Excerpt for We Don't Talk About That - A Riveting Story of Survival WWII by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Giselle M. Roeder

A Riveting Story of Survival WW II

Copyright © 2014 Giselle M.E. Roeder

First Edition – April, 2014

Second Edition – July, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9949977-4-6

All rights reserved.

This book is based entirely on the memories of the author with the exception of some of the political history. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information browsing, storage, or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

Published by: Gisela Roeder at Smashwords

Excerpts from Reviews of “We Don’t Talk About That”

Bob Pickles, Tarzana Kid “darlingbehomesoon” from Manchester, UK

5.0 out of 5 stars: We do need to talk about it! 21 Jun 2014

Giselle Roeder’s book is a vital piece of the jigsaw of suffering in World War II). It could well have been a story of the tragedy endured by Jews, Gypsies or Polish intelligentsia perpetrated by the Nazis. It is not: it is from the other viewpoint – that of a German family caught up in a relentless & ruthless revenge policy endorsed by Stalin himself by rampaging & victorious Russian troops determined to wreak havoc on a nation who so equally ravished their own country. Revenge is indeed violently exacted upon the females of all ages by the terrifying & simple phrase “Frau, Komm”. Anyone who knows their history will understand the terror behind these powerful two short words. Not since the Japanese visited their venom on the innocents of Nanking or Manilla has rapine acts of such propensity been perpetrated in so condensed a period or area.

If it were not so harrowing, it should be desired reading in schools & given the same historical literary importance as “The Diary of Anne Frank”. To be read alone with a strong drink perhaps – a fine testament to the unquenchable spirit of survival & hope. “Without hope, we are but grains of sand washed into an ocean of despair”.

Colleen M from Nanoose Bay, BC: 2014
A book hard to put down. How did Giselle ever survive? I think the readers will learn things that the average person in North America never learned in school or read in Newspaper; about how the war affected thousands of families, not just the Jews, and not just the Nazis. I like the fact that the book is not “just” about the war. It covers not only the innocent childhood memories and the fears and atrocities encountered during the Russian invasion, but the creation of the two German States, the author’s life after the war and how she survived, became successful, and overcame even more difficult situations in her young adulthood before, finally, making a monumental decision to leave Germany and come to Canada. I recommend the book highly because of learning a part of history that people to this day don’t want to “Talk About” and at the same time for the entertainment value that touches your heart.

Ann Victoria Roberts “AVR” from Hampshire, UK

5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing, 29 July 2014

“We Don’t Talk About That” - Subtitled, ‘An Amazing story of survival’ is surely that. Roeder’s story is by turns illuminating, shocking, awe-inspiring and uplifting – beautifully written in a style that simply draws the reader along. For the majority of the war, little seemed to change until the beginning of 1945, when the Russians came.WW2 and what led up to it, most people know about: Hitler and the Nazis, the ‘Final Solution’ and the terrible events of the Holocaust. From the books that came out of the USSR in the 1960s, I’d read about Stalin’s pogroms and the Siberian gulags; about a political system that was akin to the Spanish Inquisition. But what happened in 1945, when the Russians overran eastern Germany – including the Baltic States and the Balkans – I knew nothing of that. Giselle Roeder has enlightened me. I found it deeply shocking to read of wholesale rapes by the Russian soldiers – ordered by Stalin – to demoralize and subdue the German population. This personal story – the things she witnessed and experienced – is told without undue emphasis, and without begging for sympathy, but simply, ‘the way it happened’. And her words carry more weight because of it. I can fully understand the title of this book: ‘We Don’t Talk About That’ since to speak of it is to re-live the horror. And yet people should know. As a personal, brave, and extraordinary story, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As a piece of social history it is a valuable document. Thank you, Giselle Roeder, for writing it.

Raymond Walker (UK writer)

5 out of 5 stars - We should be talking about this. 22 Oct 2014

We Don’t Talk About That: An Amazing Story of Survival

A great writer, a great book and a recommended read. It is true this is difficult subject matter based upon a harrowing time (the Russian advance into Berlin during World War II) but this is a story that needs to be told. Much as the rape of Nanking needed to be told even though it is difficult to understand how much pain and suffering can be inflicted upon a people by other human beings. I believe you owe it to the people of the time to know and understand their suffering, their grief and the immensity of the horror that had come upon them. I believe this book should be an essential read for all scholars as well as general readers to help understand this time period. A time that is so far away for us here reading but no matter what: we need to know, to try, to make our best efforts, to ensure such a thing does not happen again.
I highly recommend this novel to all.

James Kostelniuk, Author, from Castlegar, BC: 2015
We Don’t Talk About That is a truly remarkable book that reads like the cinematic unravelling of a Steven Spielberg movie. I am reading it aloud to my wife. We brought Kleenex for our tears. I am obviously so deeply moved by this true story that at times the writing takes my breath away and I have to stop reading. Our hearts are overflowing each day with the author’s courage and initiative as a child in war.

John D from Qualicum Beach, BC: 2016
I read your book in 3 days. That about sums it up. I was so intrigued by your story that I just had to keep reading. Please let me know when the follow up is published. Thank you for taking the time and energy in the writing.

Michele G from London, Ontario: 2015
I loved every minute of reading this book. How brave of Giselle to sit down and go through all her memories again, in order to share this wonderfully written book with the world. The quality of a good book for me is when it can make you laugh, cry, count your blessings, and not want it to come to an end. This book achieved all of those things. I’m glad that you shared your story, Giselle and hope that many have a chance to read it.

Eastern Reader (from Amazon.com): 2015
This is a book that you cannot put down. It is the true story of a young woman’s survival through the horrors of war, famine and serious illnesses. The true story is told by the author who witnessed horrific events, escaping the threats of arrest and death, overcoming the loss of close relatives, and all of her family property.

Eric M R from Winnipeg: 2014
I was blown away by descriptions of events during the war as seen through a young German girl’s eyes. It opened my mind to what ordinary German families endured and went through during WWII. The book tells an amazing story of an innocent eleven year old girl who persevered through some horrible events during the war and made her into a strong successful woman. The book is one of those that you just can’t put down – like watching a movie.

Gerhard S. from Vancouver, B.C. 2015.
Finally I purchased your book. I started reading and couldn’t put it down. It isn’t just good it is very good. It is gripping. It is well organized so that one knows who is who as we meet them over the years of age, old rural bliss, looming disaster, cataclysm and redemption.
You may have started a new genre with this book. It is not often we encounter a book showing fortitude and heroism amongst the despised losers of a bitter war, together with kernels of humanism remaining amongst the unspeakable brutality of vengeful victors when they encounter the only ones left: the innocent. Everyone should read it.

George H: from Staten Island, NY: 2015
We recently returned from a trip which included a visit to a work camp in Berlin. I was surprised to hear about the atrocities the Russians performed after WWII when they took over the camp. Your story should be told and read by all. Congratulations and best wishes. “We Don’t Talk About That” is a winner and thank you for sharing it with all of us.

Susan G from the UK: 2015
Giselle, I finished your book. I enjoyed it immensely, though enjoying is probably not quite the right word. Your synopsis of the origins of WWII was the finest I’ve ever read. I have enormous admiration for your undertaking what must have been a real effort to re-live the years of horror.


To Trevor Cradduck, my Englishman, the one with whom I choose to spend my twilight years. Trevor’s encouragement, his help with the formatting, the computer glitches, his patience when I was depressed because I could not sleep when re-living the horrors a whole generation “did not talk about” or waking me in the middle of a nightmare, kept me going. Although I was motivated by being the last of my clan who remembers, as well as by my son trying to get me to keep busy during long winter days when my garden was asleep, and even by people who wanted to know more of my memories after hearing me speak at their clubs, without Trevor this book might never have been written.

To Eric, my son, who, after reading an early draft of my manuscript, confided, “Mom, I now know and understand you a whole lot better.”

And to my friends: Geri, who is responsible for the subtitle and pointing out the sentences where I had put “the cart before the horse”; Colleen who did the first copy-reading; Peter and Bob who read the first draft manuscript and encouraged me to go on writing because “I can’t wait to read the next chapter...”

Last, but not least, a BIG THANK YOU to all of you who encouraged me to write my story in the first place.


When he was a young boy, my son Eric never wanted to hear stories of my early life, but he has since been pushing me to write ‘My Book’ for the last twenty-five years. I even started writing it during a writer’s workshop twenty years ago. I had set up the chapters and written one of them and the two teachers told me, “If you keep writing, in five years you’ll have a bestseller on your hands.”

For some reason I never wrote another line. I wrote poems and short stories but I put this topic on the backburner. Perhaps it was too close to my heart or perhaps I was afraid to open up. I just did not want to talk about it or maybe I did not trust myself to “just do it,” I do not know.

I asked my son, “Who would want to read it?”

His answer, “I will. My generation will. We are interested in what went on during and after WW II. One day, when your generation is gone, we will never know for sure. Speeches on Remembrance Day will be just that: Speeches! We should know. We want to know. If we have a personal connection to it we will not forget.”

In 2012, I lost two of my aunts, the youngest sisters of both Mother and Father. Shortly before they passed on they opened up a little and very carefully shared some of their own memories. I have included those as well. Previously, whenever I had asked them (or any older German women) guarded questions about their experiences or about any direct confrontations they experienced with the victorious soldiers, the common answer of every single one was, and is to this day “We don’t talk about that.”

How is it possible that the women of a whole country silently and unconsciously agreed not to talk about it?

I am the last of my family who still remembers. My strongest motivation to write my memoir was the expression of shock and disbelief I saw on peoples’ faces during several speeches I delivered at different clubs about my experiences. It drove home the fact that EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW how war affects every family.

Exclamations like, “My God, we didn’t know that! It’s horrible how much women and children had to suffer during and after the war. We always just heard about the Nazis and the Jews. We did not even appreciate how lucky we were to live in Canada.”

Many of them asked, “Do you have a book?”

“No,” was my reply.

“Then you must write one...”

And that is how this book came about.

Giselle Roeder

First edition: January, 2014

Second edition: July, 2017

Table of Contents




1: A Condensed Background of my Story

2: Meet the Players

3: Life in Stresow

4: School and Other Excitement

5: Life Lessons

6: The Summer of 1944

7: Lots of Cat Babies

8: The Fall of 1944

9: The Russians are Coming

10: Frau Komm

11: Life in the Attic

12: The End of an Era

13: Arrival on the Isle of Rügen

14: Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

15: A Home of Our Own

16: And Now What?

17: A Very Special Offer

18. Father Sebastian Kneipp

19. A Change of Direction

20. A Call to Action

About the Author

1: A Condensed Background of my Story

Lest we forget”

Germany was a country consisting of many small kingdoms and only became united under an Emperor in the latter part of the nineteenth century. After WW I, the Emperor was forced to abdicate in 1921 and a Republic was established, named the Weimar Republic. The Treaty of Versailles following WW I stipulated that Germany pay more than a hundred billion marks worth of land and money to England, France and the USA. England and the USA were willing to reduce it after the German representatives declared they would not be able to meet the obligation and suggested it would be counter-productive, but France remained obdurate.

The unrest started after WW I in all the larger German cities. It continued to grow into brawls, fights and killings over a period of about a dozen years. Socialists and communists tried to get the upper hand but a new movement sprouted like a weed. Men joined the German Workers Party in droves; even a large number of generals and many former soldiers signed up. They held meetings in beer halls where they raved and ranted about the loss of the war, claiming it had all been fixed with the enemy by socialist and communist political powers in Berlin. A young, decorated, Austrian-born WW I Corporal, Adolf Hitler, heard about these meetings, attended one and knew immediately that this would be the perfect platform for him to spread his ideas and gain power. When he spoke up the first time, the other members did not like his aggressive approach, but then realized, “This guy has the gift of gab - he could be what we need.”

The others surely did not expect him to stab them in the back. Hitler joined the party and within a year renamed it to NSDAP, (National Sozialistisch Demokratische Arbeiter Partei) the National Socialistic Democratic Workers’ Party.

The name appealed to the nationalists, the socialists, the democrats, and the workers. Hitler designed a new flag: Red with a white circle adorned with an ancient mythical symbol, the swastika. He became the leader and insisted they call him “Führer”.

Hitler demanded that the country stops paying the requested billions in reparation to the allies. There was no money; the German mark became known as the Papiermark (paper money) due to its drop in value. It was not backed by gold, and inflation had hit hard. The German mark was worth four to one to the dollar in early 1923 but by the end of November 1923, people needed more than four billion marks to buy one dollar. Salaries were worthless. Half a loaf of bread cost billions. My father reminisced that people were paid every hour and would often take a wheelbarrow full of money to buy food. Hunger riots started in all of the big cities.

Hitler knew his time had come. In his many speeches he talked about rebuilding Germany, promising work and bread for all; his party grew exponentially. A number of men who made history were individuals such as:

• WW I General Erich Ludendorff, promoter of Total War – who was demanding,

“The whole nation should be mobilized. Peace is just an interlude between Wars.”

• Ernst Röhm (later executed by the Nazis) the co-founder of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) or Storm troopers - which grew to multiple millions of members - also known as the Brown Shirts. Unemployed young men signed up by the thousands.

• Hermann Göring, the closest advisor and protector of Hitler with lots of power.

• Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s most loyal follower and the militant deputy leader of the NSDAP.

• Heinrich Himmler, who founded the SS and became the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany.

A plot to kidnap Bavarian government officials in the spring of 1924 failed and Hitler was arrested. Unfortunately, they allowed him a public trial. He declined a lawyer and chose to defend himself. Never denying what he had done, he simply explained (with great passion in his charismatic way) what he wanted to achieve: the re-building of Germany.

His self-defense speeches made him famous across Germany. Journalists had a field day. Aristocrats, politicians, business people, workers and farmers read about him. They discussed him in pubs and homes where they laughed about his outspokenness and said he must be nuts or crazy, but, despite everything, everyone was discussing his ideas because of their own economic misery.

They sentenced Hitler to five years in prison with the possibility of early parole. Even some of the judges fell for his ability to convince everybody of his great plans for the country. They gave him a comfortable cell in the prison in Landsberg, a small city in Bavaria, and allowed him visitors, including Rudolf Hess as his private secretary. To Hess he dictated his ideas and these writings later became his infamous book, Mein Kampf (My Fight or My Struggle). When he was in power, every young couple received a copy of this book as a wedding gift! They released him at Christmas in 1924 after just a few months in jail. He settled in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps to finish his book. By chance, he met Joseph Goebbels, a failed writer with a Ph.D. in literature, who added a lot of fuel to the fire, so to speak, and many new ideas for Hitler’s book. Later Goebbels became his Propaganda Minister and wrote his rousing speeches.

The government of the young German republic under Chancellor Gustav Stresemann brought the run-away inflation under control by borrowing millions from the U.S. government in 1923 and introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, backed by mortgaging land and investment in industrial development, since there was no gold available. One trillion Papiermarks equaled one Rentenmark, and now 4.2 RM were worth one U.S. dollar.

Twenty years later, I found a large carton full of billions of the old Papiermarks in our attic. Thinking that we were very rich, I asked my father about it. Smiling, he explained the billions,

“My dear girl, one day we will paper our outhouse with it!”

In August 1924, the new Reichsmark replaced the Rentenmark and remained Germany’s legal tender until 1948.

The country saw an incredible development and improvement during what became known as the roaring twenties. The women cut their hair short, danced the Charleston and knew again, what it was like to be young, pretty and happy, and the men had work. Innovations like the radio, automobiles, aviation, the telephone and the power grid made life exciting and comfortable.

The Wall Street crash in October 1929 caused what we know as the Great Depression. Anybody who had anything lost everything. Paul von Hindenburg, the President of Germany and the then-Chancellor Brüning decided to hold elections. The year was 1930 and the NSDAP, Hitler’s party, won 107 seats in the Reichstag and became the second largest party in the country next to the SDP (Social Democratic Party). The Storm troopers, already consisting of hundreds of thousands of men, started a big celebration in the streets and smashed Jewish-owned shop windows – although what became known as the Kristallnacht (crystal night) did not take place until November 1938.

The following years saw much upheaval in the political arena. Germany had four million unemployed by 1931. The NSDAP grew. Paul von Hindenburg, who had been re-elected in 1932, realized what Hitler was up to and, despite his age of over eighty, tried desperately to save the fragile Republic.

Adolf Hitler continued his rise to power and became Chancellor in 1933. Through thousands of speeches across the country promising bread, work and peace he instilled hope and won the approval of the German people; all they had to lose was misery, starvation and unemployment. They needed hope - he gave it to them. The Germans needed work - he provided it. The Germans needed encouragement - Hitler, who may have been one of the greatest demagogues and persuasive orators who ever lived, knew how to motivate, to excite them.

The years after 1933 saw an incredible development in all facets of life in the downtrodden country. Most people did not know, and some chose not to see what began to happen to the Jewish people. These were folks who had lived in Germany for hundreds of years, who had inter-married, who considered themselves and were considered to be, Germans like everyone else. Jewish people started disappearing – either they were warned and had a chance to flee or they were picked up by the Brown Shirts on false accusations. Socialists, communists and anyone who spoke out against Hitler was put into concentration camps or worse - tortured and killed.

“If you are not for me, you are against me,” (Matthew 12:30). It seems that some politicians of today follow the same line of thinking.

People overlooked the growing war machinery because it provided jobs. The army attracted thousands of young men to sign up and become professional soldiers. Industry and commerce prospered.

The Berlin Olympics in 1936 became a big showcase to the world of a recovering proud Germany. Hitler promised that every German could afford an automobile. His conception of such a car was the first Volkswagen Beetle; it cost only 600 Reichsmark. Hitler needed thousands of workers to build his Autobahns, the highways crossing the country from one end to the other. Nobody appreciated the future importance of these highways to move war machinery to where it was needed and fast because nobody thought of or wanted another war. Everything was about jobs for desperate people. Hitler used his artistic talents to design buildings and had many grand architectural edifices constructed. He made Berlin into a world-class city again.

Such is the (condensed) background of how and why the German people voted for this Austrian man, a man who annexed his native country to his German Reich. Here was a man who promised bread, and kept his promise, a man who started with nothing but his crazy righteous ideas, who was laughed at and put in prison, but used his gift of gab to sway the masses, seemingly hypnotizing them. He talked of building a Thousand-year Reich. He talked about “Volk ohne Raum” (people without enough land) and then the day came when his Propaganda Minister Goebbels screamed at the end of a rousing speech in a packed Olympic Stadium in Berlin, “I ask you - do you want total war?”

Thousands screamed back, “YES!”

God forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing. Screaming back “NO,” would not have made any difference. The Führer was a dictator and nobody would dare to stand in his way. Dozens of assassination attempts on Hitler’s life occurred over the years. These attempts were made not by socialist or communist factions but by some of his high officers and they failed. It seemed that he was indestructible or even untouchable. This man started a war that became the war of all wars: a war that cost millions of people their homeland and their lives, a war so horrible that the people who lived through it had nightmares for the rest of their lives.

2: Meet the Players

My father’s family

Friedrich Wilhelm and Martha

My paternal grandfather, Friedrich Wilhelm, a blacksmith by trade, was married to a beautiful woman, my paternal grandmother, Martha. They had leased a smithy with a small farm consisting of twenty-two acres of land in the village of Stresow in Pomerania, Germany (now Strzeszów, Poland).

Their home was situated on two acres of land: the smithy close to the village road, the house about fifty meters up a slight incline, barn, stables and a laborer’s house was part of it. Behind the stables was the rest of the land, which was used to grow household staples and feed (potatoes, turnips, clover) for a cow, some pigs and other small farm animals. He sublet most of the land to a big farmer who provided grain, straw and hay. Two large gardens, one with lots of fruit bushes and trees, the other to grow vegetables and flowers, were Martha’s domain.

They originally had nine children but only five survived.

Erich (referred to as Erich, Dad, Daddy or Father)

My father was the oldest son and trained with my grandfather to become a blacksmith. He had a lot of drive and in order to complete his training, had to go away as a journeyman for several years to get his Blacksmith Master degree in order to be able to train apprentices himself. After he finished the required years and passed the examinations, he returned home to work with my grandfather.

Gertrud (referred to as “Aunt Tutti” or Trudi)

Aunt Tutti was my father’s oldest sister. She was married to Fritz Z., a railway man who was often transferred to different locations. They lived on the Baltic Sea Island of Rügen (still part of Germany today). Aunt Tutti and her sons, my cousins Siegfried and Manfred, spent almost all of their summer holidays with her parents in Stresow.


Aunt Irene, another sister, apprenticed in a grocery shop and later ran one herself close to the old German-Polish border, in Prechlau, Germany (now Przechlewo, Poland). Her shop closed in 1944 and Irene was absorbed into the German army and trained as a Red Cross nurse.


Uncle Curt, my dad’s younger and only brother, also apprenticed with my grandfather and became a blacksmith, working with my dad and his father.


Aunt Lisa was my dad’s youngest sister. She was born when my dad, Erich, was already twenty-six years old.

There was also Fritze. My great-grandmother, Martha’s mother Johanna, had, like Martha, a baby later in life and became a widow shortly after her boy, named Fritze, was born. Although Fritze was technically an uncle to Erich, Gertrud, Irene, Curt, and Lisa, he was actually a year younger than his nephew Erich was. Being so close in age, the two of them grew up like brothers. Fritze lived two kilometers away in the town of Bad Schönfliess, Germany (now Trzcińsko-Zdrój, Poland), but they spent a lot of time together.

My mother’s family

Karl L. and Emma

My maternal grandfather, Karl L., was a well-to-do farmer with lots of lands and his own house located within and adjacent to the ancient city wall in Bad Schönfliess, next to one of the city gates. In Germany, use of the term “Bad” before a city name always indicates that the city itself is a government-approved health resort, usually featuring baths of some sort. In the case of Bad Schönfliess, it was because of the landscape: bogs with endless deposits of mud containing special beneficial minerals. This mud was used for treating rheumatic and arthritic conditions. The small city was a very pleasant place with nice homes, parks, entertainment and boulevard shopping. Karl L. married my maternal grandmother, Emma, who brought an illegitimate son named Willy into the marriage, together with a sizable amount of money meant for Willy’s upkeep and to make up for the fact that she was not a virgin. The marriage produced four daughters:


Aunt Emmi married a plumber, Erich L., who had his own business and a couple of apprentices. He had inherited his parents’ house. Aunt Emmi and Uncle Erich L. lived on the second floor; his sister occupied the ground floor and part of it was a small grocery shop.

Elsbeth (referred to as Else, Mother, Mom, Mommy)

My mother, Else, for some reason was always singled out by her father to do heavier farm work. She had to help him to work the farm as if she were a boy. Her father did not like Willy much and with each new baby he fathered, he hoped that it would be a boy. For my mother, Elsbeth, he had picked out a gentleman’s son to become her future husband. This proposed husband was slightly older than she was, but very wealthy with a beautiful villa in a large park. My grandfather Karl L. and the gentleman had cooked up the plot between friends over a beer when Elsbeth was about twenty and sealed the arrangement with a handshake.

Johanna (referred to as Hanni)

Aunt Hanni also had to work on the farm. One day she introduced a well-to-do chicken farmer named Robert S. from Stresow to her family.

My grandfather Karl L. did not believe in idleness and, before they married, all the girls were expected to work in the barn, the gardens, the fields, help with threshing, bring in the hay, muck out the stables, feed and look after the five or six horses, milk the cows and look after all the other farm animals.


It was different for the fourth girl, my Aunt Elisabeth. She could wrap her father around her proverbial little finger; she was the “princess.” She was prettier than the others were, got away with almost everything and grew up a young lady with beautiful skin and soft hands.

After finishing primary school, all four sisters had to complete a year at the Household School, an institution where young women learned to run a household, cook, bake, entertain, wash, do fancy needlework, sew simple dresses and fix torn sheets or workmen’s clothing, handle babies and grow a garden, harvest vegetables and fruit and preserve everything that was not consumed when fresh.

My parents and sisters

My dad, Erich, had gone to a dance in the city with his young uncle Fritze. Fritze knew my future mother, Else, because he lived with his mother in a small suite on the same street where my maternal grandparents’ large house was located. Uncle Fritze was dancing with Else when my future dad, Erich noticed a big red spot on her white dress. In order to save her an incredible amount of embarrassment, he dared to walk up to the two, and after his polite, “May I break in?” she stepped away from Fritze and into Erich’s arms. He put his hand on her back, turned and walking close behind to shield her, steered her towards the exit and the outside restrooms, quietly telling her to check the backside of her dress. Then he offered to walk her home. My dad was a very handsome and charming man, so you can’t blame her for falling in love with him.

Consequently, my dad lost Fritze. From that moment, Fritze never spoke to him again, a few years later he married a girl named Kate and they immigrated to the USA.

After a two-year courtship, followed by a short engagement during which Else had to suffer much family disapproval, my future parents, Erich and Elsbeth were married in 1932. He was twenty-nine and she was twenty-three years old.

As was customary, their wedding was held at her parents’ house in the city. During the wedding dinner, relatives teased Erich relentlessly about his inability to give his bride the kind of presents that Hanni received from her rich chicken farmer, Robert S. The more the guests drank the worse it got and the teasing was finally topped off with, “If Robert wanted to, he could buy Hanni a horse, but Erich could only afford to give Else the whip….”

The comment caused raucous laughter and it got to the point that Erich took his new wife by the hand and got up. Together they left the party.

Else was disinherited because she did not want to marry the wealthy gentleman’s son her father had picked out for her and had instead stubbornly insisted on marrying Erich, the blacksmith from a small village two kilometers away. To her parents he was an unsuitable man and her father never forgave her.

Erich had only recently lost his own father and became the guardian of his younger sister, Lisa, who, by then, was only eight years old.

Since he was now a married man, and became the head of the household, his mother and the remaining siblings, Irene, Curt and Lisa moved into the dowager part of the house. It faced the front garden while the young couple took over the more convenient work part of the house facing the yard where the barn, the stables and the workers’ house formed a square with the manure pile almost, but not quite, in the middle. There were stables for pigs, a couple of cows, a horse and Else’s favorites: the chickens, geese and ducks. There was a special room for milling grains for feed, a tack room and next door was a sleeping room for one or two workmen. The garage next to that housed a carriage and a sleigh, both of which were later replaced by a motor car. From the garage, a ladder went up to the hayloft.

Attached to the garage was the workers’ house. It was rented to Mrs. Richter and her adult son Paul. A small stable for them was in front of it. They had chickens, rabbits and a smelly white goat with horns. Sometimes Mrs. Richter would offer us a cup of milk but it tasted just like the way the goat smelled. Not even the cats wanted to lick the milk.

Erich loved his pigeons. They lived in a gable above the chickens. They loved him too, sat on his hand or shoulder and did not fly away when he climbed up the ladder to clean their quarters. Occasionally a pair of them would become a Sunday meal for us. They had very small, thin bones and not much flesh but tasted somewhat like a young tender chicken.

Else was used to hard farm work. Having married a country man, she was glad to have the know-how and was able to do her part in house, garden, fields and stables. Her mother-in-law felt pushed aside and, at first, made her life quite miserable. Erich explained to his mother, “I am twenty-nine and married. I want my wife to be in charge of my household but I would appreciate any help you could give her. You have been running this place for so many years and I am sure Else will appreciate your friendly advice. But let her make some of her own mistakes, it will help her to learn.”

Else missed her own mother, but there was no contact for two years after the wedding until the first grandchild was born, and that was me.

They expected their first baby at the end of January 1934. I was to be named Friedrich Wilhelm after Erich’s father and grandfather. It was too big a name for me and I decided, instead, to be a girl! They named me “Gisela” because there was no other Gisela in the village. I was the first, and they just added both my grandmothers’ names, Martha and Emma, in that order. It would lead to some jealousy between the grandmothers. The maternal grandmother felt that her name, Emma, should be first since she was the older one. Had my parents done that my first initials would be G.E.M., and they would have had a real gem. Funny but we kids always called Martha, my younger paternal grandmother who lived with us, the old granny, and Emma, my older maternal grandmother, the new grandma, probably because we met her later and everything in her city house was so much fancier and more formal.

My birth was a home birth with a midwife; there was no doctor in the village. The village folks were used to the midwife; giving birth was a natural thing. Erich was disappointed his first-born was a girl but there was hope for a future son. They wanted a large family.

Erich’s youngest sister, Lisa, was now ten years old and she became my big sister babysitter instead of the aunt that she really was. Erich’s mother became my dear Granny. She loved me, and looking after me gave her life purpose. Little me, I was nicknamed “Gila.” I slept during the days but I was not a happy camper at night. I did not like the cold world and cried my little heart out. I wanted to sleep next to my mommy, feeling warm and safe like I did when she fed me, but Daddy did not allow it.

“She could be squished,” he warned.

Granny would come running and carry me around for hours and hum and sing to me. My mom did not like it but had to go along with it for the sake of peace and quiet; besides, she was out of commission for a week after giving birth to me, a nine-pound baby. She nursed me for well over a year. I started walking at nine months. When I was one year old, my parents were advised to shave off all my hair. There was lots of superstition in the country and folks insisted that, if shaved, then a child would regrow a really healthy and beautiful head of hair.

My mother told me years later that I stopped holding still once half of my head was bald. I was kicking and screaming and would not let them do the other half for several days. Interestingly, I was born with very dark hair like my mother’s and after having it all shaved off, it grew in quite blond.

Almost three years later, in December 1936, my sister, Christel Irene Elisabeth joined our young family. My first or earliest memory is of a day when Mom got mad at me. I was standing on the table after a bath in the baby bathtub, dressed only in a little undershirt. I was not quite three years old, and I was singing and dancing on the spot while lifting my little shirt up and down as if it were a skirt.

“Don’t do that,” she said very sternly, in a tone I had never heard before.

She pulled my shirt down and slapped me. I was shocked and startled and just stood there and watched her wrapping up my new baby sister. My exuberance was gone, I felt very sad and I did not know what I had done that caused her to be so cross with me. Tears rolled down my cheeks but I did not cry out.

This memory came back to me unexpectedly and with great force in adulthood forty years later. An elderly English lady occupied the main floor in a large house we had bought. It had been duplexed and she had lived on the main floor for several years. We did not have the heart to turn her out. I knew she was not well and one night I heard some disturbing noise. I went down the servant’s stairway to check on her. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, rocking back and forth and lifting her very thin nighty up and down … just as I did all those years before.

“Don’t do that,” I admonished her, and I heard my mother’s voice. It troubled me for days.

My baby sister Christel became Granny’s favorite girl. “She looks just like my late husband,” Granny happily exclaimed.

I couldn’t see it because he had a moustache with curled ends. He was in heaven but I often looked at his very large, framed photograph over Granny’s bed and tried to find my little sister’s resemblance to him.

Christel was a sneaky little girl. She did not want to play with her own things but instead always played with my toys, throwing and often breaking them. When I tried to protect my precious possessions or push her away, she would cry with those false tears that small children manage so well and scream as loud as she could. My mom, Granny or even Father would come running to inquire, “What’s going on here?”

She would always sob, “Gila hit me…”

On one of those occasions, my father put me over his knee and I got my first real spanking. I felt totally innocent and I never forgot or forgave him during my childhood. It surely was not a fair case of innocent until proven guilty. I was not given a chance to tell him what happened.

I did finally tell him when he was over seventy years old. He remembered and was amazed that I did too.

One day Christel had the whole family worried about her safety. It was summer and Aunt Tutti’s boys, my cousins Siegfried and Manfred, were visiting. We played hide-and-seek but could not find her and finally called my mom. We all looked everywhere and then my mom noticed the cows being somewhat restless. Christel had crawled way under the feeding trough and had fallen asleep, enveloped in the animal warmth. Mother was not able to get in between the cows but she was able to wake Christel up. Not surprisingly, she started sobbing and was afraid to come out. The young bull on her one side was very upset and the young heifer on her other side was also moving around as far as the chain allowed.

My oldest cousin, Siegfried, went to get my father. He came running and got straight in there, but was hit in the arm by one of the bull’s horns and started bleeding. He told Christel to stay put and admonished her not to move. When he and my mother managed to get the bull’s chain loosened and finally got the beast to move out backwards, my mom grabbed Christel and pulled her out before the bull came back in. Mother had to tear her apron into strips and wind them tightly around Father’s arm. I was glad when I did not see all that blood running down my father’s arm anymore. It made me feel sick to my tummy. He had to drive his motorbike to the city where the doctor sewed up the deep flesh wound. When he returned, it looked like he had a zipper.

In August 1940 Erich and Else had another girl, Ingrid Doris. She became my favorite sister. She had eyes like our mother’s and mine. She was an easy baby, just fitting in, never demanding much attention and somehow self-contained. Neighbours would look into her pram, nod their heads and wisely proclaim, “Yes, later children are much easier.”

Can one only have later children? That is what I would want when I grew up, to have only later children. I often put Ingrid in my doll-carriage and pushed her around our yard as if she were a doll. Naturally, Aunt Lisa would be supervising this exercise.

My parents and the parents of the boys were always joking about the fact that each of the first three girls was born a year after each of the boys. Aunt Gertrud, dubbed “Aunt Tutti” by me when I was a toddler, and could not say Aunt Trudi, had given birth to another son, Dietrich (Dieter) in 1939, a year earlier. Ingrid was the result of my father’s renewed hope for a boy. They always joked about trading the children and I heard them say, “Life is not fair, the sister has three boys and the brother has three girls.”

Since the boys spent most of the summer holidays each year in Stresow, we kids got to know each other quite well, and enjoyed playing together. Acting out a fairy tale or playing wedding and house, dressed in Mom’s old dresses and high-heeled shoes (there was a pair of bright red ones I could not even imagine my mother wearing) were our favorite pastimes.

Family inter-relationships

It must have been around this time that my Aunt Irene, still single, went to the village of Prechlau close to the Polish border to run a small grocery shop. She was quite proud to get this job. Granny was sad that she went so far away.

My Uncle Curt, Dad’s only brother, had left home as well. He had learned the blacksmith trade apprenticing with my grandfather. Both brothers, Erich and Curt, worked with him. After my grandfather died, Curt did not like working with or under his brother who now was in charge, so he simply signed up with the army in November 1934 to become a professional soldier. The army trained him in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland) for several years; he could use his blacksmith training and shoe horses. Before the war broke out, they transferred him to an Infantry Regiment in Schleswig Holstein. There he met his future wife, Frieda. She was a real city girl, with very short, pale blond hair, with white skin, light blue eyes and soft hands. She wore silk dresses with large flower designs and chic shoes. I overheard Granny mention to Mrs. Richter, “I don’t know what Curt sees in her. Will she ever do any housework? She is a fancy girl and such a cold fish. With his looks, he could have had a gold fish.”

When Aunt Frieda visited, I admired her but always felt shy around her. She was very different from all our other aunts, and did not speak High German as we did but the Hamburg-Holstein dialect where the “s-t” is very distinctly pronounced, “…s-tolpert über’n s-pitzen s-tein” - get it?

She and Uncle Curt had two daughters, my cousins, Irmgard and Ingeborg. We did not see much of them and I really only began to know them years later.

My Aunt Hanni had married Robert, the rich chicken farmer, in 1933. They had a son, Joachim in May 1934. Her in-laws took the baby away from her; she was just allowed to nurse him, but otherwise, his paternal grandparents raised him as their heir. Aunt Hanni was relegated to a maid’s room behind the kitchen and her husband would only come to her when he wanted his conjugal rights. After Joachim, she had two little girls, Marianne and Anneliese, and the same thing happened. She kept her husband’s treatment of her a secret from her own parents and her sisters, as she felt very ashamed and just suffered quietly. Until one day when she came running along the back path to our house and, breaking down completely, told my mother that she got the whip.

We had a whip hanging on a stable wall. It consisted of a handle about a foot long with seven long strings of cut up leather fastened onto one end of it. I was playing in the next room at the time, and the door was open. I was a serious child and thought she meant she had received a whip as a gift. She was sobbing hard and divulging her terrible story about her babies to my mother. Evidently, Aunt Hanni did not get the promised horse after all, but instead the whip and that, not as a gift, but in the cruelest way.

“I am not allowed to eat in the dining room with the family. I have to eat in the kitchen with the maids and workers. I am not allowed to be in the living room or play with my children. I feel like a slave, my in-laws are much nicer to their employees than to me. Oh, Else, what can I do?”

After this first visit, Aunt Hanni came more often. She never walked along the village road but sneaked along the back pathway, sometimes hiding in the bushes, to avoid other people. She was very afraid and knew she would be severely punished if she were caught. She was always hungry and my mother would bake waffles, her favorite treat. She was not allowed to make them in her own home and had not been able to enjoy them for years. Her little boy, Joachim, copied his grandparents and treated her the way they did. Growing up he became, “the nicest son you could have,” she told my mother after about fifteen years. When her husband was drafted, she became the servant for her in-laws but at least that way she could see her children more often. Still, she was not allowed to eat with the family. She had to do everything for her in-laws: clean their quarters, make their beds, empty their night potties and practically replaced a maid.

My Aunt Emmi had also married a tradesman but he must have been good enough for her parents since she did not have my mother’s problems. I surmise Aunt Emmi must have already been pregnant when they married because she wasn’t wearing a white dress but instead wore a very dark dress in her wedding picture. That was customary for a pregnant bride.

She and Uncle Erich L. had two daughters, my cousins Erika and Renate. Renate was born in May 1934 and she and I became soul mates until the war tore us apart. Erika was five years older. She was a very beautiful girl with a face like Grace Kelly.

My mother’s youngest sister, my aunt Elisabeth, had fallen madly in love with a good- looking Hauptmann (major) when she was fairly young. She was hardly out of school and got permission to marry him after a few years when she was just nineteen in 1939. They had a little girl, Marianne. He was sent to the frontlines and never came back. She was a very young widow. Little Marianne died of pneumonia when she was four years old.

The stepbrother, Willy, had run away and nobody knows what has become of him.

3: Life in Stresow

Memories such as those re-lived in this book started at an early age when life was easy. We enjoyed great times during mostly sunny summers on the beach at the lake, when our cousins visited from the Island of Rügen. Then, during snow-packed winters in between, we had sleigh rides and our horse, Lotte, had jingle bells attached to her harness. During the twilight hours, we would sit in Granny’s living room on the bench against the warm ceramic tile oven. She would tell us of her childhood or of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and all the other wonderful fairy tales. Peter, my father’s old cat, would sit between us and purr. After a while, stroking him the right way I would start stroking against the hair growth and little sparks would fly and crackle. Oh, he did not like it at all, but I did! It was exciting. He would hit my arm with his paw but he never scratched me. His reaction was always funny and now I hope it did not hurt him. We were a normal, happy family and so were all the other families living in Stresow/Pomerania, Germany.

Imagine a small village with 1000 inhabitants, including children. Except for the pub owner, the blacksmith, a tailor, a fisherman, two teachers, the owners of the two grocery shops (one of them had a bakery too), a cobbler, and the pastor, all the men were farmers. Every farmer had a workers’ house attached to the barn with either one or two families living there. There was also an Almshouse. This provided a place where people could go when the spouse died and the bereaved had nothing to live on, or if they were incapacitated or too old to work. Naturally, everyone knew one another. Even the mayor was one of the farmers. He was the only one who had a telephone. I don’t remember anyone having running water or an indoor toilet. Water was brought in from the pump in the yard and dirty water would be brought out and chucked onto the road or the manure pile. Every child knew, “The bigger the manure pile the richer the farmer.”

Wood for cooking and heating was chopped, and was usually piled high against the wall of a building or cleverly placed in a circle and built up higher and higher, getting the circle tighter until it had a point on the top. That way a tarp could be placed over it to protect the wood against rain and snow. Every evening the fires were doused, every morning the ashes had to be scraped out of the ovens or stoves and a new fire started with newspaper and kindling. Sometimes smoke would be blowing in your face, depending on the wind direction as it hit the chimney.

Washday was a big undertaking. The laundry was boiled in huge pots. We had a tilt pot - meaning the huge pot could be tilted to pour the water out. This pot was also used to boil potatoes for feed for the animals. The boiled laundry was taken out with narrow wooden paddles and put into shallow, oval, wooden tubs. On a washboard (you may know this only from looking at one in an antique shop) the women would scrub every piece of laundry until their hands were raw. Wringing the water out of the bigger bed sheets required two people. Everything was pegged on a clothesline running across the yard. A long, sturdy forked pole held up the weight on the line.

Sometimes pigeons would alight on the clothesline and their droppings on the clean laundry could drive the women to tears.

When dry, the large pieces of laundry were put through a “roller” located in a smaller part of the barn. It consisted of a base with a lined platform about four by eight feet. On this were two thick wooden rollers and a long box filled with huge rocks was set on those. This box was pushed back and forth and, as small children, we loved to sit on the rocks and enjoy the motion with either Granny or Mother doing the pulling and pushing. The sheets were placed on the platform, the motion would pull them through and they would come out at the other end. After the roller did its prep work, everything was ironed. Granny still had an old iron into which she put glowing coals. She always spat on the bottom to see if it was hot enough. She insisted, “It does a much better job than the new electric iron.”

She had grown up when there was no other, and now was happy when she could use it during power outages. I was intrigued by the fact that it did not burn what she was ironing, even though you could see the glowing coals within.

None of the farmers lived on their land as many do in North America. Everyone lived in the village with the church surrounded by the cemetery, in the center. The wealthy families had family plots where generations were buried. The poor or farm workers had a corner of the cemetery to themselves. It was said that in another very small corner, shaded by a huge chestnut tree, were the overgrown graves of three people who had committed suicide by hanging themselves a long time ago. Maybe they did not know of other ways to do it. In the fourth corner, a number of very old gravestones were piled up, taken from graves of families who had died out.

Someone from each family, mostly a woman of the older generation, would come to the cemetery to plant, tidy or rake their family’s gravesite every week. Because it was raked all around, people always knew by the footprints if someone had visited a grave. I felt sad for a dog that visited his dead master every day. He would stay by his grave and only go home when it got dark. His footprints talked about his love, his loss and the way he grieved. The cemetery looked more like a garden with many different flower beds, except for the headstones in granite, marble or rock with the names and dates of the dearly departed inscribed. These would read like a family history. We had two graves: one of my grandfather Friedrich Wilhelm and a small one next to him with little baby Dorothea, Aunt Tutti’s firstborn.

Keeping the gravesites tidy gave the women a chance to get together and chat, since they could not go to the pub like the men.

Rolling hills hugged the village of Stresow on one side, with the mill hill being the highest. On the other side were three lakes, bordered by extensive forests. The village was shaped like the letter Y. The road into the village from the next town, Bad Schönfliess (two kilometers away and simply called the city) connected about two thirds down the right arm of the Y. The grocer with the bakery, the two schools, the cemetery, the church, the other grocer, and the pub were in the middle between the two arms. A memorial for WW I was at the central tip. We lived on the left side of the single leg. We could see the road to the city from our living room because our house was on higher ground than the rest of the village. At the bottom of our land was a ditch, along which my father had planted acacia trees. The pathway that went all around the village was the divide between the mill hill and us. Just as my grandfather had done, Dad planted household staples on these two acres, but added alfalfa and several rows of apple trees. I remember the trees blooming with soft pink blossoms. I thought it looked very pretty.

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