We met up with my aunt Erna and her two children Traute & Erwin in Berlin. Let me step back a minute to 1945: they had tried to leave Elbing a day after us because Uncle Fritz still had to finish his shift at the shipyard. They therefore lost any opportunity to get out except by walking. This they did. Their treck is a story all to itself but it is not my story. Let me only describe a little about the 6 months they spent outside which Traute told me about before she died. The first few weeks were spent walking at nights and hiding in the woods at night. German soldiers who were trying to avoid the Russians and almost certain death helped them along the way. They were a series of hideouts, holes in the ground, caves, old barns etc which served them well. The family got as far as Pommerania before they were caught by Polish miliz or self appointed police, judge and jury. Every male over 16 or so was suspected of being a Nazi and pulled out of the refugee columns for interrogation, torture and punishment. It all happened very quickly. Uncle Fritz was adjudicated a war criminal because he worked at a ship yard as a Tool & Die maker on the war effort. That is if they believed him. Basically, if you were a refugee and not serving on the front as a soldier, you must have been a person well connected to the party and were therefore a war criminal. Uncle Fritz came out of the so called people's court white as a sheet and was only allowed to say good bye to his wife and children and was then lead away to be shot along with hundreds of other males. The children and women were released and could go on their way after they were stripped of anything of value or warmth.
The three of them walked from place to place, from hideout to hideout, always being searched and harassed by Polish militants. At various times the women stopped along the way would be taken to a building and jailed while the kids were left to fend for themselves. The whole point was to have women available for sex for any comers during the night. My cousin was 15 by this time and old enough to join her mother in the cells. The experience left her, for the rest of her life, a physical and mental wreck. Many women killed their children and committed suicide rather then continue what was happening to them night after night in team fashion.
So, at some point the three of them arrived in Berlin to join the Köhlers and us in the effort to scrounge up food and live. My mother also found the son of her sister Helene who had died at age 26 in 1938. Lenchen was my mom's favorite sister. As she lay dying she asked my mother to please take care of her son, Klaus. He was just 2 at the time having been born on the same day as I except a year earlier in 1936. My mom never forgot that promise and took Klaus in as my brother even though we had nothing to eat as it was. Klaus' father was glad to be rid of him.
My mother and sister Erna decided to leave what was then the Ostzone or the Eastern zone of occupied Germany to go to Essen/Oldenburg where my dad had grown up. Her in-laws lived there and they would surely take better care of us then what we could find in East Berlin. Travel was still possible as the wall had not yet been dreamed up and East Germany was just the Russian occupied zone. Aunt Erna, cousins Traute & Erwin, my mom Luise, sister Annely and I were off to the golden land under Western occupation. Klaus' father did not want him to come with us. My mom thought we would find a land of plenty, especially lots of food, for all of us in the Western zone. It just wasn't to be that way.We missed Klaus from day one and my mom couldn't get her promise out of her head.
My grandparents were very basic and simple people who really never had anything themselves. Opa Bernard was a brush and broom maker by trade and Oma Anna did itinerant sowing, basically for handouts, for the local farmers. She would go from farm to farm asking if anything needed to be worked on and then worked there until she was done. The made a living but not much else. Yet, they were devoted to each other and had a happy life without other expectations. They lived in a 200 year old cottage made out of oak beams filled with branches which were then smeared shut with clay. The roof was originally made out of straw but had been covered with tile because of the danger of fire by the landlord in the late 30s.
The picture shows the house in modern times - 1957 when I was there in the military.
One third of the house was stable area with a huge door for a wagon to enter. (far left side above) There was a hall way leading from this stable to the kitchen which had a coal stove on a wobbly brick floor and not much else. Next to this was a Kammer or bedroom with enough room for the bed. This would become my room. Then there was the Gute Stube or living room with a couch in it and some old pictures on the wall. Another room had a tiled stove (Kachelofen) in it which would provide the only heat in the house when it was on. My dad would eventually make this his work room. There were two more rooms for beds and a small night stand. The idea was not to have a bedroom but rather a room to fit a bed into.
To this house we arrived. My mom had been in Essen before but always stayed in a hotel or guest house as her in-laws' home was a bit too primitive for her. My parents were middle class people who were familiar with running water and a toilet in their home. Neither existed here. So we moved in with my grandparents but my aunt had to go elsewhere. The neighbor lady, Maria Vogel, had 4 daughters, a father-in-law and husband Heinrich who had just been released from an American POW camp in a more modern house with normal conveniences but the toilet was still behind the house next to a pigsty. The toilet was basically a large bucket down below. They gave the Groß family a room of their house. Cousin Erwin soon got a job on a farm and stayed there.
The conditions are now set. You have a bunch of Lutheran city people arrive in the country where anybody who wasn't Catholic was right next to the devil himself. I was shipped off to school and was given religious indoctrination of which I had no knowledge. Sure my dad had promised to raise his children as Catholics but my mom was Lutheran and had no idea how to do that. Since he was gone in the war nothing along these lines happened. So know they put the fear of God in me and I was put in altar boy class to boot. That meant learning Latin prayers and the process of the mass itself. My mom was put under severe pressure to convert from her Lutheran faith if she was ever to fit into this place. She actually started to take the necessary lessons.
I do not know how long this high pressure lifestyle lasted but at some point my mom and her sister decided it was better to be hungry then to be looked at as third class citizens. They had many strikes against them. They had no husbands to protect them. They were penniless refugees who were usurping what little food and work there was and wort of all they were heathens.
My own recollections of this time period limit themselves mostly to the search for food - again. I would hope for and look for work with anybody willing to take me just for their food. This is a difficult thing to describe to anybody who has never been hungry before. I doubt anybody who reads these notes can qualify as real hunger is something few people experience in our environment. The work I'm talking about was always on a farm. It meant collecting potatoes or rye or whatever was left over after the farmer was done with his job of harvesting. To eat an early breakfast and then have a second breakfast around 10AM followed by lunch and dinner was worth whatever slave labor I was assigned. These people had real butter and rich thick bread or even pumpernickel they backed themselves. They had marmalade, they had something called Nagelholz which was like a dried ham but utterly delicious. Then there were all kinds of sausages from the farmer's own butchering process. The whole thing was like heaven on earth which I had never seen or smelled before. All of this I experienced with Klaus who was always at my side. The only problem was the few times we had a chance to work. I don't remember school at all except for the religion classes which had me fearing my own shadow lest I immediately go to hell. I became a good little boy while we were there but it eventually ended and we went back to East Germany.
1947 & 1948
I think this was now around 1947 and our destination would up to be with my Uncle Walter who was mom's older brother. Walter was a codgy, mean and single guy who never smiled. He lived in Finow near Eberswalde in the Mark Brandenburg of East Germany. He was an opportunist who had joined the Nazi party as it seemed to be the thing to do and when the Russians came he became a good Communist. It didn't mean anything to him but maybe a better job or produce a benefit of some kind. The Groß family also moved into the area but we stayed with Uncle Walter. We lived in an apartment complex one flight up but best of all, my cousin Klaus came back to live with us. I had my new brother back.
Across the street the building had been requisitioned by the Russians and they had move their families in there. Lots of Russian kids roamed the neighborhood always after us as lord and masters.
This period was pretty difficult for us as life in general wasn't easy for anybody except good Communists. Walter would bring home some goodies but he and my mom would fight tooth and nail as he did not want to share. They often physically fought and he would hit my mom. This is when Klaus and I would spring into action and join the fight to protect my mom. It wasn't long until they were no longer on speaking terms and my mom decided to do whatever was necessary on her own. She and Tante (aunt) Erna would go on long trip called hamstern (after a a hamster who collects things). This meant going to the country from house to house to try to exchange things for something else. The whole idea was to come home with food, mostly flour. On one such trip she obtained a sack full which she lugged on her back and then found out that she had been given chalk or talcum powder mixed with a bit of flour on top. It was a devastated mother who cried on the kitchen table while we tried to comfort her. People can be very mean. Even children can do nasty things under conditions of hunger. By this time food rations stamps were given out by the authorities. Klaus or I would cheat our mother by stealing an extra stamp until we had enough together to buy a bread. We also stole the money for it but that was not a big deal as one couldn't buy anything anyway without stamps. Can you imagine a whole loaf of bread in the hands of two hungry boys? It might help here to define that bread. It was rye and water bread which made for a gooky, gray mass with a ring around the outside perimeter but inside the crust. The ring was from the water. Still, it was edible and we treasured our hoard. We couldn't and wouldn't eat it all at once and looked for a safe hiding place where we could daily go to have another piece. We found a great hiding place underneath a pile of wood in a little cave we made. To our great chagrin, the next day the entire hoard was gone. Either somebody watched us hide this treasure or an animal was just as hungry as we were and ate it up. It was one of life's biggest let downs. We were devestated.
To set the scene again – the Russians were dismantling every factory and shipping every piece of anything they considered of value back to Russia. It was supposed to be reparations. Trouble was they didn't know what to do with all the stuff as it wasn't organized and most wound up sitting large storage areas or rotting away in train yards waiting to go East. There was one such factory near us which had lots of metal closets piled high in a mountain. It was sort of in between being dismantled and learning how to use the machinery within it. They were melting things down and collected brass fittings where they could find them. Being that munitions could be found all over the place, we got ourselves a bucket full of bullets and proceeded to throw handfuls into piles of hot ashes. These had been carted out of the building in iron wagons out of the melting ovens. This was absolute fun. The bullets would explode and fly off in all directions. They even managed to break some of the still whole windows in the factory. Well, it wasn't long before we were grabbed by some Russian guards who apparently were in charge of the place. A soldier now marches us off and puts us into a large metal trailer of some kind. The door slams shut. We are in a very dark prison. I think we started screaming and making a terrible fuss because the guy eventually came back. I would think we were locked up for an hour or so. So now he wants something from us in order to let us go. We promise him the world but especially a pack of cigarettes. Anything to get out of here. The man isn't fooled and tells Klaus to go and get the cigarettes while I stay as a hostage. I knew full well that a pack of cigarettes was as far from our possession as a pack of gold but off he goes and I stay. The door slams shut again. I eventually cried myself to sleep. In the morning the guy comes and opens the door. Smiles with a smile with two gold teeth and lets me go. It was all a big joke to him. Klaus had told me mother but she didn't dare go there lest she wound up as the price for leaving me go. I guess she also thought that the punishment was fit for me and that he would let me go in the morning.
Another fateful act is as fresh as yesterday in my mind. Apparently my mother had obtained some peas and they had disappeared from the windowsill. She accused both Klaus and me of stealing them. We both denied this theft. I certainly knew I didn't do it and Klaus claimed the same thing. So we both were punished – unjustly. I was very hurt by this for a long, long time and reminded myself as my own children arrived to be very, very careful when making such accusations. They may be telling the truth. I still don't know what happened to the peas but such little acts about food can give the reader some measure what it mans to be hungry all the time.
Our life now included school. I really didn't know very much not having had much schooling because of the war but here I was supposed to learn Russian. Everybody had to take Russian as that was to be the language of choice in a future Germany. By know I could converse fairly well in basic Russian just like kids in the American sector would learn enough English to get what they can from the soldiers. I could also read the funny Cyrillic but writing it seemed to escape me completely. I couldn't form proper sentences and kept getting the equivalent of a D or F in the program. This was not good as the teachers thought I was doing this on purpose because I hated Russians or something. I don't know what it was but I really tried but just couldn't do it. So I was a failure in life and turned the whole schooling thing off. I didn't need it and I didn't like it.
I had other problems at home with Uncle Walter always being mean to my mom and saying we were lazy no good bums at our young age of 9 and 10. We certainly had to do stuff even though I much preferred playing. One of our tasks was to supply burning material for the stove. This was not easily done as it was not permitted to cut down trees and coal was just not available or affordable. The only coal we knew of were bricks of crushed coal which the Russians were getting from reparations. Still, we knew were these bricketts were located – in the cellars of the Russians across the street. So we would get up in the middle of the night or what was maybe 10 or 11 PM and make our way across the street like sly foxes. (we imagines all kinds of scenarios for ourselves) We would test if any basement windows were open or unlocked (this was usually after they had received a delivery down a chute) and then climb down and hand out brick after brick to carry them back home. One time we did this there was a party going on upstairs and somebody came out a bit drunk maybe to get some fresh air or something. I quickly jumped into a rabbit hutch standing next to the window with Klaus being in the basement. The man hard something or became suspicious and came over, saw the open window and closed it. I'm in the rabbit hutch right next to him hoping the rabbit doesn't act up and make a fuss. He didn't mind me there though. The man like took forever to leave and we luckily hadn't stacked any bricks up yet. I told Klaus it was safe to leave when I finally heard the door slam and carefully peaked out to se if the man was gone. All this is always happening with a heart pounding as noisy and fast as can be. That night we didn't get any coal but were glad not to have been caught.
Another activity was to go into the woods very early in the morning and chop down a small sapling to drag home. This was not too good a product though as it didn't last very long. On occasion we had a little wagon and were able to load it with pieces of wood we could find. Picking up left overs was permitted but never cutting anything down. There was also the big giant factory building which had been emptied of machinery for shipment back to Russia. The floor remained though. It was made of wooden blocks soaked in tar or creosote or something. This stuff burned real well and lasted long but it was hard to get unstuck by us. We had no real tools and probably weren't the strongest either. It was also forbidden to take things out of factories. Yet we somehow managed to get enough of the stuff to supplement whatever else we could round up.
I was in a rabbit hutch another time. This is when we were out stealing pumpkins out of the gardens the Russians had taken over. The pumpkins were big and heavy and had to be rolled home on the ground. This was very dangerous work but if we could land one pumpkin we could eat from it for a long, long time. Pumpkin soup for a month or so. On occasion we could also find cucumbers. Anyway on one such pumpkin raid, we discovered and I hid in the a rabbit hutch in the garden. I have no idea where Klaus went but here are all these Russians looking for the thieves while I'm sitting in their rabbit hutch. Talk about being scared. I must have been in there for hours wondering if the searchers were no longer looking out their windows for me to materialize in the dark. Memories!
One fine afternoon. I hear an explosion. Soon thereafter a loud wailing of all these women from across the street. Some men bring a bloody boy on a litter and another walking with them also wounded. The Russian boys had not listened to what we were constantly told. Don't play with munitions you find. One of the bad kids from across the street had his arm blown off. I was mean and thought that serves him right. They were not supposed to play with us but bothered us anyway. But I'll never forget the wailing of the women. I guess the kids mother was among them. That was a pitiful sight. They all love their children the same way.
Life eventually got better. My mom got some kind of regular job and we got better food rations. I still hated school and much rather did my thing outside. As 1948 approached we expected my dad to be released but the time kept getting delayed and nothing happened. His cards would say that others had been released and that his turn would surely come any day now but nothing happened.
Finally we heard that the day had come. After almost 4 years of a harrowing experiences and being too weak to work but still alive, my father was released weighing only 90 pounds. He had himself discharged to Essen in Oldenburg in West Germany rather than to where we were in Finow. He was permitted to do that because he grew up there. My dad's records show that he arrived at the Gronenberg discharge center on the 25th of November, 1948.