My grandfather was born in 1939 in Delmenhorst. Two years later, his father, a public servant, was transferred to Orlová (in those days: Orlau), the very west of today’s Czech Republic. In 1945 the family had to flee in the direction of Germany. In the following interview, my grandfather tells about his childhood in Orlová and about his memories concerning the family’s escape back to Delmenhorst.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Can you tell me about your first years of life?
I was born as the first of two twins on January 4th in 1939, in Delmenhorst, Germany. A rare occasion nowadays, I was born at home, there were a midwife and a birth assistant there. Everything went well, and we were two proper baby boys. [chuckles] My father was a civil servant; my mother was a domestic worker at the mayor’s house in a village near Bremen. My father arrived at Delmenhorst at the age of 15 from Silesia. First, he worked in the wool industry, and afterward, he was an employee at the post office. They got married in 1929, in the same year my sister was born. So, she is nine years older than my brother and me. In 1941 my father was transferred by the post office in Orlau, Silesia.
It was in the district Mährisch-Ostrau. There he was working at the post’s indoor service until he was drafted into the German Wehrmacht in 1943. I spent most of my childhood in Orlau. It was near the Erzgebirge, and it was a bit hilly and mountainous, a beautiful landscape. My sister was going to school in Orlau because she was nine years older than us two. There she met a Czech girl and became friends with her. The two have visited each other afterward – in this century, I mean. In 1945 we had to leave Orlau. We had to pass the Erzgebirge to get to Germany. At first, we drove by train – I can’t remember how long the journey lasted. Afterward, we continued on foot, met some soldiers who allegedly had deserted from the army, and slept in the forest for three nights.
Why did we have to leave in such a hurry? The father of my sister’s friend said: “You have to leave quickly, the Russians are coming, and the Czechs have already selected the trees on which they are going to hang you!” We wanted to reach Germany; all in all, we traveled for four weeks, mostly on foot. We didn’t have much stuff… At this point, I was six years old. Of course, I didn’t realize the significance of the matter. Probably it was for the best. After about fourteen days, we found shelter at a market garden, where we stayed for a few days, but after that, we had to leave this place as well. During his time in the army, the gardener had been an ambulance man – he and his family took good care of us, really. When my brother fell ill there, the gardener nursed him back to health. We feared for our sister more – because the Russians did not show much courtesy when it came to women. We locked her up in the attic and put furniture in front of the door so she would not be found. But on the gardener’s advice, we left this place as well.
We went on foot, sometimes also by car, via Chemnitz, Halle, Wernigerode, and Bremen to Delmenhorst. I can’t tell much about this journey because my brother and I were only six years old then, so we often thought about it as a game. We used to play with old military vehicles or damaged cars when we saw some. It was a good thing we were able to pass some time like this. When we arrived in Bremen, we saw that the bombs had destroyed everything. The allies had bombed Bremen so heavily because it was an industrial city with developed arms industry and ports. So, my mother got desperate because she thought that there wouldn’t be much left of Delmenhorst as well. Then we drove from Bremen to Delmenhorst by a cabbage wagon driven by a man from Delmenhorst who took us with him. Then we went on foot, about 15 minutes I guess, until we arrived where we had lived before: my aunt’s and uncle’s house.
At first, they didn’t recognize us! Then my sister ran to my aunt and said something, and then they realized it was us. The first thing we said: “We want some pudding!” But first, we had to take a proper bath because we had gotten quite dusty and dirty on the roads. Afterward, we got our pudding and found shelter there. My father was not in Delmenhorst. We didn’t know where he was then yet.
Later he told us that he had been a prisoner of war of the US army in Bavaria. We arrived in Delmenhorst in May 1945, and in August of the same year, my father was released from the Camp. He didn’t go straight to our house but to some neighbors to ask them if we were in Delmenhorst. They said: “Yes, the whole family is here.” And then he walked into our house… You cannot imagine the joy! It’s hard for me to talk about it…
Thank you for telling me your memories! But let’s get back to your time in Orlau: How did you live there? Did you and your brother share a room…?
We did share a room, my brother and me. My sister had a chamber for herself, and my parents had a huge bedroom. So, we had: a huge eat-in kitchen, a huge hall, a ceiling height of 3,50m. So, it really was a big flat. Orlau was a mining area; there were a lot of coal mines. We lived in the post office there, and some of the mines were underneath our house as well. So, in the night, you could sometimes hear the coal miners drill. And the landscape was magnificent. My brother and me, we had a huge playing box. It was like a big potato box; we often crawled into it and chose a toy. We also had wooden wheelbarrows, which we, of course, took apart – we made guns out of the grips. We knew them because of the war. When we went to the cinema, there was always the “Wochenschau “[Nazi Germany’s news, author’s note] where they told about the war. As kids, we were excited about it. So, we broke the wheelbarrows, and then we had guns. [chuckles] Yes, we had a lot of toys.
And who were the children you played with?
These kids we played with were German kids. So, we didn’t go to kindergarten. Sometimes we went to other children, sometimes they came to our house, so it wasn’t a big playing group. Just a few German families where the parents were also somewhere busy. And there was an orphanage. Sometimes we visited it when they celebrated Christmas; we always were invited. So, we joined singing Christmas songs and such things.
At this orphanage, were there Czech kids or German kids or…?
No, just German kids. That house was a German one. This was actually a bad thing! The Germans occupied everything there, Sudetenland, Bohemia, Moravia. Protectorate of Hitler etc. They just took it and said it was a German area. And the people there were quite nice to us because they were afraid they would get deported if they did otherwise. So, they were nice. The Germans left a lot of money there too. But it did come in the last weeks before the end of the war! So that was quite bad. As I have said, my sister’s friend’s father told us: “Leave! They have already selected the trees to hang all the Germans.” That was quite bad.
Do you remember what it felt like when your father was drafted in 1943? And where did he have to go, has he ever told you about it?
No, I don’t know this. I just remember that he wasn’t a civil servant when he was transferred from Delmenhorst to Orlau; he was just an employee at that time. And when he was drafted, the head of the post office told him: “You have to take care of your family, and if you want to take care of your family, you have to become a civil servant. And if you want to become a public servant, you have to join the party!” [the NSDAP, author’s note] So my father did that; he joined the party to take care of the family. He got a party badge; we got a picture of Hitler to hang in the living room. When we had to flee, my mother took a fire hook and hit the picture. My sister said: “Stop it, stop it, if the Gestapo [the Nazi’s secret police, author’s note] notices this, they will lock us up!” And then she hid the torn picture behind the living room closet. I remember that. I still see my mother standing there with this fire hook… Then she picked up the photo and said: “Du verfluchter Hund! “[“You bloody bastard! “, author’s note] to Hitler.
And in 1945, do you remember when your family received the message that you must flee? What happened in the next few hours?
I only remember my mother saying: “Get dressed!” Everybody got a backpack to pack our shoes and some essentials – we couldn’t take much with us. So, we arrived at Orlau train station, which was crowded, it was packed with people… So, we got on the train, which was packed with people as well, you could stand in the seats, nobody cared at all. We had been driving for about two or three hours; then they screamed: “Get off the train, everybody! It’s a bombing raid! “My father heard about this and said that his family had been on that train, so he thought we were dead.
So, he thought you had been killed during the bombing raid for the whole time?
Yes. Then he went to our flat and took the wedding picture with him, which he kept during his whole time as a prisoner of war. That’s why he didn’t go straight to my aunt and uncle but to our neighbors first, just a little way down the street from our flat. He didn’t want to be there if we were not there. But at least we all arrived safely.
So how did you manage during the four weeks of your escape? Where did you sleep?
Mostly in gyms etc., there were camps in there where the refugees could find shelter. There was such a thing in every town. There were hundreds of people in these gyms. And then there was also food. Milk soup, etc. You had to consider yourself lucky if you got anything. Later at the market garden, we were taken care of very well. During the war, there were many dangers, bombing raids, they dropped bombs, so I had to sit in air-raid shelters. And we got rubber gas masks. So now, when people are complaining about these tiny little masks, I just don’t get it! We had gas masks! They covered your whole face, your entire head, and there was a filter on the front side, like this [shows the outlines] that wasn’t nice.
You were talking about the different occupation zones – has that been a problem? Has it been difficult to cross the borders?
First, we had been in the Russian area. And then we heard other voices, which belonged to the Americans. We were glad about it. We all feared the Russians. They were uncompromising and ruthless.
Do you remember Russian and American soldiers?
Yes, sometimes we crossed areas where the Russians resided with their vehicles. Then my sister was disguised with shawls and blankets, so she looked like an old woman. My mother did the same thing, and besides, they were accompanied by us little kids, so the Russians let us go.
The interviews are given in the original language or a transliteration of it with preservation of national, regional and individual speech peculiarities.