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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

The 'Wolf Children' of East Prussia 1945

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

Book Review: Yesterday's Sandhills - Wolf Children in Germany at the End of World War II

I recently got pulled into the history of East Prussia, a piece of European real estate that was part of Germany for some six centuries before it was divided between Poland and the USSR at the end of the Second World War.

I always knew East Prussia was one of the areas, like Silesia, Danzig, Memel, Sudetenland and others, from which millions of Germans were expelled after the Second World War. My mother was one of those whose families lost their homes and fled west as the Red Army swept through Poland and into Silesia. The story of her months as a refugee is included in Through the Whirlpool, the book in which I document my parents’ experiences in the Germany of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, I’d never delved very deeply into what went down in East Prussia, how the rise of the Nazis, the war and the post-war Soviet occupation unfolded in that particular corner of Germany.

There is a sentiment, an unspoken and often unconscious prejudice, regarding the suffering of Germans during the war and the post-war years. It has faded and softened over the intervening decades, but still lingers: the Germans started the war, the Germans ravaged Europe and the Soviet Union, the Germans murdered millions of Jews in the Holocaust—they deserved what they got. The fact that it was the innocent—women, children and ordinary folk who had nothing to do with the Nazis’ crimes—who bore a disproportionate burden of suffering during that conflagration seems not to matter. In the same way that anti-Semites lump “the Jews” as a monolithic entity, “the Germans” have also been stereotyped as bigoted followers of Hitler who deserve no sympathy.

Lately, some scholars have gone back and re-examined the previously near-taboo subject of what we would now call ethnic cleansing: the forced expulsion of some 12 to 14 million Germans from their homes in various parts of Europe and Germany itself, as the country’s borders were being redrawn and territory redistributed to Poland, the USSR and others.

There is no doubt that the suffering inflicted upon Jews in the Holocaust was a horrific crime of genocide and that the Nazis’ aggression in Europe and the Soviet Union led to unfathomable suffering for millions of civilians. Perhaps there is a sense that the magnitude of the anguish caused by the Nazis might be diminished if we acknowledge that Germans were also among the victims? In a 2011 article in Der Spiegel, journalist Christian Habbe also touches upon this sentiment:

In the 1950s, a team of historians commissioned by the West German government to investigate the events surrounding the flight and expulsion of Germans after World War II amassed more than 40,000 … eyewitness accounts and stories. Their findings were apparently so shocking that the government decided not to publish them for many years. Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler believes Bonn had reason to fear that the 'countless credible reports of tanks simply plowing through lines of refugees, of people forced to drink out of latrine barrels until they perished' would prompt the people to weigh the crimes of the Nazis against the suffering of the expellees.

Perhaps in deference to the lingering discomfort around acknowledgement of atrocities committed against Germans, rather than by them, in the first paragraph of his article Habbe is careful to dispel any notions that the piece is making comparisons or looking for parallels between the suffering inflicted by the Nazis and that experienced by German refugees. "The Nazis' crimes had been far worse," he writes, "but the suffering of ethnic Germans was immense." The article goes on to recount several of the 40,000 stories, often gruesome and horrific, of German expellees in the final days and aftermath of the war.

Rita Baltutt Kyle’s memoir Yesterday’s Sandhills – Wolf Children in Germany at the End of World War II is one such story that found a voice among the millions that remain untold from that horrendous and largely forgotten chapter in human history. In her compelling chronicle of survival, the author recounts her experiences as an eight-year-old girl who, along with her three sisters, suddenly becomes homeless and temporarily orphaned when the Red Army overruns East Prussia in January 1945.

Only two years old at the onset of the Second World War in 1939, Rita Baltutt nevertheless had a relatively happy working-class childhood. In the early pages of her book, she recounts the simple day-to-day life in what she describes as “…the little fisher town, Senden, which lay right next door to Osterode.” Laundry laid on the grass to dry, the coal-burning stove in the kitchen, swimming in a stream with her older sister and friends, playing on the mountain of white sand after which the book is titled—these are the snapshots of her life before everything changed. For a child of her young age, it made little difference that she grew up during the Nazi era. She remembers having to greet her First-Grade teacher with “Heil Hitler, Herr Grünwald,” but there are few other references to the Nazis in her account, and life for the young Rita Baltutt was, in her recollection, untroubled.

Baltutt Kyle writes in readable, engaging and unembellished prose, simply telling her story in her own words. Part One of her account is filled with anecdotes and reminiscences of her family life, her parents, siblings and other relations: a life not unlike many others of that time and place. A picture emerges of a pleasant rural existence, a nostalgic mosaic of an era uncluttered by the multitude of gizmos and mod-cons that feature so largely in our lives today.

Soon, however, the tone becomes darker as the war approaches the doorstep of the Baltutts’ East Prussian home. There are wounded soldiers in the hospital, a column of Polish prisoners is marched through the town, war planes fly overhead, an air-raid shelter is built into the sand hill, people are issued gas masks. Young Rita takes note of her parents’ concern:

But now something had changed. My parents were always listening to the radio. Often there would be a speech by Adolf Hitler himself and my parents would listen with great intensity. Hitler's voice came over the radio very powerfully and loud, so that I could never understand what he was shouting. Every time he stopped shouting the people in the rally followed with floods of "Sieg Heil!"

Then, on January 17, 1945, the evacuation order comes, much later than it should have. Rita and her family end up in a crowded boxcar, heading toward Danzig on the Baltic Sea. The train collides with a Red Cross train carrying wounded soldiers, and then the family must continue on foot. And the nightmare begins.

The second part of Baltutt’s story reads like post-apocalyptic science fiction. The family lives hand-to-mouth in the emptied city of Prussian Holland, now occupied by Red Army soldiers. They wander, in fear, through the streets, scavenging for food and finding shelter wherever they can. By good fortune, they are not killed and, at first, are tolerated by a Russian officer who orders Rita’s mother to cook for him and his subordinates.

Then, in the ever-shifting chaos of the Soviet occupation, the officer and his coterie move on, and Rita’s parents go, on orders from a Russian officer, to “register” at a command post. The children wait, in vain, for their parents’ return. After several days, they become resigned to the fact that they are now alone and must fend for themselves. Rita is eight years old, her sister Edith is ten, Waltraut and Irmgard are four and six, respectively. Suddenly, they have joined the ranks of the “Wolf Children.”

Author Gail Fletcher, in her 2019 National Geographic article The Forgotten ‘Wolf Children’ of World War II, brings to light this story of thousands of children, like Rita and her sisters, who were abandoned to their fates in occupied East Prussia. “Likened to wandering hungry wolves,” she writes, “many of the children, isolated from humanity, were left to roam through unforgiving forests in order to survive.”

For the young Baltutt girls, it was an eight-month odyssey of malnutrition, abuse, lice and sleeping rough. Every day was consumed with finding food, clean water and shelter, and avoiding those who would do them harm. The stories of their experiences are poignant, terrifying and traumatic but also, ultimately, inspiring, as their ingenuity, perseverance and loyalty to one another carries them through their ordeal.

Particularly gut-wrenching is the story of Grete, an attractive young woman who had asked to accompany the family when they abandoned the train. While the family was sheltering in Prussian Holland, she was taken away at gunpoint by a Russian soldier to be raped. Afterwards, the family tried to hide her, but she was raped again, after which she attempted to hang herself, but was discovered in time to be revived. When the family had to move, she was again noticed by a Soviet soldier, and raped right in front of the children’s eyes. Twice more, she tried to kill herself, once by drinking acetic acid and once by slashing her wrists. Again, both times, she was saved by Rita’s mother. Once the girls were on their own, they lost track of the unfortunate Grete, and never learned her fate.

Finally, in November 1945, Rita and her sisters were rounded up by the authorities and sent by train to East Berlin, where they were distributed to various foster homes or group dormitory facilities. This phase of Baltutt girls’ life—growing to adulthood in East Berlin—makes up Part Three of the book. The girls’ experiences with numerous foster parents, institutions and relatives are recounted in the early chapters, culminating with an emotional reunion with their mother, who was released after being imprisoned for over three years in a Soviet labour camp. Their father, however, was never heard from again.

Life in East Berlin in the early post-war era was challenging, and Baltutt Kyle shares many anecdotes of their struggles and the myriad hardships they faced. But there was also a richness to her sojourn there. She spent two summers on a farm in the countryside, where she found a respite from the turmoil of life in the bombed-out city and its food and fuel shortages. She and her sisters went to live with an aunt and uncle whose daughter was a singer and recording artist—a taste of glamour that left a lasting impression on the young girl from East Prussia.

Through her experiences and encounters, Rita became enamoured with America and the freedom and prosperity it represented in her mind. Her time in the city predated the construction of the Berlin Wall, and people from the East could still wander into the American Sector and see the comparative richness: fresh fruit, chocolate, movie theatres, cigarettes. “I had not tasted candy of any kind or had eaten an orange or tasted good chocolate in years.” She writes. “Looking in the display windows, I wished very much that I too could have access to such splendor. In contrast to the American Sector, the Soviet Sector was overwhelmingly dull. No neon lights brightened the city, and the facades of stores looked plain, and almost shabby.”

Rita’s dream finally comes to fruition when she marries an American serviceman and manages to get out of East Berlin and emigrate to the United States with her husband to start her new life there.

In Baltutt Kyle’s remarkable story of survival against the odds, the grim statistics of war take on a human dimension. This dark chapter of history—just one of far too many—is made real by the first-person account of Rita and her little “wolf pack,” maneuvering through a landscape of death and depravity. We need these stories to be told, to remind us that the price of conflict is measured, not only in the casualties among the combatants, but also in the suffering of the innocent, like Rita and her sisters, like my mother and her family, like the millions of damaged, traumatized, displaced humans around the globe, past and present. I’m grateful to Rita Baltutt Kyle for her courage and perseverance in telling her story and bearing witness to the sad and horrific history of East Prussia in 1945.

I have also published this review on my Goodreads author page.

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