I interviewed my grandmother on October 4, 2020. She was born in 1936 in Grünberg (Zielona Góra), close to Lodz (Poland). Lodz was named “Litzmannstadt” during the German occupation from 1940 to 1945. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and six siblings fled from the Red Army in 1945. Since the army caught up with them a few months later, they were drawn back to their home. The living conditions were very bad, so they fled again in 1946. They settled in Lütgenrode, Lower Saxony. A few years later, they moved to Essen in the Ruhr region. My grandmother got married. She has five children and eight grandchildren. She is now 84 years old. My grandmother and I talk about her flight, the trauma, the time after the war, and the question of how her family spoke about the war after 1945.
Yes, my name is Elli Treptow, née Kirsch. I was born on March 6, 1936, in Grünberg, near Lodz. We lived in a small village and we were eight brothers and sisters.
And when the war broke out, you were only three years old, so you probably don’t remember it, but…
No, I can’t remember that.
But can you remember the wartime?
I can’t remember the wartime, because I was little. And we lived in a very small village and we didn’t really know much except that we lived our lives. We went to school and were always outside and mostly together with my mother. And we didn’t notice anything else, because we didn’t even have a radio or something. That’s why I know indeed nothing about the war when it was happening. But rather about a later time, after the war. When it came to an end.
How far away was Lodz?
12-13 kilometres, not that far. But we’ve never got there. The only time I was there was when Hitler was already there. I was there once, we had to go there with the school class because Hitler came. I was allowed to give Hitler a bouquet of flowers.
I was allowed to, yes.
How was that for you? Did you know exactly who he is or did you have any associations with him?
No, not at all. My parents didn’t talk about it at all. My father was also called out for service, although he had many children. He was also called out for service. He never talked about it, he had no particular function. I can’t tell you that. He was just a soldier, he always said.
But he wasn’t active in combat in any way?
Well, he didn’t shoot anybody or something. He did not. But my father was in the party even then. He wasn’t a Nazi, but he was in the party, he was. But he never shot anyone. He told us that over and over again. We often asked him about it. And Willi, my brother, our brother Willi, he was with the Pimpfe, that’s how they were called at that time, he was there too. Of course, that was nice, it was like the boy scouts, they were always on the road.
That’s one level below Hitlerjugend, right?
Exactly, exactly. That’s where he was. And my oldest sister was in the BDM [Nazi youth organisation for girls]. Those were the girls, the older girls. And yes, he [Willi] liked that. That was just the way it was back then, you didn’t know much of it. You didn’t know much.
When did the war become present for you too?
Not until 1945, it actually started when the war already came to an end. And then we had to get out. There was a very, very bad bomb alarm everywhere. Unfortunately. You could hear it everywhere. And then we were told to leave. We had to grab our clothes, the most necessary things in a very short time. But not too much. We weren’t allowed to take too much with us, because we fled in a column so that we didn’t have much luggage on the carriage because many families had to come with us. The column was very, very long. Yes, and then we got into the carriages and the column set off, into the unknown. Nobody knew what was there ahead. Even if you didn’t want to go, you had no other choice. They simply told us we had to get out and we got out. And then they told us, “Now we’re going to the west.” We’ll see what comes. Nobody knew what was coming. They just told us, “The Russians are coming, we have to leave. They are not far away.” And then we had to go.
So you were nine years old back then?
I was nine. I was nine in March and in January the column set off. And my father, he actually wanted to flee with us. He always told us that… He already told us a little bit before… He didn’t tell us much, but the last time he was on vacation with us (he always came for two or three days) he said, “If there should be a war, you have to wait for me. I’ll pick you up.” And we couldn’t wait for him anymore because we weren’t allowed to. And then he came looking for us. Everywhere, for hours, and he didn’t find us. Yes, we left without our father. And then my mother with seven children, we all got into the carriage with other families and set off. We used to move not along country roads, but along main roads instead. And when it all started with bomb alarms and all that stuff… It was very, very bad. There were bombs falling down, and planes flying low, and everything. And we had to move so far forth as we could. And we often had to… if some people had taken too much stuff with them, they had to throw it all away, just throw it out on the way, because the carriages… in the meantime, one of the carriages broke down and then we had to stop and needed to find a shelter for the night. Some houses were… the houses were partly empty because the people were gone. In the evenings, we always went into empty houses, most of the windows were already broken and it was cold inside. There was nothing left there. Sometimes there was still some furniture in there, but it was very cold. If we were lucky, we found an old mattress or some straw, and then we were hungry again in the morning… and we were always hungry. And cold… it was cold, and yes, starvation and frost, but we kept on walking as we were.
Oh, yes, there’s something I haven’t told you before, when we were fleeing, in this camp, the Russians would come and get the girls out, always around noon, and we didn’t know what for. But the girls had to… the girls had to go with the Russians. And our Hedi [her oldest sister] was the same age. And we always knew when they were coming. And then my mother said, “We will put Hedi against the wall. And then we had an old torn nightgown which Mum used to bandage the soldiers up with. My mother once bandaged the wounded soldiers up with an old nightgown. We put it on Hedi and we all sat on her until they were gone. That spared our Hedi, because they always raised their finger saying, “Come with me”. Then the girls had to come along. But at that time I still didn’t know, I didn’t know why she had to come. We were not as sexually educated as today.
Soon after, the flight to the west temporarily ended. The Russian army caught up with them and the family was driven back eastwards. Back in the village, their old house was newly occupied. The father was a prisoner of war and the family lived in bad conditions.
Well, and then after about half a year, it was not quite half a year, we suddenly got a letter. My mother was working in the forest with the lumberjacks and I received the letter and saw that it was from our father, from captivity, from the war. And of course, I was very happy, so I took the letter and ran into the forest like crazy looking for my mother. That wasn’t so difficult, although we had large, deep forests, as I said, but you could hear the lumberjacks, of course. And then I said, “I have a letter from Dad.” And my mother, she started to cry and so on. And then we knew that Dad was alive.
My great-grandfather was alive but hadn’t returned from captivity yet. Nevertheless, the family decided to flee again, for the second time.
We didn’t want to stay there, because we lived in such bad conditions. We wanted to be among German people. And then my mother said, “We are going to flee again now.” And then we…
But that was still ’45 or already ’46?
No, that was ’46 then. One year later, in ’46. It was in autumn.
At first, they took a train to Breslau.
Well, she [her mother] always said, she said it so often, that it was drilled into our mind… We have to go to Breslau by train and no Germans are allowed on the train, only Poles. And then she said that we couldn’t talk until we were there. Because if they realize that we are German, we won’t get on the train. The trains were always crowded at that time. They were such old passenger trains, of course, and the people often stood on the running boards outside. It was always crowded. And we weren’t even allowed to say “Mama”. And even though we were still quite little, we kept to it, we didn’t speak. And there were many refugee camps in Breslau. There were, I don’t know, hundreds if not thousands of refugees who were accommodated everywhere in the refugee camps. Yes, then we were back in the camp and didn’t know when our transport would leave towards the west. From Breslau, the refugees set off to the west. They were distributed to the west. And then sometimes they said, ah, sometimes it took 14 days, sometimes three weeks, sometimes four weeks, it was very different. Yes, and my mum, she went very often and said they should finally let us go out and so on. She was always begging us to get away soon because we didn’t have anything to eat, there was nothing to eat, we only received a little bit of food once a day. And there we were always walking around in the ruins, everything was broken, everything was bombed, you know. And then we were always running around in the ruins looking for food. We even looked into the dustbins, ah, dustbins – this is very revealing. When there was something lying around somewhere – even if it was dirty – we ate it. And then it took about four weeks before we were allowed to leave Breslau. And then we got into one of those cattle transports. It was full of refugees again. And of course, the ride took a very long time. I think we drove for two days. And then we landed in Lower Saxony. Then we were taken to a small village, Lütgenrode, near Nörten-Hardenberg. There were only about 100 inhabitants, it was a very small village. Yes, that was now, that was to become our second home.
Did your father ever talk about Russian captivity?
No, nothing, he didn’t tell me anything. He only said once that he had the gun on his forehead, but that we would have experienced much more than he had. He didn’t have it so bad, because my father spoke Russian. And yes, my father was a little bit communistic as well, you know. And he spoke Russian and he worked for a while as an interpreter for Russians and they weren’t so bad to him. But still, he never shot anyone. He didn’t do any of that. Anyway, because he had worked for the Russians, he was able to… But he was very emaciated, he looked terrible, he was starving and everything.
Did you talk about the war and the Holocaust after ’45?
My parents didn’t talk about the war, nothing at all, almost nothing. We had to ask my mother, and when I was 13 years old I wrote a report on our flight – what I still knew, and in my own words, as one would have done back then. We didn’t have two years of school and all, so I wrote a report on the flight in my own words. We only knew what we had been through and about the people. But we didn’t know anything about the Holocaust, about the Jews, we children didn’t know anything at all, because we lived in such a small village. As I said, we never left our village before.
Didn’t you hear anything about it while you were fleeing?
No, nobody heard anything during our flight… you didn’t hear anything at all. So for us, it was really unfamiliar territory. Until we first settled down here and then via television and media, radio, and also from people we slowly got it, we slowly understood. And we never talked about it in our family. Even my father, he didn’t say anything, nothing at all. And all that, that was with the Jews, we didn’t know that. Although there was a ghetto in our town [Lodz], which was not far away, we didn’t know anything about it either, although we lived not far away.
How do you cope with the trauma that you suffered during your flight?
I am always, yes, I have, so I can handle it well, because I always say: “Dear God gave me strong nerves”. I really have got very strong nerves. Yes, my faith has a lot to do with that too. I am a religious person and that is also important for me. My nerves are good, everything else is not so good, but the nerves are strong. But I think life is what has shaped me, right?
The interviews are given in the original language or a transliteration of it with preservation of national, regional and individual speech peculiarities.