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A rough, scary road to freedom

Woman looks back at harsh childhood, including time in concentration camp

By Rachel Barduson

Maria “Mary” (Fischer) Strasser of Alexandria was born into a stable environment. Her parents were farmers, growing grapes and grains in Werschetz, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). But things changed quickly for Mary (as she became known after moving to America), and she endured years of pain, sickness and suffering, including 18 months in a concentration camp. Her story is about survival, hope, and finding freedom. It also involves starting a new life in a new country and living the American dream.

Mary’s mother, Helen Fischer. Contributed photo

One of Mary’s first memories as a little girl was learning that a war with the Nazis had broken out, and the Russians wanted to get rid of people of German descent. She remembers that the Russians came looking for German soldiers that they thought were hiding in their homes and churches.

“The fields were far away and our homes were built close together, with a private courtyard-like entrance,” she said. “At 6 p.m. one night in October of 1944, two Russian soldiers came to our door and told my father that he had to go with them. If my father didn’t go with them, they said they would shoot him. I hid in my bed. When they left, I looked out my bedroom window at the courtyard, where I saw the two soldiers take my dad away. I only saw him twice after that, in prison.”

On her third visit to the prison (Oct. 23, 1944), Mary found the prison gate padlocked and the place was empty. Her father had been gone for two weeks. “I never saw my father again,” she said.

A few weeks later, at 7 a.m., two Russians came to Mary’s house again.

“This time they told everyone in the neighborhood to be outside in five minutes,” she said. “They were taking us somewhere. I wanted to take my doll, but mother said, ‘no, take your pillow.’ And we had the clothes on our backs. That was it.”

Mary and her mother, Helen, were taken prisoner. Mary was six years old. She is not sure where they went, but Mary and her mother spent the winter with different families who were not of German descent. In April of 1945, the soldiers took them to the town center and lined people up.

“The Russians were against the people of my descent. A custom for girls was to have our ears pierced, so the girls had earrings, which the Russian soldiers took. But, they didn’t take mine. I guess mine were of no value,” she said. “I saw the soldiers rip earrings out of girl’s ear lobes. They pulled and dug out gold fillings in teeth, too.”

Next, the soldiers separated the group, lining the children up on one side of the town center, and the able-bodied women who could work into another line. It was then that Mary was separated from her mother for six months. Mary was able to stay with her mother’s elderly aunt during this time.

“They put us on a wagon and I was going to who knows where without my mother.”

Mary’s mother began working in the fields at this time. In October of 1945, at age seven, and after six months, Mary was reunited with her mother.

“I had long hair and it became infested with lice,” she said. Her mother put petroleum on Mary’s scalp and wrapped it in a towel to rid the lice. Mary woke up with blisters on the back of her neck from the petroleum, but the lice were gone.

Mary Strasser points to different locations where she stayed in her childhood on a map of Yugoslavia (Serbia). Photo by Rachel Barduson

Once reunited with her mother, the two were put on an open cattle car about a month later – on their way to a concentration camp.

“Three days and three nights on the cattle car, to a town I never knew, and never really found out what it was called until much later in my life. The town was known as Molin and the concentration camp was known as Molidorf. We were kept there until April of 1947. Eighteen months in a concentration camp, and remember, the war ended in May of 1945. Why were we kept there? I will never know and the question will never be answered. We slept on the floor on straw, lived on a slim portion of barley soup and a sliver of cornbread each day. If there were crumbs of cornbread on the floor, there were children scrambling to get those crumbs, including me.”

Mary said people were dying of starvation, typhus and malaria.

“I was near death three times,” she said. “I asked my mother if I was going to die. The soldiers asked able-bodied people, including my mother, to carry the dead to be buried. If she would do this, they would give her soup for her child. And so, she did. One day, a boy told her he had used a slingshot to kill a pigeon. My mother got the pigeon and fixed it up for me to eat. I drank the water (no spices) and ate a little bit of meat. After that, he brought a sparrow for my mother to fix, and pretty soon, I started regaining my strength.”

In April 1947, Mary and 38 other people escaped the concentration camp. Mary was now eight years old.

Mary and her mother, brother and his brother’s family. Contributed photo

“Mother had heard that there was a woman who was helping people escape, only, the woman wanted money or something of value in return for helping us. Mother had a prize bedspread. I don’t know how she managed to take it with us when we left home in the first place, but she had it. It was her only possession. She gave it to the woman.”

The group’s plan was to escape to Hungary.

“We gathered at night and we started walking through cornfields to get to the border of Hungary. The soldiers were on our tail and their German shepherd dogs got a whiff of our smell. All 38 of us were captured.”

Mary remembered her mother telling her later, “The young woman who was helping us escape put her hands on her hips and boldly told the soldiers that three men had led them into this trap and the men had gone ‘that way’ as she pointed in another direction. The soldiers did not put us in jail. They kept us all day, but they later helped us cross the border into Hungary.”

It was around this time that Mary’s mother found her son, Mary’s half brother, Josef Milliker, who was 15 ½ years older than her.

“Mother’s first husband had been killed by crooks, and really, mother didn’t even know if my brother was alive. Soldiers gave an opened, censored letter with a wedding picture of my brother and his bride to my mother. We got it in a church where I didn’t even know where we were. How did that letter get there? A miracle? Divine intervention? I will never know. But it gave my mother hope. My brother was alive, and living in Salzburg, Austria.

Shortly after escaping to Hungary, Mary, her mother, another couple and their son, began to walk across Hungary to Austria. They walked for three weeks.

“We asked people if we could sleep in their barns. Mother went from house to house, begging for food. We got malaria again,” she said.

Their traveling group was laying low, but one day found themselves in the wrong place.

“We were sitting in a yard that turned out to be the headquarters of the Communist party,” she said. “They put us all in jail. They thought mother and the other couple were spies, so they were interrogated. Mother pretended she didn’t know Hungarian and needed an interpreter because she didn’t want to be left alone with the Hungarian communists. After time in the grungy jail, the communists decided we weren’t spies after all and they let us go.”

Mary’s immigration papers. Contributed

When they arrived in Elterndorf, Austria, suffering from malaria once again, they registered their arrival with the mayor of the town. Mary’s mother asked the mayor if he knew of anyone who needed a farm worker. Turned out, the mayor had a farm, and he needed help, so he hired Mary’s mother.

“We ate with them and I had baked potatoes for the first time. I think to this day, that is why baked potatoes are my favorite,” she said. “I had never had anything like it. Mother wrote my brother, and he sent us money so we could go to him. When mother had earned enough money, we could take the train to Salzburg, Austria. But first, since we were in the ‘Russian Zone,’ we had to cross a footbridge to the ‘American Zone’ in order to get to the train.”

Mary said they learned of a farmer who would be willing to take them over the bridge. In exchange for helping, he wanted a pack of cigarettes.

“He said that he had never been caught. Of course, we got caught,” she said. “There was a soldier at the bridge with a gun slung over his shoulder. I was nine years old. But, for whatever reason, he let us go too. And we were in the ‘American Zone’ so we continued to walk. I begged mother that we not go to another refugee camp.”

Mary’s mother began working at a hotel and restaurant to earn money for the next leg of their journey.

“Meanwhile, I learned how to mend clothes,” she said. “Mother said a lady from Vienna saw how good I was and wanted to adopt me. If she adopted me, I could go to the best schools and become a seamstress. I begged mother not to be adopted. Of course, mother would never have given me up. After six weeks of earning money at the hotel, we left and were reunited in Salzburg with Josef on Nov. 1, 1947. We lived in Tenneck, Austria, which is about 25 kilometers from Salzburg.”

At the age of nine, Mary began the first grade in Austria. She had a teacher who tutored her on weekends to help her catch up, and she was able to skip the second grade; she began the third grade in the fall of 1948. Mary’s mother worked hard and went to presentations on what it would be like to live in America.

“Mother did not believe everything she was told. She did not believe that a man in a white suit would deliver milk in bottles to people,” she said. “She thought that was complete propaganda.”

When Mary’s mother heard that they could go to America, she applied. She told Josef that he should also immigrate to America with his family. All were sponsored by the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) with the promise that they would find work on a farm for one year once they got to America.

“There was no choice as to where you would be going. Our papers said New Jersey,” Mary said.

In 1951 they boarded a train from Salzburg to Bremerhaven, Germany, and on Mary’s 13th birthday they boarded an American Army ship to the United States of America. The ship would take soldiers from America to Bremerhaven, and instead of sending the ship back to America empty, they brought emigrants to New York City instead. The trip was quite an adventure.

“Since so many people were seasick, mother helped with food service on the ship, carrying trays, cleaning up. I helped too. Since we helped, we were able to eat next to the officer’s kitchen, and eat what was left after the officers were done eating. I had never seen such a sight. Mashed potatoes, and peach halves! We were given a coupon worth $1.50 from the PX to spend on the ship. I didn’t know what a PX was, but mother gave me her coupon for my birthday and I bought a box of Hershey chocolate for $3.”

The Army ship arrived in the harbor of New York City. When Mary saw the Statue of Liberty it was Sept. 4, 1951. They boarded a bus to the train station, with a train headed to Duluth via Chicago. It was a two-day trip.

Tony as a new immigrant in Duluth. Contributed photo

“We couldn’t speak English, and as my mother saw flags along the way (from car dealerships and other businesses), she thought the country was one big circus. I saw a Coca-Cola sign and a fruit stand and couldn’t wait to have both,” she remembered.

They had nothing really, and although the trip was sponsored by the Catholic church, they had to pay the cost of the train fare. They did pay it back. Thinking they were on their way to New Jersey, but learning they were on their way to Duluth, Minnesota, a man who spoke German said, ‘Duluth! It’s so cold, and filled with factories and chimney smoke.’ When mother heard that, she was beside herself.”

On Sept. 6, 1951, Mary and her mother arrived in Duluth. There stood Mary’s brother and his family with Father Larkin of the National Catholic Welfare Conference.

“We didn’t know Josef had left for America two weeks before us and we didn’t know where he was going. How they (the church) managed to work it out so that we could meet family when we arrived is beyond me,” she said. Although they were to go to a farm to work as the church had planned, the man who owned the farm also owned a Buick garage and that is where Josef was offered a job, and he liked it. Father Larkin enrolled Mary at Cathedral School in Duluth and Mary’s mother began working at St. Mary’s Hospital in the housekeeping department, where she worked for 18 years.

Mary studied hard and began learning the English language in the seventh grade with the help of the Dick and Jane books and her first teacher in this country, Sister Marilyn. In 1955, Mary graduated from Cathedral High School.

Meanwhile, Mary’s future husband, Tony, had emigrated with his family too, thinking they were headed to Omaha, Nebraska, but instead arriving in Duluth. Through new family friends, jobs and church, Mary and Tony met on April 13, 1952 (Easter Sunday).

“I had a crush on him the minute I set eyes on him - that blonde hair and those blue eyes - but I had to wait a year before I was allowed to go out with him, and then we were chaperoned on every date, with my sister-in-law or my mother. I was too young. That is, until Tony had a good long talk with my mother and reassured her that his intentions were that of a gentleman,” she said.

Mary and Tony Strasser at their home in Alexandria. The two, both immigrants, met nearly 70 years ago and have been married for about 65 years. Mary is holding the book, Life with Dick and Jane. When she was in seventh grade, Mary learned the English language with the help of the Dick and Jane books. Photo by Rachel Barduson

Mary and Tony were married in 1956 and continued to live in Duluth. Tony was employed by the University of Minnesota with the experimental station and Mary worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in the food service department. In 1957, Tony joined the Army National Guard to serve his new country, saying, “I wasn’t even a citizen yet, but I joined.”

They loved America and continue to love it today.

“My favorite holiday is the Fourth of July,” she said.

In 1960, the family moved to Lamberton, Minnesota, when Tony became Senior Research Coordinator at an agricultural experiment station through the University of Minnesota. It was through his boss that the Strasser’s learned of Alexandria, spending summer vacations on Lake Victoria. The couple now resides on the lake in retirement. Mary and Tony have two children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Throughout her life, Mary’s mother carried a rosary. After her passing, the old, and much-worn rosary, which brought both of them through the trials and trails of life, is kept in a safe place.

“Mother always had it in her pocket, without me even realizing it,” she said.

And the rest, as they say, is history. History of which Mary loves to share with students at schools, with church groups and service organizations. At the end of telling her story, she always ends it with this message...

“I tell them that their homework is to go home and hug your parents,” she said. “I tell them that I will always remember the last time I saw my dad, and until I die, I will think of that day. I remind them to always be grateful.”

Mary gets notes back from students thanking her for coming to their classroom. “And they always write ‘I did my homework’ and that makes me happy,” she smiled. “God bless America.”

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