My Mother’s War

My mother was born in 1935 in what was then Ortelsburg, East Prussia—now Szczytno, Poland. She wrote this autobio­graphical piece in 2012, a few years before her death.

Historical trivia: The name “East Prussia” is a bit of a paradox. In recent centuries it referred to a small Baltic region that politically belonged to Prussia (northern Germany) though it was separated from the rest of (German) Prussia by all of Poland. But at an earlier time, this was the “real” Prussia, one of at least seven Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Livonia, Kurland, Prussia and Semigallia (Zemgalya). Somehow the name “Prussia” got shifted from its original location to an entirely different region, so the historical Prussia became known as “East” Prussia.

I have fine-tuned the punctuation and corrected a few misspellings. The text is otherwise exactly as my mother wrote it.

Bruno, Maria and Brunhilde Urban in September 1941

As far as I know, this is the only existing picture of my mother’s father. The photograph is labeled on the back “September 1941”. Brunhilde had just turned six; her parents—Maria and Bruno—would have been about 36 and 41.

The stripes on Bruno’s uniform are equivalent to a Corporal. Little Brunhilde asked her mother to put stripes on her dress to make it look like her father’s uniform.

For me World War II started on January 19, 1945. That was when the first bombs fell on our little East Prussian town. We lived near the military barracks which may have been the target of the planes.

I was 9 years old at the time and my little brother 21 months. My mother was 39 and my father—fighting in the war like most healthy German men at the time—44. My parents had married late in life because of the precarious economic situation in the 30s.

We also had relatives who lived in the same town. Closest to me was my cousin, Gretchen, 20 years old. Several years earlier her older brother had died in the war. I can still hear her mother’s cries when she got the news: “My Hansel, my Hansel!”

To these relatives we went now, because they lived relatively far from the military barracks, and with them we felt more secure.

Unfortunately, the next targets of the Russian planes, the German military hospital and the train station, lay very close to our relatives’ home. We carried our luggage to the evacuation trains. An old aunt offered to watch over them until we were ready to board. She was among the many that were killed by strafing.

As we had a baby, we were among the first to be seated. This turned out to be a misfortune in disguise. The train was constantly delayed (troop transports were more important of course), and the almost constant strafing of the tracks did nothing to expedite the ride. The idea was to keep North towards the Baltic Sea, but we never made it.

For some reason the little town of Medenau was designated as the end of the journey. (My mother had been evacuated to this town as a little girl in World War I, also.) Every house and apartment simply got one extra family unit. We shared a small apartment with a very old lady.

As a matter of fact we had relatives in Medenau who said hello when I admired the beautiful huge apple in their hallway, but of course they had no room for us and later disappeared when Medenau, too, was evacuated, leaving us the somewhat ridiculous message that though, unfortunately, they could not wait for us, I would now be allowed to eat the apple.

Soon the bombardment started again. The Russians tried to conquer Medenau. The Germans defended it forcefully, and we were in the middle. Again, we had to move into the cellar. Finally, it grew eerily quiet. A few Russians came in. The first word that I heard them use was “UHRA, UHRA!” Quickly a few watches were handed over.

But soon the shooting started again. The Germans wanted to win their town back.

How long were we supposed to live like that? Some of the families (mostly women and children, but there was also an old grandpa) decided to escape from this hell, no matter what the cost. My mother and we two little ones were among them. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to us if we had stayed. We will never know.

We stepped out of the house. The shooting had stopped and we had a chance to look around. I saw a head, but no body. A tank burned out, a hand. More shooting. We did not know whether we were in German or Russian territory. We just ran, pushing the pram (in the beginning with a large suitcase on top of my brother’s cover), all the while carrying our large backpacks.

Initially the ground was frozen, later it thawed. Soon the baby carriage got stuck in the mud, and we had to lighten the load. We left the suitcase with all our clothes by the wayside. Soon we realized that we were in enemy country. We were not allowed to use the road anymore, and if we dared to because it was so much easier, the Russian trucks drove real close to us so that the left wheels of the pram got cut off.

Thus, having become unusable, we had to leave the baby carriage behind too.

Now we tried to hold my baby brother’s hands, my mother one, and I the other. But try as he might, he had not learned how to walk yet. So, pretty soon, my mother had to drop her backpack, and, instead, carry her son.

In the next village—there was not a soul in sight—we luckily found another carriage that had been left behind.

Seven carriages we ruined on our way to Königsberg where my mother had a sister who she hoped would be able to help us.

How can I describe this time to you? I can only do it from the point of view of a 9-year-old child, because that is the way I remember it.

We were always on the move, mostly in groups of different sizes. We slept in empty houses on straw that scratched terribly because it was full of lice. At night our sleep was often interrupted; Russian soldiers came in to look for young girls. Often we had hidden those, and the older women were raped instead. This mostly happened in an adjoining room, but you could hear the screams. The soldiers stood in line until it was their tum. If we were planning to stay more than one night, they made plans: “Tomorrow we will take the little one with the dark hair.” That was my mother.

My mother instantly decided that she had had enough and we left the home before daylight. Just we alone, a young desperate woman and her two children with one backpack and a baby carriage. My mother’s milk had stopped coming, and there were no stores. She was worried sick about my little brother who showed the first signs of the coming typhoid fever. Her only thought was how to get milk for her son. We saw a few cows in a meadow, and after it got dark she sneaked out with an empty milk can to milk a cow. But very soon she returned, she had been caught in this act of desperation and beaten.

On the fields one could see many dead animals, mostly cows. Usually just the enormous cow stomachs covered with worms. But we had to eat something, so mother cut off the spleen and fried it when she had a chance.

But what really saved us from starving to death were the basements of the empty houses. The farmers, as was their custom, had preserved many glasses of fruit and eggs, and there were almost always potatoes and carrots covered with sand. Later, as it got warmer, we found gardens full of asparagus. At this time we never met the former owners, they had long since escaped.

Once we came to a church which seemed to be full of sleeping people. It took a while before we realized that they were all dead.

Another time we anxiously entered an empty house to spend the night. Suddenly Russian soldiers appeared and screamed in genuine terror: “Out, out, we were just ordered to blow up this building. You were sure lucky that we found you first.” And, sure enough, the house was blown up, but not until we had escaped to a safer area.

One day a Russian soldier told us that the war was over and that the Germans had lost. It was the 8th of May, 1945. Were we relieved or afraid? Probably a little of both. Because what would happen now? But actually nothing changed. We continued with our march northwards towards Königsberg hoping that my mother’s sister who lived there would be able to help us.

Finally we reached the city. But all we saw was a pile of rubble. Once in a while we saw a house that was not destroyed, or a street sign that was still readable. It seemed to my mother that she had been there before. We walked slowly and looked around a lot. Finally we met a woman that we could ask for the name of my aunt. She knew it, but her news was devastating. Shortly before the Russian took over the city, she and her husband had hanged themselves.

What to do? The woman recommended that we continue on our way until we came to the center of the city. One very large house, the former financial headquarters had been converted to a hospital for people sick with typhoid fever. Did we have typhoid fever? Most likely, because most of the refugees that reached the city did. How many nights had we slept on straw mattresses full of lice! You could also tell by the ulcers that, until now, we had tried to ignore.

We were admitted right away. Our clothes were taken from us and all our hair was shaved off. Then we were deloused. My mother was sent to the women’s area and my little brother and I shared a bed in one of the children’s rooms. I slept at the head of the bed and he at the foot.

Later a little girl with golden locks was brought into the room. Her mother screamed when she saw all of us: “Is she supposed to sleep here with all these boys!?” First when protests came from all sides could she be convinced that she had been wrong.

I don’t remember how long we stayed there. But one morning I was awakened by the sound of paper rustling. I sat up. I could not see my brother. All of a sudden the door opened. It was my mother. She stood there quite still holding her beautifully embroidered white wool cardigan. She went to the table on which I now saw a package tied with string. The nurse who apparently had just made it opened it again, and my mother put the jacket on my little brother as he lay on the table. Did she cry when she did this? I can’t say. I just remember that she stroked my shaved head and went out. When I looked at the package it was tied up as before.

The next day I was allowed to accompany my mother to the funeral. A large truck full of all those grownups that had died the night before emptied its load into a mass grave. The little ones all got their own grave. I will never forget that cemetery, even now, when it has been asphalted over for decades, I see the little graves in front of me.

Now only the two of us were left: my mother and I. Though I got well pretty quickly after that, she was sick for a long time. I was worried about her, because what would I do if she died too, and I did not have a pretty woolen sweater to wrap her in.

But she got well, and we started on our way home. Home. That meant southward into the area that was Polish now. Our hometown, Ortelsburg, now called Szczytno. It was a long way though it probably seemed shorter now as we did not have to push the carriage anymore and therefore could go faster.

But soon things changed. Not all the houses were empty anymore, and it became necessary to be careful. People did not like to see us, neither the Poles nor the few Germans that had returned to their homes and felt threatened by the steady stream of people coming back. There still were no stores available, and we had to eat. Though it was summer now, and many properties stood empty still. The fences had been torn down, the doors forced, the comforters sliced open searching for valuables and thus most bedrooms were filled with feathers. Even some cellars still had preserves from last summer. But, of course, we were not the only ones who wanted to survive.

Finally we arrived in our hometown. It had become Polish now. You noticed it first when reading the street signs. They all started with ULICA. At the entrance to the town it said Szczytno, not Ortelsburg. Everybody was a stranger. I heard only Polish. Our previous apartment was in ruins. But the little house next door that used to belong to the parents of my best friend was undamaged with its apple tree under which we had spent many hot summer afternoons.

We went down to one of the lakes, thinking that in that area other Germans might have found a safe place to stay. And that turned out to be true. In this less desirable area we heard German spoken, and we found a tiny house that was empty. It only had a living room and a kitchen. Under the kitchen was a potato cellar full of rats, but those were invisible in the daylight. The kitchen had a bed where I slept. As soon as it got dark they came out. They ran around on the stove and on my bed. They were big, grey, well-nourished and disgusting. They gnawed a big hole into the wall by the oven. My mother filled it with broken glass, but already during the next night they had made another bigger hole. We did not stay there long, but explored other areas, and finally found a larger apartment on the third floor in a different street, further away from the water. Other German families lived there, too. The big yard had a barn full of hay and stray cats.

My mother found work in a factory and thus was able to feed us both. They provided lunch for their workers, and mother was allowed to bring me some food when she got home in the evening. I was alone all day and frightened when it got dark. As we had no clock, my mother more or less guessed when the factory opened.

One day she came home rather quickly, because it was still evening and the factory would be closed for many more hours.

At that time I was already 10 years old, and my mother wanted me to go back to school. She did not like it that I spent all day looking at old magazines and a Bible that I had found somewhere. She thought that I would be safer in school.

There was only one problem. I was German and the schools were Polish. No other German child attended school in my town. I was admitted, however into the first grade, as I could not speak the language. “What is your name?” the teacher asked me. “Brunhilde Urban,” I answered truthfully. Oh, HILDA URBANOWNA, she translated and wrote it down into her attendance sheet. And thus I had a new name, the only one everybody used.

As in the case with most young children, I had no difficulty learning the new language. But there were other problems. For one thing I could not get rid of the fear that somebody wanted to hurt me and then my teachers did not like the way my hands looked. Though the constant handling of old and dirty things, I had contracted scabies, a disease, apparently contagious, and I was sent home for treatment, though I do not remember ever seeing a doctor for it. It went away and then came back, but eventually I became free of it and was allowed back to school.

Vaccinations must have been very important at the time, because the whole class was marched to the hospital for that purpose, at least once a month. I have no idea what all we were vaccinated against, but it was probably necessary at the time, because of the lack of proper sanitary conditions.

The Swedes sent us care packages. I must have had the reputation of being the poorest of the poor, because when a pair of socks was left over and the teacher asked whom she should give it to, the whole class shouted, “Give it to Hilda!”

The Swedes also sent us to vacation camp. I was allowed to go along even though I was not quite as skinny by nature as the rest of the group that was selected. We spent several weeks in tents. One day my mother came to visit. She told me that we were going to be expelled from our hometown because she did not want to sign the papers that required her to become permanently Polish. I just should not talk to anybody about this.

In August when our vacations were over and I was finally to be allowed to go to the 4th grade (I was 12, and had been attending Polish school for two years), we escaped from our hometown for the second time. Why this had to remain a secret I do not understand to this day. But apparently, my mother was afraid that somebody might recognize her, if she went to our apartment again, to fetch a few things that she had forgotten to pack. The train that we boarded had been standing on the same track for days and was sure to be a long time still. Maybe a conductor was asked. In any case I found myself on the way to the Horst Wessel Strasse, now renamed Ulyca K——. I got home without any trouble and picked up the desired items. But on the way back, I met a classmate, Jurek, somewhat larger and older than I, who without provocation hit me real hard in the face. Why, Jurek? Only you know it and probably have forgotten it completely by now. I doubt that it had anything to do with me personally, but rather with the fact that l was German.

Frightened to death I ran away and got to the train, just before it finally left.

On the way to East Germany we stopped a lot, but we were not so afraid anymore because we believed we were safe.

The train stopped at a camp in Helmstedt which was already full of refugees. Helmstedt, of course, was in East Germany, and this was supposed to be our final destination. On no account were we permitted to travel on to West Germany. It was strictly prohibited.

But we were lucky. One of my aunts lived in Weimar and worked for the postal service. She came to visit us in the camp and gave my mother money so that we could continue to travel to West Germany, once the obstacle of the border crossing was behind us. We managed this hidden in cases in a freight train together with others.

Once someone shone a flashlight in our direction and we held our breath, but the officials did not seem to notice the extra freight.

My mother had a brother in Bad Homburg who owned a hotel and needed help. He provided us with a small room on the top floor, and my mother cleaned the hotel rooms for him, while I, finally, was promoted to the 6th grade in the local elementary school. But as education was very important to my mother, I was allowed to transfer to a high school for girls. Initially I felt very much out of place, because only those students that could afford it transferred to high schools after the 4th grade, and they had to pass a test to be admitted. My test consisted of one question (which I answered wrong as I recall). Considering how much schooling I had missed, maybe that was to be expected, and they thought they would give me a try.

Harder to overcome for me was the fact that I had only one dress and no shoes to walk to school in. So many girls avoided me, which, to a 12 year old, must have been very painful.

But soon I noticed that there were different groups in the class, some rich, others Girl Scout types, interested in nature and hiking. They did not mind if I joined them. I liked to sing and tell stories, and soon I was writing small pieces that we performed for the school. Thus I got some confidence back and did well in some subjects.

But of the sciences only biology interested me. I just had missed too much to be able to compete in math, chemistry and physics, just barely hanging on. Music and the humanities rescued me.

In the fall of 1947 we finally had a permanent address where we could be reached by the Red Cross. And it was then that my mother received the news that my father had been killed in action a few weeks before my little brother died.

Ending note: Bad Homburg, in the general area of Frankfurt-am-Main, remained my maternal grandmother’s home to the end of her life.