German sailor spent time in, escaped from, prison camps |

German sailor spent time in, escaped from, prison camps

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Erwin Knirlberger

Knirlberger: I was born in Tann, Bavaria, Germany in 1919. It was my mother and I. I never knew my father. When I was 7 we moved in with my grandparents in a little town in lower Bavaria. My mother got a job in a pastry shop about 20 miles away and would come home on weekends. My grandparents had a big garden and fruit trees. It was a wonderful place. When I was 10, my grandfather died suddenly, and that left just me and my grandmother.

I stayed there until I was 141⁄2, old enough to begin studying for a trade. I apprenticed as a “konditor,” a fine pastry chef. I lived with the family that I apprenticed with for four years and then got a job as a pastry chef in the Black Forest. That job lasted about a year until the fall of 1939 when the war started. Food was being rationed and fine pastry became a luxury that no one could afford. The man I worked for shut his business and laid me off.

I went back and lived with my grandmother and worked as a tax clerk for about six months and then I got drafted into the “work forces” and eventually into the navy. They made me a cook because of my experience as a pastry chef.

Eventually, I ended up on a “mine sweeper.”* I was at Normandy during the invasion when the Americans bombed the hell out of every port. The boat that I was on got hit and ended up on the pier. After that I was sent back to Germany and then on to Italy. I was in Genoa, Italy, when we surrendered to the Italian Partisans and eventually to the Americans in May of 1945.

I became a prisoner of war and was sent to a camp near Pisa, Italy, for about a year and a half.

Gallacher: How was that experience?

Knirlberger: Well, it was prison. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t too bad at first. There weren’t too many fences and they fed us on C rations.** But as the fences went up the food went down. We were fed mostly dried food that was prepared in big barrels.

After a while I got lucky. They gave me a job as a cook, and then I had it pretty good. I had access to plenty of food. We had lots of raisins, and we just added yeast and let it ferment a little bit and we had whiskey. We were near a U.S. Army supply depot, and some of the prisoners would sneak over the fence and bring back oranges and other things that made prison life more bearable.

Gallacher: So guys were sneaking in and out of the prison to get food?

Knirlberger: It was only a couple people who were really good at it. They were the ones who could scale the high fences without getting caught. I did it once to go visit my girlfriend, but I didn’t have to scale a high fence.

Because I worked in the kitchen, I was able to move around pretty freely. I got word to her through an old Italian guy who hauled the garbage out of the camp. One night, I changed into some civilian clothes that I had hidden and went up onto the roof of a bunker and jumped down. She and I went and spent the night together in a little hotel. She wanted me to go with her to a farm her family owned in Milano. She said we could hide there.

I felt like my release time was coming up and I didn’t want to take the chance of escaping and then getting caught and being kept in prison longer. So I crawled back in again.

They eventually closed the camp and sent us to another one. This one was lousy. It changed my mind about escaping. Shortly after I got there, I joined up with a group of guys who were tunneling out under the fence. It took a long time because it was 30 feet long and came up in the woods.

There were about 50 guys involved in the escape. The night we were planning to escape some of the guys got nervous and made too much noise. The guards heard them and there were spotlights and sirens everywhere. I was one of the lucky ones who got away.

I hid in the woods, running and hiding all night. When it started to get light I was near a little town. I brushed myself off as much as I could and went to Mass in the Catholic Church. After Mass everybody left and I stayed. Finally the priest came and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was a prisoner of war who just wanted to go home. He took me to his house and fed me and then, in the evening, he bought me a train ticket to Genoa, where my girlfriend was.

There were guards everywhere at the train station, so I had to crawl over the railroad tracks and sneak up from the opposite side of the train. Somehow I made it on and got to Genoa without getting caught.

My girlfriend’s family was surprised to see me. When I asked for her they said,

“Sorry, she left with a guy for South America. She didn’t think you were coming.” I was like part of the family so they felt bad that it hadn’t worked out between us. Her mama cooked me a big meal and the family bought me a train ticket to Bozen, Italy, near the Austrian border.

I got off the train in a little town just before Bozen because I didn’t want to attract any attention. I came upon a woman with a little boy, and they were collecting firewood. I helped them gather wood and haul it into town, and she gave me something to eat.

From there I started to climb into the foothills of the Alps. There were lots of little farms and milk cows along the way. I coaxed some of the cows into giving me some milk. I had a sunglass case that I used as my little milk bucket. It sprayed everywhere but at least I was able to get a little bit of food.

I stayed in the woods most of the time, but after a while I had to come out into an open meadow in order to cross a valley. That’s when I saw these guys in uniforms and they saw me. They motioned for me to come, and I thought I had come all this way for nothing.

I approached them with my hands up and they began talking to me in German. I was already in Austria and didn’t know it. They gave me some food and told me which way to go to avoid the French patrols.

I bought a train ticket to Tann, where I was born, in the next town I came to. I was afraid to go home to my grandmother because I was a fugitive without papers, and I didn’t want to take the chance of getting her in trouble. I had an uncle in Tann and he took me in. The Americans were occupying the country and requiring everyone to carry official identification papers. My cousin worked in the city hall there, and he was able to take my picture and forge the documents that I needed so I could finally go home.

Next week: Erwin describes his journey to the United States.

*mine sweeper – A ship equipped for detecting, destroying, removing, or neutralizing explosive marine mines.

**C ration – a type of canned food formerly used by U.S. soldiers.

Immigrant Stories runs Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to

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