I was born in my parents' apartment over their store and tailoring business at 54 Königsberger Straße in downtown Elbing. Both were rentals. I have the faintest recollections about this place and sometimes wonder if its from my memory or from stories I heard later on. In any case I have a few vivid images in my head wherever they come from. Since the tailoring business came to an abrupt end when my dad was drafted on 9/15/1939 (no business could run without a master at the helm), my mom kept the store open as long as she could by selling various military items for the uniformed soldier, mostly officers. I remember these things hanging high up on a wall behind the counter. There were sables, swords, knives and all manner other interesting and colorful items to be seen but not touched. Today I can imagine all the Nazi and military paraphanalia which these items represented. They were also some glass cases with more goodies I could not get to. Apparently my mom took me to the store and I was a constant set of troubles without a babysitter to her. She told me of one time when a high ranking officer was in the store and I came in with my pants full of the brown stuff dripping onto the floor. Diapers must have been a bit more haphazard in those days. I can picture the scene, the smell and her utter embarrassment.
I can see the table my dad used to work on and somehow imagine him squatting (sitting) on this table while sewing. I don't know if this is a real image or something I conjured up as it must come from a 2 year old. But there is a clear view in my mind of a yellow picture of a set of bears talking to each other where the smaller one says to the other: "Alter brumme nicht!" A direct translation is not possible but it says something like: Old man stop making noises. It was something my mom had bought to hang in back of his work table to stop him from complaining about everything. I mentioned this picture once out of the blue and my mom and sister were flabbergasted as to how I knew about it. I didn't know myself. Maybe my sister read it out to me or I read it myself later. I don't know.
Other silly memories are a set of steps to he side of the store wherever they were leading but they had a small baby set of steps built into it on the side. I was told they were for the cat. Crazy stuff. There isn't much else from that store that I can remember.
During the war my mom used the various materials from the store to trade for foodstuffs on the black market. Cloth of all kinds was like gold back then and she had a whole attic full of heavy duty uniform material. Everything was to be turned over to the government but the plan was always to re-open the business any day now, when the war was over. So mom horded everything she could under threat of severe punishment. She also did quite a bit of sowing herself to keep us in a good economic state during the entire war.
After the war, when my dad was trying to document his pre-war possessions for some measure of compensation for losing everything because of our expulsion from home, he found out that the Russians burned the house down with all the precious material up in the attic still up there. They probably entered the store, saw the Nazi regalia and set fire to the place right away without looking around. Somebody could have made a fortune had they found it first. On my visit to my home town in 1995, there was still a gap where the house used to stand.
Somewhere along the line my mom had used her economic status to buy her father's real estate, where she had grown up, by giving mortgages and payments to her siblings and allowing my grandfather to stay with us until his death. We moved to a 6 family apartment house at 97 Tannenberg Allee where we had the main apartment on the second floor front. I think they made this arrangement in in 1936 even before I was born but we stayed at the store to better mind the business. We in effect had two houses. Below you see a current aerial view with the red arrow pointing to 97 Tannenberger Allee where we lived and the white arrow to #95 which was destroyed during the defense of Elbing. The Yellow arrow points to my garndfather's garden where I used to pick fruits to bring to the red cross trains coming from the front.
My aunt Erna and uncle Fritz Groß lived next door in another 6 family house which my parents also owned. They had two children, Erwin and Waltraut. The latter recently passed away (2008) as the first of my cousins to go. Her brother Erwin told me stories about my dad which he remembered from his early days in boot camp which was right in our home town.
My dad hated the army perhaps because he had to put up with all the crap he got from his customers. Uniforms had to be perfect and he had to kiss a lot of ass to get more business. That was not his style but business is business. Anyway, Erwin tells of walking with his uncle and me when he came home on weekends and constantly bending down to tie his shoes. Dad was a big guy, better rather fat, and the bending down was a visible effort. So Erwin finally asked him what he was doing all the time. What's with his shoes? He got a mumbled answer but the process went on. Many years later after the war, he remembered that strange behavior and asked my dad what was really going on. My dad did not want to give the Hitler salute which had not yet been ordained for use by all military personnel but was expected if some Nazi officer came strolling by. At least this is the story my cousin told me. I suspect that my dad simply hated the whole saluting thing which was obligatory to every noncom and officer. He hated the whole military thing but saw no problem in making money off it.
Some background. My dad was a good Catholic and member of the Zentrum party which had been dissolved by Hitler in July of 1933. That party had been the opposition party whose leader was Heinrich Brüning, pre Nazi chancellor of Germany. All that was over now and all opposition was anti-German and non-patriotic. So people resisted in their own little ways without getting carted off to a concentration camp. My dad was not a very handy guy. He could do his tailoring but when it came time to use a hammer my mom would do the work. She could do it all. It goes without saying that military life did not suit my father. In basic training a recruit has to meet certain minimum standards. It involved physical training and shooting practice. Dad never qualified in either. He was accused of shirking and ordered on punishment marches and all manner of other mistreatment. Finally they gave up and made him a litter carrier. His job was to be to carry wounded from the front lines for treatment. He was not even a medic. Just a grunt at the front hauling his brave comrades back to medical care. From 1939 until his capture along with the undefeated Courland army groups after the capitulation he never got a promotion and was still a buck private at the time. For reference sake, yours truly was discharged from the US Army as a PFC after three years of service. I too resented authority and was never promoted after basic training.
So we are what we are because of our genes.
We are now at the house on Tannenberger Allee. My memories are mostly from all the times I got into trouble. I was and am an inquisitive type who is constantly exploring this or that. Such activities tend to lead to trouble. I loved to play and hated work. But children ar expected to help out with various chores and I tended to escape things and let my sister do whatever. Basically I did not mind work, it just wasn't as interesting as playing or imagining adventures and acting them out. Still, I wound up picking gooseberries and currants from my grandfather's garden. There were also various fruit trees which produced buckets full of fruit. My sister and I had the task of bringing our hard work by the bucket across the street where there was a freight yard. Trains marked with red crosses would stop there. These trains were full of badly injured soldiers returning from the eastern front. The nurses already knew us and my sister was quite eager to also become a nurse. They appreciated our efforts and I'm sure others came too with their gifts for the troops. Reflecting on this later in life showed me how governments, including our own, don't like to show the cost of waging war in terms of human cost in public. It's bad publicity which is why our trains back then stopped at the freight yard and not the main train station for all to see. I really didn't mind going to the trains. I just hated picking gooseberries with all their thorns constantly pricking your hands.
The house as I remember it.
One time I was playing in the freight yard when I fell into a drum which had contained tar. I have no idea how I managed that but I do remember my mom's reaction to the black kid coming home. I was a mess and got punished on top of my stupidity. Another adventure took me along our street to a building which had a huge white washed wall. No windows, just wall. I sat there for hours imagining who knows what from the shadows the occasional car cast upon that wall. There weren't many cars and the wait was long ut all of a sudden the realization came that it was dark and I should have been home hours ago. Oh my! How forgetful one can get when having fun. I was crying all the way home from regret and fear of what my mom would do to me. There were many such escapades and I saw many of them in my own son. Genes again. One time I was walking with my dog when we decided to jump on a trolley car. It was a fascinating ride but eventually we had to get off and who knew where we were? While I was crying like a lost kid should my dog knew the way home just fine. I loved him for it but don't even know his name anymore. One day he died from poisoning. The poor thing was caughing up blood and it was a dreadful experience for me. To this day I can't stand an animal suffering.
And so life went. What did I know about the war? I was fascinated by it all and imagined becoming a pilot or tank driver. Other then the trains coming by we didn't see or know anything. My mother, being an adventurous spirit herself, once went to see my father somewhere at the front. He couldn't get leave so she went to see him. She wasn't supposed to do that but all along other helpful soldiers kept giving her rides until she finally showed up to my dad's great surprise. I only know of one leave my dad got once the war got hot and heavy on the eastern front. My mom was in danger of dying from pneumonia and he got emergency leave. I remember him coming through the door with mom in bed and he collapsed and fainted at her sight. He had all his gear with him and everything went plunking down with a loud crash. I thought maybe the rifle would go off. Later as I attempted to figure out my dad's life, I wondered what he was doing with a rifle when he was just a corpsman. It must have been standard issue to every soldier. I do know he never passed the shooting test which would have given him the rank of Schütze or shooter. Mom got better and he was gone again. My parents used to write each other and at some moment watch the same stars for togetherness.
The war yes, mom on occasion would shut all the curtains. There were white inside curtains and heavy thick drapes to pull shut over top of them. My sister and I were sworn to secrecy and we would listen to the BBC as if it were some kind of spying game. You can't tell anybody we played. It's just for our family to know. Much later I asked my mom what she really thought about the war. She thought the BBC was mostly allied propaganda but when things kept happening as told she started to have doubts, slight ones. Eventually the BBC was her only source of knowledge as to what was happening on the Eastern front. Weeks would go by without mail and she always feared the worst but then another letter would show up. In reality the women who were left at home could not let themselves believe that the war might be lost. With all those dead heroes how could their sacrifice be in vain? It just could not be and denial won out. We believe what we want to believe lest we go crazy at the thought of human frailty.
The holocaust. I concentrated my life on the study of history to try to figure out how people can do what they do. In the end it is quite simple. Government control of the media and the ability of man to believe what is illogical and plain untruthful knows no bounds. We are conditioned by our environment to accept what were being told without question. We see it daily in our own politics. Black is white and white is black depending on which set of prejudgement we belong to. I saw long lines of prisoners in striped prison outfits and wooden sandals march by our house very early in the morning. Again and again my mom would offer them water as that is what they were asking for. Sometimes the guards would not say anything at other times she would be shewed away. The guards had whips and wore black uniforms. To me they were just prisoners. My other knew better but what could she do? We never knew where these people went or how they got back.
In my trip back to Elbing which is now called Elblag in 1995 while driving to the Baltic resort town of Kalberg which we used to visit we were struck by the sight of the first German word we saw in this formerly German land. It said Stutthof. I immediately turned off the highway to see why the Poles had not changed this name. Where did it lead? It was a concentration camp not 10 miles out of the city of Elbing. Deep in the woods, surrounded by several rings of wire was a concentration camp were our prisoners obviously were headed. We saw the huge piles of shoes left in their memory. Most died of disease and malnutrition. It started out holding members of any group considered unfriendly to the regime and expanded from there on.
The winter of 1944-45 was one of the worst on record. A good three feet of snow was on the ground. Refugee treks had come from the East and dead animals could be seen frozen on the side of the road. No one had been permitted to leave as that would have been considered traitorous and punishable by who knows what. Now the word came down from trucks with loudspeakers to pack a light travel package good for a two week absence by which time the war would have been over as the secret weapons would be finally completed. Mom got her best fur coat out and dressed us to the hilt as if we were actually going on a short vacation to Berlin to visit my aunt. My sister had received this huge doll from my dad for Christmas and was not about to leave without it. She was 12. So we trudged out into the cold and didn't make more than a city block fighting the high snow with our baggage. This wasn't going to work and back we went. Maybe it took as an hour but by the time we got back to our home, it was full of German soldiers enjoying themselves to whatever they could find. Their muddy boots had melted and muck was all over the place. My mom had a fit.
Whoever these people were, they were in big trouble had she reported them. They apologized from here to there and tried to calm my mother down. Eventually she started to actually listen to them. I remember hearing 'Gnädige Frau' over and over again. It's like my dear lady. So now she finally was told what was really going on by real soldiers. The war had been lost for a long time and these troopers did not expect to leave our city as it had been declared a fortress city to be defended to the last man. Could she please let them enjoy a few peaceful moments before the onslaught of the Russians just outside of town? They explained as carefully as they could that unless the Western allies helped the Germans against the Russians she would never see her home again. (that theme was heard again and again and fully expected by German soldiers) That she would never see her home again was not acceptable to my mom. That was beyond belief.
Hours went by and we followed instructions as to how to dress and what to take along. We took a sizable cheese but she kept her fur coat on. The doll stayed home and then one of the troopers told us about the train across in the freight yard. But no, mom was going to take a boat. She had tickets. Forget the boat and the tickets she was told. Tickets don't matter and boats are full. No trains, no boats, how are we going to get to Berlin? My aunt came over and said they'll leave tomorrow because uncle Fritz still had to finish his shift at the Schichau boat yard. The soldiers kept urging us to leave like its almost too late.
So we head over across the rails to where this train stood. It's full. Nobody can get in. It literally was full. My mother is begging someone to let us on the train. The wounded troops have preference and civilians can't get in. It's full and so it goes.
Then one of the nurses we knew saw us and made some motions to get us in. The doors were blocked and she could not get out to talk to somebody. My mom lifted me up to the window. Just a minute. She threw some stuff out from one of the baggage nets and up I went into the net. Somehow my sister got on too. My mom was too big to put anywhere and children had first digs at rescue anyway. Ay least we are safe and the train starts to move. My mother hangs onto the door and stands outside in the bitter cold. I don't know how long she was out there but eventually soldiers died and were thrown off the train. Better to let the living in. To me it was all a great adventure and being in the baggage rack was quite neat. I do remember having to go the bathroom though and somebody held me out the window to pee. That was when I felt how cold it was. My mom had frostbitten legs for the rest of her life from the time she hung on outside the train.
On this day, the 21st of January 1945, we were the last train to leave Elbing before the Russians had the city surrounded and bombed other red cross trains to bits. The bridge over the Vistula river was blown up by German engineers shortly after we crossed the river.