The Flight from Silesia
Father - so I believe - won a competition and the prize was promotion in the mining industry, but the family had to move to Silesia.
Our move to Chwallowitz, 4km south of Rybnik in Upper Silesia, was early in January 1941. Traudel was 11 weeks old (she had her operation in Rybnik Hospital, and spent her 1st birthday in hospital). Our train route to Silesia was via Berlin.
We were quite glad to be away from the air-raids, our Ruhr district was a frequent target area. The raids were then usually at night time. Our flat was on the second floor, Mother had her hands full with our new baby, and Oma came racing up the stairs to help get us children down to the shelter. Mining props were used to provide extra strength to hold up the cellar ceiling. In the summer of 1940 many of the schoolchildren were evacuated to Thuringia and Saxony, thought to be safer from air attack. Cousin Werner was sent to Naumburg, and my group first to Schraplau, and then nearer to Merseburg, to Blösien near Beuna, close to the Leuna Works.
Chwallowitz - our home for the next four years - was a small village with one coal mine, named or owned by Fürst Donnersmark. During our stay we had visitors from Herne, and Opa came by, on route to visit his home in Westpreussen.
As Father was a
mining supervisor, we were given a large flat with sizeable rooms, and to help
mother we had a Kindermädchen. We were not particularly nice to her, made
extra work for her by insisting on using the chamber pot, the flats had no WC.
The outside loo was a smelly affair built over a large cesspit. Apart from this,
our life was easy and comfortable. Hugo and I had our own bedroom, with a third
bed for Helmut, when he came home on leave from the Army. I got the blame for
nearly burning the house down, but it was Helmut who placed the electric fire
at the foot of his bed to warm the sheets during one cold winter.
The winters were very cold, and with lots of snow and ice. My journey to school in Rybnik was a bit of a problem, the mine had its own horse-drawn mail-coach service, for a limited number of passengers only. The rest had to catch the little train, a two coach mine special, via a branch line intended for coal trains, to the main line at Niedobschütz Junction, where we changed trains. We had our own buffer stop station with a waiting room shed.
If you missed a train, it was usually quicker to walk, rather than wait for the next train. In winter I found it quicker to use my ice-skates, even just as far as the station. Helmut had a far better pair of skates, which I was not supposed to use, but I tried to if nobody was looking. On one occasion I was spotted and the Kindermädchen came chasing after me. Another of big brothers tempting things was the .22 rifle standing, conveniently, in our bedroom wardrobe. I suppose my excuse was that I was only testing it, when I was shooting at sparrows in our garden. Our neighbour thought I was shooting at his cherry tree and told me off.
It must have been in 1942 that Father was called-up by the Army to manage a coal mine in the Ukraine. He certainly seemed to have picked the right place, had a great time and got on well with the local workers. The office staff helped him to pack food parcels for us; we even had fresh eggs by mail! It all came in small packages of about one or two pounds, due to Field Post Office letter size regulations, but we had quite a lot of mail. On several occasions we had to go to our Post Office and collect the packages with the help of our huge washing basket.
The was and the fighting was a long way from us until 1944, when we heard the sound and saw the vapour trails of heavy bombers in the sky above us. There was Partisan activity in the region, and people got killed in ambushes.
I remember seeing the newspaper on D-Day, headline 'Invasion', it was Fritz Nowottny who showed us the paper on our way to school.
It was late in 1944 when the war came nearer to us. Cousin Heinz, who was staying with us at the time, was asked by Tante Hulda to return home. Mother tried her best at the Post Office and the Railway Station to send his huge duvet back to Sodingen, but without success. Father and Helmut were away, and Mother had to do everything by herself.
It was early in January 1945, I was visiting Rybnik, and I saw thousands of POW's being moved through the town, en route to the west, away from the advancing Russian Army. Somebody from our village saw me, and told me to get a move on and to go home as a 'Transport' was being arranged to leave our village that evening. I rushed home; the place was busy with people, all getting ready to depart.
My school in Rybnik had closed down in the middle of December, but this may have been for the usual Christmas holiday. We had some early warning that we may have to temporarily leave home, just for a short time, until the Army pushed back the Russians. We had been suitably indoctrinated by the propaganda machine, what to expect from the bloodthirsty Bolsheviks and Cossacks. What we didn't know that by 11 Jan 45 the Russian Frontline was near Tarnow (200km east), and after a big push the Russians reached Krakow (125 km east) by 17 Jan, and passed through our area at the end of January, we only just got out in time.
I suppose Mother made some early preparations for our departure. When the time came we had two huge homemade rucksacks to carry a few of our belongings. We had been encouraged not to take too many things, as we were only going to be away for a short while. We may have been allowed one toy to take along, and I seem to have a vague memory of sitting in front of our large wardrobe, deciding what to take from a large selection. Anything of value, that we could not carry, we tried to hide in our cellar under a stack of firewood, all done in a great hurry. (Two days after our sudden departure, Father came home on leave and found that the flat and cellar had already been searched).
Our transport was made up of a number of horse drawn, open farm wagons layered with straw. The distance to be covered was about 30km, and it seemed to take all night. I am not sure why we had to travel at night, there could have been some danger of air attack, but it was more likely that we had to hurry to catch the last evacuation train. We had armed guards with us, to protect us from the partisans. It was a cold night, and the fields were covered with snow. We were well wrapped up, in our winter gear, gloves and earmuffs. Mother had us put on two layers of clothing. It was a very uncomfortable, slow and rough ride; occasionally I got off the cart and walked alongside.
In Ratibor our
group joined a crowded train, heading westwards. It was a proper Passenger train,
the cattle wagons came later. I was able to look out of the window, but did not
take much note of the fine scenery of the wooded foothills of the mountains. Passing
through the area where I had my skiing trip in the Adlergebirge. I can't remember
much about our food supplies, except seeing Red-Cross people at stations handing
out bread and soup. I assume someone knew about our progress, and arranged some
supplies. It was a slow and lengthy steam-train ride. We made many stops, and
we had to give way to other rail traffic, and occasionally stopped to cut down
a tree or two for extra fuel for the boiler.
We kept moving towards the western side of Czechoslovakia, we had passed through Eger (now Cheb) in the Sudetenland, and then arrived at our destination, the village of Fleissen, in the Elstergebirge (about 20 km north of Cheb on the border with Germany). 30km further north lies Oelsnitz where Father was in hospital, after being wounded by mortar fire. We were now in a larger group of a few hundred people, mainly women and children, and we were put up in a large and solidly built school. The classrooms had been converted into dormitories with bunk beds some with blanket curtains, and straw mattresses on wooden slats. Hugo and I were on the top bunk, and Mother with Traudel below us. Electricity, water and toilets were all in working order, and I believe we had kitchen facilities.
For a while everything seemed to run smoothly, except for the shortage of food and the lack of information. We made contact with local people; I believe we became friendly with a woman teacher form the school. We even contemplated moving out of the school and into private lodgings, to await rescue by Father. Spring came, and with the change to warmer weather Mother kept a close watches on us, it was difficult to keep the bugs at bay. It must have been pretty rough on the grown-ups, particularly the ones in charge of the group; they got most of the blame for our situation. The crowded conditions, lack of food and hygiene, the danger and the uncertainty of our immediate future. Food shortage got worse, rations being cut to a chunk of bread.
Airplane activity increased, with enemy fighter airplanes appearing suddenly and shooting at anything that moved. And that included the four of us, or so it seemed at the time. We had been to the village centre, for what I don't recall, mother was in her best outfit with hat, so it had to be some official visit, to the bank or town hall to get help for a mother with three youngsters. An air raid was in progress and we sheltered in a shop doorway, the sound of the bullets was close by, the plane may have been aiming at the nearby railway station, but a shower of bullets landed in the village centre. During a lull in the shooting we quickly removed ourselves from the scene, headed for the safety of the school's cellar. We had nearly reached the end of the lane leading to the school, when another plane appeared, shooting as it went, seemingly straight up our lane towards us. A drainage ditch with grass covered sides was on our left and we dropped into it. Apart from being very frightened and shaken by this personal attack, Mother also ruined her shoes.
Early in May the US Army advanced from the west and the school became part of the Frontline. A small group of German soldiers were digging foxholes at the edge of the village and came to the school to look for maps. We were all in the cellars when the shooting started. We were very quiet and frightened by the new noises from outside. The soft thuds when shells landed in the grass and the terrific crashes when the school was hit. The school was marked with a large red cross as a 'hospital', but was hit by several shells before the German troops decided to regroup at the other end of the village, in the woods behind the railway station.
The fighting in the rest of Czechoslovakia continued after the 4th May formal German surrender, up to the 11 May 1945. We stayed in the cellars until the American forces came to occupy our area. An American Officer took charge of us in the school, and arranged our food supplies. I was in a small party of boys that was detailed to take a large handcart to the village bakery to collect our fresh supply of white bread rolls. I suppose we were just too many to ignore, and we even had a few American soldiers in the school to protect us. The local Czech patriots came out of hiding, showed their Tricolour flag and started to take revenge for the years of occupation.
The few older boys began to explore the countryside in search of food and other goodies that are left behind by the armed forces; we came across a looted train, but found nothing useful for us. We were looking for things to trade with the soldiers, who wanted medals and daggers as souvenirs. We got as far as Asch, 12 km to the west.
On one or two occasions we nearly had problems with shopkeepers, we had been too used to raising our arms and saying 'Heil', that we now found it difficult to stop this habit. For a while we were lost in what to say, we didn't remember 'Good Day', but we soon copied the locals and said 'Grüss Gott', when we entered a shop.
Mother traded Father's Leica camera for 200 cigarettes from the resident American Officer. He had a good bargain, and for us cigarettes were better than currency, and these were then used for extra food rations, and anything else that was needed.
We, the refugees, then became a nuisance to the new local administration, and were moved on, thrown out of the country.
This next stage of the journey is somewhat hazy in my memory, probably well hidden; we were frightened from start to finish. We could have had it easy and just walked the two kilometres to Bad Brambach and we would have been in Germany, had we realised the situation about the new borders. A few individuals did actually walk away westwards into the area that became the American Zone. We just happened to be on the wrong side of the border, and we were transported back towards the centre of Czechoslovakia. Looking back, it was most likely due to the political situation in the divided Germany; anybody captured in the eastern area had to be processed by that administration.
By army trucks, back to Eger into a larger school for a short stay, waiting for transport to take us to Germany. The place was very crowded, and was near a prison, we could hear the screams of the inmates, particularly at night. The way back into Germany was done in stages; one lot of army trucks took us to the edge of their area and dumped us. We then had to wait for transport for the next stage. I believe it was the first night that we were just dumped in a large open field, without any facilities. The Czech militia was in charge during theses stopovers. We were guarded like prisoners, we felt like prisoners, our belongings were searched and we were robbed of anything of value. Worse was to follow when men and big lads were selected and taken away for working parties. Mother hissed at me, 'You are 14, crouch down and make yourself small'. We learned later that my 15 year old school friend was in the group that was taken away.
After more stopovers in abandoned camps, we reached Saxony.
Then followed another lengthy and difficult railway journey, in open goods wagons. We passed through the outskirts of bombed out Dresden and got to the end of the line at a destroyed bridge over the River Elbe, outside Torgau. As we disembarked, there appeared low flying fighters, most likely on routine patrol, we reacted quickly and scrambled down the embankment in search of cover. No cover in sight, panic, but it was only a moment of panic, as the planes had disappeared as quickly as they came.
We eventually arrived in Querfurt, just to the west of Merseburg in the area where I spent some time as an evacuee in the summer of 1940. The group was split up and distributed over the whole district; we went by cart to Nebra, in the valley of the River Unstrut. We were given a room on a farm in the village of Grosswangen.
Mother helped on the farm, and she managed to get me a job in the Vitzenburg sugar factory. I started work as a very junior assistant in the sugar laboratory. At regular intervals I had to walk around the factory and collect samples from a number of test stations. The samples were then checked to make sure that the sugar manufacturing process was running correctly. It was easy and interesting work, and by walking all over the factory I was learning the whole sugar making process. This must have been towards the end of the summer, I remember seeing wagon loads of sugar beet being delivered, washed and cleaned in the yard. My working days were very long; I had to walk 3km to Nebra, cross the river, and then another 2km to the factory. Occasionally I was lucky to hitch a lift on a farm cart. It was shift work, and at some shift changes it was not worthwhile going back to the farm, so I tried to get some rest in a warm store room, sleeping on a stack of sacks. I noticed workers coming in, and filling little bags with sugar and hiding them inside jackets and trouser legs, that's how I learned about the extra benefit of working in a sugar factory.
Mother wrote a letter to Herne, hoping it would find Father, and to let him know where to find us. The Post did deliver the letter. Father did manage to get back to Herne after his stay in Oelsnitz hospital and came to fetch us home. By that time, the iron curtain had started to come down, trains stopped short of the new border between the Soviet and British Zones. We had a long walk with lots of other folk to cross the frontier, and to reach the railhead at Friedland, neat Göttingen.
When we returned to Herne I had to walk home from the railway station, the others went by tram. It was an accident that I was left behind. We were loading our belongings into the luggage compartment of the tram, when Father remembered he left his walking stick in the station hall. I was sent to fetch it, and when I returned the tram had departed. It wasn't a great problem, just a long walk. I was dressed in rags, and felt somewhat out of place, walking in my tramp outfit along our fine shopping street. I knew I had to make my way to the other end of Station Road, then a right turn in to Shamrock Road. I even took a short cut across the allotments. As I got nearer I saw the damage done by the bombings, and a few people hard at work clearing rubble.
To me it looked like a working party with guards, I stopped and ducked and quickly moved away. I had this feeling that I was about to be grabbed as part of the group of workers, the memory of my school friend being led away in Czechoslovakia was still very fresh in my mind. As I had no wish to get invited, I made a large detour and approached the house from the rear garden. All was well, and as I was close behind the tram party, nobody really noticed that I was missing. Later on I also got involved in the clearing up, and hard work of brick cleaning in readiness for the rebuilding of Number 45, Hibernia Street.
Gerhard Ostkamp, Autumn 1994