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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

May 30, 1945

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

This year, 2020, marks seventy-five years since the end of the Second World War in 1945—a milestone, I guess, at three-quarters of a century. That’s about a human lifetime ago, although I hope to exceed that number by a few years.

I’ve been thinking about my family, Germans who ended up on the wrong side of history, wondering what kind of reordering of reality they must have been undertaking as they witnessed the demolition of Hitler’s social experiment and began to comprehend the scale of the death and devastation that were its ultimate product.

Scrolling through some of the files on my hard drive a few weeks ago, I came across this “Record of Disciplinary Action” that was among my father’s prisoner-of-war documents. The POW camp at Fort Lewis, Washington was his sixth stop after being taken prisoner at El Alamein, Egypt in July 1942. It was also the scene of his fourth escape from custody, for which his punishment was meted out, as shown on this document, on June 6, 1944.

He was a bit of a troublemaker, as confirmed by the number of disciplinary actions on his record. I wish I knew the stories behind his refusal to work or obey orders. I do know that the escapes and some of the other hijinks—pranks, whiskey-making and so on—were done mostly out of boredom and a way to break the monotony of years of imprisonment.

So, on May 30, 1945—seventy-five years ago today—I see that he was fined for not doing his work on May 28. Basically the fine was not getting paid for the work he didn’t do, which seems … well, it doesn't seem like much of a punishment at all.

The Fort Lewis escape in 1944 was Dad’s last. Once the war was over the motivation was gone, it seems. But it would still be almost two full years before he was finally repatriated back to his home town in Germany.

I don’t know what my mother was doing on this day in 1945, exactly, but it was probably something in support of survival for herself and her mother and siblings. They were holed up in a refugee camp of sorts: a former kindergarten in the northern Bavarian village of Isling that had been repurposed as a shelter for some of the easterners driven from their homes by the Red Army earlier that spring. There were a number of other refugees sharing the building, which had been partitioned into spaces where the various family groupings could set up their temporary households as best they could.

My uncle Reinhardt, Mom’s younger brother, wrote in some detail about their stay in Isling in a memoir he completed later in life. The village was strafed by American artillery one day, and a local girl was killed in the attack. Later the Yankee tanks and jeeps rolled past the kindergarten, while Mom and her siblings watched in fear through the curtains. For ten-year-old Reinhardt it was something of an adventure, but for Mom, her sister Inge and my grandmother, it was a frightening and worrisome time.

By comparison with some of their compatriots, however, they were lucky. May 30, 1945 is also remembered as the start of the Brno death march, where ethnic German residents of the Moravian capital, Brno, were expelled from the city. Denied entry to Austria, about 10,000 people were held in the border town of Pohořelice without sufficient shelter, food or health care, resulting in up to 5,000 deaths by disease and malnutrition. Some of the expelled Germans were also allegedly murdered.

The Brno tragedy is just one of many stories of death and suffering endured by ethnic Germans living in the outer edges of the former German empire: Danzig, East Prussia, Pomerania, Sudetenland and other enclaves, including Silesia, my mother’s home before her family was uprooted. An estimated 12 million fled or were evicted and forced into what remained of Germany after the war. Of those, up to 2 million died as a result of disease, malnutrition or mistreatment. This Wikipedia article gives an overview of the expulsions and the fate of the expellees, including massacres, beatings, rapes, enslavement and death by starvation, exposure and disease.

My mother Sigrid with the two children in her

care while she was working as a housekeeper

in a small Bavarian village.

Fortunately for my mother and her family, they were among the first wave of refugees and found themselves in a comparatively tolerable situation. Both Mom and her sister Inge found placements as domestic helpers in neighboring villages and used their meager earnings to help buy food for the family. This allowed them to make it through those difficult months relatively unscathed by the kind of trauma experienced by so many of their fellow homeless Germans as they attempted to navigate their way to safety during that chaotic era.

The suffering of millions of post-war European refugees was a terrible human tragedy, but an even greater tragedy is unfolding today, with a staggering 70 million refugees displaced from their homes around the world, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia—the list of strife-torn regions goes on, with masses of humans in flight, hoping to find peace and security somewhere, anywhere. It is to the great shame of the developed world that these people, many of them women and young children, spend years languishing in crowded camps, hoping against hope for a door to open for them so that their lives might start again.

And so, history repeats, again. I feel that I should end on some kind of hopeful note, but my feelings often run closer to despair as I realize that, in many ways, nothing has changed in the three-quarters of a century since those post-war struggles of my parents and other Europeans. Still, I must, and do, cling to hope. Everywhere there are compassionate and wise people, engaged in acts of kindness and healing; standing firm in the face of hatred and divisiveness. It is my faith that, one day, the power of love will prevail and manifest the just and peaceful world we long for in our hearts.

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