By Heinz Mayershofer
I was born the first of January, 1930 when my new world awaited me. In Europe, the consequences of a last war followed by inflation, no work and a deep depression affected everyone and our family was no exception. We lived in Bad Homburg, Germany famous for the healing power of its many mineral springs. My family was able to afford a small dwelling in a five story building which was formerly used for service personal working in the world famous spa.
At this time in history the tourists did not overrun this town but the signs of a once bustling place were still there: The casino where Dostoevsky was inspired to write his novel, Der Spieler or Siamese temple built by the King of Siam as a thank you for getting well, were still there.
There were huge flower framed parks enclosing a drinking hall with access to all the different spring waters. There was a concert hall next to a colourful Russian chapel, a golf course and a Olympic size pool and so much more to please tourists from all over the world and they came, but not any more. For me to grow up as a healthy boy, this place was next to paradise.
My father left us before I knew him. My mother worked nights and my grandmother took care of us babies, my sister and I. I don’t think it was easy for her since she lost everything in the first World War. When I turned three, going on to four, I sensed a change around me, like children do. There were men in brown uniforms running around with important facial expressions talking about Adolf Hitler like a god-sent saviour for Germany. I myself remember feeling how lucky I was to be in a country like this. There was full employment. Everybody had food and work. No wonder, but what did I know as a four year old. One day one of my uncles who was also my godfather, felt responsible for my ideological future. He dressed me in a Hitler youth uniform and took a picture which I sill have. He was completely immersed in the Nazi movement to the dismay of my family. My grandmother and I took full advantage of the parks and all Bad Hamburg had to offer until school started for me and things changed again and more drastically.
The dark clouds of the Antisemitism started to show on the main streets of the town, broken windows and doors with the star of David tacked onto it. It was horrifying for Jews who were saved from persecution and became solid German citizens. A son heard the last cries of his father swallowing sulfuric acid in desperation. The Olympic pool had a sign (No Jews, No dogs). A man walked past me with a bent, slow walk going nowhere. He had no rights, no defence in his own country. I still see him after 75 years. One day I came close to the Jewish district only to see a group of orthodox Jews huddling nervously together, their desperate gestures told all.
While for thousands the earth was shaking, the worst was in the making on our street. One last evening I saw a column of black SS uniformed men marching up the main street with lit flares toward the Jewish district. Like most people, I went to bed only to find out the next day I witnessed was later called the Crystal Night. All synagogues went up in flames. A mob in brown SA uniforms ransacked big and small stores owned by Jews. They threw everything through windows onto the street.
Hitler’s anger was caused by a murder in Paris. A Jewish person killed a German diplomat. The plundering went on into the Jewish district where the occupants were taken away and the valuables found their place in Nazi pockets. And any protest was playing with your life. Some valuable literature ended up in our bookshelf. I suspect my Nazi uncle had a hand in it. Since I started to read the work of great poets and novelists I thought my Nazi uncle should have read it himself and not Mein Kampf.
When I was about 13, there was war and occupation all around Germany and Germans had to be sent to the increasing war frontiers. They were replaced by foreign workers, ten million of them, mostly forced labour. One day walking on the main street, I noticed a brown shirted SA man holding a young lady. Then he was joining by another man with a big scissor in his hand, cutting the hair off the shaking young lady. They put her on a small flat wagon and pulled her through the town. The children threw ice cream at her. On the market place a crowd was waiting to condemn her crime. A high level Nazi denounced her actions namely falling in love with a non – German. It was a desecration of pure German blood (Blutschande) and the verdict was hard labour. At the time, none was to know that Hitler committed the same crime. One of his grandfathers was from the Semitic side of his family.
When I turned 15, I left home to a designated farm to study agriculture. It was a family farm and I found myself together with Alex, Dunya and Simon. We were all forced to work for Germany. Alex was a deserter from the Finnish/Russian army. Ironically, with his dark curly hair and brown skin he looked like Stalin. He also came from same are of Ceorgia, in the Caucus region. Dunja and Simon, the latter being the older, came from the Ukraine. We had a harmonious time together, despite our different backgrounds and the family treated us like we belonged.
Dunya grabbed me and swung me around. I learned Russian with my mandolin. Other Russians came to play cards. Simon was a joker and some his own kind reported him to the Gestapo. They came to take him away for one month and gave him beet soup everyday. They sent him back as a skeleton. He only had strength enough to walk to the stable and fall onto a pile of straw. He died far away from home. As one more victim of the brutal Nazi regime feel, we all felt deep sadness, anger and helpless for this innocent hard working older man.
We all sensed the end was immanent but talking about it was dangerous and Simon paid a high price for it. Hitler was a true sadist. We know now, he consulted a cult leader to strengthen his extra power surge and once he was in power he killed the cult members, only the leader got away. His earlier girlfriend was tortured by him. She told friends and later committed suicide as her only way out. Toward the inevitable end of the war, his sadism claimed one glory by organizing what was the last stand, better known as (Folksturm). Young Hitler youth, children and older men had to gather and were given guns against a loosing cause. I was in a small village mostly farmers. Everyone tried to sabotage. My boss had a wagon wheel run over his foot thereby ensuring he was not able to participate. I was sent to organize a tractor and wagon from a neighbour. The farmer was nowhere to be found. The tractor did not start followed by three or four days of complete chaos and then the most unexpected silence: No sirens, no bombing, no howling, no shrapnel from anti–aircraft cannons. A silence not heard for years. Just waiting, anxiety and fear of what may still come.
When the uncertainty calmed down, Alex and I were standing on a high ground watching a long column of jeeps and trucks with allied troops moving slowly into town one American soldier yelled to Alex, Ruski? Polski? And Alex waved back in full surprise with great emotion and hope. Alex came from Georgia and his Stalin like curly dark hair, dark skin allowed the soldier to identify him quickly. Alex’s girlfriend, Dunya was expecting and their future and millions of others had an uncertain prospect.
Stalin’s motto was if you worked in Germany you will work for Russia and build up Siberia. For me I finished my basic studies only to find out that most of the land was taken away. When the Frankfurt newspaper had an ad asking to come to Canada, I made the best choice in my 22 year old life and started again in a land of peace and beauty and never went back to those still haunting memories of the war.
Miramichi, New Brunswick
September 4, 2014