Your Sense Of Safety Is A Lie

By Lily Hirsch

Many of us may feel safe, despite the recent deluge of hate rhetoric unleashed during the 2016 American presidential election. Perhaps a privileged status seems synonymous with protection — from religious/ethnic-based registration, deportation, or worse. But you needn’t look too far in the past to prove this belief is tragically false.

Ursula Schönebeck also felt safe. She was born in Berlin in 1935, during the Nazi era, but she wasn’t Jewish. She was not part of an essentialized group targeted by the hatred of those in power. And yet, 75 years ago, she was sent away from her family, alone, at the age of 6. She would not see them again until she was 12.

Growing up in California, I knew something had happened to my step-grandmother — to Ursula — but no one asked for details. Perhaps on some level I assumed what she had suffered during the Third Reich did not have the same gravity as the suffering of others — namely, my Jewish relatives. And Ursula, for her part, didn’t seem interested in sharing her story. Until, that is, she was.

One evening, during the summer of 2004, when I was in my twenties, Ursula and I went out to dinner near her home in Carmel Valley. She was in the midst of fighting cancer, but seemed genuinely at ease and relaxed that night. She ordered some wine. She ordered some more. Then she began talking about what she never talked about.

“I was only 6 years old when I was sent away, on a train into the mountains.”

The year would have been 1941.

“We were expected to work in our new homes. Families waiting at each stop chose kids with that in mind. I was so small. I was one of the last kids picked.”

The couple who chose her were elderly. They were kind, but she didn’t know that at first. “I was terrified. I knew the Grimms’ stories. I was sure they would eat me.”

The Grimms’ fairy tales had been published in Germany in 1812 and were especially popular during the Nazi era. As a bedtime story, Ursula had heard Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel.” In it, a stepmother abandons her children after they eat too much during a period of widespread famine. Alone in the woods, they eventually find a house made of cake. The owner of the house, an elderly hag — a witch — kidnaps the kids and prepares to eat them. The horrific story had seemingly come to life for young Ursula.

The Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) program is little known in the United States. The KLV was a plan to evacuate children, first introduced in Germany during the 19th century. At the time, according to Martin Parsons in War Child: Children Caught in Conflict, it was organized by churches to give a much-needed holiday to children living in poverty.

In the fall of 1940, however, this organization was revisited and reshaped by the Nazi regime, with the first group of KLV children set for transport from Berlin to Saxony on October 3, 1940. Initially, the evacuation was voluntary, aimed specifically at children in cities vulnerable to bombing, like Berlin and Hamburg. For decades after, the program would be described in Germany as a means to protect “innocent children” from a life and country ravished by war. But, it has subsequently come to light — beautifully argued by historian Jost Hermand in the memoir A Hitler Youth in Poland — that the KLV had other, less positive, aims and effects.

Hitler put the Nazi regime’s national youth leader Baldur von Schirach in charge of the KLV, and Schirach — who was already involved with the Hitler Youth — saw the program as all-too-easily related. Here was another way to indoctrinate children and increase the influence of the Nazi regime without parental intrusion.

Julia Suzanne Torrie, in her dissertation on civilian evacuations, maintains that the Nazis distrusted family ties — despite public pronouncements to the contrary — as these loyalties could actively compete with allegiance to the Reich. The evacuation destinations — once sanctioned for a respite and a safe holiday — became part and parcel of the unfettered manipulation of children.

In Hitler Youth, historian Michael Kater insists: “The darkest aspect of this entire exercise, in keeping with the racist-imperialistic aims of the Nazis, was that they purposely planted their youth in surroundings known to be hostile to them.” By sending groups to villages in Axis countries or even conquered lands, regime officials could teach prejudice by pointing out differences within the setting between “the master race on the one side, and those slaves who had already been vanquished, on the other.”

Still, those selected for this indoctrination had to be worthy of it. While economic considerations no longer played a role, other criteria held sway. One rule at the time, recorded by Torrie, dictated, “While registering the children, their worthiness and the appropriateness of their manner is to be verified as much as possible.” There were also health checks before transport.

Jewish children or children with obvious mental or physical disabilities were not to be considered. Death by bombing for those who remained behind — those deemed unfit — was acceptable, even welcome. As Torrie asserts, the regime “effectively made Allied aerial bombardments serve their own racialist and eugenicist ends.”

The program, at the time, was not widely publicized, with registration handled by the schools (so say Thomas Giessmann and Rudolf Marciniak in Fast sämtliche Kinder sind jetzt weg.) By December 1940, 543 children had been placed in KLV camps or, for children under 10 (like Ursula), private homes. There would soon be a greater push to convince parents to send their children away, including propaganda films like Hands Up or Out of Danger, which offered positive pictures of camp life.

Participation was so strongly encouraged that the program was sarcastically called the Kinderlandverschleppung, according to Hermand. Rather than “sending” (Verschickung) the children away, this was an “abduction” (Verschleppung). By the war’s end, Torrie approximates the participation of 2 million children, sent to rural areas in Hungary, Poland, and even Denmark.

Ursula was allowed to take with her one suitcase filled with clothes and shoes. She was then transported from Berlin by train — a hurtling metal island of her own — among strangers headed east. Upon arrival near Breslau, in then Lower Silesia (now Poland), Ursula was indeed petrified, but the elderly couple who’d volunteered to house her did their best. Other KLV children would not be so lucky — older boys in the communal camps particularly suffered.

Along with constant military drills and marching, there were strict hierarchies enforced among the boys through violence and humiliation, including sexual depravity. Hermand, who saw the cruelty first-hand, attests in European Memories of the Second World War:

“The KLV camps were generally ruled by the dictum that might is right and structured around a rigid hierarchy which allowed a given individual to maintain or improve his standing only through cunning, cruelty or savagery. Like the young boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, German boys were exposed to a series of harrowing and traumatic experiences, such as killing animals or torturing them to death.”

Both girls and boys generally recall being homesick and lonely. And, though supposedly safe, no one would be able to tune out the war for long. Soon, there were air raids all over Germany. And children would tremble at the sound. Many would ultimately face the onslaught of advancing armies alone.

Early on, Silesia was thought a refuge from much of the war’s violence. Sebastian Siebel-Achenbach, in Lower Silesia from Nazi Germany to Communist Poland, 1942–49, maintains that in addition to the many KLV children, German industry would move to the area for safety. And the war did indeed leave Silesia alone.

Until it didn’t.

“One day soldiers came and took the elderly couple away,” Ursula told me. She would never see them again or know their fate after the war. Ursula herself was transferred to a transit camp.

In January 1945, the Red Army had arrived. Civilians fled en masse, in chaos. Women and children left in the dead of winter, following the snow-filled roads, exhausted and cold. Those who remained were generally unwilling to leave or simply incapable of fleeing. They would experience the Red Army’s full vengeance, blood-thirsty, cruel, and powerfully fueled by the government’s propaganda of hate. What began as “aggressive motivation,” explains Gregor Thum in Uprooted, became grisly; soldiers were allowed — encouraged — to murder, loot, rape, and pillage.

Once Silesia was overrun and under the control of the Red Army, the Provisional Government of the Polish Republic was announced as the ruling power. In control, the Polish Army acted quickly to expel any Germans that remained. The first planned evictions took place on June 20, 1945. Some soldiers mercilessly pulled people from their homes or worse; others allowed Germans in the area to take a few possessions with them. Like Soviet forces, Polish soldiers were encouraged to seek vengeance. It didn’t matter that the remaining Germans were typically the least culpable and the least capable.

Ursula, from what I can tell, was placed in the transit camp — a temporary place of holding for those meant for transport — in 1945. With war rationing, she was still quite small. This, she explained, was a surprising asset for a time — for her and the others in the camp. “They told me to slip under the fence. I could just fit. Then I would run out and pick potatoes.” When the guard tower flood lights approached, she would hide in the surrounding field’s furrows.

She was then transported back to Germany and lived lost in Bavaria for two more years. With the help of the Red Cross, her father, Paul — who had survived extensive bombing in Berlin — eventually found her. “My father had filed with them, looking for me. The Red Cross was able to contact him and tell him where I was.” This was tremendous progress, but the help only went so far. The Red Cross could not physically take Ursula home, and there were a multitude of bureaucratic challenges, including new geographical borders, carefully guarded. Ursula’s father, in her fantastical account, evidently found a way forward.

“At night my father snuck across the border. I was waiting.” Ursula’s father was a man of some principle and evidently, quite brave. He had also come prepared. He grabbed Ursula’s waiting hand and pulled her back, retracing his own steps. Suddenly, he stopped. A soldier was approaching.

“We hid behind a Hollander bush.” Acutely aware of the danger — not just to him but to his daughter — the enormity of the situation overtook him. He felt an intense chest pain. “He was having a heart attack,” Ursula said. And then the soldier found them.

“Stop!” The soldier raised his rifle. Still on the ground, Paul managed to say, “Wait! Wait! Money!” The soldier allowed him to reach toward his coat. In the lining, he had “sewed money.” Just in case. He offered the soldier his hidden fortune. The soldier said simply, “Run before my partner comes. I won’t be able to stop him from shooting you.”

Paul stood up slowly, still clutching Ursula’s hand. And they managed to run.

At the restaurant, a waiter arrived to refill our waters. Ursula, for a moment, paused, leaving me suspended in the story. The waiter accidentally knocked Ursula’s glass into her lap. He apologized profusely, but Ursula shrugged it off. “I’ve certainly been through worse,” she darkly laughed. With her recent radiation for cancer, she was also perpetually hot. “It actually feels good.”

I have no idea how Ursula’s father arranged this daring maneuver; Ursula offered few specifics. She did, however, recall in detail her reunion with her mother, Frieda.

Quietly mopping the water from the recent spill, she described waiting on the steps outside her family’s home in Berlin. Ursula was now 12 years old. Frieda opened the door.

“‘What do you say to your mother after all that time?’ she asked me.” I still can’t believe I said what I said. I told her, ‘Your hair is different.’ It was now red. It had not been red before the war.”

It seemed that immediately after the war, Frieda worked as a Trümmerfrau (rubble woman), clearing rubble created by the battle’s destruction. The job would later become a sort of symbol of survival in Germany. But historian Leonie Treber, in The Myth of the Trümmerfrauen, insists the widespread participation by women in the post-war clean-up didn’t happen. The work had turned into legend. But Frieda was no myth. In the war’s aftermath, Frieda in her work contracted one of the illnesses endemic at the time, perhaps typhus. She recovered, but the illness, in Ursula’s telling, changed her hair irreparably.

Though she was reunited back with her family, Ursula’s new life had new challenges. She was being asked to resume the normal life of a child, but for many KLV children, the task would prove impossible. In evacuation, they had matured beyond their years — through hardship and communal struggle. In this way, the program, explains Kimberly Redding in Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, “paralleled traditional rites of passage.” Ursula returned to school; she tried. But soon her interests moved beyond school, and beyond Germany entirely. She would emigrate about seven years later — first to Canada — in search of a fresh start.

Throughout her years in California — when I knew her — she would maintain a certain distance between herself and others. I wonder now if that was her means of coping: after all, she had learned early that people not only leave — they disappear. Even late in life in her comfortable home, she admitted nights of desperate dreams. In them, she had nothing — no one — all over again.

Ursula’s body finally succumbed to cancer in 2009; there are many details of Ursula’s past I’ll never know. But what I do know reminds me that the Nazi era was terrible in a multi-faceted way — it ruined lives in many different ways for many different people. In saying this, I am not equating the horrors German civilians experienced with the horrors experienced by those the Germans persecuted — those who were murdered in the Holocaust. I recognize this was a strategy in West Germany after the war — a way to focus on German victimhood and distance Germany from the atrocities Germans themselves committed.

Rather, I am thinking of more recent campaigns of prejudice. Ursula, a so-called Aryan, lost her childhood to war. She never outgrew that experience. When hate gains political legitimacy, everyone — to varying degrees — is vulnerable. For those able to look past racism in search of change, I want to say to you, not even group privilege is a sure-fire safeguard against the cruelty unleashed by intolerance.

We are all bound together in this way. There are of course moral reasons to voice opposition to hate without self-consideration. Simply for the sake of others — Muslims, immigrants, even women. But, when ethics fail, self-consideration still suggests a stand.

As pastor Martin Niemöller said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

We all have reason to speak out.

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