Memories of a Schoolgirl – Part 3

Before long, I met a good-looking, intelligent, nice young man named Johannes (“Hans”) Ratzka from Saxony near the Czech border. He took me out to the movies. Oma was very suspicious, in part because he was a Catholic. Hans was suddenly sent to Nijmegen in Holland, a gathering place for soldiers who would be sent to Russia. While in Holland, he wrote to say that he wanted to get married so he would have someone to come back to. He was allowed to stop by his parents’ home on the way to Russia, and he wanted me to meet him there and get married. I was only eighteen and I did not want to get married yet; on the other hand it was a wonderful way to escape from Oma. I decided to do it. I figured once I was married, she could not boss me around any more. I took the train to Crimmitschau and we were married the next day. Hans and I had one day together. Then he went off to meet the troops who were headed for Russia.

His parents asked me to stay with them, so I did. I took a job with a charming old boss, Mr. Leithold, who manufactured botanical nameplates from porcelain. He lived in a lovely villa, and he invited staff members up to the villa on special occasions. Mr. Leithold was like a grandfather to the staff.

While I lived in Crimmitschau, the Vorsters invited me to visit my brother and sister who lived on their farm in Kassel. The farm was named Söhrehof, after the woods, called Die Söhre, which were part of the property. It was a big farm, on which they raised sugar beets, potatoes, and field lettuce, and kept dairy cows, chickens, geese, and horses. The farmhouse was a big white villa, rather elegant. Rosy was driven to school and piano lessons in a horse-drawn coach. The Nazis had confiscated the Vorster’s cars, which I think were two Mercedes.


The Söhrehof farmhouse

Frau Vorster served wonderful food. She made sandwiches with the most wonderful bread I ever tasted, prepared from their own fresh grain and baked in a brick oven. They also made canned sausage meat, with lots of marjoram, from their own livestock.

While I was in Kassel, Frau Vorster found out I had been taking guitar lessons, and she gave me a guitar shaped like a lute. It was very beautiful to look at, with carved wood lacework around the hole. I started taking guitar lessons from a music teacher in Crimmitschau. One day my guitar fell off the wall where it was hanging and got a crack in it. I asked the music teacher if it could be fixed, and he took the guitar and never returned it. He kept making excuses, and I was too dispirited to pursue the matter. It was sad because I loved that guitar.

Hans and I corresponded by mail. He told me in a letter that he might be coming back, because he had been chosen to go to Officers’ School. But that never happened. One day, a man came to the door with a telegram for Hans’s parents, saying that Hans had been killed in a battle along the River Dnieper. His parents were devastated because he was their only child.

Since no one had recently rebuked, reprimanded, or otherwise verbally abused me, I finally got up the courage to write to Onkel Hans Schmidt to ask if there was a school in Frankfurt where I could make up my lost years of high school. He wrote back to say yes, and that he would be very happy if I lived with him and his daughter Mieken in the Wiesenau. The rest of the family had already moved to Coburg because of the bombing in Frankfurt. Mieken stayed behind because she was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Frankfurt, to fulfill her practical work requirement before studying at the university. Hans’s parents were sad and did not want me to go, but I said I needed more education to get a better job, and they understood. I never saw them again because after the war they lived very deep in the Russian zone.

I moved in with Mieken and Onkel Hans at the Wiesenau. Every day I took the streetcar to school in downtown Frankfurt. It was a long ride but I did not mind because I had books to read. All the people in my class were young adults. It surprised me that many of them were in uniform. The pace of learning was pretty fast; in order to keep up, I took some private geometry lessons from an elderly professor. He was eccentric, with very thick eyeglasses, but nice enough. The lessons required that I ride the streetcar to another part of the city.

I went to visit Tante Lisbeth and Onkel Hanser who now lived in downtown Frankfurt near my school. Their older boys Hannes and Gerold were already in uniform. Hannes was killed in his early 20s while serving as a navigator in an airplane which was shot down over France. Tante Lisbeth and Onkel Hanser invited me to move in with them, since they lived so near the school. I was delighted. Now I could walk to school instead of taking long train rides.

While I was in Frankfurt, Hitler declared total war. Everybody eighteen and older who did not have a good excuse was required to work for the war effort. Tante Lisbeth had a job as overseer of a pool of teletype operators for the army, and she asked me to come work for them at night, so I could still go to school in the daytime. It was interesting to communicate with people on the other end of the line, in France or in Russia. I took my books with me, and during the many hours when my machine was quiet, I used the time to keep up with my studies.

The teletype office was near the main railroad station in Frankfurt, in an area that was heavily bombed. During the bombing, our building would shake and many of the women panicked. When the sirens howled, we went into a shelter nearby, or in the basement if we were at home. I always took my schoolbooks with me. Strangely enough, the bombs did not faze me because I was relatively happy and no longer suffered from resentment and stress.

Sometimes we were without water, so we kept the bathtub full, just in case. If we ran out, we had to go someplace where the water pipes had not been bombed and carry water home. Food was also getting scarce; we stood in long lines to get a bit of meat or potatoes. We always tried to figure out whether the shop owners were Nazis or not eventually we knew them all. Some owners would give you food only if you said “Heil Hitler” when you entered the shop, while others would give you food only if you did not say it. Once in a while, we heard that a store had some food that did not require ration cards. One time we arrived at the store, only to find out that it was a shipment of ketchup, lots and lots of ketchup, from America. We laughed because we did not consider that to be real food, but we discovered it was good on boiled potatoes. In the absence of fat, we used spices, especially marjoram, in cooking. Tante Lisbeth took to reading cookbooks and nourished herself on those wonderful but unattainable recipes.

The flower vendors in the street had beautiful flowers, which were still readily available, although expensive. Every so often I would buy some to take home to Tante Lisbeth. One Christmas Tante Lisbeth and Onkel Hanser received a package from Coburg which had in it a fresh green spruce wreath and real wax candles. It was cause for celebration; it smelled so good. In hard times, one learns to appreciate the small joys of life.

Sometimes Gerold came home on leave. He was very tall and thin and looked like a grasshopper in his green uniform. We called him “Heuschreck” (grasshopper), which means literally “hay terror.” At this time, the authorities were training high school boys to use antiaircraft guns to shoot down planes. Hans Jürgen was drafted at age sixteen and sent to eastern Germany. When he left, we thought we would never see him again.

We were constantly waiting for the war to end. Things were getting worse and worse. When news of the Normandy invasion finally came, we were all thrilled. Most of us were convinced by then that the Führer was not only no good, but that he was absolutely crazy.


Elisabeth and Edi Vorster in
Winter Garden Söhrehof

In Frankfurt we were not allowed to listen to the BBC because Hitler did not want us the hear the truth. The penalty for listening was death. The Vorsters in Kassel listened anyway, late at night, when no one was around. The newspapers were also censored of course. We knew about the Kristallnacht and that Hitler hated the Jews and that many were leaving Germany. We did not know that Jews were being amassed in concentration camps. We thought the concentration camps were for us. If anybody denounced his neighbor, the Nazis believed the one who denounced. There were no fair trials, so we had to watch out what we said and did. I suspect that people who lived near the concentration camps were aware that something bad was going on, but the facts were not publicized.

Toward the end of the war, the school I was attending was bombed very badly, so it closed. Once we heard on the radio that the industrial town of Hanau was being bombed, so we looked over in that direction and saw flames in the distance.

Now American troops were coming into our sector of Germany. The German radio advised that people leave Frankfurt because the officials thought Eisenhower’s troops would shell the city. Some people stayed, but Tante Lisbeth and Onkel Hanser decided to leave because they lived in an upper story apartment which they were afraid would collapse. They found a train that was going to Coburg, even though most of the trains had stopped running. We got up at two in the morning and walked to the train station. I took my bicycle and walked with them and saw my aunt and uncle into the train.

Then I took off. I had a pack on the back of my bicycle with the necessary clothes and something to eat. I also had a map. By the time I started out, there were many people on the road with pull carts and babies and horse wagons. It was a long slow refugee march out of Frankfurt. I made a pretty fast escape and passed most of the people on the road.

At noon I was so tired I stopped at the side of the road by a little brook and ate lunch. Before I knew it I was asleep. I woke up to the sound of machine gun fire up above. I looked up and saw American planes firing into the stream of refugees. I was quick witted enough to run down a hill and hide in the bushes. When the machine gun fire subsided, I went back up to the road, and right there where I was lying were several dead people and horses and panic everywhere. It was a dreadful thing the world was so full of dreadful things.

There was nothing I could do to help those people so I went on. Pretty soon an elderly farmer came along on a bicycle and asked me where I was going. I said to Kassel, and he said I would never make it in one day. Then he asked where I would sleep at night. I said I would do what the rest of the refugees did, so he said, “Come with me, and we’ll put you up overnight.” His farm was not far away, and I was very grateful for that. The farmer and his wife gave me a room of my own with a big feather bed. I had supper with them, and they told me they had three sons in the war effort. They asked me to stay with them because all their young people were gone, but I told them I had to go where my family was. The next day, they gave me lots of sandwiches to eat on my trip.

On my way from the farm to Kassel, I was suddenly overtaken by American tanks. It was a thrill to see the liberators coming through. They did not stop me since I was a civilian traveling alone. I finally arrived at Rosy’s school in Bad Salzschlirf. Kassel had been completely destroyed by bombing, so the school Rosy had been attending in Kassel was evacuated and the kids were moved out to the country. When I told people at the school about the American tanks, panic broke out. The teachers called the train station to see if there were any trains going to Kassel. There was one freight train, and they put all the kids on it. I hated to leave my bicycle, but the teachers said I could not take it.

Sohrehof Farm

The Söhrehof farm

We arrived in Kassel about two in the morning, and strangely enough, the train station was still standing. When Rosy and I got outside the station, it looked like a desert; everything was flattened. It was dark and the streets were barely visible. Rosy started to cry. We began walking, hoping that we would remember the way. The next minute a jeep came through the rubble. We placed ourselves in the way so they would have to stop, and they stopped abruptly. It was two SS men. We asked them if they could take us home to Lohfelden, where the Vorsters lived. Immediately they said, “Nein, haben keine Zeit,” (No, have no time) and they drove on. But they stopped again, and when we caught up with them, they asked if we could put them up for the night. We said yes, but we did not know how the Vorsters would take it, because they hated the SS. We decided we would worry about that later. When we got to Lohfelden, we told the men to wait while we asked our foster parents if they could spend the night. We got the Vorsters out of bed. Edouard Vorster, called Edi or Papo, was a sweetheart of a man. He said the men could sleep in the barn. They left the next morning.

Now began the long period of waiting for the Americans. Every morning, Edi got us up at 6:00 and said, “Die Amerikaner sind da,” (The Americans are there) because he could hear shelling in the far distance.