Family · Grief

Coming to America

Growing up I lived only 10 minutes from my grandparents (my mom’s parents). “Omi” (German for Grandmother) would tell me her life story over and over again through the years. As a kid I would get annoyed that she would repeat, AGAIN, how she came to America, how she survived the war (World War 2), and how she met my grandpa (“Opa”). Weirdly, Opa never talked about his story. To the day he died I only heard his story from the bits and pieces Omi told me or my parents told me. I think some people heal through telling their story and other people try to forget as much as possible through silence.

My other grandparents also immigrated to America from Germany after the war. In fact, my dad was born in Germany. But they also never talked about their journey to get here. In fact, this summer when I went through my mom’s stuff I found a letter my dad wrote a month before he died. In it, he tells how his grandfather split the family onto 2 trains when they were kicked out of Budapest, Hungary by the Communists – one to West Germany and one to East Germany. My dad’s mom (he wasn’t born yet) was on the one to East Germany. I was floored. I had NO idea I was Hungarian! I always thought they had lived in Germany hundreds of years before immigrating.

My dad with his parents
My dad with his parents

Both families came to the United States through NYC, with my mom’s family settling in the neighborhood of Glendale, Queens and my Dad’s family settling in Clifton, New Jersey. Both were able to come over partly because they had relatives already living here in the country (which are good stories in themselves – one was a sister who was ostracized after she got pregnant out of wedlock and the other met and married a man in 3 days so she wouldn’t have to go back to Germany!).

In the end, it is my grandmothers story that I remember the most and that resonates with me today. Her mom a widow, the war was hard on them. The Russians bombed her town (At the time a key port town called Konisgberg – after being largely destroyed in Word War II and occupied by the Soviet Union thereafter, the former city was renamed Kaliningrad) and killed her mother after she refused to give them the location of her daughter (my grandmother was hiding in the basement dressed up as an old woman since they had heard the Russians were looking for young women). A neighbor had tipped the Russians for food to the location of my grandmother. Somehow she escaped and survived by eating literally at times leaves and eventually volunteering for the Red Cross. She almost died of Typhoid, she lived/hid in ruins and eventually ran for her life across the border (woods) to West Germany. At some point she met up with my grandfather, they got married and managed to come to the United States.

I am writing all this because my heart is BREAKING with the news lately of the refugee crisis in Europe. My grandparents were refugees at one point. They got lucky and were able to come to the USA. How different my story would be if they hadn’t. My grandmother did what she had to so she could survive. My father’s parents as well. Desperate to improve their situation and feeling like there was no other choice, they choose to come to America with nothing and try and start a new life.

I don’t have all the answers to where all these people should go. It is horrible that their home countries are going through so much atrocity that they have to leave in the first place.

Just remember that at one time we all immigrated from somewhere. We are all just humans, who want the same things – safety, food, shelter, love, opportunity. A chance to make life better for our family, our children.

Below is my grandmothers story that she wrote years ago before she died. I wish I could have recorded her all those years she talked to me. Her story is movie worthy. But I just have this and my memories. And I definitely will be telling all this to my son. Because her sacrifice should not be forgotten.

My grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day
My grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day

Tragedy Turned Into Victory

My thoughts go back more then 50 years ago. I was born in Koenigsberg, the Capital of East Prussia, Germany. There I grew up in a sheltered home. How safe and secure I felt when I walked as a little girl on my father’s hand.  When I was nine years old, however, he suffered an accident and died shortly after. I was heartbroken. My dad’s death was the first tragedy which I experienced in my young life.

My older sister and I had a Christian upbringing through a caring and loving mother and grandmother, who came to live with us. Life was simple, but happy.

When World War II broke out, I was in my mid teens, wondering what the future would have in store for me and beautiful hometown. When later on, 90 percent of it was left in ruins after two concentrated air raids my heart was broken. The worst was still to come.

On April 9, 1945, the Russians finally conquered the City and I had no chance to flee. It was like hell on earth. Well aware of what happened to females during this time, I camouflaged myself by covering my face and hair with ashes so I would look like an old, sick woman. My mother and I hid in the basement of a burned-out house for many weeks. As the Russian soldiers searched, especially for young girls, my neighbor betrayed me for a piece of bread. The soldiers came and questioned my mother about me. She refused to give me away. They beat her, brutally hit her over the head with a rifle, and left her dying. While watching this happen I became paralyzed with fear and in a state of shock. After the soldiers left, she whispered her dying words into my ear: “I’m going to Glory.” After my mom died, I didn’t want to live anymore. The Lord intervened by sending me a dear elderly devoted Christian woman who had also lost everything. She found me in this state of despair and told me, “if you don’t want to live, your mother’s death would be in vain. She died out of love for you. Let me take care of you from now on.” She comforted me in a wonderful way. I felt like the Lord had sent me an angel at that most crucial time.

Later, trained by the Red Cross, I became active in combatting epidemics such as typhoid, typhus, and cholera. It was a very difficult task. Water lines were broken down and there was no electricity. Germans lived in basements and ruins. Russians occupied those houses that were still intact. Our daily bread rations consisted of 300 grams each for hard work, IF AVAILABLE, and we had to stand for hours in line for it. Most of the time it tasted like machine oil and it was almost impossible to eat. During the winter months, people died from starvation, and many froze to death. I often stood in front of bomb craters turned into mass graves with 500 to 600 nameless corpses, thrown into and buried. Finally, I contracted Typhoid fever myself. With my weight going down to 78 pounds, I looked like a skeleton. During that time in a run down windowless hospital, there were two and three people sharing a bed, and many had to lie on the floor. We could always tell when death was near for the lice would leave the person and flies began to cover the dying body. God was gracious to me, for it was a miracle that the lice never settled on me and my friends were happy that I could keep my long blond hair. During the long evenings, we tried to keep our spirits high by singing folk songs which attracted nursing personnel, and we saw many tears shed by the nuns turned nurses.

The best way to overcome hardship is to help others! We had no stores, no money, and no medication. Whatever nature had to offer was very helpful in every way. For example, oak bark cooked in water, gave cholera patients relief and healing. Once I was fortunate to find a small bottle of petroleum and also a bandage for burns. I applied the petroleum to the head of a young girl who was suffering with nits under the skin of her head. First, I had to give her a crew cut, then I had to cut the area infested with nits. She cringed in pain. With her hair off, she looked like a boy and she played that role for some time, until there was less danger for girls. The Lord had helped me to save her life.

For two years nobody was permitted to leave this military zone behind the iron curtain. During this time, I acquired knowledge of the Russian language. This helped me to obtain a permit to leave for East Germany. Some salvaged jewelry was also helpful. The day finally came when approximately 400 of us were squeezed like sardines into cattle cars. We didn’t know our destination! During those seven days in transit, we had nothing to eat. On stops in open fields, we were permitted to pick weeds and grass to eat and get some water from the locomotive to quench our thirst. While changing trains, we were often attacked by partisans who robbed us of our last possessions. My sweet adopted mother was hiding me under a blanket, laying or sitting on top of me during that time. To my dismay, she had a very serious heart condition and one day on the train she collapsed. She had no pulse or heartbeat. I began shaking her almost frantically till she opened her eyes and looked at me. She looked like she came from another world. Again I thanked my Heavenly Father for His mighty help!

When we finally crossed the border into East Germany, we praised the Lord and started unitedly singing, with tears running down our cheeks: “Now thank we all our God…”

We landed in a refugee camp near Berlin and were in quarantine for three weeks in a former concentration camp. Now we feasted daily on a plain water soup made from turnip leaves and got a piece of bread every fifth day. The straw that was given to us to lie on we used to braid and made sandals. We made use of everything!

Now began the task to find my fiancée whom I had not seen for over three years, but hoped to be reunited with as soon as possible. In the seven years we had known each other, we had met only 81 days, which he had recorded in his diary. My Mother had a vision before she died! It was that he is still alive and will replace her and my dad some day for me. An added assurance, that he was still alive was a postcard from him to my mother, blown by the wind to the feet of the same girl that I had successfully freed from lice and nits some time before. The card was partly burned, as the Russians used to burn all incoming mail. With Germany now divided, I could not get a permit to go to the western part where Albert lived and had to risk my life again to cross the borderline by night through dark and dangerous woods. I could not help remembering a dream that I had seven years earlier when I had met him for the first time. In that dream, I saw Albert dragging me through dark swampy woods. To my horror, this nightmare became a reality! We were running for our lives to cross the border, risking being shot by the guards at any time! Again, the Lord helped! We made it through! Praise the Lord!

Finally we had our wedding in October 1947. In 1950, we emigrated to “the promised land”, our beloved America and have reason enough to thank our dear Lord and Savior for having NEVER left us nor forsaken us. He has also given us two wonderful children, four precious grandchildren, loving friends, a caring church family and a beautiful home. Most of all He has given us the assurance of our heavenly eternal home some day in glory!

Written by Christel Schuster

My grandparents during their retirement years
My grandparents during their retirement years
my great grandfather on the left and my great grandmother on the right.
Her father on the left and her mother on the right.

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