A refugee child's witness to Nazi defeat, Soviet occupation, and his family's debacle in war
The New York Times Book Review
"This deeply emotional and moving memoir clearly illustrates that the military collapse of Nazi Germany was eclipsed by the greater tragedy of the German nation."
"We get a compelling child's-eye view of the European conflict in German Boy. . . .Wolfgang W. E. Samuel, an immigrant to the United States, was a child in Nazi Germany. Samuel recounts how the war cast his family out of their home and tells of the many hardships it exacted afterward. Samuel's aunt and cousin were raped, and his mother prostituted herself to keep Samuel and his sister alive. . . .Throughout his narrative, Samuel exhibits a remarkable fidelity to the perceptions and voice of his younger self. As a child, he asks questions about the war that adults have difficulty answering. He forces them to examine their prejudices and rationalizations and look at the war for what it is. . . .German Boy is also a testament to human adaptability and the survival instinct."
Washington Post Book World
"A compelling memoir of what it was like to become a refugee overnight and to remain one for six years. . . . German Boy [embodies] the ever-recurring historical truth that the innocent usually pay for the sins committed by others."
New York Times Book Review
"Samuel's description of his family's escape to the West is both thrilling and terrifying. This is an absorbing story of survival and redemption."
"An engrossing and powerful narrative."
Read an Excerpt
I ran across the plowed field instead of following the smooth dirt path along the Bober River. I was afraid that someone might be lurking in the dense, dark bushes lining the steep riverbank. Besides, running across the field would get me home more quickly. My hands were stiff and hurting from the unrelenting winter cold. I wasn't sure, though, if I would feel any more secure once I got home. I knew the Russians would arrive any day now. Maybe we would just wait for them. I was more afraid of the Russians than of anyone hiding in the bushes along the river.
It was nearly the end of January and next week would be my tenth birthday. Yesterday, I couldn't wait for that important day to arrive. Tonight, it didn't seem to matter much anymore. "I'm nine years old, almost ten," I chanted loudly as I leapt across the field from one frozen clod of earth to the next. "I'm almost grown up." My voice sounded croaky and brittle. I knew how to skip across a plowed field without falling. I had done it many times on my way home from school, skipping from the top of one clod to another. But never at night. The field was dusted with a fresh coat of snow, which, along with the intermittent moonlight, helped to outline the frozen rows of sod plowed in perfectly straight lines by a Russian prisoner of war working for the farmer down the road.
The moon, although frequently obscured by rapidly scudding clouds, provided a cold, bright, bluish light which allowed me to clearly see my surroundings. When the clouds opened up and the moon shonethrough, its light illuminated the landscape out to the far horizon. The night had an eerie, fairy-tale quality about it, of hidden beauty and mystery laced with my own fears. I felt as if I were caught in one of Grimm's fairy tales; only the witch and her Pfefferkuchen house were missing. But the night was real, I was scared, and I was getting colder every minute. I stumbled on a clod of dirt and nearly fell. I recovered and continued my run across the field. There was little wind, but a chill ran through my body, nearly throwing me off balance. I should have dressed more warmly and taken my gloves when I left home earlier in the evening.
I forced myself to think of something other than the bitter cold. I thought about what I had read in the newspaper, about what happened to German women when they were captured by Russian soldiers. Awful things. I didn't know what rape was, but it had to be terrible the way they wrote about it in the newspaper and spoke of it on the radio. I didn't want my mother to be raped. She was all I had to hold on to, besides Ingrid, my sister. I felt a dull ache rise within me, as if a cold hand were squeezing my insides. Maybe I was hungry. That had to be it. It was my empty stomach that gave me that odd feeling. I couldn't remember when I had last eaten. Maybe it wasn't hunger I felt. Maybe I was afraid of dying.
I stumbled again, and fell flat on my stomach. I was trying to concentrate on my running, but I was so cold. I got up quickly, brushing off the snow and dirt. I had hurt my left knee and scraped my hands. There was some blood. I started running again, this time focusing intently on each step I took.
I had mixed feelings about death. Death had seemed noble when I read about it in my father's old poetry books and in fairy tales. Last summer though, when the fathers of many of my friends died in faraway places, death became real. It wasn't noble anymore. I was afraid for my mother, my sister, and myself. I didn't know where my father was, or whether he was still alive. He was somewhere in Holland or France, I thought, with the Luftwaffe. No one else in my family lived anywhere near us. I finally reached the highway, the Naumburger Chaussee. I felt better after crossing the field, away from the river and its dark bushes. I never was afraid to walk that way during the day. Then why was I scared to walk there in the dark?
Of course, there were the prisoners who had escaped from Stalag Luft III, the prisoner-of-war camp at the Sagan Flugplatz. I had heard the adults talking about a great escape from the camp the previous March. The next day several Hitler Youths came and got me and my friends to help them search for the escaped prisoners. The prisoners were English and American airmen whose airplanes had been shot down in raids over Germany. I didn't know if anyone had ever found them or if they were still hiding nearby. The Hitler Youths made us play war in the bushes by the river, rushing us in groups from one clump of bushes to the next, while we were supposed to be looking. My friends and I didn't want to find any of those men, and we didn't.
I continued walking briskly east along the Naumburger Chaussee. I slapped my arms around my body trying to warm myself, and I blew into my stiff hands. It didn't help. My fingers would barely bend. I started to run again. I wore my coveted Hitler Youth trousers, which Mutti had been able to buy for me by telling the saleswoman that I had been accepted into the Jungvolk early. I desperately needed long trousers for the winter, so Mutti lied a little about my age, and the saleswoman chose to believe her. I tied the trousers just above my ankles to make them blouse out. Wearing the trousers would be a sure sign to my friends that I was older, which I very much wanted to be. But as much as I liked my new trousers, they were too thin to protect me from the night's bitter cold. No traffic moved on the road. No one was walking, driving a horse-drawn sleigh, or riding a bicycle. I was alone. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably.
Earlier in the evening my mother had asked me to walk her friend, a wounded army lieutenant, to the train station. She had met him at an army hospital where she entertained wounded soldiers by tap dancing for them. The lieutenant hardly spoke a word as we walked to the station. Why should he? I was just a boy. But I knew the shortest way to the station; that's why I was showing him. The lieutenant had come early that afternoon. It was the first time I had met him. He sat beside my mother on the couch in the living room, and I caught a few words of their conversation. He spoke of Russian tanks being dangerously close to Sagan and tried to convince her to take Ingrid and me and leave Sagan right away. "You should leave today," he said to her. "My parents in Berlin will be happy to have you stay with them." The tone of his voice was urgent.
"It can't be as bad as you say," Mutti replied with a nervous laugh. "When and if the time comes, we will be notified by the authorities and they will evacuate us. I will wait and see what happens."
"Hedy, the official authorization to evacuate Sagan will be given too late. Those orders are always given too late, because the Führer doesn't want to admit we are losing, that it's all over. When the evacuation orders are finally issued, few people will be able to get out. You and the children must go now! It's your only chance, Hedy. I know what I'm talking about. Listen to me, please!" It hadn't been enough to change her mind.
What was Mutti waiting for? Unless she listened to someone soon, it would be too late. But my mother didn't listen to anyone, least of all me. She was headstrong and could be stubborn. I felt so afraid of the future. I didn't like feeling helpless, being little, being tied to a mother who didn't want to understand what was happening around her. I was impatient to grow up, to make decisions for myself, not to be trapped in my nine-year- old body. My mother lived in her fantasy world, refusing to read the newspaper or listen to the radio. All my mother ever seemed to care about were her parties and tap dancing for the wounded soldiers.
On the way to the train station, the lieutenant had walked like a soldier, I thought, fast, with long, deliberate strides. He was lean and tall, his cheeks hollow, and his skin appeared grey, as if he had known pain or hunger, or both. I had a hard time staying ahead of him, which is where I thought I should be since I was the guide. His grey army uniform looked new and fit him well. He wore no overcoat, just his tunic, with a wide, black leather belt around his waist and a pistol strapped to the belt under his left arm. Probably a Luger, its holster was so large. My father had a pistol just like it. The lieutenant wore an oval, silver badge on the left breast pocket of his tunicthe Verwundetenabzeichen. The badge depicted a steel helmet over crossed swords rimmed with oak leaves. I knew what that badge meant; he had been wounded in combat, badly wounded. In one of the buttonholes of his tunic, he wore the ribbon for the Iron Cross second class, and another Iron Cross was pinned above the silver Verwundetenabzeichen, the Iron Cross first class. He wore still another badge on his tunic's breast pocket, but I couldn't make it out, and I didn't want to stare or ask him about it. The silver epaulets on his shoulders glistened when the moonlight reflected off them. He wore a simple ski cap, like those worn by common soldiers, and his boots were of sturdy leather, laced high, with leggings around his ankles. His bloused pants were tucked into his leggings. I really liked how he looked.
We passed a group of marching and singing Hitler Youths. It seemed strange for them to be out on a cold, bleak evening like this. Didn't they know that the Russians were nearly here with us in Sagan? I didn't know how the war had started, but for as long as I could remember people had been dying and airplanes crashing. There were fewer and fewer men in the streets every year. Many of my friends' fathers were dead or missing, mostly in Russia. In the newspaper they always called it a Heldentod, a hero's death, when a soldier was killed. He had fallen for the Führer and the Vaterland, the papers said. I knew that they were just dead, no matter what they called it, just dead. Only last week one of my friends began to cry right in the middle of a game we were playing and ran home. I knew why he cried. The war was not good, and now it was coming to an end. It seemed to me that the whole world was the enemy of my country and that they wanted to kill us all. Even us children. Why? I am a German boy. I am not bad.
As we neared the train station, we saw more people walking, their heads bowed. They didn't want to be seen, and they didn't want to see anyone else. Grey, colorless people without faces. They looked cold and afraid. The train station was of solid nineteenth-century brick construction with grey stucco walls blackened from the soot of countless passing trains. On the sidewall facing us in black block letters on a white background was written Räder rollen für den Sieg"wheels turn for victory." I repeated the thought to myself, trying to understand it.
The lieutenant stopped and turned to face me. He removed the grey leather glove from his right hand to shake mine. His hand felt warm and strong. "Thank you for taking me this far, Wolfgang," he said firmly. "I am grateful that you walked all this way to the train station with me on such a cold night. I must see if I can find my train now. You run home as fast as you can, and stop for no one." He let go of my hand.
"I promise I will go straight home," I replied. He turned toward the station, saluting me as he went. On the way home I was startled to see two antitank guns near the bridge across the Bober River where we had crossed earlier. I was sure the guns had not been there on our way to the station. I knew these guns from pictures88s. The guns had their long, white barrels pointed at the bridge in case a Russian T-34 tank should suddenly come thundering across. I knew why the 88s were there. When I listened to the news on the radio, the announcer frequently spoke of Panzer Spitzen penetrating German lines. I figured out that this meant that Russian T-34 tanks had broken through and were driving around behind our lines, causing panic and destruction. The lieutenant was rightwe should leave Sagan as quickly as possible. The soldiers near the guns looked relaxed. Some smoked cigarettes. Maybe that was the way soldiers looked. It was their job to destroy tanks, or be killed by them. While I didn't like that thought, it didn't seem to bother the soldiers. One soldier patrolled beside the guns with a rifle slung over his shoulder. His thick winter jacket and helmet were white, too. He had a grey woolen scarf wrapped across his mouth to keep out the cold, and the hood of his jacket was partially pulled over his white helmet. Was he even a little afraid? I wondered.
I finally reached Nord Strasse. Our apartment house, number three, was two minutes further down the road. Nord Strasse was short and ended in an open field. They never finished paving the street after the war began in September 1939. The workmen were there one day, and then they never returned. I often played in the sandpile and among the granite paving stones the men left behind. My frozen fingers bent with great difficulty. I barely got the key out from under the doormat. I couldn't get it into the lock. The key fell out of my hand as I fumbled around. I rang the doorbell and the Flüchtling (refugee) woman who lived with us let me in. I ran past her down the corridor into the living room and threw myself on the white fur rug, putting my hands between my thighs for warmth. My hands hurt so badly that I wanted to scream, but I couldn't. The refugee family was in my room next door, and they would hear me if I cried. I felt tears running down my cheeks, into my mouth. I bit into the fur as the pain tore at my hands. When the refugee woman had opened the door for me, she held a not-yet two-year-old girl in her arms; a boy of four stood by her side. She looked happy. She must have felt safe. "Do you mind that we are using your room?" she asked as I ran past her.
"No, of course not," I replied hastily, but I did mind a little bit. Then I was ashamed for being selfish. Why should I mind? They had come from the east, somewhere near Königsberg, and this was their second stop since they had first been evacuated last October. A woman who identified herself to Mutti as a member of an organization responsible for the housing and feeding of Flüchtlinge from the east had brought the family by and told her that they would be staying with us until they were sent farther west. The woman didn't say when that would be.
My hands warmed up, and the tears stopped running. My teeth stopped chattering, too. I lay still on the fur, enjoying the absence of pain. I had frozen my hands many times before when I had snowball fights with my friends and my gloves got wet and I didn't stop in time. This time it had been much worse. As I got off the fur, I realized that Mutti and Ingrid were not home. They were probably with Frau Hennig. One of our downstairs neighbors, Frau Hennig had a daughter, Gudrun, sixteen. Ingrid liked Gudrun. Frau Hennig was pudgy and always had a smile on her face. Her husband was an engineer and worked on the Sagan Flugplatz. I liked Frau Hennig, but no more than I did other adults. Adults were all the same when it came to children. They bossed us around or acted like we didn't exist. Except for Oma (Grandmother) and Opa (Grandfather) Samuel, of course. They didn't boss me around. They loved me, and I could do anything I wanted to with them, or with Oma anyway. Sometimes I was mean to Oma, and I always felt guilty afterwards. I wondered if Oma and Opa Samuel were safe.
The impressions of the past hours stormed in on me all at once. I knew I had to talk to Mutti again, and try to persuade her to leave Sagan. I would tell her about the guns. Maybe that would convince her. The Russians would arrive soon, maybe even tonight. I knew the army didn't put up guns to protect bridges unless they thought something might happen. For once, I wished my father was with us.
I walked over to my father's desk and sat down in his comfortable chair. It was a beautiful mahogany desk. He was proud of it. The door on the right was locked. That's where he kept the books he didn't want me to read. I knew where the key was, though, and I opened the center drawer to take it out. I was surprised to see a broken record lying there. The halves lay in the middle of the drawer. I picked up the two pieces and held them together so that I could read the label. It was "Lilly Marlen," sung by Lale Andersen, the Swedish movie star with the deep voice, almost as deep as a man's. I loved the melody of that soldier's ballad. I had heard it many times on the radio and at parties Mutti gave. A soldier Mutti knew had come last year and given her the record. The record had broken in his rucksack, I remembered now, on his long train trip from France to Sagan. He wanted Mutti to have the record anyway, to let her know that he thought of her. I put the broken record back into the drawer.
As I sat behind my father's desk, tired, hungry, and beset by fears, I suddenly realized that this was the only home I had ever known and that soon I might have to leave it behind. My eyes fell upon the dark-green tile oven just inside the door. All of us prized its soothing warmth on a cold winter afternoon. Ingrid and I liked to stand up against its glazed sides, pressing our hands against the hot tiles. I loaded the oven with pressed brown-coal briquettes every morning, using the remaining embers from the night before to start the fire. After I cleaned and reloaded the oven, it became very hot by noon, warming the entire room comfortably. We kept the oven going until early evening, and around eight o'clock I added a last briquette to ensure that I had some hot embers remaining by morning. After that the oven slowly cooled until at dawn it was cold, as was the room. I was careful about how many bricks of coal I burned each day, because our coal ration had to last us through the winter.
To the left of the oven stood a large and comfortable couch, and beside it a table and a modern multifrequency radio. On Sundays I sneaked into the room and turned on the radio very low, pressing my ear against the speaker to listen to the news, to the commentary about the war, and to the half-hour fairy tale in the afternoon. In the early years of the war, there were always special announcements of military victories coming over the radio. Now, the commentary was mostly about the horrible things Russian soldiers did to women and children. The broadcaster also frequently mentioned American bombings and the churches and cultural treasures the Americans destroyed. I needed to ask my Opa Samuel about the meaning of "cultural treasures" when I saw him again. In recent months the radio announcer had frequently spoken of our forces straightening their front lines, especially on the eastern front. The front lines, though, were always moving back toward Germany.
An ornately carved mahogany dining table stood in the middle of the room. When Mutti had guests for dinner, she made me dress up in my sailor suit, or in a shirt and tie, which was even worse. Then I had to walk up to the table and stand behind my chair. I could sit only after I had asked for permission. I also had to eat properly with knife and fork. Table manners were important to Mutti, and I was never to say a word while I sat at the table. Sometimes I really wanted to say something, because I thought I knew more than the adults I listened to. After all, I read the newspaper and listened to the radio, too.
Next to the radio was a double window looking out over the countryside toward the east. We had double windows in our apartment to keep them from frosting up in the winter. From there I could see a weathered barn in a meadow. Along the ridge beyond the barn, I often saw Ju-52 trimotor transports flying low toward the north after having taken off from the Sagan Flugplatz just south of us. Sometimes I saw other planes, too, even Stukas, the famous single-engine dive bombers. When I saw a war movie about them, I decided I wanted to be a Stuka pilot when I grew up.
The walls of our living and dining room were decorated with two oil paintings. One was a still life of flowers, while the other was a mountain scene with a bull elk bellowing in the foreground by an open meadow. Two other hangings always intrigued me. One was a silver relief of a stag's head mounted on a black piece of wood. To me it really looked beautiful with its silver horns thrusting out into space. The other, smaller, relief was a profile of Adolf Hitler's head, also in silver. Opa and Oma Samuel had given the first relief to Mutti and my father as a wedding anniversary present. I thought maybe my father had bought the other one, because I know Opa Samuel never would have. Opa didn't like the Führer or the party. I remembered going to church with Opa Samuel on Christmas Eve when he suddenly came to visit us. Mutti and Ingrid didn't go with us because it was so cold. Opa chose a seat near a pillar upstairs in the church. The church was cold and we kept our coats on. When the pastor prayed for the Führer and the party, Opa grabbed my hand firmly, pulling me out of the pew. We left. I asked Opa, "Why?"
He replied, with anger in his voice, "That idiot pastor doesn't know what he is talking about, Wolfgang. His dear Führer is killing all of us, and he prays for him." Opa cursed at the pastor and at the Führer, but quickly apologized for doing so. Opa was rarely angry, and he never cursed. We walked the rest of the way home in silence. Opa had come hoping to persuade Mutti to accompany him to Schlawe, where he and Oma Samuel lived in their house near the beaches of the Baltic Sea. "The war will be over soon," he told her, "and you and the children will be safer with me. I may be old. I can still protect you and the children." She had laughed at Opa. He left the next day.
At times, when Mutti gave her parties, after I had helped clear the dinner dishes the guests would sit around the table talking of war and politics, smoking and drinking wine. The parties would last until early the next morning, when I always cleaned the room. The room then stank of cigarette smoke, and there were many wine glasses and empty bottles. I sampled one or another bottle at times, but wine never tasted good to me. At one party in 1943, one of the guests was a tall Luftwaffe colonel. I found him interesting because he wore a silver badge depicting a biplane on the left breast pocket of his tunic. I knew the badge meant he had been a pilot in the Great War. Maybe he had flown with Richthofen, or Bölke, or Immelmann. I had read about those great German flyers in one of my father's books, and I was awed at the thought of being near someone who might have flown with those heroes of the air. I really wanted to ask the colonel what airplanes he had flown in the Great War and with whom, but I was never able to. I could listen, though. After dinner, when they drank wine and lit their cigarettes, the colonel talked about the war. "The war was lost," he said, "when that idiot Hitler declared war on the United States of America." Mutti and the other guests didn't want to believe what he was saying.
"We are winning the war," one of them said.
"No, we are not winning the war," the colonel replied. He leaned his head back and blew cigarette smoke toward the ceiling. "I've been to America," he said. "I know how big that land is and what it can do. For every airplane we build, they will build a hundred. They will utterly destroy Germany by the time this war is over." At the time, my father was home on military leave from Holland. I saw him nod his head in agreement with the colonel, but he said nothing. Then my mother closed the door, and I couldn't hear anymore. I never forgot that Luftwaffe colonel and what he said about the Americans and what they would do to Germany.
Across the hallway from the dining room was the kitchen, making it easy to serve dinner guests. Mutti had soon discovered my willingness to do things for her, and before I knew it I was washing and drying dishes. Initially, I liked doing dishes because it gave me responsibility for something new I could accomplish by myself. I wanted to help my mother, as well as to learn new things. I built myself a perfect trap. Mutti was all too willing to let me take over the kitchen work she didn't care to do. By now, most manual jobs around the house were mine. I didn't mind helping, but sometimes Mutti seemed to think she had an obligation to keep me working rather than letting me go play. At those times she took all the fun out of my helping her. I had some good times with Mutti in the kitchen, baking cookies; I also had some bad times. Once she tried to force me to eat oatmeal oversweetened with saccharin. She had added a generous portion of the pills to the oatmeal. Since she didn't like milk, she never tasted the oatmeal. I tried eating it. I couldn't. It made me gag.
"Eat that oatmeal," screamed Mutti. I tried again. It was so sickeningly sweet that I threw up. Mutti flew into a rage and went to the broom closet to get the rug beater. She first threatened to beat me if I didn't eat. Then she beat me across my back and over my head screaming, "Eat! Take that spoon and eat! Eat! Will you eat now!"
I turned to her in desperation, begging, "Please, Mutti, taste just a little and you'll know why I can't eat it. I don't want to make you angry. I love you, Mutti. Please, stop beating meplease." I thought she was going to kill me. Suddenly she stopped in midswing. She took my spoon and tasted the oatmeal. The expression on her face changed from rage to disgust. I think she was sorry that she had lost her temper and hadn't tasted the oatmeal first. Ingrid hadn't said a word the entire time. She just sat there looking at me with her blue eyes. I noticed how beautiful Ingrid's golden hair was, and I felt lucky to have such a pretty sister. That didn't prevent me from cutting off one of her locks a few days later and hiding the severed strand behind the tile oven in our room. Of course, Mutti found the hair and this time locked me in the broom closet for punishment.
Ingrid's and my room, the Kinderzimmer, was now occupied by the Flüchtlinge from East Prussia. Over my bed hung an oriental tapestry depicting a forest scene and a herd of elk. When the morning sun shone on the tapestry, it came to life, and I would imagine at times escaping into its lush and thick forest. On the other side of the room was a couch, and Ingrid's bed was right behind that couch, near the tile oven. An ordinary table stood in the middle of the room, coming in handy on rainy days when Ingrid and I spread out our games on it. Double doors led onto a balcony which we rarely used. In summer Mutti grew geraniums there. I thought they stank, so I never went on the balcony.
Across from the Kinderzimmer was the broom closet. If I did something to displease Mutti, she either hit me with the rug beater or put me in the closet, or both. I really didn't mind the broom closet. I much preferred the closet to a beating. For every wrongdoingand I often didn't know what I had doneMutti would beat me. She didn't care where she hit me. I would try to shield my head with my hands, only to finally drop them when my fingers could stand the pain no longer. When she tired of beating me, or couldn't remember anymore why she was doing it, she would push me into the broom closet. As I got older, I began to run away when I saw her getting the rug beater. I would stay outside, fearing to go home until the dark of night forced me inside. Usually she had calmed down by then. If these scenes happened early in the morning, then I wouldn't eat all day, unless it was the season when carrots or rutabagas ripened in the fields. At times my playmates felt sorry for me and took me home with them. Their mothers would usually give me a piece of bread to eat. But my friends' mothers scolded them for bringing me home. They didn't care for sharing rationed food with other people's children.
The master bedroom was at the end of the hall and was dominated by a massive double bed. I never went into the elegantly curved Schrank that held Mutti's and my father's wardrobes, a lady's vanity, and two nightstands. We also had a basement storage room which held the usual cardboard boxes and things. I cut the corrugated boxes into strips to fit around my head, and stuck colored chicken feathers into them to make an Indian headdress. I liked to play the Indian and whoop and dance, as I knew Indians did from reading my James Fenimore Cooper and Karl May books. It was forbidden for us to play cowboys and Indians anymore, or to have books about America, because we were at war with America. But nobody could keep me from reading my Karl May books. Someday, I thought, when there was no longer a war, I would go to America.
Footsteps and laughter in the hall jarred me out of my thoughts. Mutti and Ingrid walked into the room, both smiling and laughing loudly. How could they be so happy, when Russian tanks could be here even that night?
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