WeAre1: A Family of the Displaced
In September 1942, my mother volunteered to go to Germany as a slave laborer. She had false papers, which enabled her to impersonate a Catholic Pole. About 12 million Eastern Europeans worked as forced laborers for the Third Reich, which was desperately short of workers with so many men at the Russian Front. Most workers were captured and forced to work. Many were POWs. Conditions were so bad in the occupied lands that civilians (1.3 - 2.6 million) volunteered in order not to starve. According to one paper I read, "It was a policy of extermination through hard labor of people deemed fit only to work. The Nazis envisioned a slaveholder society after their expected victory." The Reich assigned workers to corporations (some even were German subsidiaries of American companies), small businesses, and farms. Very few Jews masquerading as Catholics in Germany survived this way. My guess is about a 250.
Seventy-four years ago this month, GIs liberated my mother. She had toiled first on a farm, then in a produce nursery, and later in a Siemens small appliances factory. The last two were in the stunning resort village of Bad Neustadt-an-der-Saale, Bavaria, known for its therapeutic baths. Here is an excerpt, based on my mother's testimonry, describing her liberation the day after Passover ended.
HOW FAR - Excerpt
Chapter 44: Bad Neustadt, April 7, 1945 – Liberation
On April 6, 1945, as American troops approached Bad Neustadt, Radio London issued instructions for German civilians to avoid railroad stations because they would be bombed. But the Siemens factory was next to the railroad and bomb shelters were reserved only for Germans. Irena and her friend the French POW ran to the nearest one, banged on the door, and beseeched those inside to let them in. No one heeded their cries for help. Not knowing where else to go, they returned to the factory. Shells screamed and exploded outside. A devastating hit smashed off a corner of the building, leaving an open hole. Clearly it had become too dangerous to stay.
They ran along Redestraße toward the village, thought better of that and turned toward Bad Neuhaus. They had the peculiar idea that the castle, built with thick, medieval walls, might protect them. Getting there, however, meant crossing the railroad tracks. They picked their way over the rails, forded the tiny Franconia Saale River, and climbed the hill to the ruins. It was a steep hike, if you were running from the northwest to save yourself.
Just above, they heard the roar of two warplanes waging a mighty dogfight. The aircraft swooped and dove murderously, shot and ducked as they fired at one another. Irena pressed herself against the cool gray sandstone of the castle wall. While the planes seemed to glower at one another and the pilots readied themselves for another joust, Irena and her friend ran to the arched main gate for cover. The din of the two swarming fighters, a long series of shots––and then one plane pitched and yawed violently. Something was wrong with its wing. Was it the American plane? Or had the Yankee pilot outwitted the Nazi? As the plane tumbled to Earth, they saw the unmistakable iron cross insignia on its wings.
Irena and the French POW cheered and applauded. Then they turned toward the village to see American tanks rolling into the Market Plaz. Fleeing German soldiers crossed the river and bombed the bridges as they retreated. Irena and the French POW watched in stunned silence. There they stood on the precipice of freedom, the moment of liberation imminent, yet they could not quite believe it.
The battle for Bad Neustadt lasted the rest of the day and into the next morning. When Irena and her friend returned to the village, they again tried unsuccessfully to get into a shelter. Irena saw many wounded American and German soldiers strewn about the streets of the luxury resort. For the first time, she beheld a dead man lying in a pool of blood.
Late in the afternoon, Irena was walking back to Siemens along Redestraße with her friend Stasza when they came upon American troops of the Ninth Air Defense command camping along the roadside. Two soldiers approached and tried to engage them in conversation in broken German. One tall, blond G.I. seemed to be extending an invitation, but he so garbled it that his companion lost patience.
"If you can't do any better than that, Floyd, "Nogi z dupy powyrywam (I'll pull your legs out of your ass)," he said partly in Polish.
Floyd said, "Aw, gówno, Stanley,przestań (Aw, shit, Stanley, stop it)."
Irena and Stasza broke into peals of laughter. The soldiers did double takes.
Said Stanley in Polish, "Rozumiesz po polsku (You understand Polish)!"
The G.I.s were astonished when Irena and Stasza explained that they were Polish slave laborers working for the German state. Stanley and Floyd invited the girls to join them for a delicious meal. Then they apologized for it.
"Look at the sloppiness," said Stanley, as they sat outside the mess tent. "Can you believe it? Serving pot roast with peaches."
Irena did not think this was a quip. As she ate and savored the bountiful meal, it was her turn to be surprised. This was the third invasion she had experienced. First, the swift, brutal one of the Germans. Then the Soviets, who were quiet, well-informed and who spoke the languages of the people they conquered. These liberators, long-legged Pennsylvania troops of Polish descent, were completely unaware of the hardship and starvation throughout Europe.