Immigrant Stories: Surviving World War II as a 10-year-old
By Walter Gallacher
Intro: Brigitte Heller was 10 years old in the spring of 1945, when war came with a vengeance to her town of Magdeburg, Germany. She and her mother and her two younger sisters and her grandparents spent many a night huddled in the basement of her grandparents’ restaurant supply store, as the allied bombing raids leveled their town and destroyed any chance of a German resurgence.
Now, some 70 years later, these memories come roaring back, and Brigitte remembers that time as if it were yesterday. Here she reads from a story she wrote as a way of dealing with her childhood memories.
Heller: Finally the shelling had stopped. Artillery fire had started early that evening, coming from a neighboring village, and had gone on and on. We were all in the basement of the house. My mother, my newborn sister, my sister, Barbara, my grandfather and grandmother and Erna, their housekeeper who had been with the family since before I was born.
My grandparents had been bombed out and had come into the mountains, fleeing from our burning hometown. My mother’s sister had arrived with her three children. She was one of the countless, sad and worn out refugees from Eastern Germany.
We had spent the evening in the downstairs room, safer, we thought, than upstairs. Anna had cooked dinner on the stove downstairs, and we all sat around the big table and ate what we thought might be our last supper. For days, the German army had passed by our house, walking up from the village and disappearing into the woods, bordering the garden.
The young soldiers had stopped by the front gate where my mother stood with peppermint tea. It was sad for me to see so many faces go past on what I felt was a meaningless journey. Somehow I had dreamt that this was the very end.
Several days later they all came by again. They had been told, “Get home as safely as you can, there is no ammunition.” It was devastating to see all the soldiers walk past. Some of them were not much older than I was then, with less hope than they had days before.
Two officers asked if they could stay the night, and my grandfather gave them one of the upstairs bedrooms. They hung up their coats in the entry hall and went to sleep. We all spent a cautious, restless night. Suddenly there was machine gun fire, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, again and again. Where could it be and why? It was so close, and I was frightened. It sounded very real, and then it was quiet, much too quiet. Not a sound to be heard for hours.
When day broke there was a banging on the door. The Americans had arrived with drawn guns. They asked my mother if there were any other people than just family in the house. And she said, “Oh no.” She had forgotten the army coats hanging in the hallway behind her. The Americans spotted them and demanded to know, “Where are the Germans?” Without getting an answer, they stormed through the house until they came to the children’s upstairs dormer bedrooms and kicked open the white lacquer door, found the officers and took them away. The first day of American occupation was spent, like most other days, trying to stay alive, cooking and taking care of the babies.
The next day Erna took me for a walk behind the house into the most beautiful meadow one can imagine. It was bursting with the first spring flowers. We almost forgot everything around us, we were so happy.
When we both had picked beautiful bunches of flowers, Erna called out to me, “We have to go home, Gitta.” I turned and stood, close to the road now, dumbstruck, frightened, looking into the wide-open blue eyes of a young German soldier lying right in front of me, dead, and ten feet from him, another one. My heart just stopped. Those machine guns I had heard in the night were for them. I clutched my flowers close to my heart and ran all the way home crying, “Mutti, Mutti, Mutti, Mutti.”
It must have been a week later when Erna and I went into the village to see if we could get some milk. Surely there must be something in one of the two dairy stores. We were lucky, carrying our four liters of milk in two large aluminum cans, we decided to take the long way home, enjoying the beautiful spring day. We left the village and walked through the woods along a path that led us by the cemetery.
We were almost home. Near the fence there were two new graves, and a young woman was watering some flowers she had planted. I thought that it might be the two young soldiers we had found in the meadow the other day. Erna struck up a conversation. She had met the girl before standing in line at the grocery store. “He was my fiancé,” the woman said.
The bombs had stopped falling, the guns were silent all over Europe and suddenly it was summer.
Heller: (crying) You know, every time I come to the end of that, I just fall apart.
Gallacher: It’s understandable that you still carry the trauma of that time. You were 10 years old. How has that experience, living in that kind of terror, affected you in your life?
Heller: To be careful. You know, I think, I don’t know exactly know how it affected me, but I am sure it has. Yeah.
Gallacher: What do you mean when you say “careful”?
Heller: Perhaps to cherish what I have. To learn that life can be taken from you very quickly anywhere, here, in Germany, anywhere.
Gallacher: Did it make you more cautious as a mother?
Heller: Yes, in a way, perhaps I would have always been cautious, as a mother, and perhaps I would always worry a little bit. You know that’s in the family. My grandmother was famous for her worrying all the time and she would say, “My heart is so heavy.”
Gallacher: She had good reason to worry; you lived in a town that was totally decimated.
Heller: Yes, everything was bombed out. My mother was always saying to us, “Please, I know it is tempting to go exploring in these bombed out buildings, but please be careful.” In the spring of 1945, when the armies were disbanding, there was a lot of ammunition left lying around.
Gallacher: Yes, there were dangerous things everywhere.
Heller: I remember the time my sister, Barbara, and I were making mud pies. I was 9 and she was 5. And my mother looks out the window and says, “What are you girls doing?” “ We’re making mud pies.” And she says, “But what is the banging? You’re banging something.” And I said, “Well, we’re taking these shells and we’re putting them on the stone and we’re banging them to get the powder out to make poppy seed cakes.”
Gallacher: Oh, no! Your mother must have been terrified. I bet she was so relieved when the war was over.
Heller: Yes, but then she worried about being occupied by the Russians. I think the adults in my family knew that the Americans would eventually leave and the Russians would take over. So my grandfather, who was sort of the boss, arranged for my mother to leave Magdeburg, and it had to be in great secrecy. Nobody knew.
My mother and my little sister who was 4 went first. My sister and I didn’t know what was going on because it would have been very dangerous for my mother and my grandparents.
Finally, on the fourth of January, 1949, my mother took my littlest sister and fled. My grandfather, who was very influential, bribed the border guards and took her across the border to Frankfurt in West Germany.
My sister Barbara and I stayed, for a few months, in Magdeburg. I stayed with my grandparents, and my sister stayed with my great aunt and uncle.
Gallacher: Did anyone notice that your mother and your little sister were gone?
Heller: No, no. Our housekeeper even joined the police force, later on, but she was always on our side. She never said a word.
Gallacher: What did you do when you found your mother was gone?
Heller: You know, when I think about it, I wasn’t afraid because I had my grandparents who were just everything. They reassured me that we would be together soon.
Gallacher: So you left a few months later?
Heller: Yes, my uncle Albert had a permit to cross over into Berlin, but he never went to Berlin. He stopped in Magdeburg and picked us up. We knew he was coming. Barbara and I had our suitcases packed, and he took us across on the train. No problem.
Gallacher: So you weren’t worried, and he didn’t seem worried?
Heller: Oh, we weren’t worried. We were going to meet our mother. I’m sure Uncle Albert was worried, but he didn’t show it. He made it seem like we were on a holiday.
Note: Brigitte Heller finished school near Frankfurt, Germany and spent time in England, working as a nanny and perfecting her English. When she returned to Germany she met Andre Ulrych, an American soldier who was also a child refugee of the war. Andre had recently emigrated to the United States from Warsaw, Poland, and joined the army.
Brigitte and Andre were married in the United States in 1958 and came to Aspen with their three children in 1966, where they eventually opened Andre’s, one of Aspen’s iconic restaurants.
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