Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Faces of War

During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, capable men were transported across the border into the industrial areas of Germany. One destination was the city of Mannheim, an important industrial centre for the Third Reich. The city became a main target for the RAF and USAF bombings, receiving one hundred and fifty air raids between December 1940 and the end of the war.

For the indentured labourers working in the factories, this was not the most comfortable of scenarios, especially for those working the ammunition factories. The workers faced being bombed so they resorted to ways to be removed from the factories. If caught in sabotage, they faced death or a train ride to the concentration camps. My father was not a willing labourer and he was soon sent to the more peaceful farm area of Sinsheim and Düren.

A troop-filled train carried indentured labourers, including my father from Mannheim into the rural areas. It made frequent unscheduled stops, and at one of these, my father was told to disembark. As he walked away from the train he heard the drone of airplanes above. Even though this was by then a familiar sound, my father turned to look for the source. He saw his train destroyed from direct hits. With his war documents in hand, he turned and continued along the road to the farm. 

In the village he found his new placement with a family in their simple dwelling on a small farm. It was the house of the Bürgermeister, his family, grown daughter Elfriede and her two sons. Elfriede's husband, Ludwig had been sent off to fight on the Finnish front and she had moved back with her parents. During the next five years Elfriede played a major role in keeping my father safe and warm. 

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands my mother was supporting her family by working for Ceta-Beaver, a glue factory. The factories that were once filled with men now had vacancies, which were soon filled by local women. There my mother met a well established widower, who was very interested in marriage, and adopting her children. 

On 29 March 1945 the US 44th Infantry Division entered an abandoned city of Mannheim. This was followed shortly by Ludwig's return from Finland to his wife and sons. My father made his way back to Holland and reunited with his family by the North Sea. The widower left to continue working for Ceta-Beaver.

I wonder whether, if Ludwig had not returned, would my father have stayed in Germany with Elfriede? Would my mother have married the widower? We will never know. All this stalled my birth by seven years and today I feel a whole lot younger.

This photograph of my father and my sister Maria was taken in Amsterdam just before the outbreak of World War II.

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