My father grew up in Germany in the Nazi time; our family is Jewish. My grandparents brought their family to the United States in 1935. However, many family members were left behind and wrote my grandmother as their lives became threatened by the Nazis and then World War II. When the war ended, my grandmother put all the letters into a box and closed it up.
At the beginning of our Pandemic lock-down, I opened the box. There were over 180 letters.
This story comes from those letters and tells how my aunt Gertie and her husband Uli, survived in Germany during WWII. If it sounds a bit like a fairytale, it’s because my grandfather was also a source. Suspicion is warranted, as he liked telling stories. But my father had faith in it, and I heard it told several times the same way.
So as a young man did my grandfather, also Gertie’s brother Ernst, bring about events that kept the couple alive through the war? Or did he twist the story to soothe the rawness for his grandchildren? As a family doctor, he was not the type to sugarcoat things.
My grandfather Ernst and his sister Gertie’s story begins around 1910, when he was a student at college. It was summer at the cottage in Bamberg, and the young men were out swimming and enjoying the river. Suddenly, a voice shouted out in distress – a young man was drowning! Ernst, a medical student, dragged him out of the water and resuscitated him, saving his life.
That night, the young man’s father, a miller, visited Ernst’s family. He expressed gratitude and offered a reward.
My grandfather would not hear of it:
What I did was trivial; and you would surely have done the same for me.
The miller promised if they were ever in need, he would do all he could to help the family.
Did the miller return in the last winter of WWII?
The cottage walls were thin, built from a single layer of clapboard. The temperature inside must have been nearly as cold as the snow and ice outside. Quietly, sacks of flour were brought to the back door, along with precious sacks of coal. Burning coal to bake bread gave them satisfaction and comfort, helping them make it through that brutal winter.
Or did my grandfather make this up? With their lives at stake, would the couple risk burning coal, with the chance others could see the smoke?
Gertie and Uli inherited the small cottage from her brother, Ludwig. They lived in an assigned apartment near the Dusseldorf airport – but it was like a bullseye, and when it was bombed, they had to flee. They thought they could make it to the cottage 270 miles away. They drove night and day for three days, all the while trying not to think what could happen if they were caught.
When we arrived at the house, we immediately lay down in the unmade beds and slept for 26 hours. [45.08.19 GertieKrieger]
The cottage was tucked behind another house, not easily seen. Once inside the clapboard house, Gertie and Uli hoped to stay out of view, but they were virtually imprisoned. They spent the next three months inside, quickly eating up the food they had brought. Uli’s weight plummeted from 170 to 102 lbs:
In winter we would have starved to death unless Zipfel had helped us so faithfully. [45.08.19 GertieKrieger]
This is all we ever learn of Zipfel. Was it the miller, or his son, making good on the promise of decades ago?
The frozen temperatures Gertie and her husband experienced were shared by American soldiers, as they fought the German army.
Gertie and Uli climbed the hillside above their cottage and watched the final battle of Bamberg from there:
At the last moment, when the Volkssturm [the German people’s army] moved into the hut in the next garden, and defensive trenches were being dug around us, it became dangerous for us. But the shells that fell over us during the conquest of Bamberg, in front of and behind us and then in the neighboring house, while we sought cover on the unprotected slope behind the house, were signals of liberation for me…
Can you imagine what a miracle it is that we are still alive? [45.08.19 GertieKrieger]
In Bamberg they were spared heavy bombing because the city had no munitions or industrial manufacturing. Nazi forces withdrew after a brief fight, but they blew up bridges, leaving the city marooned. On April 14, 1945, less than a month before VE Day, American soldiers claimed the city of Bamberg for Allied forces.
This is an excerpt from a book I plan to publish shortly. Copyright: Karen Lang-McNabb 10.14.2021