First Chapter: You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? Reminiscences by Helga Stipa Madland
Title: You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? Reminiscences
Author: Helga Stipa Madland
Publisher: Aventine Press
I start with when I was born, then there was a World War, and then I went to Norman.—Klodnitz, in Upper Silesia, now a part of Poland, was my birth place; when everything collapsed in 1945 at the end of WWII, my family and I became refugees. We trekked across Germany, to the west, and eventually settled in a small village and then another one. Next was Canada, then the United States, Missouri; eventually we settled in Idaho, where my Father, who was a forester, found a job. I did not stop there! I was married and continued my merry journey, California, back to three different cities in Idaho, and later Seattle, where I earned a PhD. My children were grown by then, I was alone and ready to find a position. That’s when I ended up at the University of Oklahoma in 1981, and have been here ever since.
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In a memoir, one probably needs to talk about one’s birth. Mine occurred at home in a forester’s house (my father was a forester) on January 20, 1939, in Klodnitz, Upper Silesia, at that time in Germany. It is now in Poland, and when I applied for a visa to visit Poland some years ago—we still have somewhat distant relatives there, the younger of whom only speak Polish and we cannot communicate—the authorities would not issue the visa unless I listed my country of birth as Poland. I did that and so it remains. I don’t speak a word of Polish, but lots of people in Upper Silesia did including my grandmother on my mother’s side. And I believe my father knew a few words, too. I have not tried to learn Polish, but my oldest cousin who lives in Germany, has because she wanted to stay in touch with younger relatives living there. The older people spoke German, but most of them are gone now, and for a long time it was not allowed to teach German in Polish schools. I believe that has changed now.
Many Germans from Upper Silesia who settled in West Germany after WWII agitated about having Upper Silesia returned to Germany. The region has, in fact, been handed back and forth between Poland and Germany a number of times and the population is quite mixed. I am content to have not just Upper Silesia but all of Silesia remain a part of Poland. The Russians don’t intend to return the Polish territories they seized on its eastern border. The little country keeps being squeezed between Russia and Germany and should now be left alone. That’s what I think.
My father was in the German army. Foresters in Germany wear forest green uniforms and can look quite gorgeous, although, in general, I am not a fan of uniforms.
When he was deployed, my mother, sister, great aunt, and I were left alone in the rather large forester’s house somewhat out of the village, at the edge of the forest. There was a lovely sandbox in front of the large stone staircase leading up to the entry. When the war grew fiercer and prisoners were taken, a group of English soldiers ended up in a camp in our area. Next to our house was a potato field, and when it was time for the harvest, the British soldiers helped with the work. Of course there were frequent air raids, which required that everyone go into the underground bunker. My sister and I were around three and five. The English soldiers would grab us and stuff us into the bunker. Then they would sit outside on the steps of the bunker cheering the Allied planes overhead. I believe this to be a remarkable example of humanity. How could they not cheer their planes, but they did not want the German children to get hurt.
Before these events, when the war had not yet accelerated, we often visited both pairs of grandparents; mother’s parents, who lived in the village of Malsdorf, and my dad’s parents, who lived in the forester’s house near Johannsdorf since his father was a forester too. The Malsdorf grandparents spoiled me terribly, especially since mother’s aunt, Tante Eva, lived there two. The two women decided the little girl should be able to play in the sandbox even when the weather was bad, so they moved a great pile of sand under the stair case in the hall and created a happy child. They also piled a great number of feather beds on top of each other so I could have a trampoline. I was one happy grandchild.
My dad’s mother was a somewhat different kind of grandmother. A very energetic woman, she visited us in Jefferson City at the age of seventy. At that time, you traveled by ship, and it wasn’t a cruise. After arriving at the shores of the promised land, which the United States was for European refugees after WWII—I cannot remember which port—she took a train to St. Louis, where we picked her up in our dilapidated , an ancient, sickly green Ford. She stayed six months looking after my little brother Michael. Her favorite entertainment was watching wrestling matches. She would sit in front of the black and white television screen, clapping on her thighs and laughing loudly, while the fat wrestlers were rolling around in the dust.
Back in Johannsdorf, “Oma” ran a tight ship. Christmas cookies were baked early and stored in tightly sealed canisters that, in turn, were placed on top of the very tall china closet in the “good” room. My cousin Lothar— who is two days younger than I am, something I enthusiastically lorded over him—and I spent much time scheming how we could get to those cookies without being caught. I don’t think we succeeded, but now and then Oma would come into the room and give us a delicious pre-Christmas cookie, but just one—and after that, we had to scheme again.
Lothar and I were probably four or five years old when we turned into the terrors of the quiet forester’s house in Johannsdorf. Our grandparents had a large flock of chickens, which lived in a chicken house, naturally. At any rate, I remember a good-sized facade of small, square, framed windows. We decided those little windows were excellent targets on which to practice our stone throwing skills. Luckily, Oma and my mother stopped us before we had broken out all of the windows.
Another of our accomplishments was the great tree scaling caper. Imagine four beautiful, large pine trees, standing in a square near the house! They were Opa’s, that is, my grandfather’s pride. What forester does not love his trees? One day, while Opa was checking things out in the forest, Lothar and I located a scaling tool, an item intended to scrape bark off trees. We went to work, and an hour or so later Oma and Mother, or “Mutti,” as we called her when we were children in Germany, discovered our handiwork. As they stepped into the side garden, they were confronted by four trees that had huge swatches of bark shaved off. The tree trunks were dark, but the areas Lothar and I had attacked were a light, clear wood color, wood without bark, beautiful light wood that should not be exposed to the world. Mutti and Oma were close to fainting. Opa would be home soon and he would be extremely irritated. Quickly, they tried to think of a solution. Both of them were bright women, which may have been one of the reasons they did not get along—the other, of course, being that mother-in-law lore promotes iffy relationships with daughters-in-law—they quickly thought of the solution. Oma remembered a barrel of tar stored in one of the sheds. They dragged out enough for their purposes and covered the assaulted trees with enough of the dark, sticky stuff to cover the outraged, exposed wood. When Opa returned home, he did not notice, and the word was mum around the forester’s house. Only much later, when it had become part of family lore, was the story of the scaled trees told.
Here might be a good place to tell about the fate of my grandfathers. Both were fairly old as World War II got going, certainly too old to be drafted into the German army. But because their professions required wearing uniforms, they were suspect; it was difficult to tell them from soldiers. My mother’s father wore the uniform of a locomotive engineer; yes, it’s true, Germans like uniforms, and when a traveler saw someone dressed like my mother’s father was, everyone knew he was responsible for driving the train. My father’s father was a forester. Foresters had lovely forest green uniforms, my father wore one himself. Indeed, it did have the kind of trim, including epaulets, you can find on military uniforms. When the Russian Army moved into East Germany, both elderly grandfathers disappeared. In time, we heard that they had been taken to a concentration camp in Siberia. It may not have been Siberia, but we never heard from or about them again.
My uncle, mother’s brother, a blond, blue eyed young man at the time and quite a nationalist—he most likely he belonged to the National Socialist Party—swore he would find his father, or his grave, in the depth of Asia, after WWII ended, but he did not. Where would he have started to look, and how could he have gotten there? Uncle Franz was an annoying and interesting man. Fastidious to a fault even for a German—he brushed his only blue suit so long that my mother feared the fabric would disappear. He was in the army, of course; it seems every male who did not have a job essential to the welfare of society was. And like so many, undoubtedly he supported the national socialists. But, he told me many years later that when the notorious “Kristallnacht,” or “Night of Broken Glass, occurred, that is when the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and businesses, and synagogues, he thought “this is the end of the national socialists.” As young as he was, he apparently understood the evil of Hitler’s Germany. That made me happy, because for a very long time, especially after I moved to the United States in 1954, I did not know that there were any good Germans.
Back in our house in Klodnitz, there were only women, children, dogs and the assorted poultry, etc. one finds in foresters’ houses. There were rumors—partisans, soldiers and others who were fighting the war on their own, were roaming the countryside and no one was safe. Perhaps escaped prisoners of war were out there too; my father escaped from the British and undoubtedly it worked the other way around, too. My mother, who was not exactly a woman to wield a gun although she could if she had to, practiced shooting from the attic window. We kept all doors locked and dogs in the house. I don’t remember being too scared, I guess I was too young. But I have always been fairly alert, so I heard things and did things I was not supposed to. Whether the following really happened or was just one of the many stories floating around I don’t know, but apparently in the attic there was a large cage in which pigeons were kept. Or some kind of birds, because my childish brain was certain I saw many seeds on the ground of the enclosure. I don’t know what these birds, if there were birds, would have been for. Carrier pigeons? I don’t know. I know we did not eat them.
At any rate, the story arose that someone who had stopped by the house, a man, hanged himself in the bird enclosure. Again, I do not know if that was true or if I saw him, but I did see the many seeds on the floor. It left a weird imprint on my brain. A layer of disorderly seeds, in fruit, vegetable, or plant, makes my stomach turn. An uneasy feeling occurs; I want those seeds to be orderly. Weird!
My other scary Klodnitz memory involves Santa Claus. Now, in Germany not Santa Claus by the Christ Child brings the Christmas presents. More about that later. Santa Claus or Sankt Nikolaus, or simply Nikolaus, visits the children in their own houses on December 6th. German parents take great delight in threatening their offspring with Nikolaus’s visit for weeks before the actual event, especially if children were as cheeky as I apparently was. As I was showing her a current photo of me when I was in my forties and had three grown children, my own mother told me: “Du hast immer noch das selbe freche Gesicht.” In other words, “You still have the same sassy face,” (that I had as a child). But my mother also once told me that she thought I had more courage than she, although she was pretty courageous herself at times. So that’s that.
The German Santa Claus is sometimes accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who is dressed in a long brown robe, sort of like a monk’s robe. His belt is a rope and he has a scruffy, brownish beard. He definitely terrifies children. He carries a potato sack slung over his back, and the story is that bad little children will be stuffed into the sack, dragged off into the woods, and dumped there. Every German child lives in fear of this happening to her or him. Sankt Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht are responsible for lots of well-behaved children in the weeks leading up to their dreaded, yet welcome visit, because if you have been a good little girl or boy, Nikolaus will reward you with lots of candy and some praise, along with the admonishment to continue on your good behavior.
St. Nikolaus is, of course, modeled on the fourth-century Greek saint and bishop of Myra (now in Turkey). He is said to have walked around the city in order to throw little bags of money into the (open) windows of the poor. He morphed into Santa Claus in the United States and other countries, but in Germany he remained closer to the historical figure. Therefore, the German Santa Claus wears a long, red robe, a hat resembling a bishop’s miter, and a beard. Or variations thereof. It is easy to become Santa Claus in Germany, because the costume is not as iconic as he is in the United States. I personally played the role of St. Nikolaus once, dressed in my mother’s long, red house-coat. As I recall, the neighbor’s little children loved it because I brought them lots of candy.
But back to Klodnitz! As I mentioned earlier, my father’s aunt, his mother’s sister, lived with us. She was a funny and kooky woman. She had been married once, a long time ago, but the marriage ended in divorce, an unusual occurrence in those times. It was not much talked about.
Her name was Hilde, but we called her Tantelusch. Why, I don’t know; I don’t really even know what it means. But I’ll look it up.
Okay, I am back. According to the Wikipedia, Lusch is a last name. Maybe that was her married name, and we called her that to distinguish her from my father’s sister, whose name was also Hilde, as in Tante (aunt) Hilde. At any rate, Tantelusch loved to tell stories and was a great joker. My sister and I used to urge our parents to go out often so we would be left alone with Tantelusch, and then we could really have fun. Tantelusch liked to tease me, and I undoubtedly deserved it. One year, when it was close to St. Nikolaus Day, she called me and told me to open the door to a large pantry; it was long and narrow. To my horror, a giant St. Nikolaus was looming against the back wall. Undoubtedly, I screamed. Much later the truth came out. Tantelusch had created a dummy St. Nikolaus and propped him up on a broom stick.
Clearly, Tantelusch was a lot of fun and we loved her. But she was also a little weird. My mother liked to tell the story of how Tantelusch carefully balanced pennies, or Pfennige, among her lingerie in the closet to see if anyone had messed with it. Of course no one was interested in Tantelusch’s belongings, but she wanted to make sure.
I remember my mother telling stories from this time, later on, when the family was together and I would hear them. The stories were often about me, not so much about my sister. They say the first born always gets more attention, and may be that is true. Here is one of the stories: The forester’s house was an official residence, and my father had his office there. It was a large, solidly furnished room with a massive oak desk dominating it. Comfortable chairs and small tables were spread about the room, facing the desk. One day, the ‘village elders’ were meeting to discuss a matter urgent to the welfare of the forest. Maintaining the forest is a big issue in Germany, probably because the population is dense, but the forest is not. According to my mother, I was really angry about something I do not remember. I picked up a broom holding it up in the air with both hands, walked into the astonished gathering, and threw the broom on the floor with a vengeance. Everyone laughed heartily, including my father and probably my mother, too, but of course she felt obligated to correct her disobedient daughter. She probably sent me to my room. There are other stories of this sort, but I will leave it at that.
# # #
Time went on and so did the war. The Battle of Budapest between the Soviets and German and Hungarian forces began in December 1944 and ended in February 1945 with a Russian victory. In January 1945, the Red Army crossed the Oder River and was less than fifty miles from Berlin. Rumors were bountiful, everyone was afraid of the Russians who were said to be ruthless and uncivilized. Many Germans living in Silesia decided that the Americans were the lesser of two evils, and an exodus to West Germany began. My mother, sister and I were among the first to leave, but only because we had information about the approaching Russians. My Uncle Joseph, married to my father’s only sibling, Aunt Hilde, was a police detective and therefore was not drafted, while my father and other male relatives were. Being a member of the police, Onkel Joseph had access to more information than private citizens. He got my mother and aunt together, told them to pack a suitcase and gather up the children—my sister and me and my three cousins—and starting moving westward, in other words, get out leaving absolutely everything.
My grandmother was enormously distressed. She tried to help my mother back, putting an evening gown in the suitcase. My mother took it back out and replaced with warm sweaters for Ingrid and me. It was winter, I can’t remember if we left before Christmas or immediately afterward. I also don’t remember the first leg of our trip. Trains were still running, and while no one had a car, people traveled a lot. Train stations were scattered about the countryside, and I guess we just walked to the station. I do remember riding in the back of a very crowded pickup once. By my sixth birthday on January 20, 1945, we definitely had traveled some distance from our home and were staying in a room somewhere. My birthday present was a beautiful purple African violet, I have loved violets ever since. One day, a few years ago, Ingrid was visiting me in Seattle and I pointed out the gorgeous purple African violet in the window. “It probably thinks it is in Africa,” Ingrid said. She is always good for a “bon mot.” I have no idea where my mother found a blooming plant that January long ago, but she did and I had a birthday present I have always remembered.
Until I was around eighteen, moments from our “flight,” (Flucht, in German) popped into my mind almost every day. We were “Fluechtlinge”—refugees. Since I was only six years old at the time, I cannot give a coherent narrative of the experience, only disconnected fragments. There was the time when a train finally pulled into the station, it was so full, we children were handed in through the windows. Refugees were literally hanging from the doors, grabbing onto any train part they could get a hold off just so they could get out. Once we rode on an open car at the end of the train. It was filled with injured soldiers and as many refugees as could fit. Another time when we got off the train and our suitcases were stored on top of it, my mother climbed up on the roof and the train started moving. Ingrid and I screamed! Mother threw the suitcases down, jumped off—and we had a mother and our meager belongings. Another time the word was out that because of massive confusion, the engineer had taken a wrong track and we went in a circle. We missed the bombing of Dresden. That was February 13 and 14, 1945.
What and how we ate, I don’t know. I think the Red Cross had set up soup kitchens in the train stations; that could have been the only way for fleeing refugees to survive. My sister, who was four at the time, became very sick from exhaustion and lack of food. We were extremely worried about her, but luckily were getting closer to West Germany and would soon be able to stop. One night when we were in West Germany but had not settled in, we and many other refugees slept in a school on the floor covered with hay. That night there was an air raid attack and the siren, located on top of the school, went off. We slept through it!
At one point, my father was taken a prisoner of war by the British, but somehow he managed to escape. He found us when we were temporarily staying in a small village. Everyone was terrified because the word was out that the Americans were about to take revenge on the village. Apparently, a group of partisans which was roaming about the countryside had killed some American soldiers, and in return, the Americans were going to blow up the village. Whether this was actually the case or not, I do not know. At any rate, we believed it to be true. I remember my father in a little group of American soldiers in the middle of the village. They were all crouching on the ground and drawing in the sand. My father spoke some English, and I always believed he saved our lives when he managed to explain to the soldiers that the village had absolutely nothing to do with the partisans.
Another time, in another village, my father showed up with a “Panzerfaust,” a hand thrown grenade designed to destroy tanks. A group of German soldiers were going to stage a last stand and blow up several American tanks that were approaching a certain highway. My mother threw a fit and made my father and his Panzerfaust leave the house immediately before we were blown up. I don’t think the German soldiers ever did stage their last minute defense. Someone must have used their brains; maybe it was my father.
I clearly remember when I saw my first American. My mother, sister, and I had temporarily settled in the house of a forester my father knew. When the word spread throughout the village that American tanks were approaching, everyone was terrified. The residents of the house, including mother, Ingrid and me, of course, took refuge in the basement. We sat, with lights out, very quietly. It was spooky in the basement. We waited and waited and started to get hungry. At a certain point my mother had had it. “I am going upstairs to see what is going on,” she announced; “you stay down here.” She looked directly at me. Over the protest of everyone in the basement, she crept up the stairs. I waited until I could hear her shut the door to the basement, and then I ascended the stairs myself. Keeping my distance behind my mother, I followed her to the kitchen and the window that looked out onto the very long, fenced front yard. And then I saw them!
The large gate with its stone pillars on each side stood open. The large front yard was empty, but next to each side of the gate, a soldier was comfortably lying on his back, on the grass, his rifle propped up next to him, standing straight up into the air. No one moved, it was quiet, the soldiers did not look frightening at all. Nevertheless, my mother, who had spotted me by then and scolded me heartily, decided it was best to return to the basement. She grabbed my hand and we rushed down the stairs. We were greeted with relief—apparently some thought they would never see us again.
Within a few hours the front yard was filled with military vehicles and soldiers milling about. They took some interest in my mother, she was a beautiful woman. It was thought best she stay in the house. Only an officer or two entered the house to make sure there were no escaped German soldiers hiding anywhere, but left again quickly when they found no one. The enlisted men were not allowed inside the house. I, however, saw no reason why I should not sneak outside and look around. One of the soldiers gave me a candy bar, but instead of handing it to me he threw it on the ground in front of me. Of course I grabbed it; I was six years old and German children had not seen much chocolate in the last several years. Triumphantly, I ran into the house to show my mother, but she had seen the entire exchange through the kitchen window and made me go back outside and throw the chocolate bar in front of the offending soldier. That was my mother! Later, a bunch of us children worked out a scam. Having figured out where the soldiers would pass by on their way to the mess hall, we lined up, smiled sweetly and said: “Onkel, hast du Schokolade?” (Uncle, do you have some chocolate candy?) German children call even adults who are not related to them “uncle” or “aunt.” As I recall, we made quite a haul.
In the long run, at least the children got used to their new situation rather quickly. During one short stay at another forester’s house, I was playing outside in the sandbox when airplanes on a bombing mission were flying overhead. My mother frantically called for me to come inside, but I responded casually, “Oh Mutti, it’s just thunder, let me play.” This particular house is memorable because some peculiar people lived in it: an older woman, her grown daughter, and the woman’s sister. The daughter had a severe mental illness and was kept locked in a room next to the kitchen. I don’t think she was mistreated, her room was taken care of and she was well fed, but she was not to go outside her room. Now and then, however, she escaped and wandered about in the yard. She had a peculiar habit: before she went outside, she took all her clothes off and wandered about naked. Everyone was afraid of her except my mother, who would be sent after her to coax her back into the house. I don’t know whose job that was when we left.
The young woman’s mother was short and chubby, while her mother’s sister was somewhat taller and scrawny. The chubby mother presided over the food in the house. In fact, she had a large storage room up in the attic which she kept locked with the key attached to a large key bundle attached to her belt. One day, when I sureptiously followed her up the stairs and peeked around her, I got a glimpse of the wonders in her locked attic room. It was completely filled with shelf after shelf of fruits, vegetables, meats, and stuff I did not recognize, all of it in glass jars. Beautiful! She did bring some of the jars downstairs for us, she was not a miser, but she apparently had hoarded food for some time, and maybe it was not such a bad thing at the time.
I have to admit that while I dismissed the sounds of bombers overhead as thunder, I was scared to death of the family turkey. He was huge, with giant tail feathers and practically as tall as I was. And he was mean! We did not have indoor plumbing, it was extremely rare in the countryside at that time. Instead we had a nice outhouse located, undoubtedly for sanitary reasons, at the far end of the large yard. This made it quite a hike from the back door, and sometimes you had to run. I am certain that the mean turkey watched the door to see who was running to the outhouse, and then he chased them. Not only that, he kept you imprisoned in the outhouse, throwing himself against the door which you could open only at the risk of immediate attack. It was terrifying for a six year old, scarier than bombs falling from the sky. Luckily, we did not stay in that house very long.