and Children First: Paying
for the Crimes of Nazi Germany
Copyright 2020 by Linda Jonasson
This essay is based on
the life of Elfriede Neumann, my husband's grandmother.
Churchill once said: "History is written by the victors."
My early knowledge of European History came from a Canadian
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.
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,
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
plains she works the land…
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.
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.
seeds and crops by hand...
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.
basket by her side...
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.
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.
braids goes for a ride...
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.
soldier fights so grand…
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.
heels in on the battlefield, performing his job to the best of his
ability. Recognizing his effort, the Wehrmacht offered
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.
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.
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.
not as Prussia planned...
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.
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."
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.
all flee by sea or land...
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Gustloff, which once plied the sparkling waters of the Black
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:
the Soviet people.
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
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,
even know how to swim.
remains and plans to hide on Prussian Plains...
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.
come and seize her land...
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!"
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
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.
roam with babes in hand...
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.
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
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.
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
force her from her land...
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
am a French PhD student who likes to write in my spare time.
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)
and "A Flower
for Mother's Day", based on the adoption of
my son, in Hot
Apple Cider with Cinnamon (2015)
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher