Irmgard Kramer, née Kowalke, Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse 16, D-55593 Ruedesheim
Our Flight from the Russians - Expulsion by the Polish - The New Start in the West
- Translated by Susan Biedron, Park Ridge / Illinois -
On March 3, 1945, Gross Tuchen received the evacuation order due to the approaching front. By 9:00 PM all dwellers were to have left the village. Around 4:00 PM our relatives and neighbors, the Otto Kramps family, drove off with their heavily laden horse pulled wagon. There were many tears; we had a feeling of naked fear at the back of our necks.
The last soldiers that had quartered with us - Sommer and Winterhalter - names I remember to this day due to their uniqueness - loaded our luggage on their truck. They were our last rescue. We left our once secure home with them during the evening of March 3rd. Snow lay on the ground and it was bitterly cold. The dark night sky was lit with red. One heard the cannon thunder already quite near.
Besides my mother and sisters Helga and Jutta, there was also Anna Dombrowa with two small children, her sister Liesbeth Papenfuss with small daughter, as well as her old parents and Mrs. Labs on the vehicle.
Over which route we drove, I no longer remember today. The destination was to have been Gotenhafen (Gdynia). A dreadful thought for our mother. She wanted nothing to do with a ship. The "Wilhelm Gustloff" and many other ships with refugees had already been sunk in the icy Baltic Sea.
From Pottangow, district Stolp, we tried to continue on further with the train. Negative report - everything was totally overfilled. One of the last I saw in Pottangow was Hannelore Holz, riding by on a truck. We waved to each other. With the soldiers we came to the Lauenburg railway station. Here we had relatives. They had already left their apartment and had taken flight.
One day after that - it could have been the 7th or the 8th of March - the first Russians were in the city. The time of fear and fright began, it held us long in its grip.
We, that is the Kowalkes, Dombrowas and Mrs. Labs spent the first "Russian night" in the city center, huddled together in a little room. Sleep was unthinkable. Fires burnt around us, shots crashed the whole night and drunken soldiers bawled.
At daybreak we came to a decision that we had to get out of the inferno and find housing somewhere on the outskirts of the city. The plan was successful. As if by a miracle we escaped from there unmolested. What we saw on the streets, however, was dreadful. Everywhere dead persons, shattered shop windows, plundering soldiers and fires on all corners. The Russian soldiers demanded "Uhri, Uhri" [mispronunciation of the German word for "watches"]. They were hanging on them like Christmas tree ornaments
We twelve Gross Tucheners found shelter in a reconstruction settlement. The owners had fled. There were already refugees in the house. People were drawn together and sought protection and help from each other. We crammed ourselves in one small room. In order to sleep, Helga and I laid ourselves crosswise as pillows under the heads of the older people. No one had found us. On what did we live and what had we eaten? I only know now of dried vegetables out of old military rations. The settlement was near a railroad station. Abandoned trains stood there with many valuables.
So we vegetated there, until also us Kowalkes were caught by the brutality of war. On the afternoon of March 19, a drunken Russian with a Mongolian appearance came into the house waving his pistol around. The young Dombrowas women and I escaped into the laundry room, dreadfully frightened. Directly afterwards a shot went off. The soldier wanted to take Helga with, Mama wanted to stop it and had to die for it. She succumbed to her serious head injury the next day. Dombrowas dug her grave in the garden behind the house. I carved her name with a sharp knife on a board and built a cross.
The same Russian came the next day - sober. How he found us remains puzzling. It was a large settlement, one house looking like the other. I was alone with my dead mother in a small room. He appeared repentant to everyone, speaking gibberish, patted my hair and disappeared.
With this horrible, pointless and incomprehensible action, everything was radically changed forever. With scarcely seventeen years, I must be there and care for my younger sisters, Helga, almost 14 and Jutta, our little latecomer of two and a half years. It was for me a huge shock.
A few days later there was nothing more to hold us in Lauenburg. We wanted to return to Gross Tuchen. We accomplished it together with the Dombrowas and Mrs. Labs. Exactly a month after the exit from Großtuchen, we came back, very sad and lonely without Mama. Kramps and other neighbors had already come back. Their horror over the loss of our mother stayed long in my memory. Our house was shot to pieces on the yard side. It stood vacant because the front door was missing.
Aunt Greta took us in first, likewise the old couple Otto and Amanda Holz. Under our cokepile in the cellar were some foodstuffs hidden and not discovered. They helped us over many a hard time. Our village filled up slowly. Every week someone returned home. Everyone was poor and plundered, the same whether one had moved away with a large truck or less.
The Russian Commandant found accommodation in the house of Otto Kolberg. Soon the Poles followed. They requisitioned the house of Max Kiedrowski. Kramps and us lay in between, which gave us a certain protection. Plundering soldiers hardly stopped by us. The Polish became more impudent , could require everything. But, what did we still have? We searched in the rooms and in the uprooted garden area, softened up by tanks, for our former possessions. In the good room lay the wardrobe on its back in which we found a pile of straw. The Russians had used it as a box bed and had slept in it. Also horses must have been in the room as a pile of dung lay in the corner.
There was work in all corners, young and old were fetched for clearing work. The track route from Bütow to Rummelsburg was dismantled. There we had to help load rails. Shattered bridges were filled with earth. We even had to work in the forests. The Russians cut many beautiful large beeches and firs from the Neuhüttener Woods. At intervals they drove many large cow herds through the town and for this reason searched for young people to make the journey to drive them to Poland and further. How often did we jump up from a meal and hide ourselves. One time Helga and I landed in high nettles.
The young Pole Conny - he had already worked several years by Max Deuble - was often our protector. He frequently warned us of the Russians when they again sought cowherders.
Aunt Greta succeeded, from such a cattle drive, to herd off a milk cow. There was milk, quark and headcheese, rarities back then. Only seldom did the Butcher Möller have a meat allotment for the Germans. It was bones, innards and cow udders. Back then we roasted and ate it. It even tasted good. The bread for the occupation troops was baked by Baker Borchardt. The Polish baker provided for us, it was difficult to enjoy. One often bit on sand and small stones. Apparently, he took the flour from the ground and mixed it with the bread dough.
Through our Pole Alfons Machlewitsch - he had taken over the painters business - we were informed of our evacuation. It should follow in the winter. To Alfons we owed so much. After the Polish campaign, he had worked for us as a journeyman. We had treated him well, therefore his frequent, good intentioned tips.
In Bütow we applied for our departure papers. Two, three times, we tramped on the sleepers [of the dismantled railrod] from GrossTuchen to the county seat until we had the necessary papers in our hands.
On November 16, 1945 we were on our way. That was Kramps with five people, Paul Biastoch and wife, and we three Kowalke girls. Conny, the Pole from Deubles, drove us with horse and wagon to the Bütower railroad station. On the bridge before the station we met the Butcher Möller, emaciated, bright yellow, hardly recognizable. He came out of the prison, was there tortured and beaten, died soon after.
With much waiting time on the available track, we arrived at Küstrin at the Oder after almost a twenty hour journey. The war had devastated much here; hardly a house was undamaged. We sought and found a badly shot-up building, staying always together. The food were wretched. One had to line up early to get a thin soup. Now and then there was a slice of bread, streaked with much sand. After a week's stay we went farther west. With many detours we came to Schlicht near Feldberg in Mecklenburg. On a large estate we found lodging, but first we landed in a sheep stall. On totally dried up sheep dung a little fresh straw was put and our camp was ready. Water we got from the nearby village pond. As a toddler Jutta received 1/4 to 1/2 liter of milk daily.
Us young people had to go to work in Feldberg, again railroad tracks and similar loading work. Soon the men succeeded in finding a room in the estate house. There we prepared a clean straw camp and built a small clay stove. There was little to cook, but there were potatoes. Our health was wretched, we all had the scabies, a constantly itching skin condition. There was nothing for healing, only scratching, scratching and enduring, because the scab wounds were so sore. Jutta also coughed often - it was a light form of Whooping Cough.
The most important for us was the mail connection. One could finally write and receive mail. Our father must have endured miseries from hell. He knew that we were steamrolled before the front, but did he know what had happened afterwards? He had already let us know his private address in the fall of 44. I wrote to that address and soon received an answer. So in the second letter he learned that our mother no longer lived. Home, property, existence and wife lost, how difficult must it be for him to accept this?
In December there came from the current Mayor an inquiry about us, regarding relatives in the west. There would be free collective transport to go over (the border). Where our father was we knew - in an English prison in Rendsburg. Our Aunt Emmy Kowalke also wrote to this private address. This fortune brought us together again. Our travel goal was thus Haddamar in Hesse - American Control Zone.
I had me and my sisters registered for the transport, also Elli joined us - we only wanted to be away - away from the Russians. The rest of our group scolded me - how could I undertake this during winter days? Jutta had no shoes, she would freeze, etc., etc.,. However, they let themselves be convinced to join us. On January 28, 1946 a transport went to Heiligenstadt near Kassel. The last stop of the Russian zone. From here we marched on foot over the Russian-English border, our few belongings in a rented handwagon. Again we came to a camp, it was Friedland. Here we were registered, examined and thoroughly deloused.
Thank God our stay there was of short duration. What took place there was already very unworthy of people. Cooped up together, we resided the few nights in sheetmetal cottages on bare, totally damp earth floors. Sanitary facilities were as good as none, the camp was totally overfilled.
With the necessary papers provided, we traveled on February 1 in the direction of Fritzlar, the American Zone. A good four kilometer march then brought us to our final destination - Haddamar, where Aunt Emmy and Cousin Martin expected us. We three sisters remained for the time being with them, Kramp and Biastochs found reception at bigger farmers. For both families there was equal work and food on the farms. They were lucky.
My sister Helga attended a school in Haddamar for a few weeks and thus received her final grades, which because of the Flight had not been possible in Gross Tuchen in '45. In April '46 she began an apprenticeship as Cook in a retirement home on the lake Edersee.
Jutta was cared for by Aunt Emmy when I worked in the fields of our farm. In summer I came down with pneumonia and pleurisy, had high fever for many days. My aunt, alarmed, contacted our father, who was still in the English prison by Rendsburg. He chanced the trip, came over the "green border"(crossed the border illegally), so he was finally by us. We soon found larger housing for us alone. The Hessian, beautiful old fachwerk houses were still strong structures. Besides the owner, three families from the east lived with him. The population of the place doubled and tripled itself. Little by little we could purchase small items.. Everything was still on limits and ration coupons. Early in June of 1948, when the new currency came, it went slow but steadily uphill for us.
Retrospective on the frightening and sorrowful times, on the loss of a loved one, we often had luck in misfortune. For that we thank God daily. On the question "Why - why must this all have happened?' He can give no answer. It was surely our fate.