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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 4

1943

    Finally war had followed us again but now I was eight years of age and my brother six and a half and we noticed and understood now what this was all about. Even at my age, I absorbed every moment of these turbulent times. Later, in my forties and fifties, I actually realized I had a photographic brain so I just tapped into it and all these memories came flooding back like magic.

    In spring 1944 the Gestapo brought French prisoners from the KZ Flossenburg to do work around the village as most able-bodied German men were drafted into the army. The farm work was done mostly by the women of the village so the use of the prisoners was a very welcome gift for them. The prisoners were watched by older armed civilian guards, all of them, of course, Party members and all also involved in shady deals with the camp commanders. An uncle of mine told me in later years what actually went on behind the scenes in the Party. Most ordinary Germans suffered badly during the war but Party officials in higher positions were involved in some very bad dealings, especially when it involved  the confiscated belongings of the shot and murdered Jews and prisoners of the KZ Flossenburg, 30 miles from here. One day my mother was allocated a French prisoner to help in cutting down one pine tree in the woods. To tell this in a more detailed funny story, we here in this village were given one five-meter pine tree for cutting down and storing for firewood once only and one tree per year.

    This tree was picked out by a Party member known as Flur Wachter under the Forest Warden. His nickname was Kurzwatmichel Himmelhergot Scaramenter but his real name was Josef Bausch. One tree per year per family was not enough to cook and heat, especially in winter with up to two meters of snow and icy winds blasting down from the north. We then had to collect every scrap of timber that fell off the trees in the woods, especially the mostly loved pine cones, on weekends. During the summertime they dropped by the thousands in the forest so we kids chased them up, especially after some windy days, and Mum rewarded us with cookies for a few buckets full of pine cones. Also in our spare time we collected berries and mushrooms.

    So our French prisoner, his guard, Mum, my brother and I went out to the woods to inspect our tree and cut it down into one meter long sections. It was then marked and piled up for us to collect in due time with our little hand cart made by one of Mum's friends. In those hard times you would think that someone would steal these piled-up wood heaps but this never happened. There were hundreds of those stored woodpiles but they were never touched by anyone. I think the thought of landing in one of the concentration camps stopped a lot of crime from happening during the war times.

    Our French prisoner was cutting with Mum, back and forth the saw went, the guard sitting on a rock with his pistol handy in his belt, eating his lunch. Feeding the prisoner was Mum's duty, as she later did. During a whispered conversation whilst sawing, Mum told me after the war, the prisoner asked Mum to bury some civilian clothing near the fallen tree because it was his intention to escape in the following days and he would be so grateful for it and after the war if he got safely away he would thank Mum a thousand times over.

    Mum told him yes, she would do it. A few days later my father's suit was gone. God must have been with the prisoner because he made it back to France. We only received one thank you letter years after the war. How this letter found us I will never know, maybe Mum told him her name, God only knows.

    The farms in our village and all around in Germany had a lousy time during the war. The Nazi Party officials went to every farm and selected cows, pigs, chickens, etc., putting an official Nazi tag on them. Then at a given time these animals had to be slaughtered and the meat had to be delivered to the Burgomeister's office. These contributions were supposed to be for the armed forces on the front, but the Party officials looked extremely well fed. At the same time most German civilians starved, especially the children.

    One day my mother made jam from the berries we had collected in the woods. I said to Mum, "Please let me have some," but she said, "No Bruno, we save it for the winter and don't ask me again." As she went out for a while I quickly spread some on a slice of bread, then turned it around so that the dry side was looking upwards and as Mum passed me in the hallway on the way out, she said to me, "Good boy, Bruno." However, as I entered the outside yard, I took my first bite and received a large bee sting on my tongue. The bee had been resting underneath on the jam. My throat swelled up and I started choking. A German soldier rushed me to the German military hospital just next to us where they inserted an air tube into my throat and stopped my tongue from slipping back into my throat. It nearly cost me my life for not obeying my mother.

    Slowly we settled in and the harsh winter of 1944-45 slowly gave way to spring. But changes had happened in our little village with more and more German troops coming and one day they occupied our hotel, even installed their own field kitchen in the cow barn. Well, some of the soldiers actually gave me some of their field rations which I gave to my Mum to share it with her and my brother.

    After the army arrived the food supply for us got better day by day as Mum did some ironing for the officers, including mending and washing. My schooling was getting better but not for long as one day one of the Gestapo arrived and asked for 10 boys as volunteers for the army. They needed help in putting rifle and machine gun ammunition into clips and belts and also running between trenches they had dug around the village with water and rations for the soldiers. So war was actually coming to our village. I was detailed with another older boy to run telephone wires up to a command post which was right on top of the castle's main tower. A very fine observation platform from which to watch the advancing Americans.

    In 1944 schooling had ended and the school closed down. Most of us eight year old boys now worked for the army. Mind you, it was fun, not hard, but we missed our schooling. Once on a Sunday morning as my brother and I were lying in our favorite place near a mossy long rock in the woods, staring up into the blue sky, we heard a rumble approaching we had never heard before in our lives. Being used to bombing raids and actually having been bombed out ourselves, my thought was that this could be one of those raids approaching our village, so we took off to warn Mum. However, we did not get very far as suddenly, whoosh, a German Messerschmidt bf 109, which was being chased by an American fighter, thundered about 50 feet above our heads. It threw us boys into the "thank God" mushy ground where we lay and watched the aerial battle of bombers and fighters. Death was raining down on us, but we just lay there astonished, watching parachutes opening and planes coming down in flames. A large bomber exploded right above us.

    Amazingly, this was later confirmed in 2003 by Vern Schmidt of the 90th Infantry Division. But as metal items like external fuel tanks rained down on us, we made a hasty retreat under some large rocks. It lasted about 20 minutes and then it was all over. Only the smell of burned rubber and oil hung over the woods.

    I collected some of those shiny aluminum strips which came floating down on those little parachutes used to confuse German radar. We showed had we had collected to the Gestapo officers, including one damaged fuel tank; one of those long range fuel tanks ejected during aerial fighting by the American and English fighters. We actually got a slap on our back and another of those pathetic little metal badges.

Contents                   Chapter 5