NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.
You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY… FEBRUARY 2
1943 – German 6th Army surrenders at Stalingrad.
91,000 German soldiers were taken captive and sent into forced labor at POW camps. Only 5,000 would survive and eventually return to Germany.
Throughout her life my grandmother kept up a correspondence with relatives in Berlin. After my grandmother passed away, I came into possession of the letters she had received in return. These were written after the war was over. Here are some excerpts from those letters, written in 1948. The man mentioned, Bruno, was one of the 91,000 captured.
“Bruno, my dearest husband, he is not yet dismissed, monthly he writes only a short note. But we do hope, he will soon return to us. Dear aunt enclosed I send you some photos of our family – Return them aunt, when we shall be in America!!!
With kind regards to all,
You loving niece, Erika
P.S. How is your grandson getting on (That’s me)
“Till now I have always waited for Bruno that we could properly christen our baby. Up to date he is not here. But he calculates that he gets home very soon.”
Bruno was not one of the 5,000 who survived.
Grandma had sent care packages after the war to the family, which included Erika’s daughter, Sibylle, who was my age. Seventeen years later, on a summer hitchhiking trip across Europe, I was in Berlin. My grandmother had given me the address of Erika. Rick and I decided to look her up, mainly to meet Sibylle, someone our age to show us around Berlin, and a girl.
We stood in front of a drab, five-story, older building that had managed to survive the war. The address included an apartment number, number 414. We entered the building and there was a staircase, open in the middle from the ground floor to the roof. The interior was poorly lit and had a sinister aura. We climbed four flights of stairs and reached apartment 414. I knocked and waited, wondering what kind of reception we would receive. I knocked again and heard the sound of footsteps approaching. The footsteps stopped on the other side of the door. Nothing happened. Nobody opened the door. So I knocked yet again.
“Ja?” A cautious male voice answered.
“Entschuligen bitte, Vohnen Erika Krutz hier?”
There was still just silence on the other side of the door. I wasn’t sure I had used the proper tense; maybe that’s why there was no answer.“Erika Krutz hier?” I simplified the question.
“Do you speak English?” The cautious voice on the other side of the door asked.
“Yes,” I said, relieved.
“Who are you?”
“I’m from America, my grandmother gave me this address. She wanted me to find Erika Krutz, we are related.” More silence, then as if a difficult decision had been made, there was the noise of a chain lock being removed and the turning of a dead bolt. The door opened and my first impression was that I had never seen such a gray looking man. Not old, his face wasn’t lined, just gray. His skin had a gray pallor, his hair was gray, he wore a gray bathrobe over gray slacks, and even the bedroom slippers he was wearing were gray. The man stepped forward and bent at the waist so his head extended into the hallway. His face was suspicious, even frightened, as he first looked down the hallway in one direction, then the other. To me it almost seemed like he was expecting to see the form of a Gestapo agent in the shadows. To reassure him there was no danger, I offered my passport to him. The man examined it closely.
“This is not a German name.”
“No, it was changed when they arrived in America.”
He handed the passport back, seemingly more at ease. “The Krutz’s lived here before me.”
My face must have registered disappointment for now the man wanted to be helpful.
“I know where they live,” he said. “I’ll show you there. He stepped back into the apartment, removed his bathrobe and put on a thin jacket over his T-shirt. Still wearing his bedroom slippers he led us down the four flights of stairs to the street.
“Did you know the Krutz’s?”
There was no respond. The man stared straight ahead with the five thousand yard stare of someone in the midst of a trauma. He shuffled, rather than walked, in his bedroom slippers. After leading us for several blocks the man stopped and pointed at a building higher than the rest in the surrounding area.
“There, they live there.”
Rick and I rode the elevator up to the fifth floor. We found the correct apartment and in the silence of the hallway could hear a radio in the apartment, broadcasting what sounded like the news. I knocked and waited, then knocked again. The radio was silenced but there was no sound of footsteps coming to open the door. I knocked again and now there were footsteps, reluctant it seemed, as they approached the door.
“Ja?” A female voiced cautiously said from behind the door. If it was Erika on the other side of the door, I knew from my grandmother that she spoke English.
“Hi, I’m from Lester Prairie, Minnesota. My grandmother is Agnes Ernst. Are you Erika Krutz?”
More silence from the other side of the door. I wondered how stunned silence differed from regular silence. But this definitely felt like stunned silence. Then the woman’s voice, sounding a bit shaken, asked me in English to repeat who I was. I did so.
“Tante Agnes?” She said.
“Yes, she’s my grandmother.”
“And you are Gary?”
I heard the door being unlatched. Then it cautiously opened. A short, plump woman in her mid-forties stood there. She had round, pleasant features but there was a sadness in her eyes and she appeared permanently tired, as if there was no vibrancy left in her soul. I supposed being at the center of a world war could do that to a person. As I came to learn Erika’s story I would understand that my initial assessment was correct. She didn’t invite us to step inside. Instead she leaned out and looked down the hallway in both directions, the exact same suspicious reaction as the man at the first apartment. Those small, quick gestures captured the essence of the Nazi era.
“Are you Erika?” I asked.
She nodded. I took my passport from his pocket. “Here, so you know who I am.”
She accepted the passport, looking at my picture and name. Then she flushed in embarrassment as she handed it back to me.
“I’m sorry, it’s just…it’s was so hard and—“
“That’s okay, I understand. This is my friend, Rick. He’s from Lester Prairie also.”
She smiled a warm greeting at Rick as she stepped back to allow us to enter. “Come in, come in.”
Erika had gone from suspicion to embarrassment and now entered a third stage, wonderment. She stared at me as if I were some hidden treasure that had just been uncovered. She reached for my hand and held it with both of hers.
“Wer ist da?” A male voice called out from another room.
“Otto, Mutter, kommen zie hier.”
Comparing this apartment to the last one, Erika had taken a step up in life. Thick carpeting on the floor, plush sofa and chairs, a large oak dining room table, heavy drapes on the windows and knick-knacks everywhere, on every available horizontal space it seemed.
There was also a picture of a young woman, a very beautiful young woman, on the mantle. I assumed it must be Sibylle.
“Otto, Mutter,” Erika called out again.
Rick nudged me; he had just seen the picture also.
“How is your grandmother?”
“She’s fine. Still works every day, in her garden and sewing.”
Erika’s eyes suddenly got watery. She stepped forward and caught me by surprise, giving me a hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered, “thank you.”
My arms had been at my side so I just stood there, awkwardly trapped in her embrace. She released me from the hug but still held my upper arms, her face full of emotion.
“Your grandmother saved our lives. Without the packages she sent, we would not be.”
Two more people entered the living room. A tall, thin man, around fifty, who reminded me of the man from the first apartment in that he seemed prematurely gray. The other person was an elderly woman. She was small, stooped, gray-haired and had watery, confused eyes. When she saw Rick and me she stopped fearfully. Erika talked to them in German and I heard my grandmother’s name spoken. The man nodded his understanding but the older woman looked more confused.
Erika half-turned to Rick and me. “This is my husband, Otto, and my mother, Agnes.”
This was my grandmother’s cousin, Tante Agnes.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Erika offered.
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’ll get it,” Otto offered and hurried out of the room.
“Have you had dinner, you must stay for dinner,” Erika said.
We hadn’t eaten all day so we readily accepted.
Tante Agnes spoke sharply to Erika in German. She apparently still didn’t understand who Rick and I were. Pointing at me Erika patiently explained again. Finally the expression of apprehension faded as astonishment worked its way across her wrinkled face.
“Agnes? Agnes Ernst?” Tante Agnes asked.
I was thinking that Agnes must have been a popular name for a girl eighty years ago.
Tante Agnes approached me, her expression now transforming into one of gratitude as she spoke in German. Erika translated her words. “She’s thanking you, she’s saying none of us, me, her, Sibylle, would be alive if it weren’t for your grandmother.”
Tante Agnes came up close to me and cupped my face with a hand on each side. She gently rocked my head and spoke sincerely in German.
“She wants you to know how much your family means to us.”
I had been a baby at the time and was embarrassed receiving this gratitude. I had done nothing. Sensing my discomfort, Erika gently disengaged Tante Agnes from me.
We sat at the dining room table drinking coffee and I answered questions about my family. Erika’s English was excellent and she worked as a translator in the American embassy. Tante Agnes continued to stare at me in disbelief, as if my presence wasn’t entirely possible. She interrupted her daughter and spoke to me in German. I understood her intensity if not the words.
“She’s saying what I said,” Erika translated, “it was so very very hard after the war. No money, no food, nothing. Many people starved to death. We would have. Sibylle was a baby, your grandmother’s food kept her alive.”
I seized the opportunity. “About Sibylle, is she here?”
Disappointment crossed Erika’s face. “No, it’s too bad. She would have so enjoyed meeting you. You young people cold have gone out and had fun. Now she’s in Zurich, she just got a job in the German embassy there.”
Zurich! We had just been in Zurich. Rick gave me a perturbed look suggesting it was my fault we had missed our chance. His interest in my relatives began to wane at that moment.
Tante Agnes continued to stare at me. At one point she got up and came over and hugged me and held my face in her hands again. Erika had to disengage her once again. I was uneasy. We were being treated as if we were royalty but I knew Rick was bored. After dinner I would have to find an excuse to leave.
Rick and I ate heartily, to the pleasure of the Krutz’s. After dinner, sipping on some too sweet liqueur, waiting for a proper amount of time to pass before making our exit, Tante Agnes suddenly began talking in an agitated voice.
“Ivan, nicht gut.”
I understood that much. Erika and Otto shifted awkwardly and a pall crept across the room as she spoke. She turned her wrinkled face and showed me her earlobe. It was separated with part of it missing. She repeated a word a couple of times, a word that I didn’t understand.
“Earring,” Erika said in a subdued voice.
Tante Agnes then pantomimed how someone, a Russian soldier no doubt, ripped the earring loose from her ear. She gripped my forearm with both hands as she spoke. I didn’t understand her words but I felt their effect in the room. Otto stared at the floor and Erika’s face was flushed.
“Mutter,” Erika said sternly, a warning in her voice.
The older woman, despite her daughter’s objection, persisted in telling her story. The only word I caught was Ivan, but without sharing a language, I nevertheless understood the story she was telling. I had read what had happened when the Russian Army arrived victorious in Berlin. The revenge they exacted upon the civilian population, especially women. Partial payback for what the German Army had inflicted on Russia.
“Mutter!” Erika stood up, an expression of shame on her face. She walked over and forcibly removed Tante Agnes’s hands from my forearm. She then led her mother to the other side of the room. Tante Agnes lost her anger, slumped into her daughter’s arms and began crying. Erika gently led her from the room. The three of us sat in an awkward, embarrassed silence until Erika returned alone. We talked a little longer, then made an excuse to leave.
Otto drove us to a flophouse where we had rented a cot for the night. Reflecting on my time with the Krutz family I realize there is more I should have taken away from it. But I was twenty-one and like most twenty-one-year-olds, lived only in the moment. I did understand however that this was a monumental opportunity in their lives and I was the focal point. Even though I had done nothing, deserved no recognition, they needed me as a symbol. The most Erika had been able to do in the past was send letters of gratitude. In me she had a real live person, a person that represented a family from far away that had kept them alive. It was cathartic for them to shower gratitude on someone. It also made my grandmother happy when she heard about my visit. And for me, it was an example of the importance of family as well as being touched by history.
ABOUT GARY JENNEKE
At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above information was sourced from the following websites:
We’d also like to thank the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:
* Lead-In Image (Photo) – Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com – “German prisoners, among the 90,000 taken by the Soviets at the end of the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943.”
* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com
OTHER DAYS IN HISTORY …
* March 2
* March 6
* March 9
* March 12
* March 14
* March 17
* March 19
* March 21
* March 23
* March 27
* March 29
* April 2
* April 3
* April 6
* April 11
* April 13
* April 18
* April 22
* April 23
* April 28
* April 29
* May 2
* May 3
* May 6
* May 9
* May 10
* May 13
* May 17
* May 24
* May 26
* May 29
* June 1
* June 3
* June 8
* June 10
* June 13
* June 17
* June 18
* June 21
* June 24
* June 28
* June 29
* July 2
* July 3
* July 9
* July 13
* July 15
* July 19
* July 23
* July 25
* July 30
* July 31
* August 3
* August 7
* Stay tuned for more!