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Rita's Story

Displaced Persons

It was the morning of 21st January 1945 when my invalid mother, myself and two younger sisters awoke to hear loudspeakers in the streets telling us to flee to the West, take no luggage, travel light because the Russian army was at the gate.  I was just 16 years of age, spoke fluent German, Italian, Polish, some Russian and some French.  My two younger sisters Inge and Christa were 12 and nine years old respectively.  During that night, we had severe frost; well below zero.  My mother went into a state of shock.  Where could we go?  We knew nothing of the West.  All our relations lived in the East. We put our warmest clothing on, and with nothing else, made our way to the station.  The streets were crowded with people.  Some carrying as much of their belongings as possible, but most, like ourselves, had nothing, believing that very soon we would be able to return.  When we reached the station, we found it packed with soldiers and civilians, all waiting to leave for the West, but where was the West?

There were no ticket collectors or sellers.  Up on the platforms, thousands of people, but no trains.  We waited almost an hour, then, very slowly, one long train pulled in alongside our platform.  People started pushing towards this slow moving object like a huge volume.  They ran across the tracks from other platforms, and climbed on from all sides.  The train was already overfull, and it hadn't yet stopped!  We stood, speechless. We had to be careful not to get separated in the crowds.  I spotted a guard and pleaded with him to find room for us.  He looked at us for a moment, then opened the door to the mail coach.  We found ourselves pushed into a corner, and within seconds the whole coach was full to capacity.  Many, in desperation, climbed onto the roof, sat on the buffer and some on top of the engine itself.  Later, during the journey, some fell off the train, some who managed to hold onto their positions, froze to the couplings.

We heard sirens in the distance.  Everybody went very quiet - listening - but nothing happened.  It was six hours later and getting dark before the train moved out.

This train was the only one to pull into this station, and the last one ever to leave Wroclaw for many months.  We had to wait six hours due to an air attack, but at last, late afternoon, we started our journey.  It was a non-stop, hour after hour ride.  We had no idea where we were going, but keep going we did, for six hours.  At last we stopped, and everyone stood still.  Were we in the West?  Could we get out?  Someone said he thought we were outside Berlin.  The train was unable to pull into the station because of the deep craters left by the bombs, so people climbed down and started to walk.  We did the same, but we did not know to where we were going.  Our first sight of what an air raid can do was in Berlin.  We had never seen anything like it.  Great big craters in the road, and houses bombed out.  Everything was in a shambles.  An unbelievable sight.  Mum never spoke a word.  I think she went into shock from the moment we were told to leave our home.  I had to take over.  My first assignment was to beg for food.  My mother would rather have died than beg.  We were hungry and tired, dirty and homeless.  The name given to us was "DP" - Displaced Persons.  We crossed fields, streams and passed farms.  It was already very dark, and we were very hungry, tired, dirty and cold.  I decided to stop at a farm place and ask for shelter for the night.  My mother said that she could not bring herself to beg, but I did not mind.  I was bewildered and close to tears.  I tapped on the door.  Who would answer, if anybody?  My heart pounded very hard.  The door opened just a little, and a middle-aged woman, herself very frightened, asked who was there?  I said that my mother, myself and two younger sisters had been on a long journey from the East, and could she please give us some shelter for the night?  When she saw us, she smiled and took us in.  She gave us food and made us comfortable for the night.  We stayed with her until March.  We were 30km from Berlin, but now the Russians were outside the city.  We decided to move on, so saying our goodbyes with tears in our eyes, we took once more to the road.

My eldest brother Erwin had married in 1942 and his wife's parents had a small holding about 20km outside Berlin.  We decided that this is where we should make for.

During the next day, we saw heavy air attacks, and during the night we could hear intense fighting behind us, so we walked till we came across some woodland.  It was beautiful and peaceful as we looked closer, I saw a column of lorries among the trees.  They were hiding from the planes and they would move only during the night.  The soldiers had decided not to fight any more, but make for the West, and there, give themselves up to the Western allies.  This was an excellent opportunity for us.  I begged a lift for myself and my family and, that night, we moved off.

We were in the back of a lorry, and thankful to be there, travelling by night and resting by day.  We even had outriders with us who would go on ahead on their motorcycles maybe two miles ahead to make sure the road was clear.  Once we were attacked quite suddenly, from the air.  The lorries stopped and everybody jumped into the gutters.  I sat frozen to my bench, looking up at the planes coming down shooting.  People shouted at me to jump out, but I could not move.  The lorry behind me was on fire.  I thought, "Now it's my turn".  One plane was diving straight towards me, but he never fired a single shot.  The plane pulled out of its dive and flew off.  I sometimes wonder if that gunner ever thought of that moment in March 1945.  We drove on after the attack and five kilometers further on, the scouts were went off.  The road was too quiet.  We halted.  When, after twenty minutes waiting, the riders did not return, orders came to turn around.  Just at that very moment, all hell broke loose.  In front of us was indeed a Russian ambush.  We lost five lorries, but the remaining 20 got away.

We watched large numbers of planes on their way to Berlin on bombing missions.  They were getting bolder and came by day.  The city would be alight for hours.  By now, lots of refugees were passing through the little village.  Where on earth were they going?  Sometimes, we saw long columns of prisoners being led.  I don't know where to.  Very few guards were with them.  They looked hungry, and tired, wearing prison clothing.  Their footwear was the worst.  Some of them had only rags wrapped round their feet.  They were not allowed to talk to anyone, or stop for anything.  The guards also looked bedraggled, hungry and tired.  The Lord only knows how far they had come, or how much further they would have to go.  Some prisoners died and were left by the wayside, and some guards deserted.

It was March.  Spring was on the way, and so were the Russians!  The West was overcrowded with refugees.  Everyone hoped the Americans would hurry up and come, but they had halted on the other side of the River Elbe, leaving the Russians to pillage, ransack and wreak vengeance on three quarters of Germany.  We all feared the Russians, and with good cause.  We heard the rumble of guns in the distance as each village fell to the invaders.

In the mornings we would see our defeated men return from battle.  Some no more than schoolboys.  Some without limbs - a blank look on their faces.  It was high time for us to move on.  After all, what was the point of coming so far, only to fall into the hands of the Russians now.  I had to push my mother into taking us.  We took a shopping bag, with a towel, soap, comb and a little food, and said our farewells.  it was 15th March 1945.

It was a beautiful sunny morning and we had walked about 5km when some tanks came.  We begged a lift and were helped aboard.  A little further on, and the tanks were told to stop and return to the fighting.  We had to get off and continue on foot.  In the afternoon, we were walking through forest.  A long column of lorries was sheltering there.  I went up to them and asked if we could have a lift.  When he asked where we were going, I told him, to the West.  He said that's where they'd be heading as soon as it got dark, so once more we were lucky.

Most ordinary Russian people are lovely and warm-hearted, but war is a different matter.  They had suffered terribly themselves.  Our greatest fear was to be taken to Siberia and never heard of again.  This indeed happened to many.


Part 5- Farmers