Over the course of the Second World War, in all the theaters of war, a total of thirty-five million soldiers became prisoners of war. After the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the largest group captured by the Wehrmacht was made up of members of the Red Army.
According to Nazi race ideology, these 5.7 million prisoners of war were categorized as “inferior.” They were purposefully undernourished and given substandard housing; by 1941, a large percentage was no longer alive. The estimated number of dead varies, but it is certain that more than 3.3 million members of the Red Army died in German imprisonment.
Non-commissioned officers and squads were imprisoned in what were known as Stalags—large prisoner-of-war camps. In the beginning, the Nazis did not plan to use them as workers for ideological reasons. However, that began changing as the course of the war began to turn in the winter of 1941/42. Red Army soldiers were even sent to perform forced labor in the arms industry, in breach of international law. Their conditions improved slightly after that.
At the same time, the Gestapo and Wehrmacht regularly searched the Stalags and the forced labor commandos throughout the Reich and in the Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia for “dangerous elements” and “carriers of Bolshevism” (under which the Nazis subsumed communists, intellectuals, officers with a Jewish background, as well as political commissars). These repeated selections were ideological in nature and were in accordance with mission orders (Einsatzbefehl) 8 and 9 issued by Reinhard Heydrich, head of the security police and the security services (SD) in July 1941 (expanded and finalized on August 27, 1941). Over 30,000 Soviet prisoners of war were handed over to the Gestapo. These official “releases” from prisoner-of-war camps—and from the jurisdiction of the Wehrmacht—were in violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention, which regulates the protection of prisoners of war. The Red Army soldiers, who were viewed as ideological enemies, were transported to the nearest concentration camp, where they were executed by the SS.
The Missing Red Army Soldier
In the spring of 2021, I was preparing a lecture for an event commemorating the anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. For this lecture, I also conducted research into crimes against Red Army soldiers who were interred in German concentration camps. Almost one thousand of these soldiers were murdered in Flossenbürg during the Second World War.
During my research, I came across Nikolaj Mishchenko’s question from 2005. At the time, no definitive answer was possible.
I wondered whether the new capabilities of our digital archives now made it possible to be certain of his fate. Was Grygorii Grygorovytsch Mishchenko among those who were murdered?
Decades of Waiting
In early July 1941, somewhere near Lutsk in north-western Ukraine, Grygorii Mishchenko was captured and became a prisoner of war.
Since then he has been lost without a trace, and his brother Stefan agonizes over not knowing his fate.
In 2005, Stefan’s son Nikolai Mishchenko traveled to Germany to find out what happened to his uncle. I tried to retrace Nikolai’s steps and his research. At the same time, I wanted to know whether the progress in digital research networks over the past fifteen years can bring us any closer to solving this case.
Collecting Digital Clues
In one section of the Memorial Archives, we collect documents pertaining to Soviet prisoners of war. As part of this work, archival documents are being digitalized in the post-Soviet countries. To this end we also work in close cooperation with other institutions: the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission), the German Historical Institute Moscow (DHIM), and the German Federal Archives.
In the Memorial Archives, we process this information and make the sources publicly accessible. One of the most important results of this work is that it sometimes becomes possible to find out what happened to victims of the war.
What Do We Know Today About Grygorii?
My first step is to search for the name “Grygorii Mishchenko” in our database. Since the transliteration of Cyrillic names can vary, multiple possibilities have to be tried. Often Slavic and Central Asian names were also written incorrectly in Nazi documents.
I do find a data set for a “Grygorij Mischtschenko,” the German transliteration of his name. But sadly, there are no documents about him in the database. However, according to the data set he was one of the Soviet soldiers executed in Flossenbürg.
It is not yet clear where this information comes from.
Nikolai had already found a trace of his uncle in the local archives in Stavropol—a Personalkarte (personnel card). He received a copy of the card and corresponding documents.
For those of us conducting research today, these file cards are very important sources of information about Soviet soldiers who were German prisoners of war.
The file card states where the Germans brought his uncle, from his registration on July 4, 1941 to his transfer to a forced labor commando on October 19, 1941.
A Lead to Regensburg
Seven hundred men were in the Arbeitskommando 306 (Labor Commando 306) Regensburg. They were forced to work under miserable conditions in a Wehrmacht supply depot.
In the Second World War, the Wehrmacht created these file cards for the soldiers they captured. After the war, the Soviet occupation administration seized these and other German documents. They were moved to Soviet archives.
As long as the Soviet Union existed, this information was kept confidential. Family members were not told what had happened to missing soldiers. For Grygorii Mishchenko’s relatives, this state of uncertainty lasted over fifty years.
End of the Road?
Encouraged by a place name on the file card, in 2005, Nikolai’s father wrote to the city of Regensburg.
The municipal administration however did not hold any records on the prisoner of war camp. In the Nazi period, these were under the authority of other institutions: the Wehrmacht and the Criminal Police (Gestapo).
Nevertheless, Nikolai was able to obtain important leads and contacts.
The local chapter of the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime (VVN) aided him during his visit to Germany in October 2005 and called his attention to the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial.
A Visitor from the North Caucasus
Back then, colleagues from the memorial had worked with Nikolai to interpret the documents he brought with him. But in and of themselves, they did not provide much information. Only in combination with another document from our archives known as the Kuhn list was it possible to draw conclusions about Grygorii’s fate.
The Kuhn list was used as evidence by the prosecution in the Nuremberg Trials. It is central to understanding how Wehrmacht, Gestapo, and SS collaborated in crimes against Soviet prisoners of war.
Reassessing the Evidence
Starting with the papers that Nikolai brought with him and the documents in our archives, I take a new look at the results of the original research.
In 2005, a copy of the personnel card was made for our archives. Since then, new sources have become available that could not be accessed at the time. I therefore look through our database on Soviet prisoners of war, which is continually expanding.
In the meantime, new documents from the Stavropol archives have in fact been entered into the Memorial Archives —but not the documents about Grygorii. This means that without Nikolai’s old paper copy, even with our modern database I would not have gotten any further!
“Weeded Out” by the Gestapo
There is a stamp on the back of the Personalkarte (personnel card): “12/10/41 Gestapo Regensburg.” That does not bode well.
Like my colleagues before me, I compare the information with the Kuhn list.
In the fall of 1941, systematic evaluations were conducted of the labor commandos for Soviet prisoners of war. Men who were considered to be agitators or “political commissioners” were selected for deportation.
Luitpold Kuhn was responsible for the region under the authority of the Stapo Regensburg (Regensburg state police). As a civil servant in the Criminal Police, he also had to have been a member of the SS. His list documents “unusable elements,” which he “weeded out” (ausgesondert). In the euphemistic language of the Nazi period, this meant that the men were deported to concentration camps and murdered.
In Flossenbürg, they were usually shot on the very day they arrived.
The stamp on Grygorii’s Personalkarte (personnel card): “12/10/1942 Gestapo Regensburg.” According to the Kuhn list, one day later, on December 11, 1941, fourteen prisoners were sent from Regensburg to Flossenbürg. Was Grygorii among them?
The victims’ names are not recorded on the Kuhn list. The Germans wanted to keep their killing operations under wraps. But they were not always able to do so. Fifty-two prisoners who had been sent from Regensburg to Flossenbürg to be executed two-and-a-half months earlier are known by name because of another document, a rare case. Those men were prisoners from Grygorii’s forced labor commando.
It is therefore highly probable that Grygorii, too, was shot in Flossenbürg.
Information on Nazi crimes against Soviet prisoners of war are usually found in different holdings. Often, it is documents from the Gestapo or the Wehrmacht that bring our research a step further. Not until we evaluate sources that are scattered, but nonetheless connected, can we find what we are looking for.
Thanks to the digitalization of archival holdings and to online databases, it is now easier to conduct research in various archives. It is therefore not unlikely that today we may be able to find out what happened to people for whom documents were previously missing or in closed archives.
I was not able to find out anything truly new about what happened to Grygorii Mishchenko, but I was able to affirm the earlier conclusions. Reevaluating the documents is also a way to keep his memory alive.