The city of Essen, where I lived since my marriage in 1940, was the home of the Krupp factories where heavy weapons were manufactured in large quantities. Naturally, this city was one of the main goals for bombers from Britain. Day and night the sirens screamed urging people to go into the air raid shelters, usually the cellars in people’s houses.
While the bombs were aimed at the factories, they did not always hit the intended target. Several of our friends had been bombed out of their houses (and some lost their lives) and when one day a small bomb hit through the roof and the ceiling and cut off a corner of my kitchen table, without exploding, I decided on the spot that I would move away from Essen in order for my baby and myself to have a chance for survival.
With the help from Pastor Busch I soon found a far-away spot in the countryside, so remote that there wasn’t even a train station. I moved with my baby and my few belongings to Fürstenhagen, about an hour’s train ride and an hour of walking on foot away from the university town of Göttingen. Life here was very different.
Fürstenhagen was a small village with a few hundred people, all of them peasants with small plots, except the one and only teacher, a baker, a grocery store owner and a part-time mail carrier. There was a small Protestant church, but the pastor had already become a victim of the war in which he was drafted. His widow, just a few years older than I was, lived in the old parsonage where I now kept company with her. She had her mother, also a widow, with her. Soon mother, also a widow, lived with us and helped me do the things needed to be done every day.
First, let me tell you about this parsonage: It was a big 2-story house, built – I guess – around 1900. On the ground floor there was a huge kitchen with a stone floor, a giant of a wood-burning stove and a heavy wooden table able to seat at least a dozen people. A pastor’s office with a fine, polished wooden floor, and a house organ, of course. There was another sitting room (for parishioners to wait?), and three bedrooms and one guest room. No bathroom, no toilet. Cold water only, and only in the kitchen. This is where Frau Feldmann, her mother, and her “aunt” lived. Frau Feldmann had no children.
Upstairs, where my mother and the baby and I lived, there was nothing but bedrooms. In the old days pastors had a lot of children, I guess. One small room, above the kitchen below, was converted into my kitchen because it was the easiest way to get a water pipe through the ceiling. (There was no water outlet upstairs, and no bath, no toilet.) The old man who did the work and put the water pipe through the ceiling found out that it ended up not in my kitchen but in the hallway. That’s from where I got the water needed in the kitchen. Cold water only, of course.
In the back of the house, about 50 feet away, was a low building with two outhouses, a storage room for garden utensils and a room containing a huge copper kettle built. on top of a wood-burning oven. This had two purposes: to heat water for the weekly bath on Saturday afternoon, and to cook sugar beets in the late fall. The bathwater was taken out of the kettle pail by pail and put into a big zinc tub.
Also outside, on the side of the building was a wood shed where the cut wood for year-round use was stored and protected from the weather.
The only heat upstairs was in the kitchen emanating from the wood-burning stove. But how did I get the wood? First let me tell you that the peasants who lived in the village all received a contingent of coal on a ration card. I never received any coal because — as I was told by the man who owned the grocery store — I never greeted anyone with “Heil Hitler” as had become the custom by the majority of the population. This guy was one of the few people who were not hostile toward me. He made it possible for me to go with the men of the village into the forest in the winter and saw off trees. He showed me how to correctly hold the saw and where to start cutting and he gave me some other tips on how not to get hurt by falling trees. We used only hand saws. Then we cut off branches and got the trees ready to pull them to a certain spot on the road. I, too, pulled the chains and got the trees where later men with horse drawn equipment would pick them up. The trees were deposited near the woodshed by the house and, like the peasants, I rented a chain saw and with the help of Ivan, we cut the trees into slabs that were manageable. Then I spent many hours and many days hacking the wood into manageable slices small enough for the wood stove in my kitchen. When a lot of parts had piled up, I would stack them up in the woodshed.
Ivan? Sounds Russian. Yes, he was a Russian. What was this young man with the pock-scar face and the flaming red hair doing in this godforsaken German village? Ivan and his mother, who also was living with one of the peasants, had been captured by German troops and sent back to Germany (together with tens of thousands of others like them) to do the work that the German men were unable to do because they were drafted and had to fight Hitler’s war. Ivan and his mother lived with the peasants but they were not permitted (by law) to sit at the same table and eat with them. They got no money for their backbreaking work in the fields and around the house and gardens. They were war slaves.
One day when were cutting trees into slabs on the machine, the teenage boy of the peasants living next door, came by just to kill time and hang around. He started to tease Ivan but, although Ivan could not speak German, he understood from the tone of the boy’s voice that he was not friendly. Suddenly Ivan was not careful enough and got a bad cut down to the bone in his left index finger. Ivan did not scream but the boy did and called some people who were passing by. They all gawked while I went into the house to get some gauze to bandage his finger. When it was finished the blood came straight through. I took Ivan’s arm and bent it upwards and showed him to hold it up above his head.
When I told the people that I would take Ivan to a doctor the people howled at me and said that the doctor lived too far away (an hour to walk through the woods) and that Ivan could rape or kill me. I was convinced that no such thing would happen to me and I determined to go. I told my mother and my baby where I would go and off I went with Ivan. Most of the time we were silent as we walked through the woods (I had gone there to the doctor’s office several times before) but then I remembered that I had learned some Russian words way back in school in Berlin when I had a girl friend whose family had emigrated to Germany when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. You should have seen the happy smile on his face when he heard the familiar Russian sounds. This is the only time I ever saw him smile.
The doctor was the only one for miles and miles around and he was not so young anymore. He was known to be a Nazi. Ivan’s When Ivan’s turn came and I had explained to the doctor what had happened, he asked me to leave the room. I told him that I would stay and watch to make sure that Ivan is treated right and nothing is happening to him. The doctor stared at me coldly but did not again ask me to leave.
When we-came back to the village, my neighbor stood by the door of the parsonage and asked me:
“What happened to you?”
“Well, nothing, nothing at all.” He shook his head in disbelief.
In Fürstenhagen, the one and only teacher lived with his wife and son in his house on a big parcel of land with a huge I garden that brought forth lots of different vegetables. There also were apple, pear, plum and nut trees and hedges with blackberries. There were chickens, pigs and a cow. There were honey bees. This family was more than self-sufficient as far as food goes.
I had learned from some of the parents in the village that the teacher was fond of beating the “bad” kids, and their parents thought that their kids deserved the beatings. It would make them better people, they reasoned.
This teacher belted out a loud “Heil Hitlerl” when I met him on the street, and he said it even louder when I answered “Good Morning.” This alone marked me as an anti-Nazi from the start.
In all the time I lived in the village I never had a conversation with the teacher nor with his wife or son.
Shortly before it became clear that Germany was about to lose the war which would mean the end of the Nazi regime, the teacher’s son came to my door with a huge basket of goodies: butter, eggs, honey, nuts, cookies etc. and he said that this was a gift from his father for me. I would lie to you if I told you that I was not tempted by the sight of all these rare goodies but a bitter flame of disgust shot through me: the man was scared that I would denounce him as a Nazi and scared of what might happen to him. I told the boy: “Tell your father I don’t want your bribe.”
After the American troops set up a small headquarter in the village, the teacher and some other proud Nazis were taken to a reeducation camp. Three months later he was back in his house and teaching school again.
During WW II everybody – except Jews – was issued ration cards for food, soap and clothing. The amounts of these rations were, of course, very minimal. Furthermore, many items simply were not available in the stores and, the longer the war lasted, the shorter was the supply of goods.
While I lived in Fürstenhagen, this small village, there were ways in which to supplement the food shortage, First. I started a garden in the back of an already existing garden that was close to the house in which we lived. This piece of land was unused. I bought little seed packages in the only general store of the village. After preparing the land by digging it up and fertilizing it with the products of the two outhouses (carrying bucket by bucket uphill to my garden) and after forming beds I put the seeds in and soon there were spinach, peas and beans. I had no luck with radishes, though. In the fall there were tomatoes and potatoes.
Secondly, I worked for some of the peasants before and during harvest time. The peasants were reluctant to let me work for them because I was “city folk” and they did not think that city folks could do the hard work to which they were used. There was no modern farm machinery. Everything was done by hand. I crawled on my hands and knees to pull weeds, I learned to cut grains with a scythe, how to bundle grains after harvest and set it up to dry, how to pack a hay wagon and how to stack it in the barn. I knew that I had earned the peasants’ trust when they let me drive a packed hay wagon, drawn by two horses, home to the barn – although they never uttered a word of approval of my work.
The third way to get food was by barter. You gave something they wanted for something you wanted. Shortly before Christmas in 1944 I hoped to get a chicken – there was hardly ever any meat – for Christmas dinner. I had a damask table cloth and six matching napkins – a wedding gift from my mother-in-law – for which I received a scrawny chicken that also was tough. At that time the newspapers carried lots of cartoons showing Persian rugs in cow barns because it had become a standard practice for peasants to become ever more demanding in the barter deals. As it turned out, two uninvited guests showed up for Christmas dinner. The chicken was gone in no time flat.
Oh, yes, there was a fourth way to get food: There was a dusty, unpaved street leading to the nearest railroad station about an hour away. The street had — part of the way — apple trees with very small apples that the peasants never bothered to harvest because they had their own apple trees with better fruits in their gardens. There we went, my little Kolja and I. I shook the apple trees as best as I could and my little son eagerly picked up the apples and helped me carry them home. My mother and I spent many hours cutting up the little apples and cooking them with very little sugar to make apple sauce.
Not far from the village there were forests with a great variety of trees and bushes. My little son was very good in discovering mushrooms: Pfifferlinge (chanterelles) and Steinpilze (the translation is not in my dictionaries). They were delicious.
The forests also were a source for pine cones and small branches and twigs that had fallen off the trees. These items were very useful in starting fires in my kitchen stove which was the only source of heat on the upper floor of the house in which we lived.
I had acquired an old, used rack-wagon which we used on these trips to the woods. Kolja loved to sit in this wagon and to be drawn by his Mom.
Thus we managed not to be starving. I even managed to send once in a while a bunch of potatoes in a small suitcase to Pastor Busch in Essen. He then sent the suitcase back for more.
One morning I found the garden and street around the house covered with ashes, all gray. There had been no fire inthe village or in the vicinity. When looking around some more, I found pieces of paper, part of a marriage certificate, parts of other official papers from which I could identify the word “Kassel.” During the day I found out from radio reports that the city of Kassel, about a hundred (?) miles away, had been bombed. The wind had carried the ashes and bits of papers into the village of Fürstenhagen, far away.
Every day airplanes, heavily laden with bombs and moving not very fast, showed up in the sky. They never let any bombs go down where we lived. But they made an ominous, deep bass “brrr brrr brrr” sound. Whenever this happened and my little 3-year old son was playing outside, he instinctively grabbed his toys and rushed into the house, crying for his Mom. At this tender age he, of course, knew nothing of the war. I took my little son in my arms and together we waited until the airplane’s sound could no longer be heard.
Shortly before the end of the war I happened to be in the only bakery in the village and was about to get my weekly ration of bread when three young men in disheveled clothes came in, held their hands out to the baker and indicated with gestures that they were hungry and wanted some bread to eat. They talked French to each other. Neither the baker nor his wife, both of whom were in the store, could speak or understand French. I had not spoken French since graduation from high school. However, I could understand most of what they said and I was able to converse with them somehow. I asked the baker to get his helper who was another war slave from France. He was about the same age as the other three, twentyish, and they talked very fast to each other. At this point the baker and his wife left the room. Rene, the baker’s helper, also told the other three that I could be trusted (he knew me – I had lent him I several French books) and they should go with me. Then I he took two additional breads from the shelf, wrapped them in newspapers, handed them to me, and I left, followed by three men whom I had just met.
On the way home they told me that one of them was from the Bretagne, the other two from Marseille. They were captured by the Germans and sent to a factory in Kassel. When the factory was bombed unfit to produce anything, the foreign workers were let go, without food or water, without money or a change of clothes. While they were very glad to be free, they had no idea where they were or where to go. They wandered around, begging for food and sleeping wherever they could find some shelter. That’s how they ended up in this godforsaken village.
At home I introduced them to everybody and then I cut up the bread and put margarine on it. I had nothing to make a sandwich. They ate and ate. I thought they might want to leave and go on with a couple of maps that I gave them. But they had no intention of leaving. Anyway, it was dangerous to leave because there was still fighting going on in neighboring villages. I had to think fast. There certainly was no room in the house in which I lived.
I went to my next-door neighbor, one of the peasants. Sensing the end of the war and the end of the Nazis, he and his wife, wanting to be in good standing with a non-Nazi, agreed to let the Frenchmen sleep in the hay loft and give them breakfast in the morning. They also gave me potatoes, bacon, sauerkraut and oats for them.
They survived and when the end of the war came, they wrote their names and “merci” in my guest book and made their way back home.
In the backyard the apple trees bloomed in abundant glory. The noise of the shooting between the advancing Allied Forces and some still-resisting German troops came closer and closer day by day. The insane Nazi era was about to be finished.
Now we wondered who would get to us first, the Russians from the East or the Americans from the West. Maybe the troops would bypass this insignificant German village in which we five widows and my little son lived together in a 19th century parsonage.
Frau Feldmann was worried that the Russians would get to us first. Had we not all heard stories of what the Russians did to women in the occupied areas? I worried what would happen to my 3-year old son if I got shot.
But all the shooting noises were coming from the West. And Frau “Schmidt” (our big secret in the house), the woman whom we were hiding and who, for everybody’s protection, played the role of Frau Feldmann’s aunt, assured us that in all probability, the Americans would come first.
We decided that the time had come to hang a white bed sheet in front of the house to indicate surrender. And Frau Feldmann dug up from her books a picture of Abraham Lincoln, framed it and hung it up by the front door to let the Americans know right away that they were welcome and not among enemies.
The next morning at dawn, I awakened by a very loud banging at the front door. I struggled into a robe, raced downstairs and opened the front door. An American soldier, pointing a machine gun at me, screamed in German:
“Männer, Waffen hier im Haus?”
I shouted back in English, “No men, no weapons in the house, only five women and my little son, three years old.”
Three more soldiers with guns drawn appeared, and they all walked in and started to check the rooms.
The guy with the machine gun pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s picture and asked:
I said: “It’s like saying to you, ‘Welcome, you are our liberators.”
He said “Hm, you got a Brooklyn accent.”
They went through the house and decided that the two biggest rooms on the first floor would do as their headquarters.
Soldiers constantly arrived and left, along with an officer one addressed as “Major”. They all wanted hot water for their Nescafe. They gave me some for everyone in the house. Celebrate with Nescafe? Why not?
Then the shooting started again, and we were all ordered to get into the cellar.
After waiting there for several hours, everybody got restless and hungry, and my son started to cry. I got permission to go upstairs and fix something to eat.
I was standing at the kitchen table peeling potatoes when suddenly the kitchen door opened, and a new American came in. He was another blond, blue-eyed baby face. He stood silently and watched me.
Suddenly he grabbed me with an iron hold and spit all over my face while his eyes killed me with hatred.
“I am a Jew, and I am going to kill you, you Nazi bitch!” he yelled.
I screamed: “No, no, no, I am not a Nazi!”
But he I did not listen and continued screaming English words that I had never heard in school. He started to drag me from the tiny kitchen.
I still had my sharp little knife in my hand, and I thought of cutting his jugular vein. But I decided against it because then his buddies would kill me — and what would happen to my fatherless son? I dropped the knife.
Baby Face dragged me onto a couch in the next room, put one hand to my throat and ripped open my blouse with the other.
Suddenly I heard the voice of my little son from the kitchen.
“Mommy, Mommy, we are all so hungry, is the food ready?”
The soldier was startled by the child’s voice and let go if me for a moment. I jumped up, ran out into the hallway and saw my son go into the bedroom. Then I ran downstairs into the living room, scared to death.
The Major was sitting on the couch. He looked tired.
Suddenly I could not speak English anymore. I shouted to the Major in German and gesticulated wildly:
“One of your men was about to rape me and threatened to kill me!”
In my rage and fear (and infinite naiveté), I expected the Major to have this soldier arrested immediately. But this did not happen.
The Major just kept looking at me. Then very, very slowly, he took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and threw it at my feet.
In a rage, I kicked the cigarettes back to the Major. A faint smile of smug amusement crept over his face.
The other women had just come up the cellar stairs after an “All clear” had been issued by the guard. Looking at me, they all knew there had been trouble.
We tiptoed up the stairs to the bedroom where my son had fallen asleep. I kissed his little face while tears streamed down my cheeks. When I was sure that he was deeply asleep, I whispered to the women what had happened.
After about an hour of waiting, hunger made us move. While Frau “Schmidt” and I stayed with my son, the others went to investigate. After a while, they came back. Baby Face was gone.
I went into the kitchen, picked up the knife from the floor and proceeded to peel potatoes again.
Later that day, Frau “Schmidt” reclaimed her true name – Blumenthal. For the first time in years, she dared to leave the house in broad daylight. She slowly walked into the garden, looked at the spring flowers and gently touched the apple blossoms.
In the evening, Frau Feldmann got permission from the Major to play the house organ for a little while in her living room, the temporary headquarters of the U.S. Army in Fürstenhagen, West Germany. She played the joyous Hallelujah from Handel’s “Messiah.”
By the next morning, the first wave of our liberators had vanished.