Katharina’s Story – Chapter 10: Becoming Refugees

In that winter of 1944, an awareness began to steal over me that soon we would have to leave Opa’s farm in Kalthof. Yes, we could hear the grumbling of the Front, and at night, we could see the sky lit up by artillery fire over the horizon. The community was abuzz with talk of the refugees coming in from Lithuania. The Russian front continued to advance westward, the German troops retreating. A cloud of trepidation seemed to envelop our household as the family readied, yet evacuation was delayed by the German authorities.

Many refugees took to the roads under their own initiative because of reported Soviet atrocities in the areas under Soviet control. Both spurious and factual accounts of Soviet atrocities were disseminated through the official news and propaganda outlets of Nazi Germany and by rumors that swept through the military and civilian populations.

Despite authorities having detailed evacuation plans for some areas, the evacuation of East Prussia was delayed until January 20, 1945, when it was too late for an orderly evacuation.

Reportedly, the civil services were overwhelmed by the numbers of those wishing to evacuate. Coupled with the panic caused by the speed of the Soviet advance, civilians caught in the middle of combat, and the bitter winter weather, many thousands of refugees died during the evacuation period. 

Rudi, not yet three years old, was the fifth child of my parents, Nora and Walter Podack. By Hitler’s orders, this meant that Papa, who had been serving as a medical doctor in the Guerrilla warfare in Greece, could come away from the front lines and do his work in hospitals in the Homeland. Papa was stationed in Seefeld, Austria, which was still part of the German Reich.

It is January 22, 1945. More suitcases and trunks had been packed. Opa took us to the train station that evening: my Mutti, our nanny Martha, and all five children. Our belongings were loaded onto the baggage car. When we were scheduled to leave, however, the train was full, and although Mutti had our tickets, we were told there was no room. The train left with our belongings.

On January 25, Opa brought us again to the station, this time with only the clothes on our backs, one suitcase with provisions, and one enameled five-liter milk canister and its contents. Mutti and Opa bribed officials with cigarettes from Greece, and we were finally allowed to board. I hugged my Opa goodbye, a long, desperate hug, not knowing if I would see him again. The pervading mood in the last few days left me with a sense that things would never be the same.

The compartment was filled with people and baggage with hardly room to move. Children were sitting on laps; Mutti put little Rudi in the overhead luggage net after he had fallen asleep. Edel and Heidi were passed around to any lap that would have them for a little while. Hardy and I rode in the toilet room – the toilet having been rendered unusable, buried under luggage – we sat on top of it all. The small window was half-whited out, the upper part clear enough to see through. The night was full of train whistles, with towns and cities rushing by, dark with only the light of the moon making them visible. Windows in buildings were tightly shuttered or curtained to keep any light from getting out, which would give their location away to the enemy.

At times, the train was on an elevated  track, a city passing below us. Hardy and I sang: “We’re driving over the rooftops, we’re driving over the rooftops!” Sometime during the night, the steady “thump-edi-thump, thump-edi-thump” of the wheels passing over the joints of the rail put us to sleep.

In the morning, the train stopped. The passengers were muttering that this was not the route we had expected to take. But there was food and drink offered on the platform. Our family also had sandwiches in the small suitcase Mutti had brought on board and the milk from the canister.

We learned here that the Russians had taken Allenstein two days earlier, and that train on which we had been meant to travel three days ago had been blown up during an attack by tanks. All our belongings were destroyed. It is devastating to know that many families perished. We were very fortunate to lose only our belongings, and not each other.

We also learned that this train we were on was the very last one to leave Königsberg. Truly our family was being watched over by a guardian angel. Only a few days earlier, the last continuous train of the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from Königsberg to Berlin; after that no further continuous rail traffic ran on this line. We were fortunate to have caught the last train, even though its route was truncated, and not at all as expected.

This train continued on and on. My memories of the remainder of the trip hold little except for a remarkable moment when it became apparent that people needed to relieve themselves now and then. The toilet not being accessible, Mutti came up with a solution: the milk canister had been emptied, so its lid could serve as a makeshift chamber pot. It was passed around whenever needed and the contents emptied out the window.

Dresden is a stop still vivid in my mind. We had to get off the train and were led into the station which was milling with people shoulder to shoulder. Dresden had suffered during an air raid the night before and the track had been hit as well. We disembarked on the east side of town and were shuttled to the western edge, where the track was intact and a train waiting. Hitler Youth boys escorted us and fed us soup. We were all holding hands, hanging on to each other, but somehow Rudi got loose in the crowds. Mutti left us with Martha for a few frantic moments before she found him again. The rest of it is a blur. The journey continued, for three days and three nights altogether, a journey of over 1400 kilometers. We were worn out and numb, just moving automatically as we were told.

Only three weeks after we passed through, Dresden suffered under intensified Allied aerial bombings. Five attacks were launched – the first by Britain’s Royal Air Force with 800 aircraft the night of February 13, continued by the U.S. 8th Air Force with 400 aircraft on February 14, with 200 on February 15, with 400 again on March 2, and, finally, with 572 on April 17. The motive of these raids was allegedly to promote the Soviet advance by destroying a center of communications important to the German defense of the Eastern Front. In fact, the raids reportedly achieved nothing to help the Red Army militarily. But Dresden, baroque jewel of the Saxonian kingdom and one of the most beautiful cities of Europe, was practically erased, and up to 25,000 civilians perished.

We reached Seefeld, in Tirol, Austria, where Papa was waiting for us. He had a room at the Rote Erde (Red Earth), a winter sport room-and-board villa that had been confiscated by the government and turned into a rehabilitation house where soldier amputees were convalescing under Papa’s care; he also worked at the hospital during the day.

The Rote Erde served as a rehabilitation house; here our family of seven stayed with Papa for six weeks in one room.

We all moved into the one room with Papa and Martha was quartered elsewhere in the Rote Erde. The recovering soldiers were happy to see us children – perhaps we reminded them of their own families in some way. We spent long hours with them in the communal area. There was one man in particular who was fascinating to watch. He was whittling a nativity scene from larch branches, creating a herd of tiny sheep with his nimble hands. Edel begged and begged, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. While kind and tolerant of us all, the man would not let little Edel have one of the little sheep.

Papa’s room had what compares to the American king size bed. In fact, a marriage bed in Germany was put together with two twin size beds usually joined with double-size head and foot boards. This bed accommodated all of us except little Rudi, for whom a crib had been located. My parents slept with me, the lucky child, between them, on the crack. The mattresses were two separate ones, and I could feel the bed frame all night. The rest of the children slept on the foot end. I remember Rudi became sick with pneumonia but was readily treated with access to the medicines available there at the rehabilitation house. Papa was also able to bring home food from the hospital from time to time to help sustain our family.

The Rote Erde was built on the bottom of a slope leading up to the ski area. The landscape was covered in deep snow this February and the owners of the inn loaned us the use of a toboggan. Hardy and I enjoyed taking advantage of that. One late afternoon we pulled it uphill on the path  that ran next to the inn and sledded down several times before it started getting dark. On the last run we lost control of it, and it took its own course into the pine forest; in the growing gloom, our search for it was unsuccessful. When Papa returned from hospital duties we had to confess. He went out after dark with a flashlight and, to our relief, found the sled. Needless to say, that was the last time we were allowed to use it.

The two ladies who owned the inn treated us well. Martha helped in their household during our stay there, and Mutti did a lot of sewing and mending for them. In return we received the ladies’ old clothing, from which Mutti could make new garments for her children, since we had only the clothes on our backs. Even the old knit undergarments were unraveled – this was a job for Hardy and me, wrapping the yarn, wetting it, and re-drying it until all the kinks were taken out. That’s when I began knitting socks, at ten years of age.

Hardy and I were registered for the fourth grade together in Seefeld. After school we would go scavenging along our way home. We’d go down to the train station and further down along the railroad tracks, picking up chunks of coal, fallen of the coal tenders, taking it back to the inn, making our own small contribution. Once, poking around a stack of drainpipes Hardy found a partial bolt of some nice dress fabric of a black-and-white design. Obviously, someone had come by it in some obscure way and  hidden it there. Mutti made a nice dress for herself out of it.

For six weeks we enjoyed the Rote Erde’s hospitality. During this time, Mutti made several train trips to Innsbruck, the county seat, to apply for a place for us – as refugees — to live. She told of a harrowing experience on one of those trips. At some earlier point of its route, the train had been strafed by airplane machine gun fire. When Mutti found her seat on this train, she was sitting among the broken glass and blood and bits of flesh which remained on the seats.

Springtime had come before we found our refugee home in Leutasch Gasse (Leutasch Street). That’s all there was to the tiny village of Leutasch– a few houses along a street. Today, Leutasch, in the Seefeld plateau and only eight kilometers from Seefeld, has many hotels and inns, enjoying a healthy tourist overflow during Austria’s ski season 

The houses in Leutasch Gasse backed up right against a mountain with the road immediately in front of the houses. The road from Seefeld ended at a T-intersection right in front of Weiβes Röβl (White Little Horse), a hotel where we were quartered on the top floor under the roof. There was a small kitchen and we had two tiny rooms. Martha slept in a storage space under the slant of the roof in the kitchen. But to our delight there was a balcony and a central hallway coming up from the stairs with some room to spread out.

A modern-day photo of the Austrian hotel where we were quartered as refugees under the roof: Weiβes Röβl

Schools and stores – such as they were — were located in Oberleutasch (Upper Leutasch), a village two kilometers away. Hardy and I walked there, and sometimes we had to take cover from strafing, low-flying fighter planes, lying in the ditch next the road. Once an avalanche came down and blocked the road. We got that day off from school.

It is here we stayed, at the Weiβes Röβl, with Papa working in Seefeld, until the American troops ended the war in Austria in April 1945. After that, all schools were closed for an entire year, and our family, with tens of thousands of other refugee families, would find yet another home.

According to the West German Schieder commission, the civilian population of East Prussia at the beginning of 1944 was 2,653,000 people. This accounting, which was based on ration cards, included air raid evacuees from western Germany and foreign workers. Before the end of the war an estimated 2 million people were evacuated, including 500,000 in the Autumn of 1944 and 1,500,000 after January 1945. The Podack family was in this group. An estimated 600,000 remained behind in Soviet-controlled East Prussia in April–May 1945.

According to a 1974 West German government study, an estimated 1% of the civilian population was killed during the Soviet offensive. The West German search service reported that 31,940 civilians from East Prussia, which also included Memel, were confirmed as killed during the evacuation.

From the time we boarded that last train from Königsberg until months after war’s end, thoughts of my grandparents occupied my mind; we knew not what had become of August and Hedwig Podack. We had left them behind in East Prussia. It had come to pass that my Omi Marie Eberhardt joined us in Leutasch, having walked across the still frozen Frisches  Haff to avoid battle zones on the mainland. My Omi had to leave behind her husband, my Opi Karl Eberhardt, understanding that he remained there at the behest of the Nazi regime to continue his duties as Stadt Amtsmann, in charge of water works, drainage, and sewer systems. He was so indispensable that he must remain and was in fact detained in his post by the Russian occupation until 1949.

History tells us there was tremendous panic and a great toll in death as civilians were finally allowed by the Nazis to evacuate the eastern German lands, and that column after column of horses and carts, laden with family valuables, sick old people, children, and pregnant women, plus a few able-bodied men who were trying to keep order were evacuated across the sandy spits of the Frisches Haff.  My dear Omi was one of those, lucky enough to survive.

Seven thousand other refugees perished in the Wilhelm Gustloff, which a Soviet sub sank in the freezing Baltic.

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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