Book Review: Oskar Scheja, The Man in the Black Fur Coat (Privately published, 2014)

Oskar Scheja’s account covers his time as a German soldier and Soviet POW during the Second World war. He rode with German forces into Russia in June 1941 as part of the 5th Company, 2nd Battalion, 525 Infantry Brigade, 298th Infantry Division.[1] In October 1942, he was transferred to the 164th  Infantry Division after being wounded.[2] He finally saw service with the 6th Company, 2nd Battalion, 574th Infantry Regiment, 304th Division, joining that unit in April 1943.[3]

In October 1943, he was captured by the Russians during a reconnaissance patrol. He was taken to a local town and imprisoned with two Ukrainian policemen. They tunnelled out of their cell and were hidden in a local village by relatives’ of the policemen. However, they were betrayed by a villager and the policemen are caught and shot by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), but Scheja was not detected.

Scheja then walked towards German lines. In the city of Dnipropetrovs’k, he visited a dentist who had fixed his teeth while the Germans had occupied the city. The dentist suggested that Scheja, who can speak Russian and Polish as well as German, pose as a Polish contractor who had worked for the Germans but now wanted to join the Polish army fighting with the Russians against the Germans. He goes to join up at the local recruiting office but is arrested by the NKVD, who send him to Prison Camp 240 for Russians who collaborated with the Germans. While at the camp, the authorities believe he is a Polish officer and made him one of the guards. He is then transferred to Camp 280 containing German POWs. At this camp, he is rumbled and reverts to being a prisoner. As the war comes to an end, he is released as a Polish officer and goes back to his home town in Poland. Fearing the communist authorities, he leaves and emigrates to the USA in 1946.

Scheja’s story was translated by Dan Chiariello, who was the grand-nephew of Scheja’s partner in the USA. Chiariello was given Scheja’s manuscript after Scheja’s death. As a war narrative, it is procedural and dry; there are few detailed accounts of his feelings, motivations or experiences of combat. However, the gripping part of the story is the author’s time as a POW and his attempts to pass himself off as a Pole to fellow prisoners and various agents of the NKVD. 

 

Notes

[1] Oskar Scheja, The Man in the Black Fur Coat (Privately published, 2014), p.11.

[2] Ibid., p.29.

[3] Ibid., p.30.