My First Railway Journey. Part I
My year in “Friedland” started with my first railway journey in nineteen-forty-four one early January morning. The good thing about the morning was, that we had been able to sleep through the night, without being disturbed by the air raid sirens. The RAF stayed at home that night. They probably did not like loading bombs into their planes during the Winter weather.
The bad news was that I was sent away from Berlin and from my beloved mother. I was freezing and shivering while my mother helped me get dressed.
“Hurry up and don’t muck around”, she said. ” The train will not wait for you!”
I was still sleepy and had no plans to muck around at all and asked her, while still yawning: “Do I really have to go?”
“What silly question is that? They have searched long enough for a place where they would send you to,” said my Mum as she put a shawl around my neck. “You know quite well that all the children are being sent away. The girls are in East-Prussia and you are going into a home in Silesia.”
“But I don’t want to go into a home!” I tried to say it defiantly.
“What you want will not be debated,” said my Mum firmly, ending all discussion about it. For breakfast, I had a slice of bread with “ersatz” honey and a cup of “ersatz” coffee.
“Why do we call it ‘ersatz coffee’? What then is proper coffee?”
“Don’t ask silly questions. It is bean coffee, of course.”
“What is bean coffee?”
“Coffee we could buy during peacetime.”
While I was busy chewing my sandwich, I decided that I really liked “ersatz” honey. Peacetime did not need to be explained to me. It was the time before the aeroplanes came and dropped bombs on us. The whole building would be shaking. Next morning, on the way to school, the air would smell of burnt paper and wood. One could find shrapnel from the Flak and incendiary bombs the “Pommies” had dropped.
Then I heard the voice of my mother:
“Don’t daydream. We have to leave shortly. It is already 6 o’clock!”
Mum had packed my suitcase the evening before. Everything was ready. We could go. I put on a winter coat and gloves against the biting cold. Mum took the suitcase and soon we were on the street. It was still pitch dark and bitter cold. But what could we expect in January?
There was no snow which I yearned for in winter. It wasn’t far to the subway station “Flughafen” (Airport). Walking down the stairs I loved the smell from the subway tunnel that wafted towards us. A long tunnel, in a quarter circle, led to another staircase. I could see one train departing and quickly disappear in the tunnel. Mum bought tickets for us which we handed to an employee who is a disgruntled mood punched holes into them. We then walked down the second set of stairs.
“You watch where you’re going,” Mum called out as I stumbled a bit. “If you keep this up you might end up in a hospital instead of Silesia.”
Wouldn’t that be better, I thought. Mum would visit me there and bring me presents and sweets. I was once in a hospital with Scarlet Fever and could observe the passing of trains from my bed all day. In the evening for supper, I was given sandwiches with liverwurst and sweet peppermint tea. I liked that very much.
“Watch out, the train is coming,” I heard my mother say. A stream of air, pushed by the train into the station cavern, engulfed everyone at the station. Like a monster, with two enormous oval eyes, the yellow train swept out of the tunnel and came suddenly to a full stop. We opened the two doors and entered the carriage. The station attendant called out with a mighty voice: “Stand back!”. Hearing this, nobody would dare to rush the train. The door shut immediately and the train accelerated to a high speed while disappearing into the dark tunnel.
We had found two seats and sat down side by side. I looked around and noticed that nobody looked up to take any notice of us. Nobody spoke, it must have been too early for that. Even though they had been able to sleep through the night without an air raid they seemed nevertheless happy to continue their night rest here on the underground train.
I was thinking of the previous when one of my godmothers came to help with the necessary formalities with the authorities. First, they went to the police to report my change of address.
It had to be done as the police always wanted to know were people were residing. Then we had to go to the office where the ration cards were issued. My mother would not be allowed to receive the ration cards when I was not living with her in Berlin anymore. Everywhere people made remarks that I would now go on a long journey. Perhaps they would have liked to go away themselves from the grey and dark city.
“Well, you will be able to sleep through the nights,” they all said with a sigh. In the end, we went to the Jugendamt (office for Children’s Affairs) to get to know the lady who would accompany me on my long train trip.
“We will get along fine with, Peter, won’t we?” she asked me. I did not dare to say anything and only nodded. To me, she looked like an old dragon or a teacher. Which was very much the same to me anyway. And who would take the fight up to a dragon? Only Siegfried (a legendary hero) would dare.
At Hallesches Tor station we had to change trains. We climbed many stairs to get from the underground to the elevated train.
Mum walked slowly, but steady, so she would not get out of breath. I was always afraid she would die when she beat me with the carpet beater. She would only stop when she completely run out of breath and sunk on to the bed almost unconscious. Usually, it took a long time before she could breathe normally again.
“You will kill me one say,” Mum said then. I did not want that at all and felt forever guilty. What could I do not to enrage her? I wanted to be good at all times, but something happened that made Mum angry. Soon we would have to part and her life would be much easier.
The elevated train arrived and we could continue our journey. I liked the Hochbahn (elevated train) because from above I could observe the traffic, the buildings and the people below. With a bit of luck, I was able to see into the windows of some apartments to see how other people were living. This interested me a lot. I thought perhaps I could see whether other children were beaten too.
Once I saw a man hitting the table with a fist while a woman was standing beside him. But on that morning it was too early. All windows were still covered in the blackout.
In front of the circus tent, I saw an elephant for the first time in my life. He was tethered with a heavy chain to the ground and was moving his head and trunk from side to side. On the way back I stopped at the Hertie department store to look at the latest war books in the book department.
I had started to read “proper” books only during the last year. By “proper”, I mean books that were written for adults and not particularly for children. We children were encouraged by the school to collect “Altpapier” – second-hand books and old newspapers – for recycling. We were told this way we would help the war effort. But I sorted the books out and kept the ones I wanted to read myself. Yes I know, this meant I was a book thief too.
Kottbusser Tor. “Next station we have to get off,” I heard my mother say. It was still dark. But soon, by seven o’clock, children would have to walk to school. No school for me on that day! Suddenly our train arrived at the station Görlitzer Bahnhof. From there it was only a short walk to the large railway station.
There it was like a mighty castle. Cars and taxis arrived bringing people who wanted to catch one of the trains. Others came with trams. There was a lot of activity in front of the station building. It was bitter cold.
Mum carried my small suitcase. I only carried my school satchel on my back. When we came closer to the pillars in front of the station building I could recognise my beloved uncle Alexander. That made me really happy when I realised that he must have got up early just to see me to say “Goodbye”. I would not have expected such a gesture from anyone.
“Hi, Peter, are you looking forward to the long train trip?” And, before I could say anything, he added, “You will get a lot to see. Perhaps even mountains.” Mum and uncle shook hands.
“When will the train depart,” he wanted to know.
“Five past seven,” answered Mum. Suddenly I could see the lady from the Office for Children’s Affairs, the one I had met the previous day. I did not like her as she tried to be overly nice to me. She walked up to us and said: “There he is, our little man. We better get on our train!” After a short exchange of words, the lady took my suitcase from Mum and took my hand and said: “Let’s go then. We don’t want the train to leave without us. Do we?”
Oh, yes, I would have loved that very much. I did not like her artificial friendliness.
I could not remember later whether Mum gave me a kiss or not because she surprised me by giving me ten fifty Pfennig pieces, saying: “Don’t lose them. You might want to buy something with it.”
And with that, I and the lady hurried along the train. There were several platforms in which trains were waiting to depart. The steam engines hissed and snorted like impatient horses who could not wait any longer to leave the claustrophobic city behind for the vastness of the countryside.
Mum and my uncle did not come to the train. I assumed they did not want to spend money on platform tickets. The lady from Children’s Affairs looked at the carriage numbers. The clock in the middle of the platform showed it was exactly 7 o’clock. Still the Sun had not risen. Finally, we reached our carriage with our reserved compartment. The lady helped me to get into the carriage. We walked along a long narrow corridor till we reached our compartment. Our carriage was a 3rd class carriage and we had to sit on a wooden bench. Nobody else sat in the compartment and all through the long journey nobody joined us either.
It was comfortably warm in the compartment and I took off my gloves and coat. My companion stowed my things on to the luggage rack above the seat. Shortly after that, we could hear an announcement over the loudspeaker. I did not understand anything. Some people hurried past our window, doors were shut and the train, after a slight jolt, started, almost imperceptibly, to move out of the huge hall into a cold winter’s morning.
My First Railway Journey. Part II
When the train started to move, Frau Fischer opened the compartment window and said,
“Have a look whether you can still see your mother. I’m certain she is waving.”
I did not see her and it saddened me. We had gone too far. People on the platform and steam from our train blocked my view. Gliding, almost without sound, the train left the huge station hall. From time to time there was a little jolt when the carriage went with a “clickety, clack” over a set of points. The tall yard lights were standing between the train tracks and shone onto the rails. I was wondering whether the light would stay on during an air raid. We could hear the whistle of the locomotive as the train slowly picked up speed.
We crossed a canal, passed under a bridge of the Ringbahn (Circular City Rail) and got further away from the city. I pressed my nose against the cold window to see as much as possible in the dark. Soon we were travelling beside a suburban electric train (S-Bahn) which our country train, becoming faster and faster, slowly overtook and left behind because the train had to stop at a local station. I could see sleepy passengers in the suburban train. I felt sad, as I thought, it might be the last time I would see all this. I had no idea what the future was holding for me.
Despite this, I felt peckish from all this new and unique travel experience and unwrapped a “Stulle” ( a sandwich) which my mother had given me to eat on the train. There was Teewurst on the sandwich, which was my favourite. I had no idea how long the train trip would take and when I would get something to eat again. Eight-year-olds are not known for willpower; especially when it comes to tasty food. Still, I did not eat all and saved a bit for later.
The train was heading in a south-easterly direction. The first light of the rising Sun was visible on the horizon. Shortly before Königswusterhausen, I saw the last S-Bahn. From now on Berlin lay behind us and we were travelling through the Mark Brandenburg.
Whilst the night gave way to daylight the train stopped at Cottbus and Spremberg. Nowhere did the train stop for long. Doors were shut loudly and the station staff called out loud sharp commands and soon enough the train was on the way again to the next stop. For a more seasoned traveller the journey could have been boring, but not for me. There was so much to be seen. The telegraph wires flew beside the train down from one post and swung up to the next one.
Frau Fischer did not talk much to me. She was reading a book, looking up from time to time. She must have been happy to be away from Berlin for two days, escaping the air raids. Any other time she would have been sitting in her office, waiting for the sound of the early warning system.
“Are you looking forward to your new home and the many friends you will make?” she asked at one stage. I only shook my head, indicating, “No”. I did not feel like getting to know other children. And who knows what kind of food they would be dishing out there.
It depressed me very much, thinking I could not see my Mum anymore. I thought back to a school vacation when I stayed with the wife of a war comrade of my father. She lived in Adlershof, a suburb of Berlin. I stayed with her for a whole week and I enjoyed it tremendously as she spoilt me with beautiful food. Every day I got stewed fruit as dessert. She lived in her own house with a large garden containing many fruit trees. That was heaven for a boy used to live in a courtyard building.
On the train, it was comfortable warm and I avoided, for a long time, going to the toilet, because it was outside. But the moment arrived when this could not be avoided any longer. And after the Frau Fischer showed me the way I went reluctantly. What shock I received when I lifted the cover of the toilet seat and saw straight to the track and the railway sleepers. The sleepers were passing underneath so fast that I was afraid. There was a draft and I felt I could be sucked into the toilet bowl and straight onto the track. And while peeing, the toilet bowl seemed to shift position.
“Everything all right?” asked my companion when I returned. I could only nick my head. She must have thought I’m too lazy to speak. The next larger station was Görlitz; the town after which the station in Berlin was named. The train stopped there longer than at other places.
I watched the going-on on the platform. I could not get enough of it. People were hurrying to their carriages or to the exit. I saw people hugging and greeting each other. Some were seeing others off. I could see a few soldiers. One was on crutches and was assisted by a Red Cross nurse.
Of course, there was a war on and I was happy that from now on my sleep would not be interrupted by the air-raid sirens.
The train continued its journey. Despite the cold outside, it was pretty warm in our compartment. Suddenly we could hear the train whistle and the train hurtled into a tunnel and filling it with its steam and smoke.
For a short period, it was pitch-black. The hard-working piston of the steam engine became much louder and some of the smoke-filled even the compartment.
Suddenly we came out of the tunnel and bright light filled our compartment. I looked for the reason for this enormous brightness. It was snow! There was snow everywhere. It was a new experience for me. Before the tunnel, there was no snow and then after the tunnel, this glistening light caused by the snow. I was happy now.
What I had yearned for all winter, was suddenly here. Every morning, full of expectations, I had jumped out of bed, rushed to the window to see whether snow had fallen during the night. I decided to like Silesia after all because it seems to have lots of snow in winter.
Immediately after the tunnel the train slowed down and came to a halt. The large signs told me we were in “Hirschberg“. Today this beautiful town is in Poland and it is called, Jelenia Góra.
We had arrived at ” the mountains of the giants” (Riesengebirge). I was immediately thinking of Rübezahl, the giant of folklore and numerous tales. But I could see no giant. There was a large coke work beside the station. Not that I knew at the time what it was, but I could see the long battery of the coke oven with its many compartments in which something hot was glowing. A machine drove up and down and stopped at one compartment and hot coke fell into a wagon. Everywhere was steam and clouds of smoke. I was fascinated, as I had never seen anything like it. I had no idea what it was, what I saw. It looked pretty hellish to me.
There was not much time to wonder. After only a couple of minutes, our train moved on again, soon speeding through the snow-covered landscape. I started to munch on my last sandwich. At times the locomotive had to work harder when we went up some mountains. Then the pistons had to work a bit harder.
It was winter and naturally, the days were not very long. Dusk was setting in. Soon it was stark dark outside. When I tried to look outside I saw nothing but the mirror image of our compartment. I even could see Frau Fischer as she read her book. She must have noted me staring at her in the window. She got up and shut the curtains over the window. She said to me in a soft voice, “We’ll get off soon and still have to walk for about an hour before we are there.”
I think she did not want to scare me, but I was alarmed. Never in my life had I been walking for a whole hour. The longest walk I could remember was the way from a suburban railway station to the beach at Wannsee. I hated that walk because it made me thirsty and my mother never stopped at the beer garden, which was right at halfway, for a drink of lemonade. We were lucky that there was a water bubbler at the station. On our way back in the late afternoon we rushed to it. Of course, my oldest sister always drank first. If I was able to reach the bubbler first or I came too close to her, she would give me a well-directed kick, with her elbow, into my ribs.
Frau Fischer put her coat on and helped me to mine. The train stopped. She took our luggage from the rack and we walked to the door. It seemed to me we were standing in the middle of nowhere. I could see no station building or any platform. We had to climb down two steps before we reached the snow-covered ground. If there was anything, I am sure I did not see it. The loco blew its whistle as if she wanted to say, “Goodbye,” and the train disappeared. We were standing in the dark. Then I heard my companion say, “Well, let’s start – and if we don’t hurry up we’ll miss out on supper!”
I was hungry already and for sure would not like to miss out on supper. She knew the way and had done the same trip with other children. We soon were in the middle of a forest. The snow crunched under our shoes. Slowly, I got used to the dark and was able to see where we were going. Sometimes my escort gave me a warning. Otherwise, she was quiet. I did not dare to say a single syllable to her. We stomped towards our destination, which should have been somewhere beyond the dark, dense wall of trees. Slowly and softly it began to snow.
After, what appeared to me to be a long, long time, I could spot some lights through the forest. We must be getting closer to the town or village.
“This is Friedland,” (today Korfantów) I heard her voice in the dark, “It won’t be long now.”
“Lucky me,” I thought because I was starving, thirsty and tired. Friedland was a small town with single-story houses only. A few street lights were shining. We could see no other people in the streets. I was thinking of a Christmas poem, “Markt und Strassen stehen verlassen…” (in English and German)
We turned a few corners and were suddenly standing in front of a villa. The lady pushed a doorbell. An old woman in a long frock opened the door.
“There you are Frau Fischer,” she said, “and the young man from Berlin you brought along. We have been worried about you and how you’ll find your way through the snowed-in forest.” She took my suitcase off Frau Fischer and asked us inside.
“It is best, you come straight through to the kitchen,” said the old woman and opened a door that led from the hallway to a huge kitchen. There, a second woman was busy cleaning a large stove. The first woman turned to me and said, “The other children are all asleep and you will get to see them tomorrow. Tonight, you will sleep in here.” She pointed to a room behind a glass partition and begged me to come to a table in the kitchen.
“You must be hungry after the long train trip. You will get a Schnitte and then it is straight to bed.”
I had never heard the word “Schnitte” in my life and learnt later that it was the local term for an open sandwich. I was wondering what it could be and feared if I couldn’t eat it, I would go to bed hungry. I didn’t need to worry at all. It turned out to be a large slice of bread with liverwurst and a cup of peppermint tea. Just the same as in the hospital years ago.
Frau Fischer wished me “Good Night!” and left the kitchen. I never saw my train companion again.
When I had finished eating the old woman led me into the small room. Except for a bed, there wasn’t any other furniture.
Later, when I was in bed and the lights were switched off in my room, I could see through the glass partition into the well-lit kitchen. The two women were still busy cleaning. I was wondering how my life would continue here. I put my thumb into my mouth to suck on it, as I was used to, before falling asleep. But as I started to suck the thought came to me, that the time had come to stop this childish habit. I was eight years old and could imagine what the other boys would say to me if they found out I was still sucking my thumb. My mother and my great-aunt tried for a long time to rid me of this habit. The time had come and I found I could get to sleep without it. Tiredness overcame me quickly and I fell into a deep sleep. Later I dreamt of a train huffing and puffing through a white, winter landscape. The locomotive was trailing a long white cloud of steam.
The Beginnings in the Land of Peace
Having been sent away from Berlin I did not know what to expect. Life outside my home was a big, unknown territory.
My life had consisted more or less of family life. It was not, what some would classify a happy one. When my mother was especially exasperated with me and my antics, she threatened that she would send me to a home for maladjusted children. I wondered whether this was what she had done by sending me so far away –
What I experienced in Friedland happened seventy years ago. Some things I have probably forgotten; some other memories are hazy, while for a great part I have vivid memories.
After my first night, I was led, along the road, to the building that housed the Knabenheim Bethesda (Boys Home Bethesda). It was still during the Christmas school break and the children were all at the home and greeted me on the scale of feigned disinterest to genuine curiosity. Half of the boys were Berliners, the others were Silesians. The genuine ones were the Berliners. They welcomed me and wanted to hear news from their home city. They all wanted to know where the bombs had fallen lately.
It turned out we all had to go to a funeral on that very day. Only a few days before, one of the boys had passed away. That was the reason for the vacancy; I realised! When the staff showed me the bed I was to occupy, a howl went up among the boys and they all screamed I had to sleep in the very same bed in which the boy had died. His ghost will get me, that was for sure. At that stage, I was not afraid of death, as I believed children would go straight to heaven and that could only be better than life here on Earth.
It wasn’t far to the cemetery, only a few hundred meters and we all walked there. The dead boy’s parents had come for the funeral. What sticks in my mind is, that the mother screamed like a wounded person when the white coffin was lowered into the open earth. Her pain could not be overheard. I was wondering whether my mother would cry for me. I doubted it very much.
Later, during the afternoon, back at the home two big Silesian boys, made their move. When I say, big, then I mean for an eight-year-old boy fourteen-year-old boys are practically grown-ups. Somehow they had become aware that I had fifty Pfennig coins that my mother had given me at the train station. I probably played with the coins in all innocence and wondered how, and what for, I could spend them on.
They were two brothers, working just like a tag team, who pointed out to me, that it was no good showing my wealth for all to see. There are really some bad boys in the home who would not hesitate to steal that money from me. Therefore, they suggested, in all friendship, they could protect me from that fate, if I paid them each a coin. Who wants to be robbed or even beaten when one can have peace for a small price. Their logic was impeccable to my young mind, and I gave them each a coin and even thanked them.
This procedure was repeated during the next few days and soon most of my money was gone, without having had the opportunity to buy something “nice”, as my mother had framed it. When the coins became fewer I had the sinking feeling that money doesn’t make people happy at all, because I wasn’t happy. Before I gave up the last coin the boys had to give me a punch in my ribs to reinforce their arguments. I understood and after all the money was gone I had peace of mind. The two brothers never bothered me again.
On the evening of the first day, one of the carers came up to me and told me it was time to write a card to my mother and let her know how I was. I was sitting in front of the card and did not know what to write. I was not happy and did not want to tell my mother how sad and miserable I felt. When the carer noticed my inactivity she came up and started to dictate what I had to write down. She said,” Write, ‘Dear Mutti, I have arrived here and I’m very well!’ “. When I heard this tears welled up because I never called my mother, Mutti. She would know straight away, the card was a fake. I always called her “Mama”.
The first night I was a bit fearful of the dead boy. The weekend was ahead of us. It was the last weekend of the Christmas Holidays. On Monday school would start.
The School in the “Land of Peace”
Friedland was a small town. The Boys Home was at the edge of town on the corner to the country road to Opole (Germ. Oppeln). “40 Km to Oppeln”, a road site sign at the end of town told us. I never got to go to Oppeln and those forty kilo-meters always seemed to be a yardstick for a long distance. Later on in life, I ran Marathons and the distance past the forty kilometre mark was especially hard.
The school was in the centre of the town, about ten minutes to walk. We boys from the home all walked together. But once we reached the school we all dispersed to our respective classrooms. I had to go to third grade but none of the other boys went into the same class that I did.
The school building was a rather more modern one from the one that I was used to in Berlin. The Berlin schools were beautiful brick buildings built before the turn of the century. The building in Friedland was probably built during the twenties or early thirties. To my surprise, we had girls in the class. But we were not sitting together. Two rows of desks were divided by a centre-aisle. The boys were sitting on the right side and the girls on the left side. For reasons little understood by me at the time, the girls became of an enormous interest to me. They all seemed pretty and nicely spoken. But the real, big surprise, was the lady teacher. In Berlin, I only knew elderly lady teachers. Mostly war widows, dressed in black mourning dresses. They did not seem to like boys and we all received corporal punishment for little wrongdoings.
But this young lady, always dressed, in the blue work dress of the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service), was the most beautiful woman I had seen in my short life. She took a liking to me too. This became apparent when she marked my work, giving me encouragement. My copy books looked as messy as in Berlin but contained only good marks.
One day, a paper bag containing sandwiches was found in the classroom. The teacher was looking for the owner of it. When nobody owned up to it the teacher decided I should have the sandwiches as I was from the boys home and would probably not get enough to eat there.
Her decision was so popular that from that day on three or four girls brought me, without fail, every Monday each a parcel with some cake from the previous Sunday. It mostly contained Streuselkuchen, a speciality in Silesia. I loved it but could not eat it all myself. I took some to the home to share with other boys.
I have to report, that corporal punishment was not absent in that school. And even I raised the ire of my young teacher. But she did not carry out the punishment herself. A couple of times I was sent to another teacher in the building and had to report for punishment. He then gave me about three hits with a stick across the upturned hand. This was very painful and the fingers started to swell after it. This silly teacher was in the habit of having one foot on a seat while our hands were on his thigh. One day, more from instinct than by design, I pulled my hand suddenly away and the teacher hit his own thigh very hard. I got an extra smack for that.
Instead of listening to the teacher I often looked out of the window where I could see some hills. I imagined them to be part of the Riesengebirge (Mountain of the Giants). For a city boy, this was something new and unexpected. To be able to see so far into this distance was inspiring. Thoughts could fly over the landscape to wherever I wanted them to go.
At the end of the school year – in Summer – I got a good report and was allowed to join the fourth grade after the Summer school vacation. All in all the experience of that school was not a bad one and with a steady supply of cake on Mondays I really had it made.
As a Hitler Youth in the “Land of Peace”
The home belonged to the Inner Mission of Germany. This mission was part of the evangelical church. I will deal with my religious life in the home in another post.
We all know in 1944 the Nazi regime in Germany was on its last stretch. But in
Friedland, this “Land of Peace”, we did not notice. It was the duty of all children from the age of ten to join the Hitler Youth or the Deutsches Jungvolk. Before that age, one could volunteer to join the Pimpfe, a sort of pre-Hitler-Youth. I did not volunteer but had no choice at all. All the boys at the home joined. There wasn’t any debate about it.
Each Wednesday evening we had our “day of duty”. When it was dark we stayed indoors and instruction regarding the Nazi Party and its leaders were given in the common room. Naturally, a large photo of our Führer was on the wall. It appeared that he looked at any observer, no matter from which angle the observer looked. There were also some pictures of Jesus Christ on other parts of the wall.
In no time at all, I knew all about the birthdays and life stories of our leaders. Don’t ask me now, because now I only know something about Hitler’s life. I did not mind those lessons. What I did not like was when we went outside onto a football field and received drill instructions. We turned right and left, we marched, did sit- and push-ups; we were ordered to run and stand at attention. Anybody who has military boot camp experience knows what I’m talking about. We learnt all the military songs that were in vogue. They were drummed into us. Often the weather was miserable and a strong wind blew over the field. Except for the drill, I must confess I liked a lot of this activity.
Normally the Hitler Youth wore a uniform, but we did not have any. This did not stop them from using us as if we wore uniforms. We learnt to draw maps of the environment so we could make reports to our leaders. From time to time we went out into the parks and forests to play manoeuvre-like games where we could use our new learnt skills. A few years later all this would have been handy on the Eastern front. But the war was over a year later.
During the summer the Nazi Youth organisation set up a large coming together and march-past of all the units of the province, at Falkenberg, now Niemodlin ( pol., Engl, germ). After a walk of 8 km to the railway station and a train ride, we arrived at Falkenberg, a town in a festive mood. Drums, pipes and flags were everywhere. We assembled at the beautiful town square. We boys were all excited and marched to the athletic field. There, some big shots in uniforms made speeches. After it was all over we went home again. It was a long and exhaustive day.
In late summer of the same year, we were once again sent to Falkenberg. This time to see a film. It was the film “Münchausen“. It was specially commissioned by the government as a project for the 25th anniversary of the UFA (German film company). It was also the first German colour film. By the time it reached us, it was already a year old, but I did not know that at the time. The showing of the film was arranged in a large hall. I’m not sure, but it could have been in the town hall. There were hundreds of people and the hall was filled to capacity and the walls were adorned with many large Swastika flags. As we were waiting before the start of the movie suddenly there was a commotion and it was announced that the Gauleiter for the region of Upper Silesia would enter the hall. We all jumped up and shouted, “Sieg Heil”.
Of course, the Gauleiter gave a rousing speech of which I can’t remember a word today. I’m sure it ended with, “Heil Hitler”. The lights were dimmed and we saw a newsreel first. What I remember of this newsreel is an item where they showed a night air raid on Berlin by the RAF and how the air defence operated. Searchlights scanned the sky and the Flak was firing its deadly grenades up into the air. This was done with an over the top commentary as was the norm during the war. For me, as a boy from Berlin, it was suggesting that Berlin would be safe even so my mother had written to me that there were now daily air raids day and nights.
The main feature was enjoyed by all, but when I saw the movie on the internet a couple of years ago I found it rather mediocre. Seeing a film, for the first time in colour, that day was a special experience for us. We would have talked about it for days.
All the indoctrination did not turn me into a proper Hitler Youth because I did not like the military drill at all.
“Child Labour” in the “Land of Peace”
From time to time, during my stay in “Friedland“, we children were given jobs to do. Be reminded that I was eight when I arrived there. I don’t mean to complain about the work performed. I was used to helping my mother or my greataunt when I was still at home. Here in the boy’s home, we all thought it alright that we were asked to perform some tasks. We accepted, that adults could boss us children about and give us chores to do. This was the order of things.
During school holidays the staff must have thought we are getting bored. One day a week was cleaning day anyway. All the windows were opened and the fresh air was let in. In winter, the air was not only fresh but freezing cold and I hated it when I did not get warm. Then, some of us were given a bucket of soapy water, a hard brush to scrub the floor with and a floor rag to soak up the excess water. The floor was made from white (!) timber and it had to be scrubbed white.
It was hard work. My little hands could hardly hold the brush as I tried to scrub the grime off the floorboards. The knees hurt. We soaked up the water with a cloth (Ger. Scheuerlappen – floor cloth) and wrung it into the bucket.
Another job I had to do was shovelling rotten beets. After the harvest, they were stored in a warehouse up to about 50cm high. But in winter they froze and after thawing they were giving off a horrifying smell akin to faeces or rotten corpses. That was not nice work at all. I have no idea why they got us, the children, to do the job. I suppose, there was a shortage of labour due to the war.
But this was not the worst job I had to perform. Every few months we had to empty the sewer pit. We only had the use of one outdoor toilet. One for about thirty boys. Right in the beginning, I was warned by the other boys not to sit for too long on the toilet as there were water rats that liked to nibble the little boys’ genitals. That really put the fear into me.
When the day came to empty the pit we each got a bucket. One of the bigger boys had a scoop on a long handle and scooped the effluent up and poured it into a 10 ltr bucket. The buckets were heavy to carry. The content spilt all over our legs as we walked across the road and up a slight hill to the veggie garden where it was poured onto the garden beds as fertiliser.
But there was a rather pleasant job too. Every Thursday evening we all walked to the local bakery to collect our weekly supply of bread for the home. Each one of us had to carry a large, round loaf of bread, about 2 kilos heavy, back to the home. Usually, it was already dark and under the cover of darkness, I dug a hole in the side of the bread. First I broke off a piece of the yummy crust and then with the finger I was able to extricate some of the still warm dough. I have no idea whether any other of the boys did this. It was not talked about.
We had to do our own beds too and once in a while we had to change the sheets and the covers too. It is rather difficult for an eight-year-old to manage to get a huge, heavy feather quilt into the cover. But we learnt to do it. It set me up for life and I’m still doing it nowadays.
Today’s children don’t seem to do chores. They are sitting forever on their backsides and are staring at their phones or tablets. It is said they are smarter nowadays. Smarter in what, I wonder?
Even from an early age on I always had to help out at home. Running errands for my Mum was done without any questioning. I, for my part, was proud helping my mother and I wanted to please her.
In the home each boy got a little veggie patch to look after. There was no compulsion and I can’t remember that I was very diligent looking after it. Except for a few carrots, I did not harvest anything else.
There was a report the other day which stated that children who are encouraged to do chores are later, as adults, more successful. But how do you define “successful”? It is said they are able to cooperate with others. Perhaps this is what I have learnt. I’m certainly not angry that I was asked to do some work. I never had a choice. but did not resent it either.
Perhaps I am successful in the sense that I’m not complaining about my lot. I take life as it comes and I go on with it.