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Growing up in Nazi Germany

By Ulla

UrsulaIn September of 1939, World War II began by Germany invading Poland toward the end of the year.  I got into trouble with the Economics teacher.  I insisted that Germany was doomed by being led by a dictator.  This led to my immediate suspension, a month short of graduation, but I did get a certificate (mostly “B’s”).  In the meantime, new laws had been passed where each youngster had to give something to the Fatherland, called “Pflichtjahr” by working on a farm.  There were a couple of choices: Become a uniformed Arbeitsdienst member and work a year on a farm or attend a Home Economics school for one year, followed by six months on a private farm.  Eva and I jumped at the latter choice and for the rest of 1940 learned German grammar, cooking, sewing, cleaning, gardening, and graduated in 1941. ...


Except for the Dance School and the Rackow Language School, I had no regular contact with boys my age, thus there was no dating, as it’s known in the States.  However, since we were involved in the horse racing business, families often had their children marry each other.  My mother liked “Kurt,” but would have liked “Bert” as well.  Both would inherit estates (in Franconia or Silesia, respectively) and both had shown an interest in marrying me.  But first I had to fulfill my Pflichtjahr by working six months on a farm.  That was the option I had taken when I went to Home Ec school.  My father contacted the Baroness von Heynitz, where he had his brood mares.  It seemed like a perfect solution for me.  She said she was glad to oblige, as her estate would get extra points from the local party district.  (As there was a war on, it would help with getting coupons for rationed items.)


Duty and conscience

My father delivered me to Dröschkau near Torgau on April 14, 1941. That day, my father and I had breakfast, after which he had to leave. Frau von H. then explained to me my schedule of duties and the “dos and don’ts” of living there. I was to get up at 7 a.m. and report to the cook in the kitchen; she was to give me instructions of what to do and when to do it for her. Whenever I
was relieved of kitchen duty, I was to go to the office and they would assign me tasks depending on the time available. The “dos” meant that I was to follow all instructions and obey whatever I was assigned to and the “don’ts” concerned primarily the French prisoners, i.e., “Do not talk to them” (especially since the Baroness knew that I had learned French in school). She said that it was OK to talk to the Poles, Italians and Lisette, because none of them were prisoners of war, but she cautioned not to get too friendly with any of them. Being who I am, I do not like to be told “not to do something” and let those admonitions go in one ear and out the other.

 

After clearing the breakfast dishes, I was to fix the sandwiches for the French prisoners. Cook told me that each got two sandwiches (she showed me how thin to slice the bread and then count out exactly 48 slices). Then, I had to spread a thick fruit-jam on every other slice, make a sandwich and stack them on a large tray. Two prisoners would come at 8:30 a.m. to pick up the tray and fill a large pitcher with ersatz-coffee and take everything into the field, or wherever the prisoners were working that day. Well, that very first day I greeted them with a whispered, “Bon Jour, je parle Francais et je suis votre amie.” Pretty risky, but I loved it because it was a “don’t!” And the next day, they passed a penciled note to me, asking if I could cut the slices of bread a little thicker. I obliged, but a couple days later, the cook caught on, and I had to let them know.

 

The noon and evening meals for the prisoners, usually a soup and a stew, were put up in large kettles, fixed by the cook, stirred by the two girls, and I had nothing to do with them. But we continued to write to each other. I encouraged them to let me know what I could get them from Berlin. My father was to visit in June and he could bring me those things. They asked for some playing cards, cigarettes and a football. My mother added a hard salami and a coffee cake to the care package. All that remained was to find a way to smuggle these items to their quarters. I knew I would have to do it one by one; the cards and cigarettes were easy to pass on over the next two days by sliding them under the sandwiches on the tray. But I couldn’t figure out how to get the three large items to them. I wrote a note to them, asking for help. The answer came back that I should contact Lisette.

 

Taking chances

 

Until now, I had had almost no contact with her, as she kept exclusively to the new wing with the Baroness von Petersdorf and her little boy, taking care of all household chores and cooking on that end. Occasionally she would come to the main kitchen to get supplies, but I wasn’t always there when she came. For some unknown reason, however, she was allowed to talk to them on Sunday afternoons when the prisoners were allowed to play soccer with the laborers and Lisette had no duties. At first I couldn’t think of an excuse to contact her as I had no business in the new wing, but then I remembered that she would take the little boy for walks some times when his mother didn’t feel up to it. So I kept my eyes peeled and, fortunately, that week, after my kitchen chores were done, ... I spotted Lisette and quickly told her about my problem. She told me that that evening after dark I should sneak out with all three items (or one or two if I couldn’t manage all three of them) and wait for her in the shadows of the tower. ...


There were no lights on the staircase and I groped my way and tiptoed till I got outside. I had the cake and sausage with me and waited. It seemed an eternity, but Lisette finally showed up. She suggested I come with her to the prisoners’ quarters, but I was afraid and declined. There were no German guards; instead, at 9 p.m. when the prisoners were finished with supper, they were simply locked in by the estate manager. A padlock made sure that no one could enter from the outside without the proper key. But there was a small window to one side of the door which could be opened from the inside, but had bars on the outside so no one could escape, but there was room to hand things in or out. Lisette passed my gifts and I received a note of thanks from the prisoners the next morning. As to the football, Lisette suggested that I give it to her on Sunday afternoon, which also was my day off. While it was warm, I usually went down to the Elbe River to go swimming (this was the spot where the American troops met the Russian troops in 1945, ending World War II in Europe), and she figured that no one would pay attention to our meeting accidentally. Everything turned out fine.


For the next couple of months, everything went its routine way. My mother kept sending cigarettes and food items; I learned to cook (none of which I was able to use in later life), fed chickens, ducks and geese, and worked with horses—the only part I liked of my job!


Meanwhile, the war was in full swing with German troops on their way into Russia and Moscow. ... By the end of August, Russian prisoners of war also came on the scene to help with the harvest. Those prisoners were not quartered on the estate but in a camp near Torgau and marched to the places of work under heavy guard. They only got one meal a day, a thin kind of potato soup with a piece of rye bread. It was incomprehensible to me how they could do any kind of physical labor on such a ration. Also, there was absolutely no contact between them and any of us, as two of the French prisoners had to come and get the "slop" they were being fed and carry it to them. The only glimpse one got of the Russians was when they were being marched through, and what a pitiful sight. ...

 

An escape plan

 

Most of the Frenchmen were farmers (peasant) back in France and all came from small villages. Only one of them had a higher education; his name was Jean from Trouville near Bolbec. He had studied engineering and also spoke English fluently, a fact he had kept secret. Instead he passed himself off as a farmer, as he felt that he would be better off in the long run. One day he wrote me a note in English, asking if I would come and watch the next soccer game so that he could talk with me. It turned out to be quite easy, no one paid any attention to us, and he wanted to know if I had any connections to get him false papers and some civilian clothes from Berlin, as he was planning to escape. I told him that I would have to check into it and would do so when I went home for my 18th birthday to Berlin. I was to get a few days off as I had almost completed my first six months of the duty year.

 

In the meantime, Lisette’s brother Pierre had come to Berlin as a “Fremdarbeiter” (foreign worker—of which more and more would come to Germany in order for the German men to do the soldiering). Lisette thought that he might be the best bet to get the documents and gave me his address. Through Pierre, I found out that a sort of black market existed through which one could get all kinds of documents. Of course, there was a price to be paid. As a “Pflichtjahr” girl, I only received a small allowance of 20.- Marks per month and had not saved very much. Lisette’s wages were a little higher, as she held down a position. After my return to the estate, I talked things over with her, and we figured that by selling some jewelry and using our saving, we could get enough money for Jean’s papers; Pierre had indicated that he could get a pair of pants and a jacket. But it would take a little time. What made me do such a foolish thing? The anger about this senseless war, the thrill of doing something forbidden, and wanting to help a person I liked and who had asked me to. So every day I corresponded with Jean through notes tucked under the sandwiches on the tray.

 

Then, one day, the unthinkable happened. Marcel, who was carrying the tray, stumbled and spilled the sandwiches, and the wind carried off my note. I don’t think that Marcel realized that the missing note could have serious consequences; I wasn’t even aware of the mishap until Friday, October 17th. That day, I was called to the office where two men were expecting me. They showed me credentials identifying themselves as members of the “Parteigericht” (party court, or some such thing). They showed me the note I had written (and foolishly signed) and wanted to know what my connection was to Jean. Fortunately, on this note I had not gone into details about his planned escape, but merely said that I wanted to see him at the next soccer game to discuss a few points with him. The Nazi officials interrogated me for two hours, trying to find a way to connect me to Jean. All I could think of saying to prevent their arresting me for talking to prisoners of war was that I had found out that he could speak English and that I wanted to practice the language with him. A very weak excuse, but they could not break down my resistance to their questioning and finally gave up. They made me sign a piece of paper which spelled out that I had been interrogated and cautioned about my conduct with the prisoners and that this document instituted a warning. A second occurrence of this nature would mean arrest. I was dismissed and the two men then talked to the Baroness.

 

After they left, the Baroness informed me that she would have to contact my father and would have to ask him to come and pick me up as soon as possible. She felt that she could take no chances with the party court as it might cost her the foreign workers she was allowed to work on the estate. ...

 

In February I heard from Lisette, who had joined her brother Pierre to work in Berlin. She wanted me to know that Jean had escaped from the farm by swimming across the Elbe River. He had borrowed some clothes from an Italian worker on the farm and he still had the money Lisette and I had given him. About that time, my father was working for a farmer competitor who had been able to stay open due to large contracts from the military and party functions.

 

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