Walter Emil Flato
Transcription completed by Lilli (Flato) Henricksen during the years 2004 through 2007
The following account of Walter Flato’s life was dictated to his daughter Lilli Flato Henricksen during the years 2004 through 2007. Lilli transcribed the audio record into the following account.
1916 – Walter Emil Flato was born on Nov. 22, 1916 to Daniel and Wilhelmine Flato at Kulm, Bessarabia, Rumania. Walter’s grandparents and great-grandparents had immigrated from Prussia to Russia because of religious differences in the mother country. The original family name, Flath, had been changed to Flato because of a Russian clerical error.
Walter was the youngest of 13 children. He had 5 brothers and 7 sisters. A set of twins were born before him but they did not survive. According to Walter, his mother probably worked too hard before the twins were due which caused them not to survive. His mother would often take him to the gravesite of the twins, Berta and Reinhold, and plant flowers as was the custom. His dad died when he was around 3 years old. This left his mother and the other siblings to raise the large family. They also had a servant to help with the work on the land they owned. His mother did not remarry until after she immigrated to America in 1948 with other family members.
In 1927 a levee broke and Leipzig, Bessarabia was flooded. This was about 6 km from Kulm where the family lived. Many people drowned. Walter’s siblings, Hulda, Emilie, Elizabeth, Wilhelm, and Lydia immigrated to Canada while Gottlieb, Wilhelmine, and Otto immigrated to Germany
In 1938 Walter was working on the farm. He received a letter with a “Red” card. This meant that he would not be drafted then. He just had to sign it and return it. The letter ordered him to stay home and be ready when they did call him up. He was 22 years old. He received the card 2 more times. The first was a red card and the second ordered him to report for active duty into the Rumanian Army. He was sad that he had to leave…every male 21 years old was drafted at this time. He was almost sick. He could hardly get himself to eat. He had heard that some guys that he knew didn’t make it back home alive. He was drafted for 2 years and 3 months, from March 13, 1938 until June 28, 1940.
On Easter 1939, Walter was standing guard. An old lady came by and brought him a bag of cookies and Easter eggs...it was against the law to do this. She didn’t say a word, leaving him the bag and walking away. This was at the Dawn river in Rumania. In the summer of 1939 he helped a German corporal capture a man who was stealing onions near the Dunahour river in Rumania.
On September 1, 1939 war broke out between Germany and Poland. Blitzkrieg brought a quick end to the war.
On June 23, 1940 Walter was at the Russian/Rumanian border. He was told to go home. It took about one hour to walk home. A Russian soldier wanted his rifle and he gladly gave it to him. On June 28, 1940 Carol, the king of Rumania, told his people that they would have to leave eastern Romania. Stalin gave the orders for all Rumanian soldiers to leave the area in 3 days. This part of Rumania was now under Russian rule.
In 1940, all ethnic Germans were allowed to leave Bessarabia per the Hitler-Stalin pact. All the people that didn’t have a wagon and horses, left on September 28, 1940 by bus. There were approximately 40 buses. On a Sunday morning, October 6, Walter and Irma Leischner and Emilie Leischner, Irma’s mother, left by wagon with a few cherished items. They had to leave all of their furniture and many other belongings behind. While on the wagon, Irma’s suitcase was stolen with her best clothes in it by one of 2 neighbors who were told to ride with them. They could only take a few items, which were only her best clothes. She didn’t report this incident to authorities because the woman that stole her suitcase could have made counter accusations and they might have been held up. Irma was heartbroken about all this but there was nothing she could do about it.
When they stopped for the night, Walter slept under his wagon and always went to bed early. He heard the people in his group singing a song that woke him up. He wasn’t sure what song it was, but it was beautiful.
When they arrived at the new border, the Russians were checking the wagons. The horses were fighting. It seemed that they knew there was something wrong. The border patrols let Walter through to Galatz, Rumania. There they had to leave their horses and wagons for a few weeks.. A song that Walter never forgot when they left Rumania was “Farther Along We’ll Know All About It.” From Galatz they traveled to Warneck, Germany by train where they lived in a tent for a short time. They then went by ship to Beachova, Czeck then onto Walthorst, Germany. In Germany the people were asked many questions on family history, sicknesses, any mental illness issues, how much land they had, etc.
On February 26, 1941 Walter and Irma were married in Walthorst, Germany. He was given the best horse and buggy for their wedding. Other relatives were also temporarily living there. Emilie Radke, a relative, lent Irma her wedding ring for the ceremony since Walter didn’t have a ring. It was only used for the ceremony. They stayed in Walthorst for a few weeks. They then went by wagon to Kosten, Poland and onto Langenbruck, Poland (German occupied till 1945). They had been assigned a farm in Langenbruck on February 21, 1941. In Langenbruck, Walter was given the best farm machinery by the SS. He farmed about 19 acres. Walter remained on the family farm for about a year after they married
In1942 WW II was in full swing. Walter was drafted into the German army on October 31, 1942. and was sent to Litown as a recruit. Walter had previously tried to enlist in the SS but had flat feet and didn’t qualify. He later said that this was the best thing that happened to him. “The SS were always the first in and the last out and suffered the most casualties. I wouldn’t be alive today, if I had gone into the SS.”
Walter was drafted into the German Army on Oct. 31, 1942. He was going to be sent to the Russian front line for training but his temperature was high because he developed an infection so he never had to go. He worked a little at the hospital when he started feeling better.
On March 9, 1942, Erich Ewald, Walter and Irma’s first child, was born at Wartegau, Poland. Irma was very sick after he was born. She almost bled to death. On May 2, 1943, their 2nd son, Willi Woldemar was born in Langenbruck, Poland. It was hard for Irma to raise two small children during WW II while Walter was serving in the German army.
Walter’s unit fought partisans in Yugoslavia. A favorite story concerned their cornering a partisan in a building. They were shooting at him and he was shooting back. They brought up a small cannon and blew half of the building away, but no one wanted to get close to see whether or not they got the partisan. Some civilians were watching the battle. They grabbed a civilian and told him to check things out. The civilian ventured forth, looked things over and reported back, that the partisan was still alive and kicking. They turned the cannon toward the remaining half of the building and blew it apart. Their civilian checked things out again and this time they got the partisan.
Walter was wounded for the first time by American bomb shrapnel in Italy. He was in a military hospital from February 12, 1944 to April, 1944. There were 4 wounded and 4 dead soldiers in the action in which he was wounded. The wound was to his right upper leg but no bones were broken. He was taken to a hospital where there were probably wounded American soldiers because no one spoke to him for two days, although the people were very nice to him. He was later taken to Muran, Austria, then to Innsbruck, Austria and onto Marinburg, Germany for 2 weeks of R&R.
After Walter recovered from the injury, he wanted to go back to his original unit but was assigned to another one. So he said that he wanted to visit his family first but they wouldn’t let him. He went anyway. When the officer in charge noticed that Walter was on a train and leaving, he told them, “Oh, I must be on the wrong train”. He got off and boarded another train. He found Irma and her sister visiting relatives. They were visiting another sister and were so surprised to see him. Walter stayed for a one day visit. He didn’t want to get in trouble for being AWOL, so he went to Marinburg, Germany. Irma and Adelina, Walter’s sister-in-law, later visited him there.
During the war, Walter recalled a soldier in his platoon who was wounded. He held his hand that was almost off and just hanging by the skin. He wrapped it to stop the bleeding. The soldier was a sergeant. The sergeant cried out, “My God, I’m not going to make it”. Walter later learned that the sergeant ended up having his arm amputated.
In the fall of 1944, while on the Russian front, Walter saved about 12 soldiers’ lives. A total of 32 were in his platoon. They were in foxholes while artillery was falling all around them. He yelled out, “Away from here”. His comrades all listened to him and got out of the foxholes and moved back. Right after leaving, an artillery round landed right where they just left. The Lieutenant in charge was new and in-experienced. At first he wasn’t very happy to have someone else give orders, but when he realized he had saved their lives, he listened to what Walter said. This took place near the Russian border.
On January 25, 1945 Walter was wounded at Pelouw, Ostpressen by a Russian tank shell splinter that went through his leg. But again no bones were broken. Seeing his wounded and dead comrades, he recalled yelling out, “You can’t kill me”, as the bullet and shells fell all around.
Two horse-drawn wagons drove by during the shooting. No one stopped to help him till a 3rd wagon drove by. It stopped and a soldier put his hands up and made the wagon stop. He appeared like an angel—dressed in clean and sharp looking clothes. Walter was picked up by this “Angel” at this time. He then disappeared and Walter never saw him again. This was all going on during continued firing and fighting. The 2nd driver that had earlier passed him by, came back. The driver discovered that he knew Walter from Rumania.
Walter was unloaded at a farmhouse. Walter was taken to a hospital in Konigsburg, Germany for about 2 weeks. All the nurses had left and only a nun stayed and she assisted the doctor when Walter was taken into surgery. This doctor gave Walter a shot of whisky because he did not have any pain medicine to give him. The doctor told Walter that they may have to amputate his leg before going into surgery but later discovered that it wasn’t necessary. When Walter was told that he might lose his leg, he said, “Lord, Your Will Be Done”.
Konigsburg was encircled by the Russians. A German counterattack opened the city and many of the wounded were evacuated. An officer asked Walter if he could walk and he said he could. The officer said, “No, you can’t.” After arguing for a few minutes, Walter convinced the officer he could. He was able to walk to a train and left an area that was to soon to be taken by the Russians. Those soldiers that couldn’t walk were left behind since the train could not haul wounded soldiers on cots or who otherwise had to lie down. While on the train on a cold January night, Walter was in so much pain he laid flat on the cold floor of the train. An officer came by and said he’ll get sicker if he doesn’t get off of the floor. So he forced himself to sit while in extreme pain.
The train took them to a Red Cross ship, the Britoria, which took them to Copenhagen, Denmark. This Red Cross ship was later sunk by the Russians. Walter’s brother-in-law Robert Bantel’s sister was a nurse on this ship and was lost. From there they took a train to Flenzburg, Germany to drop off a few wounded soldiers as there were too many for the hospital at Rendsburg to be cared for. Walter stayed in the hospital in Rendsburg. He had a high fever. Glasses were put on his back (an old remedy) to break the fever. He was told he had malaria. He remained in the hospital till the war ended. Walter was discharged from the army in Brussels, Belgium in June 1945.
When Walter got out of the army, he worked with another man delivering food to the hospitals by horse and buggy. He also worked for a company for a brief time shoveling debris left after the war, keeping the good stuff and junking the other stuff. He also worked on a farm in Schleswig-Holstein for one day but didn’t get paid; just got a nice dinner.
In November 1945 Walter had no idea where to find his wife and family. After the war, thousands of German soldiers were sent to Brussels, Belgium for 20 days to a small camp-like area, waiting to go back to their homes. In this camp, Russian officers asked the soldiers whether they wanted to go back to their homeland and to their families. Only 32 soldiers raised their hands, including Walter. Those that wanted to leave were sent by train to Holland. For 3 days they had the best food and were given English cigarettes. Here they changed into British uniforms. Walter and the other soldiers were ordered to clean the toilets in this camp as they were overflowing and very dirty. It appeared that the Russians didn’t know how to flush toilets.
From Holland they traveled to a German city close to the border. While there in a kitchen, a Russian soldier took away all of the cigarettes from the soldiers. They were hard to get at this time. Conditions got worse as they traveled eastward. At Magdeburg, Germany the living conditions were really bad.
The group was next transported to another city in Germany. At this point, there were German commissars and Russian commissars. A Russian officer asked Walter how he got from Rumania to Germany. Walter told him that he only wanted to go home to his family. The officer told him he could marry a Russian. But Walter insisted on going home to his family even though the Russian said he wouldn’t see them again. Finally the officer told him to leave his office. Walter was the only one that was questioned that extensively. The other soldiers were not questioned as far as he knows. Walter spoke for the rest of the group. As the soldiers were all lined up, a Russian soldier started to strip them all of their personal belongings and another Russian officer told him to leave them alone and that they didn’t have much anyway.
There was one Russian officer that treated Walter and the others decently and assisted them to the train station in Leipzig and showed them where to check the list of where their families might be. At this point, Walter left the group.
The Russian officer sent Walter to Luckenwalde, East Germany in the evening to the railroad station. He had to wait until the next day as the trains didn’t run at night. At the station, Dad saw Edward Radke, a neighbor from Bessarabia and asked him where his family might be. Edward told him they were at Lilli Flato’s place. Lilli was Walter’s sister-in-law. He said his wife would be there. He was told to go to Grosbarent, railroad station. Walter took the train the next day.
When Walter got off the train, his wife was sitting with her sister, Mathilde Radke and her mother, Emilie Leischner waiting to board a train to look for him. His wife was going to check on the list at the train station to see if her husband’s name was listed. Then they saw each other and the search was over. Walter’s two sons, Erich and Willi were staying with their grandmother, Wilhelmine Flato. They were only 2 and 3 years old.
They boarded the train to go home. They didn’t have the correct papers so couldn’t continue on the train. Walter gave an officer 2 cigarettes so was able to go to Luckenwalde. The family stayed in Luckenwalde until Walter got papers saying that he had a job and a place to live in Rendsburg, Germany.
On January 21, 1946 Walter and Irma and family left Wartegau, Poland and on Feb. 3, 1946, arrived in Philipstahl, East Germany. This is under communist rule at this time. The Mayor of the city told Irma and her two children and Emilie Leischner and her sister, Mathilde Radke where they could find a place to stay. But the people there wouldn’t take them in. They returned to the mayor and he allowed them to stay at his place. Irma was pregnant with Lilli at this time.
Walter and his family next traveled by train to Seageburg, near Berlin. They were taken by truck to a train station and again had no place to stay. Walter looked up the Red Cross and they put them in a school house with other refuges for a few weeks but they had no food. Walter went into the woods looking for firewood for the stove. It was very cold with snow on the ground. While looking for firewood, he found a half frozen deer that someone had probably tried to snare because it still had a sling around its neck and was in a trap. Walter brought this deer to the Red Cross house where they were staying and asked the manager if he could clean this deer in the basement. He said that he would give the manager some of the meat. He let him clean it. Everyone wondered where they got the meat during mealtimes. Refuges just didn’t see any meat after the war and if they did, it was very rare. By the way, it was illegal to bring home meat at this time and he could have been reported and get into deep trouble. But God took care of him again as he had done many times in the past.
Walter worked for a farmer, Jurgen Mueller for a short time. He planted tobacco on the farm and made his own cigarettes and smoked a pipe too.
Walter worked for a farmer in Nibbel from about 1947 to 1948 in Lorenzenstrasse, Rendsburg, Germany. He was given a pig to raise by the milk tester who came by to test milk at the farm where he worked. In exchange for the pig, Dad gave him ½ lb. of coffee. The landlord raised the pig for him where he worked. When it was time to butcher the pig, the servants were a short distance away but didn’t hear anything while Walter butchered the pig.
Irma and the family lived in Rendsburg. Walter came home on the weekends. When the butchered pig was ready to be taken to Rendsburg, Walter arranged for Irma to come to Nibbel at a certain time with a wheelbarrel to pick up the pig. The pig was put in the wheel barrel with a blanket to cover it. Blood was dripping out of the wheel barrel and Irma tried to keep the blood covered up with dirt behind Walter as he pushed it. Irma was very nervous and afraid of being caught by the police, as they came closer to where they lived. But they made it and had meat to eat again. Lilli, their 1st girl was born on Aug. 6, 1946.
On November 7, 1947 Walter stood guard one night with a fellow worker and saw two men stealing milk. They were using the cream from the milk and making butter to sell illegally on the black market. Walter caught one of the men and beat him with a pitchfork, wrestled with him and knocked him unconscious with his fist.
Walter called the other man that was standing guard that night., “Gunter, I got him”. Walter put the unconscious man over his shoulder and started to carry him. After a short distance, he woke up. Walter asked him if he could walk. Walter and Gunter took him to the landlord and let him know that he got the thief that was stealing his milk. It was probably midnight at this time. The whole household woke up and they celebrated. They called the police and they took him off. When they had to go to court, the milk thief had complained to the judge about getting hit by Walter and how he was knocked unconscious. The judge answered, “If anyone gets hit with a hand that size, surely you won’t be able to get up!” Walter had very large hands and was very strong. The judge told Walter not to do that again. Walter went to court a second time and everything was resolved. Years later Walter looked up the milk thief again and apologized for hitting him so hard.
In 1948 Walter quit working for the farmer and started working in a foundry making bath tubs in Middledorf. Though he still worked for the farmer off and on. He worked at the bathtub foundry from 1948 to 1952. On November 4, 1948, Egon, a third son, was born in Rendsburg, Germany.
About 1948 a German Evangelist, Brother Waultvogel, came from New York to Hamburg, Germany to hold some tent meetings. The meetings were in a church during the morning and in the evenings, they were in a tent. The meetings were only for the one weekend. Walter was a Jehovah Witness for a short time before he attended these meetings. Walter told his mother-in-law, Emilie Leischner, about these meetings. She had remarked “Don’t you have a Bible in your home anymore?” But Emilie went to Hamburg with Walter to see what this was all about. She, in turn, also received a born again experience. In fact, she wanted to be baptized right away. So the next weekend on a Sunday, she was baptized in the river close to where the meetings were held. Years later in 1970 on a visit to the U.S. she wanted to go to church, even though she couldn’t understand anything since she only spoke German.
In 1949, a fellow worker at the bathtub foundry in Rendsburg, Mr. Kern had invited Walter to a gospel meeting. Mr. Kern was a quiet person. He would read his small Bible at work. The church was across from Walter’s home in Rendsburg. The church was a combined Baptist/Pentecostal church. The church was combined because one congregation didn’t have a pastor and the other didn’t have a place to hold their church meetings. Later the Pentecostals split and started a Pentecostal church in a school house.
From May 1951 until April 1952, Walter and Irma and their family lived at Rosenstrasse. #9, at Rendsburg, Germany. Walter would get up around 4:30 a.m. every Sunday morning and turn on the heat at the church. He had to walk about 15-30 minutes. Many Sundays there was snow on the ground. Then when the church was warm, he walked home to get ready for church along with the rest of the family.
When Walter and his family immigrated to America, his mother-in-law, Emilie Leischner, offered to turn on the heat at the church as no one else wanted to do it. She was over 50 years old. On May 29, 1951, Wilfred, the fourth son was born in Rendsburg, Germany.
In 1952 the family migrated to the U.S. They came by ship to New Orleans and arrived on May 14, 1952 at 4:25 p.m. It was a very very rough voyage. Most of the people on board got seasick. Other relatives were also on this ship. Walter’s sister, Lydia, and her husband, Emil sponsored them because at that time a sponsor was necessary before anyone could come to America. From New Orleans they boarded a train and came to Lodi, Calif. They stayed with Lydia and Emil Yanke for about 2 weeks until they found a place of their own.
Walter worked on a dairy on Highway 88, milking cows. Moving around from dairies, Walter milked cows until 1956. In 1953 the family was living in Brentwood. Walter milked cows for Carl Merritt until March, 1954 when he sold the dairy. He was making $320.00 per month with no days off.
In 1953 while living in Brentwood, Walter went to a grocery store shopping for food and tried to use his paycheck to pay. The clerk said she couldn’t cash his check (probably because she didn’t know Walter). Walter, not being able to speak English yet, left the store without food and this brought tears to his eyes. When the clerk saw this, she followed him outside and said that he could cash his check there anytime.
On March 12, 1954 the family moved to Lodi and bought a house at 312 Maple Street and lived there for about one week. Then Walter went back to work for Robbinette on April 8, 1954 until Oct. 15, 1954. On October 15, 1954 the family moved to Farmington, Calif. and Walter worked for Leslie Frey and got $350.00 per month which included free housing, P.G.&E. and one gallon of milk per day. Egon started first grade here in Farmington. Walter worked for Frey until June 1956. Walter started working for Mumbert Concrete Pipe Co. in October 1956.. He worked for Mumbert until he retired about 1979. He broke his left thumb in 1977 and also had back pain.
On December 6, 1956 Linda, a second daughter, was born in Lodi, Calif. Irma again was very sick before Linda was born. While living at Farmington, an ambulance had transported her to the county hospital. On September 8, 1959, Rose, a third daughter was born in Lodi, Calif.
From June, 1956 until June 1961, the family lived at 935 S. Central Avenue, Lodi, Calif. Walter would also prune grape vines for Otto Helmle to make additional money to support his family of 7 kids at that time.
In 1960, the two oldest sons, Erich and Willi, were both killed in a motorcycle accident. It was very tragic for everyone in the family.
From June, 1961 to Jan. 2001 the family lived at 835 W. Daisy Ave., Lodi, Calif. In 1978 Irma became very sick. She had a stroke, which left her right hand immobile for a time. She was put on total disability from the cannery where she worked for over 20 years and unable to go back to work. In the 1980’s Irma had a mitral valve replaced with a pig valve by Dr. Bollinger at Doctors Hospital in Modesto, Calif. She ended up having fluid around her lungs after she had gone home a few days. So she had to go back to Modesto at Doctors Hospital and have a chest tube inserted to get rid of the fluid. Then after this a short time later, she was spotting. So had to go back to Dr. Kemaley in Lodi (GYN M.D.) and had arranged for her to have a D&C. Then found out later that she had uterine cancer and had to go to see a cancer doctor in Lodi, (Dr. Kiraly) and he sent her to St. Joseph Hospital in Stockton to see about getting radiation treatments for the cancer. She also had to have a hysterectomy after this. She also had chemo therapy treatments, but nothing helped. She then developed Herpes Zoster which is the same as Shingles as her immune system went down. Doctor Reid, the skin doctor, treated her for the shingles.
In 1981 Walter bought Irma a diamond ring as she never owned one before. In April 1988 she was in the hospital for about 1 month for the cancer and was sent home with Home Health for TPN therapy via a porta cath. Her son Egon would come after work from Vallejo and visit her almost every night while she was home. Her son Wilfred flew in from Washington, D.C. to visit her while she was in the hospital and he probably knew that he wouldn’t see her again because he left the hospital in tears. Her youngest daughter, Rose flew in from Minnesota to visit her in the hospital before she passed away. Lilli spent many nights with her as did Linda. They took turns staying with her. She died on May 5, 1988 (about 4 a.m.). She died just before Mother’s Day.
Walter lived at Daisy Avenue until he sold the house in 2001 and moved in with his son Wilfred. He needed a little more help with ADL’s. He lived with Wilfred until May, 2006 and then with his daughter, Lilli, and her husband, Kenny, until March 8, 2008 when he passed away of pneumonia.