Women and Children First: Paying
for the Crimes of Nazi Germany

Linda Jonasson

© Copyright 2020 by Linda Jonasson

Photo of civilians leaving bombed city.

This essay is based on the life of Elfriede Neumann, my husband's grandmother. 

Winston Churchill once said: "History is written by the victors." My early knowledge of European History came from a Canadian high school textbook. Flipping through its pages, I saw vivid images of Germany’s role in the Second World War: Wehrmacht soldiers goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysees of Paris; Hitler delivering rants to a crowd of helmet-topped heads, their right arms raised at a 45 degree angle; the Luftwaffe bombing London’s glorious St. Paul Cathedral during the Blitz.

My history lesson, however, on what happened to the German civilians during and after the Second World War did not come from a classroom, nor from a textbook, but from the woman who lived it: Elfriede Neumann. I first met Elfriede, affectionately known to my husband as Oma, in 1991, at the German-Austrian Restaurant in Hamilton where we dined on wiener-schnitzel and home fries. Her twinkling eyes, her quick step, belied the 80 candles on her birthday cake. She was the woman who, only a decade before, had played ball hockey with her grandson in her living room; who wouldn’t rest until she found the last stamp for her East German collection; who stayed up until 2 am cheering on Germany in a World Cup game; who made jam-filled donuts on New Year’s Eve, giggling at the person who got the one filled with mustard. Yet Elfriede’s calm life in Hamilton, Ontario did not reflect her turbulent past in Germany. Was this really the same woman who had escaped over the Berlin Wall, survived typhus and kicked a man in the private parts who tried to separate her from her son in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany? Elfriede’s life, with all its twists and turns, was a book that I was dying to write.

On Prussian plains she works the land…

Big, strong hands – with thick, calloused fingers that never rested – Elfriede’s hands served her well. Whether she was digging potatoes or digging a grave, holding a baby or holding a bushel of wheat, assembling a car or assembling a 1000-piece puzzle, those hands were Elfriede’s ticket to survival. It was obvious that she was born and raised on a farm. In a nation that birthed Martin Luther, she defined the Protestant work ethic. Hard work was what Elfriede did best; hard work was what saved her.

Elfriede grew up in East Prussia, “the Breadbasket of Germany", rolling hills of fertile land and grassy pastures which fed much of the country. To the north, East Prussia bordered the Baltic Sea, an azure inland sea surrounded by vast coastal dunes. To the east sat Lithuania, one of the three Baltic States later swallowed up by the Soviet Union. To the south sat Poland. To the west was the Polish Corridor, formed after the First World War to provide Poland with access to the Baltic Sea.

She plants the seeds and crops by hand...

Elfriede passed the day harvesting vegetables, milking cows, feeding chickens and churning butter. She cooked and baked with it and spread it thickly over rye bread. No one, with the exception of Julia Child, loved butter more than Elfriede. Her farm, located in Taplacken, about 35 kilometres west of the capital, Koenigsberg, had everything she needed. Elfriede didn’t work alone: she was grateful for the aid of her farm workers, a Pole, a Russian and a Frenchman who joined her early in the Second World War. The German government ordered that the workers, prisoners of war, eat separately, but she refused to obey, inviting them to her table even though she risked a prison sentence. She marched to the beat of her own drummer.

Babe in a basket by her side...

Elfriede used to take her son Manfred with her out into the fields. With white blond hair and piercing blue eyes, he would sit in his basket, peeking out of the bonnet which shielded him from the sun, while she dug potatoes. Manfred was named after the famous Red Baron, the World War I flying ace that Snoopy battled in the Peanuts comic strip. Many frauen named their sons after the German hero who flew 80 successful air combat missions over Europe in his bright red Fokker during the First World War.

Little Manfred, however, lived in the shadow of the Second World War. His first memory, still as vivid in his mind in middle age as the day it happened six decades before, was of his parents’ barn bursting into flames when the German Army used it as a command post. Manfred grew up to be a fighter, just like his namesake. As a displaced person after the war, his schoolmates called him a “D.P.” Many a fistfight erupted on the playground as a result. Manfred came home with a black eye or a bloody nose and his mother begged him not to fight, but he had his reputation to uphold.

A girl in braids goes for a ride...

Elfriede’s daughter, Irmgard, her blond braids swinging, her blue eyes smiling, used to ride on her bicycle while her mother worked. She was the responsible one, always looking out for her little brother, fiercely protective of him just like her mother. Irmgard liked to visit her grandparents’ farm in Nautzwinkel. Opa took her to the nearby harbour on the Baltic Sea where they watched the ships come into port. She identified them by their flags: Sweden, Denmark, and Holland. She loved Opa’s informal geography lessons. Irmgard’s formal education, however, was interrupted by the Second World War. While other children were filling their satchel with books for the first day of Kindergarten, Irmgard was packing her suitcase with the bare essentials to flee the Red Army.

As her brave soldier fights so grand…

Elfriede’s husband, Otto, didn’t vote for Hitler; he didn’t trust the man. Nor did he promote the war effort. As a farmer, he simply wanted to go about his business, working his parcel of land in the Breadbasket of Germany. But Otto was drafted and, like so many law-abiding Germans, he went.
Otto dug his heels in on the battlefield, performing his job to the best of his ability. Recognizing his effort, the Wehrmacht offered to make him a sergeant and send him to Paris. Otto declined; he had no interest in seeing the Eiffel Tower for the French Resistance was targeting German officers. He was transferred to the Eastern Front where he would be closer to home. But his odds of survival were poor: the death rate was four times as high as on the Western Front. Hitler had outfitted the Wehrmacht troops with the same uniforms that they wore in North Africa, a veritable death sentence. Once the Russian winter hit, they started dropping like flies.

Otto returned home on furlough in November of 1943 in time for little Manfred's second birthday. The family made a trip to the nearby capital, Koenigsberg, a beautiful city of 300,000 on the Pregel River which flows into the Baltic Sea. The 700-year old Prussian fortress was now a modern city. Streetcars click clacked down its cobblestone streets. Boats plied its river. Locals strolled through its blossoming gardens. Children rode on Jenna the Elephant at the Tiergarten. Tourists visited Koenigsberg Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights, the site of the coronation of several Prussian kings. Near the castle was a portrait studio where the Neumann’s had an appointment for a sitting. They smiled at the camera as the flashbulb prepared to pop, like a storm cloud about to burst.

In February of 1944, Elfriede received the letter that every army wife dreads. Otto, one of 60,000 German soldiers trapped in the Ukraine’s Cherkassy Pocket, had gone missing in action. Another 16,500 were captured and marched off to the Gulag. Elfriede put the dreaded letter away and resolved to carry on for the sake of her children. Spring was coming and the fields had to be prepared. She waited for the snow to melt so that she could plant seeds, fully expecting her husband to walk right back in the door any day, just as her father had returned from the battlefield after World War I.

The war goes not as Prussia planned...

In July of 1944, the German Army, which had steamrolled its way across the massive Russian steppes and penetrated the unkempt forests and marshes, which had come within sight of the spires of the Kremlin, came to a screeching halt. The decimated German Army scorched and burned its way out of Russia.
After the German panzers steamrolled over the Russian people, with little regard for life or limb, the Red Army wanted its pound of flesh. By late 1944, with the Red Army drawing closer to the East Prussian border, Elfriede was tempted to evacuate, but the German government had issued a ban on fleeing. Simply planning an escape was considered high treason. Even Elfriede's older brother, part of the Kriegsmarine, supported Hitler's promise: "No Bolshevik shall set foot on German soil."

Yet, in October of 1944, the Red Army broke through the East Prussian border at Nemmersdorf, about 75 kilometres east of Elfriede’s farm. Tales of atrocity were rampant: women being raped and crucified on barn doors; children having their heads bashed in; the elderly being bulldozed by Russian tanks. Nemmersdorf would forever be etched on the minds of East Prussians. Hitler’s propaganda minister filmed the aftermath of the massacre and showed the documentary in German theatres; the sight sent chills down the spines of the population. Back in East Prussia, Elfriede prepared to harvest the crops: she had two mouths to feed.

Her friends all flee by sea or land...

Elfriede tired of the propaganda. She had a two-day window between the time the German government lifted the ban on fleeing and the time the Red Army invaded. Railroad lines had been cut. Roads were filled with Russian tanks. The only way out was by sea. Elfriede’s Polish servant saddled up the wagon. She bundled up little Manfred and Irmgard. With a tug on the reins, they headed down the pine-tree lined road, joining the endless column of refugees, a ghostly procession with eyes full of wretchedness and resignation, fleeing the Red Army advance.

The only route that the Red Army had not cut off yet was over the frozen Frisches Haff, a peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea. An endless caravan of refugees made tracks over the ice: old hunched men with canes shuffled alongside the carts; young children, hanging on to their mother’s coattails, shed tears which froze on their cheeks. Mercifully, while the ice could hold the weight of a wagon, it could not sustain the load of a Soviet tank. However, from the sky, the refugees on the ice stood out like ants on an anthill. The drone of a Soviet plane, the whistle of a bomb and the piercing cry of a casualty suddenly woke the refugees from their numb state. A gaping crater opened up in the brittle ice and the frigid sea swallowed up its victims.

Despite the horror on the ice, half a million refugees still reached Pillau. Operation Hannibal, launched in January 1945 by Admiral Donitz, was the largest sea evacuation in history. The ice-choked Baltic port swelled to four times its normal size as refugees desperately queued up to board one of a fleet of evacuation ships, the largest of which was the Wilhelm Gustloff. Some purchased tickets, others sneaked on board. Still others used a relative’s baby as a “ticket” to get on board. Babies tossed down to waiting relatives sometimes fell into the icy waters below. All were desperate to escape the advancing Soviet forces. Tens of thousands found refuge on the other side of the Baltic.

But Elfriede's horse had other plans. The road to the Baltic was chaos: refugee wagons jostled for space with Wehrmacht tanks. Retreating German officers strode alongside the caravan. The louder the rumbling from the Front grew, the more spooked Elfriede’s horse became; suddenly, it rose into the air on its hind legs and bolted. Try as Elfriede might to hang on to the reins, she couldn’t. If not for a nearby German officer who chased after the wagon and seized the reins, the wagon would likely have toppled over, spilling Elfriede and her children. The horse wouldn’t budge: Elfriede had no choice but to turn back, knowing that the Red Army would be waiting at her doorstep.

As the Wilhelm Gustloff, which once plied the sparkling waters of the Black Sea as a “Strength through Joy” cruise ship, disembarked from Pillau, a blizzard whipped its decks. Beneath the Baltic Sea, a Russian submarine lurked. Russia would never forget the 872-day long siege of Leningrad by the German Army which resulted in 1.5 million deaths of civilians and soldiers and reduced some Leningradians to cannibalism. The Russian submarine that waited beneath the surface of the Baltic was loaded with four torpedoes, painted with the words:

Torpedo One: For the Motherland.

Torpedo Two: For Stalin.

Torpedo Three: For the Soviet people.

Torpedo Four: For Leningrad.

Three found their target. Pregnant woman, sleeping in the ship’s drained swimming pool, scrambled for life jackets. In a panic, many passengers jumped from the decks of the Wilhelm Gustloff into the sea and grabbed onto the lifeboats, like grapes clinging to a vine during a frost. The sick and injured didn’t even make it out of their beds. Nine thousand, out of the 10,000 passengers on board, found an icy grave at the bottom of the Baltic, making the sinking the single worst maritime disaster in history. Elfriede, who held an unused ticket to the Wilhelm Gustloff, didn’t even know how to swim.

But she remains and plans to hide on Prussian Plains...

Back at Elfriede’s farmhouse, snow blanketed the ground as East Prussia settled into its coldest winter in 20 years. The Red Army lurked in the forest only 100 metres from her house. She heard the dog barking... Shots rang out...Silence.

The Russians come and seize her land...

Elfriede steeled herself for what was to come. When she heard the horses squeal as the Red Army riddled them with bullets, she showed no fear. When she heard the soldiers’ jackboots on the front porch, she showed no trepidation. When she heard the soldier’s rifle click as he aimed it at her head and his comrade raided her cupboards, she did not panic. Even when she heard the clink of her wedding ring as the soldier dropped it into his jewelry stash, she remained calm. Anger fueled her courage. The soldier uttered the two words that would send shivers up the spines of countless German women during the Russian occupation: "Frau, Komm!"

"Twenty-two Hoeringstrasse. It's not been burned, just looted, rifled. A moaning by the walls: the mother's wounded half alive. The little daughter's on the mattress. dead. How many have been on the mattress? A platoon, a company, perhaps? A girl's been turned into a woman, a woman turned into a corpse. The mother begs: "Soldier, kill me!""
(Prussian Nights, Alexander Soltzenitsyn)

Like Elfriede, an estimated two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers during the war and Russian occupation. Any female from eight to 80 was considered fair game. Some women would take a Soviet officer as protection against gang rapes. But German women did not talk of such things. It was verboten.

Force her to roam with babes in hand...

Elfriede never looked back. Taking a child on either arm, she wandered on the Prussian plains, once the Breadbasket of Germany, now a wasteland. Colonies of crows descended on the wintry fields before them. Fellow refugees scraped the ground for an unharvested potato. Irmgard, who peaked in the windows of abandoned farmhouses, saw empty kitchens and half-cleared tables. Ditches, once filled with bulrushes, now overflowed with corpses, as the Red Army extracted its revenge. Manfred picked fish bones out of garbage cans; later, as an adult, he could not stomach fish. Elfriede exchanged a piece of crockery found in an abandoned homestead for a bowl of soup, or a German clock for a loaf of bread. The trio slept in the haystacks of abandoned barns alongside other refugees. In the closing months of the war, the battle intensified. Elfriede held her children tight as Lancasters bombed the trek of expellees heading west. Six months later, they returned to their Taplacken home to find it flattened. While the war was over, Elfriede’s struggle had just begun.

Hard work was Elfriede’s salvation. She found employment in a Russian labour camp. Recognizing her strong work ethic, the Russians gave her an extra scoopful of flour to bake bread for her children. But soon after arriving, Elfriede became violently ill with typhus. The epidemic had killed thousands of German POWs after the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. Thousands more perished in the Nazi concentration camps by 1945, including Anne Frank. The disease spread to the Soviet labour camp in 1947 and Elfriede became delirious with fever. Knowing she was too valuable to lose, the Russian soldiers gave her quinine pills. She cheated death once again.

Such was not the case for Elfriede’s elderly and frail parents who remained on their farm in Nautzwinkel, outside of Koenigsberg. In January of 1947, Elfriede’s father, the former mayor of the town, succumbed to starvation. Elfriede adored her father. As she grew up, she wanted to be more and more like him: he drank his coffee black, so did she. In March, Elfriede’s mother suffered the same fate. She was the one who had taught Elfriede how to sew. Her mother’s hands, once so useful, were now icy and limp. In May, her sister, Erni, the woman whose husband fought on the Eastern Front and later languished in a Soviet Gulag, also passed away. As the ground softened, Elfriede’s heart hardened. She wrapped each loved one in a blanket, dug a hole and buried them…three crosses on Prussian plains.

Elfriede’s youngest sister, Doris, was also wasting away. That spring, as she gazed at her parents’ graves, Doris noticed a strange weed sprouting nearby, stinging nettle. She figured out how to pull it out of the ground without getting stung, boiled it and made soup out of it. The stinging nettle brought Doris back from the brink of death.

They even force her from her land...

Peace always has a dark side. In the summer of 1945, The Big Three, Attlee (who succeeded Churchill), Truman, and Stalin, sat in wicker chairs outside a Potsdam palace and – with the stroke of a pen – purged Eastern Europe of 14 million Germans. Stalin took a map and drew a black line along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, erasing all Germans east of the line, the way he might have wiped dust off the epaulettes of his military jacket. The agreement affected six eastern German provinces as well as: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia. Article Number XII of the document stated that the deportation should be done in “an orderly and humane manner."

Ten minutes – that’s all the time Elfriede had to get out. In September of 1947, the Potsdam Agreement was executed. Held at gunpoint by Red Army soldiers, Elfriede, her daughter, her nieces and her nephew were herded into an overcrowded cattle car, similar to the ones that the Nazis used to transport the Jews to concentration camps. Elfriede was preoccupied with the train’s destination: If it was heading west to Germany proper, they might have a chance; if it was heading east to a Soviet gulag, their fate looked grim.

On the second day, the stench of sweat permeated the cattle car. Hunger gnawed at the expellees’ stomachs. Elfriede’s niece ate a bird’s nest. Later, the train screeched to a stop and the Russians opened the doors of Elfriede’s car. She recoiled at the sickly sweet stench. Squinting from the sun, Elfriede saw the Russians piling dead bodies at the side of the tracks in an “orderly and humane fashion”. Malnourished and diseased, at least 600,000 of the 14 million German expellees perished in the deportations.

But none of the 80 expellees died in Elfriede’s car. It was all thanks to a pot that Elfriede had brought along for her nephew, who had just been toilet trained, to pee in. The occupants filled the pot with urine, feces and vomit, which they dumped out the window, limiting the spread of disease. To Elfriede’s relief, the train was heading west, straight into the setting sun. At night, the train operator stopped the locomotive, unable to navigate the crooked tracks, previously bombed by the Allies.

Little Manfred was spared the expulsion from East Prussia. He had travelled north to Lithuania with his Oma and Opa Neumann to scavenge for food on farms where the locals, also under the Soviet occupation, were sympathetic to their plight. The Russian population was fast depleting as its men were perishing on the battlefield. Red Army soldiers were kidnapping German children, bringing them back to Russia, and raising them as their own. Manfred’s Oma and Opa had warned him about this trend. One day, Manfred was playing in the mud in the Tilsit town square when two Red Army soldiers motioned for him to approach. He turned his back to them and starting walking away. They followed in hot pursuit. Manfred ran as fast as his little legs could carry him until he reached home, diving under the bed.

Elfriede ached for her son. She had heard nothing from her in-laws and was ignorant of their whereabouts. She had no way of communicating with them to indicate that she had been expelled from East Prussia. Elfriede’s sister, Doris, a Red Cross nurse, happened to be walking past the Tilsit town square one day when she came upon a boy with white blond hair and piercing blue eyes playing in the dirt. “Manfred!” she exclaimed. Although he responded in Russian, an indication of his extended stay in Lithuania, it was indeed her nephew. Elfriede and her son reunited after a fifteen-month separation. She embraced him for a long time, vowing to never let him out of her sight again.

On Prussian Plains…

The Prussian plains are now Russian plains. Russians now till the land where Elfriede once worked, buy and sell goods at the Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) market where she delivered her potatoes, and ride boats down the Pregel River. Russians admire the Koenigsberg Cathedral which sits on an island in the river. They do not, however, gaze at the turrets of the Koenigsberg Castle. Bombed by the Allies in 1944, the castle’s skeletal, yet magnificent, remains sat untouched for a generation. In 1968, Premier Brezhnev, calling the castle “a bastion of militarism and fascism,” ordered it demolished.

Nazi Germany, as the aggressor in the Second World War and the architect of the Holocaust, caused massive death and devastation in Europe. Attempts were made to de-Nazify the state: the National Socialist party was banned, the Swastika was outlawed, and a Holocaust school curriculum was implemented. Yet, Germany cannot come to terms with this collective guilt, a progress as burdensome as the German word used to describe it – vergangenheitsbewaltigung. Seventy years after the ethnic cleansing of East Prussia, no German has reclaimed his or her land. While Konrad Adenauer’s West-German government imposed a federal tax in 1948 to compensate the refugees and expellees for a portion of their property, Elfriede did not flee East Germany soon enough to qualify for the benefit.

Elfriede and her two children immigrated to Canada in 1955 where they lived a fulfilling life. Shortly before Elfriede passed away she asked me if I would read the rondeau I had written for her at her funeral. I wondered if my simple poem would do justice to such a remarkable woman. Yet, Elfriede thrived on life’s simple pleasures. Thus, on a rainy day in October 2007, I recited “On Prussian Plains.”

I am a French PhD student who likes to write in my spare time.  I have published three stories, on a non-profit basis, called : "Daisy Blay and the Gold & Pearl Necklace" and "William Blay: Little Immigrant, Valiant Soldier", based on the childhoods of my great-grandmother and her brother, in Promises of Home:  Stories of Canada's British Home Children (2014) (https://www.amazon.ca/Promises-Home-Stories-Canadas-Children/dp/0978062256) and "A Flower for Mother's Day", based on the adoption of my son, in Hot Apple Cider with Cinnamon (2015) (https://www.amazon.ca/Hot-Apple-Cider-Cinnamon-Unexpected-ebook/dp/B016X3YDCI

Contact Linda

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher