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- Sigrid Muller
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- 14 October 2004
Part 1 - First Evacuation
It is a dull, grey morning in March, 1943. I am standing on platform 1 of the main station in Dusseldorf, Germany, clutching my mother's hand.
The station is crowded with other children and their families, all waiting for the train that is going to carry them East to safety from the nightly bombings which are robbing them of their sleep and sending them hurrying for cover in their cellars or in nearby air-raid shelters.
There are many tears and emotional scenes as children are saying "goodbye" to their loved ones, not knowing when they will see them again.
We are setting off into the unknown, going to live with strangers, in a distant part of the country. None of us has ever been that far away from home before. We are being evacuated!
On the train, during that seemingly endless journey, I make friends with a girl called Liane. I am fascinated by her! She is very beautiful! Her dark hair hangs in long ringlets down to her shoulders. We are clinging firmly together, comforting each other, promising not to be parted.
When we finally reach our destination, after rattling through the countryside all day, it is evening. The small station is buzzing with the excitement of our prospective foster parents, eagerly awaiting our arrival.
There are no men there, they are all fighting at the front, only women and children. They are keen to meet us, to look us over and to take their pick.
Liane and I are determined to stay together. We do not want to be separated, but no one is prepared to take in two children. In the end it is decided that Liane should live with a country woman on a farm, just outside the small town, where I am going to stay with her daughter. She is a war widow and has a girl called Brigitte who is one year younger than I and whom I do not like.
At least, this way, we are homed with the same family, lining in walking distance from each other. We can visit as often as we like and spend as much time together as we want.
The first few weeks I felt desperately homesick! I longed to be back with my mother and was inconsolable. The girl wanted to let me play with her doll's house - but I was not interested. The woman offered me something to eat - but I was not hungry. I had no appetite! She also used a word, unfamiliar to me and only known in that part of the country. I found out later that she had been asking me if I would like a sandwich! I was to sleep with the woman in the double bed while the girl had her own room.
I felt totally miserable and cried all the time. I just wanted to be back at home again.
Eventually I became used to my strange environment, and my foster family, and settled into my new life which was very different from the one I had known before.
I enjoyed spending time with my best friend, Liane, on her farm, getting involved with looking after the animals and helping in the fields.
The most exciting event for children took place when one of the pigs was killed and every part of it was processed for human consumption, providing us with plenty of food for the whole year.
In the nearby town, where I lived, the best day of the week was Saturday when the baking was done for the following week. All the women prepared huge, flan-like cakes, as large as wagon wheels, covered with seasonal fruit which they took to the local bakery to be cooked in their big ovens. They lasted us all week and were delicious with whipped cream.
I did not enjoy school as much as I did at home and my marks were poorer. I did not like the teacher - she did not like we evacuees!
I do not remember why, but after about a year had passed my mother arrived and took me home. I had had quite a good time there after all and I regretted having to leave me friends and my foster family.
In school we had learned about the mining of peat which was the local industry. On the long train journey home I entertained my fellow passengers, sharing our compartment, with my newly acquired knowledge of the manufacture of peat!
Part 2 - Second Evacuation
Back at home nothing had changed! The bombings continued day and night and my parents decided to send me away again - his time to my father's relatives who owned a farm in a small village close to the Polish border, even further East than I had been before. My father's family originated from that part of Germany, which used to be known as the Danzig Corridor.
Life there was completely untouched by the war. We were only reminded of it by the formations of Russian Aircraft passing high overhead on their way to their daily bombing of the major cities in Western Germany.
And so began my second evacuation.
My aunt and uncle were elderly. Both their sons were fighting on the Russian front. They could not provide their parents with the necessary help on the farm. This was the case on most of the other farms as well. Polish labourers, men and women, were assigned to each farm to help out.
We had a Polish maid called MAria living with us. Her room was next to mine and it always smelled of lavender and looked extremely clean and tidy. Maria had beautiful things - all hand embroidered. Sometimes she would let me look at them.
I became very fond of Maria and regarded her as my elder sister. At harvest time she would take me with her into the fields to bring in the hay. I was allowed to ride on the hay wagon, which I enjoyed.
When the crops were harvested everybody helped each other. The village had only one combine harvester which had to be shared and used in turn. Tractors were unknown in those days. Every farmer owned one or two work horses. All riding horses and surplus work horses had been requisitioned by the army.
When gathering hte potatoes in the Aurumn we lit a huge bonfire at sundown, burnoing all the dry potato plants. We baked potatoes in the ashes and had them for our supper. They tasted good!
I often played truant from school, working in the fields instead, which I enjoyed much more. When I first started at the school the teacher introduced me to the other children by explaining the meaning of my name to them. (Sigrid apparently means power and strength)
As it was a village school we had only one classroom where all age groups were taught by one teacher. She was not very strict and could easily be persuaded to take us for a walk in the sunshine and the fresh air, rather than having lessons in the school room.
While the potato crops were growing it was the school children's job to keep them free from potato beetles. We therefore spent whole mornings, at regular intervals, in the fields picking the beetles and their larvae off the potato plants.
My afternoons were spent minding our goose and her seven goslings. After lunch, armed with a blanket, milk and some cake, I would drive them through the village to a nearby meadow with a stream at the bottom. The geese were supposed to eat grass and drink from the stream but only the old goose did so. THe little ones were so exhausted from their walk through the village on their tiny, little legs that they preferred to sit all around me on my blanket, as if I were their mother; resting and nibbling from my cake and drinking my milk. Sometimes a friend would join me and we would cool off in the stream if it was hot.
Village life centred around old traditions: on the Saturday before Whitsun we took the landauer with our team of horses into the nearby woods to cut down some very large branches of birch to take home. They were later draped around the front door. Every house in the village was decorated in this way.
The evenings were spent sitting outside ones house, chatting to the neighbours.
Most buildings had a huge wagon wheel placed on top of their chimney to invite storks to build their nest on it. We had one on our house. It was regarded as a symbol of good luck.
Every Sunday, after lunch, my uncle would lead the family, dressed in their beswt clothes, around his fields to inspect the crops and to check on the livestock. On one of those occasions, a hot Summer's day, I was wearing my grandmother's hand knitted, long, white stockings. She had embroidered her initials along the top using tiny black beads. Those stockings were a family heirloom and were handed down from generation to generation. My grandmother's daughter died aged seven, so did not get much use out of them. Now they were mine - but not for long! As it was so hot I sat down by the side of the field where our cows were grazing. I took my stockings off and placed them bside me in a basket I had been carrying. Unnoticed by me, a cow came along and with her long tongue, reaching through the fence, took the stockings out of the basket and ate them. I watched in horror, but could do nothing to stop her. Fortunately I did not have to tell my grandmother what had happened to her stockings. She had died!
One a month a picture show took place in the nearby town. Maria and the other Polish labourers would take me to watch the latest films. The main feature was always preceded by The News. This was the only time we saw pictures of the war.
There was a bad feeling among the foreign workers directed at the farmers who did not treat the very well. Even I, at the age of nine, did not think it right that our Polish maid should eat in the kitchen on Sundays while the family ate in the dining room. From the SUnday roast she was only given the bones.
On Sundays, when it was their day off, the Poles would assemble on the village square. From their gestures and their heated talk one could guess that they were planning revenge.
This came soon enough - when the Russians marched in and took over the village. All the inhabitants were taken prisoner and transported back into Poland, my aunt and uncle included. Years later we received a postcard from a labour camp in Krakau where our relatives were being held. We never heard from them again and have to assume that they died there.
As soon as news reached my parents that the Russians were advancing my mother came to fetch me and we just managed to catch the last train out of there. Otherwise I might never have seen my parents again.
Part 3 - The Last Weeks of the War
The moment we arrived back home we could hear gunfire coming from across the river Rhine. The Americans were shooting at our houses. We lived in the first street along the river and the German army was using our back gardens for their trenches and our houses as shields. They had strategically hidden their heavy guns in the ground, firing at the enemy through the gaps in the various properties. We found a flame-thrower in our garden. The noise and blast from it, when fired, were tremendous - as I found out one day.
For six weeks we lived in teh crossfire of the two armies, staying underground in our cellars. We only ventured out at night, when the shooting had stopped, to raid the surrounding fields for anything edible, such as potatoes, cabbage, spinach, carrots and sugar beet. We also visited the nearby farmers to trade with them for milk, butter, eggs and bread.
Some nights we did not make it back in time before th guns started again. While hurrying home we had to throw ourselves on the ground every so often to avoid the flying shells. The milk got spilled and the eggs broken in the process.
In the laundry room in our cellar stood a huge copper kettle in which we boiled the washing. One had to light a fire underneath it. As we were always looking for ways to improve on the food available to us we used the sugar beet to make a deliciously sweet and thick syrup which is still made in Germany today and is quite popular as a sandwich spread. It is also made from apples.
We grated the sugar beet roughly and cooked the flakes in the copper kettle until all the juice had run out. We then drained the fluid away nto various containers, removed all the waste from the kettle and boiled the juice until it thickened.
The days were long and boring with nothing much to do. We were unable to catch up on the sleep we lost on our nightly excursions in search of food because of the continuous gunfire and the danger connected with it. Our house had been hit three times and half of it was missing. Had the shells penetrated into the cellar there would have been no escape for us! The Americans were very precise in their aim. They only shot down every other house in the road, leaving the ones in between untouched. That our property was severely damaged turned out to be an advantage in the end.
After the war was lost and Germany was divided into four different zones of occupation our area came under the rule of the British. The officers wanted to bring their families over and confiscated all the undamaged houses. At least we did not lose our home while our neighbours on either side had to vate theirs.
One family in the neighbourhood suffreed even worse luck. They had a German bomber, which did not make it back to the nearby airfield, crash-land on them. Fortunately the people were away at the time - but their house was flattened.
If there was a lull in the hostilities I sometimes tried to run next door through the adjoining gardens to play with my friend. One day, while I was running across, the flame-thrower in our garden started firing. The blast from that gun was so strong that I was literally lifted into the air and carried across, crash-landing down the steps leading into next door's cellar, ending up in a heap outside their door.
Now that the war was over my father was home again and everybody started repairing their shot-up houses as best they could. No building material could be bought anywhere. The whole city was in ruins. People took matters into their own hands.
There were several government buildings near us standing empty. Pulling a small handcart we went there with all the people from the neighbourhood and dismantled those properties. We took everything home that was of use for our repairs: bricks, slates and timber. Day after day we made trip after trip until all the buildings had disappeared.
Close to the river stood some barracks where foreign labourers had been housed. Their cellars were full of coal. We all helped ourselves to them without breaking in. As I was the smallest I had to slide down the coal shute into the cellar and open up from inside. There was no vandalism in those days but my mother wasn't too pleased when she saw the state of my dress after that little escapade.
For we children those days were full of adventure - even the weeks spent in the crossfire, living underground. Best of all - there was no school and no chores to do!
by Sigrid Muller
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