A Boy Talks about Fleeing during Wartime
The shattering experiences of Ewald Siewert, documented and annotated by Lucie Kasischke-Kämmler
Kasischke-Kämmler, Lucie. "A Boy Talks about Fleeing during Wartime." Mitteilungsblatt, October 2010, 13-14.
Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.
It is January, 1945, not long before the end of World War II. People are in the process of fleeing! The Red Army approaches steadily. Soviet troops have reached the Warsaw area. – Slowly, ever so slowly, in the crunching cold, the unending refugee trek is inching toward the West. The roads are covered with ice and snow. Women, children, and the elderly are trying desperately to escape war and death. The men and the fathers are serving somewhere as soldiers, many having fallen long ago, many now prisoners of war – who knows! The horses nearly always are being led by Polish farmhands. The wagons are usually so heavily loaded with people and their things that the driver often must sit out front on the on the shaft behind the horses, trying to balance holding the reins and steering the horses. Again and again, wagons disappear into the ditch beside the road. Baggage, people, and wrecked wagons remain behind without being noticed. Children and injured elderly people are left behind in the snow. There is no time for human feelings. Persons turn into animals! – Now and then dull lights flicker in the distance, and there is the faint thunder of cannons emanating from the front. The trek moves tenaciously but slowly.
In one such column of wagons there is a mother with her four children, there being three boys of school age and a small girl only three years old. Mother is pressing the child close to her body against the merciless cold. The wagon is being steered by a Polish worker. The three young boys courageously walk alongside through ice and snow. Ewald recounts:
“Suddenly the driver began to beat brutally on the horses and to make them gallop wildly, with mother and the little sister Selma on the wagon, toward the next settlement. We three boys ran as fast as we could, following the wagon in the same direction. After we finally reached the village, we ran through the village, searching through all the streets again and again, but the wagon, our mother, and our little sister were nowhere to be found.
We had lost our mother
During our whole life
We would never see her again!
Now the three of us were left to fend for ourselves,” recounts Ewald further. “We had only the clothes on our back, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink. So we rejoined the stream of refugees to keep going on the road of fear, hunger, and cold. After about four days and nights the incomprehensible happened! It was near Bromberg, where Russian tanks were suddenly approaching from our front and rolling directly at us, crushing everything in their path. Gripped with extreme fear, people ran into the fields in all directions. We, too, rushed away, aimlessly, forcing out way through the snow so deep that it often came up to our hips. We tried hard not to lose sight of each other, but kept running and running until, finally, we found ourselves entirely alone, without any other people in sight. The road with the tanks and people shrieking for help was far behind us, and our desperate march continued for days and weeks, while we spent nights in cow stalls, barns, or empty homes. We would lie with our heads next to sleeping cows and warm ourselves by their steaming breath. Once we were able to seek protection in an inn, which happened to be occupied by German military. The soldiers immediately had us eat from their ‘goulash cannon’ [field soup kitchen] and gave us blankets. We settled down in a corner, covered up and fell asleep right away. It was long past midnight, though, when I suddenly woke up. An inner voice told me, ‘We need to go on!’ I shook my brothers awake, and we went out into the cold again.
We had not gone very far when we saw the inn behind us going up in flames and the night lit up like daylight. The German soldiers’ quarters had been discovered. We kept going, running as far and as fast as we could. Egon, our youngest brother, finally sat down in the snow and said, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll just lie down here.’ My brother and I pulled him up and yelled at him, ‘You have to [go on]!’ And we dragged him along. After some time – it was daylight by then – we saw a settlement some distance ahead of us. The place was deadly silent and the houses stood empty – people must have been fleeing from there, too. Only one chimney had smoke rising out of it. Hesitatingly, we opened the door. Here we could at least warm up. Suddenly an angel clad in a long white garment stood before us and said, ‘Children, you must not stay here. The enemy will destroy you! I’ll show you the way to where you will get help.’ We went out the door together. The angel pointed in a specific direction and we believed his words. Soon we again met up with German soldiers.
Today I think:
The white garment of the angel
Must have been a snow garment
From the camouflage clothing of
The German Wehrmacht.
But for my brothers and me
He is still an angel
To this very day.
He saved us
From a certain death
‘Boys, where are you coming from?’ asked one of the soldiers. ‘From Poland,’ we said. ‘But you must have been born in Bessarabia – I realized that from your wool hat. I am countryman of yours.’ Indeed, my younger brother Egon was wearing a Karakul hat like my father’s and had it rolled down past his ears.” The soldier transferred us to an assistance organization, which put us on a train toward Berlin. It was one of those trains that took to Berlin any individual children left behind on the streets and roads. The trip took several days and without food supplies. Those trains stopped only inside forests, because railroad stations were being bombed, and anything that moved would be shot at.
Reuniting with Father
It was the spring of 1946. The war had ended long before. Weapons were silent, but the country lay in rubble and people roamed around aimlessly looking for food or relatives. Ewald continues his story: “For a year I had been earning my daily bread by working the fields of a woman famer. One evening – I was already in bed – the woman called to me, ‘Ewald, someone here is asking for you.’ There my father was standing right in front of me! I had not known whether he was still alive, but he had indeed survived the war and his time as a prisoner of war with the British.” Ewald’s voice trailed off and became silent. His eyes seemed to be moist. Tears darkened his happy look.
“Via the help of the Red Cross our family had been able to reunite. The last one to join us was our sister Selma, eight years old by then. A Polish Christian couple had taken her in during those confusing times of the war of January, 1945, and she didn’t speak a single word of German.
Father married again, and so we four children would again be cared for by a loving mother. When the church bells rang on Sundays, our mother would take little Selma by the hand and take her to church service. Right after getting inside the door, she [Selma] would kneel and cross herself, looking searchingly for a holy water fount, but not finding it in the Lutheran church. Then she would sit calmly on the pew beside mother. At age twenty-one Selma married and brought two sons into this world. And in 1999 she died at the age of fifty-eight.” Thus ends Ewald’s telling of his story.
Many years have passed since those last days of the war when the East was teeming with treks of refugees on icy roads, when enemy tanks crushed wagons under their chains, and when people, fearing certain death, ran across fields covered deep with snow.
At the cemetery – Germany, 2010. The mild glow of the evening sun rests over God’s acre, the place of mourning, salvation and forgiving. A slim birch tree juts high into the sky. An oak tree and other mighty trees silently guard the final resting place of the dead. They also shield a rough granite stone, a stone marking the end of a life. It carries her name: Selma.
Pacing slowly I walk through the graves toward the exit. The son has by now totally disappeared. “Beneath every gravestone a whole world lies hidden,” wrote the poet Heinrich Heine some time ago.
The three brothers Ewald, Egon and Hugo in Bessarabia, before the resettlement
The father, Gotthilf Siewert (1903 – 1979)
Ewald with little Selma, in West Prussia, 1941
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of these articles.