In the spring of 1945 my mother, my grandmother, my sister Inge and I were living in a small apartment in Hirschberg (Silesia) in an apartment house which was owned by my grandmother. We had fled there in January of the same year when a russian offensive had overrun Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien) My father had stayed in Kattowitz when we fled. Clad in his World War I uniform he reported to the local military commander. We learned later that in the confusion of the retreat he ended up joining a unit of assault artillery (guns mounted on halftrack vehicles) and stayed with that unit until the end.
Schools were no longer open and my mother arranged some sort of an apprenticeship with an electrical repairshop for me. The shop was may be five or ten minutes walk from where we lived. When I walked to the shop the street was frequently filled with columns of fleeing people. There were farm wagons packed with chests and bundles, women with small children on top, blankets drawn around their shoulders, old men driving the horses. Wagon followed wagon as if the whole world was trying to flee to the west. I remember talking to some people who wore beautifully decorated stitched caps and came from Rumania. They spoke German with a strange, south german accent. It was a cold winter day with frozen slush on the sidewalk. Then I saw a slipper in the snow. A purple velvet slipper. It was embroidered with a golden crown. It was absurdly out of place, lost in the snow, soon to be trampled. In my mind the image of the purple and gold slipper became a symbol of the collapse of the order I had grown up with.
My sister had started to work on the farming estate (Seitendorf) of friends of my mother’s family about 15 miles from Hirschberg. Her work gave us some access to provisions like potatoes, flower and may be an egg or two, essential for our survival. I frequently walked to Seitendorf and carried home a knapsack full of booty. I think it was March, 1945, when we heard rumors of a major russian offensive. The distant rumbling of artillery which we had heard for months was louder, more insistent, more continuous, more ominous, My mother told me to go to Seitendorf and bring Inge home. Whatever was to happen next the family should be together, The roads were again filled with columns of fleeing peasants. I arrived in Seitendorf late in the afternoon. Inge was busy. I remember standing at the second floor balcony window of the estate, looking down on the large square courtyard which was flanked by stables and barns. It was unpaved, with deep muddy wagon ruts and some dirty patches of snow. Right in front of me was a half round driveway with a flag pole in the middle. I imagined how in peace time carriages might have arrived here to unload crowds of happy party goers. Just then the soldiers who were stationed at the estate where assembling. They were Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. I had met a number of them and thought I knew them a little. They fought the russians, because in 1939 the russians had taken over their homelands. By 1945 their homelands had again been taken over by the russians. They were fighting deep in Germany, a war they could no longer hope to win. Yet, there in front of me, in the waning light of the day, a company of young men assembled to go to the front, may be to stop the russians, may be never to return. The lieutenant in charge rode a white horse. He read the orders. I heard some shouted commands. The lieutenant rode to the front and the company marched off into the dark.
Inge and I walked to Hirschberg the next day. The russians occupied the area a few days later. The russians were followed by polish troops. From posters we learned that the area would be part of Poland and that all property belonged to the polish state. A polish family assisted by polish soldiers took over the apartment where we lived and we moved with what we could carry in a knapsack into the apartment of my grandmother’s seamstress. She had left before the russians arrived and given the key to her apartment to my grandmother. We decided in the late summer of 1945 that we should leave Hirschberg before we lost our last belongings to another polish apartment takeover. We put our belongings in a handcart and walked west, reaching the Oder-Neisse line and the Russian occupied zone in about a week. Two distantly related families, the Schuberts and the Raves helped us during the next few weeks, sharing what meager food supplies they had. We learned that my brother, Helmut, was alive in a hospital in Schleswig Holstein. My mother was able to get in touch with a cousin, uncle Heinz Kost in Kapellen (Moers) in the British zone who offered to help us.
We said good-bye to our friends, the Rave family, and boarded a train to reach the border of the Russian Zone- The Iron Curtain existed but was not yet as elaborate and forbidding as it was to become later. Our plan was to go to the border, find out the routine of guards and patrols and to slip across whichever way we could. We got off the train at the last station before the border, It was late in the day and we decided to spend the night in the train station. I was sleeping, leaning against one of our bundles, In the middle of the night my mother shook me awake. “There is a train of refugees stopped upstairs. It’s waiting for a signal to open, If we can get on we can get across the border!” We grabbed our things and rushed upstairs. The train was still there. Hands reached out from inside the train to help us. People somehow made room for us. A few minutes later we were rolling, crossing the Iron Curtain into the British Zone. By morning we were in a refugee camp near Goettingen. I became acquainted with western style hygiene when a Red Cross aide deloused me with a mighty puff of DDT, delivered from what appeared to be a giant bicycle pump, aimed down the front and back of my shirt.
Uncle Heinz, a mining executive, had a leadership position in the allied/german agency established to rebuild the mining industry. In November of 1945 we arrived on the “Agnetenhof” in Kapellen (near Moers), the estate of uncle Heinz and aunt Martha. Their home had been damaged and occupied by allied soldiers but had been restored when we arrived. It was immaculately clean and comfortably warm, there were thick carpets on the floor, oil paintings on the walls, and the bronze statue of a miner dominated the stairwell. Compared to the dirty, cold and smelly railroad stations we just came from it was unbelievably luxurious, the kind of place where a purple velvet slipper with a stitched golden crown might be at home.