Twenty-Two Below

On a hot summer’s day in 1949, Caspar Grothoff was reading the newspaper. He had ten children; five sons and five daughters. His youngest son, Paul, had fallen in World War II. The family had concluded this when, four years after Germany was defeated, Paul had not returned. The newspaper read that a train with soldiers was stopping in Hagen, the city in the industrial Ruhr region of Germany Paul grew up in. Between 1946 and 1950, after increasing political pressure was put on the Soviet Union to release German prisoners of war, over one million homecomers were transported back to Germany on these trains. The last prisoners were not released until 1955.

Paul’s family had stopped welcoming these trains, hoping Paul would disembark, a couple of years before. Caspar had never gone, fearing the heartbreak when other families were embracing their long lost sons and he wasn’t. But on an odd hunch, that hot day, Caspar decided to go without telling his family.

The train pulled into the station, and, after ten years away, Paul stepped onto the platform. And his father, who had acted on a premonition, was there. They went home and Paul’s sister Elisabeth, dressed only in a slip, answered the door. Standing in front of her was the brother she had presumed dead. The brother she hadn’t seen in over a decade. She promptly fainted.


Paul Grothoff didn’t like to talk about the seven years he spent in a labor camp in Gorky, three hundred miles east of Moscow. A German fighter pilot in the Second World War, Paul was shot down over Russia in 1942, while flying his Me109. He did not return to Germany until 1949 — four whole years after the war ended. Yet he was lucky, one of the few captured who ever made it home. When he approached his seventies and his health deteriorated, Paul’s daughter, a high school history teacher, encouraged him to talk about his experience: “This is important! You can’t let these experiences be buried with you.” She spent the next few months at a typewriter with him, helping him record his memories when he was too weak to do it himself.

Paul never fully recovered from the harsh years he spent in the Siberian camp. He died from heart failure at 72 in 1990, three years before I was born.

Paul was my grandfather, and the history teacher is my mother.


I only know my grandfather through stories. He is a picture on the wall: a happy old man wearing a white button-down, black bow tie, and round old-fashioned glasses with a wide, infectious smile. A person foreign to me, but someone my grandma misses very much. I regret that I never met him. We would’ve been close, I think. In my mind, Paul Grothoff was a funny guy, a loving and supportive father, and a great balance to my strict Grandma. “He’s your guardian angel,” my mom would say whenever I was sad not to know him.


Growing up, I would ask my mom and grandma for bedtime stories about my grandfather, and over time I have connected these stories, constructing him in my head.

Paul managed a C&A franchise, a Dutch clothing discount giant that was experiencing its heyday in post-war Europe. On days he worked late, Paul would rush home in order to catch his daughters before they were asleep.

“What do you mean they’re in bed?” he would protest to his wife upon returning to a quiet apartment.

“It’s late, Paul! They go to bed at the same time every night.” By the time my grandma could defend her daughters’ bedtimes, her husband would already be on his way down the hall to the girls’ bedroom. “You’re actually going to wake them up again? They need their sleep!”

“Of course I’m going to wake them up. I don’t work all day to then come home and not play with my girls. What kind of life is that?!” Girly shrieks ensued, and Inge would retreat to the living room, defeated. Once again, the bad cop. Today, she remembers these incidents with a nostalgic grin. “Oh Paul, you were such a rascal and the girls loved every minute of it,” she’d say to no one in particular while recounting these stories to me.


I first read the memoir of his war experiences for a history paper I wrote in high school. Besides the anecdotes retold to me through his wife and daughters many years after he passed, this is the closest I have ever been to my grandfather. These are his words. His words on the same paper he inserted into the dusty typewriter that still sits in our basement.

Now Paul Grothoff is more than a smiling face on my grandma’s bedside table. He is an 18-year-old World War II soldier. He is a prisoner of war, a man who spent seven years in Russia, working twelve hour shifts in a state between freezing to death and wondering if he would ever return home. For these seven years my grandfather underwent intense physical and psychological trauma, and witnessed great cruelty. How did he, like so many other soldiers, deal with this unimaginable stress, fight on, and find enough strength to build and live a good life after coming home?


The conditions were bad. The food was too little to live on, but just enough not to die. Paul reflects, “We as war prisoners had it better than Russian civilians. At least we woke up knowing that we would get some bread and soup that day.” Oftentimes, Paul saved his weekly sugar cube-size piece of soap to give the Russian civilian woman who had the shift after his at the local textile factor.

They worked twelve-hour shifts in almost all conditions. The Soviets only cancelled work when it reached 22°F below freezing. On days when it was 20 or 21°F below, Paul would take the thermometer and dip it in the snow until it reached the -22°F mark. He shared a room with twelve others, and the average room temperature was around 55°F.

Many were sick, and Paul witnessed his comrades die. One day, a sick prisoner fell over and couldn’t get back up on the march back to camp after work. The guard demanded that everyone continue and leave the man behind. Back at the camp, Paul stole an unattended horse and sled. He galloped back to the fallen man, wrapped him in a blanket and placed him on the sled. But his effort was in vain. The man had frozen to death. Paul placed the body near the small oven in the middle of the barrack, but again to no avail. Paul and his mates built the man a coffin from the wooden planks of his cot, as they did for all the others that died.

In the later years of imprisonment, someone from Paul’s barrack died almost every night. He recalls being moved to a room full of “hopeless cases,” when he himself was ceaselessly and simultaneously ill with malnourishment, dystrophy, and pneumonia. In the icy conditions of Siberia, various body parts of many prisoners froze and died off. A fellow pilot, Phillip, with whom Paul had learned to fly many years ago, was one of them. Both of his feet needed to be amputated. The tissue was discolored, grey. The image of his toes and other scraps falling off on Phillip’s hobble to the toilet haunts Paul in his memoir.

Another prisoner, Dr. Wappler, took it upon himself to operate on Phillip. The inmates unhooked the door to the barrack to use as the operating table. They all stood around Dr. Wappler to hold Phillip down. With an insufficiently sterilized wooden handsaw, the former doctor removed both of Phillip’s feet while his comrades struggled to keep Phillip still. Two hours later, the procedure was complete and Phillip survived.


Under Paul and his friend Frank’s leadership, the German prisoners had big plans. “Comrades, today we are bringing the Christmas Story, the birth of our Lord and Savior to the atheist world. We have successfully written it down from memory to declare it to all of our comrades in this barrack tonight,” they announced to their fellow captives on Christmas Eve 1944.

The reconstructed Christmas gospel was scribbled on rolling paper, the only thing available to them. They had decorated the bare rooms with a couple of fir branches that they had hidden under coats on their walk back from work. Silence. Everyone was lying on their cots with their dirty, calloused hands folded across their bony rib cages, staring at the ceiling.

“Happy Christmas and Christ’s mercy and blessing to all.” The silence grew heavy. The men were elsewhere with their thoughts: they were home, with their families, their parents and children, who were also helplessly susceptible to the hail of bombs of the great war machine.

“The child in the manger wanted to bring us peace. We the people made war. Spreading hate, spat, and strife. And on December 24th 1944, in a prisoner camp outside of Gorky, Protestants and Catholics, former soldiers who fought bloody, destructive battles on land and in the air, celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.” Paul remembers this specific Christmas fondly, for the following days and weeks, and eventually, years later when he was back at home.


Paul loved Christmas. He would grow giddy with excitement in the Advent season leading up to Christ’s birth, singing Christmas carols from the top of his lungs, baking trays and trays of Christmas pastries, and scheming surprises for his daughters.

One Christmas in the early 1970s, Paul’s teenage girls had wished for a typewriter. My mom remembers waking up at night to the sound of him typing away on their present weeks before Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, after Paul had illuminated their small apartment in candlelight and incense fumes surrounded them, the girls unpacked their new typewriter. But in the same package they found pages and pages of stories Paul had written for them. He had stayed up late for weeks to surprise them. An expensive typewriter did not embody enough holiday spirit for him. The girls had suspected such from his furious typing, but humored him and acted surprised. I imagine his wide grin as they unwrapped his present, with his mind wandering to Christmastime in Gorky, to his comrades, to a rare and peaceful memory. The typewriter was a gift to my mother, but also a gift to me: the medium through which my grandfather told me his story.


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