Prison Camp or Hell

A journal written by Josef Sramek from Usti nad Lebem illustrates the views of the war from a prisoner of war’s standpoint. Josef’s journal entries begin December 9th, 1914 and end on December 28th, 1915. The first line in his journal states, “Kraguyevats! It took three days to get there, and they were filled with trouble,” which implies that he had been held prisoner since December 6th. By reading and analyzing Josef’s journal entries during this period, I will get a real life perception of the war from a POW’s point of view.

As soon as the prisoners arrived at their first destination, they confiscated their coats, shoes, underwear, and everything else that had any value from them. The prisoners were given little to eat, most of the time splitting a single loaf of bread between themselves per day. For the first day, they were forced to sleep on the snow. They were sent to a new prisoner camp called Skoplye soon after they were finished with their first “meal”. The prisoners must have been as uncomfortable as a person trying to fit into pants 5 sizes smaller than they would normally wear. I use this analogy because the prisoners being transported in the boxcar were so crammed they were incapable of even sitting down.

Three days after departing from their first camp, the prisoners reached Skoplye. The Serbs finally gave the prisoners a “home”. This was a stable unsuitable for cattle but appropriate enough to house “Schwabs”. Because there were thousands upon thousands of prisoners in the stables and the Serbs prohibited them from drinking safe water and food, disease spread quickly and many prisoners died. It is not unusual to find at least 200 lice on a prisoner in these horrendous stables.

The holiday season had most prisoners recalling family memories. Josef pondered over where his family was, what they were doing, and how their Christmas was going. All of these thoughts caused him to crack a few tears. Other prisoner’s memories had brought tears to their eyes as well. The New Year was not as celebrated as it would have been under normal circumstances. Many prisoners cursed the past year and prayed for the next to be better.

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The town citizens are not much better off than the prisoners. The hospitals are full and the sick go untreated because there are not doctors. The nurses do what they can to help their patients, but it isn’t much. The prisoners were commanded to act as nurses or doctors, but most of them knew little about hospital care. Josef states that when he was commanded to act as a nurse he quickly ran away when he saw the mess.

Josef received his first postcard from his daughter. It said “Daddy, I am glad that you are safe.” If only his daughter knew of how near he was to death just days ago. Nearly 200 prisoners died per day because of the harsh conditions at the camp. The prisoners hadn’t eaten for six days. First they ran out of wood, then water, and now meat. Any bread that was left was moldy green or diseased yellow. Of the 1200 prisoners, only a handful remained. The prisoner’s families still sent them money whether they are dead or not, but either way it rarely gets to them because the officers stole it.

Josef and the rest of the prisoners left Skoplye for Djevdjekia, which is on the very border of Greece, on the track that goes Nish-Skoplye-Salonica. Josef was appointed to be a nurse at the beginning of March. Injured and sick Serb soldiers came in constantly and the lice seemed to move the building. Patients had to be treated for typhus, among many other diseases. It would have been beneficial to be deaf if you worked at the hospital during this time. Whenever a nurse treated a soldier, all they would here is constant swearing for their toil.

Josef became sick himself. At first, Josef had a mild fever of 39 Celsius, but after several days it rose to 41 Celsius. Afraid to lay down, he kept on working, but was so out of tune that he had forgotten what he had done over the past 20 days. Many of the men who rested when sick never returned to good health. Josef was dismissed from the hospital and sent to the headquarters, “Hotel Magasin”. Josef expresses his liking to the new hospital, which is managed by the Americans. There is food, good water, and there is an “abundance of everything – milk, tea and eggs.”

Josef was then moved to Nish, where there were many flees, then to Knazhevats, and finally to Banitsa. He was no longer a nurse. The prisoners stayed in a cave with a kitchen. They were surrounded by rock and when it rained the rain irrigated itself down to the cave for days at a time. Josef explains that it was best when there was no rain. Life seems to be improving for Josef as he and the other prisoners have rid themselves of lice. They are also being fed much better than before.