top of page

Konrad Lorenz's life as a prisoner of war in Armenia

During and after World War II, thousands of German prisoners of war were transported to Armenia, where they participated in various labor projects. The total number of prisoners of war in Armenia amounted to around 16,160. Among them was the renowned Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist Konrad Lorenz, who later shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch.

In 1941, Konrad Lorenz, already a professor of psychology at the University of Königsberg, was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He was assigned the role of a military psychologist. Under the supervision of Rudolf Hippius, Lorenz conducted racial studies on humans in occupied Poznań. The objective of these studies was to examine the biological characteristics of "German-Polish half-breeds" to ascertain whether they shared the same work ethics as "pure" Germans. The extent of Lorenz's involvement in the project remains unclear, but the project director, Hippius, referred to him as an "examining psychologist" on multiple occasions.

It was in 1943 or 1944 (Lorenz himself doesn't remember for sure) that he witnessed transports of concentration camp inmates, and with this evidence before his own eyes, he at last "fully realized the complete inhumanity of the Nazis."


Konrad Lorenz as a Soviet POW in 1944


In 1944, Lorenz was transferred to the Vitebsk field hospital. There, in a concrete bunker close behind the front line, he worked as a field surgeon. Then, when the Russians launched an attack westward, he was captured on June 24.

When gathering information about Konrad Lorenz’s life in Armenia, I consulted a book about his biography written by Alec Nisbett, although the author provided limited information about his life as a POW. Luckily in my research, I also came across doctor Werner Straube's memoirs, which detailed their life as prisoners of war in Armenia.

After Werner Straube was captured, he was first taken to a large assembly camp. From there, he was transported to Brno, a camp with around 500 men, where they used to do road construction work. The transports were real starvation transports. They never had enough to eat or drink. Their comrades died of typhus, dysentery, diphtheria. At that time, German doctors were wanted. And so, medical student Straube registered as a doctor for the first time there.

 

Later, Straube was taken to the Kober (probably in Lori Region – Armenian Explorer) camp. After he had held the post of camp doctor there for about six months, a transport arrived from Kirov, and with this transport came Konrad Lorenz. Konrad Lorenz actively supported Straube with delousing from day one. Then they divided work: He took over the outpatient clinic, and Straube was responsible for the very primitive camp hospital. They took care of hygiene and delousing together.

 

Malnutrition was a problem not only for prisoners but also for militants guarding them. The garrison officers were also always sick. So the officers of the garrisons also became Konrad's patients. As a result, he naturally had good contacts with the them, and his word carried weight with them. Konrad used his authority to warn guards not to mistreat prisoners and reminded them of the Geneva Convention. He did not shy away from using this argument, even though the Russians had not signed the Geneva Convention.

He was often taken by the camp commandant to the surrounding towns, where he was supposed to treat the sick. He was happy to do that. His reward was that he always got something good to eat from his family members. It was similar for Straube; he was also called in from time to time in the evenings. And the local women – who had also lost sons in the “Great Patriotic War,” as they called it – mourned in his presence. Tears of the Armenian mothers shocked Straube very much because he knew that their mothers back home cry for them in the same way.

 

After a period of hunger in early March 1947, the prisoners were served a so-called Kascha soup with meat after about eight days. Straube ate a whole pot of Kascha with mutton. However, the mutton was spoiled. In a state of dystrophy [malnutrition] and dehydration [exsiccation], he also got diarrhea and lost even more fluid. And when there was no more fluid left, his kidneys stopped functioning. So he became unconscious, could no longer get up due to weakness. Konrad Lorenz used all his skills to bring him back to life. In his article, Straube describes in detail how Lorenz achieved that feat.

Once a Russian officer passed through the camp, who had shot a buzzard. Konrad saw the dead bird and asked, "What are you going to do with the dead buzzard?" The Russian replied, "I'll throw it away, I only shot it for my pleasure." Konrad asked, "Can I have this buzzard?" To which the Russian replied, "If you want it, you can have it." As soon as the Russian officer was gone, Konrad plucked the bird, removed its innards, singed it, dissected it, and fried it in the kitchen. He ate it up completely. Thoug Straube didn’t dare to taste it, the meal agreed with Lorents well, and he didn't have diarrhea afterwards.

One another occasion, one of their comrades brought a snake, about one meter long, which he had killed in the construction site. He showed it to Konrad because he knew he was a zoologist. Konrad took the snake, skinned it, dissected it, fried it, and ate it up. Even this "snake feast" agreed with him.

 

Konrad Lorenz was always a topic of conversation. In camp, Lorenz and Straube organized recitation evenings. They invited the officers and all interested people. Konrad and Straube performed Faust, or rather, they interpreted it. Of course, Konrad could do that too; he wasn't just a Faust interpreter, he was also a Goethe interpreter. The listeners were enthusiastic and repeatedly asked them to perform again. While they played, while they spread intellectual nourishment, the audience forgot their hunger just as much as they forgot theirs.

 

Lorents was fascinated by Kantian philosophy, which he often spoke about. Konrad also told Straube that he had corresponded with Planck and that through this correspondence, he had found out how much he and Planck agreed on epistemological issues. And he always regretted greatly that he could no longer meet Planck, as he had passed away in 1947.

One day Lorenz received a postcard. He was deeply shaken. It was written by Konrad's wife Gretl. He learned that his father had died. He would have loved to see his father again. His father had been especially proud of him when he finally managed to be appointed to the chair of Kant in Königsberg. After receiving the news of his father's death, Konrad held proper memorial sessions for his father for seven days. During this time, he did not continue writing his Russian manuscript but devoted himself entirely to thoughts of his father.

 

Then they were transported to the Sevan camp. The camp was located on a plateau. Therefore, there were plenty of birds: starlings, sparrows en masse, and even larks. With the help of some comrades and wire obtained from the construction sites, they made several cages and then caught a young starling, two house sparrows, and a crested lark. They had dealt with starlings before. And now they wanted to tame this starling. So they put it in the cage, then carried the cage into a closed room, opened it there, and let the starling fly. They had a long stick with them, with which they threatened the bird whenever it left the cage. Eventually, the starling realized that if it flew back into the cage, it wouldn't be threatened anymore. They repeated this experiment so many times until the starling was tamed. This became an entertaining spectacle for everyone. Not only the prisoners of war but also the Russian guards came and watched as the starling flew around.

Konrad was opening the door of the cage letting the starling flew out. It was lively and flew to the gutters, to the telegraph poles, and circled over the camp. But as soon as Konrad was raising the stick, the bird either returned directly to the cage or boldly landed on his master's head or shoulder. In addition to the laughter of the prisoners of war, you could then hear the Russians cursing. The Russians liked to curse, not only when something didn't suit them but also when they were amazed.

In addition to the starling, which they named Friedrich and which later went down in the history of ornithology, they also brought their two house sparrows and the crested lark in the cage to Yerevan.

 

In the camp in Arabkir (Yerevan), the cages were hung on the south side and played a significant role for the prisoners of war. Those who suffered from dystrophy and those who were unable to work amused themselves by catching flies for the birds. Thus, the starling, the crested lark, and the sparrows there were well-fed, and the prisoners of war had their entertainment.

 

In Yerevan, the conditions were no better. Hunger was the everyday companion of the prisoners. The bodies of deceased comrades had to lie for three hours and were not to be touched. The cause of death was clear in very many cases: the patients had starved. But this could not be documented in the records. There it said died of tuberculosis, of pneumonia, and the like. Death by starvation as such was not allowed to be documented.

Straube and Lorenz constantly motivated each other when they were almost at the end. At that time, Konrad kept saying, "Werner, you will survive this too."

 

Once, while leaving the camp, Lorents met architect Mark Grigoryan, who promised to send a letter to Moscow to help him. Grigoryan wrote a letter to Levon Orbeli presenting the situation. Orbeli, in turn, wrote to Joseph Stalin, who approved the request. After weeks of waiting, a representative of the Russian camp commander came and gave Konrad a document stating: "Konrad Lorenz, Professor, is ordered to the Academy of Physiological Sciences in Moscow. Immediately."

Here is how Straube recalls that episode:

“This caused a stir. He was first called to the clothing store, where he was dressed anew. The result of this dressing was a disaster. When he came back, I hardly recognized him; he looked like a scarecrow. He wore a shako and a coat that was much too long and so big that his hands were barely visible. His trousers hung like an accordion over the new shoes, of which hardly anything was visible. In this attire, Konrad prepared for departure. The departure was scheduled for three o'clock. His departure deeply affected me. With him, I not only lost a fatherly friend but also my second father, so to speak. I had lost my biological father to illness at the age of nine. Now, I was losing another father who had been a guiding light in my life. And by now, I could very well assess what I owed to Konrad Lorenz. The most important thing I owed him was my life. But it was much more than that. Comrade Konrad Lorenz, like me, possessed a humanistic education. When I voluntarily applied to the military medical academy in Berlin, I read above the entrance the motto under which we military doctors were supposed to practice our profession later: "Scientiae Humanitati Patriae." I never forgot this motto even in captivity. And not for nothing does the word "humanitas" stand in the middle of this saying. That is the most essential thing in medical ethics, to serve humanity.”

 Gallery

bottom of page