My Childhood Experiences in Germany During World War II

2024: Presidential election fervor has captivated the American people.

In 1933, a similar fervor swept across Germany resulting in Adolph Hitler, founder of the Nazi party, being elected leader of the country.

In Raven and the Hummingbird, I included autobiographical stories that described how Hitler’s dictatorial rule influenced the events of my childhood and beyond. I include nine of my stories below spanning the years 1938-1954 and invite you, your family, and friends to read them in the context of current American political rhetoric.

Your comments and questions are welcome. I shall be happy to respond.

Story #1  The Whisper Child  (see Chapter 1 of Raven and the Hummingbird)

 I was born in 1938, a year before Hitler’s army invaded Poland, the start of World War II. As a child of an unwed mother—a whisper child—I had been deposited from birth in a state-run facility for newborns. Years later, my foster mother described the events of that fateful day she took me in.


A white-uniformed matron and a strawberry blond woman in silk stockings and high heels, stood watching as “Mama” lifted my squirming sixteen-month-old body out of a urine-soiled crib. With sturdy hands, she tied a woolen cap under my chin. Stiff with fear, I stared into her plain face as she bundled me into a warm blanket. All the while, the one in high heels—my birth mother—nervously explained in Hoch Deutsch that working at night left her no time to raise a child. And now that Hitler’s Brownshirts were on the march, her daughter would be safer in the village. “God willing,” Mama had murmured in a soft southern dialect.

Hurriedly, we passed among the rows of cribs, the matron’s starched uniform swishing behind us. Additional documents, she decreed, had to be signed before my release. When we eventually pushed through a heavy door that opened to a noisy street, I started to wail. Hastily, my birth-mother excused herself but promised to visit now and again. Mama held me tight against her bosom as we left behind the gray stone building.

We caught a yellow streetcar and later boarded a bus. From the last stop on the route, we walked through the village to a centuries-old house. We climbed a flight of stairs and entered a warm kitchen. She sat me down and untied my cap. She offered me warm milk in a cup. I pushed her hand away and began to squall. She picked me up, cradled my head against her shoulder, and walked me back and forth, back and forth. I was home.

Story #2  Big Sister (see Chapter 61)


Elsbeth had loved me at first sight when Mama entered the kitchen with me cradled in her arms. Then and there she appointed herself my big sister, the only one who could sweet-talk me through my frequent outbursts of anger. The one who proudly showed me off to the neighbors. The one who taught me how to feed the chickens and care for the rabbits without my fingers being nibbled. And when the village air raid siren screeched to run for our lives, she was the one who hurried my arms into the sleeves of my robin’s-egg-blue coat. Later, if I was bullied in the schoolyard, Elsbeth, her black braids flying and her Magyar eyes blazing, rushed to my defense. As I grew into a rebellious teen, she scolded and coaxed me into doing better. As adults, though we were separated by an ocean, our relationship never frayed, our love never dimmed. And when her health failed, I was called to her bedside to help Elsbeth live into death.

Story #3 The Little Suitcase (see Chapter 40)


As a young child, I had a place of belonging. My foster mother—Mama—had taken me in and made me one of her own until one day, my birth mother stole me from her arms. I remember my little suitcase stood waiting at the kitchen door, its contents damp with tears. A taxi idled in front of Mama’s house. The staccato of my biological mother’s high heels climbed the wooden stairs. “The war is coming closer,” she said to Mama. “It’s not safe here anymore. I must take my daughter with me now,” her hands reaching for me. Mama held me tighter, her tears lost in my hair. My heart numbed, the shutters of my memory closing as the taxi pulled away, my little suitcase at my feet. For me, waiting forever started when I was four.

Story #4 The Attic (see Chapter 43)


The taxi whisked me away from my foster mother, whom I loved, to a remote farmhouse that smelled of cows and pigs. This is how I came to live in two rooms with my birth mother for almost a year. I would sit on a wooden bench in the front room, mute, while she paced endlessly. Her volatility paralyzed me with fear. I ate little of the food she offered. When angry words rained down around my head, I cowered in a corner. If she tried to comfort me, I shrank away. At night, I slept at the edge of the family bed in the second room, careful to keep distance between us.
Late one afternoon, I remember an ominous knock on the door. Two men in black leather coats and wide-brimmed hats stepped into the front room. One crooked his finger at my mother to come along. She took her fur coat off the hook by the door, picked up her purse, kissed my forehead, and was escorted away by the Gestapo (Hitler’s secret police). After the sound of their footsteps faded, a neighbor lady rushed in, gathered me up, and hurriedly carried me away.

Time collapsed. I found myself in a small attic space with a tiny window, my little suitcase beneath a narrow cot. Standing at the door, my rescuer put her finger to her lips and said, “Don’t make a sound.” Then she turned and locked the door behind her. I tiptoed to the tiny window, stepped up on my little suitcase, and peeked out over the village rooftops. I pressed my forehead against the glass pane and hoped Mama would see me. I was locked in that attic for nine months, frightened of my captors. In reality, they were protecting me from the Nazi secret police, who were rounding up the children of suspected dissidents.

Story #5 The Bridge (see Chapter 65)


Night after night through the tiny attic window, I witnessed the world’s condemnation fall from the sky and explode in a fiery fury that purged the murderous lies of Hitler’s Third Reich. Those same forces of justice freed my birth mother from incarceration. She stood before me in the open attic door. Prison had tarnished her shimmer. Her fur coat ratty now, her strawberry-blonde hair limp, her front teeth in decay. The blare of a high-pitched siren warned the village was under attack. With the weight of my little suitcase pulling at my arm, I ran alongside my mother across a field of winter wheat. A handful of villagers sheltered in a tight cluster beneath a stone bridge. Standing in the cold stream, a rheumy-eyed man, chewing his tongue with toothless gums, made room for us. A woman held her young son in an iron grip, refusing to let Hitler’s war have her last child. When the wail of the siren faded, an eerie silence followed. A sick woman with a racking cough said, “Maybe the war is over.” The old man pointed a boney finger at me, “Go see what’s going on.” I crawled up the embankment, flat against the damp earth. I saw a line of polished brown boots stepping high, advancing toward us, the ground vibrating. From below me, a voice said, “I hope it’s the Americans.” As I watched those beautiful, unbroken men from a universe far removed from mine, my six-year-old mind raced into the future. I imagined leaving my ill-fated country to live in the land of these shining warriors. Looking toward the village from my vantage point, I saw a man bent with age, a half-grown boy at his elbow, wave a white handkerchief tied to a stick. My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the crowd gathering around the soldiers. The rheumy-eyed man tugged at her sleeve, pointed toward the burning village, and yelled above the swelling roar that if his house still stood, we could come home with him. In angry desperation, I jerked my hand from my mother’s grasp. I didn’t want to live in that old man’s house. I wanted to go back home—to my foster mother’s house—where I felt safe and loved. But it wasn’t to be.

Story #6 The Convent (see Chapter 77)


We were a small group of displaced girls, wards of a rural religious order, picking berries to earn our keep—berries in the summer, apples in the fall, potatoes and kindling come winter—all to be sold in the village market. I have no memory of how I came to live with the nuns in their convent, a graceless building wrapped in dingy plaster that once had been daffodil yellow. I suppose I was traumatized after my birth mother deposited me there near the end of World War II. I recall a click of a light switch jolting me into awareness of my new surroundings. I was lying on a thin mattress in a large room with girls of various ages. A voice shouted, “Get up. Time for Mass.” Frightened, I lunged for my little suitcase under the bed and pressed it to my chest for protection.

I soon learned to avoid the ire of the nuns and adapted to a life of measured steps and hushed voices. I adhered to rules that were absolute: Mass before daybreak; black bread with a smear of jam for breakfast; household chores before a few hours of school in the village; afternoon chores in the kitchen and laundry; vespers at four; a starchy evening meal with no meat, butter, or milk; then darning socks and mending clothes in the evening; and bedtime prayers kneeling before an iron-rod bed. Only to be repeated day after day for the next four years.

Story #7 School (see Chapter 24)


During the tumultuous days after Germany surrendered to the Allies, the nuns had opened the doors of their convent to the likes of us—refugees and displaced children, or like me, an abandoned child. My memories of school while in the care of the nuns are almost non-existent. I can’t recall if I loved or hated school. Or if I did any schoolwork. Or if my teachers ever addressed me. I have only one indelible memory: the day I entered first grade. I remember a nun’s habit flapping like a blackbird’s wings as she led us—a bedraggled group of young girls—through the streets of an unfamiliar village toward a small schoolhouse. Local women, arms folded across their chests, with young children clutching the folds of their skirts, scrutinized us with tight-lipped suspicion. A hush fell over the classroom when we stood at its threshold. Elbows bumped elbows. Snickers sounded from behind hands cupped over mouths. The thrust of the teacher’s chin directed us to the far wall. As we passed the rows of desks, faces turned away. Whispers stuck to our backs as we scurried to our assigned bench. With a slate tablet balanced on my knees, I sat in rigid attention. The teacher’s lips moved but I could not comprehend the meaning of his words. I studied the backs of the children’s heads before me. I wondered if they, too, were hungry and lost. Or lived in a house with a good Mama—a Mama like I once had.

Story #8 Blueberries (see Chapter 77)


It was my fourth summer at the convent. I knelt in the blueberry patch under pine trees so tall I had to crane my neck to see their crowns. Living for years with the nuns in ritualized monotony had hollowed out my longing for reuniting with my foster mother. Yet on that summer day, while harvesting blueberries, my life turned about. I heard my name called from a distance. “Mother Superior wants you to come to her office. A woman is here asking for you.” Over my shoulder, I yelled back, “What color is her hair? Red or brown?” The messenger ran up to me and, with hands on her knees, panted out, “Sort of brown.” The world fell away. With my heart thudding, I found my legs, stumbled over my pail scattering the berries, and pounded down the dirt path toward the convent. As I rounded the corner of the building, I saw her standing in the middle of the courtyard. She had aged. Silver threaded her dark-brown hair. Incised worry lines ran from the sides of her nose to the corners of her mouth. A raw cry rose from deep within me. Struggling for air, I choked out, “Mama. Mama.” Tears flooded down my cheeks. In my haste to reach her, my feet tangled, and I stumbled. On hands and knees, I crawled toward her. She rushed to my side and knelt, her beautiful, plain face bent to mine, her soft brown eyes taking me in. I heard her say, “My precious little girl. I found you.” My foster mother had come to rescue me from the loveless and cloistered existence of the convent. I felt a tearing in my chest as if the strictures that trussed my heart were ripping apart. She helped me stand, but my legs found no purchase. I heard my voice repeat, “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me, Mama.” With her arm across my back for support, we hobbled inside to meet with Mother Superior.

It took weeks to clear the bureaucratic requirements. On the day of my departure, a young nun tied a small placard around my neck inscribed with my name, age, and destination. With my little suitcase in hand, I climbed onto the local milk truck which delivered me to the railway station. The station master escorted me to the train and settled me in. A whistle blew, the cabin lurched, wheels bit into the steel rails, and the train rolled forward. Steam hissed and swirled past my window. The countryside flew by at an accelerating pace. At last, after six years of waiting, I was going home.

Story #9 Women at the Well (see the Prolog to Raven and the Hummingbird)


In the farming village in Germany, where I lived as a child after World War II, most mornings, a small cluster of women, three or four perhaps, would huddle together in the street in front of my house. From their haggard faces, it was easy to surmise they were lamenting the latest irreversible loss, the difficulties of providing daily for the ones who depended on them, or some other heartache. A woman would blow her nose. Another would quickly touch her eyes with a handkerchief. But never did any of them cry out loud. As victims of forces they could not control, they murmured comforting words and patted one another on the arm before hurrying off to attend to what was left to care for. Their gestures of farewell held the promise of meeting the next day at the same time and place.                                              

This ancient tradition of “gathering at the well” offers women, then and now, a lifeline of survival and hope.

Your comments and questions are welcome. I shall be happy to respond.