My Flight in 1945

Geske (nee Treichel), Elfriede, Doris. "My Flight in 1945." Mitteilungsblatt, February 2011, 12-13.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

[Translator’s note: this interesting story flows very well for a while, until a discontinuity occurs in the text, that is, beginning with an incomplete sentence in the original printed text it becomes somewhat more difficult to follow, but one can still put it all together. - AH]

It was January 20, 1945, a bitterly cold day. At the time I was working as a teacher’s aide, or auxiliary teacher, at the School for Home Economics in Gostingen in the Warthegau [western part of Poland then under control of Germany – Tr.]. Because the Soviet front had been approaching ever closer, my father, without my knowledge, had managed to get me transferred to Gostingen from a similar school in Warthebrücken. He had unexpectedly been called up to serve as an interpreter in Posen [Poznan, in Polish; the largest city in the Warthegau - Tr.], so I was supposed to live closer to my mother, whose town I would be able to reach on a local train within just forty-five minutes. But in Gostingen we suddenly received an announcement stating that we must all leave because the Russians had broken through. My first thought was to try to get on the local train, but trains were suddenly no longer running. So I simply was forced to get going some other way, accompanied by a woman from the Rhineland and her three children.

We were provided with a wagon and driver by an estate inspector, and that way we were able at least to take along some luggage. The temperature that day was minus 20 degrees Celsius [ca. 4 degrees below zero F. – Tr.], and we were riding in an open wagon. There were, in fact, a total of five wagons in our group, and we had to make sure that we stuck together. This was not as easy as one might think, since by now there were thousands of people on the road. We were, after all, in the midst of occupied Poland, and we all wanted to get across the [Western] border as quickly as possible. Although the horses periodically needed rest, water and feed, we could not afford to make lengthy stops. Rarely there might be a straw bed for us at night, at times even a real bed, even more rarely though a warm meal. Wherever we needed to stop, the people there were themselves getting ready to leave. During the third night we actually got a room with straw beds. Because everyone was totally exhausted, we fell asleep right away. Suddenly there was loud banging on the door, with the message, “Get up quickly, quickly! The Russians are coming!” Everything then proceeded helter-skelter. Still, and alas, the roads were hopelessly overcrowded with everyone wanting to get to any place where they could cross the Oder River. We were already hearing the steady thunder of artillery. My only thought the whole time was whether my mother had managed to get away, too, or whether she might have gotten stuck.

Suddenly I glimpsed a familiar rider. In the place where my mother had been living there was a large horse breeding estate. This rider happened to be the inspector of the estate. I took courage and decided to address him. As he continued to ride, he answered my question about my mother as he told me, “Yes, she, along with another woman, was provided with a wagon from the estate.” I was glad that mother was on her way, too. Shortly after that we reached a bridge spanning the Oder River. One could see explosives and soldiers running back and forth, which meant that this bridge was about to be blown up. In the middle of the bridge I made out the very tall figure of a higher officer, who was leading a trek across. It happened to be the manager from the estate. I recognized him immediately, because he had often played chess with my father. I greeted him, and he looked at this rather smallish girl in astonishment. I am only 158 centimeters in height [about five foot two – Tr.], but I was twenty-four years old. I asked him, too, about my mother. He confirmed that mother was underway with her own trek, but that he had no longer been able to take her along with him because his troops and their horses had to take a different route. He had separated from mother and another woman in Freystadt, because he and his troupe were heading toward Sudetenland [the German area of then Czechoslovakia – Tr.] from there. Our next night’s quarters were not far from Freystadt, so as soon as we had found a place for the night, I tried to call an office in Freystadt to try to find out where the escapees might be quartered. After some difficulty I was connected with a refugee camp, and a woman came to the phone. She had the same name, but it was not my mother. About to hang up in disappointment, I heard someone speaking into the phone, “Someone is coming to talk to you!” Lo and behold, it was my mother! Our joy was great, now that she also knew that I, too, was on the road and not about to fall into the hands of the Poles or Russians. Still, we would not be able to meet, because the escape procedure was still somewhat organized, and everyone was required to stay in one’s designated group. I still intended to try to see my mother the next morning, so I asked the estate inspector about the time of our intended departure. He thought it would be around 9 AM. I told my colleagues, “Really early, I am going to go to the city to try to find my mother. And around 10 AM I’ll be waiting for you at the transition point.” But when I reached the first camp in the city, I wasn’t even allowed to go up the steps to ask questions. I remained standing there for a while, hoping still to get somewhere, but the line of people waiting proceeded so slowly that I decided to get back on the road. Meanwhile, it was 10 AM. I remained there until 10:30 AM, but then I was gripped with fear that my colleagues had already continued onward. The snow was knee-high, and everything was clogged up. Everyone was pushing past everyone else – it was an unholy chaos. I started to run and struggled as well as I could to push onward. It seemed I was losing my mind, and I had on me nothing but a handbag with my papers and some money. After about an hour, when I was at the end of my strength, I suddenly saw a wagon from my group, and it was Black Sea Germans. They had a bad wheel and had to stay behind temporarily. I was deliriously happy to have discovered these people. They then let me go with them after the wagon had been repaired. And in that way I reached my own group again by evening.

After that we continued onward for about week, via Sagen, Sorau until, exhausted, we reached Gollmitz in Luckau County -- the locale we had been designated to stay in. By then our flight had lasted fourteen days. We were dispersed and given quarters, and after a long time we were finally able to get a warm meal. As soon as I felt a bit stronger and less hungry, I went to the mayor to ask whether I could call the main liaison office for refugees. He let me call, and I reached a man unknown to me. When he heard my name, he said, “Why are you in Gollmitz? Your mother is in here in Luckenwalde.” I was so flabbergasted that I forgot to ask where he had heard my name and where mother might he quartered. I thanked him and remained somewhat stunned, but really happy about what I had heard. I never did learn who that man was. Was he a messenger from God? The following day I packed some of my belongings and went off, via Falkenberg, to Luckenwalde. There I stored my luggage at the rail station and started to look for my mother. After only about ten minutes I saw several people in front of an inn. They were all refugees, so this must have been a transition camp. The room was overcrowded, and people everywhere were sitting on straw mattresses. Two gentlemen were sitting at a table and writing busily. I asked whether people were registering there. They replied in the affirmative, but mother’s name was not on the list, so I needed to look further. Just as I was about to leave, someone called out my name. Surprised, I turned around, and there my mother was approaching me. Our joy was indescribable! My brother Edmund, fifteen years old at the time, was also with her. So from then on we were not about to become separated again. The following day we were given quarters very close by, and so we remained in Luckenwalde for a while. When my younger brother reached the age of sixteen, he had to join the military, too. And it was here where we experienced the bitter end of the war and the arrival of the Russians. After about eight days, we were awakened from sleep. The loud noise of the doorbell and insistent knocking on the wooden outside fence door frightened us. Mother, who spoke some Russian, went to the balcony and said, “shto vy shuchait?” In English: “What are you looking for?”

“We need a place for our quarters,” someone yelled in reply. About ten persons streamed inside, and among them some officers. The soldiers immediately went into the living room and lay down on the floor. The officers proceeded to another room and merely asked for tea. Their cook asked about the kitchen and immediately began to cook. He proceeded to prepare their beloved borsht, a cabbage soup that is very well known in Russia. 

During the heavy knocking I had immediately taken to hiding in the upper floor, along with five other women and their children. We were all really scared, because we had already heard many terrible stories. Still, although there were placards everywhere saying “Anyone who plunders or rapes will be shot!” many did not heed the warning. We had been spared up to then. Suddenly an alarm sounded, and all the soldiers left the house without anyone receiving the slightest hurt. Mother was 44 years old at the time. We all returned to our rooms. We stayed in the same house four more weeks, and never again did any Russian turn up there! During the morning [after the raid], mother and I hear a loud, terrified scream. We quickly went into the next room – the one the officers had occupied the day before – and the lady of the house was standing there with a rifle in her hands. This same room had once been occupied by a man who had disappeared just before the Russians had arrived. The rifle had been lying there, out in the open, on top of a wardrobe! Had those officers discovered the gun, we would all have been shot, since the whole city was filled with the warning that “All weapons must be turned in, and those who do not give them up will be shot!” During the evening darkness we buried the rifle in the yard. Here God had really saved us!

Because people’s daily needs were getting more and more unfulfilled in the city – for the previous five weeks there had been no groceries, and our own meager reserves had quickly been used up – mother and I moved out into a village. There we were given shelter by a farmer, we received some potatoes, a liter [just over a quart – Tr.] of milk every day, and during work in the fields we were a given a good supper. There was plenty of work, and I helped wherever I could. Mother found work in a neighboring village – also merely for food. But at least we were surviving. By that time we had not received any news about our relatives – we didn’t even know where such news might come. The oldest brother was fighting at the Eastern front, father was in Poznan, and the younger brother was deployed near Berlin. The youngest at least … [incomplete sentence in the original text – Tr.]. Of course he could not know whether any of his relatives might still be alive. During the war, many children were sent out into the countryside because life in the larger cities had become rather dangerous. My parents had thus hosted two children from Berlin, and my father had known their home address. [The author or the text seems to have skipped a few events here … At this point there is a definite discontinuity to this story, or it is a convoluted way by the author to explain the rest of the story - Tr.] He went to look for the address in the destruction of Berlin and actually located the family in good shape. The family did not know anything about my father’s own family, but had been in contact with a family known to my father, where the children had also been a short time. So father set off from Luckenwalde to look for that other family. As he arrived in Luckenwalde, someone addressed him, “Mr. Teacher, where did you come from?” And when my father said he was looking for a certain family, the man said, “I know where their relatives live. I can take you there.” And it was thus that father came to us that same day. Fourteen days later my little brother also came. He had been taken prisoner outside of Berlin, but after a few terrible weeks he had been able to escape. But now we were together, and despite all the deprivation we had a lot of reasons to be grateful for how wonderfully we had been led and guided. So don’t let people say “There are no miracles!” My oldest brother had been deployed in the East, had been severely wounded, and had then come to Denmark on a hospital ship. Because of overcrowding, he was not operated for a long time, so he suffered a severe infection on the leg, which was then amputated against his will. When we arrived in the West in December [as confirmed by the text below, this was in 1945 – Tr.], we sent a search request to the Red Cross, something we had not been allowed to do in the East. Since our brother had also sent a similar request to the Red Cross, we soon received news that he had been taken to a field hospital in Aachen. Father and I subsequently took him home from there. And thus, by February of 1946 we were all reunited again.

Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of these articles.

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