Life was school, and school was life for me in those days. Everything revolved around school. Every morning, except on Sundays, school started strictly at 8:00 a:m. and the big portal with the stained glass motto “Not for School but for Life” was locked by the caretaker. If you were late, you had to ring a bell. The custodian would open for you and ceremoniously accompany you to the principal’s office on the school’s top floor. Frau Lindemann reigned like a queen at her huge shiny mahogany desk. She was a short, round lady with snow-white hair, bright blue eyes, and red cheeks. She looked kind, but that was deceiving. She was a strict disciplinarian. She would give you a severe reprimand the first time you were late. If you were late three times, you would be suspended. If you had three suspensions, you would be dismissed from school. We feared Frau Lindemann and would only enter her office with great trepidations.
Our classrooms looked austerely functional. There were giant blackboards on the front and side wall opposite the big windows. We would sit in neat rows of two side-by-side desks facing the central blackboard in front and the teacher’s workstation. The room was bare of pictures, displays, plants, or decorative items. There was nothing to distract us. However, we had the most exciting experiences in this dull physical environment. We would vicariously relive humanity’s quest for scientific knowledge and spiritual truths. Most of our teachers were passionate about expanding our minds. They tried to teach us skills to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective oral and written communication.
Although I missed my best friend in Gotha, I made many new friends. After school, we would play on the large meadows surrounding the buildings. Contrary to our parents, the restricted living area in that small room was not an issue. We had lots of space and freedom to roam on the meadows and green spaces surrounding the barracks. One day we ventured as a group out of the camp confines to a nearby treed area to play hide-and-seek. It was almost getting dark when one of the kids shouted, “Let’s go back. A dangerous man is trying to catch us!” We raced back to the camp gate with pounding hearts and breathlessly told the attending guard that a dangerous man had pursued us. Although I found out later that none of us had seen this man, we were sure we were telling the truth. In our minds, he existed. I guess this is a small example of mass hysteria. We never ventured into that forest area again.
Later I will tell you about our move to the Old House of Rocky Docky in the Rhineland region of Germany. But now, I want to talk a bit more about our experiences in the refugee camp in Aurich, East Frisia. Most children live in the present. I have always liked to live in the present moment to this day. However, writing my blog now forces me to relive the past.
My mother was distraught after our first night in the crowded dormitory shared with twelve strangers and other strangers passing through our room from the adjacent sickroom. She feared for our health and well-being due to the proximity of the contagious people who had to pass frequently through our door to visit the facilities or other places in the building.
After my mother voiced her concerns to the management, we were assigned to a small private room furnished with two metal bunk beds, a table with four chairs and a small wardrobe. Although this room was smaller than my father’s study in Gotha, we felt happy to have more privacy. We still had to share our door to the hallway with the occupants of the neighbouring room; a young widow and her two children. Her son was five years older than my brother and me, while her daughter was two years younger than us. But despite the age difference, we became good friends.
Rainer and Gabi’s mom always looked glamorous. She dressed like a film star. I knew what film stars looked like from pictures of American actors and actresses in the packages of chewing gum. I started collecting those pictures when staying with our friends in Dortmund. When I commented on her mom’s clothes to Gabi, she told me her mother’s secret. Her mom had found a way to contact actors’ fan clubs in the United States. She would tell them about her plight as a widowed refugee asking for charitable donations. She would receive big parcels with the most fashionable, expensive outfits, shoes and accessories, often only worn a few times by her idols. Gabi’s brother Rainer went to the Merchant Marine Corps as a cadet after he turned 14 years old and had passed grade 8. He brought me a beautiful scarf from one of his training sessions in Hamburg, the biggest harbour in Germany. My mom proudly displayed it on the wall, as you can see in the picture. I admired and adored Rainer. He would be travelling to many of the places my dad had shown us on the world map.
Shortly before we started school, my brother and I fell ill with scarlet fever, a severe disease at that time, often leading to death. We were hospitalized. It was a very traumatic time for us. Missing my mother was almost more agonizing for me than the pain and the fever of this savage disease. My brother was far worse off than I was and was put in an isolation chamber partitioned from the ward by glass walls. I often saw doctors and nurses bend over him with serious expressions on their faces.
My mother knew how distressed we were. During the day and even at night, she would race on her bike to the hospital. She would find ways to sneak into our ward and comfort us, disregarding strict visitor regulations until she was asked to leave. My bed was close to a window. I would often stare out onto the street in the hope to spot my mother in the distance on her bike.
Antibiotics were very scarce in East Germany. Even in the West, there was only a limited supply because of the recent war. My brother was at the point of death when a desperate doctor asked my mother if she had relatives in West Germany. He suggested to phone them and ask for antibiotics to be sent to the hospital. He helped my mother contact her aunt via his private phone and make arrangements with a doctor in the West. Making these calls was a risky undertaking because contact with the West was considered a severe offence. Miraculously the mission was successful.
When the antibiotics finally arrived, I was already on the road to recovery. However, for my brother, they came just in the nick of time. He was saved from death but suffered from a weakened heart for the rest of his life. Shortly after we recovered, my newlywed sister and husband came down with a severe case of diphtheria, from which they took a long time to recover. They were in quarantine for many weeks, and my parents had to look after their infant son during that time.
Looking back now, I wonder how my parents coped with all these extreme hardships. As my mother often told us, my brother and I were the reason why they never despaired or gave up. We were their pride and joy. Trying to raise us for a better future gave them strength and hope. Especially my mother was prepared to sacrifice anything for our well-being and prospects for a happy future. Without personal freedom, these prospects were compromised. My parents felt increasingly oppressed by the totalitarian state.
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