One day in early spring, our mother told us that we would soon be leaving the camp in Aurich, East Frisia; we would move to Velbert, situated in the Rhineland region of West Germany. My mother sounded very excited and joyful because she was born and raised in the Rhineland, a beautiful part of Germany. It meant saying goodbye to my best friend Ingeborg and all our other playmates with whom we had shared so many exciting adventures and experiences.
However, before moving to Velbert, we first had to spend several weeks in a transitory camp in Massen, a small town near Unna, close to Dortmund, our second station in the “Golden West.” I remember from that short stay that my mom was quite upset because we had to sleep in a big dormitory again with lots of strangers. And to make things worse, we had to lie on straw mattresses. But my parents consoled themselves with the prospect that we would soon move to Velbert. That’s where apartment buildings for refugees were being constructed rapidly.
On a bright, sunny day in early Spring, we were loaded with all our luggage and several other families onto the open back of a big, old transport truck with makeshift benches. My brother and I had rarely ridden in a car. This was my first time in a vehicle. For us, it was exciting! My mom thought it was odd that we were transported like baggage. She didn’t like that we were all crammed together in this small, draughty and not too clean space. But my brother and I were laughing with the other kids and some boisterous men enjoying the cool breeze and the changing scenery. After a few hours, we were all shaken up by the bumpy ride. The increasing cool drafts, the loud noise of the motor, and the vehicle’s rattling started to make us feel sick. Suddenly the truck came to an abrupt halt beside an old, dilapidated stone building that looked almost like a dungeon, dark and foreboding.
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.
Although we did not like to eat in the crowded and noisy dining hall, my brother and I adjusted quickly to our new life in the camp. I, in particular, was a very picky eater and often felt nauseous just from the food odours permeating the building. My father had experienced extreme hunger as a POW. Therefore, he had no sympathy for me and would get very upset and angry when I refused to eat certain foods or left something on my plate. Eventually, my mother would feed us separately at different times so my dad could enjoy his meals without stress.
After a long break in Dortmund, my brother and I could go to school again right at our camp. Makeshift classrooms were set up in one large lecture and meeting hall. We sat at round tables, which was a nice break from individual desks. I always loved school and even enjoyed homework. Since one teacher instructed us in a multigrade setting, we often had to work independently. Math problems were my favourites because we could read or draw when they were completed. I would always draw beautiful princesses in elegant dresses.
I remember the day I received my first report card. My brother and our friends walked across the big courtyard back to the living quarters. All of a sudden, we were stopped by a stranger. “Well,” he asked, “who of you children received the best report card today?” Immediately some of our friends pointed at my brother, some at me and some at another boy. “Let me see your report cards,” the man demanded. Timidly we handed them to him. After studying them for a while, he handed them back except mine. “You have the best,” he said, “congratulations, you deserve a reward.” He reached into his wallet and gave me some money, about $5.00. I was so stunned that I could barely say thank you. I had never had so much money before. My dad was so proud to hear the story that he matched the stranger’s reward.
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.
Happy to be reunited with our beloved parents, we had to say goodbye to our new friends in Dortmund. Our parents told us that we would not go back home to Gotha for a long, long time until the two separated Germanys would be reunited again. First, we would have to live in a refugee camp for some time until we would hopefully find a new home in the Rhineland region where my mother was born. After the destruction caused by the war and the rapid immigration of refugees from the East, housing was in short supply. There was a construction frenzy all over West Germany to keep up with the urgent demand for housing. People had to live in temporary shelters often for an extended period.
We were assigned to live in a refugee camp in Lower Saxony. Abandoned military barracks were converted into a refugy camp in Sandhorst, a small community close to Aurich, a quaint small town. This camp could house thousands of refugees. The buildings looked bright and clean. Lots of green spaces surrounded them. Meadows and lush pastures stretched to the endless horizon on this flat landscape. We were assigned to a room with six bunk beds. Three other families shared the room with us. A door led to another room about the same size as our dormitory. Occupants of that adjacent room shared our entry to the hallway. Thus there was much traffic through our room, and there was little privacy. We were told that we should avoid close contact with the people in the neighbouring room because they had a very contagious disease. I noticed that my mother looked quite shocked when she heard that. However, my brother and I were very excited about the prospect of sleeping on the upper bunk beds.
After we stored our small suitcases under our beds, the camp attendant led us to a big hall lined with multiple long racks of clothing of all sizes. American charities and other organizations donated them, and people from all over the world. We were invited to pick some clothing we needed and liked. That was exciting for me because I had never had the opportunity to choose a dress on my own. I had always worn hand-me-downs sent from my mom’s distant relatives. I picked a dress, which the attending lady told us was donated by a family from South Africa. I loved the dress and imagined a girl like me having worn it in a faraway place. The kind lady invited us to pose in our newly chosen clothes for a photo out on the lawn in the mild spring air. We all looked happy in this rare family picture, the first in the “Golden West.”
I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden. It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. As for the big allure of freedom, it was overrated. Although I could have chocolate and even bubble gum, I felt more restricted here than home. My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except the nearby fenced-in playground. They would drop us off and pick us up,
In Gotha, we were allowed to play for hours in our neighbourhood. Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own. A friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal, invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some historical highlights. Thus, we learned that the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship. Since our dad was a history buff, he had told us about Napoleon, who fascinated him. Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home, which I seemed to be losing. Every night I prayed that we would return to Gotha soon. But day after day, my brother and I were told that we had to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.
One afternoon, my brother and our new friends were at the nearby playground with a group of other children. I was gently swinging back and forth, dreaming of playing with Anneliese, when a boy I had never met started pushing me. At first, I didn’t mind. Then despite my protests, he pushed me higher and higher. My screams to stop seemed to entice him to push even harder and higher. I was terrified of the dizzying height and the unrelenting forceful behaviour of the big boy who seemed to delight in my distress. Suddenly, I lost control and fell flat onto the ground face first. The fall knocked the wind out of me, and I struggled for a long time to gasp for air. Suddenly it was very quiet on the playground. All the kids had run away except my brother and our friends. They stood around me, looking worried. Luckily, I was not seriously hurt. However, my faith in the kindness of people in the Golden West was shaken. I had never met such a mean bully at home.
Miraculously, the following day our hosts told us that our parents were on their way to get us.