It has been my family’s background to flee from country to country for as long as I know. During the 1700s my family left Germany to live in Russia, seeking religious freedom because they were Mennonites.
That freedom came to an abrupt halt during the Bolshevik Revolution. They fled west to Poland where my sister and I were born.
In January 1945, word spread to all of us that we had three hours to pack up and flee for our lives. The Russian Communists had ‘liberated’ Poland and were indiscriminately executing all women and children of German descent.
My mother turned a table upside down, tore apart some furniture and created a box. Into this she threw our feather beds. Being a practical woman she threw in the head of her treadle sewing machine, thinking she may have to make a living sewing. She also tossed in some silver pieces and a photo album.
We knew an elderly lady who lived on a farm at the edge of the city who also had to leave. Mother asked if we might place our possessions on her wagon. She agreed if my mother would drive the horses.
My mother, who was a city girl, hardly knew the front end from the back end of a horse, agreed and proceeded to drive the wagon through snow and ice, grateful that I was too young to make the journey on foot, and allowed to sit on the wagon. My sister, who was 16, walked the whole way. Eight weeks of cold and hunger followed as we continued our trek.
There were tens of thousands of us fleeing westward, always westward through snow and ice.
Each night, we’d be spread along several villages, sleeping in barns and stables. Daybreak would find us on the road again.
On our arrival in Germany, we found the country decimated by war. Food was scarce and housing a luxury. We were given a tiny attic room containing a single bed, and a large wardrobe. Cooking facilities consisted of a coal burner in the hallway which was used by several families.
Do you believe in miracles? I do. Once a week there was a train huffing its way through the village. It was now August 1945. Soldiers who had survived were returning from all over Europe. There were men with broken bodies on crutches, in makeshift wheelchairs, bandaged heads and missing limbs. Others, whose bodies seemed whole but whose faces reflected the permanent scars in their souls.
On this particular Thursday, my mother went to work and my sister and I were told to go to the station. Just as the train pulled in, my sister ran screaming towards one of the cars. I had trouble following her on my short legs. When I reached her, she was sobbing, holding onto a man wearing a uniform. He was our father. I did not remember him. It had been more than three years since I saw him and I had been too little to know him.
We took him home. My mother was to return home within an hour. As the time drew near, my sister persuaded our father to climb into the large wardrobe. We tried to look innocent while being unable to contain our excitement. Jumping up and down while mother kept repeating “what is wrong with you girls?” At last we could stand it no longer and my sister opened the wardrobe, releasing our father. Can you imagine our joy?
This was the time we began to sing again. Our songs were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God for having saved our lives and having brought us to a place of safety.
Christa Stegemann is a Saltair resident and frequent traveller/adventurer.