Near the end of March 1945, SS-Colonel Josef Dietrich had taken over the defence of Vienna. A few days later, artillery fire was thundering and warning that the Soviet frontlines were moving closer. Opa fortuitously recalled his marching orders commanding him to report for duty at his hometown Gotha. So with these documents on hand, it was in the eyes of the military authorities quite proper and legitimate for him to leave the endangered Austrian capital and not be considered a deserter. Yet, with his keen survival instinct, he saw a golden opportunity to be near his family in his leaving the city. Papa also saw a chance to get through the final stages of the war alive. To fall into the hands of the Americans as a POW was, in his mind, the lesser evil. He managed to reach Erfurt by train a short distance east of Gotha, which was already under attack by US troops and tanks. This event prevented him from taking on his new assignment there. So on the highway to Gotha, where he was walking, he joined the German forces in full retreat from the enemy. Papa did not indicate in his notes the army units under his command in the final stages of the war.
Later, on a beautiful sunny April morning, when he would have preferred to take a relaxing hike with his family through the Thuringia Forest, he walked instead in the direction of the Central Station in search of provisions. When he passed by the railway station, the ordinarily busy and often overcrowded place was utterly deserted. Enemy tanks had bypassed the town during the afternoon on the previous day and threatened to cut off the local defence lines set up for the region around the city. Rumour had it that an order would come that very same night regarding a desperate attempt to hold the town with troops drawn from the so-called ‘Volkssturm’ brigades long enough for the bulk of the battalion to reconnect with the German defence lines farther east. Despite the town mayor’s opposition to the inevitable house-to-house combat and the danger of more destruction to his beloved city, the order was carried out to the effect that the regime-loyal Nazi officials had also taken flight together with a remnant of the retreating army. Expecting the arrival of the American vanguard of tanks and troops at any time and being no longer afraid of their oppressive regime, audacious town folks tore down the pictures of Adolf Hitler from public buildings and the walls inside the railroad station.
For Papa, these were turbulent times. With a small company of soldiers, he stayed behind, having received an order to fight as long as possible to delay the advance of enemy units converging on the city of Erfurt. On April 2nd, 1945, he recorded on his notes that the lines of command and communication were in a complete state of disarray. In the chaos and the rapid disintegration of the command lines, coordination of troop movements became increasingly more challenging to maintain. Often conflicting orders were sent out by the high command resulting in total confusion for the officers in charge down the military hierarchy. For instance, since his return from Vienna, Opa had received two marching orders, one for Leipzig and another for Dresden, while at the same time, he was supposed to provide leadership in the defence of Erfurt.
About a month ago, I took you on a tour around our yard where flowers played a dominant role and the garden was a little add-on section of my post. Today I present to you the raised garden beds which generated quite a bit of interest. As a retired school teacher, I enjoy the simplicity and reduced work load when growing our vegetables and strawberries in the raised beds. The boxes are very simple to construct from rough cedar boards. I used plastic sheets to cover the ground so I won’t have any problems with weeds. I got the black earth from a nearby garden centre. Bush beans, lettuce, carrots, and strawberries are our favourite fruits and vegetables. Enjoy.
Being cut off from his unit in Zavidovici, Papa returned to Vienna to report for military duty and to prepare a newly formed battalion to defend the city. Fortunately for him, there was not much action during the next two months except for the endless allied bombing raids on the capital of Austria. Since there were virtually no German fighter planes, American bombers brazenly made daily attacks in broad daylight on the beautiful city on the River Danube. With the regularity of a clock, they flew in from their air bases in France.
Ignoring the lethal blows to entire neighbourhoods, Papa remarked in one of his letters employing his peculiar kind of sarcasm that the Americans were knocking down one café after another. He would soon have none left to go and enjoy with a colleague a game of chess while sipping coffee and tasting delicious Viennese pastry. Knowing that the war would soon be over and all his money worthless, Papa spent his off-duty time scouring the local liquor stores for the liquid gold, his cherished slivovitz. He perceived it to be more valuable than the war-tarnished currency of the German Reich. On his final official leave at the end of February, Papa had assembled a dozen 1-litre bottles of his favourite plum brandy, for which he had a wooden crate especially built for the transport on the train to Gotha. However, he did not quite satisfy the desire for this precious drink. Indeed, he had also considered its trade-in value for scarce essential items later down the road. He managed to scrounge up a keg containing about 10 litres of slivovitz, which he stuffed into a huge rucksack.
With all these goods unavailable in Gotha and a suitcase full of foodstuff for the family way back home, he had to struggle to make his way to the railway station with a rucksack on his back, suitcase on the one hand and a small cart loaded with a box full of bottles on the other. People must have watched in amazement the most peculiar sight of an army officer that Papa offered to the curious Viennese onlookers. He was homeward bound and did not care much about the image that a German army officer was supposed to present to the public eye. Despite constant propaganda promising final victory, Papa and everyone else knew that the war was lost and that it was time to think of survival and to ignore how ridiculous one might look when plodding along with a load of valuables on the sidewalks of Vienna.
Last week I postponed the presentation of wildflowers that were blooming at our lookout south of Fauquier BC. Now that the summer has officially started and a major possibly long-lasting heat wave is upon us, I would like to share with you the images of the wildflowers I captured on June 10. I do not know the names of the flowers on pictures 2 and 5. Perhaps the two Steves who have an outstanding knowledge of wildflowers can help me with the identification. The first photo with the daisy also shows the Arrow Lake in the background giving a clear idea of how high the lookout is above the lake. I discovered the bee on the tigerlily only after processing the image. Enjoy.
But more important was the second reason for letting me dwell on the dark side of the postwar Yugoslav history. When Germany was losing the war on all fronts, Papa had been granted leave because of his twins’ birth. He would have most certainly died if not on the atonement marches, then most certainly later, executed as an officer of the much-hated German army.
When Papa told me his survival story on one of our walks in the lush Gruga Park near Velbert in July 1968, I could not help but notice the similarity between the miraculous escape from death between Biene’s Papa and our family. Was it a coincidence? I remember well my thoughts on the strange circumstances under which Biene and I met at Lake Baldenay and how, against all odds, our relationship developed into a lifelong union. Some may claim that everything in life is coincidental. But as for me, I take comfort in the way God, through our faith, provides the means to go beyond a fatalistic attitude and offers deep spiritual meaning to life even in the midst of death.
The twins Walter and Biene were already more than two months old when Papa was finally able to hold them in his arms. When looking at the photograph of the proud father looking down on his precious brood, I had a rare glimpse of true happiness at the sight of new life that transcends all human tragedy. Despite the spectre of death and destruction at the front lines and the constant bombing raids, Papa, for that short moment in time, seemed far removed from the ravages of war and the worries of an uncertain future. His smile reflected a genuine picture of paternal pride, which prompted him to muster his inner resources in the battle of survival during the final stages of WW2, no longer just for himself but more importantly for his wife and children. The one-week leave and his visit at Gotha with Mutti, his two babies, Grandma Gertrud from Berlin and his adopted daughter Elsbeth came to an end much too soon.
Last Sunday my wife and I went to our favourite outlook to capture a few wildflowers. We were very happy with the results and were eager to rush home to view and edit the photos for publication. On our way home, we drove by the nearby duck pond. To our great surprise, we spotted two moose leisurely munching away at the delicious leaves. It was unbelievable luck to see them so close and to have my movie camera with me as well. So I decided to publish the video instead and leave the wildflower photos for next Wednesday. Enjoy.