February 20, 1925 page 3
By Gustav v. Oetinger
The following report was cordially sent to us by Mr. Carl Risch, 514 East Laurel St. Due to his interest in the matter we are publishing it here. The Saarbrücken newspaper carried the story with the following lead:
"As is well known, the Saarbrück native Gustav v. Oetinger was sentenced to ten years forced labor for alleged espionage by the French Military Court in Mainz. He was released due to an amnesty clause in the London Treaty. Here he describes the proceedings against him as a prisoner under investigation then the transportation to the penal colony at Saint Martin de Ré, the dreadful time in the notorious depot of Saint Martin de Ré, and finally his return home. One will observe that the narration takes place in a quiet, maybe even pleasant tone. But the story is scarcely pleasant. After what we already know and what can be deduced by reading between the lines in v. Oetinger's descriptions, there is no pen strong enough to withstand the cruelty practiced by Poincaré's France against German political prisoners. The naturalistic description alone is enough to freeze the blood of the reader. Understandibly the writer simply sees in this cultural phenomenon an aspect of the "Grande Nation." Such things are synonymous with France but we only hold Poincaré's clique and his contemporaries guilty, especially those people who carry on about superior French culture perpetually and at every opportunity. History will show that Poincaré and his chronies will not succeed in washing their hand clean of the guilt. People will see that the time of Poincaré's omnipotence was a time in which the devil himself was let loose on humanity, specifically on the defenseless German people. They may also not be wrong in assuming that devil might have been let loose in his own land or in other foreign lands. An objective history of this man can scarcely portray him differently than as a monster (and it may also be noticed that this was in an era when alliances could operate without fear of punishment.) The following narrative by v. Oetinger is further proof of this theory." — The Editor
My imprisonment is behind me. — But I often think back to it during many lonely hours. Memories of loyal comrades banish the dark images which have welded themselves firmly into my consciousness. — All too often during the peaceful and quiet hours since my return I talk about my imprisonment. The memories persistently return so clearly that one can't help thinking that freedom is a gracious gift. Precious freedom. During imprisonment a man envies each and every animal. Now we have it again, this beautiful, beautiful freedom. Over and over again one relives the hard times. It all passes clearly and intensely before the eyes and one wonders, why and how is it that the memories keep coming back? — I don't know! Perhaps the memories themselves can explain.
Already at the time of my imprisonment on April 30, 1923 I learned that there are beasts among the French officers. In the Hotel Vereinhofs, where my first interrogation began at 8 in the evening I encountered the first episode of maltreatment. Commissar Allard and five officers attempted to make me confess. When I stubbornly refused they pulled my hair, kicked me, and hit me with a riding crop on the back and face. The interrogation ended at 11 PM when they saw that violence would not persuade me. The next day the interrogation continued in a similar fashion at Wiesenthal. This procedure also proved ineffective. On May 1st I arrived at the penitentiary at Werden (Ruhr). I stayed there until June 6th. Then I had to go to the district court prison in W. Because I was suspected of attempting to flee I was placed in a cell in the basement. The Red Cross under the auspices of Attorney Dr. Jürgens did its best for me. On June 27, 1923 I stood for the first time before a French military court. The case was adjourned for the purpose of getting more witnesses. Four weeks later, on July 21, 1923, after a three-hour trial I was sentenced to ten years forced labor because of alleged espionage. The French Commissar Allard swore to everything. Despite my objection that Allard was guilty of perjury the villain's sworn testimoney was accepted as truth. The State Attorney, Captain Duvert, said "tous les allemands sont des menteurs," all Germans are liars. That sufficed to invalidate my objection. On August 25, 1923 I arrived at the French prison in Düsseldorf-Derendorf. From there I went to Bonn on the Rhine (September 6, 1923.) On September 7th transportation was arranged from Bonn to France and I now came in contact with real criminals. Among my sorrowful traveling companions were two policemen from Essen named Kosch and Brauer, both of whom were sentenced to forced labor for life. A merchant named Klipper got ten years forced labor. Willy Ziegler of Essen-West (Ruhr) received ten years. He was one of the men who betrayed the German Affair in the Ruhr District. He was convicted of burglary. Brauer, Klipper, Ziegler and I were in chains. Ziegler and I had to have our left and right hands stretched behind us. Brauer's and Ziegler's left and right hands were attached to our chains, crisscrossed the way pigs are fettered. We were taken to the railroad station at 5 in the morning. We reached Trier in the afternoon and spent our last night on German soil.
On September 8, 1923 we left for Metz in the knowledge that we would never forget our homeland. We stayed at the civilian prison in Metz until September 20th. Our accommodations: lice and vermin infested cells! Rations: Inedible, watery soup. I voluntarily lived on water and dry bread. On a dark and rainy Thursday morning we were joined in the same rows of chains with robbers, murderers, wilders, highwaymen, deserters and colored rapists. The chains were so tight and firm that our hands and lower arms were swollen. We were driven through the streets of Metz. The chains we wore were known in French criminal circles as "Clemenceau bracelets." At the train station we were loaded into a "Clemenceau Transport Wagon." This special traincar contained a number of narrow and short cells, about 150 centimeters high and 60 to 70 centimeters wide and deep. Once in the cells our foot chains were immediately attached to them so we could not escape. Among the criminals were several Moroccan soldiers, who had raped German women and girls in the Rhineland. An Arab sat opposite me who was sentenced to forced labor for life for certain offenses. Natives of French culture received 5 to 15 year sentences because their victims lost their lives under extenuating circumstances! We sat like apes in tiny cages trying to learn sign language so we could make ourselves understood under the conditions we were forced to endure. For rations we received ¼ liter of water, 1 ½ pounds coarse white bread and a thin slice of smoked sausage and low-fat cheese. On the first day we traveled as far as Besoul. On the afternoon of September 22, 1923 the journey continued. The trip to La Rochelle takes two whole nights and almost two days. This is the worst part of the trip. Such a long time with restricted movement and little to eat in a narrow cage brings one to question the cultural aptitude of France, the "grande nation." As a result of this inhumane treatment upon arrival in La Rochelle I am in complete agony. I am apathetic and resigned to my fate. On September 25th we are taken onto a small steamship. A gently rolling sea and magnificent sunshine takeus to St. Martin de Ré. Now the heavenly gates of French culture open! At a quickstep pace we went to the Depot of Forcats. Scarcely arriving, the command is given: "deshabillez-vous"("Disrobe!") A highly painful examination commences where no part of the body is left untouched. This is the first action of the overseer. We are taken along with the black laborers to the diamond pits. Old, shabby pieces of American uniforms are handed out as prison clothing and a pair of wooden clogs serve as shoes. As I dress I see how Warden Birault punches and kicks my comrade Kosch in order to clarify his command given in French. Kosch, who speaks no French, has not followed a request so this is the way they make things clear.
(Continued in the next issue.)
By Gustav v. Oetinger
After this event they brought us back to the "quartier des cellules," the cells section, the favorite stop of the forced laborers. We spent the first night in two large cells with the heaviest iron chains attached to the beds. The next day cell trustee, a robber and murderer named Tricard, demonstrated his authority to exert force.
On the third day we had to work. We had to manufacture "émouchettes," fly-protection covers for horses and cows. Speaking was prohibited at the Depot of Forcats and the severest punishment was rendered for disobedience. Two days confinement to the cell was the usual punishment if one was seen talking. The first impression was that within the French way of thinking, the French culture, we were deemed as bad as the worst criminal. I received my first episode of maltreatment from robber-murderer Tricard. For speakng with a comrade I was brought back to the cells and "handled" by Overseer Jallard. Face slaps and punches were interchanged until a few kicks ended the procedure. Jallard then handed me over to almighty Tricard with these words: "Sale Boche, tu fermes ton bec!" (Filthy Boche. Shut your mouth!) — Now I learned that this maltreatment was only a prelude to what would follow. With balled fists Tricard began to punch me senseless, in the face, in the heart and lower abdomen until a couple especially heavy, well aimed blows knocked the wind right out of me and I collapsed. I had to vomit. As I began to come back to myself I had to completely undress. I got a bucket of cold water and washed myself. Still naked, I had to use the same water to clean the cold floor. The "boche" had enough. I received cell clothing and chains were placed on my naked legs. I got a light wool blanket for the night.
One could create a long list of instances of maltreatment. I will only relate a few brief eppisodes. Alfred Schneider, the youngest German at St. Martin de Ré, gained the friendship of the comrades due to his open manner and sincerity. He was also a frequent victim of maltreatment. One day Schneider had to kneel for three hours with this hands chained behind him attached to his legs. He was being hit by robber-murderer Tricard until he could no longer remain upright. I will speak nothing of the maltreatment received by those betrayers of the fatherland Maurer, Gruber, Hahne, Sasse and Ziegler. Maurer, Gruber and Hahne were associated with the seven death sentences handed down during the Mainz trial. Sasse had betrayed Lieutenant Andler and the diplomat-engineer Haller to the French in Essen. Ziegler was a French informant. Of the overseers who had a particular preference for us Germans there were: Birault, Gazaud, Mazzantini and Mariani. There are still a few lines to add about the traitors to Germany.
—Gruber wrote to the French Minister of Justice from St. Martin de Ré that if he were freed he would be willing to give information on the bombing of the Rhine-Herne Canal. Today Gruber is in Switzerland.
On November 17, 1923 Mr. v. Rinteln from the German Embassy in Paris visited us. We were pleased with the visit and we were all the more disappointed later on when we learned that our information about St. Martin de Ré would not be published in the German press. — A few weeks later (December 14, 1923) Mr. Grabowski of the German Embassy visited us and brought us warm underwear. Mr. Grabowski also received information about the maltreatment. Unfortunately once again the German government chose not to publish our concerns. In February of this year Mr. Grabowski of the Embassy received several more reports about our situation at Depot de Forcats. Unfortunately none of this material has been made public.
Christmas 1923 in St. Martin de Ré is a particularly interesting chapter. We were all very happy about the visit from the Dutch delegate of Gildemeister and especially looking forward to the countless gifts of love and the German language reading material. Even the thieving Frenchman couldn't spoil our joy since it was abundantly outweighed by the anticipation of the feast sent to us by the Dutch Red Cross. Vice-director Miccelli, who had given the Dutch delegate permission to have all gifts placed under my control, was involved in the theft. He had also refused to give me permission to write a letter to the Dutch delegate from Gildemeister.
The maltreatment of the Rhine and Ruhr prisoners in Saint Martin de Ré took on such horrible dimensions that I decided to send a grievance notice to the French Minister of Justice. On February 2, 1924 I wrote a very clear and detailed letter which described the suffering of the German prisoners and listed the entire series of maltreatments. I also wanted permission to write to French Senator Count von Bertier to tell him about the suffering of political prisoners. On February 24, 1924 an inspector from the Justice Ministry arrived to investigate. Without use of an interpretor a few Germans, who did not know French, were superficially questioned. Unable to understand the Germans, the inspector considered his duties properly discharged. Anyone who thought our situation would get better was sadly disppointed. Two days later I had to experience dreadful maltreatment at the hands of Trustee Tricard while in the presence of three overseers and Brigadier Abadi. Then there were 21 days of confinement to my cell. At first it was a 15 day confinement but since I had spoken in the cell two days were added. Another four days and a ten Franc financial penalty came because I supposedly damaged a blanket. These 21 days — which were actually an act of revenge for the grievence to Paris — I can barely describe them. There was warm food every fourth day, warm water with cabbage leaves, etc. During the other three days there was only a cup (¼ liter) of water and dry bread. The windows of the cell were open both day and night. Outside it was freezing. Secured to the bare floor with a heavy iron chain I had only a pair of old, ratty slips (made of old uniform pieces.) During the 21 days there was no opportunity to wash. I also couldn't shave. I wasn't given a towel even once. This is the treatment political prisoners experience at the hands of the cultured people of France.
Especially worth of mention are the washing conditions in Saint Martin de Ré. Water for washing is very scarce (although St. Martin is an islet in the Atlantic.) Facilities for washing are just as scarce. Dark streams of water trickle through small taps. The rate of flow cannot and will not be increased. The overseers on duty rush the prisoners along, and whosoever does not understand that he's supposed to take only a few seconds to wash his hands, face, and teeth will recieve a kick to remind him that he is a common criminal with no rights in the country of the "grande nation." Baths take place every fourth week and in the interim one only has a few opportunities to wash his feet! It's almost impossible to describe it as a bath. Around 400 prisoners complete this necessary task in about 30 minutes. In both summer and winter prisoners must undress in the open air on a cement floor. 6 to 8 old, shortened buckets hold the water. For the sake of economy the already dirtied water is quickly warmed and poured as a refreshing sprinkle on the heads of the prisoners. This is French culture in 20th century Saint Martin de Ré!
(Conclusion follows in next issue.)
The reader of this newspaper may receive absolutely cost free in the German language written information concerning naturalization, immigration, emigration, Alien Property Custodianship, visas, taxes and other information regarding federal governance.
Clear and succinct questions may be submitted to: German Bureau, Foreign Language Information Service, 119 West 41st St., New York city.
By Gustav v. Oetinger
Sending correspondence in Saint Martin de Ré was extremely difficult. If you could write in French you could count on your letters getting out quickly. German letters took 4 to 6 weeks because they had to go through the letter censor in Paris. There were also many limits on letter exchanges. Parents, siblings, wives and children had to produce proof of relationship. It was for this reason that Police Officer Brauer could not write any letters to his dying son. He had no certificates to prove he was the father of 13 children. A letter to the director of the Depot from the Saar government resulted in my inability to write any more letters after February 2, 1924 until April 6, 1924.
Dr. Hernette, the physician at Depot de Forcats on Saint Martin de Ré deserves special mention. His remarks like, "You German swine must work, you're not sick!" or "You Germans should all die miserable deaths!!" indicate his treatment methods and his well-known healing skills. A few examples will suffice to evaluate Dr. Hernette's personality. Lieutenant Andler lost consciousness after a blood clot caused a stoppage the blood flow to the heart. Dr. Hernette had no assistance or suppoes and he was confined to one small sickroom. Once you were declared healthy you were sent back to your workplace. Hugo Klipper declared he was sick because of a heavy chest and back pains. He received three or four days latter under Dr. Hernette's care in the little room with no aides or food. On August 20, 1924 Klipper was released and sent to Zweibrücken because of his poor health. The German doctor's diagnosis: 4 centimeter dropping of the heart, curvature of the spine, infection of the lung lining and pleurisy.
Railroad Supervising Inspector Gottfried contracted dysentery in November 1923. Although he had a high fever he was placed with all the other prisoners who had dysentery, using the same bucket when nature called. On the road to recovery the French criminals received red wine. The Germans received none. The French criminals received a few days of light meals but Gottfried received general rations. When his stomach immediately rejected the heavy rice the doctor perscribed three days of dry bread in punishment. In March of this year Gottfried developed a rash. The doctor gave him zinc ointment. The rash was supposed to heal in four days. This was not the case. The doctor refused to treat him any further. 11 days later the doctor allowed Gottfried back into the infirmary. Another six days without treatment. Then Dr. Hernette tended to him. More examples could be added, however I will close this list with one question: "Who was guilty for the death of German Milly Dreyer, who died March of this year in Saint Martin de Ré?" I accuse Dr. Hernette of being the guilty party!
Professor Passrath, who came to Saint Martin de Ré by assignment from Cardinal Schulte, arrived to visit the political prisoners from the Rhine and Ruhr districts. The visit brought us some hope of relief. He efficiently collected the material on the maltreatment of the Germans on April 12th and 13th, 1924. In Paris he went to the French government and met with Mr. Le Roux, Director General of all French prisoners. Mr. Le Roux came to Saint Martin de Ré in order to listen to reports on various incidents from the German prisoners. When he had heard enough about the shameful deeds at Depot de Forcat he saw to it that improvements were made in our conditions. Director Bidault, Vice Director and Controller Michaelli, and Chief of Surveillance Grosleau received permission to attend the interview with the Germans from the Director General. None were in the position to refute our testimony! Despite this our further residence in Saint Martin was no more pleasant. There still remained the severe maltreatment we had to endure before.
Our return transport to Zweibrücken was — so it seemed — meant to compensate us. From La Rochelle we were brought to Paris and on to Nancy in an open D-train car without chains and in the company of civil authorities. In Paris we rode the streetcar from Monparnasse Station to Eastside Station. Previously we were common criminals. Now all of a sudden we were upstanding people who had fulfilled their duty to their fatherland. In Nancy they granted us every conceivable amenity. We could truly bathe. We could buy tobacco, beer and wine, food and personal necessities.
These narrations comprise only a small portion of the events experienced while in prison. Not everything can be described in so few words. It will take an enormous book to fully depict all the events.
Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks
October 9, 2021