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“The documents are memory.”

It was commemoration and recognition that brought the one-time prisoner of war and concentration camp inmate Alexandr Afanasjew to Germany shortly before May 9, the day marking Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany. The ninety-four-year-old came to the International Tracing Service (ITS) with his daughter and granddaughter to see the original documents that bear witness to his persecution and enabled him to apply for symbolic recognition as a prisoner of war.

“It’s better to remember good things than bad. More joy remains,” Alexandr Afanasjew muses. A soldier in the Soviet army, he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans in 1941 at the age of nineteen. The first thing he tells us about are the people who helped him. The people who slipped him bread after days of hunger, who treated him with respect in the POW camps. After all this time, his German is amazingly good. He had learned the language at school; in the camps it may have saved his life because interpreters were always in demand, he recalls.

He doesn’t talk about his time in the concentration camps until he’s specifically asked. In January 1944, a failed attempt to escape the POW camp in Ukraine landed him first in the Hagen police prison, then—in August 1944—in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He suffered unspeakable agonies performing heavy labor in the dreaded Ellrich-Juliushütte subcamp. “We were allowed to sleep for only four hours, on the ground, without pillows. We were left standing in the cold for hours at a time. All just to make the work even harder for the inmates.” He took seriously ill, was admitted in the Mittelbau concentration camp infirmary, and in early April sent to Bergen-Belsen, where he lived to see the liberation. After being taken to the Soviet zone with other Russian prisoners, he finally returned home in November 1946.

The artist Alexandr Afanasjew is still working in the painting and woodcut mediums today; he has also published some forty books. His decision to come to Germany after so many years was a spontaneous one. With his daughter’s help, he had started searching Russian archives for proof of his imprisonment. He needed documents to apply for the symbolic recognition passed by the German Bundestag in 2015. For the torments suffered under the Nazi dictatorship, former Soviet prisoners of war still alive today receive a one-time payment of 2,500 euros—provided they are able to furnish proof of their ordeal. Time is running out: the applications have to be submitted by September 30, 2017.

Afanasjew’s search for documents in Moscow was fruitless, but someone told him about the ITS. He immediately sent a request and received copies of all records documenting his persecution, including the important testimony to his detention as a prisoner of war. Deeply moved by the fact that the ITS keeps these documents in its archive, he decided to visit Germany. In the archive rooms, surrounded by rows and rows of cabinets and shelves—where his papers are also on file—he talks about the importance of the collection: “These documents are ever more valuable. They are memory.”

Alexandr Afanasjew’s application for compensation was approved. “It’s not the money that matters to me,” he stresses. The recognition was far more important. He intends to use the 2,500 euros to publish his book of memories about his years in custody—a personal contribution to May 8/9, the Day of Liberation.

For information on symbolic recognition as a prisoner of war, click here.