Living Witnesses Part 5: The Refugee


In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm.The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard.

The story of the War Babies is often overlooked because they played no active part in the war. Yet these are the ones who, from the moment of birth, or even in their mother's wombs, experienced sirens, bombs, fighting, parental deprivation, food rationing and other extreme events. This is a cohort of individuals who came into the world without an experience of 'before', of 'normality.' In whatever country they were born, they were war's innocent victims. For the War Babies and their children, the war will never really be over until they find peace in their hearts. As we think of all the children suffering from warfare around the world today, let us take the time to hear the wisdom and experience of the War Babies.


Baerbel Gergen was born on St Stephen's day in Worms on the West bank of the Rhine. The birth of a Christmas baby in an ancient German city sounds like the beginning of a fairytale. But the year was 1939, and one of the worst nightmares in world history was just beginning. By the time the war ended, most of medieval Worms would be destroyed, although the cathedral still stands today.

When Baerbel was only eight months old, her father died from septicaemia, leaving Baerbel's mother, Hilly, to manage alone with the baby. Baerbel's aunt was in Tetschen-Bodenbach (now called Děčín), in the Sudetanland of Czechoslovakia.

At one point, when Baerbel was three, she and her mother went to stay there for a few weeks. This was more peaceful as there were no hostilities in Czechoslovakia at the time. But after some time they returned to Worms. Baerbel's family were not Nazi sympathisers--far from it. In fact, they found ingenious ways to resist. Baerbel's paternal grandfather had taken to using a walking stick so that he would not have to raise his arm in the Heil Hitler salute! But the civilians of Worms, Nazi or not, were destined to suffer immensely during the latter months of the war.

The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944-January 1945 was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. As the Allies began their thrust into Germany, following the Battle of the Bulge, the stronghold of Worms came under heavy attack. There were nightly raids. Baerbel saw warplanes flying low overhead and heard the constant drone of jets and wail of sirens. She and Hilly spent their nights in cellars and bomb shelters. One morning they returned home to find Baerbel's crib covered in shattered glass. If she had not been in the shelter, she would have been killed. Another time a bomb fell on the attic. Neighbours helped them put out the fire. But on the most horrific day of bombing Baerbel experienced, she was in her grandmother's cellar. A bomb fell on the house, forcing them to climb up iron rungs in the wall of the cellar and squeeze out of the tiny cellar window. As they headed for the public bomb shelter, Baerbel saw the huge chestnut tree across the street totally ablaze as though they were matches. There was phosphorus in the street and on the sidewalks and if someone stepped on it, their shoes caught fire. The terrified girl picked her way across the phosphorous-strewn street in the heat of blazing chestnut trees. Perhaps this particular memory would relate to the massive RAF bombing raid of February 21st, when over a thousand tons of bombs were dropped on Worms, the massive conflagration setting even the cathedral ablaze.

Terrified of the Allied bombardment, many citizens fled Worms, among them Baerbel and Hilly, who returned to Tetschen-Bodenbach. Under Nazi Germanization policies, large numbers of Germans had been encouraged to move to Czechoslovakia, Baerbel's aunt and uncle among them. Now, with the approach of the Red Army, the Germans living in Czechoslovakia, terrified of reprisals against them, took flight back to Germany. Baerbel was among those who experienced--and vividly recalls--this often-forgotten episode of civilian suffering.

Little Baerbel was in nursery school with her cousins when the ladies who took care of them came and told them, "Get on your coats and run home as quickly as you can. Quick, quick! The Russians are coming!" There was a barricade across the street that was too tall for the three little girls to cross. Some passers-by helped them over and they tumbled down on the other side and ran home. At her aunt's apartment, the mothers were in uproar and were packing a baby buggy full of randomly thrown belongings. Baerbel, Hilly, her aunt, her two girl cousins and the Polish maid took flight together. In the baby buggy Baerbel noticed items like a shoe brush and a fur coat. Even as a little child she could see that the packing made no sense at all. It was an expression of sheer panic.

It took six weeks on the road to get back to Germany. "Once in a while there was a train ride. But then people shot at us or shot into the train, I don't know why. There were Czechoslovakians standing on the train tracks, shooting into the train. We all put our feet up on the benches so they couldn't shoot us in the legs. And hopefully they wouldn't shoot any higher." They took only short train rides from time to time. The trains were not running well in the chaotic circumstances and were crammed with refugees. On one occasion they got off on the wrong side of the tracks. There was one last train heading west--and the only way to get to the westbound line was to crawl under the wheels of a slowly moving train--a terrifying experience for even an adult, what to speak of a small child.

Baerbel's uncle had a high position in the Railways. As a result on one occasion they were given a room for the night at the train station. But the bed was infested with bed bugs, making for a miserable night!

Where trains were not available, Baerbel and her mother walked along country lanes crowded with weary and frightened refugees--a mass exodus. "Some had carts, someone had a donkey pulling a cart, many dragged suitcases--just a stream, a long, long stream of people heading west. On the sides of the road you would see things people had thrown down because they were too weak to carry them any more." As they walked, Baerbel and her mother ate dandelions, sorrel, chicory and other herbs from the meadows, whatever they could forage. There was nothing else to eat. Once in a while a farmer would let them sleep in a barn, together with many other refugees. They were thirsty as well as hungry. "One time we came into a village and there was a fountain. I wanted the water so badly! But it was full of little worms.The whole fountain was full of worms. All the people who were walking went through so much hardship."

On one occasion, Hilly decided to go to another village, hoping to trade something for food. As she walked along the country lane, a man passing on a motorbike offered her a ride. But once she had climbed on the bike, he suddenly veered off into the forest and halted the motorbike.

"What are you doing?" Hilly asked, terrified.

"Did you think I would give you a ride for nothing?" was the reply.

"What about your wife?"

'My wife is dead."

"Can you imagine your wife being in my shoes? My little girl is back there in the last village. I just want to get her some food."

"Get back on the bike!" And the chastened man drove her to the next village and dropped her off.

No wonder Hilly was desperate to find food. "My mother got so skinny that she and I could wear the same underwear--and I was only five years old."

As they travelled further West, one day Baerbel, Hilly, her aunt and her cousins were walking along a country lane beside a wheat field when they heard the popping sound of gunfire above thier heads. They threw themselves on the ground for protection. To their consternation they saw a jeep driving across the precious wheat, with its occupants taking pot shots at them. Out got two very drunk American GIs, who asked where they were going, then told them to turn around and go back--towards the advancing Red Army. So the little group walked back up the road for a short while and then doubled back around a hill, crawling on their bellies, out of sight of the GIs.

After some time, the two sisters had to go their separate ways, because Baerbel's aunt lived in a different part of Germany. The crowds had thinned out as people went off in various directions. As Baerbel and Hilly were walking, a woman came by with a donkey cart. Without a word, she stopped the cart and lifted them on, one by one."I'm taking you home," said the woman, as she walked beside the donkey until they arrived at her house. In her kitchen she got out a big tin tub and gave both the travel-stained refugees a bath. Then they sat on the sofa in the kitchen while she made them an egg. "It was unbelievable!" Finally she tucked them up in her own feather bed. "It was like paradise!" This woman lived in East Germany. Later, Hilly used to send food packages to her in gratitude. " We were so thankful. She was an angel!"

A few days later, Baerbel and her mother were on a train, still trying to get home to Worms, when the train came to a sudden stop. Baerbel heard the carriages being ripped opened one by one and loud screaming and shouting. Then someone threw open their carriage and shouted, 'Armistice!" (In German, literally 'there has been the laying down of arms' ). Little Baerbel was overcome with relief. Having known nothing but war, it was hard for her to believe that war could end, that shooting and bombing could cease. "I was hysterical. I just sobbed and sobbed. I could not believe they would stop shooting at us. At last the nightmare was over." Baebel's wartime nightmare had ended, but she was still a hungry refugee--and soon to be a returnee. The war was over, peace was still to be found.