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Born on the wrong Side of the Fence

Biography and Memories of an Austrian Migrant

1936-1947

Bruno Ehlich

2005, 2009 Bruno Ehlich

Chapter 1

Austria, Germany, Austria

    My father, Bruno Ehlich, a mechanical engineer, was at that time 27 years of age. For reasons unknown to me and I never questioned why, my parents lived with my Aunt Rosa, my father's sister, in a beautiful, dainty village called Purkersdorf in the western Vienna Woods. Her home was a very charming villa and we all shared it with her and her husband, Hans Fadaneli, the station master of Unter Purkersdorf (Lower Purkersdorf), 24 kilometers west of Vienna.

    Upon my arrival from the Allgemeinde Spital (General Hospital) in Vienna, we moved into the upper floor of this Roman looking sandstone villa.

    From the beginning, I was spoiled by my aunt and my nanny, a 20-year-old lady called Hilda. She wheeled me around this huge garden in my pram amongst flower beds, pine trees and oaks. Funny, I never remembered my Mum but I remembered Hilda.

    Austria at that time was a country with massive unemployment and political upheaval. Hitler wanted engineers and tradesmen to migrate to Germany to take up jobs mostly in the heavy armaments industries and in early 1937 my father took that chance. My father and mother never owned a home and the shift to Germany was welcomed. Dad was provided with a new apartment in the city of Magdeburg, at 19/1 Felgeieberstrasse, about 60 kilometers west of Berlin on the River Elbe.

    On June 14, 1938, my brother Fritz was born. The only negative situation was that our apartment was near a large military airfield which nearly cost us our lives in the later years. This airfield was totally destroyed in the Allied bombing raids. Our apartment received a hit and was partly burned out, but luckily at that time we lived in another part of Germany.

    My father started his new job on the 15th of March, 1937, as a mechanical engineer in a factory called "R-Wolf-Bruckau." Dad was really happy with his new job as a design engineer and settled in very quickly. Mum loved her first new home and spent most of her time looking for new furniture. I, with my one and a half years of age, understandably did not realize what went on in Germany at that time in 1937.

    Hitler was now in full control and he and his followers geared the country slowly into a massive war machine. It did not take very long to turn the humble machine manufacturing factory into a tank engine manufacturing plant. Dad now had a complete turnaround from designing sewing machines, etc, to designing tank engines.

    Dark clouds were rolling in very fast over Germany. Dad told me after the war that any complaints in public, of any kind, would have landed him for sure into a concentration camp commonly known in Germany as a "KZ." Then on 15 May, 1939, my father was drafted up for military training. He had to report to the Recruiting Center in Blankenburg in the Harz Mountain region in Gottingen for four months up to the 15th of September 1939.

    After basic military training, Dad was trained as a tank driver. He later told me that his involvement with the designing of tank engines and his qualifications as a mechanical engineer made him a candidate for what he called Panzer fodder.

    Mum was so lonely during his basic military training that she decided to move back to Austria to live with Aunty Rosa for the duration of his training.

    On 15 September, 1939, Dad called us and urged us to return very quickly to Magdeburg. His military basic training had ended and he must have known then that at any moment, the greatest war in history was about to unfold. Mum and we children spent a few happy days with Dad. One day in late September, Dad was gone, like millions of other Germans -- "To War."

    Kindergarten started at four years of age. One day in early 1940, our kindergarten teacher gave us a letter for our mothers. It informed them that all boys and girls had to be dressed in a standard uniform as laid down by the German Hitler Youth Organization. This was as follows: black high laced shoes, white socks up to our knees, black shorts, a four-button coat, white shirt with long sleeves, black tie with a woven Hitler Youth knot made out of split bamboo, and an Adolf Hitler style haircut for boys. We also had a document to state that we came from Aryan stock. It was at this time that I noticed the disappearance of some of my schoolmates. Little did I know of the forced removal of most children with Jewish ancestors or Jewish families to various concentration camps -- Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Flossenburg, Treblinka, etc., never to return. We attended with those uniforms and every morning lined up in front of our flagpole with the swastika flag flying and singing our Hitler songs.

    One day my mother decided to purchase a tricycle for me and took me to a toyshop. As we entered the shop, my mother, being Austrian, said "Gruss Gott," meaning "Greetings from God," only to be yelled at by some fanatical German saleslady, "Here in this shop you will raise your hand in a German salute and say 'Heil Hitler.' Jawohl! Or I call the Gestapo." Well, my mother responded exactly like she had been instructed and for many days after that incident looked over her shoulder many times. We were issued with gas masks and as my brother had severe asthma and was only a bit over one year old, he went blue in the face and nearly died as Mum attached the mask on his little face. She never tried again after that.

    In 1940, one year after my father went to war, he came home on leave for three days. He had survived the Polish and the French campaigns. My brother and I did not recognize him anymore. On the day he had to leave he told my mother that he would not go back to camp and whilst talking to Mum, who had tears running down her face, there was a knock on the door. Dad opened it only to be confronted by two burly leather-coated Gestapo agents. They advised him to be down at the collecting truck in five minutes or be shot as a traitor. Dad put his arms around Mum, gave her a long hug and said to her, "I would rather be shot by some Russians on the front than by Nazis."

    A few weeks later Mum screamed the house down and I was told that my uncle -- Mum's brother -- had been killed on the Polish front; shot in the heart. Later we received news from one of my uncle's comrades advising that my uncle had been shot in the stomach and died in agony. From that moment, Mum lost weight and fretted every day.

    The bombing of our city, Magdeburg, started in 1941. I was 5 years old and started to notice the tragic moments in our lives. We children had our kindergarten shifted underground in an old coal cellar. We received our daily quarter-liter of milk from the Red Cross but still lost weight as food was rationed out to families, in smaller and smaller parcels, as the war intensified. Now the English Air Force started to throw toys from their aircraft, like small dolls, writing pens, pencils, etc., with an explosive charge in them. Children picked them up and whilst playing with them, had their fingers or hands ripped apart by the explosions. Those toys were not intended to kill but just to maim the child and put a strain on the German medical system. Medicine, which should have been sent to the soldiers on the front, was now used en masse in the homeland. So we were told never ever to pick anything up, anywhere, just report it to the next police station. Many of my school mates landed in hospital by getting injured by those toys. This was only the beginning of the slaughter; the slaughter no little boy or girl will ever forget in their life, as death was to come for many, in many different ways.

    The thunder started in the morning as we had just enjoyed the meager breakfast, but it was not the thunder of the weather; it was the thunder of many, many British bombers that approached our city. Death was coming fast to many of us. The sirens on top of the buildings wailed mournfully as Mum dragged us down three floors, into our bomb shelter many meters under street level with my little brother in one arm, gas masks around her neck and a bag with a little food and water plus medical supplies. I followed her by grabbing onto her skirt, running along the dark tunnel under our home which was lit up by death head symbols painted on the walls in luminous phosphorous paint, until we came to our shelter.

    The shelter was a concrete room of four meters by four meters and three meters high, fitted out with bunk beds around the walls and already occupied by many screaming women with their children and infants. The older people just sat there praying and shaking. Finally the heavy steel door was slammed shut. It had a gas seal so if we got hit it would have prevented smoke and gases from entering our shelter.

    The only way out was a half meter by half meter window about one and a half meters above floor level, shut by a steel grid and again by a gas and smoke proof door. To get out if we were still alive after a direct hit was highly unlikely. Those bombs penetrated through meters of solid concrete and by exploding would pulverize everything in the cellar and leave a ten to fifteen-meter crater. I had seen hundreds of them. If by chance the house got hit and just collapsed, the water mains would break, the gas pipes would burst and water would have flooded the cellar in hours and drowned all of us like rats. It happened to many civilians not only in Germany but also in London and hundreds of other cities which were bombed. Dresden in Germany lost as many as 60,000 civilians in one night bombing by the British Air Force. After the war when bombed-out buildings were excavated, deep down cellars were opened with many skeletons inside. People were drowned, gassed or burned to death as they were unable to escape.

    The bombing got heavier day by day during 1942. Not only by day with the Americans but also by night with the British. Night after night Mum dragged us into the cellar and it got so bad that I had nightmares nearly every night. In wintertime especially, the bomb shelter was like a refrigerator. In the mornings when I went to kindergarten I stepped over dead people, blown out of their bombed buildings. No one had time to remove those bodies and there were hundreds of them. The stench from the burned-out buildings and burned flesh will never leave me.

    One day we went to the railway station and a woman was running around with a heavy suitcase. She called out "Hans-Gerda" over and over again. She was really mad, until one German Red Cross Sister stopped her and opened the suitcase and to my horror, with my five years of age, I saw in that open suitcase two burned, shrunken, cooked bodies of two babies. Mum pulled me aside very quickly.

    The next day I saw hundreds of burned bodies stacked up near our house and Mum told me that this large Red Cross bunker was hit by phosphorous bombs and they all burned to death. I have seen people stuck into bathtubs, dead, as the side of five-story buildings just blew out and exposed five floors. One could see kitchens, bedrooms, toilets exposed and sheets and blankets, etc., hanging out of them. The streets were covered with all sorts of household goods blown hundreds of meters around. Dead cats and dogs were lying stinking in the streets and gardens. Through all of this mess I still had to attend preschool because every morning we were counted by the teachers and every morning children were missing. One could only guess as to why.

    One day the circus came to town with their horse-drawn caravans, fifteen to twenty of them. They put all those caravans in a circle and next erected a tent. During the following night we had an air raid which lasted nearly half an hour and our house got a direct hit in the garden; which not only destroyed the vegetable garden but created a five meter by ten meter hole. But the most horrible sight was a seven meter by fifteen meter hole where the circus caravans had stood. We never found anything; people or horses. There must have been about fifty of them, all obliterated, consumed by a huge fireball. A direct hit by a 500-kilogram bunker buster bomb.

    I was only five years of age and I had a little brother, so my mother decided to vacate and we got permission from the Gestapo to travel back to Austria and to live again with our Aunt Rosa. This was only possible because my grandfather was a member of the Nazi party. This move saved our lives as two weeks later, our home in Germany had a direct hit by a phosphorous bomb which burned our top floor out. What remained was stolen.

Contents                   Chapter 2