World War II as Seen Through the Eyes of a Child
By Erika Palmer, Army
Writing Type: Prose
When Adolf Hitler started WWII in 1939, I was only four years old. I was born in Essen, Germany, but our family moved to Bonn before the outbreak of the war. As little as I was, I could tell by what people were talking about early on that it would mean bad news.
In the beginning, we were not affected too much where we lived. I do remember that my father was drafted and was no longer at home. At the time, we lived in a very large house with three stories. We started having a few soldiers live in some of the upstairs rooms at night. It seemed that every house had to take in a few soldiers and provide quarters.
After a year or so, we moved from that house into a much smaller apartment. Things began going downhill. I started first grade in 1942, and may have finished the second grade when the bombing started. We learned quickly which sound of the sirens meant imminent danger and which meant the end of current dangers. Schools closed, and we spent more time in the basement during air raids than we did being outside or in the third floor apartment. Food became scarce. I so clearly remember one lady from the building saying often: “I wish I had a cutlet.” She also talked about missing real coffee. All people could get was Kava, a coffee substitute.
There was one radio upstairs that would bring the news. None of us had a telephone, and television was still years away. There were four of us children, and at one time, one after the other got the mumps. We were all quite sick, but we eventually recovered. We never got to see a doctor in those days. We were not given any medicine, either, and I am sure that nothing would have been available.
Things went from bad to worse, especially in 1944. There were bombings often, both day and night. A number of houses were destroyed as were a large part of downtown and the university. One evening, it seemed a large section of the city was in flames. People who had lost family or friends were crying.
I do not quite remember when, but my oldest brother was pulled out of high school at the age of 16 and drafted into the Hitler Youth. Those young boys were not sent to “The Front,” but lived in barracks as some kind of reserve. I do not know how he got out, but in late September of 1944, my mother took the four of us children into the middle of the country, where it seemed we would be safer.
The trip was harsh. We traveled by train and crossed the last bridge still standing over the Rhine River. I believe I even saw the famous Remagen Bridge burning. We traveled very slowly by a burning paper factory at night, and eventually arrived in Kassell at a bombed-out train station.
We ended up somewhere in the countryside south of Weimer, a tiny village named Thangelstedt. A group of refugees were put into a large room in the town hall, and the villagers could pick those they wanted to take in as refugees. We were picked first by the mayor, and all five of us were moved into one room in a old castle. It was not a fancy one, just a large, square building with immense, thick walls. There was electricity but no running water, only an old-fashioned water pump. My mother had to pump the water into buckets and then carry them back to our room. We had an indoor drop toilet closet, which was better than having to go outside. Mice would come through the thick walls and roam in our room. Once, the owner let his cat come in and have a feast, which finally took care of the problem.
We walked a long way to a small one-room schoolhouse. They put me into the third grade, but I could read better than students in their fifth grade. The older kids helped the smaller ones, but I learned nothing there. I remember someone taking down a picture of Hitler and a swastika flag, and then the school closed for good.
The Americans started coming from the west and the Russians approached from the east. Things got bad, and we had so little to eat. My mother made flour soup every day: one day salty, the next day sweet. Thinking of an empty stomach became a full-time job. We had a farmer next door, and he became very important to us kids, by introducing us to agriculture. He would let us work in his vegetable fields, and the farmer’s wife would bring a wonderful lunch out to the field for all the workers. He also had a couple of cows, a few horses, and lots of chickens. My brother and I loved to hang out there. Once, the farmer gave us a frozen cabbage head to take home, and he told us that for Easter, we could come over and ask for some eggs. Once, my brother and I pulled a few carrots out of ground, but we felt guilty and confessed to the farmer. He surely was a stingy guy, when I think of it today. He did not give us very much, and as much as we hated to beg, we did ask for eggs at Easter. We all went to the side of the road and dug up dandelions, and my mother made good greens out of it. Once in a while, a pig or a cow was slaughtered in town, and they would make big pots of soup. Everyone in the village was invited to help themselves, which was great. It must have been around April of 1945 and the Americans were close by. Apparently, we had all kinds of documents from the Nazis stored in our castle. The mayor said he would make a huge fire by the side of the road, and we would have to carry all those papers there and burn them.
It took all of us the whole day to do it. To our delight, the mayor threw a bunch of potatoes into the coals in the evening and we got some burnt baked potatoes.
One bright afternoon, we heard the humming of a group of planes flying quite low, probably B-17s, and the mayor ordered all of us into the basement, including the old German Shepherd dog that was trained with English commands.
Soon, American soldiers came into the building and searched the whole house. When they found us in the basement, one soldier stood, with gun drawn, behind my oldest brother, who was holding the dog. The soldier must have thought that my brother might turn around and shoot. No one said a word in that dark cellar, which had only one light bulb on. Finally, the mayor told the soldier that my brother was only holding the dog. The guy lowered his weapon, and things improved from that moment on. We all knew a few words of English, more or less. The Americans took over our building for a couple days and made it headquarters.
We were all confined to one large room downstairs. They had jeeps, and they gave my brother and me rides through the large grounds. The sergeant would always holler for a guy named Albert Clafton who must have been a goof off. I always wondered what became of him.
Before we knew it, the soldiers moved east. They did a wonderful thing for us: they left Army blankets, Army T-shirts, Army socks and all kinds of sewing stuff behind. They also loaded a small building in the middle of town with C-rations. When we found out, we all ran there and carried as much as we could hold back to our house. From that moment on, we had some much-appreciated food.
Not long after that, the war in Europe was over. My mother sent my oldest brother back to Bonn to see if our apartment building was still standing. It was, with only broken window damage. As Germany was divided into sectors, we ended up in the Russian sector. We had to cross the Iron Curtain to get back to the west. We all wore several layers of clothing and carried the rest in suitcases. A horse-drawn wagon got us closer to the border. We tried to go west, but we were sent back by the Russians . .my mother befriended one and told him he could have her gold watch if he could get us across. He said he would: he had family in Russia and he understood. He even spoke a little German. We slept in the woods, and I ate my first-and-only raw egg. The Russian told us to be ready at 4:00 a.m. In the dark, we followed him to a no-man’s zone. Then we were on our own. We crossed a plowed field, and I remember falling several times. We saw lights shining back and forth in the dark sky, but we moved on. When daybreak came, we crossed a huge field to a tiny village, and we found that we were in the American Sector.
We stayed in a shelter and slept in the hay with the cows, then it was off to a train station. We managed to get on a train going west. It was horrible! We were all squashed in the train together, like sardines. There were people hanging on the sides of the train and on the roof. When we arrived in Cologne, it seemed as if the whole city was gone, bombed out. It took us seven days to get back to Bonn, which was probably no more than 300 miles.
Things were still very bad for about four more years after the war. We had to stand in line for three hours in order to buy one loaf of bread. School re-opened after two years, and I was placed in the second half of fourth grade. Missing the third grade and half of fourth hurt me for the rest of my school years. There were no clothes to buy, only used school books and a little paper to write on.
My parents’ marriage fell apart. From our early days in a large house with two nannies, it was down to welfare. We started receiving care packages. A feeding program was begun in our school. Finally, in 1949, Germany began a new government with a new currency. People could exchange what they had, valued down by 10 percent. Every living person received 50 marks. The next day, everything was available in the stores. I could never understand that, since there was nothing before. My mother contracted tuberculosis, mostly for lack of food. In a university hospital, she was a test person for new medications from America and Russia. With those, she lived another 11 years, until the age of 57.
By then I was an adult, and I always had a warm feeling toward Americans. During the hungry days, I swore that I would never be hungry again.
I immigrated legally to the United States in 1959. I also served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Thanks to that service, I am now a resident of the California Veterans Home in Yountville. I have been a U.S. citizen since 1963. My son is a major on active duty in the Air National Guard. He has five children. My daughter is a self-employed private investigator and an Army veteran.