- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Emil Ciechocinski
- Location of story:
- Eastern Europe
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 August 2005
At the outbreak of WWII my grandparents on my Father’s side along with their whole families were living in what is today called the Ukraine. They originated probably from Germany but possibly Austria, they had been living in Russia since the early 1800's. Eastern Europe at this time was a melting pot of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, Dutch and probably a few more ethnic peoples. The area they all settled and lived side by side in harmony was called Volhynia. At home, they spoke their mother tongue for my ancestors it was German. Outside the home my family all spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and even Czech. Being all villagers in the bread basket of Russia, it must have been fundamental for schooling and trade. They had been living there that long that no one still lived that was born in Germany or Austria and subsequently over time they developed their own dialect. In the First World War one of my Great grandfathers fought for Russia against the Turks, he was captured in 1916 and spent two years in captivity and made his way home by foot, it took him 9 months to walk home and he arrived back in his village in 1919, everyone thought he was dead. His name was Otto. He was my Grandmothers Father and the figurehead of the family. My other great grandfather on my Father's side died before the outbreak of WWII and little is known of him.
When the 2nd war came Otto had several daughters and one son. The eldest daughter Kathie was already married, to my Grandfather. They lived in a village some 30km west towards Kiev. Stalin had already imposed an artificial starvation in the area in the 1930's and millions had died as a consequence. Stalin was known at this time to have a particular dislike for the Ukrainians and their regional language.
Nevertheless, Otto was sceptical about developments in Nazi Germany and his children always said in later years that if war was to come Germany would come worse off. In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland followed by Russia invading Eastern Poland a few days later. Poland was carved in half by Hitler and Stalin. The two dictators signed a Non-aggression pact called the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact named after both countries Foreign ministers. A part of that pact was a deal on Russia's undesirables, the millions of ethnic Europeans living in the former Soviet Union. A deal was signed allowing the German and Dutch speaking people to be repatriated by Nazi Germany to their country of original origin. Otto got the family together and made their decision, its common knowledge in the family that he knew that war between Russia and Germany would be imminent as it was in WWI. Many ethnic Germans found themselves deported during this time to Siberia and few came back. Would it be the case again? The decision was made and the family were repatriated. They were given a list of items to take and what not to take, the list was very small and the vast majority of their personal belongings was to remain in the Soviet Union. (This year I visited Ukraine and met people that remember the family and I'm told the Ukrainian neighbours actually cried that they were losing their neighbours and friends.)
After interview with the German authorities with countless forms to fill in they transported to a camp called Zgiers which is north of the city of Lodz, today in Central Poland. (These forms were called the EWZ files, and when doing my research these files on my ancestors were actually found in Washington DC by an American historian. The Americans had taken them there from Berlin at the Wars end!) My family had always been intreagued as to why they wanted so many details, on names and their ancestors going back so many generations. The answer was not discovered until many years later, it was to do with the genocide of the Jews. Some ethnic Germans/Dutch had Jewish roots or a Jewish ancestor, these poor people never made it to Zgiers camp for resettlement.
What came next was a betrayal, these people had left their rightful homes to be told that they would get the same amount/value of land with livestock back in the west as to what they had left in the East. Hitler decided these people were to be forcibly settled in the Warthegau region. Hitler's name for a region of newly conquored Poland. Land was found to the approximate value for families, including the Dutch and then they were taken by German soldiers to property and told to wait on the roadside. The German soldiers went into the farms and gave the Poles a short period of time to leave the premesis with minimum provisions. (The Poles who owned one farm I visted this year were given just 15 minutes to leave and find/make their own shelter. It was a very moving experience.)
Otto my Great grandfather, his wife and children occupied one farm in this manner as did Otto's daughter Kathie and son-in-law Emil (My Dad's parents, my grandparents). Kathie already had one son. My Dad was born in this farm in Warthegau in November 1940. In 1941, Emil and Kathie had another son. Kathie's father Otto was some 40km to the north and they travelled to be with Otto at the weekend.
Otto's son Adolf was recruited into the German war machine and it must have been strange for Otto to see his own son in a different army to which he once served. Adolf joined a panzer division and served two years on the brutal Eastern front. Adolf still lives and had a son quite late in life, his son was best man at my wedding! Adolf doesn't like to talk very much about this time in his life but he once explained his lucky escape...
It was 1943 and the tank he was driving was hit by a large calibre weapon. He explained that the vehicle shuddered and could hear the commander yelling for everyone to get out. Adolf struggled being a big boned 19 year old, as he struggled to get out he heard small arms fire rake the tank, all his comrades were already out and were all cut down. He decided to stay in the tank for the rest of the day, he heard the Russian soldiers around the tank and could understand everything they were saying, it was after all Adolf's first language. He stayed in the tank over 24 hours and when he felt safe he crept out and made a run for it. Adolf didn't get very far and was cut down himself hit by three bullets from behind. One hit him in neck, one in the elbow which came out of his hand and one which hit his back and came out of his chest. Adolf doesn't remember anything else of the encounter but there had been a German counter attack and he remembers a medic tending to him. Adolf was flown out, he vividly remembers by a Fiesler Storch recconnaisance aircraft. The unit he left behind was dessimated at the Kursk tank battles of the summer of 1943. After his recovery he was sent to North Africa to join the Afrika Korps in Tunisia and was captured by the Americans and spent the rest of the war in Texas.
Back in Central Poland the villagers tried to go about their business as if they were back in their homeland, but it was difficult not only for them but more so for the Poles who had had their land stolen from them. My family felt cheated, thinking they would get legitimate property, not that stolen from a defeated people. It was their lot, and now their problem how to go about their lives. In 1943 my Grandfather Emil (Kathie's husband) was called up for service in the Wehrmacht. Things were going bad for Nazi Germany and now it was the older people that were required. Emil was just short of 40. He served on the Eastern front too, in the same unit as his brother. Then in 1944 their unit was transferred to France. Before he left he asked one of the Polish villagers to look after his wife and three boys if he wasn't to come home. Emil never saw his family again. In late 1944 the atmosphere was changing and most people knew Germany was going to lose the war.
Its common knowledge about the attrocities the Nazis committed, the numerous deathcamps throughout Europe, mass shootings of innocent men, women and children in locations such as Babi Yar in the Ukraine. Also, Russia had not signed the Geneva convention and Hitler had used this cheap excuse to treat captured Soviet soldiers in the manner he did. Two million Soviet soldiers died in captivity. As a consequence combined with more propoganda to fuel the Soviet soldier the reprisals taken were appalling. The first German land to be occupied by the Russians was a village in East Prussia. A few days later a German counterattack retook the town and what they found there was indescribable, the few who survived had horrific accounts to tell. Subsequently people fled East Prussia en masse.
In January 1945 the Russians came, Kathie was at home with her two boys. Some 40km north my five year old Dad was enjoying a weekend with his grandfather Otto, his grandmother and all his aunts. Otto left with the family with what they could gather, and sounded to be fairly well prepared. They left on horse and cart on a bitterly cold January day 1945 and they were once again refugees heading in a convoy. This time they were desperate civilians trying to outrun the onslaught of the Red Army. A day after fleeing the farm, the sound of artillery and gunfire had died down and Otto purchased a bicycle from another refugee. He wanted to go back to the farm to see what had happened there and if it was already in the hands of the Russians. On his return, Otto found himself on high ground to the west and crawled into a small dip to keep out of sight and was able to take a good look at what was happening in and around the farmhouse. In the courtyard, were Russian tanks and to his horror Russian soldiers busy looting his premises and chasing the geese, no doubt they were hungry. Incidentally, the Russian soldier in WWII was very poorly fed, they were issued with a dry block of pea concentrate. From this they would scrape some fragments and heat with water to make a pea soup. Anything else to supplement their rations, they would have to find themselves. Then, there was a crack and Otto felt some force and a feeling of heat on his body, through his thick fur coat. He had been shot at, and without further delay cycled back as fast as he could to the convoy. Otto later discovered that the bullet had passed through his coat and out of the other side, he was very fortunate to still be alive. Back on the convoy young Waldemar was the centre of attention with all his aunties and grandparents to look after him and see to his every need. When I ask him what his earliest memories are he replies by telling me that he remembers the sky being all orange and red and occasionally someon would shield his eyes. This was on the convoy and he was being shielded from the sights of all the death and destruction by one of his aunts. The relative tranquillity of the flight was shattered only a few days later when the convoy was strafed by Russian fighter planes, and the convoy drew to a halt, many people had died.
A little later it was clear the Russians had overtaken the convoy and they too were moving down the convoy looting and pillaging as they went. Terror gripped the people and everyone who was still able fled on foot with anything they could carry, young Waldemar also needed to be carried. The whole family started to run through the thick undergrowth, they came to a frozen lake and scurried across the ice, when they got to the other side they were all exhausted and suffering from cuts and bruises from the jagged ice on which they all fell whilst stumbling across to the other side, they were literally running for their lives.
Further south the Polish farm hand lived up to his promise and urged Kathie to leave with him immediately, the Russians were only a few kilometres away, quickly she packed a few small items and hurriedly left her home with her other two young sons. She wished to be with her father Otto and the rest of the family and was missing her middle son Waldemar (My Dad). The Polish farm hand did a sterling job of leading Katie and the two boys to safety, he did what he could and ensured Kathie reached the pre WWII German border, they then parted and the Polish farm hand returned to where-ever he came from. They never saw or heard of each other again. He must have been a very nice person for helping Kathie of his own free will. Once they had parted Kathie and her two boys managed to join another group of Germans fleeing to the west. Unfortunately for the group, they found themselves in the hands of the Polish militia who had crossed into former Germany and felt it necessary for vengeance; their belongings were relieved of them in the first instance. Kathie was wearing riding boots at the time she left home. Perhaps she intended to go on horseback, or maybe she had been seeing to the horses before they fled the property. The Polish militia got hold of Kathie and cut the riding boots from her legs, the blades of the knives cut Kathie’s legs and then one nasty individual smashed her in the face with the butt of a rifle and she lost most of her teeth on one side of her mouth in the attack. The boys always wondered in later years why she only chewed her food on one side! After much pillaging the terrified civilians were rounded up and herded into a shed. There were no males of prime age present in the group of German civilians for they had all been conscripted by that time. The only males present were children and old men. Periodically the Polish militia would enter the shed, separate them from their families then drag them out. From inside the shed and they would hear the crack of gunfire; screaming of the victims’ family followed this, for it was clear what was happening. They came again and again. Kathie was panic-stricken and pulled her long dress down over the heads of her two young boys and prayed they would live through the ordeal. One of the civilians asked the Polish militia why they were doing this to them and he replied that it was necessary to stop these boys growing up, joining the German Army and once more occupying Poland. Something must have drastically changed for the Polish militia left as quickly as they arrived and these tormented people were once again on the road heading west. After what have must have felt a lifetime, Kathie and the boys found themselves in the safety of the Red Cross in the British sector. Her ordeal was over, and she began the search for her parents, siblings and most importantly her long lost son Waldemar. Where were they, had they survived?
Otto and his family by now had linked up with the retreating German army, Otto pleaded with them to take them with them. Many vehicles passed Otto by and a truck stopped, Otto again pleaded for them to be taken with them, they were eventually allowed on the grounds of them having the three girls and what the Russians might do to them should they fall into their hands. So, they found themselves on military transport heading west. On their journey they met two young German soldiers with anti-tank weapons and rifles. It was Otto’s turn to plead once again, not for his own benefit but for the two youngsters survival. The two teen age soldiers stated that they had to go to the front to try to stop the Russian tanks getting through. Otto told them it was fruitless and even if they succeeded in knocking out a couple there would be many more. He urged them to come with him and the family and not to throw their young lives away. They refused and parted wishing each other well, they were never heard of again. They were heading towards the city of Dresden in the East of Germany and Otto decided to stop short, outside the city. That night the city of Dresden was bombed by the RAF and the USAF came the next day to finish the job off. Firestorms engulfed the whole city and 35,000 people died, it was the 13th February 1945 and Otto had made a very wise decision. Like his daughter Kathie, Otto and his family finally made it to relative safety. The safety of his daughter and two grandsons was now on his mind. The family were finally re-united through the red cross some 18 months later.
Contact — firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.