Karl and Käte Gutzmann née Labuhn (born 1923/1924) Kelbshof 23 D-30539 Hannover
Hannover, the 28th of February, 1995.
Account of flight, expulsion and a new beginning. - Translated by Leslie Riggle, Wichita / Kansas -
Until the very end we had hoped that we would not have to flee. We simply could not believe that the front could ever come so near.
But on the 2nd of March 1945 it came to that. It was already evening when Dora, the Ukrainian girl employed by my parents-in-law, G. Gutzmann, came and told us that we should get ready. Most of our things had already been packed for some time. It was hard to say what to pack and what not to pack. The farm wagon would be loaded with essential things. We were all nervous. Everything else was left behind and we departed into the night. There was not a really organized caravan. It was always hard to find a place to spend the night. There were so many people on the roads and nobody knew exactly where they should go.
We had been on the way for a few days. Already we could hear the noise from the ever closer front. On the last day before the Russians caught up with us, there was a terrible confusion on the roads: German soldiers, Russian prisoners and many refugees. We, as the last, had always to make way for the others. On the 8th of March everything suddenly became quiet on the road. We had reached a forest, when we could hear the noise of approaching tanks. It did not take long before they were upon us. It was eerie and we were in a panic. This moment, when we met the first Russians, is beyond description. We were certainly all afraid. But still nothing very bad happened to us. Only watches and rings were taken. Then we were made to understand that we should return home. The tank column continued and we turned around as soon as the way was clear.
But it was a long way to Groß Tuchen and there would be many obstacles before we finally arrived at home. Next we went to the estate village of Ganske. Here we remained for awhile. There were many refugees, all in very little space. But we had less fear when there were so many others in the same situation. And here we had our first bad experience with the Russians. After a few days the first refugees began to leave for home, among them the Kroggel family from Groß Tuchen. We also, my parents and siblings, started for home. But we did not get far. Drunken Russians attacked us. They drove us past an empty house in the farmyard and there we had to remain. Here we lived through a night of terror, about which I do not wish to speak. The next day we got up enough courage to start again. So we returned to Ganske village. We still had our horse and wagon, but had already been robbed.
We remained there until the beginning of April. Then all the refugees and the residents were driven out onto the street. Now something terrible happened to us. The Russians took the people who were to be transported away, among them my brother Siegfried and me. It was terrible. Now we were separated from our family, something that was tragic for them. At first we two remained together for one day. The next day there were interrogations and inspections of our possessions.
Always more people were brought in. In the following days we were taken to Lauenburg, still imprisoned. Everything here was full. I, along with other women, was quartered on the upper floor, directly under the roof. It was very cramped and even we had relieve ourselves in a corner. One time I saw Siegfried when we were allowed to go downstairs. He was kept in an overcrowded cell.
After a few days we had to leave. They drove us in endless caravans in a two-day march to Stolp, naturally under careful watch, and we were counted often. In Stolp we were put into large empty store rooms. By this time it was understandable that here, too, we would sleep on a bare floor. Here there were several levels. In the level over us there were men; also my brother Siegfried was there. Once a day we were let out. When the men from our level passed by, many of us would stand at the exit to the stairs to see those whom they knew. In this way I was able, to my great joy, to see my brother. One time I also saw Otto Klohn from Groß Tuchen and could briefly speak to him in passing. He did not come home, and we never heard from him again, simply disappeared like so many at that time. We kept up a glimmering of hope at this time in the camp. But we did not really have much hope that we would ever go home. The transports to Russia departed regularly.
And then suddenly one day at the end of April we had to go downstairs. We were called out by name and were told: "You can go home." We could hardly believe it. I immediately asked: "And my brother, is he going to be released, too?" "Yes", was the answer, "he comes, too." "But when?" I asked myself. I joined with other women and girls, several were from Ganske. I thought I would start out with them. Naturally, we walked as rapidly as possible. During a brief pause on the way some Russians suddenly stopped and approached us with obvious intentions. All who were able ran away, but I could not because I was so sick and weak. So I sat there in great fear at the roadside ditch. But because the Russians were afraid of catching some sickness, they scolded but left me alone.
Now I was all alone and I went slowly toward the next village. Here I again met women who had been released. We spent the night somewhere in that place. On the next day we went on. But I could not keep up with the others and remained behind with another woman. We had to rest often. Then we saw three men coming in the distance. I said to my companion: "My brother must be with them!" And he was! That to me is still a miracle and a sign of God's leading. Never will I forget the moment we met. Now I was not alone anymore. And now we began to search for our parents. I have to say that I could never have survived alone because I was very sick. My brother remained loyally by my side and helped me in any way he could. Only with a few detours, we found our parents.
We were held up again for several days at a large estate, manned by Russians and Poles, because we had no release papers. But they let us go again. We now went back to Ganske to see what we could learn about our parents and sisters. We learned that they were in Zezenow. On the 12th of May, it was exactly the birthday of my mother, we arrived there. It was a joy for us all to be together. We wanted to go together to our home in Groß Tuchen. But it did not happen that way because I was still feeling very badly. After about two weeks we started again. We were underway about five days. Whenever possible we avoided the main roads. On the last day we hiked at least 30 kilometers. At first we stayed with my parents-in-law, G. Gutzmann, who had already returned some time earlier. Most of the refugees who did not escape by sea were already back. On the next day my parents and we children went to our house to clean up and to make it livable. Of our own furniture and other things we had left behind almost nothing remained. But at least we were in our own house. I returned a few days later because I had to rest up at the home of my parents-in-law. There was much to do. The potato cache was opened and a crop of potatoes was planted by spade. And there were still sugar beets. Our father had already cooked some early in the morning in a metal pot. An attempt was made to press out enough liquid to make syrup, but the results were skimpy. And the imitation syrup did not taste good. A little rye was still unthreshed in the barn. Our parents used a flail to thresh out what they could of what the mice had left. At least we now had a little flour. But we had no salt. But we persevered. Necessity is the mother of invention and we helped each other.
But soon, I think at the end of August 1945, a Pole came to us and took possession of house and land. We had to live in the two small upstairs rooms and he lived downstairs. We lived together that way until summer 1946. Already by fall 1945 most of the houses and farmsteads were occupied by Poles. For that reason most of the Germans had moved to beyond the Oder River, my parents-in-law among them. One had to have permission from the Poles, who were then in charge. Our father did not want to leave. He said: "At least here we get enough to eat." But always more Germans were leaving. We children wanted to leave, too, and we finally convinced our father. My sister Ruth and I went to Bütow to get the necessary documents. But it was too late and we did not get them. They laughed at us and said: "You have to work here."
And so it was. We all worked for the Poles, my sister for a farmer and I at road repair. Later I even earned a little money, but only half as much as the Poles. And the money had to be gotten from Bütow, also from Poles. We sometimes made the way for nothing, because there was no money left.
In 1946 our Pole drove us entirely out of the house. But there were other Poles and these took us in. We moved into the house of Willi Meier, below on the left side. Later Ukrainians, who were driven out by the Russians, came, too. Then we had to give up our place and move upstairs. And there we stayed until we had permission to leave in September 1947. But before that something happened that was important to me.
I learned that Klemens Dombrowski, of Klein Tuchen, was released from Russian captivity at the end of July. What was important to me was that until his release he was together with my husband, Karl. So he could give me news first hand. The first news that I had received concerning my husband had come by way of my parents-in-law in 1946.
And September 16th, 1947 was the much anticipated day for us. By that time there were very few Germans left in Groß Tuchen; under the Poles we felt like strangers in our own homeland. We and our few belongings were brought by horse and wagon to Bütow. From there we were transported by boxcar to Stettin-Scheune to a temporary shelter. Here we remained for about a week. And then we continued, still by boxcar. We came by way of detours to Forst and over the new border crossing to Germany. We arrived in a refugee camp in Saalow, Kreis Teltow. After examinations, vaccinations and issue of our refugee passes we were finally brought to Ludwigsfelde near Berlin. Here our first quarters were assigned. We received a partly damp cellar apartment and even that was not easy because our landlord accepted us only under protest.
My brother Siegfried and I cleaned bricks at the ruined Daimler factory just like all other refugees who had come with us. All we had to eat was the little afforded us by our ration cards. Later we started a small garden on what had been camp grounds. Our father also wove baskets and my brothers learned how to make them and they helped, too. Father made wooden shoes as well. He made a work bench for them. Mother and father went to the countryside to trade these with the farmers for something to eat. When they did get something it was usually carrots or potatoes. Our dear parents walked many kilometers for very little and sometimes for nothing at all. But the little they brought in was a tremendous help for us.
In late fall 1947 Siegfried and I went to see our brother Kurt, who worked for a farmer in Mecklenburg. There we procured bruised rye grain and potatoes. Mother made a soup of the rye with water. With a little sweetening it tasted very good. Sometimes there was a kind of soup made from raw grated potatoes. The main thing was that our stomachs were filled.
In May 1948 I visited my parents-in-law in Warnemünde. As I returned to our cellar apartment I could not believe my eyes. There in the kitchen stood my husband. He had been released from the Russian prisoner of war camp, barely recognizable. He was completely undernourished and suffering from dropsy. The joy at our reunion was great. We tried to get a room to make a new beginning for ourselves. Until that time I had lived together with my parents and siblings. After several vain attempts we found a place in a garden house that belonged to an old lady.
Christmas 1948 my brother Kurt came to visit. He had gone to West Germany in the summer of 1948. We thought about whether Karl should return with him to Hannover. My brother was being retrained at a construction site and lived in a bunker. No sooner said than done. After Christmas they left. However, they did not take me with them. It was too uncertain. Now I was once again alone. But within two months they returned for me. The journey was an adventure because the zone border had to be crossed illegally. But at that time there was no shooting. The crossing was at night, even across a river. Once we were caught, but after awhile we were released, because the men had west passes. I will never forget how tired and cold we were when we arrived in Hannover. I was allowed to move into the bunker with them. Between the three of us we had a room that measured two meters by three meters with two beds, one on top of the other, a table and two stools. Naturally, there was no daylight, but it was warm. This was our beginning in the west. And here we could eat as much as we wished. Here there was enough bread and syrup, too. Good bread with syrup still tastes good today. Karl had the good luck to find work. And he had recovered from his imprisonment. After a half year we had a chance to move together with Kurt into a half-destroyed house at Göttingerstraße 46. We had a room on the fourth floor to rebuild. It was a very modest beginning. For furniture we had a wooden bed with a straw mattress and a table, both roughly put together by a construction carpenter. And there were two three-legged chairs. In the ruins we found an old cookstove, also with three legs. For a long time that was our only way to cook. For Kurt there was another mattress and a small shelf. We were glad to have daylight, a roof over our heads and enough to eat. I wrote to our parents: "We have everything we need." How easily pleased we had become since the end of the war.
We lived there on Göttingerstraße for twelve years. Gradually we accumulated furniture and other things. Apartments were still short in supply. Finally in 1961 we had our first real residence, a two-room apartment, even with a bath and a balcony, in Hainholz. We lived there for ten years. By this time Karl was employed at the Veterinary University. That was how we were able in 1971 to get a larger apartment in Hannover-Bemerode. We had had our Thomas since 1965 and for that reason were glad to have more room. Here on the edge of the city we were comfortable. We still live here in Bemerode and hope to spend our last years here, too.
I will close my account with the following sentences. It was not a good time for us under the Russians and Poles. We can look back with gratitude, that we survived all those privations and fears. It was not easy. So many people lost their lives and so many suffered more than we did. So many young people who had never really lived. We must never forget.