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2014, Aaron Elson

   

Born on the wrong Side of the Fence

Biography and Memories of an Austrian Migrant

1936-1947

Bruno Ehlich

2005, 2009 Bruno Ehlich

Chapter 3

Bavaria, Germany, 1943

    We said goodbye to my Aunt Rose and Aunt Anna, taking our very few belongings, only three suitcases full of personal clothing, etc. We left Vienna in May 1943. I was seven years old and my brother Fritz four and a half. At the age of seven I had seen so many bad things I was longing for something nice. I longed for my father and I longed to be together with Mum for longer periods, and I expected this with our move to Bavaria.

    All railway stations were full of German soldiers either going to or returning from the battlefields. Not many civilians traveled around in those days. Trains were strafed by Allied fighter planes or blown up by saboteurs, so actually getting to your destination was pure luck. Trains sometimes got rerouted or stopped for long periods of time to load or unload soldiers or the Gestapo, or SS were looking for spies or escaped prisoners of war or Jews.

    It took us nearly 22 hours to arrive in Weiden in Bavaria, called by the locals "die Oberpfalz." Mum had some food with her that Aunt Anna gave us from her shop, like ham, bacon, marmalade and ersatz Kaffee (coffee made from barley grain).

    On arrival in Weiden we took a bus to our final destination, Leuchtenberg, a small village of about 80 farms gathered around a semi ruin of the Castle of Leuchtenberg. From Weiden to Leuchtenberg it took nearly one and a half hours for the 20 kilometers. Leuchtenberg is on top of a mountain, about 300 meters above sea level. The bus, overloaded with farmers, soldiers and equipment, nearly did not make it to Leuchtenberg as the wood-fired boiler stopped many times and had to be refueled with small logs. Sometimes we all had to get out and push the bus over the next hill.

    Finally, after nearly 25 hours of traveling, we arrived in Leuchtenberg, our new home for the next two and a half years. The village of Leuchtenberg dates back to about 900 AD and is clustered around the castle. In 1943 the village population amounted to about 1,000. Ninety percent of its residents were farmers and tradespeople, like blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, storekeepers, council employees and of course the village priest and his staff.

    I had never seen a cow pulling farm wagons loaded with hay, etc., which had been harvested from the fields around this lovely cobblestone village. My brain was rattling in overdrive, so much to see, so much to investigate. For a seven year old city boy it smelled like adventure; there was the misty Black Forest which surrounded this magical little village with its babbling brooks and moss covered rocks and especially this eerie old castle with its dark dungeons and tales about ghosts and spells. Wow, what a time I imagined we would have! But reality came down like a brick, hitting me on the head. The bus stopped at the only country pub in that village called "Gasthof zum Burgrug" (Hotel Castle Mug). This hotel was attached at that time to the castle itself and also by an underground passage which had caved in long ago, or had it? The hotel was, and still is today, three stories high. At that time in 1943 it had a large three-story high barn attached with a beer garden in the front in which stood a massive chestnut tree about 400 years old. The barn, beer garden and tree were removed in the 1960s and replaced with a garage, storeroom and discotheque.

    In the beer garden there were benches and tables and locals, tourists and soldiers sat under the shade of this magical old tree drinking and eating. The owners of the hotel were Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, an elderly couple with two sons and one daughter. The sons were killed in the last stages of the war in 1945 along with their father.

    We were received with smiles and love and, being the only refugees in the village at that time, we were quite a novelty. Mr. Kraus allocated us a room on the first floor above the beer hall. The room was two and a half meters wide and five meters long with a window overlooking the main street. One door directly opposite the window opened to a passage that led downstairs into the beer garden. The room had a wardrobe, two single beds, a cot, a little woodstove, a table and three wooden chairs. That was all for two years. No running water, no tap, no sink, no refrigerator, no cupboards; nothing. Mum and I had to carry the water up in a bucket and we boys had to learn very quickly that we had to go  to the woods to collect firewood for the stove and bring it upstairs. Prior to that we had to chop it up so it fit into the little stove.

    The first few nights Mum pushed those single beds together so we kept each other warm until she could arrange bedding for us all. Only God knows how she did it. I only remember Mum cried a lot in those nights. I cannot ever remember her cuddling me and I still have no recollection of ever being cuddled or kissed, though she looked after us two boys like diamonds. Thinking back today, it must have been hard for her, coming from a rich family to this standard, only because of one fanatical "Herr Hitler" trying to create Lebensraum (invading other countries to expand the Reich).

    Next we had to report to the headmaster of the village school. I was totally confused by the dialect these Bavarian people spoke as it was like getting myself transferred into the jungle of Senegal. I could not understand 80 percent of what he told my mother. I spoke the Viennese Austrian dialect which, thank God, is nearly 15 percent Bavarian and then I spoke perfect Berlinerish having lived only 60 miles south of the German Nazi capital. Not bad for a child of seven.

    Mum was given a sort of slate board, yes, slate like slate on roofs, just with a wooden frame about 25 centimeters by 28 centimeters, a box of chalk, a grammar book and one mathematics book and, of course, a Nazi song book. Lastly a copy of the Hitler Youth code of conduct was also given. The instructions were that I had to arrive by eight in the morning exactly and stand, rain or shine, with all the other children in front of this huge flagpole to receive our daily speech about our glorious Herr Hitler and our glorious army (which was by this time decimated in Russia by the thousands and retreating). Then we had to sing this Horst Wessel song. Of course I had no idea about the words as this had never happened to me before. Our hands were raised in a Hitler salute and then we marched into our classroom which was covered with all sorts of Nazi items and the photograph of Adolf Hitler hanging above the blackboard.

    Every classroom was heated in the winter. Sometimes with those dreadful snowstorms raging, we arrived wet and soggy and we had to take our shoes off and put them in front of this huge stove which was fed by the students with pine logs that we had to bring to school ourselves. Seating for the students -- 20 of us girls and boys -- were small wooden benches attached to tables with a slanted top which one could lift up to store the books; but the worst situation was that it sat two students per bench and table, disregarding the body size of each.

    My fellow student was of course a huge 9-year-old well-fed farmer's boy. He looked me up and down and said, "Well, you Ostmark Schwein," which translated meant "Well, you Eastern pig," Austria of course being east of Germany. So I learned in my seven years what it meant to be a refugee in a foreign country. Hitler had Austria annexed into the German Reich but this had little understanding with these Bavarians. Well, I was small and skinny but still I said that he himself looked like an overfed pig. Well, this boy did the worst thing anyone could do to such a small boy as myself. He dobbed me in to the teacher and in front of 10 girls and 10 boys I received the cane across my bottom 10 times and then I had to stand for a full hour in the corner of the classroom with my nose touching the wall. That was my first day in a Bavarian Nazi-run school!

    Lunch was a slice of bread with an apple Mum pinched from a farmer's tree and still today, 50 years later, that is my favorite meal! Poor Mum, only God knows how she did it. At 4 o'clock school was finished and we had to salute the flagpole and yell Heil Hitler. I then walked one kilometer home to our small room, and started homework for school and homework for Mum -- like running to the woods collecting firewood and picking mushrooms for the evening meal, including stinging nettles we used to make the spinach and berries. We walked miles on Sundays to collect this type of food and collect firewood for the winter. Mum dried the mushrooms and boiled the berries and other fruits for jam. As we settled in, Mum made some dolls out of rags and stuffed them with sawdust, then painted them with colored pencils. She then walked for kilometers around the farms and the village to trade them for food.

    Life was hard for me at that time in 1943 as my life was "school, discipline, work and more work at home." I had to be the man in the family as my brother was ill with asthma and could not at that time be without medicine and could hardly walk or run. At times when we had nothing to do, I took him into the woods and laid him on to some nice moss near my favorite stream and collected some berries for him. I told him stories about our father we never knew and that one day we would be back in Vienna. He smiled at me and hugged me often, he with the blond hair and pale face. I carried him on my back until my spindly little legs could not stand it any longer, then I would sit him down and we would lie in the cool green grass in the forest, listening to the cuckoo birds. Mum never worried about us as she knew that even at my little age, I had a grown man's heart and a survival instinct, which I have never lost.

    What really stood out in that village was that nearly every house had a swastika flag flying, especially the Gestapo and Army headquarters opposite our hotel. The roof of that building was about level with our living quarters in the hotel and only 25 feet across the street. Bavaria had always been the beehive of the Nazi movement but in Leuchtenberg, it really topped the lot. The castle Leuchtenberg, remote from everywhere, on top of this mountain and surrounded by this tiny village, was quietly used by the SS for the storage of all confiscated goods and belongings taken away from the Jewish families as they arrived at the concentration camp Flossenburg, for shooting and cremation.

Contents                   Chapter 4