Memories of a Schoolgirl – Part 4

Before the Americans arrived, whole platoons of bedraggled German soldiers came through. We cooked stew for them in huge copper kettles, in which we used to boil laundry. They were very grateful. Some were very young, and they gave us their addresses and asked us to notify their parents if we did not hear from them again. After they left, the sound of cannons got closer. The Germans had left a cannon in our vegetable garden, which really worried Edi because the Americans might see it and bomb the farm. But luckily they came in another way and did not see it.

One evening, I was outside the kitchen door with Eric Labrie, a Dutch farm hand, when suddenly rifle fire whistled around our ears, almost from nowhere. We had not heard anything. Eric pushed me to the ground and then fell down himself and we both crawled back to the kitchen door.

Now we knew they were getting close. We decided to go into the basement, where our reserves of food were stored, canned meats and vegetables, jars of fruit, smoked hams and sausages, potatoes and liquor and wine. It was a giant pantry for the whole farm, to feed all the hired hands. We all were sitting around talking. The basement had a little window so we could peek out to see what was happening. We heard footsteps so we looked out and saw GIs stalking around the house warily, holding their rifles in front of them. They were all chewing, and we could not figure out why they would all be eating at this time. Only later did we find out they were chewing gum, probably in an effort to relieve the tension.

Then we heard banging on the door, and the house dogs started barking. Elisabeth Vorster went upstairs and we followed her. A few soldiers came in and they wanted to know where everybody was, so we led them to the basement. They looked around, and then they approached the men and asked, in German, “Haben Sie Juden getötet?” (“Have you killed any Jews?”)

Edi Vorster was shocked, almost speechless. Then he answered, with eyes wide open, in his gentle voice, “Aber um Himmels Willen, NEIN! (“For heaven’s sake, NO!”)

Then they checked all the men for weapons. One of them herded the men upstairs, and they took the older women upstairs too. Left downstairs were just the young girls: two Czech girls named Gabi and Ludmilla, a Polish girl named Katia, a local girl and Rosy and I. We were not the least bit scared because they seemed mild and nice, not at all threatening. They started giving us candy and chewing gum and asked us, “Haben Sie Schnaps?” (“Do you have liquor?”), and of course we were happy to tell them yes. They let one of us go upstairs and tell the Vorsters they wanted schnaps. Edi was so relieved that he got out one of his best bottles of cognac.

They left us alone for awhile. Then they came back and said we all had to clear the house, everybody out. The farm hands hitched horses to a wagon. We loaded the wagon with provisions, blankets, and a big tent and set off for the woods. While we were setting up the tent, a messenger came from Farmer Bretthauer, a neighboring landowner, offering shelter for all of us. Before we left home, we had all dressed in pants and warm clothes, and I wore Frau Vorster’s ski pants for several days. At the Bretthauer’s we all slept on the floor in the Diele, a large hall common in farmhouses. We stayed there for three days.

Then we got word that whoever was in the house had left, so we went back. When we got in the house, Elisabeth Vorster almost fainted, because it was an incredible, indescribable mess. On the upper floors, clothes and photographs were strewn all over. But worst was the kitchen, a scene of deliberate malice. They had stuck brooms in big milk cans full of molasses, spilled molasses on the floor, smeared red paint on the walls and furniture, and left smoked hams lying around, all cut up. Elisabeth went berserk. She went to the cabinet where she kept all her beautiful cut crystal wine glasses and started throwing them one after another against the wall. I stopped her. We do not know to this day whether the Americans left it that way or whether disgruntled workers from the village had done it. Frau Vorster was haughty with working people, and someone may have held a grudge against her.

We cleaned up the house and then the American Army Air Force came through, along with their Belgian and French mistresses. They were a different class of soldiers, more refined. They took over the house again. This time the family moved into the administrator Herr Gundlach’s house on the grounds, across a narrow cobblestone street from the farmhouse. The Americans asked us to send over someone to clean the house. The maids came back with stories about the men sleeping late with their mistresses. Our dachshunds jumped on the beds and slept with the enlisted men. They stayed only two days or so and then went on their way.

After they left, in June of 1945, came the Army Ordnance Corps. The officers needed a place to stay, so they asked us politely if they could have a couple of rooms. We gave them the farmhouse and moved back into the administrator’s house, which was comfortable enough. Rosy and I were in an attic bedroom. The house was beside the stables, so we had flies.

Right away, the Army cook, a delightful man named Howard Breckenridge, came to our kitchen door, introduced himself, and asked if he could trade coffee, tea, and cigarettes for fresh farm produce. We said “aber selbsverständlich” (“but of course”), and so a trade route was established between the two kitchens. Rosy and I and the local girl Liesl who were manning the farm kitchen always looked forward to Sgt. Breckenridge’s visits; he was such a kind man.

The Ordnance commander was Col. McCartney who was rather vulgar. One of our maids told us later that he had run after her in the nude, trying to get her into bed. Another officer, Col. Kirkendahl, was an alcoholic. He had with him a German mistress and her little boy named Terry, whom he installed in the gardener’s house. One of the Captains was making deals on the black market, which caused a minor scandal. Army officers were not supposed to do that.

Col Katz

“My name is Col. Katz.”

One day, Elisabeth Vorster and I were in the garden picking strawberries. It was a warm day and I was wearing shorts. Suddenly somebody ambled over from the main house, a tall figure in dark khaki with an Eisenhower jacket and no hat. He walked up to us and smiled and said hello. “My name is Col. Katz. You must be the ladies of the house.” We introduced ourselves and had a friendly chat in broken English and broken German. He looked me over from top to toe, which I thought was rather bold. He made a nice impression on us, though, very gentlemanly.

A few days later we received an invitation to dinner at the White House, which is what the Americans called the farmhouse. As we arrived, Col. Katz introduced us to the other officers: tall and handsome Happy Sommers, Col. McCartney who was short and stout, Col. Weikert who was another alcoholic, Col. Kirkendahl, and Major Lynch. Dinner was prepared by Sgt. Breckenridge, and it was delicious. After dinner we had a soirée in the music room. Col. Sommers played the piano while Elisabeth Vorster sang with her trained coloratura voice. First she sang a Russian song “Der Rote Sarafan” by Alexander Warlamoff, followed by old-fashioned German lieder (songs). I was sitting next to Henry (Col. Katz) during the recital, about two or three feet away, and suddenly he grabbed the arm rest and pulled my chair over closer to him, with a great scraping sound. I was so impressed by his irreverence during this formal recital; that was the beginning of my love for him.

Next time I saw him was when Edi and I drove to town in a one-horse cart. Edi let me drive the horse, which I loved to do. As we drove back home we passed a jeep and in it was Henry. We did not stop but he waved at us, and I was elated.

Sohrehof Picnic

Picnic at Söhrehof: Edi Vorster, Elisabeth,
Rosy, and Elisabeth Vorster with an American officer friend

Later we invited the officers for Sunday brunch. They seemed suspicious of what we might serve them and wanted to know what the meat was. It was chicken. We had just slaughtered most of our chickens, because the authorities had sent an order that every farmer could only keep a few chickens for eggs. Immediately Elisabeth Vorster put us to work, killing all the extra chickens. We worked the whole night through, plucking, disemboweling, and putting them in cans, which were then boiled and sealed. We did not get to bed until four in the morning. Later that morning, the officers came to eat with us. Even though I had had practically no sleep, I was so excited to see Henry that my fatigue did not bother me at all.

One time, Henry came to the door and asked Edi if he could speak to Elisabeth. When Edi’s wife Elisabeth came to the door, Henry said, “No, no, little Elisabeth.” He was going to ask me to go to a dance at an American club. We ended up taking Elisabeth Vorster and several others with us. We walked in, and it was very smoky and crowded, with hardly enough room to dance. While Henry was hanging up his hat, an American soldier came over and grabbed me and started dancing with me. Henry came over and put his arm around me and quietly separated me from the other soldier.

One day Henry came and asked us if we could put up a young woman named Hildegarde Cordes who had come from Bremen to visit him. We said, “Of course.” She stayed in a little attic room in the house where we were living. She had light blond hair and blue eyes. It made a good impression on me, that Henry did not keep her in his house. While Hildegarde was visiting, Henry and Col. Weikert took us all on a picnic at the Edersee. We went swimming and had lots of fun, and there was much laughter.

Henry Elisabeths Edersee

Elisabeth Vorster with Henry
and Elisabeth on the Edersee

The only time Henry took me out alone was to see his office and the depot where ordnance equipment was stored, at the Fokke-Wulf manufacturing plant in the countryside between our farm and Kassel. Henry introduced me to his staff and, to my complete surprise, told them he was going to marry me! I did not take it seriously because they were not supposed to fraternize with us. On the way home, Henry asked me if I was rich. I said no, on the contrary. In the car, Henry sang to me, Hawaiian songs and German songs he had learned in high school.

One day I was cleaning out the summer garden house and listening to the radio, and suddenly some music came on, the likes of which I had never heard. The song was called “In the Mood.” It was so fresh and full of vitality, I loved it. From then on, I listened to the radio every day and heard all the American songs, and we learned many of them by heart. Henry told me a story about a song named “Pennsylvania, 65,000” (six-five thousand). He had heard a German band trying to play it, and they sang “Pennsylvania six-five-ooooooo” because they thought the zeroes were Os.

Once I was dusting Elisabeth Vorster’s quarters when the music was interrupted by a special report. The Americans had just found Dachau and they described it in all its horror. We were so used to being lied to, that I thought at first it was all propaganda. Later we had to face the agonizing truth. The officers living on the farm never mentioned anything about concentration camps to us.

We spent much time socializing with the officers and playing ping pong with them in the park surrounding the White House. Henry’s geniality was very appealing. Here was a Jewish officer immediately friendly with all the German people.

I found out during the last years of the war that some of my relatives had died. My father’s younger brother Karl was killed in Norway during a British air raid. He had worked before the war as a steward on ocean liners (including the “Milwaukee”) and was drafted into the German navy. Onkel Karl was in his early 30s when he died, leaving behind a wife Helga and infant daughter Elke.

Then Opa died. He had had arteriosclerosis for years, and always took garlic pills and other medications. A few times I found him collapsed at home in Schleswig. I think he also suffered from heartbreak after one son was killed and another put in prison.

My father’s older brother Kurt, with whom I had lived in Wustrow, was a captain in the army, serving in Russia. Late in the war, probably in 1944, he went home on furlough and decided not to return. He intended to go to Denmark, but while he was hiding with friends near the border, someone betrayed him. He was put in prison in Hamburg. Just before the British liberated Hamburg, Onkel Kurt was shot by a German firing squad. Before he died, he told Oma, “Don’t worry, Mother, because I know where I’m going.” He was a religious and thoughtful man who left a wife and five little children under age ten.

Hans Jürgen came home in the early summer of 1945. While still in school, he had been trained as a FLAK shooter (Flieger Abwehr Kanonen) and was sent to eastern Germany near the Polish border. When the war was over, he walked all the way home.

Die Drei Am Sohrenhof

Rosy, Hans Jürgen and
Elisabeth outside Söhrehof

Now Hans Jürgen went out working early in the morning with the field hands, while Rosy and I took care of the chickens, geese, goats and rabbits. For the chickens we ground up nettles which they ate with their grain and which gave the egg yolks a lovely orange color. We also cleaned their coops. Another of our chores was leading the geese to pasture and bringing them back in late afternoon, honking all the way. Rosy and I took our turn in the dairy, filtering milk by pouring it through a machine to remove hair and bits of dirt, and keeping the equipment clean. We helped make molasses from sugar beets grown on the farm. At harvest time, we sometimes got up at four in the morning to gather vegetables to be canned. Farm work was hard but it was also enjoyable. There was always camaraderie and laughing and joking.

Hitler had brought in foreigners to work on the farms because all the young men were away. A Rumanian man named Steffan took care of the horses. A Polish family who lived with us were fine people who seemed glad to have a place to stay. Rosy and I usually did the washing with Gabi and Ludmilla, the Czech girls. Ludmilla was quiet, but Gabi laughed all the time. We wrung out the sheets by hand, and if a knot formed, Gabi was in stitches because it meant somebody was going to get pregnant.

We worked in the kitchen with Liesl, the local girl, fixing huge meals for the field hands and the family. On weekends we baked yeast breads and cakes with fruit on top. We also made buttermilk and cottage cheese, and churned butter. The stove in the kitchen was fueled by wood, so Rosy and I started the fire each morning. Above the kitchen was a laundry room where some of the women did the ironing, mending, and sewing. In the afternoon, we served them coffee and fresh-baked bread with butter and marmalade, and we joined them at the table. At the end of the day, we were tired but happy. It was a good time for us because we had plenty to eat. Other people did not, and they came begging for food.

Elisabeth Vorster had a favorite dog, a beautiful black long-haired dachshund who was slightly retarded. Rosy and I took him to town one day, and he was run over by a slow-moving milk cart. We did not know how to approach Elisabeth with the bad news because we knew she would be mad, and she was furious. Col. Weikert had a dog named Phyllis, who fell in love with Edi Vorster. She would lie on his stomach when he took his nap in the afternoon. Col. Weikert left her with us when he moved on.