The fact that the Podack family had arrived intact in Austria after leaving our comfortable life at Opa’s farm in Kalthof, arrests my attention to this very day. The credit for our survival goes largely to my mother, Nora Podack, who was brave enough and tenacious enough to take the risks necessary for our survival. From our bombed-out apartment in Königsberg, she forced her way past the Luftschutzwart to bring her children to relative safety, going back into the fray to secure some of our family’s goods. She was the one who listened, illegally and at her peril, to the BBC radio station to understand the real nature of the coming dangers. Nazi administrators and party officials had downplayed the Russian advance, while threatening to shoot anyone who tried to make plans for their own getaways. Thus, they left hundreds of thousands of defenseless ethnic Germans in the path of the bloodthirsty Red Army. But my Mutti was the one who sent our family’s belongings ahead to her sister’s home in Saxony, well before evacuation was allowed. And on the day we escaped East Prussia, she and my Opa bribed officials at the train station with cigarettes from Greece, to secure our passage on that very last train to ever leave Königsberg in January 1945.
During the Soviet Danzig Offensive Operation, Danzig fell on March 28, 1945, after which the remnants of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s 2nd Army withdrew to the delta of the River Vistula to the northeast of the city. According to Soviet claims, in the Battle of Danzig the Germans lost 39,000 men killed and 10,000 taken prisoner.
The Frisches Haff (the Vistula Lagoon) was the main port for refugees fleeing to the west from the Soviet advance into and through East Prussia. Evacuation of civilians and military personnel from the delta of the River Vistula and from the Hel Peninsula continued until May 10, 1945. Prior to the fall of Danzig in March, while Poland was still under German control, my Omi Marie Eberhardt fled Königsberg by walking across the frozen Frisches Haff to the Vistula Spit. Mingled with retreating Wehrmacht units, and without any camouflage or shelter, the refugees were attacked as the route was being shelled by the Allies. This resulted in weakening and breaking of the ice, causing wagons and carts, with their horses, and people to fall through the bomb-riddled ice covering the brackish water. Many perished on that crossing.
Omi was 59 years old, and traveled with her son, my Onkle Heinz. Heinz had been conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the Reich Labor Service. He was able to evacuate, unlike Opa Karl, who – at the behest of the Nazi Regime — must remain in Königsberg to continue his duties as Stadt Amtsmann, in charge of water works, drainage, and sewer systems. Some history is lost to me; it is possible that my Tante Toni and her daughter Winnie traveled with them on this crossing. I do not know this; however, they ultimately settled in Frankfurt. Heinz and Marie Eberhardt made their way to Austria and joined us in Leutasch.
It is springtime now in 1945. Often, I sit in the sunshine on the bench in front of the Weiβes Röβl, five knitting needles busy in my hands knitting socks from yarn we had unraveled from old underskirts the ladies in the Rote Erde in Seefeld had given us. The Hohe Munde, a mountain seemingly at the end of our valley in Leutasch, round-topped and still snow-covered, dominated the greening landscape. I am remembering a snowy Sunday in the recent winter, when Papa had arranged a horse-drawn sleigh ride for us to a mountain restaurant. It sat on a rim overlooking Innsbruck, the capital of Austria’s western state of Tyrol, and the whole of the valley of the River Inn. We had a fine dinner there – complete with meat! I had been curious what kind it was, knowing how scarce meat was. I asked my Papa the question, and he replied, “The people here found a prehistoric musk ox frozen in a glacier. They thawed it and cooked the meat for our special meal.” Of course, we believed him! He must have saved his ration cards for a long time for this meal.
Food was scarce, but ration cards still yielded some milk for the little ones, occasionally some cheese, which one time had maggots in it, but we ate it, nevertheless. The few pieces of jewelry Mutti had, had been traded for eggs from a local farmer. Once, Mutti was able to get some horse meat from an animal that had to be euthanized.
On one of these beautiful Spring days in early May, the sound of many motors caught our attention. We ran out onto the balcony and saw the road amassed with American tanks as far as our eyes could see. Hardy, Edel and I jumped up and down with excitement; we knew this was good news. We cheered and yelled. In the following days we watched the soldiers settle in. They set up camp in the expansive meadow across the street. They were Black soldiers, and this my first meeting of these proud men of color. While the Black Panther Tank Battalion was a fully segregated unit within the American military, Europe as a whole was not racially divided; people of color were not marked by prejudice. By the end of the war, the Black Panthers had fought their way further east than nearly every other unit from the United States, receiving 391 decorations for heroism. They fought in France and Belgium and were one of the first American battalions to meet the Russian Army in Austria.
The unit’s Anglo officers confiscated the lower floors of the inn. A mess tent was erected down the street. The Americans had arrived in Leutasch to handle the process of demilitarizing the German army.
This was one of the hardest times for our family. Under the Occupation, ration cards became worthless. Money was not worth anything and stores had little to offer. The shopkeepers hoarded what merchandise was left. Potatoes were shriveled; they were boiled with their skins then peeled – and then Hardy and I still ate the leathery peels. Klunkersuppe was a staple for supper, prepared from watered down milk, then some Klunkers, a streusel-like mixture of salt and flour with a bit of water, would be added and boiled till done, resulting in dumpling-like consistency.
The pine trees behind the inn sprouted tender new tips at the ends of winter-stressed branches; we picked some of them and ate them for the vitamins they contained, ignoring the somewhat astringent bitter taste. We scrounged for food: sorrel with its distinctly sour, lemony flavor; young dandelion greens for salads and stinging nettles for spinach. Omi once came back from a stroll with a bunch of onions which she pulled out from inside her jacket. This stroll had led her past a garden where she could reach through the fence and do some premature harvesting of someone else’s fruits of labor. Necessity changes our moral values: here was a woman of such staunch honesty, taking what was not hers.
Hardy and I were often free to roam the area. We were children, doing what children do, even in these hardest of times. Climbing through or over fences, we found our way to the small River Leutasch, the water greenish cold and clear, its banks lined with pussy willows in their springtime finest cheerful green. We filled our hearts and minds with new discoveries, watching small fish darting in the swift water or finding the first flowers in the meadow, picking a few for Mutti. Always, though, we came back with armloads of wood for the small cookstove.
With the Occupation came worries about Papa. Being an officer, Walter Podack had been taken to Innsbruck and interned and questioned. “Denazification directives” identified specific people and groups and outlined judicial procedures and guidelines for handling them. Though all the occupying forces had agreed on the initiative, the methods used for denazification and the intensity with which they were applied differed between the Occupation zones. Although the Nazi party was promptly banned, Austria did not have the same thorough process of denazification that was otherwise imposed on members of the Nazi Party. During this process, always the squeaky wheel, once again Mutti forced her way to some superior officers to make sure that Papa could be released from military service without having to be processed through any sort of camp. After being stripped of any physical symbols of the Nazi regime, he was soon released to join us in Leutasch. He arrived with a suitcase of medical instruments which he was later able to use in his private medical practice in Altenstadt, Hessen.
On our floor of the inn, there lived an older gentleman who had been a teacher. Since there was no more school for us Hardy and I were sent to him to learn some English, Papa made sure that we kept practicing our multiplication tables and Mutti drilled a sentence into us that I still remember word for word. Whenever we had occasion to speak to one of the allied officers we were to politely ask: “May I please have a new newspaper for my father to read?” We were not refused. The newspaper in question was the Stars and Stripes. It was our only access to what was going on in the world, and while Papa knew no English, Mutti remembered enough of her school English to make sense of it.
Food and everything else were very scarce; Hardy and I spent most of our time scavenging for anything useful. In the front corner of the meadow where the encampment was, a gigantic heap of discarded items grew. We found nearly empty tubes of shave cream for Papa, and toothpaste; some paperback books, containing lessons and tests in grammar, writing paper, pencils and more. Anywhere we walked we would pick up cigarette butts and pull out the tobacco for Papa’s pipe. Once we found part of a cigar and Hardy had found a book of matches. We ducked behind a shed and lit the cigar, puffing on it like we had watched our Opa August Podack do on special occasions — when he had friends over for card games and Schnapps at Gärtnerei Podack in Kalthof. The taste bit my tongue and when I inhaled some smoke, I turned green. I got a knot in my stomach and the world started spinning around me. I had to lie down in the grass until I recovered. Hardy seemed to be OK with it making me wonder if he had tried it before.
Behind the mess tent an even larger pile of trash amassed. Empty cans and cartons from the kitchen — a true treasure! We found a large can with lots of peanut butter left in it. We tasted some – we had never had peanut butter before. We liked it, so we took it back to the inn. We watched the soldiers emptying their trays into a large barrel and saw with mouths watering how much food was being thrown away. We looked for some large cans, found some wire and made bails for handles. From then on, we stood where the soldiers would come out to clean their trays and begged for their leftovers. Everything went together into our cans, bits of meat, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans. Bread, we put in our pockets. With cans filled to their tops we went proudly to show Mutti. She would empty everything into a cooking pot and boiled it long enough to make it safe for us to eat. For a while we had food to eat. This went on until one of the officers found out what we were doing. He put a stop to it for health reasons, and we were banned from the mess area.
One day on our way down the stairs we met one of the nice officers in the stair well. He was Captain Willoughby, an American Captain and he asked, “How do you do?” I answered, “We have hunger.” “Come along,” he said, and we followed him. He took us into the mess tent, and pointing at one of the benches said, “Sit down.” After a few minutes two soldiers came with trays of food which they set down in front of each of us. We looked up at them questioningly. They said, “Eat.” We did! We wolfed it down. It was very salty, especially the meat, which I can now say with certainty was Spam. There was nothing left on our trays but while walking back to the inn, my stomach revolted, and the meal was wasted.
The war and the fighting being over, her family intact but in limbo, there was nothing to keep us in Austria. Furthermore, that summer, Mutti learned that once the American soldiers withdrew, most of Austria would be handed over to French Occupation. Because of the historical animosity between France and Germany, it was rumored that the French would not accept German discharge and “denazification” papers and would put all men who had been German soldiers into camps and treat them as prisoners of war.
The stalwart Nora Podack decided it was time to leave. It was time to find a way to connect with extended family, familiar surroundings, and a chance to start a new existence. Königsberg was lost. She would have liked to stay in München (Munich), where she had studied before the war and had fond memories. But that beautiful city had been heavily bombed as well, and although Walter had an old colleague whom they could have asked for help, it was decided Mutti’s goal was an unrealistic one. With no family connections there, it would be a difficult place to start over for the Podacks and the Eberhardts.
The town of Altenstadt, in the German state of Hessen, was where my Opi was born, and where my Tante Dori still lived. It was also under American occupation, an important consideration! And the closest destination. This is where the family decided to go.
The border to Germany was twelve kilometers down the road, and one day Mutti walked there to see what she could find out. She talked to the American border guard officials at the post, but they were only interested in meeting a Fräulein, suggesting they wanted her body. She returned without the assurance she needed, but the following morning, we packed our few belongings, which included Papa’s bag of medical instruments. Mutti bartered for a hand-wagon from one of the local people and Rudi rode on top. We trekked to the border on that warm summer day, taking a chance, hoping to be able to convince the border guards to let us pass — Papa, Mutti, Mutti’s mother (my Omi), Mutti’s brother Heinz, Martha and five children.
When we arrived, the guard house, to our surprise, was empty! No one was around. We crossed to Mittenwald, the German town on the other side, a popular ski resort. The family spent that night in a boxcar. We parted ways with Martha in Mittenwald. The next day our family rode on a goods train to Windecken in Hessen, if memory serves. Once disembarked, we walked several hours to the home of Mutti’s oldest sister Dori – the estate known as Oppelshausen – just outside the town of Altenstadt.
The Podack family had finally arrived at a safe place after an adventurous journey through a destroyed country. Yet, at this time, we still had no idea what had become of Papa’s parents, Opa August and Oma Hedwig.
The Red Army had claimed over 90,000 Königsberg residents as prisoners of war. Military and civilian dead were estimated at 42,000. Another 120,000 survivors remained in the ruins of devastated Königsberg. These survivors, mainly women, children, and the elderly – and a few others who returned immediately after the fighting ended – were forcibly detained by the Russians until 1949. The large majority of German citizens remaining in Königsberg after 1945 died either of disease, starvation, or revenge-driven ethnic cleansing. The last 20,000 Germans were expelled in 1949-50. It was only then that Opi Karl Eberhardt was able to rejoin our family.