[This is another in a continuing series of autobiographical sketches that I have been asked to write by friends and family. I share it with you, my readers, in the hope that these little vignettes of history and the American immigrant experience are of interest. But most of all, I hope it may help you understand what shaped the lens through which I interpret our human story, and view the events that are the subjects of these commentaries.]
After five years of war, April of 1945 turned out to be the most harrowing of all for our little family. We found ourselves in Augsburg, Germany, camped in an abandoned cabin or equipment shed across the road from a now defunct Luftwaffe airfield. I have no idea how my father and mother found this shelter after getting off the ‘mystery train’ from Berlin.
Two days ago we had left behind a Berlin that was once again in flames from another massive allied bombing. There Hitler was preparing for his Gotterdammerung somewhere near the Reichstag. Having arrived from Stettin after sunset, our intention was to keep going southward by any available means. With the audible drone of a thousand approaching B-17s, and air raid sirens wailing over the city, our definite intention was to make our stay in Berlin as short as possible. Everyone in the Stettiner Bahnhof railroad station knew that the Red Army had crossed the Oder River and was now positioning itself for the last thrust that would overrun the capitol of the dying Third Reich.
The western allies were approaching the banks of the Elbe River to the west, a line which Stalin had cleverly negotiated at Yalta to be their eastern-most advance. As a reward for all the suffering it had endured, the USSR would now be allowed to take Berlin and Hitler, and then sweep west to meet the waiting allies. I was too small to understand any of the irony in this. And most of the world at that time had also forgotten that in September 1939 Stalin and Hitler had been partners in starting the greatest war of all time. But then Hitler double-crossed Uncle Joe in June 1941 when he launched Operation Barbarossa, the surprise invasion of the Soviet heartland. Now in April 1945 it was payback time, and Stalin urged his generals to give no quarter. The devastation in East Prussia and Poland, as witnessed by many huddled that night in the railroad station, gave proof that the Red Army knew exactly what was expected of them.
The ‘mystery train’, under steam and standing quietly, was some distance from the Stettiner Bahnhof. It was discovered by my mom (as described in The Last Train from Stettin (v2010)). The air raid was already starting as the sky lit up with sweeping searchlight beams and the din of firing AA batteries. The train itself, hidden in the rail yard among rows of abandoned railroad cars of all descriptions, was blacked out and illuminated only by the muzzle flashes of a nearby battery as it joined with the remaining batteries throughout the city in their futile exercise.
What drew my mother’s attention was the stream of people that appeared out of nowhere. All were carrying suitcases as they quietly approached and climbed aboard the silent train. These had to be very special people who knew when to be where so that they too could escape capture by the Soviets. Staying in Berlin also meant death for our family – to the Soviets we were fugitive ‘enemies of the people’ who were already wanted escapees from Estonia, and would now be accused of aiding the hated Germans. Mom put two and two together and knew that the train would be heading south, the exact direction that we had to go. Staying alive meant getting to Bavaria in time to meet General Patton’s Third Army and the Americans.
That late in the war, Germany’s trains traveled only at night because the skies were completely under allied control, and anything significant that moved during daylight was immediately strafed by patrolling P-47s and P-51s – something I was soon to witness up close and personal more than once, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Somehow, over the next day or so, and traveling only at night, the train made its way to Augsburg. Somewhere along the line I had managed to catch a bug, and was already running a high fever when we finally found shelter in that cabin next to the airfield. My father had rummaged around and found an old metal framed army cot in one of the nearby abandoned buildings. I was now wrapped in a blanket and lying down on the steel mesh of the cot when without any warning an air raid started. But this was a new kind of air raid for the Rebane family.
My father looked out the only window in the room which faced away from the airfield to see if there was something resembling an air raid shelter or hole in the ground. He saw a shelter nearby toward which people were already running with their bundles. And then all hell broke loose. Instead of the drone of high altitude bombers, we heard the screaming roar of fighters coming in at ground level. Some distance away on the airfield a few anti-aircraft towers opened up firing back at the fighters. I don’t recall hearing if the AA tower across the road from us was firing because by that time the noise of the aircraft engines, their wing-mounted 50 caliber machine guns, and the answering German 37mm AA cannons were making all the sounds blend into a ear-piercing cacophony.
My father immediately helped mom climb out of the back window, and told her to run for the air raid shelter. He was still trying to figure out what to do with a bed-sick kid when the AA tower across the road was attacked by a wave of fighters coming in one behind the other. The cabin or shed we were in was made of single layer boards nailed to some framing beams. Through the din I suddenly heard what sounded like a hundred hammers beating on the boarded walls of the cabin, and our tiny room was instantly filled with acrid fumes and flying splinters of all sizes. Apparently on that run we were lined up behind the AA tower as the next fighter came in for his pass. The 50 caliber slugs ripped through our shelter as if it was sack cloth, penetrating all walls. In that instant Dad and I both should have been hamburger, but by some miracle we weren’t. Instead, there were jagged holes in the walls all around us.
I remember looking up at my dad at that moment and for the first time seeing him genuinely scared. This was a new experience for this five-year-old and veteran of many bombings and shellings. But until that moment, when my father was there, he had always sat next to me and mom in the various rooms and basements that had sheltered us. And he always appeared as the tower of calm strength, thinking ahead as many other people around us screamed and cried while it rained pieces of ceiling and plaster from the explosions that shook our universe. Today was different, my dad’s eyes were as wide as mine when the fighter that had just ventilated our cabin roared over so low that I thought he was coming through the room.
Then just as quickly, his face changed back into the determined strong look that said there was a job to do, and he started lifting me out of my rickety cot. Meanwhile, other fighters were still roaring overhead and their slugs were taking divots out of the ground all over. And, of course, all hell was still breaking loose on the airfield side of the house when another man suddenly appeared at the window offering help. Apparently mom had told the people in the shelter about dad and me stranded in the cabin, and that brave soul had run through machine gun fire to reach our window, and now he was greeted by more of the same coming through our shack.
The next thing I knew was that they were lifting the cot, as a stretcher with me still in it, through the window. Mid way in this operation, as my head was already outside looking up at the high overcast sky, another stream of 50 calibers ‘walked’ across the road and through ‘our’ house. Again the sudden sound of hammering through the din as more splinters and pieces of wall flew from the new large holes that appeared around us. Miracle number two. This time my dad and his godsent helper did not even flinch, but with determination kept working my cot through the window.
My last memory of that evening was looking up and seeing the fighters pass not twenty feet over our heads. At that tender age I was already familiar with different types of combat aircraft that I learned from glossy recruiting and propaganda folders put out by the Luftwaffe in the war’s early years. (During our previous year in Stettin my great aunt ‘Tante Alvi’ had discovered that such picture books would keep her little charge busy for hours. Stettin vignette here.) But overhead in the dimming light, these fighters were not any that I recognized. They all had an odd air scoop under their belly, and blue flame was coming out of both sides of their screaming engines as one after another finished their strafing runs.
After the fighters left, the Rebane family and several others spent another night in yet another air raid shelter. Dad and his angel had carried me there through what can only be described as a holocaust, and were able to work the cot down the short staircase and set it up inside. It was much later that my father told me of his decision then and there not to wait for Patton and the Americans in a big city. In its climax, the war was now more violent than ever, and would remain that way until the very end. My parents were going to do everything they could to get us out into the German countryside where, hopefully, we might avoid any more bombings and shellings and strafings.
I recovered as we stayed in the shelter for the next few days. But the next day my dad went out into bomb ravaged Augsburg, and came back to announce that there was a narrow gauge railroad that still ran an occasional train to a small town called Monheim, 30 miles to the north, that was off the beaten path. It was there that we would quietly wait out the war which, as was clear to everyone except some very fanatical Nazis, would end soon. Years later we would all laugh as we recounted how the ‘Monheim plan’ turned out to be anything but the peaceful conclusion that we expected among the green fields and spring flowers. But that episode I’ll save for another time. So that is how sixty-five years ago Easter was cancelled for many millions of us in war-ravaged Europe.
As an endnote I want to again emphasize that the war saga through which my family lived was not unique. Millions of refugees and civilians had very similar stories to tell - some more fortunate and others much more tragic. Every escapee from the east saw combat up close. But we were not combatants, only the targets of rape, pillage, and burning for any military unit in need, or merely seeking an outlet for frustration or revenge. In coming through such life-changing experiences, everyone came to understand what heroism and self-sacrifice was – and also what it was not. My father and mother never considered themselves heroes or heroines when they risked life and limb for family. That was their primal duty, unspoken and understood. While my parents also did many heroic things during the war, my father was not a hero when in Augsburg he stayed behind to save the life of his son, but the man who ran out of the bomb shelter to help us was. Today too many of us no longer understand this difference.