©2005, 2009 Bruno Ehlich
Three more months slipped by and it was now May-June 1945. We got used to the U.S. Army and they got used to us and life started to be near normal again. The occupying U.S. forces helped the German civilians to such an extent that one month after this great war, life was getting back on track. Here I must say again, over and over, that especially in Leuchtenberg the 90th Division, known under the name of "The Tough Ombres," did their utmost to help our starving and elderly people. Not only did we receive enough food, we also were looked after medically and health wise.
School started again but otherwise we still went out in the woods to collect the firewood and mushrooms and berries, including as many stinging nettles for spinach and herbs for tea as we could find. So many lovely fruits and food Mother Nature supplied for us. I thank God for all of this. At today's standard of living, hardly anyone takes the trouble to go out in the woods to collect those free and healthy foods Mother Nature supplies for us.
One day Mum was munching on a bit of dry bread crust from our meager U.S. food rations. Starting down to the steep descending street opposite our house, she suddenly collapsed on the floor. Lying there and with her bread still between her lips, she mumbled, "Your Father, your Father is coming!" I rushed to her assistance and my little brother jumped down from the kitchen chair in excitement and we both tried to sit Mum up, which of course was an easy task for us as Mum was by now after six years of war a very, very skinny lady.
Moments later the door to our room opened up and there in the semidarkness stood this unshaven, really dirty man, in a half German and half U.S. uniform, rushing up to Mum and us. Until today I don't know why on earth we boys just took off. We bolted past this man and out of our room, down the stairs and into the beer garden. We just sat on one of those beer garden benches and waited and waited until Mum came down to assure us that this really gross looking man was our Dad we hadn't seen for so long. She ushered us upstairs and we now saw a clean-shaven, neatly dressed man sitting on one of our kitchen chairs, staring at us. He never said a word. It must have been very hard for him. So many years of not having seen his boys he only dreamed about in the trenches of Russia.
We boys just stood there. Was it reality? Was it our Dad? The Dad we had heard of, day after day? Deep, deep down our conscience took over and we slowly approached our Dad. The Dad we longed for so long. He touched us gently and we received each a bag of chocolate and sweets he had saved from his camp rations. The ice was broken. It must have been totally and emotionally devastating for him.
Mum just cried for days as I can remember, and that night we slept in the barn on sweet-smelling freshly cut grass and straw. Mum and Dad had to do something to create in our small room more sleeping space. Dad now received from the Red Cross two army stretchers. They went side by side for our parents. Dad constructed out of secondhand timber double bunk beds for us boys. Dad assured us that in the very near future we would go back home to Austria to our beloved Purkersdorf in the lovely Vienna Woods. Home to our own family we had not seen for so long.
As springtime slowly changed to summer there was a mood change of the Bavarian people towards Austrians which intensified week by week. I could see it all around me. The native village people stopped talking to us and Dad and Mum realized that there was something going on, we just could not put our finger on it. My school friends and buddies of years stopped coming to play. Mum told us that the villagers also stopped talking to her. Then one day in late August 1945 the village priest came to see Mum and Dad. The news he gave us was something they never expected to happen. He warned my parents that in the very near future we would have to leave our beloved Leuchtenberg, our new home now for many years, especially for us children. I loved Leuchtenberg; the castle, the forest and brooks; even the Bavarian people I had started to love. However, this friendship was going to cease very soon, as again the people of Bavaria were stirred up by politics of their own doing. The reason behind all this at that time was very simple. Hitler was an Austrian, and so were we; my mother, my father, myself and my little brother. And as Hitler and Germany including Bavaria had lost the war, which brought untold misery and death to millions, we the migrated Austrians ("blow-ins") now were prosecuted for all that misery Hitler had brought unto them. A thousand homeless refugees from the eastern frontiers streamed into Germany and Bavaria, and we the Austrians were told to go where we bloody came from, and these were only some of the words they used.
Early in November it all came to a head. The children in school started to call me and my brother "Ostmark Schwein." Suddenly all our friends turned into enemies. On the street and everywhere we were called Ostmark Schwein, or "bloody go home you Ostmark Schwein." Mum started to cry and Dad started to have nightmares, reflections of battlefield incidents. Life was going to be hell in our little room in that hotel.
One day Dad was told to go see the Burgermeister of Leuchtenberg. There he was told that he had 24 hours to leave Bavaria and to return to Austria. Our German citizenship had been canceled and in this instant we were declared refugees. Dad was devastated. All we had was in one room, and most of it was junk.
With winter approaching fast and with Mum pregnant by now, we were afraid she would have a mental breakdown. In those days after the war with thousands of refugees seeking help, very little was obtainable. So with only one day to go, Dad gave notice to his boss. He loaded up our hand-drawn cart for our trip. Our trip home started in December 1945.
Terrible winds started coming from the east accompanied by ice and sleet. The roads were iced up and slippery. In this condition, Dad dragged our little cart with my brother totally covered with bedding towards our first destination, the little town of Vohenstraus, 12 kilometers from Leuchtenberg. Mum and I, covered in heavy winter clothing, helped Dad by pushing the little cart. Initially, the first kilometer out of Leuchtenberg was very steep. However, after leaving the village itself, the road leveled out so the pushing and pulling of the cart became a little easier. Slowly our little village started to fade away in the cold foggy winter's day; glimpses of the castle tower sticking out of the fog, and then the village was out of sight. This is still embedded in my memory today 60 years later. It took 50 years to come back to visit, only to see a different, modern town. The only things that had not changed were the castle and the woods.
Nevertheless, back to our trip. We entered the dark forest between Leuchtenberg and Vohenstraus. Reminders of the fighting between the American forces and the Germans were everywhere: burned out vehicles, tossed uniforms and hastily made graves indicated a fanatic resistance of the Wehrmacht. Believe me, walking through this was like a nightmare and having seen this since I was four years old, and with nine year olds having experienced fighting, this had not made a major impact on me.
Dad stopped the cart and reminded me of an incident I had forgotten long ago. He must have had this story told by my uncle who visited us just after he came back from the camp earlier in the year, quite hilarious and it went like this; no wonder we lost the war! Early in 1944 my Uncle Walter, a Stuka pilot, came to visit us in Leuchtenberg. He looked very charming in his officer's uniform with his cap cheerfully pushed back on his head. On his black army belt hung an army issue Luger in a shiny leather holster. We kids loved Uncle Walter. He was funny and adored us children. "Uncle Walter," I said, "I am now helping in school with the loading of ammunition belts and learning to shoot, and helping with digging trenches and in general helping the SS around the castle." He was very impressed with my work and admired all the badges I had acquired during the last two years. So I asked Uncle Walter if he would be so kind as to let me have a go with the Luger. Well, Mum flew up in a rage but Uncle Walter said "Of course, Bruno, let's go out in the woods and I will let you have a shot." Toward Vohenstraus we marched. I was so proud of my uncle as all the villagers looked at him in his flashy uniform.
Approaching the Black Forest, we walked straight up to a large pine tree where Uncle Walter drew his Luger out of the holster. He passed it up to me and carefully pointed the weapon toward the tree. Pulling back the slide, he told me to pull the trigger. Well, BANG went the weapon. My hand flew up in the air and the rancid smell of burned cordite floated around in the still morning air. Pointing towards the tree, I noticed the white exposed timber of the pine tree, which reminded me now 50 years later of the bullet which missed my brother in the trench and hit the tree. Anyhow, I was so excited about that I asked Uncle Walter if I could have another go. My request was denied, and I was satisfied and thanked him for this experience.
Now to the conclusion of this story. Weeks later the Gestapo knocked on our door, with half the villagers looking on. They had Uncle Walter between them and he looked very upset. The Gestapo asked me if the story my uncle had told them was correct and told me that I would have to accompany them to that tree in the woods to find the spent cartridge to certify his story about him letting me shoot. Confirming this was true, we walked again out towards Vohenstraus. My uncle did not look well at all. He was pale and sweating, hoping to Jesus Christ we would find the cartridge in that moss-covered ground. Upon reaching the forest it didn't take me very long to find the tree and after searching for nearly 15 minutes we recovered a nice shining 9-millimeter Luger shell, and we had to dig the lead slug out of the tree on top of it. I today cannot remember much of this but Dad told me that German officers on leave took with them one clip of ammunition with their weapon, in this case a nine-bullet clip, and it had to be used ONLY in self-defense, nothing else. Upon coming back from leave, Uncle Walter of course had only eight bullets and no alibi of any self-defense. In other words a German military command not obeyed. Had we not found this shell and the projectile, Uncle Walter would have had a very severe punishment.
In the last year of the war, millions died fighting the Americans, Russians, English and French on German soil, where thousands upon thousands of tons of ammunition was wasted, towns lay in rubble like my beloved Magdeburg or Vienna just two of many. The bloody GESTAPO worried and spent days chasing one lousy bullet. I always say, "No wonder they lost the war," ha ha, and Thank, God for that!!!
So past this military wrecking yard we trudged, my little brother Fritz now crying as the cold morning air brought on his never-ending asthma attacks and of all the wrong places, out there in the woods. But Mum carried with her some glass container and I cannot remember anymore how it worked but Fritz got slightly better.
Hours later we could see the town of Vohenstraus approaching. Not soon enough as Mum started to wobble on her legs. It was just too much for her and being in the early stages of pregnancy, the conditions we were exposed to took their toll. My father spotted a farmyard about half a kilometer from the road. He left us standing on the road and walked over to the main building only to discover it had been vacated and heavily damaged, presumably during combat. We pulled our cart over to the farm building again past foxholes and burned and damaged military equipment. Another reminder of what went on here months ago. Dad decided not to enter the main building as he later told me it could have been boobytrapped by some fanatic SS men. I was glad that my father had all that military experience necessary to survive out here. We all made ourselves at home in a large barn with lots of straw. Dad went out and organized the water and food. When he came back Mum was already asleep. Fritz and I had some meager food of herbal tea and dry bread with salt strewn over it and each an apple. Hardly had we gone to sleep in this very moldy smelling straw when Dad woke us up and told us that it was time to go. Mum had a nice hot cup of tea and some food my father had especially taken with us for her in her condition.
Tired and stiff, we arrived in Vohenstraus. This town was used by the 90th Division. We could see many U.S. soldiers walking about and cruising around in their jeeps. Vohenstraus is on the main route south towards Austria. Dad arranged with the Burgermeister and the Red Cross for passage to the city of Passau in a military bus supplied by the Red Cross to ferry certain refugees (like women, children and invalids). Passau was the nearest place for us to catch the train to Vienna, Austria.
In Vohenstraus we left our faithful cart and changed it for a nice but hard wooden bus seat, better than walking. The journey took us past some grizzly sights. Along the road we passed hundreds of open gravesites. We could see Germans under GI guards excavating many murdered prisoners' bodies hastily buried there months before by the fleeing German SS. Those were the unfortunates from the Flossenburg Concentration Lager on their death march towards Austria's death camps. Lucky for some of them they were rescued by the fast-overtaking U.S. forces before reaching their intended destination. Later in the night we arrived via the city of Cham at the lovely border town between Austria and Germany, Passau, in the province of Bavaria.
Again we had to sleep on straw but this time it was nice and new. The Red Cross supplied some hot beverage and food and we all slept like babies this night, as the next morning should bring to us the feeling that the poor Jews must have felt on their transport to the death camps. Except our transport was to freedom.