World War II Devastating Experience, Part I

Kerr, Lois. "World War II Devastating Experience, Part I." Golden Roundup, September 2010, 18 & 19.

Helmut Wolff
Very few of us have experienced war as a civilian, and even fewer of us have lived through a war as a civilian on the losing side, unable to get away from the fighting, wondering where the next meal might come from, and often ending up with only the clothes on one’s back. Helmut Wolff, Sidney, experienced the horrors of war as a German citizen, and lived through the suffering, starvation, loss, death and brutality that today we call World War II.

Wolff, born a German citizen in 1928 at a German settlement in Romania, lived an ordinary life as a farm boy until 1939-1940 when the Russians overran Romania. From that moment on, Wolff’s life became extraordinary. “It was difficult for farmers when the Russians came,” Wolff says. “The Russians took over the farms, they turned churches into stables and granaries, and life was very hard.”

The German government reached an agreement with the Russians to allow German citizens to leave Romania. On Oct. 8, 1940 at the age of 12, Wolff and his father and older brother fit everything they could into a horse drawn wagon and left the remainder of their possessions behind and fled Romania. “My mother and two younger brothers had left two days before on the bus,” Wolff recalls. “My dad, older brother and I piled everything we could into a wagon and left. The Russians would stop us along the way and go through our possessions to see what we had.”

The caravan reached a seaport; the refugees loaded their belongings onto a boat, left the wagons and horses behind, and sailed for Belgrade. The families then moved by train to Leipzig, Germany, where they lived in a refugee camp for six months before the German government resettled the refugees on new farms. “The government tried to find out what land we had in Romania and they told my parents we would get the same amount of land we had left behind, and that the farm would be somewhere in the east.” Wolff says. “They sent us to Poland. They chased the Polish farmers off their land, put them in camps, and resettled the Romanian Germans on the farms. My parents had no choice, so they moved to a farm in Poland and we stayed there until 1945, farming the land.”

When the Russians overran Romania in 1939-1940, the Wolff family, along with other German citizens living in Romania at the time, had to evacuate. The Wolffs, like other evacuees, could only take with them what they could fit in a horse-drawn wagon.
By 1945, both Wolff’s father and older brother had been drafted into the German army, leaving Wolff, then 16, in charge of the farm. “As the war went on, the Germans took anyone who could move and put them in the army,” Wolff says. “People went to war in civilian clothing. I was 16 at that time and in January we could hear the shooting in Poland and the war kept coming closer.”

Once again, Wolff and his mother and younger brothers packed up and moved, trying to stay out of harm’s way. As the man of the house, Wolff packed what he could. “There were very few adult people around,” Wolff comments. “I got the wagon packed and my mother, my 85-year-old grand-mother, my two younger brothers, and I left. It was January, there was snow, and it was cold. There was a long line of wagons with people trying to get out.”

He continues, “We moved in a caravan. Some people didn’t make it. The war was so close, there were always airplanes overhead, bombs falling, soldiers all over; everyone was running to get away.”

The Wolff family ended up 30 miles from Berlin. Although farmers in the area had very little left of their own, they made room for the refugees. Wolff stayed with a farmer who opened his doors to this family in need. Then the enemy arrived. “One morning I went out, looked around, and there were the Russians,” Wolff remarks. “The fighters, the first ones who got there, moved on through to Berlin.

The Russians turned Romanian churches like this one into stables and granaries for horses.

The second wave of Russians stayed.” The second wave of Russians brought terror and brutality with them, raping the people and the land in the process. At this point, the Russians detained Wolff, along with several others, and subjected him to torture. “The Russians beat me, kicked me, put a rope around my neck and pushed me around like a toy,” Wolff comments. “I was 16 years old. It’s amazing what a person can take.”

He continues, “They held me in a small shed with some other prisoners, and I guess I was there about a month. We never knew if we would make it through the day, and some of us did not. All this time we could hear bombs falling, I saw all sorts of atrocities, and I never knew when it would be my turn.”

One day a Russian officer lined up the prisoners and talked to each one individually. For some reason, the Russian officer allowed Wolff to leave. “I don’t know if it was my age, or because I could speak Russian and Polish fluently, or what, but he let me go home,” Wolff says. “It was a miracle. When I got home, all my mother could say was ‘My Lord, my Lord,’ because people had told her I was dead.”

The war ended, but the suffering and tribulations did not. “Everyone was starving,” Wolff comments. “People were skin and bones. The Russians found the few belongings we had left from Poland, and took them. We left the East zone and moved to the west zone, controlled by the British, in November 1945. All we had left fit in one suitcase but even then, the Russians looked through everything we had. We got out just in time, because the borders all closed shortly afterwards.”

(Next month we will continue Wolff’s story. Hardships continued after the end of the war, and Wolff had to start with nothing. He will discuss his life in post war Germany and how he finally made it to the U.S., and to relatives in Culbertson, MT.)

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