These are the pictures that my parents carried with them during
the war years and my father's internment.
I was born on December 3, 1943 in Berlin's central district of Kreuzberg on a night when bombs rained down over our city. According to wartime records, 458 RAF aircraft (425 Lancaster, 15 Halifax, and 18 Mosquito) attacked Berlin dropping 1,500 tons of bombs, many of which fell in our district. Probably not the best time to face the world.
My father was serving in the German Army and was stationed in France at that time. When the air raid siren sounded, my mother, my grandmother and my sister (she was 9 years old at the time) made their way from our home to the bunker located just a few blocks away. The bunker was crowded full of people looking for safety and it was precisely at that time, that my mother went into labor. There were neither doctors nor the facility to accommodate a delivery, so my mother decided to leave the safety of the bunker and go back home. She left word with the authorities were she will be and to please send a doctor or a midwife and made her way back in a darkness only illuminated by the flash of exploding bombs and houses on fire. She gave birth to me in our small apartment without the benefit of either a doctor or a midwife. She cut the umbilical cord with her sewing scissors and cleaned me up as well as she could. The midwife came shortly afterwards and the bombing stopped as well. My grandmother and sister also found their way back safely.
After the bombing raid. Time to get out of Dodge.
That was the rather turbulent beginning to my life, and it would have been nice to enjoy a period of calm after that, but sadly, that was only the start of our family’s wartime woes. I wasn’t even 3 month old before my family was told that they had to evacuate the city and relocate to a “safer” place. My mother, grandmother, sister and I hit the road heading east into Eastern Prussia. We were to stay with a family near Stettin, Germany. It was part of Germany then, but after the war this area went back to being part of Poland.
Life near Stettin was only peaceful for a short period, because the Russian Army was advancing westward and the retreating German Army and refugees told horror stories of what the Russians were doing to German civilians. Rumors of mass killings convinced my mother to make her way west again. It was just recently, that a mass grave with over 1800 bodies of German civilians was uncovered near Malbork, Poland, just east of where we were. The cold of winter overtook us and so did the Red Army. You can just imagine the horror of seeing their tanks and trucks move into the little farming community where my family was staying. My mother herded everybody into a small outbuilding used to store firewood. They watched through the slats in the barn as the Russian soldiers went from village door to door. My grandmother was already sick and may have been suffering from dementia as well. All this was too much for her and she starting crying out loud. My mother tried to quiet her down but she would not stop. She finally stuffed my grandmothers scarf into her mouth to keep her quiet. The Russians passed by after a bit, but to my mother's horror she discovered that my grandmother had passed away during the ordeal. She had no way of knowing whether she suffocated from the scarf, suffered a heart attack or simply just gave up. Did my mother contribute to her death? It must have been a terrifying moment of discovery for my mother and sister. They left her body in the woodshed and moved back into the abandoned farmhouse to try and get warm. My mother could not get any help. The ground was frozen and she was not able to bury my grandmother. Her corpse laid in the woodshed while my mother tried to heat the little house by breaking up what little furniture she could find. Our provisions soon ran out and my mother was able to get some milk and potatoes from a nearby farm. Shortly afterwards, the Russians came back. This time there was no avoiding them. My mother suffered terribly at the hands of the Russians, but there were also some that took to her little baby boy (me) and brought some food and blankets. They went west with their company and more Russian troops were rumored to follow them.
With Grandmother and Sister during our evacuation
As soon as the ground thawed, we buried my grandmother with help from some of the locals. Since the area we lived in was once Polish territory, a lot of Polish people came back to this area and drove any remaining Germans out. Other German refugees were telling my mother that the Poles and Russians were killing all German males, so my mother put a dress on me and passed me off as a little girl. By this time the war had ended, Berlin was an occupied city and we made our way back to our home in Berlin. We didn’t know if we even still had a home standing, whether my father was still alive, what family we may find in Berlin, or how we were going to live.
Age 2 -Back in Berlin
I was nearly two years old when we came back to Berlin. We were fortunate because our apartment house escaped the bombs and we were able to move back into our apartment. Some of my mother’s family had also left the city, but others had returned and helped as much as they could. Nobody had much, but they shared what they had. There was no electricity or gas at first and when the winter came, people were burning up everything they could find just to keep from freezing. My mother would take an early train out of the city to work on a farm all day. She left me with my sister, now twelve, and came home late at night burdened down with potatoes and other vegetables that we would eat or trade on the black market for other goods.
Things slowly improved! We were fortunate to be living in the American occupied sector of the city. The Americans showed their kindness to the conquered Germans by providing them with food and other necessities. We also heard from my father. During the close of the war, he was sent to the Russian front where he was taken prisoner and interned in a camp near Kiev.
This homemade card is one my father sent from prison camp.
I received it for my 4th Birthday. Loosely translated it says:
You are already 4 years old and I have yet to see you. Perhaps
that hour will come soon. Best Wishes and Good Bye.
Your Vati (Daddy)
Most of what I have written so far is taken from things told to me by my mother and sister. My earliest recollection of my childhood is spending many hours alone or with my sister. She would even take me with her to school while my mother was away. I was not allowed to take any toys, and I was bored to tears sitting there in the back of that classroom. I remember playing in the rubble that used to be Berlin. There were bombed out buildings everywhere and sometimes you could see where walls of an apartment building had sheared away, revealing still furnished apartments. Berlin was a dangerous place to live in. Occasionally previously unexploded bombs would be set off by construction workers or by children playing. There were all kinds of abandoned weapons and uniforms to be found. I would drag home stuff like knives and officer’s swords, only to have my mother throw them out again.
I also remember the State run soup kitchens my mother would take me to. They would feed the kids a warm meal, but afterwards you had to swallow a large spoonful of cod liver oil. No matter how hard I tried to keep things down, the cod liver oil would always make me throw up. My mother pleaded with them not to make me take the oil, but they insisted. We stopped going to the soup kitchen. The state also sent me out to the country to stay with a farm family for 4 weeks, something that I enjoyed very much. I remember the setting, the barn, the animals, pasture and orchard like it was yesterday.
German tradition has it that you get a cone
full of goodies on your first day of school
At the age of 6, I started school. My father was still held in a Russian prison camp. He returned to us in the winter of 1950. I was already seven years old at the time. A neighbor, listening to the radio, heard them announce a list of returning prisoners and she heard my father’s name and notified my mother. I remember getting up very early in the morning and walking towards the distant train station. My father came walking towards us well before we reached the station. He was a dirty, skinny, skeleton of a man, and it took some coaxing on my mother’s part to get me to give him a hug. It took my Dad several years before he regained his health. At least we were a family again, but it wasn’t what I had imagined it would be like. I thought that a Dad would come out and play soccer with me, take me with him on walks, but it wasn’t anything like that. My Dad was sick and depressed and would spend many hours in his dark bedroom. It was my mother that held our family together even then, but eventually my Dad found work and we started to have some kind of life together again.
Age 13 - Just before we left Germany
We eventually moved from our basement apartment to a first floor apartment where we enjoyed having an indoor toilet. Before, we had to make the journey across the courtyard to a communal toilet at the back of the apartment complex. Yes indeed, things were looking up. My sister was already a young lady by then, and she met up with a young American soldier of Austrian descent that she liked very much. He went back to the USA and she soon followed and married him. They lived in Chicago, Illinois. My sister was homesick for her parents and she wrote to us asking my parents to come to the USA. They finally consented and after going through all the paperwork and formalities, they immigrated to America. I had to go too of course.
It all sounds pretty rough, but I must tell you that as a boy growing up in Berlin, I had a lot of fun. Since both my mother and sister were busy so much of the time, I was left to my own devices. I had lots of friends, and we had all kinds of incredible adventures together. From playing in the ruins, to playing soccer in empty lots, or making long bicycle trips through the city, to me it was all a game. Playing in the city, there were countless opportunities to get seriously hurt or even killed, but I must have the best Guardian Angel ever, because I remained intact. I had just turned 14 when we left Germany. I had to say good bye to all my friends, leave my precious collection of junk and face a whole new world. In February 1958, we boarded a plane that would take us to Chicago via Frankfurt, Glasgow and Toronto, and hopefully a better life.