In the Trud Army
In der Trudarmee
Epp, Heinrich. "In the Trud Army." Rundschau, August 2001, 11.
Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
In February of 1942, after having been evacuated together with
other teachers from Bryansk to Shumicha (Kurgan region), I was taken
to Slatoust (Tshelyabinsk region) and forced to enter the Trud Army.
There, in the South Urals, I worked in the construction company
called "Yushtyashstroy," today named "Slatoust Metallurgtroy."
I slaved away as a laborer in a construction brigade. Using sledge
hammers, steel wedges, pick axes, and crowbars, we literally chewed
our way into the rock hard, frozen ground to provide excavations
required for new factory buildings for iron and steel works. Temperatures
ranging between minus 40 and minus 45 degrees Celsius (around minus
40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) was biting into every part of our bodies,
and I had come from a warm area, with just a light coat meant to
be worn between seasons. To try to keep our teeth from chattering,
we built camp fires and warmed ourselves at them from time to time,
even though that was not permitted. This certainly was not the kind
of work a teacher was used to. For six years I had worked in the
schools. Here we were forced to toil 12 to 14 hours a day and then
to arrive dead tired in our barracks, where we had two-tiered wooden
sleeping structures, on which we slept like a log. And so it went,
day after day, ever the same routine, from 8 A.M. till 8 or even
10 P.M. The amount of food kept getting less and less and eventually
reached the state of an utterly watery broth. The only thing that
kept us going and on our feet was the bread. We received 800 grams
[a day], but only God knows what was in that bread. It was heavy
and sticky and felt like a rock in the stomach. These were such
tough times! But what could we do? ... At the war's front, in contrast,
many were forced to fight and even to sacrifice their lives for
freedom of our country. Nobody had an easy time of it. Many families
received letters announcing someone's death. In our own Trud Army
unit, by the time spring arrived, many older Trud Army workers were
dying from the impossibly hard work and poor nutrition. At the time,
thank God, I was a mere 26 years of age, and my youthful system
was able to withstand it all. Yet the sharp claws of hunger were
digging even into me. My legs began to swell up. I sold my wrist
watch and acquired a bread [ration] card at a flea market. Part
of the bread I traded for milk, and in that way I was able to manage
When we were marched to the bath house the first time, we were given a new change of clothes, but after a few days we were itching all over our bodies, especially at night. I got up, took my shirt off, and started to crush bunches of lice and nits. After a while the others also arose, and there was a sudden roar of a crackling noise. It was horrible. Our clothes had been washed, but without sufficiently hot water -- simply sloppiness on the part of the laundry people. We could have died of typhoid fever. During our lunch break I walked into the laundry and paid them some of my money to have my clothes washed and ironed. In this manner I was able to overcome that bad patch. As the saying goes, "Any child of God helps himself."
My brigade soon nominated me team leader, and later on I was invited to work as bookkeeper, and in that way I gradually got my head above water. At a stint as a normal bookkeeper, I was subsequently named head bookkeeper: if you wish to survive, you must take appropriate turns and make necessary changes, but never let up.
The iron works was advanced enough to have the right kind of super hot ovens, including the so-called "Martin" ovens, where I had shed many a drop of sweat. The weapons industry was now getting more steel, which led to a faster victory by our army over its fascist enemy.
When my construction unit was disbanded upon completing its required work, I was transferred to the administration of the construction company, where I was employed as chief bookkeeper until August of 1947. For a long time I had longed to get back to teaching, and so I set out to pull all possible strings in order to get into education once more. But they did not want to let me go. Finally, even via use of the courts, I was barely able to reach my goal. But it was required that I see the commander at my headquarters to formally request permission to teach, because I had been registered as German. Well, it all worked out, and I was finally able to work as a teacher of German in a middle school and in an institute. By 1965 [Translator's note: from my knowledge of history, the author may actually mean the year 1955, when repressions against Germans were finally abated -- see more information regarding 1955, below. A.H.], M.M. Klain invited me to teach for him in the German Middle School Number 10, of which he was the director. I was elated to follow his invitation. Here my work really kept my interest, and so I poured all of my knowledge and abilities into my efforts at the school. Yet, my soul was suffering immeasurably, because, as if I were still a forced laborer, I was still obliged to report to headquarters command every month. It was their way of making sure I had not gone on the lam. Every time it was like going through hell -- and very humiliating for someone working in the teaching profession. However, in December of 1955 I, as everyone else who had forcibly been resettled, was liberated of this shameful yoke. I was finally free as a bird, but still I was not allowed to return home. And by the time my family and I had traveled for a stay at Yalta in the summer, my poor soul had recovered from my awful lot, and my face was beginning to beam like the Southerly sun. It was a truly grand feeling. Humans do not exist for gagging; they always strive for freedom; and they have the right to be free and not be put into a cage like a bird. Would that such a fate will never again happen to any intelligent, decent, lawful person. Gorki said it, in his lifetime: "Man -- now there is a proud sound."
The horrendous times in the Trud Army actually also had a good side. I learned to overcome the worst of circumstances, I grew more steadfast, more goal oriented, more persistent and more compassionate, and I acquired a more solid lifestyle. Many times, fortune stood by my side. I was able to make contact with good people, and to this day I thank them for their humane deeds. To be sure, there were always some who did their more or less nasty deeds, but one should not carry grudges. People are all different, and there are those who can not be blamed for their innately difficult personalities. Let us simply forgive them. Life would not be all that interesting if everyone had the same kind of personality. Still waters eventually are transformed into swamp water.
When I think of how many Germans lived behind barbed wire, how many were led to their jobs with a gun pointed at them, how hundreds of thousands died of hunger or cold or plainly inhuman working conditions, I can only say that I must have been born under a lucky star. There were many Germans who worked in the iron works of Slatoust, but never under guard. They worked as part of an international collective. One might say they were fortunate, and I was one of the most fortunate among the fortunate in that city. It is not for naught that the city bears that beautiful and honorable name, Slatoust [tr., must have a pleasant meaning in Russian, certainly unobvious to one not capable of the Russian language].
There follow the translations of four poems by Heinrich Epp.
Many a drop of blood,
year in, year out,
has been shed by the soul -
just like a wounded oriole
shot by a hunter.
By the year forty-one
she was already tormented.
Like grapes pressed dry,
humans attempted to kill her.
Of sheer horror
of those difficult times
she almost succumbed.
No small wonder
that she rarely cried out.
She was gagged,
but to no avail.
No one could subdue her.
To this day she remains free.
Yet it is almost as if she
wished to be clamped down.
But she defies every lie
and every act of infamy.
Mein trautes Heim
My beloved home
The place I call home lies
on the small Kalinovka river.
It was so dear to me,
so close to me,
yet now I must leave.
So now I rein in my desires.
You are like a dream to me.
I steel myself to homesickness,
but I barely succeed.
My soul is so tired, so ill
in this sorely afflicted country.
My home will always have a warm welcome,
she reminds me.
Amidst the sea of grain,
in the green valley,
there one breathes with ease.
The song of the lark echoes in the sky.
Here my breath is nearly stifled,
the air is so oppressive.
To my beloved home I am drawn,
with a hint of bitterness.
Not to be forgotten,
not to be suppressed,
not to be fathomed.
not to be abided.
Are there words
to express it? ..
nearly impossible to bear.
Parting, and tears.
of toiling parents.
Girls and boys -
Cold and hunger.
Sacred calm of
Steely will of
Are there words
to express it all? ..
Bestial horde of
It was the 28th of August.
A date that can not be forgotten.
The heart's deep outpouring of pain
Is impossible to fathom rationally.
With hard work and with diligence
We had created our life of freedom.
In the fields, wheat and corn are sprouting,
In the garden, apples,
Sweet as grapes.
In the meadow, animals are grazing,
In the stables, horses are neighing.
The future provided new courage,
Lighting up faces.
A heart-rending edict,
Like sudden hail from a sunny sky,
Has smeared this image of peace,
Has muddled it, carelessly.
Many cast a final glance
Onto home and possession,
Onto empty streets.
Adieu, oh you, my Volga Republic!
Eastward they went
In great multitude.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.