Home Rita's Story Schlesierland Irene Thibault David B Jones - Chindit

Rita's Story

Return West

I walked all afternoon without further encounters.  It was evening before I saw a house, people, and at last, a station.  No trains that night.  In the waiting room, people were packed like sardines.  Everyone was lying down, ready for the night ahead.  No-one dared to get up for fear of losing their precious sleeping place.  Even the platform was crowded.  I found myself a little corner in the waiting room, huddled up tight, and fell asleep.  It was three o'clock in the morning when I awoke with pins and needles and shivering with cold.  A full moon was looking down on us.  I wondered if that same moon was looking at my family in the West, and also at our house in Breslau on the Polish border.  I was longing to be back in my place of birth and for the life we had been used to.  Surely it would happen soon.

Dawn was breaking and people started to stir in anticipation of the long-awaited arrival of the train.  Sure enough, a train did arrive.  An engine with about ten open trucks.  We all clambered on.  Those trucks must have been used for conveying chalk or some other white powder previously.  We were covered from head to toe in it and looked like flour people.  We arrived in the British zone in Berlin, on a goods station.  Just as well.  It took a long time for me to make myself look presentable.  Berlin was in the throes of a big 'mopping up' operation.  Very few houses were standing, but the roads had already been cleared.  I found the Red Cross.  It resembled a transient camp with lots of people coming and going.  People of all nationality with all sorts of problems.  My turn came after a long wait.  The woman sat behind a very large table, spoke almost automatically - name, last home address, present living place.  She wrote it all down and I was dismissed.  Outside the sun was shining.  I had to tread very carefully not to step on anyone.  Those with nowhere to go, or those who had lost the will to carry on, were sitting on the pavement.  The walls of the building were covered with letters and photos of those wanting to be reunited with their family and loved ones.  Some even stopped me and willed me to say I had knowledge of so-and-so.  It was pitiful.  I saw grown men cry.  Soldiers returning from POW camps and finding nothing only rubble of what once was a home.  These were ordinary men.  The high-ups and guilty ones had homes elsewhere, and in many cases were received with open arms.  I left, and made my way to my eldest brother's mother-in-law where we had stayed before the end of the war.  Surely that is where my brother would come after his release?  That part was in the Russian sector, but my earlier encounters with them hadn't been so bad.  All the same, I would stay on my guard.

When I finally made it back to my broher's mother-in-law at the farm where we had stayed in March 1945, she was very pleased to see me and we hugged each other and cried, but our tears soon turned to laughter.  We sat down to a cup of herbal tea, and talked till late into the night.  She told me that her husband had been killed by a tractor in 1942 and she had one son who had been killed at about the same time on the Russian front, and it was because of their memory that she could not leave the farm.  She told me that after we had left there in March, the soldiers had marched in one night and taken over her home, but she remained there as a cook and cleaning woman for them.  Her pigs and poultry were killed, but she was thankful to have kept a roof over her head.  She also told me that no-one was allowed further than Berlin.  Many of the refugees had taken to the country because that had been the only place they could find food and shelter.  There had been no sign of my brother.  I stayed only a few days.  I was given food and told to be very careful and off I went.  I was clean and rested and had already planned my return.journey.  The weather was fine and the countryside looked beautiful.  I stayed almost a week before deciding once more to return to the West.  My feet were still sore, so I thought I'd try and find transport as far as I could.

I walked for about two hours before I saw a large lorry approach from behind me.  As it approached, I nearly jumped for joy to see the American start on the side.  Smiling, I waved both my arms in the hope the driver would stop.  I thought "Please don't pass me by".  It stopped.  The driver got out.  I opened my mouth to thank him for stopping, then froze.  The lorry was American, but the driver was a 15-stone full-blooded Russian!  The red star, with the sickle on his hat, a Cossack shirt, complete with wide leather belt around his middle.  Feebly, I asked if I could have a lift and that I was making for West Berlin.  He picked me up and lifted me high into the air.  I was very frightened. I felt as though I was in a bear hug and would choke any minute.  I told him I was from the British Consulate on my way to the British Embassy, and if he didn't put me down at once I would report him.  He put me in the back of the lorry, got back into the cab, and drove off. I was shaking.  I kept a good eye on the direction in which we were travelling.  I had no intention of ending up in Russia!  As far as I could make out, we were travelling in the right direction, but whether he would stop and let me out when the time came, I'd have to wait and see.  I realised that I had to stay alert, but I was convinced that if necessary, I would jump out of the back while the lorry was still moving.  We travelled through Berlin, stopping only at the traffic lights.  First through the Russian sector, next the French, then we were in the English zone.  A jeep with four English soldiers was following us.  They seemed cheerful and were smiling.  I began thinking how was I going to make them understand that I wanted to get out.  When the lorry stopped, the driver came round and lifted me down. I thanked him in Russian.  He smiled, got back in his lorry and drove off.

Safe in West Berlin, I was not hungry or tired, just a long way from my family.  The station was quite near because I could hear the whistle of the train.  The city was in ruins.  People were busy clearing the roads.  The rubble was piled high on each side.  Very few houses were still standing.  One shop was open.  The notice read "Bring your own soap and water, and we will wash your hair".  I smiled and walked on.  Who needed to look pretty.  There were a lot of Military Police about when I reached the station.  I sat down and watched from a distance.  The Military, and people with certain armbands were the only ones who were allowed near.

A girl came along.  She looked a little older than I and she was clean and smartly dressed.  I thought that she must live locally and might be able to help me with information.  I asked her where I was, and told her where I had been.  The girl and I took an immediate liking to each other.  We sort of enjoyed talking to each other.  It was the first time I felt I might be able to trust someone.  It could have been because she spoke in my dialect.  She was from Breslau, spoke four languages and had a job in the Embassy.  Today was her day off, but tomorrow was a big day.  The four big powers were meeting in Potzdam.  To me this meant nothing.  She said that if I liked, I could stay with her, and tomorrow I could go with her to meet her boss.  Maybe he would give me a job too.  I like the idea very much.  Her flat was large and very comfortable.  Everything in it had previously belonged to someone else who was either dead, or thought it was wiser to stay away for the time being.  We talked a lot about our home.  After breakfast the next morning, we went to the Potzdammer Platz and the Embassy.  her ID card and some impressive papers got us in.  Her boss was kind, but my ID card was no good without my photo.  I was too young, and I shouldn't have been in Berlin in the first place.  I was given a permit for one day and got a job as a table waitress.  I was very nervous.  What if I should drop something, or worse still, spill something on a uniform.  I need not have worried, because my job was cleaning and it went on all day.  If Stalin, Roosevelt or Churchill would have been there, I wouldn't have noticed.  I would have been ablt to tell the different nations apart though if they had been naked.  The English smoked pipes, the Americans, cigars and chewed gum, and the Russians carried a vodka glass and were eager to show their watches.  Everyone was smart and well-behaved.  I only saw my friend Eva, once from a distance.  We had a two-hour break in the afternoon before re-starting our duties.  Most girls had soldier friends.  A Russian soldier took a fancy to me and invited me to a party in the evening.  He said there would be plenty of food, drinks and dancing.  I was too shy, and ashamed of my clothing, and of course I couldn't tell him that I was there illegally in the first place.  He was good looking so I said I might.  I still couldn't bring myself to trust them.  By the time we had done with the clearing up, the music was audible.  The Russians were doing their folk dancing.  Eva came looking for me.  She brought me my pay.  It was  lot more than I had been promised.  I told her of my encounter and invitation, but she advised me against it saying, "Nice girls go home after work".  I was very tired, and glad to return to her flat.  Next day we said goodbye, and I started my return journey.

I made my way to the border of No-mans-land.  I met many people, but I always kept myself to myself.  Some felt safer in little groups, but I was always happier on my own.  I had heard stories of ready-to-help guides, who, for payment of expensive goods, jewellery, cameras etc. would guide the unsuspecting victims, not across the border as promised, but straight into the arms of the waiting Russians where they would received further payment.  I wasn't going to risk that.

Later on, I witnessed such happenings for myself.  I used the darkness, woodlands, and lonely lanes, my ears always tingling alert, and very often cold sweat and goosepimples all over, only relaxing when I felt safe.  I found the mistake most travellers made was to talk.  At night, one could hear even quietly-spoken words.  I managed to reach Helmsted unchallenged, took a train to Hannover and from there a bus to Delligsen.

Nothing much was happening except, as autumn approached I was offered a job in a sawmill run by a woman.  A business which had previously been handed down from father to son, only this time, it had to be a daughter.  We were only three employees, and her uncle who looked after the team of horses who would bring in the timber from the surrounding forest.  After the trees had been sawn into planks, it was my job to dispose of the mountain of sawdust.  It was very hard work.  The baskets were large and heavy, but I was young, strong and healthy.  The money I earned was our only income apart from the food my mother earned by working for farmers.

I worked all winter, but in the spring my wanderlust returned.  I told my mum that I would travel south to Munich to see if we could settle there.  Why, I didn't know, but at that time, it seemed like a good idea.  Once more I packed a bag and went out to the main road to see if I could get a lift.  If I couldn't get one, then I could easily return home.  A lot of cars and lorries were travelling south, and also north.  A car came along.  I waved and it passed, but then stopped and came back.  It was a little MG two-seater with an open top and two male occupants.  I apologised saying I didn't know they were full up.  The driver asked where I wanted to go.  I said Munich if possible.  They made some room for me and off I went.  The driver was a doctor, also from Silecia, and his passenger was a film star.  They lived in Hamburg but were on their way to Munich to visit the driver's mother.  I was told they only picked me up because I looked clean and had a lovely smile.  We talked  and travelled for hours.  It was a lovely easy conversation and very interesting.  Not far from Munich, we saw a woman cutting some roses in her garden.  We stopped and the driver asked if she would sell him some for his mother.  The woman gave him a lovely bunch, but would not take any money, so he offered the money to me.  I was embarrassed and refused, but he told me never to look a gift horse in the mouth.  We didn't have far to go now, and I was asked if I had somewhere to stay.  Curfew was still in force.  I told him I was a stranger in München, so the doctor asked if I would like to stay the night with his mother.  It seemed a kind offer, but could I trust them?  What if the stories about their identities weren't true?  I followed my inner voice which told me it would be all right, and accepted the invitation.  We stopped outside a large house, and I was told to wait in the car.  He wanted to speak to his mother first to see if she would allow me to stay.  He came back, took my hand and led me into the house.  There, in the hallway, stood a tall, slim elegantly-dressed lady.  Her hair was snow white, wavy with a little bun at the back.  Her dress was full length, her jewellery, one row of white pearls reaching to below her bust.  She looked and spoke like a Duchess.  I felt at ease.  Her home was beautiful.  I had never been in such surroundings before.  We had a lovely meal and good conversation, but I almost fell asleep, so she took me into another room for the night.  Everything was wrapped up in large sheets.  She pulled one off the settee and said I could sleep there, but in the morning, I would have to leave.  This was quite understandable and I was thankful for just this one night in this beautiful home, and safety.  I'm afraid I slept heavy and it was eleven o'clock the next morning when the Duchess shook me awake.  She smiled and said it was a shame to break into my dreams but that half the day had already gone.  I met her daughter who was as lovely as her mother, and there was also a US soldier there who was the daughter's boyfriend.  How could some people live so well, while there were others who did not know where their next crust was coming from?

I had a good look around Munich which had been badly damaged.  It was occupied in full strength by black and white US soldiers.  I was spoken to by many, but because I couldn't understand, I walked on.  Seeing everything in ruins made me sad.  People who had lived there before couldn't find a place to stay, so what chance was there for an outsider.  It was the same everywhere I looked.

I moved on the Nürenberg, Augsburg, back to Hildesheim, Hannover and Köln (Cologne).  We came from a city, and wanted to return to a city, preferable our own, but that was altogether out of the question now because that part of Poland had been given to Germany after the war.  People from Lvov who had lost their homes under German occupation, were re-settled in my home.  86% of my hometown of Breslau, now called Wroclaw, had been destroyed.  The Russians had been clever and remembered their last assault on the city many years ago, so they encircled Breslau and went on to Berlin.  Completely cut off, with no news, the Germans fought house to house, cellar to cellar, believing that help was on the way.  After the Soviets conquered Berlin, they then finished their war with a final assault on Breslau.  I had heard from a German who came out alive that one could see from one end of the city to the next, but the house we had lived in was still standing with a Soviet flag hanging from one of the windows.  All the Germans who were left, were forced to leave.  Something like that had happened to our home almost every 100 years.  My mother and I lived there under German rule, but her parents and grandparents spoke Polish.

I was longing to be back with my family, and when I returned, my mother was very glad to see me.  I told her of all my encounters and she asked me with tears in her eyes, why God had punished us by taking our homeland.  I told her that He had not taken our home, but that it was the greed of man.

My two eldest brothers had returned.  Günter, the third, was still somewhere in the USSR, and Georg, the fourth, somewhere safe in Scotland.  Georg wrote to us saying he could come home, but with a broken heart, mum wrote and told him that we had no home and if he could, it was better that he settle down where he was.  A widow with three children had been good to him, and he married her.  Erwin, the eldest, found his wife and settled in the same village.  Poor Heinz roamed from place to place eventually marrying a war widow who had one child.  They lived on the Dutch border where he found work in the coal mines.  We were still waiting for news of Günter in Russia.

I had to wait for darkness, then I went closer.  A goods train was standing ready to move off.  Three British soldiers came, carrying small bags.  I stepped out in front of them, and in sign language I told them that I wanted to go west to my Mama.  They looked at each other and spoke very quietly.  Then, they looked all around them and pushed me along in front of them to a coach.  As soon as we were in, one of them pointed to the dog kennel, and I understood that that was where I was to hide. I did so without hesitation.  We had quite a long wait before we moved.  At least, it seemed that way to me. The train was going very fast.  At last the door was opened and I was allowed out.  They sat me by the window and asked me lots of questions, but I could not understand.  It didn't matter; I was on my way back west.

After a while, the soldiers pointed for me to go back to the kennel. I wondered why, but I soon found out.  We had reached the Russian border and the train had to stop to be searched for any German civilians.  Russian soldiers boarded our coach, and I heard a lot of argument going on before I heard a Russian saying something about a German girl.  I nearly fainted!  Apparently, as I learned later, the driver of the train; himself a German, had seen me get on the train and he had told the Russian guards.  Fortunately they did not find me, and eventually left.  The train went on, but I was kept in my hiding place for a very long time incase one of the guards had decided to travel a while with the train: apparently, this was sometimes the procedure.  When we eventually arrived in the West, one of the British protectors gave the train driver a right ticking off!  As usual, I thanked them very much and went on my way.

Life in the village where we had settled became easier.  A neighbour gave us a bed, so my sister and I no longer had to sleep on the lorry seat.  Another person gave us a stove with a single boiling ring.  To heat this stove, we would collect wood from the nearby forest.  Also we would sometimes collect fir cones.  I can still remember the lovely smell of these as they burned.  Every so often one would explode.  I must explain.  This stove was like a round barrel with four little legs and a little door at the top to put fuel into.  A large round pipe was leading to the chimney.  Every so often the pipe would glow red when the fire had been burning too fierce.

As autumn approached, I found myself a job at the local sawmill.  Large trees were brought down from the forest by horse and cart.  They were fastened to a machine which had three large upright saws.  These trees were then sawn into planks and delivered to a furniture factory.  My job was to remove the mountain of sawdust.  The wages were small but I was grateful.  The farmers started taking their pigs and cattle to be slaughtered, then the butcher's shop reopened, and more houses were built.  My mother was still pining for our own home.  Some nights, when my sisters were asleep, we would sit and talk of the old days.  Once she asked me "Rita, why has God punished us?".  I cradled her in my arms and said "God has been good to us.  We have a roof over our heads, and each other.  God gives, but it is man, who, in his greed, destroys.  Would you have your own home instead of your daughters?".  Then she would cry a little and say "You are right".


Part 8- Red Cross, Berlin