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Three Tales Of Refugees In Germany, 70 Years Ago

Why are they here? Who can stay? How should we treat them? The fate of Middle East and African refugees dominates German debate. They were once our own grandparents.

Refugees in Berlin after World War II
Refugees in Berlin after World War II
Patrick Wehner

MUNICH — The world spotlight is shining warmly on Germany, since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the country would welcome refugees from Syria and other conflict areas. Still, Germans — like other Europeans — have been debating what responsibility their countries have in taking in people displaced by war. One perspective particularly worth noting in Germany comes from those still alive who themselves were refugees from World War II. Three of them tell their stories here:

Maria Bohm, 76, fled from Serbia to Lower Bavaria

In October 1944, we flew from (today's) Serbia. My family had lived there for generations. My sister, her baby and I were able to hitch a ride on the covered wagon of a neighbor. My mother walked the whole way to the Silesia region.

My father escaped from a German military base, wandering around for hundreds of kilometers, looking for us. My mother was so scared that the army would shoot my father if they found out that he was gone. From Silesia we continued on a cattle truck towards Germany, and then onto a train for three days. A man died on that ride, which my mother talked about for years later.

The first year-and-a-half in Germany, we were sent from camp to camp, occasionally finding shelter at a farm. Once we were housed in the field office of the former concentration camp Flossenbürg which had, only recently, been emptied. A couple of months before that, Jews had been killed there — now it was us living there. There were hardly any beds, food supply was miserable. That was also the time my mother went out on the street, begging for food from the surrounding farms. The locals' reactions varied. Some offered two eggs and some lard, others drew the curtains close and wouldn't open the door.

Although everybody was suffering from the war, I could see that I was most certainly dressed even worse than the other children. My dress was made out of an old military blanket, and I got teased at school for it. Refugee children had a bad reputation in this area, because we were even poorer than the rest. When my parents, after months, finally found work on a farm, our situation slowly got better. The locals saw that we were working at least as hard as them. And the mistrust began to go away.

Ingeborg Heidler, 87, fled from Egerland in the Czech Republic to Stuttgart

In my family I was the first to flee. We lived in Egerland, in what is today the Czech Republic. I was 17 years old. We owned a porcelain factory close to Karlsbad. In 1945, I was about to be drafted into the Russian army for forced labor. I was terribly scared, thinking I might never come back. The man who helped us escape was an American officer. I never told my mother that he had raped me shortly before the escape. He saved us, so I kept silent. We were on the run for seven days and nights, hiding in cattle-trucks and tank trucks, always with the fear of being discovered.

After we arrived in Stuttgart, we spent the first night in prison. We hoped to find shelter at my uncle's. When we knocked on his door, he shouted from the other side, "Come in, I just had a dream about you!" My mother then returned to my father and brother, until they were eventually banished from Egerland in 1946.

Ingeborg Heidler in the 1940s and today — Personal archives via Süddeutsche Zeitung

In Stuttgart I was received like a daughter. We were very lucky. I cooked and cleaned for my uncle's family of four, and neighbors thought I was a maid. When my parents arrived one year later, and my little brother followed, we ended up living in the attic. We were always considered "the refugees," which was really hard.

Nobody could figure out how all of us could fit into one country. Rapes were not so rare — and I sometimes put ash in my face and pillows under my clothes to look older.

We were very poor, and lived all crammed together. But I hoped the situation would improve with paid work. I would have loved to go to college, but I had no diploma, so I started an apprenticeship as an interpreter. After graduation I supported the whole family for a year.

Ever since, I have returned a few times to Egerland. It still is my homeland. Even if I have accepted that I can't live there anymore. Even today, I'm still wondering where home really is.

Friedhelm Höckendorff, 78, fled from Pomerania to Schleswig-Holstein

It was June 21, 1946. The sun had just risen when my parents woke my two sisters and me for the planned escape. I was nine years old. We lived on a farm in Pomerania, which wasn't a part of Germany anymore. The Russians systematically expelled the families, one after another. My parents had paid 30,000 zloty to a Pole who helped German families to escape from the eastern territory.

After a 10-kilometer walk, we got on a train that brought us to the dormitory of Settin-Frauendorf. We felt like cattle. Children were screaming, mothers were breastfeeding ... In a corner there was a bucket for one's needs. Eventually we arrived in the northern German region of Schleswig-Holstein, where we spent weeks in transit camps. People were fighting each other for food and toilets.

We then spent three years in a hut camp close to Gottorfs in Schleswig. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say: Sick and tired of the food there, we children gathered berries and even went hunting and fishing.

I was a good student. But my teacher was an old war-disabled man who didn't like refugee children. He humiliated me in front of everybody for my poor German. It would be a defining experience in my life: I decided to become a teacher and never treat my pupils like that. Many years later I would become the principal of an elementary and secondary school.

The following summer the harvest dried up in the fields. On top of that, with the refugees the population of Schleswig-Holstein had grown from 1.6 to 3.6 million — all of whom were hungry. Three years later we moved into our own, tiny apartment. My father worked for the railway company. Eventually, I settled in Schleswig, and ever since it has always felt like home.

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