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Taking the Heat in the Kitchen

Len Vertefeuille was born and raised into a loving family on the East coast. He now lives in North Carolina and he and his wife Lisa have two children who mean the world to Len. He has been working in the Warren Wilson College kitchen since 1989. Len enjoys cooking for and working alongside ...


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All Alone at the Sixty-Four World's ...

The backstage of the pavilion was simple with its wooden floors and temporary props. The 1964 World’s Fair of Flushing, NY would come and go and no one would remember the little five year-old girl who played with her Barbies in its grand shadow. While some country stars were just cutting ...


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Fred's Story > Chapters > Planning to go to America

a new Beginning 

 
Date Range: 01/01/1948 To 03/31/1949   Comments: 3 Views: 19304
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Release from POW camp

The occasionally permitted postal card came from my father, as per Geneva Convention rules, with every possible space filled in tiny, tiny print. It was planned that when the time came to be released, he would give his boyhood address as a place to be discharged to. He was not going to spend one moment longer in any land associated with his captors. Since we were living in the Russian zone or what was now the German Democratic Republic (DDR), it would be up to us leave and go back to my grandparents' house. The plan from the gitgo was to try to get to America for the sake of the children. My mom would wait until he got out of POW camp and then established a home for us in the West. She was not about to go there without him. Been there, done that.

In the meantime I go to school and get a 4 (D) in Russian as usual. School was another to all the other things I wanted to do. Playing and adventurous discoveries were so much more fun then sitting in a classroom. I learned how to fake my mom's signature and cut many, many classes. According to my report card, I was a very sick boy. I even signed that card for the teacher. I think my dislike of school also had something to do with my being so far behind everyone else that I simply could never catch up.

On November 20, 1948 my dad arrived at a camp near Frankfurt on the Oder river which had been established by the Russian authorities in 1946 to process discharged German POWs. The camp was near an old estate called Gronenfelde and became known by this name. It was basically a quarantine place to prevent diseases from the East to infect the entire population. Delousing was done 3 miles outside of the camp before the prisoners even got into Gronenfeld. Many hundreds died as they were released when they were no longer functional as human beings and could not work. They either died or were shipped off. Those who could still work remained the longest. During the year 1947 70% of the arrivals were sick enough to be hospitalized. The public relations image that they represented was not kind to Russia for their new German Communist subjects. By 1948 it was only 12%. Between 1946 and 1950 1,125,508 German POWs were released through this camp. This was roughly one third of those who surrendered at the end of the war. The others died in prison camps of hunger and disease. When my dad arrived there he weighed 90 pounds and was soon put on a train for those who were being discharged to the British zone and which went to Erfurt and from there to everyone's individual destination.

So now he arrived in Essen and his parents got him well again and soon he had to work to earn funds for our planned arrival. He established a tailor-shop much to the displeasure of his neighbors who were also tailors. They didn't really need the additional competition being that there was little work to begin with. Next door on the right lived Master Tailor Georg Vogel whose son, Heinrich, had been released from American POW status a year or two earlier. He was to become my future father-in-law and was also a tailor. On the other side was the house of my dad's best buddies from his school days. Theodore and Alphonse Ellerkamp had left for America in the 1920s and the deal was that they would help him join them as soon as they got themselves established. Well, the depression came and my dad had met my mom after that and the deal was never consummated. Theodore was also a tailor as was the house next to the Ellerkamps belonging to the Tepe family. So the Kirchstrasse behind the church was full of tailors. 

And here was my dad coming home to start tailoring from scratch. He worked hard and for less and saved every possible penny in order to start his life over again. It should be remembered that my dad was a successful middle class business owner before was drafted. He now became a pennyless refugee who had to beg and borrow to get a sewing machine and an iron to work with. Most work he did by hand. It was still the norm to have your clothing made by a tailor just like in the old days before things came off a rack. Yet, that was already starting and people could travel to a larger city to buy shirts and later even whole suits. That was the new way around the corner: mass production. 

In Germany itself the new reality was the cold war and the country was smack right in the middle of the fight between a free democratic economic and political system and dogmatic state controlled socialism or communism. Stalin had big plans to convert all of Europe to Communism under his hegemony. Churchill quickly realized that aim and the term Iron Curtain was formed. Germany new about this drive all along and the typical soldier struggled on in the East without supplies under almost inhuman conditions because the rumor mill had it that no way would the Western Allies be so stupid not to see Russian aims and certainly they would join a Germany without Hitler to defeat Communism. This is real. I've met many ex-soldiers who fought in the East and they all expected the West to fight with them. All they had to do was hold out a little longer. It was inevitable to them as they knew the Russians first hand. My dad had also expected such reversal and it was Stalins biggest fear.   
    
But he was able to outfox the politicians of the West and pretty much get what he wanted just for the asking. 25% of Germany was to be ethnically cleansed as long as it was done 'humanely' - yeah sure. Poland was shifted to the west and Russia got all the land that it had agreed to split with Hitler when they jointly attacked Poland.
 
The Air Lift.

Germany itself was split into zones with Russia getting about 1/3 with Berlin smack in the middle of the Russian zone. The agreement at Potsdam between Stalin, Truman and Atlee (Churchill had been defeated at the polls in 1945) was to provide democratization of a weak, mainly agricultural Germany with the occupation zones being temporary. Berlin itself was also divided into four zones. 

So here we were several years later living in the eastern zone in the state of Mark Brandenburg. It was easy to go to East Berlin as it had been designated the capital of the new GDR. Russia wanted all of Berlin to be part of this new nation they had proclaimed. By this time the allies, especially Truman, had learned a little about Russia and denied them that option. In June of 1948 the Russians simply closed all surface traffic which had to go through the GDR to get to West Berlin. The idea was to starve the population into submission. The Russians claimed that the allies were planning to set up a new capital for their zones and that they no longer needed to occupy Berlin. Still, the allies had in their hands a document from Nov. 1945, signed by the Soviets, that there would be three 20 mile wide air corridors leading into Berlin, one for each of the French, British and American zones. Trouble was there were only a handful of planes available and the airports in Berin were in pittyful shape. Gen. Clay was planning an armed convoy to shoot its way into Berlin but Sir Brian Robertson suggested at least trying to fly in supplies for emergency use for the over 2 million residents of West Berlin. Gen LeMay rounded up 102 C-47's to fly supplies into Berlin. They then figured out how much food was required per day and came up with 1534  tons. But then the people needed coal to burn their stoves. Other required supplies brought the daily tonnage up to 3500 tons. Since a C-47 can haul 3.5 tons per flight, over 1000 flights per day would be required to supply the city. Impossible. The existing planes of the US and British forces could haul a maximum of 750 tons per day. Bigger planes were requires and C-54 Skymasters were brought in. These could haul 10 tons per trip. Still, that would require 350 trips per day. A month into the effort, Lt Gen Turner was put in charge right when planes were crashing into each other while others in the sky couldn't land because of the havoc on the ground. New orders were given that any plane not able to land as scheduled was to immediately return to its source via the outgoing the skyway. A continuous flying loop was established to maximize landings without any interference. Crews were not permitted to leave their aircraft during unloading. Only sexy, pretty Berlin girls were hired to serve them snacks and keep their spirits up. They got the landing take-off routine down to 25 minutes. Everything had to run like clockwork to make the effort work. Still, it was not enough. There wasn't enough coal in the 48/49 winter and every tree in Berlin was cut down for firewood. The people were starving but there was no grumbling or desire for the Soviets to take over. Better red then dead was not something you said in public. German volunteers did whatever they could to help unload planes and distribute the contents. They competed with each others to who could unload 10 tons the fastest. For prizes they got a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar. 10 minutes became the record and goal every crew was shooting for. Next mechanics were needed to keep the planes flying day and night. Former German aircraft mechanics jumped in and kept the planes running. Despite constant harrassment by the Soviets to the pilots, eventually the routine became to efficient that supplies exceeded demand. Still, there was never enough coal. A third airport was needed and on Aug 5, 1948 ground was broken for the Tegel airport. Equipments was cut appart, flown in and welded back together again as no plane was big enough to carry such items. Since the elecrity plant was in the Soviet zone and power had been shut off, a new plant was built the same way. Everything was flown in. Within three months the first planes landed at Tegel. One problem remeined in this, the French sector of Berlin. A soviet radio tower as smack in the middle of the landing path. As the Russians would not move it, the French snuck in over there and simply blew it up with dynamite. Problem fixed. 

I'm going somewhat at length here about the Berlin Air Lift. Normally we only read about history, In this case I lived it. The airlift did not help West Berlin.There was no wall to separate the two sections and I often got myself over there to get what could be gotten. There was after all the story of the Schokoladenflieger and who would not go to the end of the earth for a piece of chocolate. Let me quote from http://www.spiritoffreedom.org/ 

One of the most poignant stories of the Berlin Airlift was that of one 1st Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen.  Halvorsen was somewhat of an ammeter moviemaker, and on July 17, he decided that on one of his off days, he would hitch a ride as a passenger on a C-54 and visit the City he was saving.  Once at Tempelhof, Halvorsen walked to the end of the runway to film some aircraft landings when he noticed a group of children near the fence watching the planes, too.  He went over to them.  They asked questions about the aircraft, the cargo, how fast it was going and things like that.  During this conversation he noticed that these children, unlike others he had encountered in Europe as a Ferry command Pilot during the War, did not ask him for any candy or gum, like others always had.  This struck him funny, and he knew that they were too proud to beg for such things.  Some having been born during wartime had not even heard of treats like that.  He made a fateful decision at that moment which was to become one of the symbols of the airlift.  He reached into his pocket and found that he had only two sticks of Wrigley's Doublemint Gum.  He remarked that if they did not fight over it, he would drop some candy to them if they were there the next day.  They agreed, took the sticks of gum and divided it amongst themselves, some happy to get only a piece of the wrapper.  Before he left them, a child asked him how they would know it was him flying over.  He replied, "I'll wiggle my wings." 
True to his word, the very next day, on approach to Berlin, he rocked the airplane and dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below.  Every day, the number of children would increase and he made several more drops.  Soon there was a stack of mail in Base Ops addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings', "The Chocolate Uncle" and "The Chocolate Flier". 
Halvorsen didn't tell anyone about what he was doing for fear he'd get in trouble.  Then, he was called into his commander and asked what he was doing.  He replied 'Flying, Sir."  His commander asked again, and received the same response.  He then pulled out a newspaper with a picture of Halvorsen's plane and tiny parachutes trailing behind.  Apparently, a newspaper reporter narrowly escaped being hit on the head with a chocolate bar.  His commander wasn't happy about it, but General Tunner though it was just the kind of gesture that the operation needed.  It was dubbed "Operation Little Vittles".  It continued, and many C-54 pilots participated.  Candy and parachutes were assembled and sent from Chicopee Falls, MA to assist in the gesture.  In the end, over three tons of candy was dropped over Berlin, some even in the Soviet sector.  For this simple kindhearted gesture, Halvorsen became the most recognized pilot of the Berlin Airlift. 
--------------
It is no understatement to say that the pilots of the Airlift were the heroes of the people. No thank you was enough. They saved Berlin and earned eternal gratitude by the population of Berlin. 

What is little spoken of is that the empty planes also had another purpose. They took people from the Eastern sector across to West Germany. It became a lifeline for thousands and we were just one family to take advantage of these flights. But first let me explain how we managed to get to West Berlin from Finow where we lived. 

Since our goal was America and my dad had already made contact with his boyhood friends in Philadelphia, we knew that Klaus could not come with us. There were no adoption papers and his father was against it anyway. First we traveled to my aunt in Erkner near Berlin. There whatever we could gather might be of value was packed in suitcases and bundles of stuff. My aunt gave us things my mom had given her when we were the rich folks of the family. What earlier we had given away, now became our valued treasure. My uncle Alfred, who used to drive the elevated train in Berlin, was now away in an 'education' camp somewhere. Some neighbor had reported to the Soviets that he had been a party member. They found him picking cherries, plucked him off the tree and three years later he came back looking much like my dad. He was emaciated without teeth and surely re-educated in the Communist way. That was their de-nazification process. Anyway, he was gone but the family knew enough about the transit system to help us get to West Berlin. Strangely enough those trains still  ran between the various zones. I think they had to as they could not just run back and forth in the Eastern zone. They were full of what we called the Vopos or Volkspolizei (peoples' police). Anyone suspicious would be questioned as to their destination and tickets were checked etc.    

Well, we're off with our baggage. Packages and suitcases were distributed among other occupants but the police spot us anyway. I guess they had their way. Our tickets were not for our destination and we're told to get off at the next stop. I think my aunt was with us. We gathered our stuff together and got off as ordered only to border the next train and try the same thing. This time we got through undetected and get off in West Berlin. We are safe. We now head off to Tegel to try to catch a ride across East Germany. This must have been around March 1949. I was determined to watch every detail of this exciting flight. I especially wanted to see the earth from up high but as we got on a plane, there were no windows. There was coal dust all over the place and we had to sit on the floor. Whatever all this excitement was all about I must have been very tired because the next thing I knew, I was on the ground in Lübeck. So I slept through my maiden voyage. I was mad at myself. In Lübeck we were in some kind of hold over camp where we waited for my dad to pick us up. The plan was to meet him at the train station at some particular time. The train arrived and no one we knew came off it - until I recognized him. Was that my father? My mother and sister just stood there while I ran to meet him. They really did not recognize him. Their images were more like he used to be while I just took a lucky guess. I don't have any memory except for running to him and hugging him. I see nothing about my mom or sister. Strange. 

My memory starts to improve once we get to Essen and adequate food. Almost by design my grandmother dies on April 1 within days of our arrival. Was she making room for us? Two weeks later my grandfather follows her on the 17th. At both funerals the various neighbors bring lots of food and I especially love the Butterkuchen (butter cake) that is served on large bakery platters about 2x3 feet in size. I'm now in a new world. I never really knew my dad's parents below.

I should mention that 31 American young men gave their lives in the process of the Air Lift. To them I owe my eternal gratitude.

               
  


 
   



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Member Since
Aug 2007
Archibald Sharron said:
posted on Aug 31, 2008

As I read your stories, I cannot escape the poignancy that is the fact that your father and myself were aiming our guns at each other. I never hated the individual German solider, although I did detest Germans for the war. After you have experienced war in its reality the platitudes are simply meaningless. If your father is still alive, it would be my sincerest bet that he would feel the same way. When I think about this as an issue, me fighting your father - we didn't know each other. We happened to be born in different countries and ended up supposed to hate each other, what sense does this make? What sense did Hitler make? (And I by no means exonerate my own country from wars or its atrocities). Your stories are both fascinating and enlightening, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart that you share them. With regards, Archibald Sharron


Member Since
Aug 2008
Fred Rump said:
posted on Aug 31, 2008

Dear Archi, I hear you. No my dad was a physical wreck through his imprisonment in Russia. He survived by shear willpower and did not want to give up until he saw his children again. I will write later about his life in this country but his goals were pretty much met when he saw me graduate college and start a business of my own. It is something instinctive for parents to want their children to have a better life and prosper. Once that goal is met, life has little further meaning. This country has the genes of people who wanted something better for their children. The rest stayed where they were. It takes a lot of guts to leave everything you know for the sake of your children. My das was born in 1906 and would be a very old man if he were alive today. Very few WW2 vets still hang in there. But to your larger point - wars are part of the inhumanity of man vs man. They never make sense as killing per individual or per nation is immoral and criminal. The only valid war is self defense and not made up national interests. Fred


Member Since
Apr 2008
Sarah Green said:
posted on Sep 03, 2008

Are precious little gifts. I hope that your family realizes just how special they are. THANK you for sharing.