6

Epilogue

Erna ("Muttie") holding me in 1973.  Perkasie, PA

Erna (“Muttie”) holding me in 1973. Perkasie, PA

They settled in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, where Paul and Erna lived for the remainder of their lives.  Paul was 54 years old when he died in 1963 from lung cancer attributed to working in the labor camps where he mined uranium for seven years.  Erna worked in a factory sewing buttons on clothing.  She died peacefully in her sleep at age 90.  Regretfully I only met her twice in my life.   One of those times

Paul holding my older sister, Christine, in 1963 shortly before he passed away.

Paul holding my older sister, Christine, in 1963.  He passed away two weeks later.

was for a summer I spent at her house in 1973.  We planted flowers and walked in her beautiful yard where mint leaves grew wild.  And each year at Christmastime my sister and I could count on her to send us a package of marzipan candy in various fruit shapes.   No one actually ever called her Erna; we all called her “Muttie.”

When Margit arrived in the United States she wasn’t licensed to be a pharmacist in America without taking rigorous tests.  Instead of taking the tests, she worked as a waitress and became the mother of three beautiful and healthy children.   She lives in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and sadly suffers from dimentia, so I’m unable to ask her questions about her memories in Germany.

Mom and Dad, 1961

Mom and Dad, 1961

My mother, who was only fifteen when she came to America, went to high school.  Even though she had taken English for three years in Germany, she couldn’t understand a word anyone said.  But she learned about the horrors that went on in the concentration camps in school from footage they watched in history class.  She was devastated.  Then had to bear the teasing of schoolmates who called her “Nazi,” which began a lifelong embarrassment for being a German.  She was never a Nazi.  A lot of people in Germany were never Nazis.  But how does one explain?  The horrors of the concentration camps and the violence against the Jewish people create a mental block – you’re stunned and inarticulate.  The stigma of Germany will probably never go away.  My mother never spoke the language with me, in fact I hardly registered that she spoke German until I was in my teens.

After she graduated from high school in Pennsylvania, she visited Berlin.  Nothing had changed there in the three years she was gone.  The buildings still looked as they had after the war.  She came home to Pennsylvania where one year later in 1959, when she was 19 years old, she and a friend took a train to California.  She made friends and met my father in 1961.  She became an artist.  Today she is healthy and happy – going strong at age 73.  She lives in Hawaii.

13

Twelve – Weddings

When the American military occupied Germany, it was with the intention to re-educate the people.   But over time the military learned that Germans were decent people and could be trusted.   Once the American GIs who occupied Berlin let down their guard and trusted the German people, they began to date the German women.  Many of these relationships turned into marriage.   My aunt Margit, and many of her friends, were among that group.  

John is at the head of the table, Margit is holding his hand.

John is at the head of the table, Margit is holding his hand.

She met John Hagar at the wedding of another German friend marrying an American GI.  My grandfather was still in the labor camp in Czechoslovakia and hadn’t been home since before the war ended.  He didn’t know that the Americans and Germans were now friendly.  So when he came home he had to get used to the new way of life, and to the fact that his eldest daughter was dating an American.

When he came home from the camp, my grandfather was forty-years old. He tried to find a job, but couldn’t find one.  Everyone said he was too old.   So when his daughter became engaged to an American and would be moving to America he was excited by the prospect of following her there.

John and Margit were married in 1954.

Margit and John

Margit and John

A happy wedding day photo:  Third from left, in the suit and tie holding a cigarette, was Erna’s brother, Willie.  He was a respected golfer before the war.  After the war he gave the English royals golf lessons when they visited Germany.  My grandfather Paul is in the front row wearing a tux looking over at someone.  The groom, John, is diagonal from Paul looking very happy indeed.

A happy wedding day photo: Third from left, in the suit and tie holding a cigarette, was Erna’s brother, Willie. He was a respected golfer before the war. After the war he gave the English royals golf lessons when they visited Germany. My grandfather Paul is kneeling down in the front row wearing a tux looking over at someone. The groom, John, is diagonal from Paul looking very happy indeed.

Soon after the wedding Margit left Germany for the first time in her life.  She was 24 years old and now a resident of America – far away from the treacherous past.

They lived in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.  Immediately they filed paperwork to sponsor her family back in Germany to come live in America.  It was 1955.

The paperwork was supposed to have taken one year, but in three months the paperwork went through.  My mother and her parents gave all their things away, except their dog who they brought to America with them.  They took an airplane to Bremen, Germany, where they boarded an ocean liner, the S.S. Italia, bound for America.  My mother was 15 years old.

On the S.S. Italia bound for America – 1955

boat to America

Dinner on the S.S. Italia

coming to America

2

Eleven – Not Stuck in East Berlin

In the years after the war my aunt Margit (my mom’s older sister) went to school to become a pharmacist.  She graduated and worked in a pharmacy.  The owner of the pharmacy also owned a camera shop next door.  He had a family with children my mother’s age and they lived in a beautiful home outside of town.  Once a week he invited Margit and her sister (my mother) and her mother (my grandmother) over for a huge luncheon.  They feasted on a beautiful array of food.

He also hired my grandmother to work as a “cleaner” in his camera shop.  “Cleaner” was code for the person who collected the cigarettes that American GIs traded for cameras.  She would then smuggle the cigarettes to the black market and use them to trade for food.  My mother always travelled with her to the black market because the trains still went through the Russian sector and the Russians always left women alone when they were with a child.

Once they were at the black market in an open parking lot in the Russian zone of Berlin.  Suddenly gun shots rang through the air from Russian tankers driving by.  They were indiscriminately shooting from their trucks.  People were running every which way.

The last time they ever went to the black market was in 1952 on the day when they were in East Berlin and the Russians barricaded the entrances (and exits).  The Soviet Union created the checkpoint and people inside their border were meant to stay in East Berlin.  Luckily my grandmother knew Berlin well and she and my mother were able to sneak back into West Berlin through back alleys and side streets.   This day invoked the beginnings of the Berlin Wall.

My mom sporting her American look.  She, like many Germans, loved all things American, especially Coca-Cola.

My mom sporting her American look. She, like many Germans, loved all things American, especially  rock n’ roll and Coca-Cola.

Some other interesting photos of everyday life in postwar Berlin:

German classrooms:

My mom is on the end (not the girl with glasses)

My mom is on the end (not the girl with glasses)

Another classroom in Berlin.  My mom is the one standing nearest the coat rack with her hand on her chin

Another classroom in Berlin. My mom is the one standing nearest the coat rack with her hand on her chin

Many German girls were marrying American GIs.  Here my mother is the flower girl who somehow managed to sit between the bride and groom in the "just married" car on the way to the reception.

Many German girls were marrying American GIs. Here my mother is the flower girl who somehow managed to sit between the bride and groom in the “just married” car on the way to the reception.  This photo makes us laugh.

The same wedding - Margit's friend is marrying an American GI.  The back of the photo reads in German, "Dearest Memories on the American wedding"

The same wedding – Margit’s friend is marrying an American GI. The back of the photo reads in German, “Dearest Memories on the American wedding.”  My mother is the flower girl.

4

Ten – Queen Frederica

My mom's ID card they had to carry at all times

My mom’s ID card they had to carry at all times

There was a program for children who lived through the war in Germany wherein they traveled to the North Sea to live with families who could feed them nutritious food and help them regain their weight and restore a sense of peace.  My mother was with a German family who owned a spa on a farm.  They had children of their own and welcomed my mother as a best friend would.  She lived there for two months and became healthy again.   There were green hills to roll down and run over endlessly.  There was an abundance of organic vegetables and strawberries at her feet.  She played and ate strawberries right off the ground.

Before arriving at the farm, on the train bound for the North Sea (probably Holland), she and the group of children she was with were having fun exploring the cabins.  Through a cracked door they saw a room full of Russian soldiers eating what looked to them like a feast.  The children crowded together and stared.  The door inched open, accidentally alerting the Russians to their presence.  The Russians smiled and waved them over to join them for food.  No one would go. They were too scared.  Except for my mother.  She bravely entered the room and happily ate whatever they would give her.  Her eyes fill with grateful tears as she recalls how happy she felt.  She says they were so unbelievably nice to her.  The other children still wouldn’t come in; they missed out on a special moment of humanity.

I love that program and wish I could find the name of it so I could learn more about it.  It was run by a Queen named Frederica who visited them.  My mother was the child chosen to present her a bouquet of flowers.  Before the queen arrived they taught my mother how to curtsy before her.  She felt so honored.   There is a Queen Frederica of Greece who was active in helping children after Greece’s civil war. She set up “child cities” all over Greece after their civil war, called Queen’s Camps.  I do believe that is the same queen who ran the program my mother benefited from, especially since she too was German.

3

Nine – Jáchymov Prisoner of War Camp

Meanwhile, my grandfather, Paul, was transferred from a labor camp in Siberia, Russia, to another one in Czechoslovakia called Jáchymov.  It was a Soviet controlled Stalinist labor camp.  He was sent there to work in the uranium mines.  Not surprisingly, the food was horrible and they weren’t given protective gear to wear in the mines.  There were many accidents, and if one didn’t befall you, you were still injured when your lungs breathed in the highly carcinogenic uranium dust (Paul died from lung cancer thirteen years after he was released).

He was allowed to write one small note, a postcard, home once per month and vice versa.  My mother (his daughter) sent him drawings – she has always been an artist.

At certain times during the day the prisoners would be outside where they would sit near the fence.  Czech girls would come to the other side of the fence and talk with them.  In 1951, seven years after he first became a prisoner of war, one of his friends in the camp became very close with one of these Czech girls.  She told him that all German prisoners should already have been sent home.  She told him she could tell someone she knew that German prisoners were being held here.

Instead of getting their hopes up, they resigned to the fact that they would die in this camp.  So they decided to starve themselves.  When they received their only meal, soup, they dumped it onto the floor.  It was never clear to him which, if either, thing set them free.   All he knew was that three days later the Russians let the German prisoners go home.  They were sent home in alphabetical order.  His last name starts with an “S” so he was one of the last to leave.

Celebrating.  Berlin 1951.

Celebrating. Berlin 1951.

So it was that in 1951, when my mother was 11-years old, a knock came on the door.  It wasn’t Paul, but a handsome young man in his 20s whose last name begins with a letter earlier in the alphabet.  He let Erna know that Paul would be at the train station the next day.  He also told them that Paul was the one in the camp who tried to boost morale every day and made them exercise daily.

My mother remembers the jubilation they felt when they heard this news.  The three of them raced around the apartment back and forth screaming with joy.  The last time my mother had seen him was when she was four years old.

Reunited.  Paul is the one sitting against the wall next to my mother.  The other man is a good friend of the family.

Reunited. Paul is the one sitting a little higher in front of the curtain.  Next to him is my mother, my grandmother (Erna), and the man is a good friend of the family.

At the train station no one recognized him.  He was wearing a Russian hat with fur on it and was extremely bloated.  He looked awful at first, but as you can see, he fully recovered.  Now they could catch up and hear one another’s stories.

5

Eight – the Berlin Blockade and the Berlin Airlift

The excursions to the black market from 1945 – 1949 helped them eat, but they were still hungry all the time. My mother remembers eating “newspaper soup,” potato skins from the trash, and whatever weeds they could pull from between the cracks in the sidewalk.

In 1948 the Russians blocked all access to Berlin.  Leading up to June of 1948, Russia created a starvation problem in Berlin while simultaneously announcing that if Berliners voted for the communist party in the next election, they could have food!   They worked both angles: Russia was determined to drive the Americans, British and French out of Berlin by not cooperating with agreements.

Germany - showing the location of Berlin within the red portion of Germany, which is the Soviet sector

Germany – showing the location of Berlin within the red portion of Germany, which is the Soviet sector

Since Berlin was within the Soviet Zone they wanted Berlin for themselves.  The Russians advanced on Berlin kidnapping people off the streets and arresting Americans who wandered into the Soviet zone.   Berliners were advised on how to act if they were kidnapped: “scream as loud as you can so everyone can hear you.”  The Americans repeatedly told the press that they were not going to back down and leave Berlin to the Russians.  To do so would mean giving in to communism, and the threat of more political takeovers.  It was the start of the Cold War.

In April of 1948 the Soviets announced new restrictions on trains running through the Soviet zone to Berlin – restricting all military personnel from bringing in supplies. General Clay, the American representative sent to govern the American zone of Berlin, ordered that all operable cargo planes available in Europe would fly enough food into Berlin for the American GIs, their family and employees – but nothing for the 2-million Germans in the Western zones of Berlin.  It was still “illegal” to feed the Germans from American tax-payer money.

Berlin Blockade 1When, on June 23, 1948, the Americans still had not given up Berlin, Russia announced the blockade of all access points to the Western sector of Berlin – called the Berlin Blockade.

The Americans, British and French did not back down and leave the Berliners to the Russians.

And the Berliners themselves did not get lured into the Russians’ promise of food in exchange for loyalty to the communist regime.  Berliners trusted the Western Allies and chose to be hungry rather than “saved” by the Russians.

Three days after the blockade began the Americans and the British began a routine flight operation to supply Berliners with food, an operation called the Berlin Airlift.

Illustration credit: Wikipedia

Illustration credit: Wikipedia

Some thirty planes would fly into Berlin each day with flour, potatoes, fresh milk, serums and vaccines.

Photo image from Kings Academy.com

Photo image from Kings Academy.com

American pilot, Hal Halvorsen, described landing in Berlin: “…the view, Halvorsen remembered, ‘just about took our breath away. Nothing I had read, heard or seen prepared me for the desolate, ravaged sight below.’ “   Another description by William Shirer, an American correspondent, wrote, “[Berlin was] a great wilderness of debris, dotted with roofless, burned-out buildings that look like mousetraps with the low sun shining through the spaces where windows had been.”

The Candy Bombers

The Candy Bombers

It was amazing that two million people still lived in this city, and that the war had ended three years prior.  A side note: Hal Halvorsen is the pilot who instigated the “Candy Bombers”  – little candy bars with handkerchiefs attached as parachutes that he dropped for the children just before landing his plane.  Hal Halvorsen was so loved by the children and their parents for this act of acknowledgement and thoughtfulness, that October 3 is “Hal Halvorsen” day in Berlin.

But even with that many planes landing throughout the day and night, there still wasn’t enough to keep the two-million Berliners from near starvation.

Templehof Airport

Templehof Airport

My mother always believed that there wasn’t enough food because of the runway at the airport.  The runway was too short for big airplanes.  But according to this book, Cherny explains that those planes were all they could get.  And, yes, the runways were in very poor condition, as well as short.   When Hitler built the airport terminal, his concern was to show off and make it larger than any other in the world.  He was less concerned with the usefulness of the runways themselves.  They were poorly made with steel planks that began coming apart after so many airplanes had landed there.  After each plane landed on the runway, the runway would be cracked and broken up.  German women of Berlin were hired to scurry over and patch the concrete back down so the next plane could land.  The blockade was lifted in May of 1949 and resulted in the creation of two separate German states – East and West Germany.

The Berlin Airlift June 1948 through May 1949

The Berlin Airlift  -                                                 June 1948 through May 1949

3

Seven – Hunger and the Black Market

Mother holding a Russian doll in their Berlin apartment, circa 1947

Mother holding a Russian doll in their Berlin apartment, circa 1947

With over two-million people living in Berlin and so many of them homeless, including my mother, after their apartments were bombed at the end of the war, it wasn’t an easy feat to find a place to live.  Fortunately, Erna’s sister, Marichen, lived in the building next to theirs and it was still in okay condition.  They stayed with her until they found something of their own.   There was a waiting list for apartments.

They knew of someone in their neighborhood who had been a soldier and died in war. His wife had gone missing after the war.  The apartment was empty and they thought she would never come back, so they moved in and stayed there indefinitely.  But one day she did come back.

With that new dilemma, Erna hunted for another place to live.  Someone, a helpful stranger, told her there was an older lady who lived alone.  Erna paid her a visit and offered her food in exchange for living quarters.  It was a two-bedroom apartment located at Goten Strause 17.  This woman was always in the kitchen and my mother sat in there with her talking and eating whatever small amounts of food they had.  Over the years the woman became a good friend of theirs and my mother has fond memories of her.  A few years later the woman died and the entire apartment became theirs.

Food was scarce after the war.  In his book The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, Andrei Cherny writes, “every day, long trains, rumbling trucks, and heavy river barges moved toward Berlin carrying all the provisions they could bring – potatoes, bread, shoes, socks, overcoats, newsprint and matches.  It was not nearly enough.”  To get a sense of the hunger: “In the first few months after the war, the Americans pledged an official ration of 1,550 calories [per day] ….[and] a year after the end of the war, the Americans distribution of food was 1,180 calories [per day], and still another year later it had dropped to 1,040 calories a day.” Since Berlin was encircled by the Russian sector of Germany, the three Western powers (England, America and France) had to transport all the food and supplies for their sectors in Berlin by route of the Russian sector of Germany.

Cherny further writes, “Hunger became an all-consuming concern for Germans, the lens through which they saw everything they did” and “the American GIs were warned, it was reported, that ‘it would be illegal to give the Germans a speck of army food,”  and there were signs positioned in the bases that read, “American taxes pay for your food—it is forbidden to give, sell, or trade it to the natives.’”   The American GIs lived well while the Berliners scrounged in the trash cans for their left overs.

To supplement their food rations, and to pay their landlady and friend, in food, Erna regularly went to the black market.  She took my mother, who was six, seven and eight years old, over a three-year period because it was safer to travel with a child.  The Russians tended to leave women who were with children alone.  My mother has always been impressed with her memories of the Russians who seemed to like children and she was never afraid of them.

Of their trips to the black market my mother says they called it “hamsted” (meaning to be like a hamster, who buries food in the ground).  The black markets were in East Germany, the Russian sector.   The farmers gave them food in exchange for goods such as cameras and household items.

My mother recalls one trip in particular.  They were at the train station, the U-bahn, in the Russian sector on their way back home.  The train station was full of women and everyone had a bowl of “cherry soup.”  My mother said it was the first time she ever ate cherry soup and she loved it.  Suddenly, Russian soldiers came walking in and stood there watching over the women as they ate their soup.   A stranger approached my mother and Erna’s table to sit with them as though they were all together.  My mother was the only child in the room, and this woman must have known it was safer to be in the company of a child.   The Russians took all the women in the room and loaded them onto a truck.  They drove away.  The only people left in the train station were the train station employee, my mother, my grandmother (Erna) and the woman stranger.

On another trip, my mother’s older sister was with them (my aunt Margit).  On this train the passengers sat on top of coal.  A group of Mongels wielding sabers stopped the train.  They made everyone get off.  My grandmother sat on the one suitcase they had between the three of them.  They watched the Mongels throw off all suitcases still on the train, someone below slashed them open looking for goods.  They broke a man’s arm when he tried to protest.

My grandmother and mother in Germany circa 1947.  It amazes me how they always seem to happy even in such difficult times.

My grandmother and mother in Germany circa 1947. It amazes me how they always seem to be happy even in such difficult times.