The first thing I saw when I woke up was a sailor sitting on a chair reading a magazine. When he noticed that I was stirring he looked up, I quickly closed my eyes again pretending to be asleep. Maybe he
was fooled at first, but after a while he knew that I was only playing
a game with him. So without saying a word, he got up and left.
I checked myself over and found that everything was in place. I had no injuries that I could detect. It wasn’t until later that I noticed that I had injured my hands. Now I began to think things over. I was a prisoner of war. This was not a good feeling. I was nineteen years old and, as far as I knew, I was the only German sailor on this British destroyer. But I was alive! That, in itself, was
an astonishing fact.
I didn’ t have much time to think because the sailor. who had been watching me, returned with an officer who began to speak to me. I was surprised that I could understand him; he was speaking German. He told me that he was a doctor and wanted to check me over. When he had examined me he said that I was in good shape. He stayed to talk for a while. After a short conversation he told me that the captain wanted to see me and asked if I was willing to talk to him. I agreed, and when the captain entered, he sent my guard away.
The captain also spoke to me in fluent German. First we shook hands like old acquaintances and then we conversed for a while. He asked for my name and I told him: “Walter Schmietenknop”.
Then he asked me about home and family. He told me that he had been a seaman before the war and he knew Bremen and Hamburg and even Oldenburg, which was close to my home.
I was born on February 1, 1925 in Kleefeld, a village close to the city of Oldenburg. I am the fourth of eight children in the family of Friedrich and Berta (nee Westendorf) Schmietenknop.
In my early years we lived on a farm that belonged to my grandfather Westendorf. In 1937 we moved to a new house which my parents had built adjacent to my grandfather’s property. At that time my father was employed by the government as a custodian of roads, that is, he was responsible for keeping the roads in good repair. Later, after his dismissal from this position for political reasons, he had to eke out a living in other ways.
After I had told the captain about myself, he asked me for the number of my boat. When I said that I couldn’t tell him, he didn’t put any pressure on me; that would come later from other interrogators. We talked about the war and agreed that it was a stupid war and that neither one of us was in favour of it, even though we had to do our duty for our country.
He said:”Well, it’s over for you and I’m glad you made it”. Then he asked if I had any questions and so I said: “Yes, can you tell me if there are any other survivors from my boat?” He looked at me for a moment and said:”No, you are the only one. We waited in the vicinity for another half hour after we picked you up and no one else surfaced. But don’t tell anyone I told you this. It’s just for your own information. Others may tell you differently, if they think it will make you talk about your boat”.
When we had talked for a while the captain left. He shook hands with me and said: “Good luck. It won’t be easy for you”.
Once again I was left alone with my thoughts. A situation can certainly change quickly in a war. Less than twenty-four hours ago I had been in an U-boat fighting against these people who were now in control of my life.
I remembered how I had embarrassed myself yesterday when this destroyer picked me up. I don’t know how long I had been swimming around in the English Channel, but when they picked me up I couldn’t even climb the rope they let down for me. They had to let down a rope ladder, and even then I blacked out as I came over the rail. All I remembered was a bearded sailor pulling me over the
rail and holding on to me. I vaguely recalled being taken to the captain, but couldn’t remember our conversation.
Apparently there was no spare cabin for me to occupy on this ship. The best they could do for me was to give me a canvas cot to set up over the bathtub in the officers’ bathroom. The next morning, still lying on my makeshift bed, I startled an officer coming in. I didn’t understand what he said, but it must have been something like:”Oops, what’s going on here?” He shaved himself at the sink and left. Several other officers came in and left. This went on for quite a while.
While all this was going on, I started to think about the fact that there were other U-boats in these waters. What if they hit this ship with a torpedo? What would happen to me then? I didn’t even have a lifejacket and looked around to find one. Down the hall I saw something that looked like a lifejacket and when all was clear I ran down there like a flash and grabbed this object. Sure enough, it was an old lifejacket with cork flotation. I cleaned off the dust and hid it
as well as I could under my make-shift bunk. The officers soon saw
that I had this life jacket and just grinned. But having a life jacket
made me feel a little better. At the first indication of an explosion I would have it on and be ready to go.
I felt completely helpless und vulnerable in this alien environment.
Procuring the lifejacket was the only independent action I could take at this point. For the rest I had no freedom and had the feeling that I would probably not be free for a long time.
I wondered how my parents would feel when they heard that I was a prisoner of war. By international law, my captors were required to notifiy the Red Cross that I was a prisoner of war and inform my parents. In the meantime I could only hope that they wouldn’t suffer too much anxiety because of me.
I remembered all the good times our family had enjoyed, but also the hardships my parents had to endure because of their Christian faith. My father’s insistence to take us to church and Sunday School got
him into a lot of trouble. Every Sunday, father took us to church and Sunday School in the city of Oldenburg, about twelve kilometers from our home. One Sunday morning we were ready to leave for Sunday School when two acquaintances showed up and asked why we didn’t come to “Jungvolk”, the youth organization of the National Socialist Party. My father told them that we would join them later in the afternoon, but that we would go to church and Sunday School in the morning. “Furthermore” father asked “why do the ‘Jungvolk’ meetings now take place on a Sunday? These meetings used to be on Saturday?” These men said to father:
“Fritz, we suggest that you let your children go to ‘Jungvolk’on Sunday mornings.” He was firm:”No, they are going to Sunday School first.”
At the time, I didn’t realize what that meant, but later on I was told by my dad that some people wanted him arrested for taking us children to church and Sunday School in Oldenburg and for having a Sunday School class at our home in the afternoon. Afternoon Sunday School was sponsored by the church in Oldenburg, who also sent Sunday School teachers to teach at our house. This meant that on Sundays we went to church and Sunday School in Oldenburg in the morning and Sunday School at our house in the afternoon.
Due to pressure from people in our district, the church in Oldenburg decided to discontinue Sunday School at our house. When that happened I was actually pleased, because I didn’t like going to Sunday School mornings and afternoons. We missed playing with our friends on Sunday afternoons. Later, because of extreme pressure by the regime, the church in Oldenburg discontinued Sunday School altogether.
One day in 1937 an acquaintance came to my dad and said: “Fritz, there are some people who want to get rid of you because of your Sunday School.” Later we found out, that this very acquaintance was one of the men who had complained to the authorities about
father’s activities. It seemed that his conscience was bothering him already about this. However, he was not one of the main instigators of this harassment against my dad. The real trouble makers in our
district were a school principal, a Dutch farmer who owned a greenhouse and the third man who was simply a follower of the other two. At the time of this incident we didn’t know their identities; but we found out later.
One of my father’s talents was directing choirs. He was the conductor of a 150 voice male choir, but he directed other choirs as well. Sometimes he would direct choirs singing at political meetings even though he didn’t agree with the politics. He would agree to do it, because he had to. The three men who had it in for my dad didn’t like that because they knew he was not committed to their political views.
Soon after the warning from his acquaintance, a letter arrived from the government with the claim that my father was not properly doing his job, i.e. not maintaining the farm roads adequately.
My father and I went from house to house asking the farmers if they had any complaints about the way he was doing his job. Nobody had any complaints, in fact the people in the district were pleased with the way the roads were maintained, i.e. better than before and were willing to sign a petition to that effect. We sent this petition to the proper authorities, but it didn’t help, my dad lost his job.
Then my dad received a summons to appear in the district court in
Bad Zwischenahn, a town near our village of Kleefeld. To my dad’s surprise the judge on the bench was his cousin Fritz. They hadn’t seen each other for many years. They had no common interests,
my dad was a Christian and his cousin had no interest in Christianity. However, Friedrich (Fritz) Breit was basically a just man.
After they had greeted each other the judge told my dad: “Fritz, do you know what this is all about. It is not about your work, it is about your Sunday School”. The complaint had come from only a few people who were opposed to anything to do with Christianity.
Father then had a short discussion with his cousin, the judge. He
asked him how his conscience allowed him to continue in his position in this political climate. His cousin answered:”If I’d leave, they would appoint someone else and then every complaint would be sent to the higher court in Oldenburg. As long as I am on the bench, I can tear up complaints. If no one checks up on me by going to Oldenburg, I can get away with it.”
The judge tore up the complaint and told dad not to mention this to anyone. He was willing to take the risk involved, not only because father was his cousin, but because he was astute enough to see what could happen to innocent people under the present political regime.
This saved my dad for the time being, but he could not find work. He applied everywhere, but nobody hired him, even though there were enough jobs available at that time. The next person who applied after him was always hired, but since dad was black-listed, nobody dared to hire him.
But Friedrich Breit, the judge, had decided to help my dad. He told him to apply at a newspaper in Oldenburg. He had connections there and after phoning on dad’s behalf he was told that they would hire my dad. My dad went to work for the newspaper. His first job was to bundle newspapers for delivery. As hard as my parents tried, they could not live on the meager wages dad made, especially since there were five children to feed. He was given a paper route and as time went on he had several paper routes and this additional income allowed him to support his family. The German State gave him permission to continue working at the newspaper; thus solving the job situation for the time being.
Before long people in the neighbourhood started gossiping and asking questions why my dad would work for the newspaper and deliver papers when there were so many good jobs available. Of course, he couldn’t tell them why, and if he could have told them, they would not have believed him. Had he been able to tell the farmers, whose roads he used to maintain, they would have told him that such things didn’t exist in Germany. Most Germans had no idea
what was happening in their country. Everything looked normal and with some exceptions, such as my dad’s case, everything was normal. In any case, dad managed to make a living, even though it was hard work and the gossip sometimes stung. It was also quite disconcerting to come home from school and find my parents sitting together in the kitchen, weeping. In spite of their difficulties, their faith in God’s goodness and grace did not waver.
One of my early childhood memories was taking my grandfather’s lunch to him when he was working out in the field. He would make me sit down and tell me all kinds of things, especially about the Bible and how relevant it was to life and history. I learned much from these sessions, even though I ignored much of what he hold me when I was in the Navy. One of the things he told me, which I did not forget, was that he was convinced that one day Europe would unite and that I would see it in my lifetime. My grandfather also predicted the defeat of Germany.
One day in November 1938 I came home and found my father and grandfather bent over a newspaper, discussing an article. It was an article about the mistreatment of Jewish people, the “Kristallnacht” or “the night of broken crystal”. Jewish homes and shops has been broken into, furniture, china and crystal broken, women chased out of their homes in their nightgowns, some Jews were beaten or killed all over Germany. This was committed by an anti-Jewish German Government. My grandfather read the biblical text in Genesis 12:3 where God says to Abraham:"I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse." Grandfather pointed out that this text was not just for the one man, Abraham, but for all of Abraham’s descendants.
In the ensuing discussion my father pointed out a situation in the last century in France, where a number of Jews had been attacked and killed one night. He argued that there had been no apparent retribution against France for this incident. Grandfather replied : “That was a local event, it was not like the one last night. Last
night’s attack was planned by the government of a large and strong country. We can be sure God’s judgement will be applied.”
Then my grandfather pointed to a small swastika in the corner of the newspaper and said: “Within ten years, these hooks on the swastika will hack our Germany to pieces” (German: “Diese Haken werden unser Deutschland zerhacken”). Father replied: “But grandpa, Germany has a powerful army”. “Oh yes” replied grandfather “our armies will overrun all of Europe, but when God’s hour arrives, the strongest army won’t do us any good”. This statement caused me much mental anguish later on. Grandfather didn’t see the fulfillment of these profound and accurate predictions. He died in the spring of 1939.
Copyright © 2006/2007 Walter Schmietenknop. All rights reserved.