by Elsa Braun
Franz was my step-grandfather. He grew up in what was known as Sudetenland, close to the Polish border. He had to work on the farm with his parents at a very early age and hardly ever went to school. He could not read or write, not even his own name. I tried to teach him when I started school myself but he found it very difficult. I suppose he could have been classed a 'simpleton' but he was very hard-working and seemed to be happy.
When he was drafted into the German army he didn't like it and soon found a way to desert. A year later WWII broke out and he was caught and re-drafted by the Nazis. He escaped again but caught once more. The Nazis recognised his illiteracy and limited mental capacity and treated him the same as they treated the Jews. Franz was incarcerated in the concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich.
He told me many stories he heard from the other inmates. He watched people being hung for no reason. He was forced to load dead bodies on to waggons. He knew when people were being burned in the ovens by the stench. He had to help clean out the ovens to make room for thw next batch. He saw the results of some of the notorious 'experiments' being carried out. Somehow Franz survived the horro and degradation. I guess it was his simple instinct for survival.
Just weeks before the war finished the Nazis began to evacuate the concentration camps, I suppose to try to hide what had been happening there. The inmates were marched into the mountains. Everyone knew they were going to be shot. After just a day's march Franz decided to escape once more. He ran under cover of darkness across farmland and he told me how suddenly his footsteps started to sound hollow. As he was from a farming background he recognised this as the entrance to an underground 'holding cave'used for storing root vegetables during winter. It was now well into springtime. Quick as a fox he crawled inside. The guards must have found out he esacaped because he could hear the muffled sounds of the hounds and then a few shots. Then it was quiet. He fell asleep.
When he woke he carefully peeked out of the trapdoor and guessed it was about midday.No one was around. He was in the middle of a spouting potato field. He hastliy pulled some plants up, collected the spuds and took them back to the cellar to eat them. He spent several days and nights there until, under cover of darkness, he snuck up to the nearby farmhouse and crawled up to the hayloft over the cow barn. He waited until everything was quiet and went down and drank some milk direct from the cow. Next morning after the cows had been milkded and the men had gone out to the fields to work he went to the farmhouse to beg for food and work. It was then that he learned that the war was over.