Can you imagine as a young girl running for your life and hiding in cellars hoping the soldiers wouldn’t find you?
That’s what happened to a woman in this area, who only agreed to tell her story if she could remain nameless because even today she fears she could be arrested and taken back to Russia to face the crime of escaping from there.
She’s now 81 years old and has been living in America for 63 years. She was born in 1937 and lived with her mom in Ukraine and Poland and her aunt Martha in Poland and Germany. In 1939 all young men were taken to war. In 1943 they were ordered to leave the country, and in a short, short time, they loaded up their covered wagon and traveled in a caravan with their belongings and landed in Poland.
“At that time mother and I were with some other people, but somehow we were separated from aunt Martha. Later she came and visited us, and I begged her to take me along.” Aunt Martha said she would come back, and she kept that promise. “She came back and took me with her. We were in Poland until 1946. Then, aunt Martha and I escaped to East Germany. We didn’t get back to my mother.” They escaped once again going to West Germany, she said, noting there was a soldier watching the border, and as long as you had something to give him, like food, he would help you past the stream, so they came to West Germany.
“Before that, in East Germany, I started going to school when I was 9 because of the war. We were prisoners all along; we feared for our life. Aunt Martha and I were running through the woods and down the cellars.” At one point in Poland, she said, a man, his wife and two daughters, plus she and her aunt, went down into a cellar. “He wanted to shoot his family. He took his pistol, and I don’t remember who he held it against first, but the pistol didn’t go off. God was his guide and our guide to protect us from that.”
She said they saw horrible, terrible times and didn’t want to live through it. “But I am here today, alive and well, escaped from East Germany to West Germany. We lived in one room, and Martha and I shared a bed. When we got older we couldn’t fit both our heads on the pillow, so one used the pillow, and the other had her head at the foot of the bed. All the years we were together we had one single bed to share.”
While in West Germany, because she missed so much school, in two years she was moved up four grades. In 8th-grade, she was 16 at that time and, her aunt found a place for her to work. “I was there for two years, training to be a beautician. That was my first connection with people to speak to, work with and find out I had friends. It was getting better and better as I moved further west.”
From age 13 she lived in West Germany. She said she came to West Germany in 1949. Then in 1951, some relatives wanted to go to America, and they decided to go too.
“My aunt was 14 years older than me. Because coming later from East Germany, the people from West Germany wanting to go to America could go, so the quota was filled, and we could not go. So, the others went.”
In 1955 her aunt applied once more to come to America, and they were granted permission, and the same couple that had said they would sponsor her before, agreed to be her sponsor. “It was June 27, 1955, when we left Hamburg on a plane to fly to New York, with a stopover in Iceland for refueling.”
When they landed in New York, there was a bus standing there. “Aunt Martha decided to go into the bus ,and we didn’t know where we were going. Then our sponsors called out our names, and we came out of the bus and were joyfully taken into their home to Clifton, New Jersey, where I lived with them for a year.” The family then moved to upstate New York, with their children. “That was my first family life. I had a great year my first year. My aunt took good care of me.”
She said the greatest thing with her sponsor family was that they called her their German daughter. “I was fully accepted and loved and cared for.”
When that couple moved away, she stayed with aunt Martha’s sponsors and went to beauty school. “I had trouble not knowing the language and being in a new country, but I did go to beauty school for two months and had several jobs.”
She said she’s still scared, and sometimes it’s easy to talk and other times not so much. “God was our guide. I remember in Poland we would go down the cellar, all the people who could be together, and we’d say the Lord’s Prayer. I was grateful to be in this country. At the time I left in 1955 they were rebuilding the ruins from the war. That was a tough time. We had left Germany, and after the war, they were getting rebuilt.”
She said she doesn’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t left Germany. “In 1955 I had established a friendship and didn’t want to go, but my aunt said ‘Where I go you go.’” The immigration office gave them a choice of going by plane or ship, and her aunt said ship. “As we left the immigration office I told her I know how it is on a boat but don’t know how it would be on a plane. We lived on the Weser River surrounded by beautiful mountains. I wanted to go by plane, and she said let’s change so we did.”
Her first trip to return was in 1989, and 10 days after their return from West Germany the wall came down.
In 1983 her mother died. “I never did see her. In West Germany I remember going through the streets and wondering if this woman could be my mother. I remember aunt Martha did try to find her through the Red Cross, but with the war, Ukraine, Poland, East Germany could not find her so declared her dead.”
In 1956, after her one year in the United States, she worked at a resort for 10 weeks. Her aunt earlier had moved to New York City, and she received a letter from friends in Siberia and got the word when in the Catskill Mountains that her mother was alive and had been taken from Poland to Siberia. “We were writing back and forth and, in the meantime, I found out she was remarried and had two children. One I have met, the other I have not.”
They were writing back and forth, she said, then her half sister came over with her husband. Robert, the woman’s husband, said Ira, the half-sister, had called them from West Germany to see if they wanted to come meet her. Robert said, “We went over. It was a strange situation. She looked like a small version of my wife. They were there just for a short time. Some things they wanted to talk about and that was in Russian.” Robert said they spent 10 days there, then took the train back to the Frankfort airport.
Ira later visited them at their home. “We went to a graduation party in Willmar, and she wondered where all the cars came from.” They tried to invite her mother to come visit them. It took a lot of red tape. They had to write the invitation in English as well as Russian. They had to have it approved at the county level, then the secretary of state, then Washington and finally Moscow.
“For mom to come over she would have to travel by train to Moscow, and it was too much for her. She had a heart condition and diabetes so she could not travel.”
Robert said they were rethinking making the trip over, but since his wife is an escaped person, it would not be safe. “The government knew what we were planning, and we had to answer a questionnaire. The questions made me uncomfortable. We would have had to fly to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan.” It was impossible, they said, as there were questions about cost and where to stay.
“When I met my half sister, we were strangers. She spent some time with us but expected more from me than I could give her. We’re not in touch anymore.” She went on to say she hardly knew her mother. “When she married she was distant to me. I felt I had enough with my five children and husband. I have no relatives in Germany or Ukraine.”
She said guilt comes up in her life; she feels she has not done what she could have done. “I could go back to Germany.” Robert said he doesn’t know how safe she would be going back with the political system there.
“I’ve been here 63 years, and for 52 years been married to a husband who cares, provides and lives with me.” Robert said they thank the lord for protecting her and all those that were with her.