The History Place - Personal Histories

From Hitler Youth to U.S. Air Force
by Hubert Schmidt

Section One of Ten

My Home, My Family, My Berlin

I came into the world weighing 11 pounds, and with the assistance of a midwife, my 37-year-old mother triumphed over a difficult delivery. The apartment that heard my first cries was located on the first floor of the second courtyard of a tenement building. The building was located in the Berliner community called Wedding, a district tagged as "Red Wedding." In reality, it was a blue-collar bedroom community with block after block of five story apartment buildings. The date was October 27, 1927. My father was an unemployed forester, and with the entire country in bad shape as the result of the inflation/depression period during the '20s, my parents struggled to make ends meet. I was the second born, 5 years after my sister Waltraud.

My sister Waltraud and me, litle Hubertus.Berlin, the capital of Germany, lies on the flatlands of the northern plains amid many lakes and rivers. Connecting canals between the rivers provide an impressive delivery system to transport consumer goods. Berlin was and may still be an imposing city. Beautiful forested sections and farmlands cover almost one third of the city. A highly efficient integrated transportation system of subways, elevated trains, buses, and streetcars, provides easy access to the entire city.

A point of interest is the impressive Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century. Its design is a reminder of a marble gateway in Athens. The gate has a similar function as the triumphal arch in Paris. The Brandenburg Gate is located at the end of the famous Berliner Boulevard Unter den Linden.

One of Berlin’s most prestigious boulevards is the Kurfürstendam, known for fashionable hotels, restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. The Tiergarten is the largest park in Berlin. The Wannsee, a large lake surrounded by farmland and forests, provides ample elbowroom for getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

In the early '30s, horse-drawn wagons were common on our streets. The milk wagon came by every day, and it was fun to catch a ride on the stepping board. I was in awe over the size of the huge horses pulling the beer wagons. The driver, having noticed my look of amazement, asked if I wanted to ride the horse. He swung me onto the back of the horse, the only horse I ever sat on in my life. When I was four years old, we moved to a brand new modern tenement building complex, only a few miles from my birthplace. My mother told me, in later years, that she had been watching the construction of this complex and placed a bid for an apartment. This modern apartment building encompassed a large street block with eight black, steel gated arched entrances leading to the center of the square. The pleasing red brick color of the buildings appeared to be the first apartment building in the entire neighborhood with a color other than dingy gray. The architect allowed for an enormous courtyard, four large sandboxes, rose-hedge-lined walkways, and poplar trees planted in great numbers with lush lawns everywhere. It provided an ideal spot for recreation. We also were within walking distance of a grammar school and a high school.

We lived on the first floor, where every double-paned window had wooden roulades, which when lowered, provided privacy and security. The apartment consisted of one master bedroom and two small bedrooms, one living room, and a large kitchen. The kitchen had one cold water faucet over a cast iron sink, and a gas operated range in addition to the normal wood-burning range. Although it was a modern building, the designer apparently had a hard time taking a giant step to modernize it just a little more. We had no icebox, only a pantry in the kitchen with a screened window. I remember my mother placing bowls of milk in the pantry, and within a couple days, the milk had clabbered with a layer of solidified cream on top. Topped with a little sprinkle of sugar, it made a nice dessert. The bedrooms and living room had tile ovens where two to three briquettes of coal provided enough heat for the room, even in the coldest of winters. The bathroom had a commode with a flush box mounted six feet high on the wall. It also had a bathtub and a water heater. Every Saturday, my father, using wood, would fire-up the water heater giving us enough hot water for our weekend bath.

Each family had a secured basement compartment. It provided storage for our firewood, coal, potatoes and many preserves. It was my mother's passion to preserve all kind of food items, mostly in-season fruit. On occasion, when my father got hold of some deer or boar meat, she would preserve any meat that we could not eat right away. My father, at the prodding of my mother, even cured shredded cabbage for sauerkraut and pickled cucumbers in a barrel.

 A laundry room in the attic had a large copper washtub, requiring wood and coal to heat the water. The laundry room was a communal facility shared by eight families. An adjacent attic area was perfect for hanging the wash to dry. All the comfort one could ask for. But climbing four stories to the attic, carrying the clothing and schlepping the firewood was no picnic.

Our kitchen had French doors leading to the balcony, decorated with a flower box, where my father planted red geraniums. It provided tranquillity for many enjoyable Sunday breakfasts, consisting of soft-boiled eggs and slices of sandwich meat, together with buttered rye bread. I tested my father's patience often on those Sundays. It was customary that we would eat our soft-boiled egg from an egg cup. I loved teasing my father by giving him the upside down empty eggshell, pretending that I did not want to eat the egg. My father would make believe and show a surprise that the egg was empty. I do not know how often I played this game, but he never refused to play along. This was characteristic of him, showing his affectionate nature.

During the early thirties, my father was unable to find steady employment and ended up joining the Brown Shirts, a Nazi organization. He wore a brown uniform, decorated with a swastika armband. The German name for this organization was Sturm Abteilung, often referred to as Storm Troopers. He attended several of their meetings, and before long, it became apparent that after every S.A. meeting he would come home feeling no pain. I still can not say that he was "drunk," remembering him telling me, "Papa's are never drunk." This excessive drinking was not to his liking, and when this S.A. bunch acted like gangs, berating Jews and plotting mischief, he quit the organization. In those early Nazi days, it was not difficult to resist participation in the S.A. organization.

After the Great Depression/Inflation began in 1929, Hitler convinced many, including my father, that all of life's misery was caused by the Jews and Communists. It became apparent that Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used this plot theory to bring the economy and the media activities under Nazi authority. This new authority resulted in making an individual’s livelihood dependent on political loyalty.

Remarkably, a job opening presented itself for the type of work my father favored and had always considered his profession. The government's Forest Service headquarters in Berlin needed experienced foresters. But the offer to be a forester in Berlin came with a hitch, a requirement to join the Nazi Party. My father believed in Hitler and without hesitance joined the Nazi Party. A promotion to Chief Forester helped to overcome his disappointment with an indoor job. No doubt, he became a bureaucrat, with little relevance to the outdoors.

My father in his Forester's uniform.My father was a tall and lanky man, sporting a short mustache, and was considered by many to be a handsome figure. He looked sharp in his new uniform. His duties did include some travel to state-owned forests. None however, compared to the period when he was a young man, and served a landowner as a forester in Germany’s Black Forest. There, he had hundreds of acres of woods to wander. He knew most of the animals in his territory. At times, his duties required him to lead some important, influential people to the place in the forest where the best stags rambled. I could still feel his anguish while recounting those trophy shootings.

My father was a gentle person, honest to a high degree, with great ethics and compassion. My mother told me one time about an incident near the end of World War II, when in front of a destroyed bank, bundles of money were his for the taking. Nonetheless, he would not pick up any money while others did. "It was not mine," was his short response when I questioned him.

My mother, six years older than my father, dominated our home. She handled being in charge very easily. She was a heavyset woman with a commanding but not necessarily loud voice. During my father's unemployment, my mother supplemented their income by opening a retail store, together with a friend, selling stockings and gloves. The store location was across the street from my birthplace. Later she sold her part of the store to her friend and rented an outdoor market stand, 20 miles from our home, but accessible by the elevated train, the S-Bahn. Stockings and gloves remained her primary merchandise. I overheard one time, how she would handle a potential customer who did not know their sock size. She would ask that person to make a fist and then wrapped the foot portion of the sock around the fist. Then she would pronounce it a perfect fit, with exchange guaranteed. This job was no picnic. She opened her stand in all kinds of weather. Christmas was her busiest season. It usually was quite cold around that time, often with snow on the ground. During that bustling holiday time, my father or one of my aunts would help to watch out for shoplifters. Yes, not all Germans are honest Germans. During very cold weather, she would use a little space heater next to her feet. To think that she did this for many years, just so that we would have a better living standard, is some reflection of her character.

Mom came from a large family. She had six sisters, and three half-brothers. That gave me nine aunts and uncles just from my mother's side, not counting my father's two brothers.

With both of my parents working, my older sister Waltraud had to take care of me quite often. Growing up together with the age difference did not appear to create a conflict in brother and sister relations. We enjoyed each other's company. She was a beauty with her black shiny hair and pale complexion.

The year was early 1933. I was 5 years old, and Hitler came to power when Germany’s President, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed him as chancellor. When the Reichstag or Parliament gave him dictatorial powers, a change to all of our lives loomed on the horizon.

Childhood Days

Adolf Hitler's ascent to power and his appointment as chancellor of Germany in 1933 was certainly not delightful news for folks targeted for extinction in Hitler's book "Mein Kampf." But it could also mean that Hitler would create jobs. And that was good news for my parents. My parents enlightened me in later years that they had voted for Hitler during the so-called election. The election for chancellor of Germany was a straightforward, honest, freely controlled affair, as heralded by the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party). In a free election, you have a choice, and here the election ballot gave you a choice: Yes or No for Hitler. Choose the savior or continue with the devastating economic depression.

In the regimented German tradition, the existence of every person required registration at the police station, detailing all personal statistics with any change in domicile requiring checking out and checking in at the new place, without exception. Voting in general elections was not only a duty but was a requirement. The authorities knew who had not visited the voting booth by the afternoon and anyone who did not vote could expect a couple of Brown Shirt storm troopers arriving at your doorsteps, reminding you of your oversight. If you were infirm they would provide transportation. I even saw two storm troopers actually forming a seat with their hands and arms, carrying and escorting a person to the voting booth. It is understandable, that not many people voted against Hitler, despite the public announcements of a secret ballot. As it turned out, based on an interesting statistic, Hitler received over 90% affirmative votes with a turnout of 99% of the voting public. Little did we realize that this day was a dark moment in history, unquestionably the beginning of a worldwide tragic crisis.

The election had little immediate impact on our family life. Our Führer promised that he would bring us out of the depression by creating jobs through public work programs. When he addressed the nation over the radio, my parents, especially my father, listened to him attentively. Our Führer did not promise us a chicken in every pot, but assured us that every family would be able to at least afford a new Volksradio (People’s radio) that could bring us his messages loud and clear.

Luckily, with both of my parents working, their combined income elevated us into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with Ma and Pa doing their best to provide for us and rarely refusing reasonable wishes. My sister and I could always count on generous gifts every birthday, Easter and Christmas. My great interest and amusement with erector sets did not escape my parent's attention, making it easy for them to choose my presents. The yearly erector-set upgrades provided endless hours for me to create new bridges, trucks, merry-go-rounds and numerous other designs.

Christmas, the most significant holiday for gift expectations was foolishly a displeasing but a fruitful event for me. The disagreeable part of Christmas required that I recite a poem to Santa Claus, unquestionably not my favorite activity, since I had and still have a tough time learning by rote. On Christmas Eve, my sister and I would wait in her room for Santa’s arrival, listening for the sounds of "Ho, Ho, Ho." My parents would light all the candles on the Christmas tree and then call us into the living room where we would see the dining table fully extended and loaded, brimming full, with presents.

I have no idea why I was so afraid of Santa, but I was petrified. There I stood, Santa looking at me, with my mother asking me if I had something to say to Santa, and my sister whispering the beginning of the poem I had rehearsed and rehearsed. Surprisingly, once I started to recite the poem, it went quite smoothly with some help from my sister here and there. Next, we would sing "Silent Night," our favorite Christmas melody. Santa did not have many presents in his sack, but he would pass them out to all four of us. Before he gave me my present, he asked me if I had been a good boy last year. I was unable to speak. When I nodded my head, he appeared to be satisfied and left the room. I could hear his "Ho, Ho, Ho" fading down the hallway. When I heard the front door slam, I knew that Christmas had arrived. Several years later I found out that my uncle Hans, a brother-in-law of my mother, substituted for Santa, and the presents he handed us came from my mother's sister, Aunt Else, who was Santa's wife.

With this troublesome Christmas moment behind me, my sister and I eagerly looked forward to finding our other presents on the dining room table. My mother had a mean streak when it came to arranging my presents on the table by placing new clothing or similar items over the favorite gifts, hiding them. One of my earliest presents that I can remember was an electric train set with lots of rails, a black locomotive, several cars, a caboose, signals and crossing bars. My father helped to assemble the train tracks on the living room floor, to my mother's dissatisfaction. My father, however, convinced Ma that it would be out-of-the-way in the corner of the room. He routed one rail around the back of the Christmas tree. Once assembled, Pa then played with it endlessly. He showed me how everything worked all right, but he was handling the control and I was getting anxious. I lowered the crossing bars every time the train approached, and waited each time for the train to show up from passing behind the tree. However, I wanted to make the train go and stop. Not until I started to cry, would he reluctantly turn the controls over to me. Later, I found out that I was more interested in using my erector sets to build bridges and buildings for the train system than actually running the train.

As is customary in Germany, two Christmas Holidays followed Christmas Eve with the first, Christmas Day, being mostly a family affair. The Holiday Dinner consisted of a roasted goose with apple and prune stuffing, red cabbage, potatoes and gravy. During our afternoon coffee hour, we would munch on mother's delicious cakes. My favorite evening holiday meal consisted usually of potato salad and wieners or meat paddies.

The second Christmas Holiday was usually reserved for visiting. We would visit either friends or relatives, but more often, my mother expected visitors. Ma loved being a host and knew how to make visitors welcome.

First Visit to the Countryside

When summer approached, my parents announced a hard-earned vacation, just for the two of them. They planned to visit Austria and the Tyrolian Alps. My sister's girlfriend, Ilse, as suggested by Ilse's mother, invited her to sleep over at their place during my parent's absence. I needed a sitter, and my grandmother, my mother's stepmother, volunteered to be the caretaker. Grandma had a modest apartment in a small town in Pommern, a northeastern province of Germany. I was to live with her for the duration of my parent's vacation. I was more excited about my trip to my grandma's, than my parents were about their trip to the Alps. For the first time, I would leave the city behind me, and to boot, I was going by myself.

My father took me to the railroad station, and introduced me to the locomotive, a monstrous machine with steam blowing in spurts from its flank, similar to the snorting of a horse and ready to take off. After seeking out the conductor, my father turned me over to his authority. A tag with my name and destination on a string around my neck assured that I would not get lost. The conductor selected an agreeable window seat and assured this five-year-old not to worry. Who was worried?

Less than two hours later, the train stopped at my destination, a town called Schivelbein. The conductor delivered me to my grandmother. I called her Oma. She was a petite woman with a sharp mind. Her light hair had just a tinge of gray, combed back and secured at the back in a chignon or bun. She had visited our home in Berlin a number of times. I thought of her as the greatest grandma anyone could have. She was the only person in those days that called me by my given name, Hubertus, and not Buby (pronounced "boobie"). For some strange reason, someone tagged me with the silly name Buby, and it stuck. The whole neighborhood and my friends knew me as Buby. It was not until I celebrated my 14th birthday that I could shed this name successfully.

Grandma took my hand and we walked from the railroad station through an ancient portal into a picturesque town. Enormous granite boulders, stacked and aligned, formed a wall, extending from the portal, left and right, and appeared to be part of ancient defense structures. The cobblestone streets with narrow sidewalks, flanked by a series of small houses, gave the town a quaint appearance. I can still see the swallows flying closely around us, collecting insects. As we walked, grandma pointed out the butcher shop, grocery store and a mill powered by a small but fast running creek. After crossing some railroad tracks, we arrived at my grandmother’s two-bedroom apartment. She occupied the upstairs of a two-story house at the edge of town.

All water needed for cooking and washing required hauling from the hand pump in the courtyard. It became my job to carry buckets of water upstairs. Even a half-full bucket of water was difficult for a 5-year-old and I remember the relatively steep, creaky wooden staircase. Using the toilet was a disagreeable experience for a city boy. The wooden two-hole outhouse across the yard with its flies and country smell was not my idea of a pleasant situation. During the night, a chamber pot had to do.

Grandma trusted me not to get into mischief and allowed me to roam and explore the neighborhood. The railroad crossing had a special fascination for me and received my first attention. As soon as a train approached, the crossing guard in his dark blue uniform used a hand crank to lower the crossbars, stopping whatever street traffic might be coming. It was fun watching the railroad cars go by so closely, waving first to the locomotive engineer, listening to the clicking of the wheels on the rail, counting the number of cars, and waving to the brakeman in the caboose.

Next to the railroad crossing, a blacksmith performing his trade caught my eye. I watched him shoe horses and observed how he made steel rims for wheels and fitted them onto wooden spoked wheels. The blacksmith looked just like one would expect; a big man with muscular arms, wearing a leather apron. His round face always looked as if he grinned all the time with a twinkle in his eyes. A full beard completed his bearish appearance. With all his strength, I never heard him swear or lose his temper. Naturally, I declared that I would become a blacksmith when I grew up, ignoring my earlier pledge of becoming a railroad crossing guard. Not to mention that I would surely be a locomotive engineer.

The blacksmith fabricated horseshoes from scratch, including the nails to attach the shoes to the hoof. The fitting of a red-hot shoe to the horses hoof emitted a scorching smell not easily forgotten. Once he had the horseshoe sized, he cleaned the hoof and hammered the nails in a way so that the tips protruded through the side of the hoof. After turning the protruding nail tip, he made sure no sharp edges existed by using a rasp to smooth everything.

Another time, I saw him literally weld two pieces of steel by bringing them to a bright heat and pounding the two pieces together. If you have ever seen and heard a blacksmith forging iron, you will never forget the rhythmic clang of the hammer on the anvil.

The blacksmith had to have his fun with this city boy. I had shown my eagerness to help, and when he asked me to bring him a red piece of iron lying in the middle of the yard, I complied. I hurried over, looked at it and it appeared to me that it was not just a red piece, but a red-hot piece of iron. I looked at him. I saw the twinkle in his eyes and he said: "Just testing the big city boy." He thought it to be funny while I learned a lesson. I ended up spending a lot of time watching him, and even helped to operate the bellows to bring hot coal to a real white-hot condition.

About 100 yards down the road from the blacksmith, I noticed a cooper’s workshop. Naturally, I just had to watch the making of wooden barrels and tubs. The cooper, a very friendly elderly man, appeared to work even harder than the blacksmith. I did not ask him if I could watch, but he allowed me to hang around. Here was another master at work. Like the blacksmith, he knew his business. Compared to the blacksmith, the cooper had a slight build with long, slender hands. His back, slightly bent forward, appeared frail, until you saw him work. The frail-looking man changed to a wiry man with quick hands and unending endurance when I saw him making barrels for butter, for pickles and for liquid manure. When he worked at the manure barrel, a long cylindrical container, he asked me to get inside and insert a coned wood plug. He lowered me through a manhole and I followed his instructions. When I talked inside the barrel, my voice sounded quite strange. I guess that is where this old-fashioned saying came from. I found out that I had no claustrophobic tendencies. Getting out, however, was a bit difficult. Since I was only a little fellow, the cooper had to reach down as far as he could, and even then, I had to jump so that he could grab my hands.

Grandma apparently wanted me to get close to nature. On a beautiful sunny day, she took me to the nearby forest for blueberry picking. I had no idea that blueberries grew in the wild. To my great surprise we collected about a quart within a few hours. However, I did not know that little flying critters hide in the woods, and I believe, that for every blueberry we picked I had one mosquito bite. Although my enthusiasm for nature waned, we visited the woods one more time. My grandma pointed out wild cranberries, wild strawberries and numerous types of wild mushrooms. We brought home some chanterelle mushrooms, enough for a meal. They are still my favorite, sautéed in butter with a little onions and parsley.

Almost daily, I spent time with the railroad crossing guard, the blacksmith or the cooper. Even the town's butcher has a warm spot in my memory. About every second day, my grandma visited a store, including the butcher's. From the first day, after my grandma told the butcher who I was, he would hand me a slice of sausage then ask my opinion of its quality. Naturally, I looked forward to every visit. Once a week we visited the cemetery, and left some flowers at my grandfather's grave. Quite often, I think nostalgically back to those days, innocent days, learning days, happy days and once-in-a-lifetime days.

Unfortunately, my summer vacation ended sooner than I wanted. I returned to Berlin by train. When I got home, my parents had a surprise for me. I became the proud owner of a pair of genuine alpine leather shorts, the most functional peace of clothing I ever had. They did not require washing or pressing and were virtually indestructible. I wore the shorts all summer and most of the winter, day in and day out, until they became too small for me. Either they shrank, or I had grown.

Hitler had promised to create public works programs. When he announced the creation of a highway system, reaching from border to border, it certainly was one of the most impressive projects. Building a highway system across the country would inevitably have to go through forested areas. That is how my father got involved with the building the Autobahn.

One time, when he visited a work site, he took me along. I thought I had seen a lot of interesting things when I had watched the blacksmith and the cooper, but this certainly topped it. Here, I saw large, and I mean large, earth moving equipment. While some machines cleared a passage of trees, by extracting the entire trees, roots and all, others would level the ground. A great number of different machines followed one after another, until the final operation of smoothing the poured concrete and covering it with straw. My father told me that they could complete a section of 300 yards per day.

On my arrival back home I was overflowing with all the things I had seen, using my mother as a listening post. In spite of her busy schedule, she would patiently give her full attention to my rambling. We had no idea that the building of the Autobahn system was not only a jobs creation project, but also a requirement for our Führer’s ambition to provide easy movement of Germany's future military might.

In my neighborhood, I do remember being envious of some older youngsters wearing Hitler Youth uniforms. I had to wait until I reached age ten to join the Hitler Youth movement. For my sixth birthday, I begged my mother to make me a Hitler Youth style uniform. She made me a look-alike uniform, fitting for a small child.

I had no idea that the uniform would soon create such a memorable event.

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