Yesterday I paid tribute to a wonderful lady, Helga Gish, who I met on the Road to Freedom Tour. I was instantly drawn to her and her stories of growing up in Germany during the war. She passed away this past week.
Helga Gish and me… new buds
Today, I thought I would give you a glimpse of Helga’s life in her own words. While words alone do not capture her precious spirit, my hope is that you will be introduced to the wonderful woman who blessed my life in such a special–albeit brief–way. Here are only a few of her stories:
My Life During the War
I was born in Berlin Germany, just before Hitler became the ruler. When I was 10 the war broke out and I lived through it. The first things I remember was the Gas Mask we all had to have and keep handy in case of an air-raid. The first time September 1939 when the bombs fell in our neighborhood, I lived in the basement apartment with my grandparents. My grandfather raised the shade after we turned out the lights and showed us the bomber in a big spot light. The Germans were shooting at the plane, we saw and heard the bombs coming down. All the houses were 4 stories high and most of them were on fire. All our windows blew out, glass was everywhere. After the sirens let us know the alarm was over with we walked through the street and helped the people carry water buckets to help put out the fires. After that air-raid we went to the regular bomb-shelter. It had bricked up walls and metal doors and heavy beams supporting the ceiling and walls.
The next few years we didn’t get much sleep. I went to school and often had to go to a bomb-shelter during that time. Once I had to walk 3 hours to get home from the business school after a big raid on the downtown area and the government buildings. The whole town stood still, nothing worked, no transportation, no telephones, and no electricity. I was worried that our home was hit too, but as our house came into sight I saw my grandmother look out of the window waiting for me. Then we both cried. We didn’t have much to eat, the ration tickets were barely enough. We had friends with a big garden out in the country and they sold us vegetables and fruit. I didn’t get to eat any chocolate. My aunt had two children and she made candy sometimes and gave me some. She got more rations for the kids. The war lasted 5 years. We were not allowed to listen to foreign speaking radio stations and I tuned into the BBC once by accident and my granddad explained to me the danger. Someone could hear us listening and turn us in, and the Nazi would pick up us and take us to a concentration camp. One night I listened and heard the BBC say this is the British Broadcasting Company calling Germany. I knew then that I liked the English language and tried to copy what they said. I could not understand what they were talking about, so I turned it off. I really didn’t want to get in trouble either and I knew to obey my grandparents. My mom was dead and my dad was in the service. I got a job at a magazine company. Even though we lived one day at a time I can think back on some good times too. My grandparents took me to the Theaters, movies and circuses. Sometimes we would barely get home and the sirens blew and we had to go to the shelter. Most raids lasted 1-2 hours. Sometimes the bombers would come twice in one night. Then came the end of the war. We heard distant artillery for days, then it came closer and all that time we were told reserves were coming, Berlin will not be taken. When the shooting came closer we were told to seek shelter. On the last day one young German stopped at our house. He was so tired and worn out my grandmother gave him a bowl of soup. He wanted to stay but the people in our apartment house wouldn’t let him because of fear that if the German Gestapo caught him, they would have shot him and punished all of us too. Had the Russians found him it would have even been worse. They would have burned out house down and killed all of us. This soldier got killed a block away and was thrown in a mass grave. it was dangerous to get on the street because snipers were shooting at everybody in sight. My grandmother and neighbor heard that the bakery around the corner was selling the last breads, so they ran there, I had strict orders to stay put. I heard bombs falling and got real scared and my neighbor came to tell me she couldn’t find my grandmother. The bakery was hit and she ran home. So I ran to the bakery to find her, I looked everywhere and checked the wounded people and ask if they saw my grandma. Then I heard a shaky voice saying, “Will you sell me some bread.” It was her, asking the baker. She saw me and fussed at me all the way home with her bread in her arms.
That night we heard the tanks roll in and the Russian language outside of our shelter. We hung out a white flag letting them know that we surrendered. They came in and made all the men come outside. They looted and robbed us all, gold watches were their favorites. They also raped women and children. I was spared by the grace of God and my grandmother. When we were told to go back to our apartments she kept me in the shelter for 2 long weeks. She knew the Russians wouldn’t look for anybody there. They came to the apartments looting. We thought we were safe and she let me come home. That afternoon a truck full of soldiers stopped and almost knocked down our door, one old soldier and a real young one came in and took a lot of things and put them on the table, then he went to our bedroom looking for more things to steal. We heard a big commotion, he was kneeling on the floor and praying to a picture on our wall. He got up and left everything and stopped the other soldiers from bothering us. My grandmother never liked that picture but loved it after that.
Food was scarce and one day I saw something I’ll never forget. A delivery wagon came along our street and the Russians jerked the driver off the wagon and killed the horse, then called for the people to come and get some meat, they came from everywhere. My grandmother too. We had never eaten horse meat before that but was glad to get it.
My grandfather was drafted toward the end of the war, he was an airplane mechanic but got sick and laid in a hospital, when the Americans took that town. So he was a prisoner until the end of the war in France. He was dismissed and walked and worked his way back to Berlin. We thought he was dead and he hoped to find us alive.
Berlin was divided into four parts, our part of town fell to the Americans occupation and that was good for me, now I could learn to speak English. The place I worked had a lot of American and Russian soldiers as customers. I wasn’t too long before I met my husband. We met each other in 1946 and were married in 1947 and came to America.
I feel sorry for any country at war and wished everyone in the world could live in peace.
A FEW MORE MEMORIES
A boy my age who was my friend lived across the street from me. His dad was a strict Nazi. On the last days of the war he sent his 15 year old son out to fight with a gun. He had no training in warfare and knew nothing about fighting. They found him where he had been hiding in a bombed out house. The Russians killed him because he had a gun beside him, it was never used. He was so scared. His dad was captured by the Russians and I was glad, his wife never knew what happened to him.
Once I was in a bomb shelter at our Business school. It was hit and the police made everyone get out but left the dead. A girlfriend and I were in a sealed off supply room with tools, water and sand behind a steel door. We felt the direct hit from the bomb and just stayed there thinking we were safe until we smelled smoke. Nobody was left in there and the door to the outside was shut tight. We saw a place on the wall outlined in white paint, this indicated a way out of the shelter. We took a pick and knocked out the wall where a window had been. It was marked for the purpose of emergency exit. My friend got out first and I heard a faint crying. I was out with one foot but went back to check and sure enough it was a baby in a buggy. I took it out , handed it to my friend and we ran toward the main street where the firemen were hosing down the houses. They couldn’t believe we came out of the school basement. We gave them the baby and they made us go to a subway station up the street. I never knew what happened to that baby, mother and child must have taken shelter there. Mother must have been among the dead.
My aunt lived in the country, when the Russians came. She had small children and was washing diapers on the stove in a large pot. The Russians came in and shoved her aunt aside took a spoon and sampled some of the ingredients in the pot. Of course they spit it out right away. They took some potatoes to cook and eat. Since they were dirty they needed to clean them, these Russians had never seen a flushing toilet before and threw them into the commode and accidentally pulled the chain to flush. When their potatoes disappeared they shot the toilet and shouted “Sabotage Sabotage” My aunt couldn’t laugh without risking her life but told all of us about it later. We all had a good laugh about that.
Now you know why I sat for hours as Helga shared these entertaining stories of growing up German during the war. Her life lives on in her stories, her memories, and her personality. We will miss you, dear Helga!