Father is Threatened with Execution—Part II

April 20th, 2012 → 12:46 pm @

Continued from the previous blog.

“…The guards asked Father for a pass authorizing him to gain admittance to the more secure border area across the bridge. He showed them his papers from last October and told the men that we merely wanted to visit the farm where he’d worked in order to get some fruit and other foodstuff which was not available in our camp.

 Apparently these two guards were still fully devoted to their duties, since they didn’t believe Father’s story. Without any further discussion, one of the guards, who to me looked like a giant, simply told us to walk in front of him to a small building housing the military police detachment. As far back as I could remember I’d been terrified of the chain dogs but now I was scared to death.

 As we entered the building Father was immediately separated from me and taken to a back room for interrogation. I was told to take a seat next to the front desk in an open bay where there were several other tables manned by military police officers. As I flopped down on the chair the guard sat down behind the desk and slowly took his luger (pistol) out of its holster and placed it in front of him. He then told me point blank that if I didn’t tell him the truth they would shoot Father.

 Father had of course deliberately refrained from telling me his true intentions as we left camp that morning. His foresight probably saved his life and possibly also mine. Hence, when repeatedly asked by my interrogator what our real purpose was in trying to cross the bridge I stuck to the same story. It was the only explanation I could provide, which was that we had no other intentions than to visit the farm where Father had worked last fall and ask them for any food that they could spare. I don’t know how long the grilling lasted but to me it seemed like hours. Finally Father, looking troubled and thoroughly drained, emerged from the back room and we were both allowed to return to the refugee camp…”

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Father is Threatened with Execution—Part I

April 15th, 2012 → 7:10 pm @

In the next two blogs I will offer excerpts from an incident shortly before French troops occupied that part of Austria where my father and I were located. It was an episode that is still deeply ingrained in my mind. The reason for that is quite simple. It was the very first time that I was truly shaken to the core of my being with fear.   

“…Although the atmosphere in Götzig was pleasant and tranquil, food was becoming more and more difficult to acquire with our ration cards. Father thought that we should return to Bregenz and take a chance in finding another job on a farm, possibly even on the same farm that he’d worked on before in Birkenfeld. So, at the end of March we found ourselves back in Bregenz.

With the Allies getting closer by the day things around the area were becoming fairly chaotic and the employment office didn’t even make an honest attempt to find Father a job on a nearby farm. Rather, we were hastily placed in a refugee camp southwest of the city, not far from the farm where we’d stayed prior to being sent to Ulm. The camp had only recently been vacated by the Hitler Youth Organization and when we arrived I found a cat-o’-nine-tails and several black helmets in the barracks where Father and I were housed.

 Conditions in the camp were barely tolerable. It wasn’t confinement that concerned us, since we could come and go at will. Instead, it was the lack of ample food that made life miserable. The camp only provided us shelter but no rations of any kind. Father and I had to make daily forays into the surrounding community looking for any food we could find. We were of course competing with the other refugees from our camp who were in the same predicament as we were. Naturally, there wasn’t much to be found since even the locals had run out of options.

 On one of our food safaris Father decided to hike to Birkenfeld and visit the farm where we’d lived in October. After the war he would confide in me that he primarily wanted to use the trip to the farm as a cover. His real objective had been to get close to the border and see if there was an opportunity to make a break for Switzerland. He’d figured that at the time the risk of life had become minimal. He was aware that the French armies were getting closer by the day and that the German border guards were beginning to shirk their duties to the point where they would occasionally leave an entire section of the border unguarded.

 In order to get to Birkenfeld we first had to cross a tributary or canal, which branches out from the Rhine River bordering Switzerland and flows north into Lake Bodensee. As we approached the familiar bridge leading over the waterway, we were stopped by two German Military Police guards. I had seen such police before in Estonia and was well aware of their notorious reputation. They had the power to shoot you on the spot. In fact, the Estonian frontline soldiers had named the members of the German Military Police units, “Ketti Koerad,” (Chain Dogs) because of their unquestioned authority and since they wore a breast plate held around their necks by a chain designating them to be military police…”

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Estonia the Land of Music

April 7th, 2012 → 3:12 pm @

Music is part of the Estonian National Soul. However, the nation’s singing tradition is no longer primarily focused on the monumental Festival of Song (Laulupidu) that takes place every five years in Tallinn the Capitol (the next Festival is in 2014). It now includes a wide range of musical events that take place year around. As the article, “Tallinn Music Week, Estonia,”  http://www.clashmusic.com/live-review/tallinn-music-week-estonia  demonstrates,  there is no limit to what kind of music one will encounter in this small ancient land.

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Another Narrow Escape

March 31st, 2012 → 5:18 pm @

After Father and I narrowly survived the British bombing raid in Ulm (the topic of my previous blog) we somehow found our way back to Bregenz, Austria

“…In Bregenz we immediately went to the employment office. This time, though, we were treated with obvious contempt. The administrator with whom Father dealt with considered him to be a deserter having fled a city that needed all the help it could get in order to restore its vital infrastructure. Eventually, we were given train tickets for Salzburg, Austria, and directed to report to a camp on the outskirts of the city.

A day later we disembarked at a railway station on the fringes of Salzburg. The camp, where we had been told to report, was only a short walking distance from the station. As we arrived at the main gate we saw hundreds of people who appeared to be refugees like us, slowly coming from the direction of the station with their belongings, making their way into the facility. To put it mildly, the place looked quite ominous and suspicious, particularly to my father. By word of mouth he had heard of concentration camps but never mentioned a word about them to me. That skepticism would shortly end up saving our lives.

The camp was quite large and made up of multiple extended rows of wooden barracks. It was surrounded by about a fifteen foot high barbed wire fence curved inward at the top, obviously meant to keep people from leaving. In addition, two armed soldiers were posted at the gate. After being liberated by the French, father told me that the place had probably been a temporary holding area for “undesirables” who later would most likely end up in a concentration camp.

Father and I were among a large group of people as we entered the camp. We had barely gone through the gate when Father stopped suddenly. He intuitively sensed danger and wasn’t about to be interned voluntarily. Without looking directly at me, he whispered to me that we would slowly turn around and walk back out of the gate. He also asked me to be as casual as possible in order not to attract any undue attention from the guards. I remember that it all came about so quickly that Father didn’t even set down either the suitcase or duffle bag he was carrying.

We were lucky because a lot of people were still entering the camp and the sentries weren’t paying much attention to what was going on around them. We walked quickly back to the railway station and boarded the next train headed back to Bregenz. I suppose that father’s newly acquired identification paper from Ulm was still working since I don’t recall anyone at the station questioning us as to where we were going. We met an Estonian refugee on the train who was on his way to a small village called Götzig, not far south from Bregenz near the Lichtenstein border. He was going to work in a shoe factory there and suggested to Father that he might also want to seek employment at the same plant when we got to Bregenz…”

Before long my father would be threatened with execution by a German military police unit close to the Swiss border. But that’s another story reserved for another blog.

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British Bombers Level Ulm

March 23rd, 2012 → 4:43 pm @

“Father, for some reason, thought it best to get away from the building since we had no idea where the inn’s air-raid shelter was. Given that the hostel was built on the side of a steep hill it seemed most logical to move down to the bowl-shaped orchard below the house rather than waste more time and effort running up the hill.

We had only gotten halfway down to the bowl when I saw the bright flashes and columns of dirt flying skyward as the first three bombs, in rapid succession, exploded on the ridge in front and above us. The ground shook beneath our feet and the roar of the detonations was deafening. At the same time, shrapnel from the bombs whizzed by hitting many of the fruit trees around us. Clearly, that was not the direction to go.

As we turned around and started to run back up towards the lodge several more bombs hit fairly close behind us. Father shouted at me, on top of his lungs, to hit the ground, and I did instantly. Unknowingly, I had left my rear end up in the air. Father slapped my butt down and sarcastically asked me if I wanted to have it blown away… 

For the next twenty-five minutes the building shook constantly and debris fell from the ceiling as bombs exploded around us. We could also see the brilliant flashes accompanied by the explosions as the trap door was continuously lifted up and then slammed down by the shock waves of the detonating ordinance. Finally, as suddenly as it all had begun, the bombing stopped. After waiting for a few minutes we began, in single file, to cautiously ascend the stairs that led out of the cellar to the outside world…

The ferocity of the attack was astounding. It was hard to believe that the inn hadn’t been hit directly and been obliterated. In the orchard below the lodge where Father and I had run at the beginning of the raid were six large bomb craters. There was no doubt in our minds that had we stayed there for several more minutes or seconds we wouldn’t have survived the attack since one of the craters was at the exact spot where Father and I had hit the ground…

Only recently have I been able to find details about the British night attack of Ulmon that fateful (December) night.  For instance, the raid was carried out by 317 Lancasterbombers and 13 Mosquito night fighters. A total of 1,449 tons of bombs were dropped during the 25-minute raid, starting in the center of the city and then creeping back to the west, across the industrial and railway areas and out into the country. The Gallwitz Barracks up the hill behind our hostel and several military hospitals were among the 14 Wehrmacht establishments destroyed…”        It was another “adventure” with more to come!

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Divide and Conquer in Estonia

March 22nd, 2012 → 1:56 pm @

In no small way the aftermath of the 50 year occupation of the Baltics after WW II by the Soviets continues. “Divide and conquer in Estonia,” http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/30851/ , provides a classic example of how the Russian Government refuses to stay out of the affairs of its independent neighbors. I guess for them it is a form of “International Relations.”

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Wars are Unavoidable

March 20th, 2012 → 4:49 pm @

Wars are unavoidable unless we make a determined attempt to change the world’s social dynamics from “winners takes all” to “we’re all in this boat together.”

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War and the Resilience of the Young – Part Two

March 17th, 2012 → 1:39 pm @

As I recall, the event below, like many of the others, seemed to be more of an action-packed adventure for me than being concerned about my personal safety. Of course, there was a notable exception. I’ll discuss that episode in a future blog.

“Father and I departed Tallinn for the earth works (construction of infantry fortifications) on September 5, 1944. The destination of our group was a little village called Luua, less than twenty miles north of Tartu. The mood of the men and women riding on flatbeds and in open freight cars was almost festive. They joked, laughed and sang folk songs for most of the trip. Of course, Estonians are known to sing for any reason, even if they were headed for locations not too far behind the front lines.

In Luua we were housed in the main building of an old German manor. From the village we were transported back and forth to work in open trucks. The location where we built all sorts of infantry trenches, machine gun nests, and bunkers, in addition to clearing away a lot of the underbrush to improve the line of fire from the trenches, was only about a mile south of Luua…

…Most of the twelve days at the earth works and at the manor were uneventful. Occasionally we could hear muffled artillery fire from the direction ofTartu. Once we were even strafed by a lone Soviet fighter. Fortunately, the plane only made one relatively high pass at us. By the time Father had pulled me into one of the dugouts the aircraft had already disappeared.

Before long, however, the peace and quiet of the countryside was shattered by the thunder of war. Since the nights had become chilly, Father and I were sleeping with several other people from our group on the floor of the manor’s large kitchen. At precisely six in the morning on September 17, we were awakened by the sudden shaking of the concrete floor. The Russians had launched their anticipated massive attack. For two hours the ground shook beneath our feet, and from the south we heard the continuous rumbling of heavy weapons…

…Eventually the defenders (in Tartu) were overwhelmed by the sea of Soviet troops, tanks, artillery and planes. Once the Soviet forces broke through, there were hardly any combat ready troops left to fall back to the newly constructed fortifications behind them, and there were no available reserves. It was the beginning of the end forEstonia.

Since it was Sunday, the trucks that normally ferried us back and forth from the work site were not at the manor. We were told, nevertheless, that the vehicles would be there early Monday morning as usual. If necessary, they could then take us farther northward away from danger. Luckily, Father’s survival instincts were as sharp as ever. After hearing about the vehicle situation I recall him telling one of his friends, who was from the local area, “By tomorrow morning Russian tanks will be here instead of the trucks. I’m not willing to risk wasting valuable time waiting and hoping that we may be picked up at daybreak. With the enemy on our heels the only possible safe way out of here will be through the nearby forests and swamps. No, I’ll take my son and start walking for the nearest train station immediately”…

…We walked what, for me, seemed forever and we were without any food or water. At one point in the late afternoon we even came close to being run over by a column of fleeing German panzers. Finally, by nightfall we arrived at the Kaarepere Railroad Station. There we were momentarily scared out of our wits by the Station Master when he informed us that no more trains were expected to arrive from the direction ofTartusince the city had been overrun by the communist forces.

A German troop train, however, was already at the station ready to depart for Tallinn at any moment. The man suggested that we check with the commander of the unit and see if he would allow us to board his train. I remember nervously going into the caboose with my father. There several German officers were warming themselves around a red-hot potbellied stove.  As they saw me some of them immediately began to smile and pat me on the head. They also offered me food and drink. We stayed in the caboose until we reached Tallinn…”

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War — WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Arab Spring, Syria…

March 13th, 2012 → 4:23 pm @

Where is the end to all wars? We now live in the 21st Century where innovation and creativity are supposed to reign. Yet we seem to have no clue or maybe even desire how to eradicate the ceaseless slaughter of innocent people.

Humans are not born with a blank slate for a mind. Instead, we arrive with all the basic rudiments of our mental circuitry in place ready to act in response to our immediate environment. At the same time, we are able to learn from our experiences.

Thus, humans are equipped not only with instincts, but also with much broader innate drives or predisposed genetic tendencies such as concern for status and for affiliation. This means that our behavior is “influenced” by our genes rather than genetically determined and that we do have free will.

Innate drives fall into two fundamental categories: a set of selfish drives (e.g. concern for control, rank, status, territory, possessions, savagery and bloodlust) and a set of altruistic drives (e.g. concern for attachments, affiliation, altruism, care giving, care receiving, morality and empathy).

People seem to function best in a social context where both categories of drives can be expressed in a balanced manner. Such an environment consists of individuals who express a mix of moderate self-interest and outward-reaching altruism.

So, when are we going to learn how to develop social contexts where both categories of our drives can be expressed in a balanced manner? Put another way, when are we going to learn not to constantly energize our selfish innate drives? Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen any time soon when you take a serious look at the media, politics or the quest for international relations.

That means war is inevitable. As Bertrand Russell has said, “War never determines who is right, just who’s left.” And, those who are left will also suffer greatly in the process!

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War and the Resilience of the Young – Part One

March 11th, 2012 → 4:52 pm @

War is hell no matter how old or young you are. However, most youngsters have one simple but vital redeeming quality—resilience! I thoroughly belie that it’s a feature that helps to keep children’s minds and bodies on a relatively even keel even in the most horrific situations. Children simply don’t yet have the experiences/knowledge that adults have to become overladen with fear and worry when disaster suddenly strikes.

In the next couple of weeks I will give you several examples of youthful resilience from my own early life experiences presented in Coming Home. Let’s start with Chapter Five entitled “The Last Train.” In fact, there was a subsequent incident that also involved a last train that whisked father and I away from harm’s way at the last minute.

“…Before we left the (Pōlva) city limits I asked Karl if he wouldn’t mind making a brief stop at the railroad station. We parked in front of the station and walked around the building to the main platform. It was eerie standing there without anybody else around except our party of five and a stray black dog. Actually, I preferred it that way, since it was a solemn occasion for Maimu and me.

For a brief moment Maimu and I looked somberly into each other’s eyes. There was no need for words since both of us were well aware that we stood at the very spot that marked the beginning of the end for our family ties. Our companions had also somehow sensed what was going through our minds. They stayed some distance from us, letting my sister and I inspect the station by ourselves.

I was thinking back to Sunday, August 13, 1944. I still remembered that it had been an unusually warm day. It had rained the night before and it continued to drizzle lightly throughout most of the day. Mother and Maimu were away from home. They had gone for an overnight visit to the farm behind the cemetery and were not expected back until sometime in the evening.

Father was noticeably worried. He was aware that the Soviet Army had mounted another massive offensive and that the city of Petseri, roughly twenty-five miles southeast of us, had been captured on August 10. On Saturday the attackers had reached Võru, about fifteen miles south, and also Veriora, less than ten miles east of where we were located. There was no question that the situation was getting worse by the minute. We could hear the steady rumbling of artillery moving closer and closer.

Finally, father couldn’t wait any longer. He gave me strict orders not to wander far from the house and took off after mother and Maimu. A couple of hours later they were all back and we immediately began to gather our most important possessions. Packing our belongings didn’t take much time since we could only take with us what the four of us could carry.

By late afternoon we were slowly walking towards the train station. The mile trek to the station seemed to take forever because of the heavy loads all of us were carrying. Once there, we began a desperate vigil for a train that would take us out of harm’s way…

…Two days later we learned that the Russian offensive had advanced fifteen miles past our home by August 15. Obviously, had we decided not to flee when we did the fate of our family members would have been in some commissar’s hands by the following morning. That could have been disastrous considering the horrific order that Admiral Zhukov had issued at the start of the offensive. The directive given to the officers of his landing force on Lake Peipsi, the vast body of water that separates Estonia from Russia, read as follows:

 Estonians are our enemies. Therefore, as you land you must murder all civilians that you encounter and destroy or burn everything else. You will show no mercy or kindness and you must kill everyone no matter what their age or gender.

…After it got dark, tracers filled the night sky as we anxiously gazed down the tracks towards the southeast, the direction from where we and several other families standing on the platform hoped a train would soon come into view. Shortly before two, as the sounds of battle inched ever closer, a train laden with severely wounded combatants slowly pulled into the station.

It was a chilling sight. The wounded were on stretchers stacked in three tiers in open freight cars. As the wagons rolled by us before the train came to a halt, I could clearly see blood dripping, in some cases more like pouring, from the bottoms of countless stretchers. Oddly, I can’t recall hearing a single scream, only an occasional subdued moan…

…The moment of truth was finally at hand. Was there enough room on this train from hell to take us and several other families to temporary safety?  Somehow everyone who’d been waiting managed to get on board. As the train inched out of the Põlva Railway Station at two o’clock on the morning of August 14, the night behind us suddenly lit up. Within minutes we found out that the Kiisu railroad bridge less than three miles behind us had been blown up by retreating troops. There was now no doubt that we’d escaped on the last train.”

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