Growing Up in Germany During World War II

We had not heard from my Uncle Helmut in years: “lost in action,” we were told.
Then one day in 1948 he showed up on our doorstep in Hamburg, looking haggard and lost. He had been in a prisoner of war camp in Siberia. I was 17 at the time; Helmut was about 24. His mother, my grandmother, was often with us—she had lost her husband in World War I and during the years of World War II had managed to stay in her house near Hamburg. Now Helmut was with us too. He had miraculously made it home from Siberia, but he was so traumatized that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak. At almost the same time, Peter, who had been Helmut’s classmate going through school, also returned. He was in the same condition, not speaking at all. We later learned that in the camp they weren’t allowed to speak to more than one person—the Russians feared that otherwise prisoners might plan an escape.

In 1936, at age 5, I had moved with my family from Hamburg to Stetten, on the Baltic (it is now part of Poland), where my father ran a shipping business. Finally drafted into the Navy, he was killed in the final air raid of the war. In Stettin we had lived in a house my father had built against a hillside and on the edge of a beautiful forest. I remember a very large hallway with a floor of inlaid parquet and then a lead stone staircase. It had a swimming pool and, in the garden, a small pool with goldfish. We kept a sheep as lawn-mower for the spacious lawns. I best remember the cherry trees, which we loved to climb. My father admonished us to be careful since these trees were frail. And then it was he himself, climbing one when he was home on leave, who fell, breaking his shoulder. This turned out to be fortunate at the time, for it extended his leave and he was with us for some time.

Then in 1945 when the war was over, with my mother, my older brother, and my two little sisters, I moved back to Hamburg. What we found was no longer recognizable as a city—almost all had been destroyed. There were still the Naval Headquarters on the Elbe and a few mansions overlooking the river. Also still standing in that area were a few hotels. On arrival we stayed for one memorable day and night in the hotel that had been my father’s favorite, the Hotel Atlantic. I vividly remember the long hallway with the thick red carpet, on which I saw a family of rats, father, mother, and babies, parade. Then we moved into the home of a Chilean woman who had been a friend of my father and mother. Now she took into her large mansion refugees returning to Hamburg, including ourselves. During these teenage years in Hamburg I enjoyed a life of singing and dancing and talking with my brother’s friends.

Thus there was a large extended family to welcome the returning Uncle Helmut. Though shut off by his silence, he welcomed the daily walks with me. Our walk was along the Elbe, where the promenade bordering city all the way to the outskirts remained even though there were the craters to circumvent. At some point Uncle Helmut, who had painted growing up, re-discovered his desire to paint. He acquired some watercolors and now during our walks he would find a place to stop and as I watched him he would paint. And as he painted he began to talk. He told me some of the rare good memories from his time in the camp. One of his stories was of some Russian children who brought him paper and some crayons. He drew their pictures for them, and in return they brought him some bread, handing it to him through a fence. He was especially moved by this, he said, because the Russians of that area had little more to eat than they did in the camp on their daily diet of a bowl of terrible soup. “They, too, were starving,” he said. Also he told the story of how he got out of the camp. There was a Russian woman doctor who befriended him. She told him how to injure an arm so that the blood run down out of it, and then she wrote him a perscription and a diagnosis. Thus he was no longer able to work for the Russians, and they released him to come home. Later, he was to marry the masseuse in Hamburg who had administered his physical therapyto bring his arm back to life. What wonderful support he got from that Russian doctor, so he could survive and come home to us and live the life that a young man growing older should be allowed, so very few of them being thus enabled. I think that he and this daring woman must have been having an affair. Russians and Germans could discover themselves as real people in the wake of that merciless long war.

I have two of his watercolors as done on those walks. One of them is the first. It looks down the Elbe and shows some small boats in front of the pontoon bridge that crossed over to the side of the shipyard and the Naval Headquarters. There is a deep blue sky with dark clouds. The second painting is essentially the same view, though here the clouds are bright. It was long ago, but every time I move these paintings go with me.

Several years after I took those walks with Uncle Helmut I went to Birmingham, England, to spend a summer doing the imposssible, which was to learn English. I did—in the Friends’ school and retreat center, Woodbrooke. And I learned much more. I learned that in effect I had been since childhood a believing Quaker. From the time my father was killed by bombs I was a natural pacifist. Friends spoke the language of my heart. When, at this moment, I think of the men and women returning from war broken in body and spirit, I realize how essential it is to take them into our families and give them hope and love.

Erika Muhlenberg

Erika Muhlenberg is a member of Kendal Meeting in Kennett Square, Pa. Born in Hamburg, Germany, as a teenager she emigrated to the United States.

1 thought on “Growing Up in Germany During World War II

  1. Oh wow! This is such a beautiful story! I am praying for your uncle and for your father, and for you! Thank you for sharing this story with us!

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