World War II Devastating Experience, Part II

Kerr, Lois. "World War II Devastating Experience, Part II." Golden Roundup. October 2010, 20 & 21.

(Last month we brought you the story of life as a German civilian during World War II. Helmut Wolff survived hunger, refugee camps, Russian soldiers, and all the horrors associated with war. This month we will finish Wolff’s story of his life in post World War II Germany and his emigration to the US in 1951.)

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. When the Polish people left Germany, they helped themselves to anything of ours that they wanted, and there was nothing we could do about it, because we were the losers. My family left the East zone and moved to a west zone at Hamburg, controlled by the British, in November of 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.”

He adds, “We needed a place to stay, but we were not accepted at first in Hamburg. It was very bad. We just kept moving around from place to place because we had nowhere to stay.”

No one had much left in the way of possessions, and food remained in short supply. “Everyone was poor,” Wolff remarks. “I worked on a farm, trying to survive. I got beans to eat three times a day and had to work for them. My mother would go out after harvest to pick barley off the ground to roast for coffee.”

He adds, “People need to understand what life was like, and maybe they’d have a different outlook. When I got older, I began to try to make sense of what happened and to understand this just a little better.”

Wolff’s older brother survived the war and found the family through the help of the Red Cross, and in 1948, Wolff’s father also located the family and rejoined them at Hamburg. “My dad was in a prison in France until then,” Wolff says. “He was skin and bones when he got back. The prison he was in was just an open camp, with no shelter and only the sky for a roof.”

Wolff worked in a variety of
occupations once he arrived
in America. Here, in 1953, he
worked with a seismographic

Wolff’s family had a link to the US, a link that helped the family survive and eventually led to Wolff relocating to Montana. “My parents had connections to people in Montana,” Wolff notes. “My grandmother’s brother came here in 1912 and they communicated through letters. My grandmother wrote to her brother after the war and told him we had nothing left. One day we got a parcel that contained needed items, including clothes. These packages really helped us a lot. Everything in the packages was different than what we were used to. Even the clothes smelled different.”

Wolff asked his mother to see if the US relatives would sponsor him as a newcomer to the US. The relatives agreed to do so, so Wolff began the long process of applying for and obtaining permission to leave Germany and emigrate to the US. “It took a year before I had permission to come,” he says. “There was a lot of paperwork.”

Once Wolff had permission Golden Roundup October 2010 to emigrate, he booked passage on a boat. It was 1951, and Wolff was 23 years old when he left Germany. Wolff spoke no English, he would travel far from home on his own, but he was ready for a new life. It took approximately ten days to cross the ocean, a trip Wolff remembers with distaste, “I was so seasick,” he recalls. “I was so glad to see New York and I was so grateful to get off the boat at Ellis Island. It took awhile for me to regain my land legs.”

After clearing Ellis Island, Wolff traveled across the US by train to Culbertson to live with his uncle. “It took three days to cross the continent,” Wolff says. “I had nothing to eat because I couldn’t speak English and I didn’t know how to order food.”

Wolff had a tough time at first getting used to his new surroundings. “I was elated to be here until reality set in,” Wolff comments. “It was very tough because I was very homesick. During the daytime, it wasn’t so bad, but nights were really bad. It was tough to be in a new land, but I survived.”

He continues, “I learned English through pictures and by listening. Every month for the first six months I had to check in with the government, but after the end of six months, I was on my own and could travel anywhere in the US that I wanted.”

Wolff, always a hard worker, found gainful employment in several different occupations and with the help of others, he carved out a new life for himself in America. “I always got along,” he comments. “People helped me, I made a life here, and I never regretted my decision to come here.”

Wolff bought his first car in 1953.

Wolff bought his first car in 1953, and became an American citizen in 1958.

As an older man with a lot of experience under his belt, Wolff now reflects on his life, trying to make sense of his experiences and lay old ghosts to rest. “I think more about family now,” he remarks. “I remember things and realize what really went on in those years. I think how hard it was for my mother to let me come to the US. My older brother and my father came home, and I left. I regret leaving my mother and dad, but I feel I’ve been blessed.”

Wolff hates the thought of war, he knows the destruction and sorrow it brings, and he feels extreme sympathy for anyone who has to live through a war. “Wars ruin you,” he says. “People go from riches to nothing; you are cleaned out. Wars cause people to endure so much suffering, and so many people die, and for what? It’s a very bad deal.”

He adds, “Young people need to know what the generations before them went through so they appreciate what it cost others so they can have the life they live today.” Wolff at 82 years of age continues to work and to make a difference in his community. “I am blessed,” he concludes, “but I worked for it. I’m still working, trimming hedges and doing yard work. I've worked all my life; that's what I do."

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