Peppi Simmeth considers himself one of the lucky ones. Simmeth, a Bel Air resident, is a German World War II veteran who fought in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and then survived six years in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp.
"I don't hold anything against anyone," he said to students at John Carroll School last week. "A war is a war, people react differently in a war."
Simmeth, who will turn 80 next week, was invited to speak at John Carroll as part of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, said Ed Miller, Russian language teacher at the school.
"There is a wealth of information close at hand, and Peppi is a perfect example of that," Miller said.
Simmeth volunteered for the German army at age 17 because he wanted to fight for his homeland. "I was healthy and handsome," he added. He said he was at the Eastern Front in the 439th Regiment of the 134th Division at the beginning when the war broke out there in 1941. He dealt with lack of food and the cold weather in Russia, then part of the Soviet Union.
The men in his regiment fought their way through Russia to Stalingrad. The regiment was then shipped up to the center of the Battle of Kursk. "It was the biggest tank battle in the history of wars," he said, with 400 to 500 tanks in combat.
During the battle almost a 1,000 men of his regiment died, Simmeth said. He was one of nine who survived.
He and the other men were taken captive and for the next six years he was a prisoner of war. He said the Russians marched them to a railroad station and moved them into railcars. The men were fed salted herring and water.
"We had no idea where we were going," he said, and a few weeks later he was in Siberia. As the men left the railroad cars they were counted. "They hit us with sticks as they counted," but he said his hunger was more painful than getting beaten.
The prisoners had to build their own camps, cut down trees and were fed just enough to survive, Simmeth said. "We were served one-quarter loaf of bread and cabbage soup," he said.
In Siberia, there wasn't much work except cutting down trees, and the men would also have to carry the trees two miles through the woods to trains. "The worst thing was it was 40 or 50 below zero and we had nothing to wear."
During his imprisonment, Simmeth said, his weight dropped to 90 pounds. "I couldn't walk anymore," he said. "My skin became like fish skin." He said he was saved by a Russian doctor who gave him vodka and a little bit to eat.
In 1947, more than a year after the war ended, the prisoners were taken to the Ural Mountains where they were put to work mining asbestos, he said. "We would hit the hammer into the walls, chew and swallow the asbestos like gum because were so hungry," he said.
Within a year some men were released, but not Simmeth. "They liked me, I guess, and they kept me until '49." The tougher ones they kept longer, he said.
In 1949, he was released and transported home to Passau, Germany, near the border with Austria, where he worked at his family's butcher shop.
Simmeth's wife, Lisa, said his long life is a miracle, considering his physical condition upon his release.
The couple met through friends at a swimming pool and were married in 1950. They moved to New York City in 1956, shortly after the birth of their first child, Joseph. They had three more children: Billy, Gary and Elizabeth.
After four years the couple wanted to move their family to the country. Simmeth had a sister in Harford County and decided to move to Bel Air. He opened Peppi Meats in 1961 and stayed in business for 27 years. "We made lunch meats, hot dogs, the whole works," he said.
Now retired, the couple spend their time playing golf.
"We have a nice home, a nice life, and our children are well-off," Lisa Simmeth said.