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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 6

Leuchtenberg Liberated, April 1945

    This angry and shouting (in English) GI had me now by the shirt and dragged me from the church corner to the middle of the road leading to our hotel. Left and right were GIs kneeling or standing with their weapons trained onto every window or door near us. To my amazement, there stood in the middle of the road this huge Sherman tank; clustered on top were about 10 GIs. I can never forget their white eyeballs staring at me out of their dirty faces. Fifty years later my friend Vern in America told me that they did not wash sometimes for ten days when in battle. Now a GI was approaching me accompanied by a lady U.S. Army officer. She spoke a funny German dialect which I scarcely understood; it sounded like "WHO SIND ALLE LEUTE KLEINER BUB?" (Where are all the village people, little boy?"

    The big GI's hand went straight up to my neck and slightly pressed on it. He smiled and passed to me with the other hand a piece of chocolate, which I had not seen for years. Calming down now, I took more notice of what that lady officer had asked me. Then I heard a screeching noise coming out from our hotel. Suddenly Mrs. Kraus, the hotel owner and mother of the dead boy, came storming out from the barn where she had been hiding with a Luger pistol in her hand, yelling, "Where are my boys?" (naturallly in German). "Where is my husband?" She was pointing her pistol at the tank. To my amazement a very young GI ran up to her from behind and grabbed the gun from her. What a heroic act! But Mrs. Kraus, mentally deranged, had not seen anything except the huge tank which stood before her.

    Again the lady officer insisted with a half-English-German voice: "Who sind alle leute?" but no more "little boy," and no more chocolate. No, now it is a serious matter and the grip of the GI's hand tightened around my neck. Spontaneously my answer was "Under the hotel." His grip loosened and I was told to show her where the 90 percent of Leuchtenberg's inhabitants had fled. My mother once told me that in case something like this happened, we would all go to the old tunnel passage which led from the castle to our hotel. It was partly caved in and had caves leading away from the main passage. These caves were storage areas for potatoes and sugar beets.

    Inside the hotel's main entrance was a heavy oak door with rusty hinges and enormous locks. Once down the steps, worn out by nearly 500 years of use, was what seemed to be a four foot wide tunnel passage and 30 feet further down on the left extended two caves with gothic ceilings. All of the walls in these caves were made of huge stones, carved out from the mountains hundreds of years ago, and were now filled to the brim with the Leuchtenberg elderly and young people. Most able-bodied men were on the front fighting or dead or lucky enough to be a prisoner but not so lucky if in Russian hands.

    As my brother and my mother were down there in that cellar, I feared to be severely punished for having given away that hiding place. Sooner or later they would have had to come out of hiding, especially as there were a lot of infants among them.

    I felt the GI's grip tighten more and more, virtually lifting me off the ground. Hundreds of eyes were staring at me. I am the only and I mean the only person who was seen in the street. Mrs. Kraus was led away by the Red Cross sister to the vacated German hospital next to our hotel. Leading the whole bunch of GIs and officers through the main hotel entrance, I pointed to that five foot high by three foot wide door. They knocked on it with their rifle butts. The lady officer yelled in her pathetic half German/half American voice, "Aufmachen schnell, Americans hier."

    Nothing happened. They looked at me. I looked at them. Then I nearly fainted as the GI dropped me on the ground and then fired with his machine gun into the wooden door. There were splinters everywhere, bullets whistling around us, some coming from the other side of the door passing through to our side. The GI's bullets passed down through the door into the passage.

    Nothing happened for a while and then the door sprung open. We heard the women screaming down there with someone yelling, "Okay, we come up."

    To my surprise, a very old German man, in his German "Volksturm" uniform appeared. (The last defense used by the Nazis were old men, 60 to 70 years old, and very young boys like myself, as cannon fodder). As he approached, he held his German Schmeisser machine gun over his head and was leading about 200 people out of the cellar, among them my mother and brother. The GIs took this old man's weapon and led him away. (He was released later.)

    Each woman coming up had to surrender all items carried in their hands. This of course also affected my Mum because she carried a dish of eggs. These did not belong to her but those eggs were stored below in the cold cellar so she took them anyway. Mum noticed that those GIs took everything away from them and dropped the lot on the ground. I never found out why this happened or why she was so angry about giving them to the GIs. Or, did she really drop those eggs because she was so nervous?

    I was pushed to the front and all of those people were marching up and could see me in my Hitler Youth  uniform and they all called me "VERRATER" (Dobber). What choice did I have? None. One old woman hit me right in the face. As I found out later, she had lost her only son on the Russian front. Mum stopped her hitting me but was nearly attacked herself by more women calling her an "Ostmarkschwein" (Eastern pig). Again that hate towards Austrians and Hitler being an Austrian and we were the only Austrians in that village. I said Bavarians at that time were fanatic Nazi followers, but not all, I found out later.

    Eventually the whole cellar was cleared. Women with infants up to three years were led away, again to the military hospital next door. The remainder had to sit down on the benches in the beer garden surrounded by lots of GIs. The interpreter, now with her pathetic broken German language, had by now settled down. To my surprise, she turned out to be a nice, friendly person or she just acted like it, to calm the people down.

    The women and children were separated from the men and then the whole bunch of us were transferred to the church to be locked up for days until everyone answered many questions. This was a very long interrogation. Nobody was allowed home to their residences at all. We were fed, clothed, washed and disinfected with Lysol or DDT, as body lice and fleas were out of control.

    Unfortunately, it was April. It was the end of winter and icy cold therefore a lot of the elderly became ill and had the U.S. Army not looked after us so well, some of us would have surely died. Even today, I think of those millions of poor, poor Jews and other prisoners and their infants dying in the concentration camps because of the cold and having no food. Also being gassed and killed in all sorts of ways. (Please do read books about Treblinka, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and the other concentration camps).

    So to speak, the U.S. Army treated us with kindness. Shivering in my shorts and knee socks, I was given a very small U.S. uniform and yet I still had to roll up the trousers, including very small army boots. I was asked a lot of questions about the army,the whereabouts of weapons, etc. I told them everything I knew. Strangely, I knew a lot, as we schoolboys had been working with the army for now over one year without any schooling.

    I had not seen my Mum for days as the GIs and officers separated me from the villagers for fear they would kill me for having given away their hiding place. Unfortunately my mother and brother copped the lot. At the end of April all detainees in that church, including myself, were put into Army trucks. Not having been told where we were being taken, it was to our surprise that 60 minutes later we were allowed to disembark. God in heavens, the destination was the entrance of the notorious Flossenburg concentration camp. The place of course some of us had never seen or known about. I was surrounded by hundreds of U.S. soldiers with their guns and rifles ready to shoot. We had to line up, two abreast, in a very long column. The U.S. Army also brought in hundreds of other people from surrounding villages and towns. Young boys and girls from the age of eight years were led by their Mums or grandparents. Children below the age of eight and pregnant women had to be separated and were led away to another section of the camp.

    Entering this camp, which incidentally was liberated by the 90th Division and my friend Vern Schmidt the week before, brought on hysterical crying, sobbing and fainting to lots of those Germans forced here to visit. We were marched towards those huge open pits. Inside of them were hundreds upon hundreds of dead, decomposing bodies of Jewish and other nationalities including children and babies.

    Although Flossenburg was not a major extermination camp in itself, these dead people had been brought there in the last days of the war as the U.S. and English/French armies were slowly advancing from west to east.

    We were led through the room with the cremation ovens and the room with the stone table where bodies lay in a heap ready for whatever. We passed heaps and heaps of glasses, shoes, shirts, trousers, ladies' underwear and personal items. The prisoners had to strip before going to their death.

    The smell of those rotting corpses was overbearing. Women fainted, and had to be dragged away by U.S. soldiers. Nobody was allowed to stop walking. The barracks where those unfortunate humans lived had to be burned to the ground as they were infected by typhus, lice, bugs, etc. The most horrible sight of all was an enormous heap of ashes and bones and a wall with thousands of bullet holes and the ground red with blood. My Mum screamed her head off as she demanded to know why in hell we young children had to see this slaughter. The answer was again by the U.S. lady officer, "So that your boys cannot say, in years to come, that it never happened."

    Then it was over. We had to climb up on the trucks and be taken back 38 kilometers to Leuchtenberg to our church home. On the way back, no words were spoken. All of us were in shock. Men with staring eyes, thinking, "God, if we only knew." For years they were screaming their heads off with Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler, our beloved Fuhrer, whilst behind the scenes millions went to their death.

    Finally we arrived back home at Leuchtenberg. One could have heard a needle drop. Men and women with their children disembarked with pale faces, and some had to be assisted to our temporary living quarters at the church; so terrible was the day's adventure for some of them.

    The U.S. Army started to pack up, ready for their departure and advancement towards Austria. However, they left behind a skeleton team of U.S. administration and medical personnel in the German medical hospital next to our hotel.

    Early the next morning the church bells started ringing, which was very unusual so early in the morning. We all knew that there was to be a special announcement and so it was. We all had to assemble in front of our church with our meager belongings. We had the feeling that our release was imminent as it had been now over three weeks in that confinement in the church.

    Again, now our lovable U.S. lady officer bellowed in her broken German dialect this long awaited message. However good this new message was it hit us like a bombshell. "Ladies and Gentlemen of Leuchtenberg," she began. "Today you all can go home to your place of residence. The United States Army had U.S. soldiers and officers living in your homes. You can trust us. Nothing has been taken or stolen. However, some residences have been searched (baloney, most of us thought). But now to further good news. As most of you probably have known the castle and the chapel under the control of the SS and Gestapo were used as storing places of military equipment and clothing for the last two years. Also they contained personal belongings taken from murdered inmates of the Concentration Lager Flossenburg. Those items have been removed for further investigation and in some cases to be returned to surviving relatives or family members in the near future. However, all military clothing has been left for you all here in Leuchtenberg."

    True to her words, the Castle chapel was later opened but without any type of U.S. control or organized handout. It was a total animalistic storm towards the Castle chapel, uphill about 600 meters. Old and young. Therefore the elderly and sick villagers never reached the place in time for the best choices. Military uniforms were taken to be retailored into suits and working clothes for men. They went so far as to recolor the dark green military uniforms into darker colors. God! It was so funny to see all those refits later in the village. Germany had no clothing industry left for years as the Allied bombing knocked all those factories out. Any sort of clothing or clothing material was unobtainable in the last three war years. But the first thing the villagers took were Army blankets, socks, boots, gloves, parachute material and especially woolen socks and scarves. Military jackets lined with sheepskin for pilots of the Luftwaffe were all stored here while soldiers on the Russian front fighting in subzero temperatures froze to death. They lacked those life-giving items which had been rechanneled by corrupt Nazi Party members and officials during the last year of the war. On top of all this misery, hundreds, even thousands of inmates in the terrible concentration lagers froze to death in their wooden bunks for lack of warm clothing. There were stories of prisoners clinging together in the night in their bunks to transfer body heat and still freezing to death. While here some corrupt Nazis stored all these life-giving items in Leuchtenberg's castle. Tons of it! Hard to believe my friends. The more I think back the clearer it becomes.

    I have returned in the late Eighties and Nineties to Leuchtenberg for further investigation; especially on this subject. I got very little response from the locals. I have asked the aged ones but nobody remembers anything!!! But here again history cannot be changed. Nazi officials siphoned these goods away for their own use, betraying their own soldiers and suffering German civilians. It was true; corrupt German Nazi Party members, high ranking officers, lower ranks in the Party -- they well knew the war was over. We will look after ourselves first. Only one thing: They never estimated how quick and fast the glorious U.S. Army would advance to put an end to all those miserable deeds.

    After the war hundreds of Nazi Party members committed suicide or fled to other countries to escape the punishment they greatly deserved. However, the German SS troops and Gestapo removed truckloads of those stored items moments before the liberation of Leuchtenberg which I myself and my brother observed. Moments before they left, they put me in one of their flatbed trucks and asked me to come with them. Me, a nine year old boy. What a joke! I had to jump out of the moving truck and hit the tar road so hard with my knees that it took all the top skin off. Today I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed with them. God! It would have killed my Mum for sure. But even in those days I had this self-preservation mind, or an angel looking after me.

    So rather than let the villagers, including my Mum, go home first, they made a gross mistake by opening the chapel first. Now they ran up to the castle, pushing and wrestling to be one of the first there. Again the strongest, most heavily built farmers' wives pushed my skinny mother away. She had no chance to be there first. Contrary to our belief that the Americans would issue those goods, no, this was not the case. They had separated all confiscated prisoners' belongings already and these had been taken away. Now the show was on. The villagers stormed the castle like animals. The door to the chapel is very small in comparison to a normal door because people 900 years ago were smaller than today, by nearly 20 centimeters. To get into that chapel and out with those items was like fighting a war, everyone grabbing what they could carry. It reminded me of animals like lions wrestling on a carcass. The screaming words of "Go away," "No, this is mine," "I got here first" echoed through the castle walls. My poor Mum arrived there late and all we found was two army blankets, one parachute and three pairs of officers' gloves. Everything else had been taken, cleaned out in one hour. The chapel was cleared of nearly 15 tons of goods.

    The struggle was over. Exhausted, Mum, myself and my brother wobbled home down through the castle's gate and around the corner of the church where I had been captured weeks before, down to our hotel, our room, home for the last two years of misery. A new beginning.

Contents                   Chapter 7