Ep. 56 All or nothing part 2

The world Gerhard was released into was no safer than the prison he left behind. In 1946 millions in Europe had no home to return, no country to call their own. Over seven million foreign forced labourers in Germany were free to leave the factories and farms where they had worked for up to six years.[1] “Between them, Stalin and Hitler uprooted, transplanted, expelled, deported and dispersed some 30 million people in the years 1939-1943.  With the retreat of the Axis armies, the process was reversed.”[2]

German women after the warThis was a dangerous time for Gerhard. By his own account he had served the German army for four years, advanced to a non-commissioned rank within the Wehrmacht despite his status as a Soviet citizen. Gerhard’s own home was deep in eastern Ukraine and Germany was flooded with millions of homeless and starving refugees. Even the most generous German would have suggested Gerhard return to Russia so that Germany had one less mouth to feed. At least in the war he knew who his enemies were. Here, in the general population, it could be anyone.

Krefeld, Hungerwinter, Demonstration

Protest March 31, 1947 in Krefeld, Germany. Sign says: “We want coal, we want bread.”

Waiting for Special Rations Line in Front of a Butcher Shop in Hamburg-Winterhude

Waiting for rations in front of a butcher shop in Hamburg.

Gerhard found work in an aluminum smelter melting down crashed airplanes and immediately searched for his sister Lydia, he doesn’t say it, but most likely he had given up finding any other members of his family. Lydia had married and moved to Germany years earlier. He had a close brush with fate when he visited his cousin Mariechen Ratzlaff in East Berlin. Mrs. Ratzlaff gave room and board to two Russian officers while Gerhard hid upstairs.

GERHARD I’m glad she held her tongue and spoke only a few words to the Russian officers. They would surely have delivered me back to Russia. I was relieved in the morning when the Russian officers were gone and I could travel on. I had been released in December 1945 and it was in 1946  when I came to my sister in Glienicke bei Wittstock (Dosse) 100 kilometres north of Berlin. It was a Sunday when I came to my sister and her three boys, her husband Johann was still in captivity.

Glienicke was a small farming village, and Gerhard worked for an elderly farmer named Rossow. What Mr. Rossow knew or didn’t know about Gerhard didn’t matter. He had a farm to run and a harvest to bring in, and men were in short supply. Yet suspicions ran rampant, everyone had to prove they belonged in Germany.

Berlin wall 6

GERHARD This was in the Russian Zone and they wanted to know where everyone was born and what everyone had  done throughout their lives. Each person received a questionnaire which had to be completed. My sister gave her birthplace as Russia, but I didn’t know that when I filled out my questionnaire. She had immigrated to Germany in 1934-36 according to the rules of the land. I wrote that I was born in Braunsberg, East Prussia. One day the mayor asked me: “How is it that you were born in Braunsberg and your sister was born in Russia?” The German people were desperately hungry at that time, there was nothing to eat, and so they urgently needed people to return to their own homelands. During the war the Germans had taken many people from the East back to Germany and now they wanted to be rid of them. “Since your sister was born in Russia, you must also have been born in Russia.” Where my answer came from, I don’t know, but I said: “That is really quite simple. Mrs. Borowski is my half-sister. My mother died in East Prussia and my father immigrated to Russia and remarried there.”

The mayor was satisfied with my answer, but his superiors wanted to know more so I had to complete a number of questionnaires itemizing each year, where I had worked and for how long, on which front I had served and that must have satisfied them because they bothered me no more.

Russian fragebogen BArch, OMGUS, 15122-17

This is a Russian de-nazification questionnaire. Everyone had to complete them, anyone caught lying was subject to a military tribunal. I wonder what Gerhard’s answers were.

When Gerhard found his sister Lydia in Glienicke it wasn’t exactly the welcome he had hoped. She was raising her three sons Waldemar 14, Nikolai 12, and Willi 9 through the famine and they were in dire straits. Her husband Johann was still a POW, working in a salt mine.

GERHARD With my sister Lydia things were desperate, together with the children after the harvest we picked up the chaff to alleviate our suffering.

Berlin wall 5Gerhard was in danger as long as he remained in the East zone. He had relatives who had moved to Canada before the war and so went to Berlin and contacted the Canadian authorities through the Canadian Red Cross.

GERHARD At that time the Red Cross was broadcasting names of individuals who wished to be known to their families so I asked to have my name broadcast as well. I gave them the names of the people I was seeking, Viktor Wiens, Abram Wiens, Sara Neufeld, Marieche Sudermann, and gave them my address. By random good luck, or rather by the hand of God, it turns out my uncle Johann Sudermann, sitting in his kitchen in Winnipeg, heard my name on the radio.

“Could that maybe be Lena’s son?” he said. Unbelievably, I received a letter and in the letter was the address of another aunt Tina Fast, who lived in West Germany. Now the question became, how do you get there?

The letter I received said that precedence was being given to those displaced persons who had come from Russia. In this case the letter had gone through the English censorship process but it could just as well have gone through the Russian process and then I would have been nailed.

A glimmer of hope: now he had people in Canada and in West Germany. Since July 1945 Germany had been divided into quadrants among the victorious Allies. France, Great Britain, United States and Russia each controlled part of the country until elections could be held. Glienicke was in the East zone and Gerhard did not believe he could survive there. The relationship between the western Allies and Russia was in free fall and all travel between the Soviet zone and the rest of Germany was restricted.

Reaching across the wire

West Berlin policemen and East German soldiers face each other after a young girl made it across the border, 1955

Guns drawn, East German and West German police face-off after a woman crosses the line.

Gerhard had worked for Mr. Rossow for eight months but now he knew the time had come to leave his sister and her children behind and look after his own safety.

GERHARD This was still before the harvest of 1947, there were very few men to work the fields as so many had died and many more were still in captivity so Mr. Rossow did not want to let me go. I asked Mr. Rossow for three days to say goodbye to my aunt who was going to Canada. Permission was eventually granted and now the game was afoot. I was going to the West.

We’ll never know whether Mr. Rossow believed Gerhard would return after three days, but we know Gerhard, with a map in his pocket, was never going back. He would have worked the day for Mr. Rossow and then walked the four kilometres to the train station in Wittstock to catch the afternoon train to Berlin. After dark he crossed the Elsenbrücke over the Spree and tested the border.

GERHARD I am on the train and nearing the border. I looked around me and could tell what people were up to. On the train were various people who each had their own reasons for going to the West. I joined a group that was supposedly attending a wedding in West Germany. The sun went down and we waited until it was completely dark and then we made our attempt at salvation. We walked for a while until we came to a fence of barbed wire. The border’s gates had closed, and no one was allowed to cross, even though the border was nothing more than barbed wire.

There were women in our group and one of them was not careful enough and her skirt caught on the wire. The Soviets hung tin cans on the wire so that when the wire moved, the can would make a sound and raise the alarm. It wasn’t long before a flare was in the sky and a guard in front of us was shouting for us to put up our hands.

We were brought to the guard shack and searched. Then we were locked into different shacks overnight. I never saw those people again.

Early in the morning a German guard woke me and took me back to the same train station where I had arrived. He released me on the condition I would take the train, due to arrive in a few minutes, back to Glienicke and help bring in the harvest. He must have had complete trust in me, for he left me at the train station and went to join his unit. But I had something else on my mind. I was not going back.

Morning came, so I made another attempt but this particular section of the wire was swarming with Russians so I turned back and went to the freight depot.

The sun had come up nice and warm and I lingered at the freight train station. I met a locomotive driver and asked him if it was possible to get to the West Zone. He said: “If you had come in the evening we could have done something.” Then he pointed to a locomotive. “This one is going next. Talk to the driver when he comes out of his booth.”

When the driver came out we talked and he said: “Comrade, if you want to sit in the coal bin, you can come along.” I said: “Anywhere, as long as we get over the border.” It was as good as done. I got in the coal bin, the driver covered me with sacks and piled shovels and brooms onto me. The train started to move but soon stopped again. I could hear the Russian guards give the go ahead and the train started to move again.

The locomotive driver cleared the equipment off of me and called me out. “Now Comrade, you are free,” he said. I crawled out of the coal bin and for the first time in my life I laid my eyes on the free world. Even today, I can clearly recall the inconceivable feeling what it was like to be a free man.

I had given my address as Hannover, Schillerstrasse 20. When we arrived in Hannover, I asked to be let off the train and indeed there was Schillerstrasse 20. It was afternoon when I got off the train and I still had to travel several kilometres to Aunt Tina Fast’s house in Hamelin.

When I got to Aunt Tina’s house, I was royally welcomed by her and her children and her grandchildren. Living with Tina Fast were her daughter Kaethe Fast and her children Willi and Mary, Sophie and Anna, Tina’s daughter-in-law. I was there for two or three days telling our stories. It was here that I became aware of an organization called MCC.[3] The girls knew about the West, there was an MCC camp in Gronau, Westphalia. They said you could go to Canada and work for a farmer. I decided to go to Gronau where the MCC had its camp.

Gerhard’s conversion from soldier to refugee was almost complete, but would it be convincing?



[1] Gilmour, Julie Frances, “The Kind of People Canada Wants”: Canada and the Displaced Persons, 1943-1953, Phd. thesis, University of Toronto, 2009, page 121.

[2] Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, New York: Penguin Books, 2005, page 23.

[3] MCC = Mennonite Central Committee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s