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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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Everybody Has a Story: Life during, after wartime

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The first 10 years of my life were spent in war and postwar refugee camps in Germany. These years were filled with fear and trying to stay alive.

My parents were forced laborers on a German farm until the end of the war. My mother told me that, from this farm, she would look up at the sky and see smoke and ash falling. Hitler’s ovens.

Because many other families worked on these farms, they had a facility to care for the children. When I was about 4, I wandered off. I tripped and fell, right on a pile of cow manure. The staff set me aside and ignored me and did not clean me up. When my mother picked me up, I was covered in dry cow manure. It took many, many baths to get the smell off me. Poor mom, poor me.

My mother told the story that, when there was a supposed spy, German soldiers would round up everyone, pick a family and shoot them. By the grace of God, my family survived.

I remember looking up into the dark sky filled with paratroopers. When my little brother asked how he was born, my mother would tell him that the paratroopers dropped him into her arms.

In the postwar refugee camps, I had playmates. One girl named Mary used to play with me. But one day my parents told me that I was no longer to play with Mary. I didn’t understand why. I found out many years later that her father was a Nazi working for Hitler and my parents were afraid.

My playmates and I would play in the forest by the camps. We would find helmets, guns, bombs. We were told that we were never to go near the bombs. Some children did not listen, and the bombs exploded and killed them. We also played in the trenches where the soldiers used to take cover during the fighting.

We all knew that the forest held mass graves. It was said to be haunted and we all ran for the camps before dark. My grandmother told me there were many souls of those killed by the Germans wandering in the night.

As displaced refugees, we lived in barracks where soldiers were housed during the war. Sometimes we would have a room to ourselves and sometimes we had to share a room with other families. There was a wood stove for heating and cooking. Water was brought in with buckets, which was my job, from the bathrooms that were located at either end of a long hallway.

We lived on coupon rations that we got the first of each month. I remember going with my mother and waiting in line for food. When the food was low, we would pick whatever the farmers did not harvest in the fields. You can imagine how my family felt when we emigrated to the United States and entered a grocery store where you could buy anything. What a wonder that was!

My grandmother and I would take walks. We would pick cigarette butts off the street and bring them back to the camp. I would take the tobacco out and my father and grandfather would roll cigarettes. My grandmother and I would go through German garbage cans and pick out potatoes and anything else edible. I remember picking up apple cores and eating them. Fruit was not available. To this day, I will eat the whole apple and only leave the stem.

We all stood out in the street and watched tanks roll by. Soldiers would throw candy to the children as the tanks passed.

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Going to school was difficult and scary. I had to navigate around rubble everywhere. Many times I would be late for school and the punishment was a switch taken to my extended hand.

While waiting to emigrate to the U.S., we refugees were inoculated for diseases. Anyone severely ill was excluded. I bent over with my skirt up to get shots. There was no modesty.

I was almost 11 when we emigrated to Portland. Our sponsors found my parents a house and jobs. Having a house all to ourselves, with many rooms, was a dream.

My mother walked my brother and me to our first day of school in America. It was St. Patrick’s parochial school. I was taught in Germany that when you walked by a teacher you had to curtsey. I was introduced to Sister Angelina. I curtsied and shook her hand as I was taught to do. It took a long time before I found out why the other kids laughed at me. Manners were different here.

In Germany I was in sixth grade. The nuns put me in second grade because I didn’t speak English. I just sat in the back of the class (I was taller than the second-graders). Sister Angelina worked with us after school to learn English. English became my fourth language.

Making friends was hard, but I made a friend, Karen, whose friendship I cherish to this day.

It took a while to be Americanized. I wore different clothes and had long hair and braids. No one else had braids. We were poor and I was grateful for uniforms. I struggled through many embarrassing moments, and survived.

They say struggles make you stronger. I did become a strong, determined and industrious woman. I am blessed with a wonderful family and friends.


Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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