Sunday, November 4, 2007

Waldo and Lydia

When I was about 10 years old Grandpa got a series of assignments that placed him far from Wheatridge. He didn't want to disrupt school for us, and so he went out of town and worked for most of the school year, but in the summer, we moved down so that we could keep him company. We spent one school year down in a little town in south central Colorado named Monte Vista. Grandpa was working for Coors and was in charge of building grain storage facilities there so that they could store malting barley for beer making.

During the second summer that we lived there Grandpa rented a house from a Waldo. It was a stucco house, white with a nice small yard and lots of trees. We had a chain link fence around the yard. Waldo and Lydia lived next door and she worked at the local hospital as a nurse. Waldo had a serious heart condition that kept him from having a job, but it didn't keep him from working. They probably had at least an acre of ground there. He had built the house that we lived in that summer. They lived next door, and next door to that was another house that he was building, that they would move into eventually. The first two houses would then be rental houses.

They raised a garden, and he had a big block and stucco wall under construction, but the thing that sticks in my memory the most is the hatchet. Waldo always carried a hatchet and used it without mercy on any weed that was stupid enough to grow in this little piece of Germany that was located in the San Louis Valley. The hatchet was used because it could chop deep and remove the roots. Lydia also crocheted pillow covers. They were very nice people and Grandpa and Grandma like them a lot. Over the summer they told the story of how they had come to this lost little bit of Colorado, and how their lives had been turned upside down by the war. So here is their story, as best I remember it:

Waldo and Lydia were young and in love. They were Germans living in Poland in 1939. I don't know much about their courtship or their marriage but I know that they were married on Saturday, August 26, 1939. I don't know what town they lived in, or how lavish their ceremony was. They were married for six days when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and started World War II.

The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Germany on September 3. Others soon followed. The United States didn't enter the war for a little over two years, until after December 7, 1941 when Japan (an ally of Germany) attacked Pearl Harbor and we declared war on the whole alliance.

Poland was quickly defeated, and Waldo was drafted into the German army. For some time things went pretty well for the Germans. I have to assume that things went fairly well for Waldo and Lydia as well. I don't know where he served for the first two or so years of the war, or what he did, or how often they saw each other, or even wrote to each other. The scary part of the story started when Hitler decided that he had vanquished enough of Europe that he could turn his guns on Stalin and the USSR. In June of 1941, before the United States had entered the war, Unternehmen Barbarossa was under taken. France was conquered, England was staggering and close to collapse, and Hitler worried that Stalin would take the initiative and attack Germany from the east, while they were occupied in fighting on the west. Hitler and Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact, but I don't think that either of them ever thought it was more than a temporary truce. Roosevelt was very worried that Great Britain would collapse and did every thing that he could to strengthen her, and every provocative thing he could to to inflame Germany into striking the U.S. He worried that if Great Britain fell, Hitler would be free to turn his armies to the east, and the USSR would fall as well. This would give Germany time to digest this large meal and recharge.

The Russians fought fiercely but were no match at first for the German army. They fell back and back. The Germans marched on relentlessly. Waldo was among the Germans that marched on relentlessly as he had been assigned to fight on the Eastern front. As time went on, this became almost a death sentence.

Russia is a really big country, and as the Germans advanced on the retreating Russians, their supply line became ever longer. And then the Russian winter hit, with snow and bitter cold. The Germans advance until they could see the outskirts of Moscow, and then the Russians dug in and the slaughter began. We will leave these unfortunate soldiers here in the story and turn back to Waldo.

Some time during this campaign Waldo was captured by the Russians. He was lucky that he wasn't shot at once, but not so lucky as he was sent to a prison camp in Siberia. I think that this happened in the fall of 1942. It was a long and cold train ride up there, and I think that they had to build the camp and fence that surrounded them.

Later on in the Soviet Gulag, prisoners were worked until they were worn out, and then they were shot. I am not sure what work they did there, but I know that Waldo was due to be shot thee times. Fortunately for him, he had a gift and could speak a reasonable amount of five languages - German, Polish, English, French, Italian, and he learned some Russian. So he became something of an unofficial translator.

Conditions were terrible in this camp. It was always cold - Siberian cold, crowded, and the food was awful slop being mostly soup made from cabbage and turnips and black bread. And not too much bread. Soldiers came from many battle fronts, and they all had a different germ or two to contribute. Waldo got sick the first winter
with strep throat, and it turned into rheumatic fever. I don't know the details of how he survived this, but when spring came, he was still alive, and much weaker.

Another year came and went, and when the new winter came, Waldo again became deathly sick. He was very weak when spring came, and he decided that if another winter came that he would not survive it. He had become friends with a Catholic Priest during his time in prison, and the two concluded that they would die for sure if they remained in the camp, but they only stood a 90% chance of getting caught and shot if they tried to escape. That 10% chance was their window of hope.

I don't know that details of the camp, the railroad, the plot.... I am sure that it was more involved then two weak and sick guys sneaking into an open box car and burrowing down into a pile of stinking, rotten cabbages, but that in the end is what they did. And the train took them back to Germany, and they had stinking rotten cabbage to eat on the way.

Back in Germany things were grim. It was now early1945, and Germany was in a fight to the death with Russia. Waldo and his friend rode the train for many hundred miles, and I again, don't know all the interesting details of how exactly they made their way back to Germany. They eventually left the train and walked for many miles as well. Finally they were getting near the battle lines, and had made it to a forested area. I remember Waldo telling Grandpa that for the last final distance that they were able to move from tree to tree, hiding all the while from both German and Russian soldiers in the night. When they were sure that the soldiers they found were German, they called out in German and tried to surrender. The German soldiers were suspicious about these two ragged skeletons, and didn't believe the wild story that they told about an escape from Siberia by train and foot. Waldo and his friend gave their service numbers and the soldiers sent and inquiry to Berlin. Amazingly, within a few days they received a confirmation that these names and numbers were correct. Waldo and his friend were freed as neither was fit for any more fighting. Again, I am not sure what Waldo did now, but economic conditions were terrible, and it wasn't very long until Germany surrendered and was partitioned by the Allies.


With the surrender and partition of Germany, tens of thousands of people that had lost track of each other during the fighting began to seek each other again. The Red Cross and other agencies organized lists and meeting places. You could add your name to the list, and it would be published in many cities. Somehow Waldo found that Lydia has survived the fighting and bombing and was working in a hospital in East Berlin.

This provided some problems for Waldo who had escaped from a Soviet camp, and who would be on the next train back if it became known who he was. He decided to disguise himself as one of the thousands of out of work bums that rode the rails around Germany, and so stopped bathing and shaving for several weeks. When he looked acceptably filthy and disreputable, he rode the train over to East Berlin, and found the hospital where Lydia worked. I think that he waited outside the building and watched the nurses coming and going for a day or two until he found her. When he approached her, she didn't recognize him, and when he told her who he was, she fainted dead away.

Imagine being a young women who was married a few days before the war started. Your new husband is called up into the army of the country that has just conquered your homeland, but you know you can't say anything about it. He writes from time to time, and for the first year or so, you might even see him once or twice. You work at a hospital and care for boys just about his age that are shot, burned, and blown up in all sorts of horrible ways, and you pray everyday that he can remain whole and live until the war is over and you can be reunited. And then word comes that he has been captured after a terrible battle.... or maybe just that there is a terrible battle and he is missing. I don't know if she knew that he was a prisoner. And then you don't hear any more. But you know that people don't come back from Siberia. Once the Russians have them, they are gone.

Finally, after an eternity, the war is over. At least the bombs aren't falling in Berlin anymore. And so you go to work. That is about all that you have left. All of your hopes and dreams are shattered. They love you had is just a hollow hole in your heart now. You get off work, you are tired and sad and you begin your walk back to a small apartment and a lonely night alone. You see a skinny, bent figure by a streetlight ahead and he seems to be looking at you. You decide to turn before you get to him. There is something about him that frightens you , and yet is almost familiar. You begin to turn away and he calls your name, and you recognize the voice. You turn and look at the filthy bearded face and the filthy ragged clothes and shake your head. He keeps looking at you and takes a step closer. You look at his eyes, and they are the eyes you have wished to see in every dream and day dream for the last three years, eyes that you knew were closed in death. You can't breathe, you can't call out. You are paralyzed with suprise and hope. Everything starts to get dark, and you are very dizzy, and then you wake up with your filthy, beloved husband cradling your head in his dirty hands.

I don't know how it really happened, except that his did become a dirty bum, and he did track her down in East Berlin, and she did faint dead away when she realized who he was and that he was still alive.

The power of paper is amazing. If the paper says that it is so, it must be, at least to government functionaries in just about every country. And so it was for Waldo. They cobbled him up some type of transport order, and then with all of her nursing skills, Lydia bandaged him in many places, and mostly all over his head and face. Then some poor chicken had to give it's blood to make the wounds look real. I am sure the chicken also was good with dumplings. With a fake transport paper and a chicken bloodied bandage, Waldo and Lydia boarded a train for West Germany and after some time there came to the United States.

To get the fare to come the the US, they indentured them selves for seven years, and worked off their debt in the Eastern US I think. I don't know how they came to live in the San Louis Valley in southern Colorado, but they lived there happily and in contentment for the rest of their lives.

4 comments:

AnnieOfBlueGables said...

Dearest Friend,
That is an incredible story. I am so glad you remembered as much as you did. We too had our German immigrants who lived nearby. Mom spoke German, so she befriended this little community of immigrants. They all loved her as much as the Mexican immigrants do today.
Mr. Abram had an amazing story that took him many installments and nights to tell. I wish we had tape recorded it and written it down. It was filled with incredible trials, including crawling by night along the ground and faking death in a field of dead during the day, and finally finding his aunt and uncle's house, and getting inside to find them brutally murdered. I think the aunt was barely alive, but they had nailed his tongue to the floor and made him watch the aunt be raped over and over again before they killed him.
Such sad, sad stories of such brave people.
It makes me count my blessings of being born in a free country to goodly parents, and the privilege of being a member of the Lord's True Church. I love my sweet family, my husband, children and grandchildren. I pray we can continue in this free state, and live a full and happy life.
Thanks Friend
a

The Nurse said...

awesome story! thanks for sharing it. <3 kt

Andrew said...

Wow - that's a crazy story! And I thought my commute was bad!

pixiestylist said...

wow. incredible. amazing. this should be a movie. and you should write the script! you have SUCH a way with words. you can make it SO REAL! well.. i know its real, but you know... understandable.