We travelled north, towards the river Elbe. We believed the Americans to be there at a standstill. As we arrived, the American soldiers were guarding a large bridge. We were told to head further north, to an assembly camp. As soon as we were across, the bridge was blown up. The West was already overcrowded with refugees. People who came after us, jumped into the river to swim across, but they were shot in the attempt. It was a dreadful sight. We travelled a further 50km and reached the camp at Himhergen. There, we and the soldiers were separated, and we were billeted in a barn and told not to move out. The war is over and the men are celebrating. It would not be safe to move outside. Little did they realise that we were too tired and frightened to do any such thing. We huddled together in the straw, and, in no time, we were fast asleep.
The next morning we awoke to the smell of coffee; something we had not had for a very long time. Two American soldiers came in and spoke to us, but alas, we could not understand English. They were very friendly, and gave us coffee and doughnuts, then we were motioned to follow them. Outside, there was a tractor and trailer with some people on it, and we were told to get on it too, which we did. In this way, we were transported from village to village. The tractor we came on would return, and we would be supplied with another one. We followed automatically. Where to, no-one knew. Sometimes, we would see a stream and stop to wash. When night would come, the transport would stop at the nearest village and we were left to find food and a resting place wherever we could. It may have been a church, a farmhouse, a village hall or even a nanny goat shed. Needless to say, the last place was the worse place I have ever slept in, but at least the war was over.
We travelled for two weeks through bombed-out towns and villages. It was May 8th 1945 when the changeover of transport was to take place. Not knowing where or when this travelling would end, I could see my mother was at the end of her tether so I told the next driver to go on without us and persuaded her that we should stop. We'd all had more than enough travelling. We'd been on the move for five months, now standing on the pavement; a broken middle-aged woman and her three teenaged daughters. No luggage.
A jeep with American soldiers drew up, and thankfully, the officer in charge spoke German. I told him who we were and where we had come from. He bundled us into the jeep and took us to a house where we were given a room containing one single bed, a table, two chairs and a lorry seat. This was to be our home for the time being. The other occupants of the house were, an elderly man, his daughter and two young children. For the first time since January, we had a roof over our heads. One room, one bed, two chairs and a lorry seat were the beginning of our new life.
We had settled in a beautiful area among pine forests and streams. The only traffic was carts drawn by oxen. The whole area was untouched by the war. People kept their distance from us because we were strangers; indeed many looked upon us as though we were from another world. We must have looked odd to them because the clothes we wore were the same ones we had started our journey in, in the January, but the weather was kind. It was a hot summer so we were able to go without shoes, stockings and coats. My mother took in washing for the American soldiers and they supplied us with a bucket, a tin bath and some soap. We had almost forgotten what soap looked like. They would pay us with corned beef, shoe polish, toothpaste and many other things. So started a new life for us.
Delligsen was a farming community with a population of around 400 about 50km east of Hannover. The hamlet itself was long and narrow. On long good main street with small farms leading off on either side. At the one end was a stone quarry and thick forest. It was at this end of the hamlet that we lived. At the other end of Delligsen, was the road from whence we'd come, and the main road from Hamburg to Munich was passing along there. For me, that end of the hamlet would have been more interesting, but we were not far from a church, a baker, and there was a butcher close by. There was also a little station for goods trains to the quarry. One time I recall, three wagons were standing there just waiting to be explored, and, as ever, I was the explorer! I climbed up and found them full of road maps, all neatly folded, but soaking wet. I tried to open one, but it fell to peaces in my hand, leaving the backing which was like muslin. I took it home to my mother. She was surprised and delighted. With a borrrowed needle, she pulled some of the threads, and in no time, she had made new blouses for us. My next adventure was climbing to the top of the quarry. To my surprise, I found the most beautiful garden imaginable. It was huge, with exotic fruit, miniature trees, flowers, and Chinese-style Pagoda and little coloured lanterns hanging everywhere. I must have felt like Alice in Wonderland did. Hurriedly, I picked some of the fruit. I felt guilty, and afraid that any minute a Chinaman would appear, so I quickly left. I never did find out who lived there, and after that first visit, my mother forbade me ever to go there again. On the way back, I ran into some soldiers and got my first wolf-whistle! I blushed, smiled and walked on. Pity I could not understand what was being said.
The next day my outing took me to the other end of the village, and by chance, sitting watching the never-ending flow of traffic, were the same four soldiers. This time they were eager to make conversation with me. Amid lots of laughter and hand signals, I understood they wanted to walk me home. I enjoyed the attention and friendliness very much. They were also happy to see a friendly face. At the door, I called my mum and my sisters. I heard my mum saying "What on earth has Rita brought home this time?". She was really surprised, but they smiled and shook hands. Seeing these young boys must have reminded my mother of her own sons. We didn't ask them in. We would have been too embarrassed.
In the evening of the next day, two of them returned, bringing for us a small box of food. We were overjoyed, but they were rather quiet. Through sign language, we understood they would be leaving the next morning. They were being sent to Japan. One could see the dismay on their faces and we also felt sad. The day of their departure arrived, and my mother, my sister and I stood by the door to wave farewell. As they moved out, we, and most of them, cried. They thought that the war was over for them, and now it was to start all over again. Those boys had become like brothers to us. Some of the villagers locked themselves in their homes when first they saw all those American lorries and trailers with heavy guns approach. Now they had gone, the longing for our homeland in the east became very strong.
We got to know the people better and found work on the farms. We did what we could to help, like help with the harvest, for which we received eggs, milk and potatoes for our labours. My mother was helping in the house and we children had a good time outside. The streets were lined with fruit trees and that year it was plentiful. I remember sitting on top of a hay-load, and as we were passing beneath a cherry tree, I made sure of some fruit; enough for our next meal.
The village had, at that time, about 400 inhabitants and two shops, one a baker and the other a butcher, but as yet, both were closed and empty. Communication with the outside world was non-existent and, for the time being, we had to stay put, and thank God for a roof over our heads.
More and more refugees arrived. I make friends very easily and it wasn't long before the lady next door asked me to tell her the story of how we came to Delligsen. She was 86 years old and alone except for her nephew who had his own business in Hannover. She only saw him once a year at Christmas. On the wall of her house were grape vines laden thickly with grapes. Every day she would lie down for an hour's rest. I would make sure of this by tapping on the door and asking the time but she got suspicious one day and watched me taking grapes. She pretended to be angry at first, but when she saw how sorry I was, she forgave me. After that, I could pick as many as I liked.
When Christmas came, she said to my mother that she didn't think she'd be coming back and sure enough she died. Her nephew came and told us that we could move into her house and by her furniture. This was the old lady's wish. Only the homeless could understand what that meant to us.
In the summer of 1946, a parcel from America arrived. The lady across the road was a school-teacher who spoke English. I took the letter which was inside, to her. It came from Mrs Evelyn Olsen of Wisconsin. She was a widow with one young son. Her brother Charles, was one of the four soldiers we had befriended and on his return to USA, he had told her of us. He had wanted so much to come back, but after the fall of Japan, was demobbed. Evelyn and I wrote to each other until about 1965. She asked me not to mention her brother because he was heartbroken at not being able to return to us.
Slowly, we began to settle down to a normal sort of life, while all the time still hoping that someday we would be able to return to our own home. After all, the was was now over. Mum kept thinking of my brothers who would be returning from the war to wonder where we were.