The Former World War II Prison Camp at Luckenwalde

Part One

A former Italian prisoner describes his experience in Stalag IIIA Luckenwalde on tape. He explains in great detail his imprisonment. A descriptive and important report from an eyewitness, his details are matched by other French and Polish prisoners of war. Here is his testimony:

“My name is Michele Zotta. I was born on June 24, 1924 in Florenza. Florenza is a small village in Basilicata, a region in Southern Italy. After the Bagdolio regime overthrew Mussolini in July 1943, the final group to be called to war were those people born in 1924. That’s why my older brother Francesco and I drove in August 1943 to Portenza. Portenza is the main city of the Basilicata region. We tried to avoid my being transferred to a regiment headed for the south of Italy, because we knew that the Allies had already landed in Sicily. My brother was of the opinion that it would be smarter to go to a region further away from the theater of war. So, I was sent to Goertz, where the 6th Allied regiment was located. Goertz is near the border of Yugoslavia.

On September 8th, the Bagdolio regime called a truce with the Allied troops. After that, German troops took over parts of Italy, where they were stationed. And so it happened that I became a prisoner of war one or two days after the truce had been declared. With two other soldiers, I was brought to Montesando where the Italian prisoners were concentrated, and I was put into a cattle wagon train car a day later – on September 11th or 12th. There were about one hundred other prisoners. We were taken to Luckenwalde. The trip took a full day, during which time we were only given food and water once, at the train stop in Vienna. There, for the first time in my life, I saw rye bread. Since I didn’t know what that was, and I wasn’t really hungry (I had leftovers from the Italian army) I didn’t take the bread. Otherwise, they didn’t take care of us at all.

We left Montesando in the afternoon of September 11th or 12th 1943, and arrived in the early evening of the next day in Luckenwalde, but not at the main train station. Instead, we arrived at the cattle loading area. The German soldiers herded us out of the wagon and we had to walk to the prison camp Stalag IIIA, through part of the town. About 30 train wagons arrived with me together, so there was a long procession on the way to the camp. As the procession passed, people of Luckenwalde came to inspect us. We saw many kids who gave us obvious signs that they would execute us. Not only were there kids, but even young adults pointed with their fingers at their throats, or made shooting impressions to show us that we would die. Once at the camp, we were taken one by one to a room where they photographed us and gave us a number. We had to wear both the photo and the number visibly on our jacket. They also fingerprinted us. We were vaccinated too. I don’t know for what – they took personal information about us for their records. They separated soldiers by their rank. Because I had only been a soldier for eight days, I was in the lowest rank. The officers in the higher rank were taken somewhere else in the camp. They gave us a little white tent, which held five or six people, and they asked to set the tents up. We spent three days in those tents. The tents were small – we couldn’t stand upright. We were forced to sleep on the ground without blankets or any other protection against the cold. On the second day in the tent, they finally gave us something to eat: one kilo of rye bread that we had to split between 15 of us. It came with a tiny bit of butter and jelly – not a lot. That was the only food we got every day.

In my section of the prison, there were only Italian prisoners. During the day, we could move freely about in our section, but we had to keep a security distance of two to three meters from the barbed wire. Despite the barbed wire, there were German soldiers positioned everywhere. During the day, we would also visit the bigger tents and try to find friends and family to talk to, since new prisoners arrived daily and were transported to work camps. The occupants of each section changed daily. After three days, we were moved to a larger tent, where we still slept on the floor.

In the beginning of November 1943, they moved us into barracks with wooden bunk beds. They had no mattresses, but the room had a small oven so it became easier to tolerate the cold. With the move to the bigger barracks, the food changed too. We now received a bucket of potatoes to share between 25 of us, one scoop of each, and that same rye bread to be shared amongst 15 of us.

This was our daily routine: The Germans divided us into 25 groups. Each group received one blanket, which we spread on the floor. We poured the food onto the blanket, and tried to divide it as fairly as possible. Sometimes our food arrived early in the morning, but other times it wouldn’t arrive until the early afternoon. In the area around the Italian section, my section, where I was imprisoned, were French, English and American prisoners. We never got to see the Russian prisoners, but we knew that they were in barracks that we could see. But we never saw them – as far as I know – because they were not allowed to leave their barracks. Every night we were counted – that means we had to step in front of our tents and line up in five rows. The Germans then counted us. We ourselves never knew how many of us were in the camp, but the Germans knew that. We couldn’t tell if somebody were missing or not.

The distribution of the soup rations always happened out of a little house that had several windows. We would line up in front of these windows, and would each get one scoop of soup into a bowl. In the beginning of my imprisonment, I worked the circumstances to my advantage. I waited in front of several windows to collect several soup rations, which I poured into a bigger bowl, which I had brought with me from Italy. It worked great – for a few days, I had more food than I was allowed. Unfortunately, I got caught by a German soldier. He took me out of the line and I was beaten. I had to give up my bowl, and I received no food for two days. Finally on the third day, I was brought back to the food distribution line.

Yes, I already mentioned that daily prisoners were deported. We never knew why they were deported. Was it for work camps, another prison camp?? We never knew what happened to them. We had no information whatsoever. There were days when I slept in some of the bigger tents, where they sometimes deported three to four hundred prisoners at a time.

In my section, the treatment of the prisoners was very cruel. I saw many people collapse from hunger and cold, but the Germans prevented other prisoners from helping a collapsed person to stand up again. Instead, they kicked them when they were down. If they didn’t stand up, they took them away. We never saw them again. I have no idea if they were killed or brought to the sick barracks.

Around mid-November 1943, I and 24 other Italian prisoners were also taken to a work transport. This happened as follows: the night before our departure, 25 people were counted off in front of my barrack. They told us to report the next day, as we would be marched to another location in the camp. The next day – the day of departure – we had to assemble at roll call for our section and strip naked. We had to throw all our belongings into one pile. When we had first arrived at camp, we came with a suitcase of our belongings from Italy. They didn’t confiscate our belongings at that time – we could take them into the camp, and they remained with us. But as I said, on the day of departure, we had to throw all our things into a pile. Then the Germans would assign some articles from the pile to us – so at the end – we each had only one piece of clothing – from our shoes to our jacket. That means that those who had nothing, received clothing from those who had more. After being outfitted, we were taken to the train station. They put us on the train, and the journey began.

All us prisoners were ambivalent about the fact that we had seen people being deported. We didn’t know to where. On the one hand, life in the camp was so cruel and sacrificial that most of us thought it couldn’t get worse. So we hoped that we would get on a transport out of the camp. On the other hand, we didn’t know it all, and that was the worst about the situation….where would this transport bring us? Were they just taking us to another camp, or executing us or what?

Afterwards, I found out from friends of my village, whom I met after the war was over, that the outcome for the prisoners who were brought to factories surrounding the camp was much worse than for the prisoners who stayed in the camp. Those in the factories were exposed to hard manual labor, having no more food than we received in the camp.

The day of our departure, two Germans escorted us to the train station of Luckenwalde. In the early morning hours, the train left the station. We were again loaded into a cattle car with the two Germans and transported to Kyritz. Once in Kyrtiz, it was already dark. It might have been late afternoon – it was November. Two Frenchmen with a wagon and pulled by two horses were waiting for us. The wagon brought us – still with the two Germans – to Drewen.

Drewen is a small village about six kilometers north of Kyritz. There, we were taken to a farm. We were led into a kind of kitchen in which sat a Frenchman. His name was Enrique. He spoke Italian. There was a stove with two pots of boiling potatoes. In the background, there was a forty-kilo bushel of potatoes. During the whole trip and the time we lived in Drewen, we didn’t know where we were, or how long we would stay, or why we were there. So we were anxious and apprehensive about stealing the potatoes because we didn’t know if we were allowed to eat them. We didn’t know whom the potatoes cooking on the stove were for. So we hid all the potatoes from this room in our clothing. After some time, Enrique informed us that we could eat the potatoes from the stove. So we did! Because of our great hunger, the potatoes were quickly eaten. He said that if we so desired, we could cook more potatoes. When he looked into the basket and saw that we had stolen the potatoes, he laughed and told us that it wasn’t necessary to steal potatoes here. There was no shortage of potatoes here. So we put the potatoes back and started cooking more. We spent the whole night together in this room, but mostly we ate the whole time.

The next morning we were brought in front of the landowner.