn. Both in Wehrmacht uniforms. They somehow managed to leave the barracks and go to town. They talk about that fool Fels, and about some guys who escaped from the army yesterday. Mathi can't escape because Gestapo have threatened that they'll send his father to the Eastern front. He's the youngest soldier in the 46th Assault Brigade, they call him Bubi. Recently he had his 18th birthday. They're stationing near Bonn. They were incorporated into the Brigade by a trick. First, the Germans looked for volunteers to incorporate into SS, then into the new Assault Brigade. None came. So they announced that they need truck drivers. The boys were eager. Everyone wanted to drive. Mathi was happy that he got in. They got new uniforms, goggles and were transported near Bonn. There Lieutenant Fels welcomed them:
“You impudent swines, you look like some clowns, take those goggles off!”
Since then there wasn't a single word about trucks.
The inn owner turns up the volume on the radio. They're talking about the Fuhrer, that there was an assassination, that he's probably dead. The inn becomes silent. Soldiers are riding motorcycles in the street. Suddenly the inn becomes deserted. The food is left behind, none paid. The inn owner hides behind the counter. Mathi and his friend escape through the back door.
There is a huge mess in the barracks, the sirens are howling.
“Is Hitler dead?” some soldier asks.
“Shut up your muzzles! Even if we're totally alone, we'll be loyal to our Fuhrer! Who hesitates, will be shot!” Fels shouts. He places guards around the barracks and the soldiers are laughing that they don't even have their weapons yet.
After a few days they got their rifles and grenades. Readiness. The orchestra was playing. They marched to the train station. They were sure that they were going to France. They were happy with that, because in France it's easier to escape. They had food for two days and lots of red wine in 20-liter [5.2 gallon] barrels. The railway wagons were open; there was hay on the floor. Comfortable. They drank, they sang. They played cards. People in the fields were waving. At the station they sent Bubi to the back of the train to get the next 20 liters of wine. The train was long. When it started moving Bubi couldn't get to his wagon. He sat all night on a step between the wagons. That's why he was the only one sober when at dawn they reached a village. He immediately thought that it was Poland – he saw flat terrain and houses with thatched roofs. They started drinking again. It was hot – August 1st. They lay on the hay and listened to the clatter of the train wheels. Suddenly he saw that wood from the planks is splintering. Yelling, blood. “Someone's shooting at us!” The train started to move back. The wounded were dying, drunken people were waking up. “Damn, they brought us to the Russian front!” Even the company's commander was staggering, he was incapable to fight. Some children were asking for bread. A soldier was running through the field, with his face covered in blood. “There's an uprising in Warsaw!” he shouted.
In 'Horsefly Village'
Summer of 2004. 1,200 km [746 miles] from Warsaw to Bullingen, a small Belgian village near the border with Germany (on one side of the street a Belgian pub, on the opposite a German). A beautiful region with windmill power plants. Mathias Schenk lives in a small house with his wife and the youngest son. The house has a thatched roof. Their grandparents called this place 'Horsefly Village' because of a horsefly swarm living in the old oak.
There's a Saint Mary of Czestochowa painting over the fireplace. A gift from the Polish farmers who saved Mathias' life in 1945. We went to 'Horsefly Village' to listen to his account about the Warsaw Uprising. An account coming from the opposite side.
A 78-year old Belgian Mathias Schenk, in 1944 an 18-year old Sturmpionier (assault engineer) is talking. His train was the last one, which reached the uprising Warsaw on August 1st.
“It's impossible to say...” the old man is frowning. “When you burn bodies they are moving. You can hear sounds similar to moans. Back then I thought that they're still alive. And these flies, worms. How many people were killed in Warsaw? Some 350,000, yes?”
The Captain's Orderly
“Since I was a child, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. We had a farm. When in 1940 the German army entered our village, I was 14. (The Eupen-Malmedy region is today's German-speaking Belgium. As a border area, it changed hands a lot. In 1919 it was accepted as part of Belgium. After conquering Belgium Hitler incorporated this area into the Reich). Some of the neighbors started to greet themselves with Heil Hitler!. We said traditional Guten Tag. They looked at us like we were traitors because we didn't have swastikas in our windows. The Nazis were asking my father why I wasn't in the Hilterjugend. They also interrogated my parents because my two brothers escaped into occupied Belgium. We had visits from Gestapo, they interrogated me too. The third brother was hiding in our neighborhood. They caught him. He returned from the Russian front heavily wounded."
“My talented cousin Daniel was my best friend. He secretly made a radio for us. It could receive only BBC. Our fathers caught us while we were listening. They’ve beaten us and destroyed the set."
“Daniel was drafted to Wehrmacht. He became a radio specialist, later he died at Crimea."
“I knew the way over the border since I was a child. We helped the German Jews in escaping to Belgium, we smuggled food. Last time I crossed the border was at Easter 1944, in a German uniform. Germans caught me, but I was lucky as the guard was Mr. Furt, a shoemaker from Losheim. Before the war he made shoes for us. Now he let me escape."
“I received my summons for the obligatory work for the Reich in October 1943. My first Christmas outside home. There were no…. 20 of us jumped over the fence and went to the Midnight Mass. As punishment we had do clean latrines and run through piles of shit singing Christmas carols."
“Half a year later they drafted me to the army, my specialty was engineer. Some of the boys escaped. I couldn't, because they were threatening me that they'll send my father to the Eastern front. I hated the water exercises during my engineer course. I neither did learn do swim, because our captain took me as his orderly."
“I tried to figure out how I could get back home for a few days. When our company's commander asked who has enough hens to furnish 100 eggs for the Easter breakfast, I lied and got a 4-day vacation. I collected the eggs from our neighbors. In the village they caught a Russian prisoner, who escaped a camp. They forced him to run barefoot in the street, beating him with batons. At that time there was an instruction how to treat 'sub-humans'. My mother gave him a pair of shoes and some butter. Our neighbors reported this and we didn't receive coupons for butter or shoes."
“When I was going back to the army, my mother gave me a black rosary.”
Where Have You Been, Pigs?
“We were entering Warsaw walking the cobblestones. Poles were shooting but we couldn’t see them. White flags on buildings. I jumped through a broken window. On the stairs I saw a man and a woman shot once in their foreheads."
“We were storming house by house, everywhere we saw civilians, women and children. Everyone had a hole in the forehead. We made our way to the SS barracks. Another company that drove the lorries took a wrong turn and got straight in front of Polish positions. Some of the trucks were on flames; soldiers were running for their lives. Many were running straight into the Polish line of fire. The sergeant fell a few steps from me."
“The next day we were ordered to take over a road. We went through small gardens. Our commander Lieutenant Fels was rushing us forward. We had to blow up the doors of the building from which the fiercest fire was shot. We threw hand grenades and jumped in. The Poles surrounded us. A short knife fight and we escape into the bushes. Four of the guys from our railway wagon died. Once again Fels was driving us to attack, but the Poles were well hidden. We could not withdraw because they were shooting at us from the back, as well. All night we were sitting in these small gardens like scared animals. I was thirsty. I found some tomatoes. We were constantly shot at. The next evening the infantry came to the rescue but we made no progress. Then a SS unit arrived. They looked strange. They had no ranks on their uniforms and reeked of vodka. They attacked instantly screaming hooorrraaay and were dying by dozens. Their commander dressed in a black leather coat was raging in the back pushing his men to attack. A tank arrived. We rushed with the SS troopers behind it. A few meters from the buildings the tank was hit. It exploded and a soldier’s hat flew high up. We ran away again. The second tank was hesitating. We were covering the front as the SS-men were rushing civilians out of their homes and positioning them around the tank, forcing some to sit on the armor. For the first time in my life I saw such a thing. They were speeding up a Polish woman in a long coat. She was holding a little girl in her arms. People crowded on the tank were helping her to climb up. Someone took the girl. When he was handing her back to the mother the tank started moving forward. The child fell down under the tracks and got crushed. The woman was screaming in terror. One of the SS-men frowned and shot the woman in the head. They continued driving. Those who tried to escape were killed by SS-men."
“The attack was successful. The Poles were retreating. We chased behind them. Behind us civilians were getting out of cellars with their arms up. They were screaming nicht partisan (we are not partisans). I didn’t see what was happening there because we were exchanging fire with the Poles but I heard as this SS commander in the leather coat was shouting to his men to kill everyone, including women and children."
“We followed the Poles into one of the houses. There were three of us. We were on the ground floor. The Poles were attacking from upper floors and the cellar. All night we were burning furniture to see something. Time after time we were fighting bayonet to bayonet. At dawn I saw that there are only two of us. The third soldier had his throat slit. There were bodies in every room. A sniper was shooting at us from the roof of a house across the street. We’ve hit him, he fell down but his leg caught on the construction beam. He was hanging upside down. He lived for a long time before he died. When we were returning, bodies of Poles were scattered all over the streets. There was no other way than to walk on dead people. In the heat they were decaying rapidly. The sun was covered with dust and smoke. Plenty of flies and worms. We were covered with blood. The uniforms were sticky. This fanatic fool Lieutenant Fels welcomed us. Where have you been, you cheeky pigs? He was praising the SS for a good job. I couldn’t eat anything. We were all throwing up."
We Called Him 'The Butcher'
In the barracks Bubi heard that this big SS-man in the black coat is Oscar Dirlewanger and his people were criminals released from prisons. He learned more about his 'comrades in arms' after the war. In 1940, with Himmler’s consent, Dirlewanger ordered the poachers out of prisons because they “possessed extraordinary shooting abilities” and could set traps. Dirlewanger himself, a political sciences Ph.D. and NSDAP member since 1923, had also been in prison before – for child molestation.
They were trained in the Oranienburg Concentration Camp. They made themselves known for their numerous crimes and atrocities in the Lublin area and in Belarus. The losses were reinforced with new criminals often with pending death sentences and SS- men from punishment units. In the summer of 1944 they were upgraded to a brigade. On August 5, 1944, Himmler pushed them to subdue the Warsaw Uprising.
SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger was attacking from Wolska and Towarowa Streets. It was 'pacifying' the Old Town, Powisle, Upper Czerniakow and City Centre. In mid-August, Dirlewanger got promoted to Oberfuhrer and at the end of September he got the Iron Knight’s Cross.
“Then in the cellars of Warsaw we were calling him ‘the butcher’. Silently because in his units the way to the rope was short. He had a habit of hanging people every Thursday. Poles or his own people for nothing. Very often he himself kicked the chairs from under his victim’s feet.”
In the restaurant, old Schenk sits in a corner, always with his back to the wall.
"Stupid habit," he smiles. “Also an Uprising ‘souvenir’.”
“After a few days of fighting we were assigned to Dirlewanger. Three Sturmpioniere for each SS platoon. Our job was to make way for SS-men, blow up all obstacles and doors. We were jumping into houses and chasing out people. We were Fels’ people but during the fight we were under Dirlewanger’s command."
“Always in the lead. Run, place the explosive and after the detonation jump into the building. We were followed by Dirlewanger’s horde. They were looking like bums. Dirty and shredded uniforms. Not all of them had weapons; they were taking them from the dead. Every morning they were getting vodka. We, the Sturmpioniere did too. We were drinking on an empty stomach; before attack one does not eat. If you get shot in an empty stomach, you may survive; if you are shot in a full stomach you die in pain."
“Dirlewanger walked in the rear, sometimes rode in a tank, always under a good cover. He rushed his men forward. Those who lagged behind were shot by him in the back."
Nurse With a Tiny White Flag
“Usually a large crowbar was enough to open doors of buildings and houses. To open stronger ones we were setting explosives or clusters of three grenades. The heavy, two-winged doors of the Bishop’s Palace blew out in two directions. Inside everything was purple. In the dining room food was set on the table. Still warm. We didn’t try it, because we were afraid it was poisoned."
“It's important to know where to set the explosives. From the side, in the middle. All depends where you want the doors to fly after the explosion and everything must be done as silent as possible because the Poles were standing behind doors listening and shooting. So we sometimes scratched opposing ends of doors to mislead the Poles."
“I was setting explosives under big doors, somewhere in Old Town. From inside we heard Nicht schießen! Nicht schießen! (don't shoot). The doors opened and a nurse appeared with a tiny white flag. We went inside with fixed bayonets. A huge hall with beds and mattresses on the floor. Wounded were everywhere. Besides Poles there were also wounded Germans. They begged the SS-men not to kill the Poles. A Polish officer, a doctor and 15 Polish Red Cross nurses surrendered the military hospital to us. The Dirlewangerers were following us. I hid one of the nurses behind the doors and managed to lock them. I heard after the war that she has survived. The SS-men killed all the wounded. They were breaking their heads with rifle butts. The wounded Germans were screaming and crying in despair. After that, the Dirlewangerers ran after the nurses; they were ripping clothes off them. We were driven out for guard duty. We heard women screaming. In the evening, on Adolph Hitler's Square [now Piłsudzki Square] there was a roar as loud as during boxing fights. So I and my friend climbed the wall to see what was happening there. Soldiers of all units: Wehrmacht, SS, Kaminski's Cossacks [ RONA ], boys from Hitlerjugend; whistles, exhortations. Dirlewanger stood with his men and laughed. The nurses from the hospital were rushed through the square, naked with hands on their heads. Blood ran down their legs. The doctor was dragged behind them with a noose on his neck. He wore a rag, red maybe from blood and a thorn crown on top of the head. All were lead to the gallows where a few bodies were hanging already. When they were hanging one of the nurses, Dirlewanger kicked the bricks she was standing on. I couldn't watch that anymore. We ran to our quarters, but before we reached them we saw Kaminski’s Cossacks rushing with civilians. We called those 'Cossacks Hiwis' – from Hilfswillige (volunteers, willing to help). Next to them a Polish pregnant woman fell down. One of the Hiwis turned back and whipped her, she tried to escape on knees, but they killed her running over her with horses.”
Poles Sang a Lively Song
“We were sleeping in cellars. In the quarters, between attacks, we drank a lot of vodka; we talked a lot, too. 'Maybe tomorrow I will be wounded and return home', we were saying."
“We had nightmares. I screamed in my sleep. Then my companions were waking me up with cold water saying 'Bubi, Du hast den Warschaukoller' (Bubi, you have the Warsaw madness)."
“We slept in clothes, continuous alarms; Raus! Raus! Fels yelled. More than once we could hear the Poles on the other side of the wall. Once they even sang a lively song. Sometimes I cried. When you attack you are not afraid, but in the quarters you shake. We drank a lot.”
Commando of Ascension
“We demolished a wall which was obstructing the view of a big yard. SS planned to storm the buildings on the other side of it. When a colleague was battering the doors with a crowbar, I saw a Pole on my left side. I pulled my colleagues into a hole in the wall, but both got hit. One got the whole magazine, the second in the lungs, the bullet bounced from the dog tag. When he was breathing, blood was pouring out of his mouth. I put soil in his lung wound. I was lying with the dead and the wounded. I pressed against the wall. My colleague groaned, the Poles tossed grenades. I threw one back, the second rolled out of my reach. I was red from the blood and flesh. In the afternoon four soldiers from Wehrmacht came with stretchers. We managed to break through, but the wounded colleague got three shots and died. I couldn't say a word; I shivered and was throwing up. The Major gave me a day to rest, so I saw the burial of my colleagues. They took their shoes off, threw them into a ditch with other killed and sprinkled with lime. Polish civilians had to do everything."
“Colleagues were perishing, new ones were sent to us. I had stupid luck, maybe because when Fels forced me to action, he wished me to ‘die like a dog’.” (Schenk is laughing). “I don't think he liked me. Our group of assault engineers was called then the Himmelfahrtskommando (Commando of Ascension), because we always were first, and the Poles were shooting, no one knew from where. The bullet whizzes and you fly to heaven. We quickly learned from clever Poles how to hide. They could shoot from under a slightly risen roofing tile. Many fought in German uniforms and spoke German very well. We couldn't wear our metal helmets as Poles were wearing them too. We were afraid we would start shooting at our own troops."
“In the beginning I was a bad shooter. I was punished for lack of aim. I couldn't shut my left eye. They were suspecting I'm simulating. They sent me to a doctor and he told me to shoot from the other hand. I became a left eye shooter. It was quite handy in street fights."
“Once in a hand-to-hand combat a Pole yanked the rifle from a new colleague. Fels came in with SS-men and ordered him to retrieve the gun. The boy was shaking all over, but Fels drew his own gun and ordered him to follow the Poles. The boy returned quickly badly wounded with a knife; he was screaming and bleeding."
“I was left alone once more. My storm troop mates were heavily wounded with knife and bayonet. It was August 6th. From that point on the dates are blurry. I can only remember the heaviest fights in a certain order, but without dates. I remember, that on August 14th I got a postcard from the pastor from Minefield; last message from home. On September 15 I was looking at the other bank of the Vistula River. I saw a Russian tank Then a second and third. They came to the bank. We all panicked. The Russians must have had a great view of our positions; they weren't shooting. The tanks disappeared between houses.”
“I was lying in an apartment on the third floor. A SS officer ordered us to hold the house. The whole apartment was covered with a thick layer of sand. Good idea, I was admiring the owners. I would do the same. They must have worked hard. The sand protected the apartment from fire. ‘After the war all they will need to do is remove it,’ I thought. I was throwing gasoline bottles through the window at the cinema on the other side of street. Houses attacked with such bottles usually were starting to burn. I thought we smoked out the Poles, but they were still shooting and tossing grenades. In the dust of the last detonation I started to run downstairs. When I moved by a window on the staircase, I felt pain like from a strike of a whip and something hot. Hands and face in blood. I felt I was seriously wounded. My friends too. They took my pants off and started to roll on the floor laughing. I had a small mark on my butt. A bullet hit the canteen with coffee.”
Gefreiter Bubi in a Newspaper
Probably at that time Bubi was promoted to the Gefreiter (corporal) rank. The promotion was automatic after 15 hand-to-hand fights. Every fight was noted in the soldier's military book. Even Fels mentioned something about Schenk’s courage. Especially as there was an article in the front paper Das Weichselblatt (Vistula News), which stated that Gefreiter Schenk freed German prisoners of war.
“It was complete coincidence. I just blew out the next door. I was setting the charge and heard: Nicht schießen! There was a white flag in the window. The doors opened and 30 German soldiers came out. They were crying from happiness, kissing me everywhere. They said, that Poles that took them captive, treated them well.”
For Warsaw Bubi was awarded Second Class Iron Cross.
My Wife Sleeps Long, I Try to Count Them All
“Sometimes in the movies, there are scenes from the Uprising, but there is nothing that I've seen. I haven't told that to anybody yet with such great detail. You ask about everything. It’s your right, but everything is coming to life again. Back then we had no idea that those killed will never die, that they will always be with us. Everything happened so quickly. Shouting, shooting. Singular faces. All this is stuck in my memory very strongly.”
(Schenk hides his face in his hands).
“We blew up the doors, I think of a school. Children were standing in the hall and on the stairs. Lots of children. All with their small hands up. We looked at them for a few moments until Dirlewanger ran in. He ordered to kill them all. They shot them and then they were walking over their bodies and breaking their little heads with butt ends. Blood streamed down the stairs. There is a memorial plaque in that place stating that 350 children were killed. I think there were many more, maybe 500."
“Or that Polish woman" (Schenk doesn't remember which action it was). "Every time, when we stormed the cellars and women were inside the Dirlewanger soldiers raped them. Many times a group raped the same woman, quickly, still holding weapons in their hands. Then after one of the fights, I was standing shaking by the wall and couldn't calm my nerves. Dirlewanger soldiers burst in. One of them took a woman. She was pretty. She wasn't screaming. Then he was raping her, pushing her head strongly against the table, holding a bayonet in the other hand. First he cut open her blouse. Then one cut from stomach to throat. Blood gushed. Do you know, how fast blood congeals in August?"
“There is also that small child in Dirlewanger’s hands. He took it from a woman who was standing in the crowd in the street. He lifted the child high and then threw it into the fire. Then he shot the mother."
“Or that little girl who unexpectedly came out of the cellar. She was thin and short, something about 12 years old. Torn clothes, disheveled hair. On one side we, on the other Poles. She was standing by the wall not knowing where to run. She raised her hands, and said Nicht Partizan. I waved with my hand that she shouldn't be afraid and should come closer. She was walking with her little hands up. She was squeezing something in one of her hands. She was very close when I heard a shot. Her head bounced. A piece of bread fell out from her hand. In the evening the platoon leader, he was from Berlin, came up to me and said proudly: ‘It was a master shot. Wasn’t it?’ He smiled proudly."
“Frequently children came to us. They couldn't find their parents. They wanted bread. A small Polish boy brought us food when we were on guard duty. I don't think he was a captive. I don't know. I was then on guard in a cellar of a textile factory. The boy didn't know German, but we could communicate with gestures. When I had, I gave him cigarettes. Passing by was a SS-man. He waved at the boy to follow him. The boy went after him. Then I heard a shot. I ran. The dead boy was lying on the stairs. The SS-man pointed the gun at me. He gave me a long look, but eventually left. This is how matters were in Warsaw."
“Our mascot was a crippled boy. Also 12 years old. He lost one leg, but could jump very fast on the other one. He was very proud of that. He always jumped around the soldiers, back and forth. We said it was for luck. He helped a little. One day the SS-men called him. He jumped to them willingly. They were laughing and asked him to jump to the trees. From far I saw that they put 2 grenades into his bag. He didn't notice. He was jumping and they laughed at him shouting: Schneller, schneller! (faster, faster). The boy blew up."
“I usually wake up very early, my wife sleeps longer. Sometimes in a half-dream I see killed people in front of me. Sometimes I am trying to count those I killed myself, but I can't.”
Punishment for Blue Underwear
“There was a shortage of water in Warsaw. There was a bathtub at a dressing point, where fresh water was stored. Once I jumped into it. Many others jumped too. A paramedic I knew told me about lots of underwear left in an abandoned cellar. It was blue, non-regulatory. I got rid of the military rags and took the blue ones. Later on I got one week of penitentiary company from the sergeant. I had to carry mines on the river's bank."
“My second penitentiary watch was for a priest. We blew up the back door to a monastery – very heavy, they lead to a cellar. The monastery, a huge building near the Old Town, was already very damaged by bombs and grenades. Two of us jumped inside. There was a priest standing in front of us. He held a wafer and a chalice in his hands. Maybe this was an impulse, I don't know. We genuflected and took the communion. Then a third from our group ran in and did the same. SS-men stormed in and the usual shots, screams, and groans could be heard. The nuns were in habits. A few hours later I saw that priest in Dirlewangerers' hands. They drank wine from the chalice, the wafers were scattered and broken. They were pissing on a cross that was leaning against the wall. They were torturing the priest: he had a bloody face, torn cassock. We took that priest from them, it was an impulse. They were surprised, but so drunk, that they didn't know what was happening. The next day they also didn't remember what happened. We passed the priest to our battalion. I didn't hear about him anymore. But on the road we meet Fels. For the priest I got a solitary guard duty on a bridge. I think it was the Kierbiedz Bridge. Bridges on the Vistula River were already demolished, but part some of the spans were still standing. The Russians had a machine gun nest on their side of the river and we had ours on our side. Day and night I had to stand in the middle of the bridge and gather intelligence. I hid behind steel cranes. The night was peaceful. From time to time the guns were shooting at each other, more into the air because of large distance. During the day the Russians were moving around rather carefree. In the back small cars were bringing food and officers with wide epaulettes observed through binoculars our part of Warsaw. Soldiers were sun tanning."
“On another penal guard, hidden in a bale of fabric in a textile factory, I watched the Poles. In case of attack I had to shoot a red flare and run away. There were 40 of them. A uniformed officer was leading the group. They looked pitiful. Many were wounded. I saw women with weapons, civilians, and children. Their weaponry was poor. In the evening I returned with a report. We stormed that hideout in the morning."
“I don't remember when we decided to kill this pig Fels. To survive because he constantly pushed us ahead. Seven or eight of us drew rifles at random. Two were loaded. When the occasion came up that Fels was in front of us we shot him in the back. He fell and we escaped. The new commander was much more humane.”
Pants Heavy With Gold
“Today I don't know if we blew up the State Securities Printing House or maybe the Polish Bank. It was somewhere downtown. We couldn't conquer that target for a long time. They told us to dig a tunnel. We dug in pairs, wearing only underpants. We changed in the fore. When I was in front, I smelled a strange odor and then my colleague stopped taking soil from me. I crawled to him; he was dead. The tunnel exited into a cellar. I heard Poles. They probably took it over. At night I crawled out of the hole and walking through the cellars managed to rejoin ours. I couldn't recognize the sentry. He ordered me to lie on the ground. I screamed my name and password: Heidekrug (pot of the heather). He asked why I'm clad in underpants only. Eventually he believed me."
“The next day they brought a ‘Goliath’. Civilians had to lead its path, because Poles learned how to detonate a ‘Goliath’ at our lines and many soldiers died. The Goliath made a hole in the wall. The whole night we were chasing the Poles in the cellars and on the floors. In the morning a tank came and the building was taken. Lots of gold coins lay about in the cellars. We were stuffing our pockets so full so that our pants were falling off. Then the gold disappeared. The boys were whispering that Dirlewanger took it somewhere.”
I Knew Who Would Live
“That was probably my last action in Warsaw. We were storming some building, I ran through a field. A wounded soldier lay on the ground. I gave him some water from my canteen, than ran forward to blow some doors. The SS was moving behind us. When I ran back, Dirlewanger stopped me. He pointed to the wounded soldier: ‘You gave water to this pig?’ Only then did I notice, that on a German uniform the wounded had a dirty white-red armband."
"‘Shoot him!’ Dirlewanger handed me his pistol."
"I stood motionless, sick of all of that. Dirlewanger was so furious, that I couldn't understand what he was shouting. The Pole looked at me. I will never forget his eyes. In Warsaw I learned to recognize if a wounded would survive the next ten minutes or a couple of hours. When one sees so many people dying you just know how long they will live. One of Dirlewanger SS-men grabbed the gun from me and shot the Pole."
“Dirlewanger shouted that he will shoot me on site. Then some Wehrmacht soldiers arrived so he began to threaten me with court martial. One infantry officer started a violent discussion with him. I ran away."
“By the end of September three Poles approached me with their hands up. They handed over a machine gun and two pistols. One of them spoke perfect German. I stood alone at my post. I didn't know what to do. I said they have to wait, and better not be noticed by anyone. I was lucky, I quickly found our new lieutenant. He took the POWs personally and escorted them to the SS."
“The last stronghold of the Uprising surrendered. Some high-ranking officer came, as a representative of the nation, with a white flag. We led him to our battalion commander. I saw there our Major Wullenberg, Dirlewanger and other commanders. After a couple of hours the Poles arrived, with a vast number of people following them. All the wounded were placed in a huge warehouse of a vinegar factory. We were ordered to leave. From the outside we heard screams and shots. I know what happened there."
“During the last days of the Uprising I ran across Fels. He was seriously wounded, but survived our shots. I carefully avoided him. I saw Dirlewanger for the last time – he was walking among the ruins accompanied by two beautiful women. The city was burning, dead bodies were everywhere in the streets. His leather coat was worn out. The women – one blonde, one brunette – were very elegant, clean. They were chattering away happily. I didn't know if these women were Polish – I was too far."
“The remnants of Warsaw were being blown up by demolition squads. We were relocated, but in November we returned to Warsaw once again. We were playing soccer. The ball fell into a cellar. I jumped in to bring it back. In the cellar there were uncountable human bodies, now almost skeletons.”
Soviet, German or Mateusz
In Ochodza, a small village near Gniezno, people still remember Mateusz, but not from the time he was hiding in Brzewinski’s stable, but as an elegant man who visited the village in the 1980s. He arrived in a van packed with food and clothes. The gifts were distributed by a priest among the parishioners.
We visited Libner's farm. Józef Libner died last year. He was Mateusz’s peer. They liked to wrestle, they rolled in the farmyard, but Mateusz, experienced in grappling, always won.
Libner's son showed me a date carved on the wall of a wooden lavatory: '1946 M.S.'“Our father told us to leave this plank when we've overhauled the lavatory. It is a reminder of Mateusz.”
“I carved it with my pocket knife, when I was leaving.” Schenk is touched, when he is speaking about Ochodza. “With Józef we were blood-brothers. We nicked out wrists, and touched them together – like the Indians did.”
The retreat of Sturmpioner Schenk from Warsaw is a separate story. He wrote it down a few years ago. Out of all the soldiers who on August 1st came to Warsaw with him, only three survived. During the winter of 1944 they escaped Soviet tanks and SS squads who hanged the deserters on trees. Starved and exhausted they approached Goscieszyn (Godesberg) near Gniezno, where a gathering point has been set up.
“We threw away almost all our weapons. Belts and helmets. Some of us had wounds they were trying to hide, afraid that their comrades might leave them behind. The Ivans were tracking our footsteps in the snow. Our way to the forest was cut off. We escaped towards the centre of a frozen lake. They didn't follow us but a tank was firing targeting the surface of the lake. One of us started to pray. His prayers became more and more quiet, then stopped. He died. When the clouds covered the moon we crawled towards the lake’s bank. The Russians were smoking cigarettes; we crawled between their posts. We hid in the woods but in the morning we knew that the tank was following our trail again. I felt tired, exhausted and I lied down in a ditch at the edge of the forest. I had a white camouflage covering my uniform similar to what the Russians were wearing."
“Polish peasants found me. ‘Soviet?’ They asked. ‘German?’ I nodded. ‘Poor kid, are you hungry?’ The tallest of them asked in German. They dragged me to a house. I was afraid. ‘The Poles are cunning, scheming and deceitful,’ I have been taught in the army. When a girl entered the kitchen, holding a big knife I thought they were going to slaughter me. She cut my shoes because they were unable to take them off. One of my legs and my arm were broken, and I had many frostbites. They gave me some hot milk. This way I found myself on the farm of Brzewinski brothers in Ochodza (both already died). I called Ignacy, the older one, ‘father’ and Wincenty – ‘uncle.’ They called me Mateusz. They hid me in a stable together with their three horses, ‘Mucka’, ‘Gniady’ and ‘Murzyn’. During cold nights I slept over a potato steamer."
“The Russians who checked our village were told by Brzewinski that I am his seriously ill son. The Russians carefully avoided sick people. The Polish officials were told that I was hiding there for half a year because I deserted from Wehrmacht."
“Why did they save me? I have never learned why. Out of mercy, probably. I looked like a beaten kid. They told me once that it was because of the black rosary, which they found while ripping the uniform off me.”
I Would Be a Pole
One day, ‘father’ said: "Hitler kaputt", "war kaputt", and Mateusz didn't have to hide any more. The village liked him, and he felt happy there. He was helping them with the farm work.
“They interrogated me in Trzemeszno; a Pole and a Russian. They asked me to take my clothes off. Then checked if I had any SS tattoos. In the yard a dead boy was lying in a Hitlerjugend uniform. The interrogators were very suspicious because of the 19 knife fights noted in my military logbook. My ‘father’ vouched for me. Then he took my logbook and bricked it up in one of the house’s walls."
“I remember, when the local priest returned from the concentration camp. The parishioners walked forward to meet him. ‘Father’ took me with him. The priest walked, tightly holding a walking stick, skinny, and pale. We drove to the church and for the first time in a very long period I heard ‘Tantum Ergo’ just like home. The priest walked, singing, through the church and blessed all of us. Including me. I felt happy, but also full of shame, and guilt.”
Mateusz left Ochodza in June 1946. Before he left, the Brzewinski family gave him 200 zlotys, bread and butter.
“A temporary Belgian embassy has been set up in Warsaw. I sat on the stairs of a building, which a year before I was trying to take over. People were living in the ruins of cellars. Only one tramline joined the two banks of Vistula. I was returning home for three months. Through Polish arrests, American POW camp in Berlin. The Belgian gendarmerie took me to Brussels for interrogations. The Belgians didn't want me. I didn't have any ID. Everybody could say he is Belgian."
“I met my future wife after the war. At that time, everybody was smuggling on the Belgian-German border. She was trying to smuggle a piglet to Belgium and I was smuggling coffee to Germany. We met in the middle of a forest. I returned home with her piglet.”
Mathias Schenk has three sons and a daughter. For 30 years he was the producer of car putty in Brussels. Schenk was selling the putty to whole of Europe. Now his son and son-in-law run the company.
For ten years he attended a penance pilgrimage to Banneux, where Virgin Mary appeared to a little girl. During the 1980s he organized assistance for Poland. He traveled to Poland 32 times with transports of food, clothes and diapers.
“I have been to Warsaw again. I've met the veterans of the Uprising. They were nice. One of them spoke about how on August 1st they opened fire on the last German military train arriving in Warsaw. When in Ochodza I didn't know who I was – a Belgian, a German, Mateusz? I didn't even know if Belgium still existed. I thought my relatives were dead. If in March 1945 I hadn’t received a note from them I would have stayed in Ochodza. I would be a Pole, just like you."
Read [ german witnesses ]
See [ german soldiers' photos ]