After their failed attempt to flee to the West, my freedom-loving parents had to survive in a totalitarian state. The communist regime had curtailed many of their freedoms. For example, my parents could not visit their friends and relatives on the other side of Germany and the rest of the world. Before the war, my Dad had transferred to the police force in Gotha. Now, under communist rule, he could no longer keep his position as a police officer. Miraculously, one of my Dad’s old friends, a dentist, remembered that my father had worked as a dental technician in the past. He offered him a job to work in his dental laboratory. Food supplies were very short for several years after the war, especially in the East. I remember my Dad taking us to small villages in the surrounding area. He would try to trade in his high-quality police boots, belts, leather gloves and other valuable clothing for precious food like flour, butter, eggs and cheese. I will never forget the tasty delight of a freshly baked heart-shaped waffle a kind farmer’s wife handed me on a chilly fall day. It was still warm and tasted heavenly!! I never had one before.
Our diet mainly consisted of porridge, root vegetables, bread, molasses and some butter or other fat. There were strict government food rations. Since I was underweight and slightly anemic, a concerned doctor prescribed extra rations for me. But I was also a picky eater. It upset my Dad tremendously when I refused to eat or left something on the plate. He had experienced extreme hunger as a POW. My mother ended up feeding us children separately to keep him calm.
When we arrived at the town on the evening after the attack, where we had wanted to stay overnight, visibility was almost zero, the stench horrific, most certainly the smell of corpses. How we got over the relatively wide arm of the River Oder, by the name of Swine, I cannot recall. On account of the smoke I was unable to see.
In the middle of the night we reached Ahlbeck and found some rest in a vacation guesthouse, where a compassionate woman with a little son took us in. For the first time in ten days we slept in a real bed. Only now we began to discuss to which destination we should proceed. There were relatives, whose addresses we had in our heads due to a very active correspondence, in Freiburg and Erfurt. The latter was closer. Therefore, we decided to pedal on in a southeastern direction. Since we had neither maps nor compass, we did not choose the direct way, kept on pedalling six more days all the way to Neubrandenburg, where we became sick and tired of biking. We needed a rest, because the most recent journey went over the Pomeranian ridges, over hills and through valleys and into our bones.
We used a savings account booklet filled with entries from our saved pocket money to buy train tickets to Erfurt and pay for the shipping of the bikes. The savings account organization had made life easier for the refugees with the set-up of a generous transaction policy. It was a strange feeling to sit in a train, where to be sure there was incredible crowdedness, to be able to watch the landscape, to read the names of the cities of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, of Brandenburg, and then of Saxony-Anhalt, places whose names until now had been unknown to me or about which I had a different perception.
Once in a while the train stopped in a hollow to await a bomber formation. Often enough low flying aircraft attacked trains or blocked the route in order to target troop transports. A friendly place-name sign ‘Wolmirstedt’ indicated to us that we were passing through the birthplace of our father Ernst Klopp. Slowly we were approaching Thuringia, where Uncle Günther and Aunt Lucie lived. It was an unknown place to us. A long trip in our childhood, especially during the war, was out of the question. Then came the giant railroad station that destroyed all small town Pomeranian perceptions, then the walk to the probable town section, the search in the long street with the name Nonnenrain and the confusion about the house number, 70 instead of 17. Aunt Lucie was speechless. Of course, she could not answer our first question about the whereabouts of our parents. That we looked like dirty pigs must have affected her rather badly as it would have anybody else. At mealtime there was information on the conditions in the city, above all on the almost daily aerial attacks and on the air raid shelters. Besides the American front was approaching from the west.
At first we did not heed the warnings of the aerial attacks, until a powerful explosion of a bomb taught us otherwise. Uncle Günther, who was at the time hospitalized due to health issues going back to WW1, was sent home, and we met again, himself looking quite worried. With the arrival in Erfurt the flight had come to an end, and the thread to our homeland and to the parents was totally cut off. What came next was completely different. End of Karl’s report
We soon found out that the Russians were pushing hard directly to the coastline. Shots were coming out of the dunes aimed at the passers-by. German soldiers went into position and repulsed the attack, which would possibly have cut us off. Here is one impressive detail: A soldier was getting ready on the dune in the direction of the pine forest. An overly daring Russian fighter was hit and fell down and remained hanging in the lower branches. He wanted to get an overview of the scenario from the treetop.
I do not know why someone would throw bicycles into the sea. Anyway we got two of them out of the water, loaded our light luggage and moved ahead this way a lot faster. Near the water’s edge the sand was firm; only over the tidal inlets we had to lift our vehicles. The bikes were available to us for many more kilometres, until we caught in Neubrandenburg a train to Erfurt.
From the place, where we found the bikes, we soon reached the village of Dievenow located on either side of the arm of the Oder River, from which it got its name. On the east bank we had a major delay, because there was no bridge, but a ferry instead, which connected the ends of the old highway of the Reich I65 and which was no longer operational. The army had set up a pontoon service, which, when we arrived, was exclusively available for the troops. They consoled us civilians with the evening hours. We looked at the village. There were beautiful villas located near the beach like in so many resorts at the coast. We went into abandoned houses in search for food. The provisions we had with us had been exhausted. Where we had stayed overnight we had begged for food or often filled our stomachs at the military field kitchens. It was awkward that we had neither a tin bowl nor a spoon with us. Once we ate out of a steel helmet, the inner lining of which we had removed. In the houses of Dievenow we found very little, at most canned fruit.
In this beautiful place I should have received my paramilitary training. They were sending the male Hitler-Youth to so-called training camps, from which they were directly transferred to the troops. During our journey I always had the draft notice readily available in my pocket, but had no intention to look around and locate the camp to report for military duty.
Finally they let us two bicyclists onto a pontoon, some of which were ferrying constantly back and forth.. Now one could already hear heavy artillery fire close by. Shells hitting the water indicated that the Soviets intentionally were going to disrupt the withdrawal movements.
Much relieved we pedalled onward in a westerly direction, needed no longer to divert our march into forests and fields, but rode on decent roads. There were also organized centres of provisions through field kitchens. Also the military operations were less noticeable in the rural areas. The city of Wollin, a day’s march from Swinemünde, was only captured on May 4, 1945. We reached Swinemünde, the next city from Dievenow, already on March 12th, a date of horror in my memory.
We soon arrived at the small beach resort town of Misdroy, twelve km before Swinemünde on the main road to Stettin. We had more often heard the thunder of big guns from the direction of the Baltic Sea. The German navy, which not only carried the masses of refugees primarily from the East Prussia to safety, but was also actively engaged with its long range guns in support of the battle on land, and was shooting no-go areas against the enemy to safeguard endangered front lines. What we heard on March 12th, let the ground at a wide range shake and doors bang open and shut. The Americans and British had fooled the antiaircraft authorities by not flying in a straight line to the town of Swinemünde, but then for one hour intensively bombarded the relatively small town area. The bombing raid resulted in 23,000 dead. They rest on the German side on the Golm, a cemetery of an area of one square km. Swinemünde is Polish today.
Only once did we get to know the Soviet air force. A ‘Rata’, an awkward looking, slow airplane, was shooting at the trek on the road leading to the West. Near us a woman lost her infant, whom she carried on her arm. We quickly looked for cover to evade further attacks. Once we had a chance to hitch a ride on a hauling truck, which pulled a huge artillery gun. At close range we could observe how the battery moved into position at dusk. We stayed nearby in order not miss a possible ride later on. Then it became clear what was going to happen: a tank attack in the immediate vicinity. I still remember the howling of the tank engines and the noise of the chains. In the flashes of the gun barrels I could watch the gunner load, how he slid the big, heavy shell into the barrel, stopped his ears, waited for the recoil, then picked up the next shell, about three or five times. To the right in the background I saw exploding tanks. The gun towers all-aflame flew up and to the side. The remaining tanks turned and withdrew into the night. Later on I found out that night aiming devices were in existence. I also have been contemplating, as to why I can still visualize so vividly this scene. It was the unshakable calm of the gunner and steadiness of his movements: industrial work at the machine, prepared by ‘Refa’. We were not fast enough; the battery with its three or four artillery guns had disappeared during the night.
In one of the next days and nights we stayed in a more westerly located village. I observed a group of our soldiers, who were giving someone a lecture. One asked, “Where do you have your gun, Frenchman?” One needs to know that very many western Europeans under German occupation volunteered to be enlisted in their own units to fight against Bolshevism. The fear of being overrun from the East since the revolution in Russia was great. Almost all countries east of Germany developed into authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, Germany of course also and even more so. Thus, French people entered the German army. The scenario makes me ask: Was it German arrogance or realistic assessment of the French fighting spirit?
A short time later at the same spot we listened, as a battle at close range developed with the Soviet infantry. When tracer bullets were shot over our heads, we threw ourselves behind a manure pile, and we could see now close to our left and right the trails of light flashing by. The Russians were shouting “Hurrä”; in the counter offensive it was responded to with Hurrah. A German soldier lost his nerves. For several minutes he was dancing with his gun in his arm from one leg onto the other. Much later, sitting in relative safety in the train, I retold my observation to another refugee. Thereupon a sergeant severely reprimanded me, “One does not talk about these things in such detail.” The aforementioned attack therefore was repulsed. My brother and I were looking for better cover in a trench. An officer brandishing his pistol startled us and asked us to identify ourselves. He was a so-called hero-nabber (Heldenklau), whose job was to get after cowards and deserters or simply to bring the scattered bunch of his soldiers together again.
The military operations were pushing us again to the coast. Coming out of the dunes we saw an endless tapeworm of people moving west, military personnel as well as civilians, whom we joined. Soon we saw on the left the ruins of a church in the dunes. The village of Hoff lay ahead, a distance of 15 km to the eastern branch of the Oder river, the Dievenow. My grandmother had a picture of these ruins hanging in the hallway, which I had always looked at with great respect. I had spent the first two grades of my schooling in Stolpmünde. Now I saw the remainder of the church that had been destroyed by storm tides in previous centuries under such circumstances before my eyes.
[Here I must insert a paragraph gleaned from the City of Erfurt website which throws some additional light on the miracle of survival of my brother and sister who lived for a while in that city in Thuringia: “How close Erfurt escaped such an inferno as the city of Dresden had suffered in February, however, no one suspected, right to the top of the Nazi officials. In view of the relocation of armaments factories, Reich authorities and the military to Thuringia, the British in particular pressed for a massive bombing of the Erfurt traffic junction. The attack was initially scheduled for April 2nd and was then postponed twice. On April 4, the Royal Air Force was to launch a double attack on Erfurt and Nordhausen. 376 bombers were standing on the tarmac that morning alone for Erfurt. While the city in the southern Harz had to lament thousands of victims and the total destruction of its old town a few hours later, Erfurt remained unscathed. What happened? The US ground forces under General George S. Patton were at this time already moving towards Erfurt from Gotha, so that the Americans were afraid of bombs being dropped on their own soldiers and literally stopped the British at the last minute.” I searched for the location of the street where my uncle lived and found that is was located very close to the city centre and the railway station. It would have meant certain death for my uncle, aunt and Erika and Adolf].
And it was decided that Adolf and I were to join Mother in southwest Germany. The necessary papers arrived and we were on our way. The train took us close to the border and we walked the rest of the way. Two Russian border guards saw us coming and questioned us. After studying our valid papers allowing us to pass, they just tore them up. We were stunned at such injustice, after all we were 15 (Adolf) and 13 years old myself. The soldiers shooed us off, one of them pointing at his gun, in case we had any ideas of returning. We left seeking shelter behind a haystack and began to weigh our options on what to do next. Adolf wanted to return to Erfurt, but I would have none of it. I picked up my stuff carefully avoiding the guardhouse. Now a steady rain had begun. Soon I heard my brother’s footsteps behind me and I was much relieved. I don’t remember how long we walked. It seemed like a long time. By the time we got to a small railway station, we were exhausted, yet very much relieved that we were in the West. Two French border guards approached us demanding to see our papers, – no wonder, we looked like runaways. Adolf handled the situation quite well and we were allowed to board the train.
In Nuremberg we found the Red Cross Refugee Camp, where we received food and shelter. As we were out of money, discussing our next move, a woman interrupted us handing Adolf a bill that would cover our train fare to Meßkirch. Several kilometres more on foot and we arrived in Rohrdorf. What a relief for all of us to join our mother and the two youngest brothers again after such a long separation!
In January of 1945 everything came to an abrupt halt. Refugees started pouring in from neighbouring provinces, fleeing from the encroaching Russian front. They were mostly old people, women and children. There was lots of speculation about how this all would develop, some people moved westward on their own, others stayed in the city, hoping that they may return some day. The evacuation order came in early February and trains were ready to take us to safety and by now we could hear the guns in the distance. My family hesitated, there were discussions, but finally common sense prevailed. And our little group left on the last train out; later on we learned that all Russian soldiers entered the city the following day. Our train compartment was very crowded, one toilet, a small hand basin with only cold water for all of us meant long line-ups throughout the day. Food and drink were provided for our journey. The winters in East Germany are very cold, the land covered in snow, not much for us kids to see. Twice the whistle blew, the train stopped and we were ordered to step outside and move away from the train and stand still. When the whistle blew again, we were to get back on the train immediately. These were brief episodes when Allied planes came and went quickly not interested in us at all as they had bigger fish in mind. However our last stop along the way was different, as we were now ordered not to leave the train. We were all wondering what this was all about. Soon it became apparent that Dresden, the beautiful city, had been bombed, the sky was aflame to tell the story. Later we learned that thousands of people had perished, many of them at the main train station. This was the reason for us to be rerouted a day later. Our Tante Margot survived, as they were in another part of Dresden.
Our little group eventually made it to Mark Brandenburg, a place so far untouched by the war. Our major problem was that we were always hungry. Us older kids left daily on food-begging trips. Thus we managed to survive. Often I went on my own. Once while crossing a forested area, I came across the body of a German officer, eyes and mouth open providing a feast for tiny creatures. Another episode was more frightening. Three German teens in uniform, not knowing that the war had ended, shot dead a Russian soldier on patrol. These kids were caught and executed in the courtyard of the farmhouse where we stayed. It was horrifying to hear those shots. Another experience stands out for me. As I was approaching a large farmhouse, the hausfrau saw me coming, yelling at me to leave or she would sic the dog on me. Scared I turned to run off, when a Russian soldier took me by the arm and motioned me to follow him into the root cellar. Here the farmers kept their food. From the shelves the soldier took bread, cheese, a piece of bacon and handed me the goodies, which I put into my bag. I was out of there in no time never to come back to that place again.
Eventually my host family was able to contact an uncle of mine in Erfurt. He and his wife took me in and my life began to normalize again. I loved the family, the school and the beautiful city. However, I often wondered where my parents and siblings might be. My mother and the two youngest brothers were finally located. In the meantime the two older brothers also arrived in Erfurt.