Caught in the Middle: A War Story October, 2020
Her father never knew of her birth. She was born in early 1943, shortly after he was killed by the Russians on the eastern front. Her mother lived in a small village in what was called the
“Polish Corridor”, a German-speaking village since the Middle Ages, part of Prussia, then “given” to Poland after WWI, then retaken by Germany in WWII, then occupied by Russia during WWII, now part of Poland. Her mother was a farmer, and like the other villagers, remained on the land where there was food to be grown, raising their families, “no matter how many rulers pushed them around”1. Before the Nazis annexed West Prussia, her mother “went to Polish schools and also to German underground schools to preserve the language and culture”.
Her mother remained on the farm during WWII, assisted (after her older husband was drafted and sent to the eastern front), by a young Dutch worker who had “sympathy to the ideology of the German government” at the time. Many of these young people from western Europe came to the East “for an adventure”; Germany’s prisoners of war were sent to work on the farms as well.
When word secretly came that the Russians were heading west and villagers had to flee, he helped the mother pack one of the wagons, ready the horses and load provisions. She left everything behind, including her grandparents, “Oma and Opa”, whom she never saw again, and escaped with her two little girls, aged 3 & 2, her sister, her stepmother’s aunt and the young Dutch worker. One of their horses died on the journey, the young man left their little entourage along the way, and the little girls became quite ill and needed hospitalization. Given medicine by the doctor, the desperate mother took them from hospital and continued the flight. Travelling in a dangerous environment, where there was severe need – everyone was hungry – they had to sleep on top of their provisions for fear of theft of all they had. The mother and her sister endured and survived sexual assault by Russian soldiers. The safety of the little girls was their motivation to keep going.
They were part of a refugee caravan that crossed frozen rivers, hid from soldiers, drove past the dead and dying, suffered rape and pillage, and endured the harshest of conditions in the dead of winter, with temperatures reaching as low as -30C. Landing in a camp for refugees, later in the spring, they were eventually taken in by the Mayor of a small village (23 houses) who wanted to help. They were housed in a large home on a farm with 17 others and there the little girls “found all their grandmothers and grandfathers”, and survived the rest of the war.
The little girls grew up and one of them told me this story over 75 years later, offering me handwritten notes she had made many years ago, and magazines in German depicting many aspects of the War.
She was clear that the Germans had started the war and expressed concern that I might think she was somehow defending them in the way of telling me her family story. When I told her of US complicity in events leading to WWII, she immediately spoke of the Treaty of Versailles. She (like me) was unaware of the deep involvement of US scientists in the promotion of eugenics, of IBM in creating identification methods for the concentration camps, and the many other American corporations helping the Nazis rearm and militarize.
The imprint of her childhood created an aversion to nationalism on the part of my interviewee.
A longtime Canadian, when I asked her whether she identified as German or Polish in her back ground, she chose neither and instead described herself as a “Citizen of the World”. I feel she truly exemplifies that label, a person whose life was radically shaped by war, who never knew her father because of war, whose family story is one of immense courage, fortitude and resilience in the ugly face of war.
1 Her family story by Karin Ristau, includes all other sentences in quotation marks.