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Temporary Settlement in West Prussia, 1941: Experiences of the Time

Űltzhöfer (nee Kaldun), Erna, "Temporary Settlement in West Prussia, 1941: Experiences of the Time." Mitteilungsblatt, September 2009, 18-21.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Youth at play in the backyard in Zgierz (Poland), 1941.
At the Park in Zgierz, April 3, 1941. – l. to r.: Hilde Pahl, Erna Kaldun, Irene Büttner, Hilde Büttner, Klara Hettich, along with the dog Flecki, Irma Eichelberg and Nelli Wagner.
A school group in Schönsee in West Prussia, 1942. Left to right: Hulda Mittelstedt, ErnaKaldun, Olga Hammel, Therese Nagel, Elisabeth Leinz, … ?,  Rosi Müller.

Following a brief stay at a camp in Zgierz near Litzmannstadt [Lodz/ Poland], March to April, 1941, we were housed in a school building. The rooms were large and had high ceilings, each occupied by eight to ten persons. Toilets and washrooms were shared. Meals came from a large kitchen. I even attended school there for a few weeks. It was spring, everything was in bloom, and there was a beautiful park very close to our camp. The fresh green of the birch trees, the blooming almond trees, the lilac bushes, and other blooming shrubbery became an oasis for us, since we had to live in crowded housing. There we also experienced Easter. We would play in the back yard and seek out entertainment in any form possible. Our parents had a more difficult time of it. They would have preferred to spend their free time the way they always had and, at least in part, with Christian content. But gatherings of that kind were forbidden during Nazi times [This was not the case during initial times of Nazi-German occupation of Ukraine after June, 1941 – Tr.]. All in all, this period became very much a loss, useless time for all of us. Fortunately it lasted only two months. During the whole time at the Zgierz camp our mother was ill, and a difficult middle-ear infection caused her to undergo an operation in a hospital in Litzmannstadt. During a visit there, as we were riding in a street car, we passed through a part of the city that had clearly been turned into a ghetto. We were all shocked at the sight of these poor people walking around in it. Wooden bridges had been erected over the street car line. While the people were allowed to move about inside the ghetto, they were still left totally separated from normal city life. Next to our camp there were two Jewish families. The men were tradesmen (a shoemaker and a tailor). Because they were needed, they were allowed to live near us, but all of them carried the mark of the star, one in the front, one in the back.

A girl from those two families, roughly our age, ten or twelve, always had to pass our building. The girl had pretty braids, always covering the front star with one braid, and the back one with the other braid. Time passed – it was May in the meantime, and we were taken to the Tuschin Forest near Litzmannstadt. It was a large forested area, organized into minor districts, with many small wooden houses. It is possible they might have been some sort of weekend homes. These had probably been vacation homes for Jews living in Greater Litzmannstadt, but were now most likely in the ghetto. Still, our stay in the Tuschin Forest was fairly pleasant. Our many folks had been distributed widely over these small houses. Our stay there might even be called a ghetto in the green. No one would allow himself to leave this district, where we were told to remain until further resettlement. Many medical exams were performed. A large kitchen supplied our meals. Here and there certain events took place, such as demonstrations, but also theater and cinema presentations. Somehow the time seemed pretty varied. Our stay in the Tuschin Forest lasted from May to the end of June.

On June 22, the war against Russia had begun. We could hear dull cannon thunder in the forest. My brother maintained that the earth was quaking. Only a short time alfer he was part of the Eastern front. By the end of June we were resettled in West Prussia, that is, in Briesen County. Triciano-Reinsberg was to become our new home. Later the place was renamed and was henceforth called Tanden. We were taken there in buses. How long were we on the way there? I can’t remember. At any rate, the distance between Litzmannstadt and Briesen, Thorn, and Graudenz was considerable. As we arrived at our destination, the local famer leader of the small village was standing on the main road in his SA uniform [SA = Sicherheits-Abteilung, the local militia – Tr.], awaiting us alongside a wagon and horses. After a brief welcome, we still had to keep going for a brief time. We drove up a hill, and on the upper level there was a large estate (the Rosenthal Estate). From there one could look down onto the small village.  There were around 15 – 20 farm homes, plus a small school building.

The local farm leader and two other families had lived there forever. After former owners had been dispossessed of their farms, eleven families from Tarutino (my home in Bessarabia) and four families from Krasna[Bessarabia] were settled there. Victims became agents against their will, as we can read in the book Im Sturm der Geschichte von Klaus Stickel [Bracing the Storm of History, by Klaus Stickel]. The Bessarbian ethnic group was being given a double role. The school building also contained an apartment for the teacher. Teacher Strohmeier from Tarutino and his small family were in that school for a short time. I attended the school for about a year. It had only one room for all its classes.

We took over a totally mismanaged farm. It had been operated for some time by a caretaker farmer. We arrived to a horrendous scene. Potato roots were growing out of the cellar. The house was totally in decline, and the barns looked just like it. There were three or four cows, two pigs, and things really looked bad in the horse barn.  There were two old horses and a young foal whose mare had recently died in an accident. It was very young, so we raised it on the bottle and named it Hans. The small horse at least provided us with some diversion. It jumped around with great independence, and it was very close to us, like a small dog. When it was hungry, it would come to the kitchen window and press its nose against the window pane.. It was exactly aware of feeding times. Seeing the milk can near the road, it knew that it would get some of it. It was a very smart animal. A lot of work had been awaiting us. July had arrived in the meantime, and the harvest had to be brought in. A very large tobacco field  required a great deal of work. It grew two kinds of tobacco – one with yellow blooms, another with red ones. For this toilsome work we had been provided the help of ten Polish women, who brought their children along. The children played on a corner inside or somewhere outside. Mother sometimes baked a kind of streusel kuchen or ginger cookies for all of us, but particularly for those children, too. Some tea cans were always there. This sort of work was always done in the afternoons. Tobacco leaves needed to ‘sit' for at least one day, after which they were gathered to be hung up. They dried like laundry on the line in the barn, then they were packed and taken on horse-drawn wagon to the cargo depot in Schönsee.

We also had to make sure that peat was harvested as heating material, because coal was rather scarce. The peat dig was part of the farm. Another very tough job was the sugar beet harvest.  Each beet had to be dug out with a special fork, laid exactly along a row for removal of the leaves, then to be heaped on a pile. It was often quite cold by the time the last beet had been harvested. Again, for their transport we had to go to the cargo depot at Schönsee – a long haul for the horses pulling a heavily laden wagon. Father often came home very late. After some time we got everything pretty much under control, on the farm and in the house. Brother Waldemar was with us for only half a year, after which he had to report to the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdiesnt – ed. [National Work Service]) and soon after that to the military.

In 1943 I had to serve my “Landjahr” [a year in the countryside] in Mocheln, Bromberg County. This was more or less training for managing a household. Girls of age 14 to fifteen learned pretty well all the kinds of work to be done in a home or in the garden. Half days we were also sent to farms to become familiar with the work a farm woman had to do. That way, before noon, we were to assist a farmer’s wife, no matter the task. It was always fun to prepare the noon meal. We were able to eat together before we were sent back to our own camp for the afternoon.

There were forty to fifty of us girls, and we lived together in an estate house surrounded by old trees on a park-like area, and a large garden that had to be taken care of. It had flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees, and we had to take care of it ourselves. We also had some animals – three pigs, three sheep, ducks and chickens. Three trained overseers were responsible for us. One had the overall management responsibility, the second oversaw our place’s operation, and the third directed the agricultural activities as teacher and group leader. Each week had its firmly set calendar of activities. Whether it was some task or some educational responsibility, music, sports, or general education  – we all had to conform to this plan. In any case, everyone learned a great deal, at our individual paces. Social behavior and comradeship were at the forefront -- certainly basic training for life. We wore the same kind of clothing for work and for Sundays, and for festive party events we had our BDM uniforms [BDM stands for  Bund deutscher Mädchen, or German Girls’ Alliance, the Nazi-inspired girls’ equivalent to the Hitler Youth organization for boys – Tr.].

We were not told about the persecution of the Jews. Neither was much said about the war situation. No one had a  radio, and so we heard hardly any news about how things really were in Germany.

For us girls this was a nearly whole world. During free time, we were able to read books from a rather good selection. Just once during that whole time were we granted a visit by our parents. All of us eagerly awaited the day. We had practiced theater pieces and songs and put together a varied program. Everything in the house had been prepared optimally, and our rooms were normally in good order, anyway. The day arrived, and we all picked up our parents from the railroad station, which was fairly close to our camp. In front of our building we greeted and welcomed our important visitors with song. The mess hall was large enough for all of us to eat together. Some of us girls had kitchen duty, others waited on tables. Each table was decorated with a small bouquet of flowers. The parents were able to tour the entire house, and the mothers especially were interested. They were quite astonished at how orderly the cupboard was arranged, and how everything in the laundry area was shiny clean. This was not only because we had visitors. We did have running water, and a pump had to be activated each day by two girls. Everyone took turns for this test of strength. The fathers, too, enjoyed seeing the two-level bunk beds and how neat everything was. After a relaxed afternoon and evening our parents were allowed to sleep in our beds, while we and our overseers spent the night in tents we had pitched in the park area. The weekend with our parents was a unique and wonderful experience, and saying good-bye was not easy for us.

During the summer – our vacation time! -- we took a long trip. Everyone had a rucksack with a blanket, a rain coat, a plate, a cup, a spoon and just the necessities. We did a lot of hiking and stayed overnight in youth hostels, once even in a barn. At times we rode the train. Our main destination was the Baltic Sea.

We saw and experienced much. For example, we visited Thorn, the birthplace of Nikolaus Kopernicus, in Danzig [Gdansk} we stood in front of the big gate, we were in Elbing, Marienwerder, in the former Ordensburg Marien Fortress. We spent a few days on the Frische Nehrung, where we slept in a pastor’s house. In the community room we enjoyed an hour of ghost stories. The summer weather was consistently nice, so we were able to spend every day at the beach. I even found some pieces of amber, and for our eventual flight [from West Prussia and from the Red Army – Tr.] I packed them, and much later I had a piece of jewelry made using the amber. It is still my favorite piece of jewelry.

Back home on the farm, life continued its old way. My parents and my older sister, Alma, were not able to get all the work done by themselves. Since my brother and I were not around to help with the work, they were given a Russian man as a hired hand. During harvest certain groups of youth were also put to the task, and thus they were able to get in their obligatory year of service. It was common knowledge that we were not supposed to eat with hired hands at the same table, but I believe that nearly everybody failed to heed that order. Our own village farm leader remained a good person toward the Poles. After all, he was born and had grown up in the village, too.  Even if on certain occasions he would wear the brown uniform, he simply remained the same decent person toward the Poles he had always been. Following their dispossession, many desired to remain in the village and wished to work for the new owners. Our hired hand was supposed to sleep in the barn. In fact, the house itself was fairly small, so there was hardly any room where we could accommodate him. However, mother arranged the kitchen so that there was room for a bed. He had come from Russia as a forced laborer and was assigned to our farm. He was totally down and out, was very hungry, and wore torn clothes. Right away, mother provided underwear and other clothing for him. Thinking back on it today, he was a young, handsome man, about 18 –20 years of age, and just imagining the scene today, he did have a bed in our kitchen, and at that, the bed of a man strange to us. In any case, he was grateful to us, and we got along well with him. He was a diligent worker and a decent man.

We younger ones were fully involved in the HJ [Hitler Youth – Tr,] or BDM [see explanation above - Tr.], and thereby we did got to have really great contact with the local youth, and wonderful friendships resulted from it that continue to this day, including friends who now live in Canada or America. We met regularly, once a week at a service center in Reinsberg, the central place for neighboring villages. We did our duty with a lot of enthusiasm. We always had a complete program that included singing and practicing theater pieces for the summer, and even athletics did not get short shrift, either. It is astonishing how many German families there were in Poland.  In our area alone there were three estate owners. Their famers were models of how to farm, providing pupils and young farmers a chance to gain some practical experience there. Even during the dispossession of Polish farmers, occupations such as bakers, butchers, blacksmiths and others were spared simply because they would be badly needed.

On Sundays we often bicycled to the cinema in Briesen. And during winter evenings we girls engaged in crafts such as knitting, crocheting and sewing. We even knitted and sewed clothes for ourselves, simply because nothing was available for purchase. We would take as much yarn as we needed from a large spool. We did not spare time or effort because, depending on our needs the yarn had to be split and newly spooled. We selected a pretty pattern. Our petroleum lamp had to do extra duty for us. We did have a battery-driven radio at that time. From 8 to 10 PM on a certain evening we always listened to a musical request program, and we always planned for that. With soft music and a good mood everything went better than ever. We always took turns to meet for tea and baked goods.

One morning the father of a friend of mine was going out to the fields and could hardly believe what he saw: in the middle of the field there lay something red, a red parachute.  It was a beautiful shade, made of some kind of silk of excellent quality. As soon as we caught sight of that parachute, we immediately thought that we might be able to tailor something from it for ourselves. We didn’t really want to know what specific fighting unit it came from. Each of us girls liked to sew a dress for ourselves. Privately designed patterns and dresses were something really special in those sad days, and even our mothers were not left without astonishment. Time and again, we tried to imagine something new. The saying, “necessity is the mother of invention” has always proven itself to be true.

The war situation kept getting worse. All youth, Hitler Youth or BDM, were required to dig trenches. All preparations were aimed for retreat. Along with us, Jewish women were also forced to dig trenches. They were housed in a barn in Reinsberg. I still have that image in mind of the time they arrived. There were so many, probably between twenty and fifty of age, and in my opinion therefore not really young or really old unemployed women.  From a distance they looked like a large herd of sheep, because each woman wore a gray blanket. Although it was a bit cold by that time, I suspected that these were also their night-time covers

Wearing barely passable shoes and clothing, and guarded by the SS, these women were forced to perform their work. What a gruesome time that was! Perhaps a few did get to experience the end of the war?

Soon things got cold and icy. Christmas was coming soon, and there was deep worry about how things might continue for us. Propaganda news was aimed to make us believe that victory would soon be attained in Königsberg. The date was January 12, with the war front only about 200 kilometers [120 miles- Tr.] from us. With plenty of food, and with feed for the horses, we prepared for our next flight.

Our hired hand, Ivan actually helped us to prepare our wagon for the upcoming flight. He accompanied us all the way to the Vistula River, but then he simply disappeared. By official order, we took off on January 24. We were to take along at least three days’ worth of food (and feed for the horses) and cross the Vistula in three days. Well, three days become seven danger-laden weeks, accompanied by cold, ice, and snow.

We wanted to leave earlier, but we were not allowed to make our own decisions. Everything went smoothly until we reached the Vistula River. Our trek had held together. We had to wait a whole night for our turn – there was an unimaginable number of wagons ahead of us. Only with explicit permission, and at a predetermined distance, were we allowed to drive onto the frozen Vistula. Arriving with a lot of luck on the opposite shore, we were faced with a horrendous scene. Many wagons simply could not reach the top of the bank, and it took additional horses to get there and, similarly, going down the other side of the bank would prove equally difficult. Quickly, the added horses had to be taken off, because one had to brake with all one’s might. Many fell victim to accidents, got lost, and thus were left behind. Without any specific goal in mind, we continued on. Still, the front kept getting closer and closer. Despite all, our trek leader had very strong nerves and was able to get us away from the danger zone

On March 17, 1945 we finally reached Moisburg near Hamburg. [There are several towns called Hamburg in Germany, so it is not clear which one we are dealing with here – Tr.]. Our young foal, which we had taken pains to raise during those times, had brought us to safety.

After a year of living in temporary quarters in Moisburg, thanks to interventions by Albert Rüb, Certified Engineer, and due to the assistance committee, we were able to travel to Southern Germany. Schwaben, the very original land of our ancestors, is now our permanent homeland.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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