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.
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.
In the first week of January 1945, Papa took the train to Zagreb, the capital and largest city of Croatia, from where he began the long train ride to Vienna. The resistance forces under the leadership of Josef Tito were cutting off all the supply lines from the north, which included the rail connections to Germany. So when Papa arrived in the capital of Austria, he heard that he had been on the very last passenger train that succeeded in leaving Yugoslavia. If we consider all the horrific atrocities that Tito’s guerilla army revengefully committed against German ethnic groups living in Yugoslavia in general and against German officers and ordinary soldiers in particular, it is fair to say that the birth of the twins had saved Papa from certain death.
On May 6, 1945, General Kesselring told Colonel-General Löhr, the commander of the southeast army, that Germany would capitulate on May 9. Löhr then contacted Tito to work out the capitulation details. The Yugoslavs ignored anything agreed upon as soon as the Germans had surrendered and had laid their arms down. They forced the POWs to march in so-called Sühnemärsche (atonement marches). The Geneva Convention states that POWs can march no more than 20km (12.5 miles) a day. One of the POW groups walked 75 km in 20 hours. Whoever straggled or was begging for water or food was shot. Ten thousand perished during those marches.
Camp life was no better. Hardly any food was available. The prisoners had to gather herbs and cook them. The result was diarrhea and dysentery. “Death worked with a scythe” in Belgrade Camp # 1. The dysentery barracks housed eight hundred; it was called the death barracks. The death count was at least ten corpses each day. The camp masters worked the inmates to death in lumber camps and mines. They also forced them to clear minefields without the proper equipment. At times, at the end of a shift, hundreds of POWs were chased onto the cleared field to ensure that no mines remained. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves. The camp authorities did not attempt to record their names.
On June 15 I concluded the story of Friedrich Klopp, the eldest child of my grandparents Peter and Emma Klopp. Now it is time to turn our attention to my aunt Jula (Juliane). She was born on February 2, 1877 in Elbeu. Her father P.F.W. Klopp at the time was still a miller’s apprentice in the neighboring town of Jersfelde. As a young girl she went for her education to Vienna and spent her teenage years in the home of her aunt Luise Necker née Bauer. Due to her long stay the good-looking Klopp daughter was known as Miss Necker.She maintained close ties with the arts and theater circles centered around the “Carl Theater” in Vienna.
Around the turn of the century Jula Klopp became acquainted with Friedrich Steuer, son of a the mining magnate. The Steuers like Jula’s foster parent Max Necker had made a fortune by owning and profitably operating a coal mine in the Harz Mountains near Blankenburg.
A chance encounter during vacation time at that tourist center developed into a serious relationship. At the wedding of the 23 year old Jula with Fritz Steuer, called the Moose, there was talk about a dowry in the amount of 80,000 gold marks. The wedding took place at the upper class hotel “White Elk” in Dresden. Friedrich and Jula Steuer lived during the first years of their marriage in Berlin-Karlshorst.
Continues next week …
To read about my visit to Aunt Jula in 1959 on a previous post, click here.