Voices from the Other Side
Jean Goodwin Messinger has done a very valuable service in bringing together a collection of stories from elderly residents of Colorado, USA. All of them eventually found peace and security in America but they all began their lives in very different circumstances, in Hitler’s Germany.
This is a remarkable collection of different voices with a wide variety of experiences, all of them traumatic in some way. The reality of life for a child or youth in wartime Germany is brought home vividly and dramatically. These are the stories of the survivors, although often members of their family did not.
Most of the stories are told by the individuals themselves but Messinger has placed them in the context of the individuals life, and there are poignant explanations of how each individual eventually settled in America. Perhaps most importantly, in most cases there is a sense that these people were able to come to terms with what happened – they did not ‘forget’ but they did find a new life.
Herman White’s story is one of only two Jews included in the book. His father fled from Germany to Hungary to escape the Nazis, the family was forced to join him some time later, even though it meant living in utter poverty:
A few years previously, the Nazis for all practical purposes dumped the German Civil Code and put in its place a lawless monstrosity they named “The Laws of Nuremberg.” Overnight, anyone with even one Jewish grandparent lost all civil rights, was branded a parasite on the body of Germany, and therefore to be exterminated—the sooner the better.
Now it became impossible for us to remain any longer in Germany; WWII was about to begin, which meant that all borders were soon to be closed. So we boarded one of the last trains leaving for Budapest, Hungary.
Penniless, we arrived in this strange city, where equally penniless, my father swept me up from the railroad platform. I thought we were all to be together and happy again. I was a child. Many sparrows hopped and flew all around us.
The following months saw us moving from one flea-bitten, bedbug-infested room to another. My two sisters became what can only be described as indentured domestic servants of the most menial sort, paid a mere pittance in exchange for a place to sleep and not a day off except on the second Sunday every month. After a year, they disappeared from my life altogether. What befell them I could not even guess, for no one explained it to me. I was still a mere child, yet somewhat less innocent than before.
Few and fewer were the days my father was with us. He would hurry on, leaving us quickly at the sound of any approaching foot- falls. We became experts at reading footsteps. I began to figure out what was happening, even if slowly and incompletely. The pieces of the puzzle were all around me: my mother’s faraway eyes overflowing with tears, her hands shaking as she plucked the bloody chicken necks with heads attached — food for a day, brought by her husband, my father of short and shorter hours.
One of my last walks with him ended in a classroom full of Hungarian boys and girls who giggled, as children will, over my appearance, and I was mortiﬁed by such treatment. I wore lederhosen, the standard Bavarian boys’ shorts made of leather.
For six months I had spoken only with the young female teacher, in German. But I learned fast, toed the mark obediently; it was sink or swim. The Hungarian language became my life raft. As an “undocumented alien” and a Jew, my father was prohibited from seeking any paying job. So he bought small amounts of tobacco and a little machine for hand-rolling, and peddled cigarettes.
By 1943 Hungary was well under the iron thumb of the Nazis. German troops were soon to march into Budapest, leaving no doubt about who was in charge. I feared and avoided all uni- formed men on the streets, but especially the “Green Shirts,” self-proclaimed “patriots” in the Nazi mold.
Followers of a corrupt politician named Ferenc Szalasy, founder of the Arrow Gross Party, they were the very dregs of Hungary’s underworld. VV1th full Nazi approval, groups of these young men and boys roamed the streets of Budapest, brutally beating and killing every man, woman, or child that wore the Star of David. By decree, all Jews were forced to wear it on pain of death.
At about this time, American long-distance aircraft began to bomb the city. I had a last visit with my father at the gate of a detention camp. He was arrested during a police sweep and could not show a valid ID or an official permit of residence. The Nazis had finally caught up with my dad. Heinrich Himmler and Adolph Eichmann were waiting in the wings.
I can barely recall what we said that last moment, with an impatient guard listening in. Dad impressed on me a man’s duty to stay alive and remember. I promised to take care of Mother. He embraced me tightly, then drew back, reached into a pocket, and handed me a little rubber tire Mercedes racing-car toy, a promised present. It was my twelfth birthday.
Anita Griffith (as she now is, after marrying an American serviceman she met in post war Germany) recalls the day the Russians arrived. At the time she was thirteen year old, doing compulsory service on a German farm:
On the 6th day of May 1945 the first Russians came; actually they were Mongolians. They were told to do with the Germans what they wanted, and they did. Each Mongolian company consisted of twenty-one men, and they did everything in company strength: rape, from babies to grandmas, stealing everything, unbelievable cruelties, murder, whatever.
A fourteen-year-old girl who lived on the farm next to us was raped twenty-one times by a unit of twenty-one soldiers. I was thirteen at the time and plenty scared but managed to hide whenever I felt threatened. They never raped my mother either, although she wouldn’t have told me if they had.
I was in charge of the babies. One Mongolian hit the farmer’s wife on the head with a vodka bottle. Another one hit the farmer over the head with the end of a gun. The farmer’s wife told me to sneak out to the chickens’ incubator and hide with the youngest baby. I went, and the baby started crying, so I put my sweater around his head so the Russians couldn t hear him or hear me praying that I wouldn’t suffocate the baby. That was the ﬁrst group of Russians that came.
They left after a few hours. But a new troupe came, and we hid in the rhubarb. One of our Polish prisoners told the Mongolians where we were, and some of the Mongolians shot through the field, killing an old man, a young woman, and a child from the farm next door.
They stole everything in sight, like doorknobs, light and water fixtures, rings, watches, vodka, horses, pigs, chickens— whatever they could get their hands on. We were told that they sent those things back to Russia. The water and light fixtures they would take home and thought if they put one in the wall or ceiling of their mud hut, water and light would come out. They washed potatoes and socks in the toilet, and everything disappeared when they flushed.
My brother picked me up from the farm at the end of July 1945. Although the war was over, there was still shooting going on, because there was no radio, and nobody knew the war had ended. All the bridges were blown up.
My brother had an old bike with no seat, but a luggage rack. The tires were pieces of garden hose. We drove the bike until it fell totally apart. It took us a week to get home to Meissen, about forty or ﬁfty miles away. Everywhere there were dead horses, cows, and people. The horses had been mostly shot; the cows died because no one milked them, and there were dead civilians and soldiers of both sides. We stole everything we could find to eat. Chaos was everywhere.