Ralph and Christine Grothouse in Germany. (Submitted photo)
Ralph and Christine Grothouse in Germany. (Submitted photo)
The following story was written by Christine Grothouse describing what life was like for a young German girl during the time Hitler came to power in Germany until the end of World War II in 1945 as she watched the U. S. tanks come over the hill into the town in which she was living — freedom had arrived.

Christine was born to Dr. Walter Johannis Schulz and Irma Helene Suckow on 20 July 1922 in Ilmenau, Thuringen, Germany. She spent most of her life in Hermsdorf-Kynast, Silesia, in the Riesengebirge (mountain range) a part of the Sudetenland.

Christine said that the years 1939-45 were some of the darkest years of her life. During the first years of WWII, her family sent her to a boarding school for girls which was originally staffed by Protestant nuns. This was done because Christine had Jewish ancestry and to protect her from being discovered by the Nazi regime. The following is her true story of her life from 1939-45.

Right at the start of this true story, let me tell you that I don’t like to recall the years from 1939-1945. They were some of the darkest years of my life. Having said that, I hope that it will be excused if at times I am a little hazy about the exact date of happening in the history of that time. I have always made great efforts to forget this period. Then a friend of my husband expressed an interest in my life through those years. This is some what I am able to remember.

The first years of World War II I was in school and was enrolled at Hermanns-Werder, “The” Boarding School in Postdam. It was a prestigious Oberlyzeum Internat (College Preparatory School) for girls, originally staffed by Protestant sisters. Orders from the Nazi Regime had disbanded that leadership and turned it over to non-religious teachers. Gone were the Bible readings that occurred in the mornings and evenings, as well as regular church attendance. Each class had a house named after trees. Mine was named the “Kastanien” (Chestnut) House. Inside there were sleeping rooms, study rooms, and living rooms with radios.

I was assigned to a sleeping room with three other girls. It was a good time until 1939. In time off from studies, there were sports activities of various kinds, i.e. rowing, swimming, tennis, etc. The Hermanns-Werder campus was on an island in the Havel River across from Potsdam. At one end of the island, there was a ferry that took one over to the city almost at the entrance of the famous Sans-Souci Castle built by Frederick the Great.

Coming back from the summer vacation in 1939, we all had the feeling that something dreadful was going to happen in Germany. Rumors of severe rationing of foods became a reality with the march of German troops into Poland. So just before that, we girls decided to have a Roman Feast. We had read about the Romans and their eating feasts so we decided we would buy cheese, cold cuts and conserved fish and other delicacies of which the European delicatessens had the best in the land. Of course we had cakes and tortes from the Conditories (Pastry Shop). So we had a Roman Feast, which none of us will ever forget. This was the last occasion to eat all these “goodies.” Due to rationing, our breakfast became smaller. Also lunch and dinner became smaller with just enough calories to keep us going. Gone were the days of fresh breads with butter, eggs and ham, as well as wonderful roasts and stews.

All under the name of helping in the war effort, the German youth had to learn to make sacrifices. There was some concession made to us, the teaching and training of the social graces expected of us, the girls of higher learning. We received dancing lessons and were taught how to behave at social functions.

Our dance partners were young men in the Officers School of the German Air Force. It was a fun time, but the knowledge that these young men were soon to fly in war clouded our happy times. We were 26 couples, 26 young men of which 25 of them met their death within a year of their graduation. The one remaining had been transferred to the ground troops.

Do you still wonder why I do not wish to recall these years. Most of our friends met an early death in the war. Germany’s young men were sacrificed for the dreams of power by Hitler.

Bombing attacks started soon after England entered the war. Berlin, close to Potsdam, was one of the places that the Allies wanted to grind down. Nightly darkness had descended over all of Germany. But in Berlin, special lighting was installed which could not be detected by the planes. There were occasions when young men friends would have furlough from service and we girls were allowed to join them in visits to the theater, opera and concerts. At one of these outings, my friends and I were not fast enough in getting to one of the air raid shelters and we saw the planes dropping their bombs on the city. We had made it to the protected spot, a wine cellar at one of the restaurants, when we heard the sirens signaling “All Clear.” We left there but witnessed the strafing by the Allied fighter planes and German civilians trying to put out the fires. After that, we were not allowed to go to Berlin anymore. Only on weekends could we spend time there with a relative or friends of the family. Their name and address given by our parents.

Meanwhile at the school, two of the houses on the school island had been requisitioned by the Army to serve as recreation centers for the wounded soldiers. That meant combining the study room, living rooms and the sleeping rooms and placing all of these activities in one room. My girlfriend Trudel and I were lucky enough to get the one room that only housed two. This was in the attic which we called the “Owl’s Nest.” From there we had to run down four flights to reach the basement, which served as an air raid shelter. This running down to the basement was necessary several times in the night and there were occasions when I felt just too tired to get up out of my sleep and run down. However, when the bombs started flying I flew down to the basement.

From the recuperating soldiers on the island, we heard stories of the front and stories that SS troops took the role of policing the soldiers for “Political Connections.” One better not be caught criticizing the Hitler regime. Telling of the political jokes had severe consequences for armed forces and civilians alike. My family was in steady fear of my being caught telling these jokes.

These men that had seen combat had much to tell of what was happening on the Westfront and the Eastfront alike. With stories of train loads of people being transferred to camp, all was told in secrecy. The punishment for such talk was too great. But I still kept on listening to the BBC and the Danish radio stations I learned to love Jazz and Swing. Names like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller and Harry James became familiar to me. Meantime, the German Nazi propaganda machine was in full swing. I will forever wonder why and how the German people could tolerate this regime.

In 1941, I successfully passed the “Arbitur,” the exam that entitles one to attend a university of choice. Well, so we all thought. Just as I was ready to enroll in Humbolt University in Berlin, a new ruling from the government made it mandatory for students enrolling to serve one year at the “Arbeitsdienst” (working – service). All in the name of “The War Effort.” How many more times was I to hear that! For the Fatherland!

After a short vacation, I was to report to a camp in the Province of Brandenburg. Passing the Abitur exam is a big event in a German family. The student would receive a gift. Mine was a long wished for suit made from Scottish cloth, handmade shoes from Italy and silk stockings. A most handsome outfit and so rare in those war times. Since I had to travel through Berlin where I wanted to see some friends, I wore this outfit for the trip to the work camp. We were told that clothing issued there would be mandatory to wear. But arriving there I found that suitable clothing was not available until later. So having arrived in my outfit, I stood out like a “sore thumb.” I was immediately marked as an outcast and was assigned to the worst duties. None of the other girls were from a background like mine and plus they were Volunteers — good Nazi indoctrinated young women. For several days, I was forced to work in my own clothing. One on my duties was to prepare slop for the camp’s pigs. All the food scraps from the mess hall went into a larger container, which I had to reach into with my bare hands and squeeze all solid matter into a pulp. What a change in my life. My assignment to an upper bunk in the sleeping hall was by a broken window, which on several nights allowed snow to drift in. We slept on straw sacks prepared by us from bundles of straw.

The first two weeks were spent mainly in cleaning the camp and orientation. My first assignment for work away from the camp was with a not well to do farmer, who welcomed me as a good slave. There also was a French POW assigned to him to whom he had to be civil or he would have lost help from the Prisoner of War Camp. At night, a truck came and collected all the prisoners. I had to walk to the farm and from the farm, regardless of weather. All work that was expected from me was completely strange to me. I heard many comments and swearing while I was instructed to do a chore.

Their favorite duty for me was the splitting of the wood for the cook stove. I still have the scar on my left forefinger where I injured myself the first time I had the hatchet in my hand. The Frenchman took pity on me to nurse my bleeding finger and many times after that gave me his free hour after lunch to split wood for me.

My next assignment was to drive the horses sitting on a huge load of hay. But my most favorite workplace was in a Butcher’s family store and house. I spent 8 weeks with them since they put in a request for me to return. I was treated like a member of the family and to this day, I am sorry to have lost contact with them. I was fed well there and did not have to rely on the scarce food in the camp. One of my favorite meals was noodles cooked in milk with poppy seeds. Even a butcher had to observe three days a week without meat.

It was in that time, that one of the most embarrassing incidents took place. One morning I was asked by the Butcher to lead a pig to the community scale, as was the law, for food control. Anyone who knows something about pigs can imagine how a stubborn a pig reacts to a drive down the main road of a village. We had wooden shoes issued for work, so I was clopping along trying to direct the pig to go my way, which was squealing loudly and grunting. I then saw a fellow in Lt.’s uniform approaching me laughing. He was was a good friend who had come to see me while on furlough. It was not funny to me, but later we laughed about the escapade.

A pleasant memory of that time was my task to watch the sheep of the camp on a meadow with apple trees. Week assignments outside the camp were stopped and we prepared for a slapstick comedy to be performed in the local school auditorium for the inhabitants of the village and a nearby military school. It was then that I earned the respect and admiration of the work camp’s girls. I was able to direct the whole affair with great success and applause from the villagers and the military school. It was a great day for me

Spring brought me the end of my year there and I was able to enroll at the university in September 1942. Humbolt University was filled to capacity and the classes were crowded. All able-bodied professors had been called into one service or another. Since my classes were in chemistry and physics as major subjects, the Nazi State had another surprise for me. Five days a week, four to five hours a day students had to help in the war effort. I worked in the Tech lab, of the Telefunken Firm, testing condensers.

I lived in a small apartment, that my mother had leased for me from a widow who had joined her family in the West of Germany and did not want to lose her place in Berlin. Getting up at five o’clock in the morning for five hours at work in the lab and then taking another long subway trip to my classes kept me busy and tired, especially when nights were constantly interrupted by air raids. But I was not too tired to get to know a captain of the German Panzer Division and fall in love with him. His family was an old Prussian military family with tradition in the Prussian Calvary. His father was a general who gave his life in the attacks on Stalingrad. According to the old protocol, a formal request was made by the commander of the Panzer Division and my family for an engagement and marriage. The old tradition also demanded that the bride have a large enough dowry to afford a married couple in the military to live in the style expected of an officer’s family. Everything taken care of, all was set for July 1944 to unite us as man and wife but renewed activity on the Eastern front canceled my fiance’s leave just as he was on his way to my home. He never came back and lies somewhere in Russia where his Panzer was blown up. These were bad times for me.

In January 1944, Telefunken transferred all work to Mahrisch-Trubau in Czechoslovakia. Students were to cease their studies and work there in the name of the war effort, living in a camp like setting behind barbed wires, adjacent to an American Prisoner of War Camp, living under the same conditions as we were, with one large kitchen cooking for both camps. Our separate compounds were divided solely by a “secure” wire fence. I would speak to the servicemen about the American music and musicians through the fence. My acquaintance with a straw sleeping sack was renewed there as well. All for the Fatherland.

In the fall of 1944, I became ill from the food cooked in the giant aluminum pots so I was transferred to Breslau and the lab there which was nearer to my home. But before Christmas in 1944, I was sent home from there due to illness. Luck was with me since now serious attacks from the Russian troops started with great success on Breslau and I was on sick-leave in my home in Hermsdorf Kynast in the Province of Silesia (my home being at the foot of the Sudeten Mountains).

Our large home, Villa Suckow, was filled with refugees, relatives and other folk quartered in our home by the authorities. Having fled the bombings in the west and north of Germany, these people now faced a greater danger, the Russian troops, which behaved like troops under Ghangis Khan or some other eastern horde. The city of Breslau was laid under siege and gruesome accounts of the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers reached our ears. All women were deadly afraid, as rape by more than one soldier, cutting of breasts and killing of tiny babies were reported. Enough to frighten all occupants of our home to flee to the western regions, including my mother. Under her protest, I elected to stay having the illusion that somehow I would be able to save our home from the plunder and destruction. I carried on as if nothing was happening.

After the refugees left, I had an encounter with the Burgermeister (mayor), who was a Nazi political hack. Now that our home was empty, except for me, he wanted to establish our home as a “Last Ditch” defense effort. I resisted and then reminded him of all the things that my grandparents had done for his family over the years. I was left alone after that for a little while. Then the military authorities decided to billet an Army Dental unit in my home. Since they used the house in day hours, I was happy. I hoped from day to day that Germany would surrender, certainly before the Russians came to my village, my hope was in vain. When the German medical outfits received a command to relocate in the west, it became clear to me that all was lost and I also had to leave our beloved home.

I had help in burying many precious belongings of my family in hope of reclaiming them again when returning. Surely that would be the case? About that time I received a directive from the Burgermeister ordering me to report for duty with a communication unit in the local civil defense. I chose to ignore this and continued with my plans to go to the West.

On April 21, 1945, I left home with our dog, a Hungarian sheep dog. I carried with me two large footlocker type suitcases, which were my fathers during World War I. With the help of medical personnel of the Army, I caught the last train leaving my home for the West. The trip was taking us through Czechoslovakia to Prague and from there to Bavaria. It took 14 days to make the trip. Strafing of fighter planes and holdups by people along the brought many hours of delay in traveling. The German soldiers rode each rail car for protection and they had to show their weapons often to keep civilians and themselves safe from the harm of the Czechoslovakia Resistance Fighters.

Arriving at the Bavarian border we had to leave the train but we also received our first meal there. Until then, everyone ate of their small rations that they brought. It was necessary for me to eat at night under darkness since I split my food with my dog, which was strongly objected to by others that were traveling with me. Also at that border, I almost had to leave behind on of my suitcases as the train started to pull out with one of my suitcases still sitting on the platform. I put up such a loud cry and fuss that the train backed up and I retrieved my suitcase.

The train stopped in Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria, for good. I stood with my dog and my suitcases on the street. It was then that desperation took hold of me and I broke down crying. A family at a nearby house saw me and gave me shelter for the night and time to find other transportation to the Neuhaus, Bavaria, where a camp was set up for refugees from Silesia. On the way there in an Army truck, we were strafed and the woman across from me slumped over dead.

There was no transportation available beyond Schliersee and we all had to find a place to stay there. This was 2 May 1945. My stash of silver things came in handy when I was able and happy to trade some for a small house behind the home of a coal miner. It was small and primitive but had a bed and washstand, two chairs and a little table. Much better than being out on the street.

From there the next day, I saw an American tank coming around the curve on the hill and down the street toward the church where a German 88 gun was positioned. It fired on the tank and hit it. The foot soldiers behind the tank turned around taking with them the ones in the tank. The villagers said:

“They won’t be back tonight but after breakfast tomorrow, they will be back, they are 8 to 5 soldiers.”

Sure enough the next morning the troops came back into the village where white sheets were hanging from all the windows and balconies. Occupation of the village was set up and shortly thereafter, the news spread that Germany had surrendered on 7 May 1945. Two weeks too late for me.

The next day as was customary for Occupation Forces, American soldiers canvassed every home in the area looking for guns and other weapons. From my little house, they took silver table knives only. We still use on a daily basis the matching forks and spoons, which are monogrammed with my great grandmother’s initials. What the soldiers didn’t know was that while they were looking, I placed a German Walther pistol under my apron and took it outside and placed it under a rock. Why did I have the pistol? Just before I left my home in the east, the Dental unit in my home provided me with the pistol and one bullet only, plus a cyanide pill, either of which were to be used only to save myself from a fate worse than death. The pistol was sometime later traded to an American Army Officer for a radio from the Army Post- Exchange.

There was a shortage of foods in the village, so hearing that German troops had thrown away many of their provisions down off the mountain roads before leaving, many decided to go after them. I went with such a search party and we discovered a chalet in the mountains that housed SS wives in protective custody with large and wonderful provisions in their cellar One should not miss such an opportunity. So I and some others climbed through a window and stole some of the canned goods. All at once we heard a vehicle coming up the mountain. It was an American Jeep! We ran into the woods beside the road and sank up to our necks in snow, still remaining from the winter. But we made it safely home with our loot.

It was known that the German soldiers had thrown their provisions out with small mines and people were warned. My landlord and his wife went in spite of the warnings to retrieve the food. I will never forget the man coming back with his lederhosen (pants) soaked in blood from his wife’s face which was blown off in the explosion of such a mine that looked like a small can of food. She died later in the hospital.

One day, I burned my arm rather badly on the stove pipe in the small house in which I lived and there was no medical attention available. Soon after that, a U. S. Army nurse saw me at the lake near my home and after establishing that I spoke English, she told me that it was a serious burn and offered to take care of it. She left and then returned with a first aid kit and dressed the burn. She continued to care for the burn for several days until it was better. The nurses soon left the area and I never saw them again. That was a pleasant experience in a very troubled time.

It was known that women should not go into the village with their jewelry on. I decided to pay no attention to this warning. This one day while going down the street, two nasty GI’s on motorcycles cornered me and took a bracelet, two rings and my watch. I watched them going into one of the hotels which were their quarters. Indignant, I went to see the American Mayor (an Army Captain). I was telling him about the incident closing with the remark that I expected that from the Russian army but not from the American Army. He told me to come back to his office the next day after questioning me as to where it happened and where the soldiers went. The next day, coming into his office my jewelry was on his desk. I was very impressed and told him so. He was delighted to speak English to a German individual and he hired me to work for him and gave me a legal residence permit, with the right to receive food stamps to purchase food in stores. Refugees from the East normally had no standing in the community and no rights or privileges. When he was transferred to the states, he saw to it that I had another job with the U S Army, the last one being in Munich where my mother had gone to live with her half sister, The Countess Von Geldern-Egmont. It was there while working in the U. S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps that I met and married an American serviceman and came to a new life in America.

I was never able to return and enjoy our home nor benefit from the other real estate holdings or monies that were in the bank. I had no way of knowing that as a part of the 1944 Yalta Agreement, that the part of Germany where I lived, which bordered Poland and Czechoslovakia, had been given to Poland. The Polish Authorities confiscated all of the properties and the German people were forced to leave. Our home, after being converted first to a school, is now a convalescent home for the Polish people.

Christine

1 June 2001

Note: Christine said it was thrilling to fly into New York and fly over the Statue of Liberty. It was a very emotional experience. After living in the USA for a few months, Christine divorced her husband because he was having an affair. I am proud to say that this strong woman is my aunt. She married my uncle, Ralph Grothouse, in 1971. They spent their retirement years in a beautiful wooded area in the hills outside Nashville, Indiana, in the beautiful Brown County. Ralph passed away recently and Christine is now living in a convalescent home in Tennessee. Long live the “freedom” she stood for.