People were already standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside some of the boxcars of the freight train when I arrived on foot in the foggy pre-dawn at its station in central Germany.
Two young men who were sitting way up on one of the flat roofs stretched out their hands to help me up for an open-air ride to my home in Berlin. It was several months after the conclusion of World War II, and the country was still in total chaos. Fighting troops had crossed Germany’s borders from both sides so artillery shells and other weapons finished the destruction that had begun with years of bombings.
There was no public transportation, no power, no telephone, no mail or news and very little food. That July day the weather was warm, and I enjoyed the two-day ride on the dirty, flat roof as our slow coal-fired train chugged past small towns and villages where people worked their fields. I was eighteen, having left home two years earlier and now my excitement grew: What would I find?
The year before I had been stationed with the German Air Force in the Province of Thuringia in central Germany. At the age of seventeen, I had been assigned to one of the many searchlight stations operated by young women, replacing the men soldiers, who were sent to the front. Heavy anti-aircraft guns, still operated by men soldiers, were usually surrounded by several searchlights located on the nearby hills, some kilometers away.
Our searchlight surrounded by an earthen wall.
We women had been trained to shine our lights onto incoming aircraft so that the guns, called FLAK, could shoot them down. My eleven companions and I began working one of those searchlight stations in the autumn of 1944, but six months later, the war was drawing to its end.
In the month of April of 1945, American forces marched into Thuringia Province without firing a single shot, as German forces had retreated from that area.
The Allies had long before the war’s end determined that the border between Eastern and Western forces should be the River Elbe flowing through the center of Germany.
Hitler’s armies fought the Russians in the east to the end, but on the western front, there was no more shooting, as allied forces advanced to the demarcation line without resistance.
Mail service and news from home had ceased a month before, thus the only information we received in the central farm country was from people fleeing the Russian fighting forces that had swept over their land, and we saw a steady stream of people walking from east to west, their belongings heaped onto wooden pushcarts.
I was pleased to see that the small farmers in the region were quite generous, sharing what they had with the fugitives, allowing them to sleep in their barns. And when by mid-April of 1945, American soldiers marched from the west into Thuringia Province, occupying the land without a fight, our searchlight had already been abandoned, and we women no longer wore uniforms.
The woman farmer, who housed two of us, gave us some civilian clothes, allowed us to sleep in a bunk bed above the barn, and served hearty meals between periods of heavy work in the fields. Skills, such as setting potatoes and hoeing the soil, I had learned the previous summer when I was working in a labor services camp, so it was all familiar to me, but on that farm, I worked only for three weeks, because as posters appeared on tree trunks announcing that all military needed to report, my farmer became worried.
“If you leave, I won’t report you,” she said, so I did.
It took me two days to walk to the small town nearby where I knew of a family who had previously told me I could stay. I did what everyone else did: I went on a “trek,” knocking on doors at night, sleeping in barns. When I arrived in the small city of Altstatt, the family gave me a job working on their adjacent farmland and orchard. I paid for my rented room in the neighbor’s house.Helga Byhre spent several years in Ariele Huff’s writing classes and groups putting together the story of her incredible life in Views from the Hill. Helga is at the far left of the main photo with her friends in winter clothing. To get the whole book go to https://www.lulu.com/shop/helga-byhre/views-from-the-hill/paperback/product-1rgndmzy.html?q=&page=1&pageSize=4..
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