Growing up in Germany during WWII

Schaare worked down the road from concentration camps  What was it like to live in Germany under Adolph Hitler? Not very nice according to Gerda Schaare who grew up in Germany as it prepared for WWII. She had her first real experiences with that when she was 12. “We had a special program once a week with singing and classes,” she said of the program to “educate” German youth. “They even had us marching in the street.” That program continued through high school. Whether she liked it or not was immaterial, there was no choice. In the summer youngsters were sent to work on farms because farmers were being brought into the German army. “I was milking cows by hand to help the farmers,” she said, something she considers kind of amusing now because she was raised a city girl. School was different from that in the United States, young men and women had their own classrooms. When Gerda was eight or nine her father died. In days before ballpoint pens, the pens were sharp metal points. Pen tips were placed in pen holders and dipped in ink and refilled every word or two. Her father pricked his finger with a pen point, got an infection and died from blood poisoning within a week. Schaare was 16 when Germany invaded Poland kicking off WWII. Because Rotibor was on the Polish border, the family had to leave and moved in with friends in Munich. In 1942, when she was 19 she was drafted by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, to be a telephone operator. She spent a year working in the town of Auschwitz and then a couple more on an air base near Hagen. “We could see the buildings of Auschwitz (the concentration camp) but never saw any people,” she said. “I had a friend who was an officer in the SS and he took me to see his office in the camp. There were guards with guns all over the place.” She still shudders at the thought. At Hagen she worked at a phone switchboard where calls were handled by plugging phone lines into sockets on a board, just as they were in the United States at the time. Occasionally she and other staff would have to head to a bunker when British or U.S. aircraft bombed the base. But that wasn’t too frequently. “There was no dancing, no festivals,” she said of the time during the war indicating it was a very stressful and somber time. “Most people hated Hitler,” she said. “But you couldn’t say anything.” It was hard to know whom to trust. She had contact with her mother and sisters during the war but less frequent contact with her brothers who were in the army. When the war was over the military was disbanded. “When the war was over in 1945 they let us go,” she said. So she got on a train and headed to Munich. Rotibor, after WWII, was now in Poland and the Poles were not fond of the Germans after WWII so all their property was gone. She had left Rotibor with what she could carry in a suitcase and that was going to be it. She put her military training to work in Germany as a telephone operator in Munich and recalls working in large buildings there. In 1953 her mother’s brother, Karl Fischer, who had moved to America before WWII, offered to sponsor her to come to the United States. On June 5, 1953, Gerda climbed aboard the Veendam, a Holland America Line cruise ship, and headed to the United States. Fischer had sent her a ticket for the boat and brought her to the Oakland, California area where he lived. Gerda still has the booklet given to passengers that included the passenger manifest and the passenger classes and a place to keep notes about the weather and other events during the nine-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. As part of the program under which she came into the country, she had to learn English, which she did by attending night school classes. Eventually her two sisters and two brothers and her mother were all sponsored to come to the United States. She later went on to earn her U.S. citizenship which she received on Nov. 29, 1963. Around the same time another German, Helmut Schaare, had come to the United States. He, too, was a veteran of German military service but had a much more difficult time. At first he was sent on Germany’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. After surviving that he was sent to Germany to serve in a tank in Rommel’s Afrika Corps. He ended up getting captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, where he was a cook. He had relatives in Rock Falls, Illinois, who sponsored him. Those relatives wanted to go to California in 1956 so Helmut drove them. At a German social club in California he met Gerda. They corresponded for a year and then he sent her money to come to Illinois so they could get married, which they did in 1957. Daughters Rita and Ruth were born in 1958 and 1959. “Helmut was happy with having two girls,” said Gerda. “He didn’t want boys because they might have to go to war.” Gerda said that Helmut had several round marks on his back that she was sure were bullet holes suffered during the war but that he didn’t talk about it. Helmut was a tool and die maker who died in 1993 at the age of 78, the same year as Gerda’s mother also died at the age of 95. “It was not a good year,” she said. Early in their marriage Helmut and Gerda would return to Germany every other year for three weeks to visit relatives. Gerda made her last such trip in 1994, the year after Helmut died. When Rita and Ruth were four or five they got to go along as well. “I remember one day they left to see some people and we were left with a grandmother who didn’t speak a word of English,” said daughter Ruth Gandrud. “We had to learn a little German fast.” The Schaares lived in Rock Falls but once a month they would head to Chicago where they could find German meats and breads. Gerda’s two brothers are still alive as is a younger sister. Werner lives in Arizona, Horst in Davis, California. Sister Barbara is retired and lives in Golden Colorado after a career as a secretary for the owners of Coors, the beer brewer. Sister Vera has died. Six years ago Gerda moved to Glenwood. She had lived in Rock Falls ever since marrying Helmut but daughter Ruth thought it would be nice to have her closer as she got older. So she now lives in Parkview Court in Glenwood. Gerda likes the weekly musical entertainment at Parkview Court and still dances to the music. But she doesn’t drive a car, and never has. Was it worth leaving Germany for California? “Oh, yah,” she says with a enthusiastic grin.

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