The History Place - Personal Histories

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

Section Seven of Ten

Postwar Misery

Soon, I was working as an apprentice five days a week. In addition, two evenings a week, I attended classes for two hours. I had no idea how I could study in the evening, using hard to find candles for light. Electricity was available about two hours a day, with a limited amount to boot. Available gas for the kitchen range was also restricted to three hours every other day.

Severely rationed were the staple foods, like bread, flour, sugar, butter, potatoes, meat, and fish. Besides rationing, availability was another question. The situation had not improved. Long lines still formed quickly when any of the staples arrived at the store. Items normally used without special attention, such as soap, toothpaste, clothing, and many others, were not available.

We needed food badly. So my mother planned my first excursion into the countryside. She gave me a brand new pair of men's fur-lined leather gloves, left over from her former business and recovered by my father from the rubble. Then she handed me 40 marks and gave me the name of a town where I should try to acquire potatoes. To this day, I have been unable to figure out how she knew where to look. She told me, try to get 50 lbs. of potatoes for 10 marks. If that does not work, offer twenty. Should the farmer have enough money, offer him the gloves for 100 lbs. of potatoes.

For the reader not familiar with the military/political situation around postwar Berlin, this would be a good time to mention that although Berlin was an island within East Germany, we did have free access to East Germany itself. Later, the Russians directed the East German police to restrict the transporting of goods from East Germany to West Berlin. Fortunately, the East German police often looked the other way. They eventually extended the restriction to the transfer of goods from East Berlin to West Berlin. Building the infamous Wall between West and East Berlin occurred many years later to prevent people from defecting from East to West.

I studied a road map for my potato assignment. The next morning, it took me about one hour to pedal my bicycle through northern Berlin to an Autobahn entrance. Once on the Autobahn, it would be about 50 miles to the small town my mother had selected. This particular Autobahn entrance was slightly up-hill and every truck slowed considerably, slow enough for me to grab the rear of the truck and let it pull me along. I would consider only open trucks and positioned myself behind the truck, with my front wheel under the truck's rear, holding on to the end gate with both hands. This way, should the truck come to a fast stop, I could brace myself. If the truck configuration did not allow me to hang behind it, I would take a chance on the left side. Then, in case of a sudden stop, I would just let go and fly by the truck. Today, when we talk about the Autobahn, we think of high-speed traffic, but let me explain a little about the truck traffic on the autobahn during that particular period. Non-military vehicles used wood gas for fuel. Each truck had a stove-like unit, similar to a pressure cooker. While the cooker heated the wood to create charcoal, the escaping gases would drive the engine.

Hanging on to the end of a truck was very successful, and in no time, I arrived in the designated town. I struck out with the first farmer and the second farmer claimed that he did not have enough potatoes for sale. I asked if he could direct me to another one where I might have better luck. It worked, and to my great surprise, I had 100 lbs. of potatoes for 30 marks.

That amount of potatoes in one sack would be impossible for me to handle on a bicycle and still ride it. Therefore, I asked the farmer if he could divide them into two sacks. I secured one sack on the back luggage rack over the rear wheel and the other I draped over the handle bars. Back on the Autobahn, I knew that I could not hang onto a truck with this load. I had two choices. Use my thumb for a ride on a truck, or pedal for a minimum of 6 hours to get home. I checked my money and I had three marks in loose change. Before long a truck stopped for me. The truck driver helped me get my load onto the truck. I gave him the three marks and soon I was back in the city. In Berlin, it still took me an hour to get home.

My mother was delighted with my success. The next day she sent me to the street market to sell 50 lbs. of the potatoes. I sold them in 10 lb. increments for a minimum of 30 marks each. Five trips on my bicycle to the black market accomplished the task quickly. We were in business.

Naturally, my mother wanted me to repeat this performance and I did it without a hitch. The third is a charm, someone once said, so it was for me. I am not so sure if charm is the right word, but my third trip surely was not ordinary.

It started out identical to my first two trips. While I was on my way to the Autobahn, riding through a nice peaceful neighborhood, a black cat ran across my path. Of course, I was not superstitious, no way; but just by coincidence, a few minutes later, my bicycle chain broke. Good grief, now what. A sheer pin had fallen out. Anyway, the pin was missing. Being a future engineer, I could not let it defeat me. I started to think of what I could substitute for the missing sheer pin. I did not have anything with me other than pliers. Looking on the sidewalk, I found a nail, just the size to fit the hole in the chain link. At the Autobahn, I got a ride to the designated town by hanging onto a truck, but after that, events did not quite proceed in an expected manner. While pedaling to the town, about two miles from the Autobahn, the rear tire showed signs of waning. Naturally, the black cat had nothing to do with this. I took the wheel off, removed the tube from the tire, pumped it up a little and found a small hole, caused by a nail, which was still in the tire. Nonetheless, fear not, I had my fix-it kits with me and patched the hole using contact cement, the normal stuff to use. I put the fixed tube back in the tire and pumped it up to the desired pressure.

On my way to the farmer, I contemplated upon my recent problems. I thought it to be prudent not to load myself down with heavy merchandise. Therefore, I asked the farmer, with whom I was now friendly, for some ham or similar meat items. This farmer, an elderly gentleman, thought for a moment, and then offered me some salt pork. When he showed it to me, I could see it was slightly smoked but virtually all-fat with a few strings of lean meat. Nevertheless, I had a feeling that my mother would like it. I obtained five pounds for 30 marks.

I was running behind in my timeline. Halfway to the Autobahn, the air in my patched tube was rapidly escaping. I had a notion that the contact cement was very old. Since the flat tire was the rear tire, I decided to swap tires. I put the good front tire on the rear and stuffed grass into the tire without a tube, now destined to be the front tire. I used the longest grass I could find at the roadside and crammed the tire with grass as much as possible. Then I removed the seat, planning to sit on the luggage rack. To reach the handlebar however, I needed to create an elongation. It was not easy, but eventually, I found a couple of branches, slightly knotted, but functional. Making a snug fit of the branches into the ends of the handlebar created an acceptable extension. Now I could sit on my luggage rack and while holding onto the sticks I could paddle reasonably well keeping only a minimum amount of weight on the front tire. By now, dusk was approaching. Luckily, as soon as I got to the Autobahn, a truck picked me up. After leaving the truck, I had about 15 miles to get home. The streets were very dark, without the usual lights, but luckily, the traffic was virtually nil. After a few strange looks by passing people, I got home a little late. My mother naturally worried when I did not show up on time. But she agreed with my decision to bring home salt pork as an alternative to potatoes.

By now, my engineering apprenticeship was progressing nicely. The boss of the company assigned a young engineer to help guide my education. The company's business consisted of refurbishing burned-out electric motors salvaged from the destroyed factory. Besides practicing metal removal, like filing a perfect cube, or turning a shaft on a lathe, I had to remove old ball bearings from the motor shafts. Using a chisel and a large hammer together with a large press, I could remove any bearing from the shaft without ruining the shaft. I guess I had to learn how to do that if I wanted to be a good engineer.

Twice a week I attended night classes, brushing up on math, and mechanical drafting. The school had little electricity but good heat, making going to school a favorite activity.

I spent many evenings in a neighborhood bar when I was not studying. The bar had heat and battery powered light bulbs, making it a cozy atmosphere. A piano player, who also played the accordion, was the entertainment. The bar had a nice dance floor. Within a short time, I learned the basic dance steps, and got proficient at it quickly. The drinks served were mostly aquavit, a strong clear Scandinavian liquor made from potatoes and flavored with caraway seeds.

French occupation soldiers frequented the bar since we lived in the French sector. I would have preferred either American or British soldiers, since they had won the war. I am not sure how to express my thoughts about being on the losing side of the war. However, from what little I had heard since the end of the war, the outcome was the correct one. It was and still is deplorable that innumerable people in the world, including the German population, suffered and sacrificed themselves throughout many years, just to overcome the evil of a despot and his henchmen. For me, it was not an uplifting thought to know that I helped this despot to satisfy his deranged ambition.

Despite or because French soldiers made the saloon their hangout, the place had no shortage of girls. The war had left many widows, all naturally a little older than I was, though just the way I liked it. Most of them could dance quite well and by dancing with them, I got free lessons. Between my apprenticeship, my schooling, and my traveling to bring food home, it left me little free time, other than at night. Before long, with my dancing skills improving, I became popular with the ladies in the bar, to the detriment of the French soldiers. They started to dislike me more than I did in return. Naturally, being popular with the girls made it easy to delight in their company after the music stopped.

Early summer came and my father made a casual statement about mushrooms. He thought that the last rain would produce a good crop. My mother's ears perked up, and the next morning, with instructions from my father on what to look for, I was on my way to the Autobahn. I had become familiar with mushrooms when I was a boy. My father told me to pick only one kind of the brown capped, white/yellow underside mushrooms.

At the Autobahn, a Russian military truck was creeping up the hill, and I grabbed it. Two Russian soldiers were in the cab and they spotted me right away. They increased their speed, I would imagine to the truck's limit, which I guessed to be about 50 miles-per-hour. I had no problem with that. Then they motioned me to come forward while they were going about 35 mph. It was simple to hold on to the truck, and I moved forward, until I was right next to the cab door. The soldier offered me a cigarette. I took it, which was not easy, because I had to let go of one hand. I reached for it with my left hand, letting go of my handle bar. Soon I moved back again, but while I was doing this, the Russian driver thought it would be funny if he steered the truck close to the grass median, almost touching the grass with the truck wheels. That did not leave much room for my wheels, except that I had contemplated this possibility before I moved forward. My bicycle wheels just fit beside the truck while I was hanging out over the grass median. They laughed and then proceeded the rest of the way normally. In the meantime, I looked out for the kind of forest my father had described, a pine forest with very little underbrush. Once I saw an area like that I decided to check it out.

When I entered the woods, I looked and looked again and still could not see any mushrooms. I meandered about, and just when I was ready to find another forest, I noticed one mushroom, a big one. As I stooped down to cut it off, I saw another, and another, and suddenly I saw many. It was amazing, that when I first looked I saw nothing, and one minute later, I could not pick them fast enough. I had three large baskets with me and within an hour they were full. I signaled a truck for my return trip, loaded it on top, and it was barely past noon when I surprised my mother. She talked my father into donning his forester's uniform and going door to door selling the fresh mushrooms, for fifteen marks per pound. My father was no salesman, but he did it, and by day's end he had sold all the mushrooms, except the ones my mother kept for our consumption. We made a nice profit.

I just knew that I would have to repeat this performance again, and I did for three days. During the last trip, the mushroom growth was much sparser. Without further rain, it would be meager pickings. Besides, our neighborhood was mushroom saturated and my mother would have to dry the entire last haul. At first, mushroom dishes for breakfast and dinner were a nice cuisine for a change. Soon, I started to rebel, then my father and my sister did. No more mushrooms, please.

When food is scarce, mothers do not heed well. Feeding the family is their whole objective. One time, our potato supply ran out. With all other edible food gone, my mother decided to make potato peel soup. My father and I ate the soup and we became two very sick guys. Ma felt bad about it, and until this day, I do not like to eat the skins of a potato.

To secure food supplies from farmers near Berlin became quite difficult. I had to find a better way to get food and bring it home. Listening to stories by others gave me a hint where I should try to get some food. It appeared that the farmers within reasonable bicycle distance from Berlin were getting very tight in selling or trading for food. High demand depleted their supply. Jokes about the riches of farmers circulated frequently. One farmer traded food for carpets, so they said even his cow stalls had Persian carpets.

I would have to travel a little farther now. The East German police had control points, but the inspection was easy to go around. To get ahead of fellow food seekers, I decided to take an early morning train. My mother gave me some money, plus three pair of gloves. When I arrived at the railroad station, the short train had all the people it could handle. Even the compartments had only sardine-like standing room. I decided to make myself comfortable between two cars. One car had an 8 to 10 inch wide board running across the back. I could sit on that board while resting my feet against the forward end of the train car behind us. The trip would be approximately four hours, stopping at every little town we passed. We called it a milk train. In the direction we traveled, they would unload empty milk cans. On the return trip, they would pick up filled milk cans. Anyway, the trip proceeded quite well, except that I was getting sleepy. Sure enough, when I nodded off, my feet slipped away from the train car behind us, and I fell head-first down, while the train was still traveling. In the course of falling, I must have spread my arms and legs instinctively. One arm and hand landed on one train car's bumper, while one leg captured the other bumper. My head was between the bumpers. I felt as if my nose would touch the railroad ties zipping by. A fellow passenger, who was standing on the steel ladder, grabbed my knapsack and held me while I climbed back up, very carefully. That was a narrow escape.

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