My longest Railway Journey, ever

 

In January 1945, seventy-five years ago, I was on my longest railway journey, ever. It was not a journey to a holiday destination or in any way meant to be pleasurable. I was, along with many other boys, a refugee on the run from the fast-approaching Red Army.

We all knew the Second World War was reaching its conclusion.

All throughout 1944, I was in a boy’s home in the small town of Friedland in Upper-Silesia (now Korfantów), Towards the end of 1944, we knew that the front was coming closer and closer. Shortly after Christmas, we noticed that something was going to happen.

Just after Christmas, columns of prisoners were shuffling, rather than walking, on the country road that passed the home. We rushed outside to see who they were. They were people in striped uniforms. We were told by the staff that they were criminals. But by the look of it, they were not. Criminals were tough looking people, so we thought. Those here in front of us were poor people who could hardly walk. We had no idea who they really were. Those columns walked past us for hours. It was a terrible sight. That was when I heard the word Concentration Camp for the first time.

A few days after that we, boys of the ages eight to fourteen were told one evening to get ready for a long walk to a village nearby. Still today I have no idea what its purpose was. It was bitter cold and dark. Had it anything to do with the war? As we walked for many kilometres we could see what seemed to be the flickering lights of an electrical storm. In winter? There was a constant rumbling in the air and we realised that was no thunder either. One of the staff told us in response to our questioning,

‘This is the artillery in a big battle and the Russians are not far away.”

The purpose of being in the home was so we would be away from the air raids in the cities. We were supposed to be safe, but now the war was coming to us. Soon came the instruction to return to the home, which we did. The whole episode remains a mystery to me even today. Our days in Friedland, the name of the small town, meaning Land of Peace, came to a sudden end.

Only a couple of days into January, one late afternoon, we were told to get ready to go back to Berlin. The Berliner children would go back home and the children from Silesia would go to Moravia. On a neighbouring blog of land near our home, there was also a girl’s home. Sometimes we had outings together with them or they performed a play for us. The girls were older than we boys and they seemed almost adults to us.

In no time a couple of buses arrived to take us to a railway junction at Neisse(Nysa now). We Berliner children got into one and the others into another. Some of the staff would follow in a car. We had no time to think. We clutched our few belongings to our bodies.

The Silesian boys were so different from us Berliners but we had become all friends with a common destiny. It was a sad moment in our lives.

As the bus rumbled through the dark country site the bigger girls started to sing, mostly hiking songs and the mood in the bus turned and we were all happy till they started to sing Lehar’s song from the brave soldier who kept watch on the River Volga for his fatherland. It was ironic because he was Russian and we, the Germans, had invaded Russia in this war. I loved this haunting song as I knew it from home because my mother loved it too and the girls of the home had sung it in one of their concerts. It is the ultimate anti-war song of the lonely soldier who asked God to send him an angel to save him.

Suddenly, the bus turned off the country road and we were in front of the railway station where a Red Cross train under full steam was waiting for us kids.

‘Out, out – quick, quick!’ came the order from the sister in charge. The girls got off first and I never saw them again.

Schnell, Schnell – hop on. We have no time to waste,’ someone said.
We climbed quickly onto the train. Inside the carriage, it was dark but for some dim blue light. Red Cross nurses were rushing about. I heard babies crying but could see nothing. On both sides of the carriage were triple story bunk beds and we were told to get one each.

I climbed on a top bunk and tried to catch my breath. Slowly my sight adjusted to the darkness in the carriage. On the other side were the babies. Four across to each bunk. Forty-eight babies in all and some of them were crying all the time. The nurses had all their hands full and demanded from us absolute obedience or we would be thrown off the train. No running around in the carriage, only the walk to the toilet would be allowed. Unknown to us this would be our world for the next three weeks.

And what a world it was. During the day we could not see throw the frosted windowpanes. During the night only a dim, bluish light made recognising anything barely possible.

The radio was on almost all the time. Every hour we heard the news from the army. The bulletin always started with, “The Supreme Command of the Army announces (Das Oberkomando der Wehrmacht gibt bekannt!)“. WE knew we were in Silesia but not much else. On the way to the toilette, we saw that there was snow everywhere. The train moved for a couple of hours and then stopped for a while. We heard other trains going past, probably taken supplies to the front. But where was the front? According to the news bulletins, we were going parallel to the front. The Red Army was not only chasing us up from the South-East but they also came from the East. Breslau (now Wroclaw) was declared a fortress and was to be defended at all costs.

Then I heard the news that Litzmannstadt (now Lodz) had fallen. My father was stationed there for a few years before he was transferred to Italy. Now the Red Army has pushed past it.

We boys were not sure whether our train could be attacked by ground attack planes or were we safe because we were a hospital train and clearly marked so.

Sometimes the train went backwards for long times. While the front seemed to collapse everywhere the nurses on our train were busy looking after the babies. We had no idea why they were on the train. The mothers did not seem to be on the train as the babies were not taken out of the carriage.

Funnily, I can not remember what we had for our meals. Did we have warm meals or not? I can only remember getting slices of bread with jam. What I did not eat I put under the cushion with the result that I had soiled my cushion with jam. Horrible!

For entertainment, we climbed into the other boy’s bunks and played cards or just talked, about the war and the Russians and we were speculating about the babies on the train. We lost track of time and dates. We had no changes of clothes eighter. When would the train ride end? Hopefully in Berlin.

Then, one day, late afternoon, the train stopped at a large station. Again we heard, “Schnell, Schnell!” We ran across the platform to another waiting train. It was a passenger train consisting of very old fashion carriages. I had time to read the station name on a large sign. It said, “Görlitz“.

Someone said it was the 30th of January an important date in the Nazi calendar. It was the 12th anniversary of the day the Nazis came to power. We had no time to think about it. We rushed over to the train and took whatever seat we could find. The carriage was full of soldiers and their luggage. Those soldiers were exhausted and they were manly asleep for the rest of the rail journey to Berlin.

So far, we had been on the hospital train for more than three weeks not across Europe or even Germany, but for a journey of about just 300 km. A trip that should have taken not more than three hours. We did not know that could happen, but we were looking forward to seeing Berlin and our families again. What would happen next?

Soon after the train set in motion, it became dark and the train hurtled during the darkness to our destination. We went right through a blizzard with snowflakes as large as butterflies. I wished every snowflake would turn into a German soldier to hold back the onslaught of the Red Army.

There was a short halt a Spremberg and on we went. It did not take long and I recognised our train going through Königswusterhausen, not far South-East from Berlin. We were heading for Berlin. What a relief.

When the train finally stopped I found myself at the same railway station I set off from in January 1944 on my very first railway journey, Görlitzer Bahnhof.

If I hoped to see my mother I would have been disappointed. We could not even leave the station as Berlin had a preliminary air raid alarm. But this is another story.

Time Capsule

One of today’s news items was that the WHO finds global warming is causing more extreme weather. The target to keep the rise in global temperatures below the critical level of 2% seems now remote. Eleven years ago I wrote a letter for a time capsule. Here is the updated version of it:

My dear descendants,

I’m leaving you this message to describe to you a world that will have disappeared forever and about which you have little or no knowledge.

I am living now in the year 2019. Once, when I was young, I thought that the year two thousand was the future and us humans would live in it forever. But then one of those smart professors proclaimed the end of history. When I observe the crazy world around me today, I am sure, we are still living in the Middle Ages. A lot of history is still to come and I’m waiting desperately for the real Enlightenment finally to arrive. 

 If you know your history, you know how WW I started. Our time is very similar to it. Crackpot warlords needle the big nations and do a lot of sabre rattling. Big nations looking for strategic advantages. We don’t know where it will end. But you will know. It is in your history books. Read them, if you still have books.

What about us, you ask? Once upon a time, people used to live in small groups called family. That is, there was a father, a mother and the children. I know you want to know now what a father was, don’t you?

A father was a male human person who protected his family from other males and he worked very hard. You spot, of course, straight away that if there aren’t any other males, nobody needed protection. But they had another function, they helped produce other human beings by making babies in cooperation with the females.

We have now begun to do away with this old fashioned method. What method, I hear you ask? Well, I don’t want to embarrass you. Unless you have some old books to look it up, it would be difficult to describe. Our scientists are now able to take a cell from any human being and clone a new one. Was there any other way you ask? Yes, there was, the old method, I was talking about. Look around you. Your mother looks like you, doesn’t she? You can’t imagine any other way? We were looking different from our parents, some resemblance, but seldom more than that. Maybe you wonder how you would recognise your mother as your mother if she would look somehow different. You wouldn’t know it is your mother. But we got used to it.

I don’t imagine anybody works in your times. In case you wonder, we have started this process. For instance, I don’t work any more and robots doing more and more of the work. In America, they plan to replace three million motor lorry drivers in the near future. The world will be full of robióts one day. But you know that already.

My government gives me money and I can go to a shop and buy goods that have been produced by some workers in distant China. Perhaps you have read ‘The Time Machine’? It is very similar now. The people that don’t work have no idea where all the stuff comes from and who produces it. Very similar.

I could go on, but you get the picture. We are all crazy psychopaths and will leave you a world that has been partly destroyed by us. I don’t want to get started on the climate, because you would find out that it was us that created all the heat you suffer from. I’m so sorry.

Your male ancestor,

Peter 

Coffee and Cake

When a German family invites you on a Sunday it is most likely for coffee and cake. It is a time-honoured tradition and as far as I can remember my mother always made a cake for Sunday afternoon. A couple of times, during the dark days after World War 2, we missed out.

Sometimes she improvised and made a cake from layers slices of white bread filled with custard made from Canadian wheat flour enhanced with artificial flavours and colours. Sometimes she made a potatoes cake, half boiled potatoes and some flour or semolina. I liked this cake very much. 

Once, in the middle of making a cake, just when she shoved the cake in the oven the air raid siren started. It is a terrible sound, telling us that enemy bombers would soon arrive. We had to go to the shelter. But my mum decided not now. We had to look after the cake. 

We put our budgerigar in his cage under the kitchen table. Every time the bombs fell nearby and the whole building was shaking it started to screech. My mother dived, from time to time, from the hallway, where we were sitting it out, into the kitchen to peek at the cake. The Sunday cake was that important.

The tradition lives on and today I baked a cake.

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In case you wonder what that is, it is an Almond Plum Tart. My own creation, I may add.

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Last year Easter, I made this nice looking cake.

And there is more.

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Last week I made a Ricotta Cheese Cake, but I forgot to take a picture. I think all three cakes shown here are made from Almond meal,

I’m able to do other cakes I’m sure next Sunday another one will be on our table.

Queen of Sheba

I love going to the “Art Gallery of Sydney”. And when there, I head straight to where the huge painting by Sir Edward Poynter is displayed.

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It takes one’s breath away. Lucky there is a bench in front of it and I can sit there and admire the painting. The Queen of Sheba is a mystical figure who wanted to get to know King Solomon, a mystical figure himself.  Legend has it, she stayed for seven years and they become lovers.

The above painting depicts her arrival at the court of King Solomon. there are exquisite details in the picture, a real masterpiece.

The whole story might be steeped in history or exists only in the imagination of the people of Ethiopia. For them, it is real today as it was then. The story is still told and retold today is if it was true.

Friedrich Handel set her arrival into music and you can enjoy it here too.

 

My Grandmother Hannemann

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This is how I remember my Grandmother

Today is the sixties anniversary of the day my paternal grandmother passed away.

She was born on the 24th of February 1871 and passed away suddenly on the 20th November 1958.

She was born in the small town of Luckenwalde, not far south of Berlin. Her parents were Gustav and Wilhelmina (nee Kuckuck) Emmermacher. Grandma herself had three children, two girls and one boy (my Dad). Up to her end, she always called him “der Junge” (the boy).

When she was born the new, recently under Bismark united Germany, was just about one month old. Reasons enough to be happy and to look forward to a great future. I don’t know anything about her childhood in particular and not much about her life generally. What I know about her is based mainly on my personal experience of her.

She was a humble, warmhearted woman. Her husband, my grandfather, had been killed in the First World War on the Western Front.

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Here she is with her three children in 1905/06

Before he went to war there was time to get their photo taken. I think they are in their Sunday’s best.

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Otto and Hedwig Hannemann with daughter Henriette, probably in the yeat 1915

When I, as a little boy, became aware of her she lived in Karlshorst, a suburb in the eastern part of Berlin. Every second Sunday my mother took us three children to visit her. Our “Oma”, that’s what we called my grandmother,  was an excellent cook.

She lived in Karlshorst to run the household for her son-in-law, Alexander Roux, who was divorced from her daughter Henriette ( called “Henny”). There we also met her two grandchildren Horst and Margot.

We had many happy family gatherings there. Christmas was always a great occasion.

Towards the end of the war, when the Battle for Berlin was looming, Grandma, Henny and Margot moved to Glowe, a village on the Baltic Island of Ruegen, where her other daughter, Friedel lived.

In July 1945 they returned to Berlin. At that time my mother was ill in bed. She could not walk and even could not get up. The terrible experiences of the war had caught up with my mother. While she was lying in bed she suddenly saw through the window my grandmother approaching. That gave my mother such a shock, that she jumped up and walked again. She was cured.

But Grandma and Aunty Henny could not return to Karlshorst. The whole suburb had become a Russian occupied enclave. They found an apartment in Siegfriedstrasse, Lichtenberg.

But the division of Berlin into East and West created further problems for them and they decided to move to Bad Schwartau, near Luebeck, in the then English occupied Zone of Germany.

After a few years there they moved to Horrem, near Cologne. That is where Oma Hannemann stayed till she passed away in November 1958. I used to live at that time, with my wife Uta and daughter Gaby,  in Duesseldorf and was able to visit her a few times.

Oma Hannemann,Friedel,Henny in Glowe

Grandma Hedwig with her two daughters and a greatgrandchild at Horrem during the mid-fifties

 

The news of her passing and the funeral arrangement reached me late by postcard. I was able to leave work early and took the train to Horrem via Cologne. I arrived at the cemetery just when the mourners were leaving. My Aunt Friedel went back with me to the graveside where I was able to say quietly my “Good-by”.

Today I feel sorry that I did not learn more about her life. Twenty of her direct descendants live in Australia. Many more live in Great Brittain and Germany. Many of her descendants have completed academic studies which would have been unthinkable at her time. Her grandchildren and greatgrandchildren have married partners from many diverse countries and the family has become truly international.

Grandma survived two world wars, her husband did not come back from WW I and I never heard her complain about anything.

Just a few days after her funeral our second daughter, Monika, was born. We had already applied to migrate to Australia. As usual, life goes on, but Grandma Hannemann has not been forgotten.

 

 

“Russia House” and the “Dutch Cafe”

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Last Monday we,  my wife Uta (also known as Aunty Uta) and I,  went to Bulli Beach for a cup of coffee. We had to kill some time as we waited for the doctor to start work. We were early.

Uta wanted to relax with a book she brought along. She loves books written by Andrew M. Greeley and this one, “The Bishop in the West Wing” seemed especially of interest to her.  Greeley is called ‘author and priest’ but I can tell you, he is not your common garden variety priest. His novels are always political, as seems to be right for a man with an Irish background. While Uta was delving into her book I decided on a little stroll as I can’t sit for long. Movement is the best for my ageing and aching legs.

The above picture does not show Bulli Beach (on the Illawarra Coast of NSW) but the neighbouring Sandon Point Beach. Along the shoreline runs Blackall Street. New, modern houses have sprung up there over the years and replaced many of the old houses that I remember from more than fifty years ago; many have disappeared or were altered beyond recognition.

During the sixties, I worked with another German from Berlin beautifying the old houses there. This kind of work brought us in contact with so many people of different walks of life.  For instance, migrants who still had to come to grips with the cultural shock they had suffered after coming to Australia. Australian men did not like us “New-Australians” but the women did.  Meeting us those women found out, that men actually were able to talk and converse with women as that. We often had great conversations with them during our lunch breaks. They always supplied us with cups of tea and ‘bikkies’ as is the Australian way.

Here at Sandon Point’s Blackall Street, we struck migrants who had made Australia their home after World War Two and all the destruction and replacement that went with it. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean surely must have been a kind of paradise for them.

First, we worked on a cottage that belonged to a Dutch family. They were older than we were and could have been our parents. They were from a region in the Netherlands that was close to the border to Germany and they were able to talk in German to us. They preferred that to speaking English.

We were able to establish an instant rapport with them, even though, we were on opposite sites during the war.  They were so friendly that they provided coffee and cake every afternoon. We were sitting and talking about the war and Australia. We dubbed the place “The Dutch Cafe”. We learned, during our conversations with them,  that the husband of the Dutch couple used to be a truck driver during the war and was on tour to Berlin on many occasions. He also worked for the Dutch resistance and had to spy and report on what he saw in Germany. It was a dangerous mission.

They put us in contact with another lady who lived down the road from them. We were able to do the same work on her house as well. The lady was from Russia but was of German descent. She was much older than the Dutch people but they had taken an interest in her and her wellbeing.

While working on her house she was telling us about her life in Russia and the Soviet Union. She had experienced the Russian Revolution and had no good word about it. Her German family were decried as capitalists as they were in the habit of painting their fences. The old lady cried a little as she told us her family history. On a table, I saw a photo of her husband, as a young man, standing in the Red Square of Moscow. The view of the Kremlin was in stark contrast to the view from her tiny upstairs window towards the ocean. We nicknamed her home “Russia House”.

 

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This is the view from Russia House today

When we left her premises, she gave us a piece of advice, probably born out of her own bitter experience, never to trust a Russian. Some of my followers will know, from reading some of my previous posts, that I had to trust Russians to survive.

Walking along Blackall Street I could not help noticing the changes and gentrification of the street. Where would the families of the former Dutch and Russian families be today? We all have moved on, some of us have gone back to eternity and we ourselves are waiting to move there.

But, I’m not in a hurry yet, despite dreaming last night that on a visit to my doctor he informed me, that he had bad news for me; the government would like to let me know that I would depart to the hereafter soon.

I still want to write a few more posts for this blog.

 

 

 

 

Memories of the Past and towards 2017

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.

These are the words of the refrain from the beautiful song “Bookends” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. A song about two old friends sitting on a park bench – reminiscing.

 

 

If you have more time on your hand you can be listening to the full version here.

Last month,  Uta and I had our 60th Wedding anniversary. It was a moment to reflect on our past together.

Just before we got married this photo was taken of us two on the balcony of my mother’s apartment in Berlin. In the meantime, this building has been torn down and a more modern one has taken its place.

img_20170106_0001 In the picture, my future wife looks rather sceptical at me.  Or is it whimsical? We were innocent at the time. We believed in a better world and eleven years after WW 2 we had all reasons to believe in a bright future. Out of that belief grew our confidence to start a family.

In case you are wondering about the plate on the wall, it has been painted by Anselm  Feuerbach and is of his favourite model, Nanna, in a classical pose. This plate is still in the family and belongs to my son now.

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From then to now it was a time of great changes in all our lives. We moved to Australia and raised a family. Of our four children, our eldest daughter passed away nearly five years ago.

2016 was an especially bad year all round. The election of Donald Trump to be the new President of the US makes for interesting times. Interesting, because he seems to be unpredictable. He loves conflict and will have a fight on his hand, among others, with the American secret services. The establishment believes the advice of the services are sacrosanct without considering that they might have their own agenda.

Terrorism is an old game but since 9/11 it has become global, as so many things have since the end of the Cold War. We shake in our shoes as our governments think of more useless schemes to stop this menace. But all those measurements make the would-be terrorists more cranky.

On a personal level, my health is precarious. At least this is what my doctors tell me. Next week I will know more. At my age, anything can crop up in my body. When I was born my life expectancy was just sixty-four years. Fifteen years later I am still here to tell my stories.

A few years ago, I talked about this with one of my neighbours. We called it bonus time and laughed about it. This was on a Friday and the very next Monday his bonus time came to a sudden end. So, you never know.

In case you wonder what happened to the couple in the first photo. We changed into an old couple day by day without noticing it. And now, sixty years later, we look like this.

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We have come a long way and I’m happy that last year we were able to visit Berlin, our hometown, once more. If we are lucky, we will be able to see Berlin again in two years time. Our health allowing, of course.

I nearly forgot. For the fifth time, we became great-grandparents. So the family is growing and we hope the politicians are not mucking up the great-grandchildren’s future.

For 2017 I wish all my followers all the best. Most of all stay healthy because without good health life can be a drag.