Real people Real Experiences

In Dubious Honor of Karl Marx’ Birthday…or…Escaping Tsarist Russia Before the Bogeyman Cometh: From Behind Enemy Lines

They travelled north from Yugoslavia. It was 1944. They travelled on foot, across bombed out fields, and flattened forests. They found shelter in demolished barns and farmhouses. They traded valuables for food in villages, when it was available. They dug around in abandoned fields for what they could find to eat. I remember my mom told me of a time they were really very hungry, and came upon an old potato field. They dug around as best they could with sticks, and found enough potatoes to risk a fire. They roasted some acorns to make a coffee-like brew, and buried the potatoes in the fire’s dying embers until they were cooked. They had no salt, but it was warm, and filling. The erzatz “coffee” however had unpleasant after-effects the next morning.

They had to be very careful not to be mistaken for looters.

Eventually, they encountered Allied soldiers, were collected with other refugees, and deposited in DP Camps (Displaced Persons Camps). These were compounds intended to provide food and shelter for refugees. They were, in some cases, decomissioned Concentration Camps, which were grim places, although most had been burned. Some were repurposed Wermarcht (German Army) barracks. The Americans were good
at reuniting families. They were “found” by my Great Uncle and my Great Grandmother. My Grandfather was most pleased.

In time, a sense of normalcy came to the camp. A school was organised and they had sports for the children and youths. People were able to come and go to the nearby town. My grandfather had an artistic talent. My mom and grandmother would gather scraps of parachutes, cut them into squares and hem the edges with silk threads they would tease out of the other scraps. My grandfather would paint pictures on the squares and trade them for chocolate, cigarettes, tobacco…and the ocassional pair of silk stockings.

He hit upon an idea that made for a brisk trade…he would replicate a GI’s girlfriend’s, or wife’s photograph on a square of parachute silk. Those were big sellers! Bibles were also tremendously valued…not for their spiritual content, but rather the ease with which one could roll a cigarette from a page and how smoothly the result burned. He obtained a cigarette lighter fashioned from a rifle cartridge which I still have.

Not to be left behind, my mom and grandmother would tease threads out of scraps, then Great Grandmother would dye the threads with tea, beets, boot-black, or whatever colorant she coud find. Grandmother taught my mom how to embrioder. Grandfather would sketch a scene, and they would copy it…the Eiffel tower, a stone bridge, a field of flowers. They were able to supplement their somewhat meager rations in this way.

My mom remembered the first time the camp recieved the Red Cross rations. For most of these people, sugar, and fats of any type were a very distant memory, not to mention real coffee! She remembers, that many of the children mixed sugar with the butter and ate it with a spoon. It was glorious! Until the next morning, with the predictable latrine lines!

Later, after the Yalta conference, there was panic that spread through the camp. It seemed that they would all be repatriated back from whence they came. The camp was located in what was now East Germany. They were all terrified of what the Soviets would do to them. Gulags for re-education. Or simply shot as sympathizers.

My grandmother, along with her brother-in-law (my grandfather was very ill), snuck off to the motor pool, and with a bit of magic, and set of very big brass cojones, managed to comandeer a truck. They loaded as many people as they could into it (50 or so, it seemed), and took off for the nearest East/West Checkpoint. Fortunately the post was manned by a Sergeant and Corporal, who were so taken aback by my grandmother’s Medical School diploma, that they were let through. I have seen the diploma, and it certainly is impressive…real parchment, about the size of a small blanket, with the seal inside of a small carved box attached to the diploma with a braided cord. Written in Latin, of coarse. These poor soldiers must have felt overwhelmed, and well out of their element.

They found their way to a new DP camp to call their newest home. My Grandfather died shortly thereafter.

He was buried outside of Munich.

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