The History Place - Personal Histories

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

Section Six of Ten

Going Home

For the first time, I heard about all of the atrocities my fellow Nazi storm troopers, my SS comrades, and others had committed during the war. I was not quite ready to understand all of what happened, nor could I or would I believe everything revealed. I had been sheltered or our propaganda minister did a good job of hiding the tragic truth. All I knew, by examining my personal war experiences, I was satisfied that I did not have to be ashamed of my actions. After hearing and seeing examples of the atrocities, anger surfaced nevertheless, that I was part of a duped generation. I fought for my Fatherland, not to exterminate people, but to shoot at airplanes which bombed our cities and people.

Now, for the first time in my life, I would not be receiving any orders to follow. I would have to make my own decisions and live with the results. I had no idea how I would handle life's various situations, surely just around the corner. All I knew was that someone had screwed up my young life and I would have to straighten it out. Crying into my nonexistent beard would not help. I told myself; make the best of things.

Just short of my 18th birthday, I was like a lost little sheep. Nonetheless, Ich bin ein Berliner and streetwise, healthy, and I had 350 German marks in my pocket, my income from dealing in cigarettes.

The British military transported us released POWs by truck to the town of Siegen, West Germany. Ironically, Siegen in German means "victorious."

Upon release, I had one last order to obey: "Report to the Rosbach police station." Rosbach, the town I had named as my hometown, was about three to four marching hours away.

What a joyous walk along tree-lined country roads, not even noticing that the trees were all bare of leaves. I was free; no school, no Latin tests, no saluting, no dodging bombs; except for being a little apprehensive and not knowing what I might experience next.

Without much effort, I found the Rosbach police station. The desk officer studied my document, a flimsy piece of paper, but the only paper that identified me. In typical German bureaucratic method, it seemed forever before he finally stamped it and dated it.

Next, I had to find Aunt Netta Jacobs, the person I had named as my next of kin. I had no idea if she was alive or if she still lived in this town. I knew she would not know me, nor did I know if she was even married and if there was a Mr. Jacobs. After asking the desk officer, he directed me to a restaurant, two blocks away. To my happy surprise, I noticed that the proprietor's name was Jacobs. When I asked the man behind the bar for Mrs. Netta Jacobs, he looked at me suspiciously, but then called toward the back room, "Netta, someone here to see you."

Aunt Netta came out and looked me over in my disheveled uniform, which was showing the signs of many days' neglect. She was an elderly lady with neatly tufted gray hair and a pleasant friendly smile. "Yes?" she asked. "Excuse me Mrs. Jacobs" I said. "That is Miss Jacobs, please," she responded. I identified myself as Hubertus Schmidt, the brother of Waltraud Schmidt who was the wife of Günter Sievert. (Günter Sievert was her nephew.) She listened carefully and appeared to be thinking. I thought I had better explain a little more. I said that I was just released from a British POW camp. I could not be released to Berlin, but only to West Germany and that she was the only person I knew in West Germany. Therefore, I had selected her as my next of kin. I paused here, and I saw an enlightened look. She questioned, "Brother of Waltraud?" The pitch of her voice changed slightly. Smiling, and with outstretched arms, she approached me and we embraced, the embrace I needed.

Her first order of business was to feed me. My first real meal for some time served on a plate instead of a tin mess kit. I will never forget the smoked pork-chops with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes, accompanied by a real glass of beer. While eating, curious eyes gazing at me could not stop me from enjoying my meal.

Meanwhile, Aunt Netta rented a room for me at one of her friend's homes, costing a reasonable 20 marks per week for room and board. Aunt Netta took me to the window, pointed across the little creek running behind the restaurant, and identified her friend's house. She suggested that I could use some rest and said that the lady, a widow, knew I would be arriving soon. She was right, I was exhausted. When I got to the house, the widow greeted me like I was a friend she had not seen for a while. She suggested a nice hot bath and then handed me a set of pajamas. When I awoke the next morning, the sun was beaming into the room through lace curtains. It took me a while to remember where I was. Seeing some strange clothing hanging on a hook on the door, and some fresh underwear on the chair, did not clear up my confusion. I had my toiletries in the bathroom and after I returned to my room, the lady of the house came upstairs and suggested that I try on the clothing from her late husband. She suggested that the clothes should fit and that I could keep them if I wanted. I did not know that the outside world was so friendly. After breakfast, my host told me to go over to the restaurant and see Aunt Netta.

"You need a job," Aunt Netta said. I had not thought of a job, an activity new to me. I agreed however, and within an hour, she had a job for me at a lumberyard in the next town. It pays to have connections.

She asked me if I knew how her nephew, my parents, and my sister had survived the war. I had to admit that I had not heard from them for over a year.

Having a job seemed appropriate, not knowing what else I should be doing right now. I decided I would go along with my present status until some kind of communication with someone in Berlin could be established. At this stage, I was like a fish out of water in war-torn Germany.

When I reported to the lumberyard, the owner himself greeted me with a very friendly smile. Once he found out my limited work experience, he assured me not to worry. An imbedded bullet had once damaged the wood-planing cutter and so it became my job to inspect every board before sending it through the planer. The boards were quite large and I had to identify and remove any bullet. After inspecting about 100 boards without finding any bullets, I helped with planing the boards.

The lumberyard was located in the town of Waldbröl, a very picturesque town with little war damage. I notice many Belgian soldiers, substituting for British occupation forces. I had expected British soldiers, since this part of West Germany was designated as a British zone.

Rosbach, where I lived, was a small town with not much excitement. Aunt Netta, as she wanted me to call her, found some used clothing for me. It allowed me to discard my old military uniform, which had experienced the long Denmark march and months of POW camp life.

One week had passed since my arrival here and a certain normalcy had set in. The lumberyard fabricated small hand-pulled wagons, besides selling lumber. A high demand for these little vehicles resulted in a 6-day work-week and 10-hour days, leaving little time for me to spend money.

One day, Aunt Netta apparently required some cash; not just any money, but she needed Allied military German marks. To get the cash, she wanted to sell an expensive camera and asked me if I could sell it to one of the occupation force soldiers. She assured me, that if something went wrong, she would rather lose the camera than have me get in trouble. I found out that the activity of selling and buying, called black market dealings, is illegal. German law would not be of much help if a soldier just kept the camera and walked away. In the POW camp, I had dealt with British soldiers buying cigarettes. I am sure if I had a camera available back then I could have easily exchanged it for cigarettes. Dealing with Belgian soldiers put a different spin on the situation.

The next evening, I walked back to Waldbröl with the camera under my coat. I hung around a street corner, not knowing exactly how to approach the situation. Belgian soldiers patrolled the town and one of them took an instant dislike to me. When he walked past me, he used his rifle butt and hit me in the tailbone. I had no idea why he did it. But I had the camera and could not afford an altercation. It taught me to be careful around occupation soldiers. Their brothers had won the war.

After walking around the town, I did not observe an open black market operating on any street corner. When I noticed several soldiers visiting a restaurant, I decided to enter the place. The atmosphere here was a little friendlier. I was not the only civilian in the restaurant. At the bar I ordered a beer, and then placed the camera on the bar. Shortly, the soldier next to me looked at the camera, and within a few seconds, he gestured for a look. A few minutes passed and he made a motion with his thumb and finger, indicating, how much money I needed to part with the camera. I took my finger and scrawled on the bar, "400." His hand raised to his head with a facial mimic clearly indicating his displeasure. I played it cool, just shrugged my shoulders a little, and cocked my head a little. My gesture meant that 400 marks was the price and I cared less if he did not want the camera. Apparently, I must have been convincing. He selected 350 marks from his wallet and I accepted it as payment. I had made my first deal. Aunt Netta was delighted and gave me 10 marks as thanks.

About four weeks passed with nothing noteworthy. My landlady treated me like a member of her family. She packed a nice lunch every day and her meals in general were just outstanding. Then, on a Sunday morning, an elderly gentleman entered Aunt Netta's restaurant while I was having my Sunday morning beer at the bar. He looked familiar, but did not identify himself immediately. He asked for Aunt Netta, as I had when I arrived. Then I recognized him. He was Aunt Netta�s brother, Gustav, my sister's father-in-law. He had just arrived from Berlin. At his advanced age, and a little sickly, it took a while before he remembered me. I now heard that my parents were alive and living with my sister and her husband, in my sister's apartment.

This was the best news I had in a while. It is not easy to explain what happens when a country has been devastated and divided up. Virtually all personal communication was non-existing.

I knew that I had to get to Berlin. People in the restaurant helped out with suggestions on how I could get there. We knew that the Russians restricted traffic to Berlin. The local people knew of a coal train that stopped in the neighborhood with Berlin as its destination. Aunt Netta packed some supplies and even found a pair of gloves for me. My landlady found an overcoat and would not accept any money from me. It was November and nights were getting quite chilly. I said goodbye, thanked Aunt Netta and the widow, and proceeded to the spot where I could expect the train to stop.

Within an hour, a train stopped, pointing in the right direction and carrying coal in open cars. I assumed this train would take me to Berlin. I climbed on board unseen. Luckily, the coal, heaped in the center, allowed room at the front and the back, enough to hide me and keep me out of sight. Perhaps no one would have objected to my presence on the train. Nevertheless, I just did not want to take a chance. I settled down at the front end, giving me some protection from the wind and flying cinders surely to rain on me. I made myself comfortable, munched an apple, and soon the train started rolling.

When we passed through a station, I carefully sneaked a peek. The names of the passing stations confirmed that the train was traveling east toward Berlin. The train stopped a few times, never very long. By darkness, I observed that we were approaching the outskirts of Berlin. The next time the train stopped, I could see an S-train, the commuter train of Berlin. I exited the coal train, crossed some tracks and jumped a fence to get on a city street so that I could enter the S-train station. I bought a ticket and after one train change, got off at my destination.

Back in familiar territory, I hurried to my sister's apartment building. It was after 11 p.m.; no traffic, very quiet and very dark, no streetlights, or any other light to be seen. My sister lived on the third floor. A locked front door prevented me from going up the stairwell. After a few whistles, a special whistle only my sister would recognize, a window opened. "Hubertus?"

I was home from the war and had a happy reunion with my sister, her husband and their two girls, Dorothea and Vera, and both of my parents. My mother said, "I been praying for over a year that you would be safe, and here you are." We had a lot of catching up to do. Each one had a story to tell. My experience was painless compared to their hardships.

My Family's War Experience

Following are the war accounts as told to me by my sister and my parents:

It all started when the air raids over Berlin intensified to a point of great discomfort, to state it conservatively. My transfer to the southern front preceded our Führer's order to evacuate all pregnant women to eastern Germany. Since my sister was expecting, a small town in Poland became my sister's new home. This place would have been safe, had it not been for the fact that the Russian Army was slowly defeating the German Army. At the same time, my parents were still in Berlin, living almost steadily in the bomb shelter near their apartment.

My father convinced my mother, who by now had stopped her business, to visit my sister in Poland. She would be safe there and would get away from the bombing raids while my father continued his occupation as forester and would hold down the fort. My sister was about one hour by train away. My mother agreed to go and visited my sister and her two grand children in Poland. They had several weeks of reasonable peace.

In the interim, the Russian Army made considerable advances and pushed the German Army back toward the German border. When my father realized the situation, he hurried to my mother and sister in Poland to bring them home. He did not think it was safe there with the advancing Russian troops. Unfortunately, Russian tanks broke through quickly and the evacuation became urgent.

Horse-drawn wagons were the main mode of transportation, similar to the wagon treks in the pioneering days of the United States. My father, my mother, and my sister with both children shared a wagon with one other family. As they passed a railroad station, the Red Cross selected all pregnant women and provided transport by train to Berlin. It was the second last train going west. My sister and her two little children departed on this train.

My father and mother remained with the horse wagon. My father decided to get a few extra blankets for the trip. The temperature had been hovering around 10° below zero. The wagon, with my mother on board, continued westward. It took my father about 30 minutes to get the blanket and he rushed to follow the wagon trek.

Suddenly, out of nowhere came a Russian tank on the same road he was walking on. My father was in his official forester's uniform. The tank stopped and a Russian officer jumped out, pulled his pistol and shouted something in Russian. My father tried to tell him that he was not a soldier but the officer did not seem to care. My father was standing near a ditch. The soldier made him turn around and shot my father in the neck. My father fell into the ditch and apparently, the soldier continued shooting. My father must have raised his hand to his head, since one shot penetrated his right hand, damaging three knuckles. Other bullets took the tip off his nose and nicked one ear. The neck shot exited below his right eye, without causing any serious damage.

Two boys happened to see him lying in the ditch, or they might have even witnessed the incident. When the boys moved nearer to him, they apparently saw some movement and said, "He is still alive." My father heard this and was able to get up. The below zero temperature must have saved him from bleeding to death. A horse-drawn wagon came along, carrying a man and a woman. The sight of this horrible looking person with caked blood all over his face and hand must have frightened them. They would not stop to help him. Just then, two German soldiers came upon him, bracketed him between themselves, and delivered him to a Red Cross station. Luck must have been with him. The Red Cross station remained there just long enough to take care of him. They patched him up and took him along on a train to Berlin. The rogue Russian tank must have been way ahead of its main unit when it had stopped for my father, trying to kill one more German.

In the meantime, mom worried sick, not knowing what had happened to dad, but continued on to Berlin and to her home. Two days later, my father, all bandaged up, arrived home to my mother's great relief.

It now was about early spring 1945. My parents and my sister, including my sister's husband and the two children, experienced an unbearable situation, which got worse every day. Daily air raids over Berlin kept them in the shelters. The food supply dwindled and the Russian Army was closing in. My parents took in an elderly couple whose home was destroyed by bombs. Dad was constantly on the lookout for food. The supplies in the basement reduced quickly.

On the last day of the war, Russian soldiers placed a large gun directly in front of my parent's home. A German Stuka, a dive bomber airplane, decided to be heroic and placed a bomb right on top of them. That bomb also wiped out our 4-story apartment building. The live-in elderly couple had gone to the apartment for a bite to eat. They both succumbed in the devastation. Luckily, the shelters occupied by my parents were two houses away and they escaped unhurt.

On May 2, 1945, the Russians took Berlin. The next few weeks were a period of terror. Pillaging Russian soldiers went on an orgy of rape and thievery. Apparently, the Russian soldiers assumed that everything was their spoil of war and they confiscated whatever they could. Watches were their main targets. Sometimes, the Russians shot a person who did not have a watch, accusing the person of hiding it. German women would deliberately make themselves look like an old lady, hoping that the next Russian soldier would ignore them. This situation went on for several weeks. Neither my mother nor my sister ventured outdoors for fear of rape. Apparently, when the Allied Western Forces were ready to enter Berlin, based on an agreement between Russia, the United States, and Britain, the marauding slowed. Rumor had it that a Russian officer, having orders to stop the pillaging and mayhem, shot a Russian soldier raping a woman.

Berlin was badly damaged by Allied bombing and Russian artillery attacks. Many sections, city blocks on blocks, were in a state of complete destruction. Stretched for miles were remains of buildings pounded to dust. The bridges over the canals were mostly destroyed, either by Allied bombs or retreating German forces. A few buses, some streetcars pulled by steam engines, started to surface, showing ingenuity by some officials. Within a couple of months, transportation increased slowly with a few subway and elevated trains, limited only by the availability of electricity.

Just before the division of Berlin into four different sectors, my sister had to accommodate 23 Russian soldiers in her apartment. Three officers and 20 Mongolian soldiers were supposed to repair a nearby destroyed bridge and they requisitioned two rooms of her apartment. Her apartment and the restroom became a complete mess in no time and remained in that state of disarray for the next two weeks. Observation showed that many of the ordinary Russian soldier had never seen "water coming out off the wall" and didn't know toilet bowls were not for washing your face. If it had not been for the Russian officers, they would have had mayhem in the first degree.

The first few postwar weeks were definitely the most difficult period for the populace. Not only was it a lawless time but it was completely impossible to obtain anything edible. The Russian officers would frequently give my sister some chow from their mobile canteen, a welcome compensation for having to put up with the presence of the Russians in her apartment.

In general, normalcy in Berlin ceased, including the availability of electricity, gas, and water for quite a while. Everybody scratched out a meager existence, forcing the German people to pay for Hitler�s grandiose ideas of a "Thousand year Reich."

When the Russian soldiers finally vacated my sister's apartment, it made room for my parents, who were homeless and residing at a shelter in the nearby technical college building. Once settled, my father returned to the ruins of his bombed-out apartment building and spent several weeks excavating buried household items, hoping to find any foodstuff lying in the covered-up basement. In order to get to the basement debris, he had to remove the rubble from four stories above it. He knew what they had stored in the basement. Eventually, he succeeded in finding not only potatoes, but also found preserved food in vacuum glasses, miraculously protected somehow. He also unearthed firewood and coal briquettes. Finding the unbroken preserves was not the only surprise, he recovered valuable china and crystalware, but only a small amount of useful kitchenware. He also took on the task of finding the elderly couple buried under the rubble.

In the meantime, the division of Berlin into four sectors occurred. Each of four Allied countries would occupy a portion of the city. So-called West Berlin consisted of a British, American, and French sector, while the Russian sector became East Berlin. My sister's apartment was located in the French sector. The various sectors had no demarcation line, only signs on street corners indicating you were leaving or entering a different sector. As soon as the Allied soldiers took control of their respective sectors, the black market came alive. Not only did CARE packages arrive, but also food destined for the occupation forces found its way onto the black market. Life definitely became a little easier.

My father tried to continue with his job as a forester. However, since he had been a member of the Nazi Party, the rules required performance of some public service first, before reinstatement and the holding of a government job. He had to be "denazified." Public service, coupled with a few interviews by who knows whom, would complete the process. The background check of his activities proved that he was not an active member of the Nazi Party. It also demonstrated that he did not participate in any activities deemed to be against the Geneva Convention. His penance for being a member of the Nazi Party required him, however, to collect bricks from the rubble and to stack them. Strangely, that was what he had been doing all along at his now-destroyed home.

Food shortages eased slightly after stores received some supplies, distributed to the people via food ration stamps. The rations applied to all main staples and amounted to a starvation diet. Not only were the rations meager, but obtaining the rations required standing in line for hours, hoping that the supply would not run out before getting one's hands on it. My family struggled, but somehow with my mother's tenacity they survived. Mom's weight was about 200 pounds when I had left home two years ago. When I got back home, she was down to less than a hundred.

I came home from the war in November of 1945, six months after Germany's surrender. My sister, realizing that I would have to stay with her said, "The more the merrier." But living in the French sector was not really to my liking. I had a premonition that I would not get along with French soldiers.

Winter was just around the corner. We needed to supplement the rationed food badly, not to mention that we had neither firewood nor coal. Now, my mother handed me my very first assignment. A rumor circulated that someone had discovered some sugar in the rubble of a burned-down warehouse near the canal; not just nice white sugar granules but brown sugar. It appeared that sacks of sugar had been stored in the warehouse when bombs destroyed it.

With a 5-gallon bucket and a hand shovel in my possession, I arrived at the ruins of the warehouse. Word of the sugar treasure must have been around for days, because at least 10 people likewise with shovels and buckets were sorting through the rubble. I looked at the situation and proceeded to where I thought might be the likely place to find sugar. I removed a few burned-out beams, some burned wood panels, and I saw a pile of burned gunnysacks, not full, but not empty either. When I tore one sack open, I saw brown sugar, slightly crystallized. Once I chipped away the outer layer, the brown sugar was in a state between granules and gooey mess. The shovel did quite well. It took less than an hour to fill the bucket. Naturally, my find attracted quick attention from other seekers.

I just knew that the moment my mother saw the treasure, she would hand me a larger bucket, no, make it two larger buckets to get more of that sticky stuff. Sure enough, I was on my way back again, except my father joined me. I do not remember what she did with all that brown sugar, but I know that she sold excess amounts she could not use. In order to sell or buy any goods, the street corners, almost any street corner, became the place to conduct business. Some people would call it a black market, but when you have no legitimate market one must improvise, and this exchange trade did just fine.

My next job was to find firewood. Destroyed buildings became the main targets. I had a small handsaw, a hatchet, a gunnysack and a lot of enthusiasm. By evening, I brought home about 35 pounds of wood. However, before the winter had passed, we wound up demolishing some chairs and a sofa, part of my sister's blue room. For windows in the apartment, cardboard and a few sheets of plastic replaced the missing glass panes.

My mother had a reasonable amount of money left over from her business. Surprisingly, that money, the German mark, was still good and remained legal tender until 1949. It was too bad that my father did not pick-up some of the bundles of money lying on the street during the final days of the war. Anyway, since the rationed food was not sufficient, she directed me to the black market. I had a lot to learn in this new environment, but with a little push from my mother, I hoped to persevere.

The days passed, the nights were cold, but we had our health and our family was together. As expected, our Christmas this year was very subdued. However, my mother surprised me. My Aunt Liese's only son, a few years my senior, was killed in the war. Aunt Liese had contacted my mother, stating that she thought Hubertus should inherit his bicycle. All I had to do was pick it up. I could not have been more surprised. A bicycle was just the thing we needed.

One evening, as we were sitting together by candlelight, my mother asked if I had any plans for my future. Good grief, I had no idea. The question reminded me that there was more to life than just excitement and fun. By talking to a neighbor, he steered me to a state-sponsored counselor. Apparently, our postwar government was preparing for the future.

Berlin 1946 as an aprentice during lunch hour.The counselor realized that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. My high school diploma, earned during the last two war years, could not be the best recommendation. He directed his pointed questions toward my hobbies. Once he heard about my passion for the erector set, he suggested the engineering field. The thought of becoming an engineer was very appealing and I agreed. He informed me that I would have to be a mechanical apprentice for two years and take some evening classes. Upon completion and graduation, the Beuth Technical College would accept me without an entrance examination. Three years of college would be required to receive my diploma. If all went well, I would have a BS degree in engineering within five years.

The counselor had a manufacturing company available that would accept an apprentice. The electric motor manufacturing company, Helios, would train and pay me 10 German marks per week. The training had to include all aspects of the mechanical engineering field and they would have to farm me out, if necessary, to accomplish this requirement.

Now that we had contemplated my future, the present required immediate attention.

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