From December 1944 through March 1945 there was a huge exodus of ethnic Germans out of Poland ahead of the advancing Russian army.
Having spent the better part of World War 1 in Russia, the Mandau family had had enough experience with life under Russian rule to know that they did not want to live through it again. I remember hearing references to my grandfather working in salt mines, and my grandmother struggling to feed the family despite the generosity of the Russian Mennonite community that took them in. Relative to most of Germany between the wars, the Mandau farm was self-sufficient and even prosperous, but the World War 2 years were not proving to be a happy time for the family. Dad’s half-sisters Bertha and Ottilia died in 1939 and 1942, respectively. His brother Karl died in 1942, fighting in Russia, having been conscripted into the German army., as did several cousins. My dad’s slightly older cousin (also named Wilhelm Mandau) was one of the “lucky” ones, spending most of the war years in an Italian POW camp.
Dad’s youngest half-sisters Augusta and Amalie had both married Nickels brothers, fruit farmers in a German-speaking Mennonite village called Deutsch Kasun near Warsaw. When they realized they would be overrun by the Russians in 1944, they joined a cousin’s family to lease two train boxcars, and fled to Graudenz Schoensee , West Prussia, on the Weichsel River (now called Grudziądz, Poland, on the Vistula River). Graudenz was about 400 km north of Wilkow, where my grandfather still maintained the Mandau farm. The Nickels did not remain long before needing to flee again, ending up in Schleswig Holstein. When they also had to flee, the Mandau family from Wilkow ended up further southwest, in Holtum Geest in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony). Both areas were in the British Occupied Zone.
In both families’ cases, the journey involved travelling in the coldest part of winter, beginning a journey that took almost 6 months to complete.
By the time my grandfather was ready to abandon their home and farm the only children still at home were my 15-and-a-half year old Dad and his 2 as yet unmarried sisters, Martha and Lydia, aged 17 and 20 respectively. They left the farm in 2 wagons in July of 1944, and then waited inna nearby town for about a month, hoping – it turns out in vain – that they’d be able to return. My grandfather was driving the carriage containing my grandmother, the 2 girls, and their personal effects, and my father driving the huge horse-drawn wagon containing animal feed and as many of the household goods and provisions for along the route as they could manage.
Throughout my entire life, during every re-telling by my Dad of the story of their crossing of the frozen river – the extreme cold, the terrified animals, the sound of the ice squeaking and cracking under the weight of oxen, horses, and wagons – my brother and I would roll our eyes and sigh, convinced that Dad was embellishing every detail for dramatic effect. My mom’s relatives, whose exodus from Hungary had been very different, always provided an enthusiastic and rapt audience. (To be fair, often also a fairly drunk audience.) It was only in 2008, after Dad had died, when I read the book “Skeletons At The Feast” by Chris Bohjalian, about an ethnic German family fleeing Poland along that same route in that same winter, that I realized he had not exaggerated, and felt incredibly sad – and guilty – about our disbelief.
I wish now that I had listened more carefully, and asked questions.
En route from Poland to Germany, my dad transitioned from boy to man under the most adverse conditions I can imagine. He never had the luxury of making the kinds of mistakes most teenagers make; any mistake he made on that journey could jeopardize lives. At least one mistake jeopardized his own: he drank undiluted ether. Why? Because “real” alcohol, like most food, was not readily available, and after a long day on the road “the men” needed a drink. Ether was available as a medical supply – but also widely ingested cut with other liquids as a booze substitute. One night Dad went to swig from the communal jug and chose the wrong container, drinking straight ether. You can’t make this stuff up. Wikipedia has a page dedicated to ether as an intoxicant, and talks specifically about the WW2 era in Poland and Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ether_addiction. Apparently dad briefly fell unconscious, delaying their journey while he recovered enough to drive the wagon again.
EDIT: After making this original post, I spoke to my 92 year old Aunt Martha, who quite vividly remembered the ether-drinking incident – only it didn’t happen en route to Germany, but rather when dad was just 10 years old and trying to sneak his father’s vodka from one of many glass bottles stored at home.
My aunt Martha, who at 92 is still sharp as a tack, recently told me a bit about their journey. By the winter of 1944 their wagons were on the road along with retreating German troops, both on foot and in tanks. There were times they slept in their wagons, but most often they just slept in the nearest abandoned house; most were empty by that time. She can remember at least once waking up to find that they were sharing the house with soldiers – not all of them alive. She also remembers hearing bombs explode not that far away, and at least once running back to the wagon amid gunfire.
There must have been many other notable events en route, but the next story I remember involves the family’s arrival in Germany. Remember that dad’s papers identified him as ethnic German, and these were the last days of the war, when Germany was losing, and desperate for more soldiers to replace their huge troop losses. Dad was not yet 16, but he was able-bodied, blond and blue-eyed, and farm-boy strong. He was immediately conscripted, but he had no more love for the German war machine than for the Russian one. Dad’s telling of the story never waivered: he, and his suitcase containing one change of clothes and a supply of dried sausage, entered one end of the barracks and immediately exited the other end, scaling the fence and going AWOL. I don’t know to where he ran, or how long he hid before the army decided he was no longer worth chasing, but he managed to escape.
Dad carried a fear of retribution for going AWOL to the end of his life, positive that if he ever returned to Germany he would be arrested. No amount of reminding him that the Nazis were defeated would convince him that he’d be safe as a tourist. After dad emigrated to Canada in 1951, it was not until 1995 that dad and his sister Lydia were reunited in person, when she visited Canada.
How dad spent the next 5 years leading to his emigration is another story, one with very few surviving details.