March 2015 Archives

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Dick Newell was born in 1919, in the tiny coal-mining town of Red Lodge, Montana, (pop. 3,000) at the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park. Miners had been brought in from many lands, so the town had seven nationalities--Italians, Yugoslavs and so on. At first the Catholics and Protestants kept themselves to themselves. "But in time they got to intermarrying and forgot all about who went to which church and we became a very good community," Dick said.

"In such a small town you get well acquainted and the High School was crammed with good athletes from every community--Finnish, Yugoslav, Italian--you name it. I was among the English-Scotch ones. We had seven festivals a year, one for each nationality, each with their national food and dances." Tourists came from Billings to enjoy the various festivals in Red Lodge and the opportunity to have spaghetti with meat balls, Yorkshire pudding, haggis, Finnish smoked beef and so on.

Red Lodge sits in a valley, with steep hills on either side. Cattlemen and farmers were in the hills. Dick and his family lived two blocks from the edge of town, where the road ran westward into the hills. The cattlemen ran their cattle down the street, crossed the railway and herded them into the cattle cars.

"And that's how I got to college. In those days we couldn't afford to get out of town. I took a cattle train as far as Chicago and then a bus to Yellow Springs Ohio, where I went to college." The conservative boy from small-town Montana attended the famed liberal arts school, Antioch College, for two years. Despite its reputation for activism, which did not interest Dick at all, he chose Antioch because of its innovative programme offering one semester of school followed by one semester of work experience, which enabled him to work his way through college. "It was a beautiful campus, I'll say that for it. But one day a kid from Tacoma Washington and I got together on campus and both of us said, 'Why the hell are we here?' You see, we were pretty conservative, and here we were studying science in a famous liberal college. But we lived through it."

From Antioch Dick went to the University of Montana in Missoula for his major in forestry. Dick's political awakening came not at Antioch but in Montana's capital city, Helena, where his father was a legislator. Visiting his father in legislative session sensitized Dick to the issues he cared about. Around this time, Dick also developed a lifelong passion for Big Band music--then all the rage-- and ballroom dancing.

By late 1941, Dick was in Weather School as part of his forestry studies. But the life he had planned changed dramatically when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941. Weathermen were crucial to the war effort, especially for bombing operations in the Pacific Theatre. Dick and some of his classmates were called up for the 15th Weather Squadron, established April 10, 1942. Immediately, they were shipped off to Australia from Seattle. During the voyage they stopped at an island where the inhabitants were very fond of tobacco. Here, they were able to exchange cigarettes for fresh fruit.


First the weathermen went to Melbourne for a two-week orientation. Then Dick was shipped on via Sidney to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, and the main US base during the war. He spent some time in Brisbane, helping US bombers who were traveling to and from South America. Then he was sent on from there to Cairns in the far North. The young man from landlocked Montana did not waste his opportunity to enjoy the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. In Sydney he enjoyed swimming at the famed Bondi Beach with its white sands. At Cairns he went to a beach hut on the ocean with the daughter of the local American furniture store operator together with her best friend and her friend's boyfriend. Although the waters were shark-infested, they never saw a shark.

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Bondi Beach in 1942

The life of a weatherman was quite solitary. The weathermen did not belong to a specific bomber squadron, nor did they stay in a cohesive weather group. Instead, they were moved around as need arose. In Northern Australia, Dick's weather group consisted of a husky Australian, two Englishmen, Dick and another American. Then Dick was assigned to the Beaufort Bomber squadron. Officially called No. 100 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the squadron was raised in early 1942 from the remnants of a British unit that had been destroyed in Malaya and flew Bristol Beauforts. In September 1942, the 100th squadron was sent to Milne Bay, New Guinea. Dick travelled to the islands in a Sunderland flying boat with General Thomas Blamey. General Blamey was Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, and commander of Allied land forces in the Pacific, second only to the American, General Douglas MacArthur.


General Blamey, left, General McArthur with teacup, New Guinea

They set off from Townsville, and flew to Milne Bay, New Guinea, with its six hundred coral islands. The Sunderland made a brilliant water landing, kicking up a mighty spray.


Sunderland flying boat

Dick was impressed by the weather station, built by the indigenous Papuans with palm leaves, which provided excellent shelter for the delicate meteorological instruments as well as the weathermen themselves. The 'native boys,' as the airmen and weathermen called the Papuans, would climb the palm trees and knock down coconuts. Then, they would place the coconut between their feet and, with startling skill and speed, cut off the top with a machete to open up the delicious coconut milk. However, much as Dick loved New Guinea, it was at the time an active war zone. They were regularly bombarded by Mitsubishi bombers dropping 500 pound bombs which cut down palm trees 'like mowing the grass.' " When the bombers flew over we hid in foxholes--and we made sure they were very deep."

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Beaufort Squadron on New Guinea

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Base in Milne Bay, New Guinea

Most of Dick's social life consisted of his small weather group--they had little to do with the 'fly boys' or bomber pilots due to their different and very specific schedule. But the bombers depended upon the weathermen for their missions. ''And you didn't have to be a very good weatherman, because it rained every day. You couldn't go wrong!"


The 100th RAAF squadron

Next Dick was sent back to Australia, to Fenton Airbase, just south of Darwin.The B24 Liberator bombers were stationed there, and needed weather support.This too was an active war zone, with frequent Japanese bombing raids. The staging point for Darwin was Alice Springs, in the geographical centre of Australia and the wartime civilian capital of the Northern Territory, after the evacuation of Darwin. In Alice Springs Dick encountered Aboriginals, who he describes as 'ancient-looking.' And in Sidney he particularly remembers a beautiful Aboriginal woman who was a nightclub singer.

When Dick got leave for R and R, he went to Adelaide," a beautiful area in the South, great water." Dick admired the houses set up on stilts to prevent flooding. "You could crawl under the houses." A beachfront hotel in Adelaide was reserved for the American troops. As a weatherman, Dick was more solitary than the troops. One day, as he was walking around town, he stopped in another hotel, one available for the public. Here, he saw that he was not the only one sitting by himself. On the other side of the restaurant a young woman wearing WAAF uniform was dining alone. "No self-respecting young American is going to let a gal eat alone. So I asked her if I could buy her a drink and she said, 'of course!' So we joined forces and I bought her a drink." The pair tried to get into the hotel reserved for American forces but were not allowed in. So they walked to the shore, carrying her lunch with them. Sitting comfortably by the ocean, their feet dabbling in warm water, they swapped life stories.

At the time of the unconditional surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945, Dick was in Fenton. He was sent to the main base in Brisbane to be demobilized. Upon his return, he realized that forestry did not have many job prospects, so he decided to become an acountant. His family had moved to Arkansas by then. Under the GI Bill, Dick was able to attend the University of Arkansas, graduating in accounting in 1947. Eventually he became comptroller of a large company operating coast-to-coast.

Dick does not minimize the horror of the war, yet he loved his palm-roofed weather station in New Guinea, and he loved Australia as well. With his positive outlook on life, he retains happy memories of the war years, despite being bombarded by the Japanese on numerous occasions. Whenever he goes into a state of relaxation, he is back in Adelaide, his feet in warm ocean water and a pretty WAAF at his side.

Related Links:

Living Witnesses Part 5:The Refugee

Living Witnesses Part 3: The Medical Student

Living Witnesses Part 1: The Fire Warden


For the past several weeks we have been hearing from the living witnesses who experienced the Second World War. Today we are in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis since that war. As we mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of Second World War and the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, let us take a look at what the Living Witnesses have to tell us about Syria.

The story of the Living Witnesses is not just a tale about the past, about events which unfolded before most of us were born. Their story is a contemporary one, for they know and understand what the Syrian people are enduring today. Baerbel Miller, Joyce Hudis and Frances Hollander have told us how their education was disrupted by persecution, bombings or displacement. Peter Hudis, the sheltered only child of a middle class Jewish couple, contracted tuberculosis due to sleeping in the London Underground during the blitz. Today we are creating a Lost Generation of Syrian children whose education has been disrupted and who lack basic protection from communicable diseases.

We have heard how Joyce, the evacuee, did not see her parents for three years and we have seen four-year old Garry Hunt turn away from the father he did not know. They understand the feelings of Syrian families separated by war and fighting. We have heard about the persecution experienced by Frances Hollander and Isidor Kiefer at the hands of the Nazis, and how Isidor was forced to flee the beloved city where his ancestors had lived for nine hundred years. Today some of the world's most ancient minorities--Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidi, experience genocide at the hands of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria. We are in danger of losing our Aramaic-speaking Christians and other precious ancient minority cultures just as we lost the rich cultural heritage of European Jewry.

Frances had to flee her home in Essen and all her friends and childhood memories to go to a strange land where she did not speak the language. Baerbel was a refugee too--starving, cold, exhausted and in constant danger as she fled the advancing Red army. Four million Syrian refugees today, many of them children, share similar experiences.

When Joyce was on Peckham Road during the worst buzz bomb incident in Camberwell, she barely escaped with her life. Many others did not. Baerbel crawled out of a cellar window to cross a street strewn with white phosphorus. Garry Hunt vividly remembers bombings he witnessed even before he could speak. Peter, the fire warden, watched London burn. As Baerbel said, 8th May 1945 brought, not peace, but the laying down of arms. And arms laid down in one place are soon picked up in another. Whether in Ukraine, South Sudan or Syria, the endless war rages on. As long as any child watches their city burn, the peace has not come. As long as young people lie at night terrified of the sound of bombs, as long as homes are destroyed and people have to flee their ancestral lands, peace has not come.

Seventy-five years ago, we turned our back on the Jews. Today the world turns its back on Syria. How many more people must suffer as the War Babies suffered, before we say, enough? We cannot take away what the Living Witnesses have suffered, but must their suffering be in vain, just a part of an endless cycle of violence? We could not help the War Babies because we were not yet born. We could not stop the Holocaust because we were not yet born. The conflict in Syria is ours to stop and the children of Syria are ours to help.


Syrian Refugees pour into Kurdistan

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm.The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard.

The story of the War Babies is often overlooked because they played no active part in the war. Yet these are the ones who, from the moment of birth, or even in their mother's wombs, experienced sirens, bombs, fighting, parental deprivation, food rationing and other extreme events. This is a cohort of individuals who came into the world without an experience of 'before', of 'normality.' In whatever country they were born, they were war's innocent victims. For the War Babies and their children, the war will never really be over until they find peace in their hearts. As we think of all the children suffering from warfare around the world today, let us take the time to hear the wisdom and experience of the War Babies.


Six-year-old Baerbel in 1946.

When General Alfred Jodl signed Germany's unconditional surrender on 7th May 1945, five-year-old Baerbel Gergen and her mother Hilly were on a train heading West, together with hundreds of other starving and exhausted refugees. Having fled the advancing Red Army, they were on their way home to Worms. Now, as citizens of an occupied country, their welfare was partially in the hands of the occupying US army in the territory of Germany they were passing through, as well as the French army, which occupied Worms and its environs.

Their onward journey was by no means straightforward. Sometimes they had to walk for long stretches where no trains were running. Sometimes they rode in a normal passenger train and sometimes in cattle cars. Often, as the train slowly rolled through a town, American GIs would throw their own rations into the train in an effort to help the hungry travellers. At one train station an American soldier gave her a small tin of chicken soup. She brought it to her mother who said, "Don't take it, don't take it!" Hilly did not want to accept anything from American soldiers.

"Are you crazy?" asked a fellow refugee. " Take it for your little girl, she needs food. Even if you don't want to touch it, take it for her."

Another time, an American soldier grabbed her and gave her a bear hug so tight she could hardly breathe. She took him by the hand and brought him to Hilly, saying, "I've found us a Daddy! I've found us a Daddy!" How badly the little orphan girl wanted a father!

At last, after the long, exhausting and chaotic journey, Baerbel and Hilly arrived in Worms. They were home at last--or so they thought. The pair went straight to their house on the outskirts of town and knocked on their neighbour's door to collect the key. "We don't have the key any more," the neighbours told them. 'There is somebody living at your house." Shocked, they went to their home and rang the doorbell. To their astonishment, a maid in a white apron and black dress came to the door. It was a bizarre sight to see a uniformed servant at a time when most people were suffering so much deprivation--and in their own home too!

"What do you want?" asked the maid.

"I want to get into my house," Hilly replied.

"Just a minute." But little Baerbel pushed by her, ran to her room and tore open the cupboard where her toys were.

"Get out of here, you filthy brat!" said the maid, grabbing her.

As it turned out, their house had been requisitioned by the government and allocated to the Lord Mayor of Cologne, a city about four hour's train ride from Worms.

"He lived in our furniture, he used everything we had--and we had nothing."

Their house had belonged to a baron who ran the leather factory, which used to manufacture the fine leatherwork for which Worms was famous. Baerbel's father was an important member of the upper management and had been assigned the house as part of his compensation. After his death, Hilly continued leasing the house. But now the house had been snatched away and his widow and daughter were homeless. All of the Gergen's heirlooms and mementos--their silver, books, special cameras, items of sentimental value that had belonged to Baerbel's father--all were taken over by the Mayor and for the most part never returned.

Although their house was a large one with several floors--in fact it is currently home to four families--there was no question of Baerbel and Hilly being allowed to share it. They were sent out into the country to live in the attic of a farmhouse. Hilly was given a just a few pieces of her own furniture to furnish the attic. Fate had left them destitute. Their reluctant hosts--the wealthiest farmers in town--were unwilling to feed them, saying they needed the food for their pigs. The attic was unheated. In the winter there was ice on the windows and they had to wear hats and gloves indoors. No longer refugees on the road, Baerbel and Hilly were still enduring displacement, hunger and hardship.

The village was seven kilometers from Worms, so Baerbel had to start first grade at the village school. But she and her mother simply did not fit into peasant life. Hilly was a sophisticated woman who wore lipstick, scandalizing the villagers, while Baerbel was mercilessly teased for her 'weird name.' Once she did move back into town, she was half a year behind the other students!

Eventually Baerbel's wish to have a father came true, when Hilly met and married a local dentist named Walter. Now they could move out of the country attic and settle in the comfortable house near the cathedral that is Baerbel's home to this day. Her new father loved and cherished her and never raised his hand to her. But still Baerbel's troubles were not over. Walter was a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most horrific battles in the annals of war--and one that relatively few German soldiers survived. He was wounded in the leg at Stalingrad and a piece of shrapnel and a fragment of leather boot were later removed from his leg. Inevitably, more than his leg was wounded. Like many of today's Iraq War veterans, Walter was prone to frightening outbursts of anger. PTSD was not known or understood at the time and no therapy was offered to traumatized veterans, so the family was left to manage as best they could.


Piece of shrapnel and leather boot that were removed from Walter's leg.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Worms were being held to account for their actions during the war. While families such as Baerbel's had always been opposed to Nazism, others were in a different position. Hilly was working for a doctor who had been a Nazi. When questioned by the Americans, he said,

"Yes, I was a Nazi. I don't like all the stuff Hitler did--some things were good, and a lot of things were not." His interrogators were astounded by his bluntness.

"You are the first person we have encountered who admitted that he was a Nazi!"

Everyone else was denying that they were ever connected with the Nazi party. Baerbel's uncle by marriage was also a doctor but refused to join the Nazi party. As a result he was in and out of prison several times during the war. Inevitably he would be let out because of the shortage of doctors. His wife, Baerbel's aunt, was also arrested at one point, because she sent her maid to a Jewish department store to buy a zipper.

Baerbel's maternal grandmother was known Oma Lies-chen. She was also called Frau Doktor because she was engaged in alternative healing practices. Before the war, a prominent Jewish family, Isidor and Else Kiefer, lived next door to Oma. Isidor was a tin manufacturer and longtime chairman of the Jewish community. But by 1933, life was becoming very dangerous for Worms' ancient Jewish community--especially for those who were wealthy and prominent. There were beatings, murders and deportations. In August 1933, a large group of Jews from Worms were sent to the new concentration camp at Osthofen. The Kiefers left for America in 1934, via Belgium. After the war, they used to send care packages to Oma, complete with dresses for Baerbel that had been outgrown by their daughter. Why did the Isidor Kiefers send gifts to the city where they and their community had suffered so terribly? Did the kind-hearted and selfless Oma risk her life to help them in their hour of greatest need? Later, in 1961, Baerbel visited this family in their apartment hotel in New York, on the day she arrived in the USA. She brought them some lilies of the valley, which she had picked in their garden and smuggled in under her coat. This would have meant so much to the family! Isidor was closely involved with efforts to rebuild Worms synagogue--the most ancient in Germany--after the Holocaust, as well as the Jewish cemetery and museum. He is especially noted for extensive research on the history of the Jewish community in Worms and his incredible collection of papers and archival documents, covering the history of Worms' Jewish community from the 11th Century to the 1930s.

Isidore Keifer.jpg

Isidor Keifer

By the mid-1950s, television was becoming a feature of middle class German homes. And with it came footage of the camps. Fourteen-year-old Baerbel, who until then had heard nothing about the Holocaust, was horrified and shocked, experiencing a profound sense of betrayal. She and all her friends were furious with their parents. How could they have let such atrocities happen? We have spoken in other blogs about moral injury. For the War Babies of Germany, and indeed for their children, simply being German in the postwar years was a profound moral injury. Baerbel and her contemporaries felt immense shame and guilt for actions they could not have influenced, for they were just little children. All of Hitler's attempts to create a master race had resulted in generations of Germans who felt morally inferior to the rest of humanity.

It is easy to draw the wrong lesson from the Holocaust and all the other Nazi atrocities. Those of us who grew up in the postwar years have tended to lay blame on the German people as a whole. We imagine that some inherent defect in the German character and German culture made these appalling events possible. If we allow ourselves to hold such beliefs, we miss the real lesson. The Holocaust showed us, not the evil of Germans, but the evil of which we, humanity, are capable. Whenever we mind our own business, look the other way or 'just obey orders', when we ignore human rights abuses, or fail to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable, we become a part of the same pattern that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Empowered by the pain of what happened in their land, generations of Germans have learned to speak out for peace. May they, like Baerbel and her family, serve as inspirations to us all!

Related links:

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm.The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard.

The story of the War Babies is often overlooked because they played no active part in the war. Yet these are the ones who, from the moment of birth, or even in their mother's wombs, experienced sirens, bombs, fighting, parental deprivation, food rationing and other extreme events. This is a cohort of individuals who came into the world without an experience of 'before', of 'normality.' In whatever country they were born, they were war's innocent victims. For the War Babies and their children, the war will never really be over until they find peace in their hearts. As we think of all the children suffering from warfare around the world today, let us take the time to hear the wisdom and experience of the War Babies.

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Baerbel Miller nee Gergen, a witness to the bombing of Worms and the flight of German civilians from Czechoslovakia.

Baerbel Gergen was born on St Stephen's day in Worms on the West bank of the Rhine. The birth of a Christmas baby in an ancient German city sounds like the beginning of a fairytale. But the year was 1939, and one of the worst nightmares in world history was just beginning. By the time the war ended, most of medieval Worms would be destroyed, although the cathedral still stands today.


Worms Cathedral (Dom)

When Baerbel was only eight months old, her father died from septicaemia, leaving Baerbel's mother, Hilly, to manage alone with the baby. Baerbel's aunt was in Tetschen-Bodenbach (now called Děčín), in the Sudetanland of Czechoslovakia.



At one point, when Baerbel was three, she and her mother went to stay there for a few weeks. This was more peaceful as there were no hostilities in Czechoslovakia at the time. But after some time they returned to Worms. Baerbel's family were not Nazi sympathisers--far from it. In fact, they found ingenious ways to resist. Baerbel's paternal grandfather had taken to using a walking stick so that he would not have to raise his arm in the Heil Hitler salute! But the civilians of Worms, Nazi or not, were destined to suffer immensely during the latter months of the war.

The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944-January 1945 was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. As the Allies began their thrust into Germany, following the Battle of the Bulge, the stronghold of Worms came under heavy attack. There were nightly raids. Baerbel saw warplanes flying low overhead and heard the constant drone of jets and wail of sirens. She and Hilly spent their nights in cellars and bomb shelters. One morning they returned home to find Baerbel's crib covered in shattered glass. If she had not been in the shelter, she would have been killed. Another time a bomb fell on the attic. Neighbours helped them put out the fire. But on the most horrific day of bombing Baerbel experienced, she was in her grandmother's cellar. A bomb fell on the house, forcing them to climb up iron rungs in the wall of the cellar and squeeze out of the tiny cellar window. As they headed for the public bomb shelter, Baerbel saw the huge chestnut tree across the street totally ablaze as though they were matches. There was phosphorus in the street and on the sidewalks and if someone stepped on it, their shoes caught fire. The terrified girl picked her way across the phosphorous-strewn street in the heat of blazing chestnut trees. Perhaps this particular memory would relate to the massive RAF bombing raid of February 21st, when over a thousand tons of bombs were dropped on Worms, the massive conflagration setting even the cathedral ablaze.

Terrified of the Allied bombardment, many citizens fled Worms, among them Baerbel and Hilly, who returned to Tetschen-Bodenbach. Under Nazi Germanization policies, large numbers of Germans had been encouraged to move to Czechoslovakia, Baerbel's aunt and uncle among them. Now, with the approach of the Red Army, the Germans living in Czechoslovakia, terrified of reprisals against them, took flight back to Germany. Baerbel was among those who experienced--and vividly recalls--this often-forgotten episode of civilian suffering.

Little Baerbel was in nursery school with her cousins when the ladies who took care of them came and told them, "Get on your coats and run home as quickly as you can. Quick, quick! The Russians are coming!" There was a barricade across the street that was too tall for the three little girls to cross. Some passers-by helped them over and they tumbled down on the other side and ran home. At her aunt's apartment, the mothers were in uproar and were packing a baby buggy full of randomly thrown belongings. Baerbel, Hilly, her aunt, her two girl cousins and the Polish maid took flight together. In the baby buggy Baerbel noticed items like a shoe brush and a fur coat. Even as a little child she could see that the packing made no sense at all. It was an expression of sheer panic.

It took six weeks on the road to get back to Germany. "Once in a while there was a train ride. But then people shot at us or shot into the train, I don't know why. There were Czechoslovakians standing on the train tracks, shooting into the train. We all put our feet up on the benches so they couldn't shoot us in the legs. And hopefully they wouldn't shoot any higher." They took only short train rides from time to time. The trains were not running well in the chaotic circumstances and were crammed with refugees. On one occasion they got off on the wrong side of the tracks. There was one last train heading west--and the only way to get to the westbound line was to crawl under the wheels of a slowly moving train--a terrifying experience for even an adult, what to speak of a small child.

Baerbel's uncle had a high position in the Railways. As a result on one occasion they were given a room for the night at the train station. But the bed was infested with bed bugs, making for a miserable night!

Where trains were not available, Baerbel and her mother walked along country lanes crowded with weary and frightened refugees--a mass exodus. "Some had carts, someone had a donkey pulling a cart, many dragged suitcases--just a stream, a long, long stream of people heading west. On the sides of the road you would see things people had thrown down because they were too weak to carry them any more." As they walked, Baerbel and her mother ate dandelions, sorrel, chicory and other herbs from the meadows, whatever they could forage. There was nothing else to eat. Once in a while a farmer would let them sleep in a barn, together with many other refugees. They were thirsty as well as hungry. "One time we came into a village and there was a fountain. I wanted the water so badly! But it was full of little worms.The whole fountain was full of worms. All the people who were walking went through so much hardship."

On one occasion, Hilly decided to go to another village, hoping to trade something for food. As she walked along the country lane, a man passing on a motorbike offered her a ride. But once she had climbed on the bike, he suddenly veered off into the forest and halted the motorbike.

"What are you doing?" Hilly asked, terrified.

"Did you think I would give you a ride for nothing?" was the reply.

"What about your wife?"

'My wife is dead."

"Can you imagine your wife being in my shoes? My little girl is back there in the last village. I just want to get her some food."

"Get back on the bike!" And the chastened man drove her to the next village and dropped her off.

No wonder Hilly was desperate to find food. "My mother got so skinny that she and I could wear the same underwear--and I was only five years old."

As they travelled further West, one day Baerbel, Hilly, her aunt and her cousins were walking along a country lane beside a wheat field when they heard the popping sound of gunfire above thier heads. They threw themselves on the ground for protection. To their consternation they saw a jeep driving across the precious wheat, with its occupants taking pot shots at them. Out got two very drunk American GIs, who asked where they were going, then told them to turn around and go back--towards the advancing Red Army. So the little group walked back up the road for a short while and then doubled back around a hill, crawling on their bellies, out of sight of the GIs.

After some time, the two sisters had to go their separate ways, because Baerbel's aunt lived in a different part of Germany. The crowds had thinned out as people went off in various directions. As Baerbel and Hilly were walking, a woman came by with a donkey cart. Without a word, she stopped the cart and lifted them on, one by one."I'm taking you home," said the woman, as she walked beside the donkey until they arrived at her house. In her kitchen she got out a big tin tub and gave both the travel-stained refugees a bath. Then they sat on the sofa in the kitchen while she made them an egg. "It was unbelievable!" Finally she tucked them up in her own feather bed. "It was like paradise!" This woman lived in East Germany. Later, Hilly used to send food packages to her in gratitude. " We were so thankful. She was an angel!"

A few days later, Baerbel and her mother were on a train, still trying to get home to Worms, when the train came to a sudden stop. Baerbel heard the carriages being ripped opened one by one and loud screaming and shouting. Then someone threw open their carriage and shouted, 'Armistice!" (In German, literally 'there has been the laying down of arms' ). Little Baerbel was overcome with relief. Having known nothing but war, it was hard for her to believe that war could end, that shooting and bombing could cease. "I was hysterical. I just sobbed and sobbed. I could not believe they would stop shooting at us. At last the nightmare was over." Baebel's wartime nightmare had ended, but she was still a hungry refugee--and soon to be a returnee. The war was over, peace was still to be found.


Baerbel at six in 1946.

Next time: Living Witnesses Part 6: The Returnee. Hear what awaited Baerbel and Hilly on their return to Worms and how their life unfolded in a country devastated by war.

Ralated links:


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