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My Mother Tells this Story

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(My mother wanted me to write the story of what happened to our family during World War II, when we had to move back and forth through war-torn Germany and that 22 times to avoid the NAZI authorities and the Russians, because my father was an American citizen. I knew all the stories and when I went upstairs to write them down and put in the details, I suddenly realized that although I had relived them many times in the family’s retelling them, I had not been there. When I told my mother about my problem, she wrote up this incident for me. She put it into my voice, but I have rewritten it in her voice. Since then she has herself written a book for the family about what we went through. From comparing her story (remembered in 1965 or 1966) with the one she tells Tante Irene in her letter (in 1945), one can see that different “tellings” of a story bring out different features. Mother tries to fill in details for me that I had explained, I just couldn’t know.)

In My Mother’s Words

In 1945 our family had taken refuge in a small village, [called Fliegenberg,] alongside the Elbe River. The Elbe is one of the biggest rivers in Germany. When I was small, I had often been near it without realizing it.   In our stay there in that village at first we lived with a farmer. He had just enough room in his little farmhouse for himself, but that did not matter, for we were not the only family sent to this village, since the Russians were coming from the East. He was a kind farmer and we did not have it too hard, except that we had to divide the family. The two oldest boys had to stay with another farmer and help him with his farm-work. Two of the older girls had to do the same thing for another farm family. Some weeks and then a month passed by and things became more serious politically. More men were needed by the Heimwehr (homeland defense). There was a danger that Father and Matthias would become the next draftees.

One day, early in Spring, Father ordered that we pack everything and when dawn came over the little village we crept out [into the shadows of the country road and walked] to the ferry. There we stood with “Sack und Pack.” That means with everything we had, waiting for the ferry at the edge of the river to take us to the other side. Old Jim, the ferryman had quite a job to board us all, since our family was so large and then there were our important belongings, the only ones we had left.

In those last days [of the war] it was [an ordeal] to travel in a family or group. Therefore we had to be organized and that to the full meaning of the word. Each one had his or her job: watching over certain baggage, for example, and each of the older sisters and brothers had the responsibility for a younger sister or brother. It was important for us that the family not become divided or [God forbid] that anybody should be lost.

Till then the Lord had always been with us and protected us. We had many times seen the hardship of those who lost their loved ones and we wanted to be very careful. But here on the other side of the Elbe, we were supposed to experience what it meant to be separated. Involved was one of our possessions, a baby carriage, which was mostly used to hold some of the heavier baggage.

Arriving at the train station we waited for hours and hours. We were hoping to get a train that should take us into the direction that we guessed the American soldiers were coming. Standing [on the platform], waiting, being hungry and thirsty was something we had known about for a long time. So in spite of all that we were not alarmed, but quite happy even after the hours of waiting, when a train pulled into the station.

To board a train at that time was no easy task. They were mostly overcrowded when they pulled into [the station] and then hundreds still tried to push in [from the platform]. My oldest girl and boy, Ruthie and Matthias, had to bring the carriage to the baggage car and then board the train anywhere. The train pulled out of the station and to our horror they both stood on the platform with the carriage. Tears streamed down from their eyes. The man in the baggage car had refused to accept the carriage.

“Take the next train! We will wait at the next big station. We will not leave.” Father cried out of the window. We were sick at heart as the train pulled away and we hoped [and prayed] that the Lord would soon bring us back together.

Everybody knows, of course, that there were no seats available and those who had seats were not to be envied. The air was thick and smelly. And among all those refugees, who do you think could have washed or taken a bath that morning? We were not much concerned about cleanliness in those moments. Most of the time I had to hold the baby, little Peter, in my arms so he could breathe. So even though the train pulled through the beautiful country-side, we did not feel much like looking at the scenery.

Now and then the train stopped to let off passengers. It was impossible to reach the doors. The windows served as the doors for both the passengers and their baggage. After a long time I [finally] had a place to sit while Father stood near a window. The train made another stop. It just happened that Father had a chance to look out of the window. What did he see? Our own baggage thrown out onto the platform! Was it an error or was someone planning to take it? That would not have been the first time [our things were stolen]. After a great deal of protesting, the baggage was put back through the windows in its place. We were happy that Father noticed the mistake.

The train continued and we reached the forest called Sachsenwalde, the Saxon Woods. Somewhere here Bismark was buried, but nobody knows exactly where. Upon entering the big forest a sign reads: “Hier ruht Bismark!” which means, this is Bismark’s final resting place. So it seems that the whole forest became his cemetery, the final resting place of the Iron Chancellor.

I now thought that our last moments had come.

We suddenly heard a big roar in the sky.  Bombers dove out of the clouds to attack the train. The engineer did not know whether he should stop or try to outrun the planes. He was unable to make the decision. Some people ordered him to stop while others ordered him to go on.  It did not take long for many of the people to become hysterical. Finally the engineer brought the train to a stop. Most of the women and children escaped through the doors or jumped through the windows. In the aisle there were two German soldiers. They also climbed through the windows and helped others getting out. The passengers were running to take refuge in the dark forest of the Sachsenwald. Two of my girls had also already been helped to get out of the train through the windows. They had crossed the adjacent tracks waiting to run into the woods. Next the soldiers helped two more of my little girls jump out of the window. They too stood on the tracks waiting for their older sister, Hannah, to climb through the window, jump out, and run with them into the woods.

Suddenly everyone screamed outside and inside the train. It was a scream that made your blood curdle. Hannah was pushed back into the train by a soldier. In the next second an express train rushed past [on the tracks] where my two girls were standing a moment ago.

Everyone looking suddenly became speechless. I pushed my way to the door, screaming, “My two little girls are gone! My God, have mercy!” But then the pale face of a soldier appeared through the window saying, “They are saved. They are under our train.” Then I could hear his cries to the engineer not to move so that my little girls would not be crushed by our own train.

I immediately called all my children to come back into the train. “If we die, then we will all die together.” I said.

Slowly the train pulled away from the Sachsenwald where Bismark rests. [Magdeburg,] the destination before us was now a burning city. The bombers had done their job really well.


Written by peterkrey

July 3, 2010 at 7:21 am

Posted in Family Stories

2 Responses

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  1. Dear Peter,
    I live in Fliegenberg. Do you know remember the Name of the Farmer?
    Greetings S.


    April 2, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    • Dear Simone,

      I finally got word from my oldest sister that the farmer’s name was Pahl. Is that name known to you?

      peter krey


      January 9, 2014 at 11:52 am

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