Monday, November 29, 2010

Opa, where does our family come from?

Some time ago one of my grandchildren asked me to help her answer a few questions that she and her classmates received as homework from their teacher. They apparently were learning about where people in the United States came from originally. Not even her mother, my daughter, could answer the questions about our family's background with any confidence although they were of a very general nature. That is when I decided to write down as much as I know about where our family comes from. I started with my side of the family because it is more familiar to me than the background of my wife's side of the family. As I thought about what to write and the time sequence of the narrative, I realized that I have five distinct phases to my life brought about by historical events, fate and conscious decisions. I decided to publish each of the five lives as a separate volume. That way I could work on one volume at a time and not have to worry about the structure of the entire work. I wasn't even sure if I would complete all of what I had in mind; therefore, I decided to finalize one part at a time so that at least that part is preserved.

As I began to state just the facts of my origins I got the feeling that I needed to pass on to subsequent generations not only the facts, but also impressions, feelings and to describe the conditions that prevailed at the time in detail. I would like the readers to see a picture in their mind's eyes and to get a feel for what it was like in earlier times.

I have finished the first two volumes, Recollections from my Five Lives, Life Number One, 1941-1946, Sudetenland and Recollections from my Five Lives, Life Number Two, 1946-1955, Dachau.

Following are excerpts from the two volumes.

Volume 1:


One Saturday evening in March or April 1945, my mother had just given me a bath, there was a forceful knock on the door. When my mother opened the door a German Army sergeant (a part of the retreating Wehrmacht had arrived in town earlier and was looking for quarters for the night) announced that he required a place to sleep for himself and five of his men. My mother had no choice but to let them have the living room where the weary and dirty soldiers laid down on the floor fully clothed and immediately fell asleep with their weapons by their sides. The next morning the soldiers announced that the Russians were only a few kilometers away and all women and children should come with them. Reports that Russian soldiers raped women and abducted children, especially blond and blue eyed ones, had circulated for some time. My sister, at that time 17 years old, definitely did not want to stay. My mother did not want to let her go alone in addition to the fact that she was afraid the Russians might take me away from her. Therefore, she decided we would all go with the retreating soldiers.

The decision was made easier for her because the soldiers assured the civilian population that their retreat was only temporary and the counter offensive, when we could return to our home, was only days away. In fact they were trying to escape from the Russians and trying to reach the American lines further to the west to surrender to them and be assured better treatment than as prisoners of the Russians. (The Wehrmacht and particularly the SS had been extremely ruthless in their conquests in the East and the Russians were taking revenge).

My mother gathered up a few personal items for the three of us, locked the door to our apartment and we were helped unto the back of a German Army truck. My mother and I never saw our apartment again.

Volume 2:
Growing Up in Post-War Germany


When I started school in 1947, the war had ended two years earlier. The influx of refugees had swelled the school population tremendously, leading to a shortage of classrooms, furthermore, many of the teachers either were killed during the war or were still being held prisoners of war. The classes were huge, 60 or more boys per class. Classes were held in two shifts, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Girls had their own school and were instructed by nuns. I don't know the specifics of their class sizes and if they went to school in shifts, but conditions must have been similar, except that perhaps more nuns were available to teach.

Physical punishment in school was an accepted practice. No parents that I ever heard of went to the school or to other authorities to complain about punishment meted out to their child. In general, one seldom mentioned at home the fact that one was punished in school because one could expect to be reprimanded by one's parents for being unruly or otherwise derelict in school. My mother would never punish me physically, but she had a way to let me know that she was disappointed, to say the least.

Understandably, discipline was an important factor in classes of this size. We were assigned seats by the teacher according to their scholastic ability coupled with their general behavior. That is, slow-learners and those with a potential for inattention were seated in the front rows so that the teacher could keep an eye on them, whereas the more reliable students were placed further to the back of the room.

The teacher placed a reliable student at a desk next to the door who would open the door when there was a knock and who would announce whoever wanted to enter. When our teacher or some other school official entered the room we had to jump up from our seats and shout: “Guten Morgen, Herr Lehrer!” or “Guten Tag, Herr Lehrer!” or whatever title the person entering had. It often happened that the whole procedure had to be repeated several times until it was done satisfactorily. The seats of the benches flipped up when we stood up, but they all had to flip up with one big bang and not at random. “They have to make a sound like a cannon and not like a machine gun,” was the admonishment by the teacher.

The final version of Volume 1 can be found at and at The final version of volume 2 will be available at the two publishing sites shortly.