St. Cloud woman played on bombs, in bomb craters while growing up in Germany
When Ortrud Luethmers was 10 years old, one of her favorite places to play with her friends was in the bomb craters right outside her door. “We had fun playing on the bomb that was sticking about two feet out of the ground,” she said. “We used to jump over it, and sit on the mechanism on top and play games on it.”
She assumed it had been disarmed. But she also knew of kids who had their hands blown off by hand grenades that they found in the German war zone. “We found one, too,” the 76-year-old St. Cloud resident remembered.
Ortrud was born in Laupheim, Germany, in 1943 during the height of World War II and the allied bombing campaign. Her father worked as an engineer in northern Germany for the Focke-Achgelis company, developing the Focke-Achgelis Fa Drache 223 helicopter.
When that factory was bombed, the family moved to the small village of Orsenhausen, Laupheim Township, in southern Germany, to continue their work there.
After World War II, Ortrud’s father, Rudolf Reichert, and other engineers were captured by the French and taken to Paris.
“They were put in prison there,” Ortrud said, “until the French determined they were not Nazis, and never had been. My parents were forced to be in the Hitler youth, which was mandatory, but they hated it. Everybody around the world wanted the German engineers.”
The English occupiers offered to send them to England, or Brazil, but Ortrud’s parents declined. “With two little kids, mother didn’t want to go there, so my father decided to stay and work voluntarily for the French for three years. He earned a lot of money, but he wasn’t allowed to send it back to Germany. He sent us fur coats and dresses, fabrics for sewing and things like that. He seldom came home to visit us.”
Starting in 1949, like many other families, the Reicherts were declared refugees and were required to move to Orsenhausen. Nearby was the Schwendi castle, where the friendly baron took the refugees in until they could be settled. At this point, the German money system had been revamped. “The notes we had weren’t worth anything any more. It would take 50,000 Marks to buy a loaf of bread at that time.”
With their father in Paris, Ortrud, her sister Uta and mother Gertrud were taken in by a small farmer’s family in Alsenhausen. “My mother worked for the French occupiers stationed there, cooking and translating. We children had all of the days on our own, with the cows and pigs and hens.”
When her mother returned home late, she spent time translating for the British. “She had to make a living for us, which is why we children were so often on our own. But it was really good there, a wonderful, tiny, tiny village.”
On free days her mother held regular bible studies for Ortrud, her sister, and two other “refugee” boys from northern Germany.
“We also looked at the pictures in the family Bible and heard the stories. I remember one picture that showed a white dove, and one day I looked up into the bright sky, and had a vision from God, of the white dove.”
“The boys and Uta and I were the only Protestants, so we were different, and we really felt it. We spoke Northern German, and we were teased about our dialect. The others spoke a southern dialect that was really broad, and they couldn’t understand us.”
Nevertheless, Ortrud was fascinated by some Catholic festivities and the little green and pink dresses the girls wore, with flowers in their hair.
In 1950, Ortrud said, her father got an offer to work in hydraulics in the south of Stuttgart. “Suddenly one day, we moved. We girls sat in the open on a couch in the back of a truck as we drove there. My father was really sought after.”
They had to live in a kind of barracks near the Daimler-Benz works, Ortrud said. “We didn‘t get a big explanation of everything that was happening. At least not as kids. It was a lower middle-class area with just a few houses around, occupied by American officers. So seeing them was normal daily life.”
Nearby was a nice villa where higher officers lived, including a black American family. “One of the girls I played with was a black girl, and it was the first time I ever saw black people.”
Ortrud discovered that the local toy store had a black doll, so every day after school when Ortrud was six she stood at the window, admiring the black doll.
One day a man came and grabbed her hand, and offered her 50 cents if she would go with him. “I had the strange thinking of a kid that doesn’t want to be the center of attention. We had been strongly warned not to talk to strangers, and I didn’t want my classmates to think I was talking to a stranger. I figured if I let him hold my hand they would think he was a relative, which was okay.”
She told the man she would go with him if he gave her 50 cents for her sister, too, which he did. He took her to the dark entryway of a house, and began to pull down his pants. “I said ‘I have to go,’ and I ran home. It was strange that I wasn’t afraid.”
She gave her sister the 50 cents, and said that she shouldn’t tell anybody. But Uta did. Ortrud ended up describing the man to the police, and two days later he was caught.
Eventually at the toy store, “One day the workers invited me to come in and look at all of the toys. I was amazed and in awe.”
And excited when her mother bought the black doll for her for Christmas.
The Americans provided a food program. “We had little cans with a handle on it, and cover, so we lined up during lunch every day and got food. Wednesday it was noodle soup, and Thursday trail mix, and so on. That was normal for us kids.”
The barracks-house had two bedrooms, one living room, a kitchen and a toilet with a chain to flush. The bath was downstairs in the basement. “It was a common bathhouse, with a laundry, and that’s where we played a lot.”
They also played in the more than a hundred bomb craters surrounding their house in the immediate area. One day when Ortrud was about 8, and kids were playing outside, she stood up on a bench and yelled, “Look at me, everybody,” and jumped about five feet down into a crater.
And broke her arm.
The daughter of the doctor was there, so instead of going in to Ortrud’s mother, the girls walked a half hour to the doctor. “He put a cast on my arm. When he was finished he said, ‘If you do it one more time, I’m going to cut that arm off,’” she laughed.
Again the kids roamed free, and the people living there were close. “We were all poor, and knew each other, and the kids had close relationships, and all the parents helped each other.”
Ortrud did spend some time in elementary school, where they were required to use small slates on which they could write. “We did some work on the slate, mainly math, reading, local geography — which was really special and important, writing and crafting,” which is important in Ortrud’s life today. ”
Ortrud was also chosen by the Americans to attend an English-learning program. “That was another one of the nice things the Americans did. It started my love of languages.” Ortrud can speak five languages.
When Ortrud and Uta got home from school, they made a big snack with a big chunk of bread. Ortrud added lard and salt, and her sister added vinegar, water, and sugar to the bread.
In 1955, when Ortrud was almost 12, the family moved to Stuttgart, Germany, after her father was offered a job there. “We lived on the fourth floor of a five-story house that had only people who worked at Bosch.”
Though the area was new and different, the results of the war were not. “The house beside us was just ruins sticking out of a crater. When I was roaming around Stuttgart with my girlfriend when I was 12 or 13, we always looked for nice houses that were abandoned and ruined. We’d go in and look at the places.”
In one of those houses one time they found a grenade. “We knew what it was. We brought it to the police, and they shouted at us, because some kids had had their hands blown off when they were playing in the rubble and found something like that. Stuttgart had been over 50 percent destroyed, with very few houses standing, but lots of ruins. It took a long time to rebuild the city.”
Ortrud’s main regret of the time is that her birth certificate, because she was born under the Hitler regime, has a swastika on it, and she hasn’t been able to get an equivalent to an original that doesn’t contain that painful symbol.
Looking back to those years Ortrud said there are many things she would like to ask her parents, but it’s too late for that now.
“The questions have to remain unanswered, just like they do for so many of us.”