Flight to safety

Refugee family in Germany in 1957

Photo belongs to author

Sanctuary in Vienna

On 22nd December, after the arduous and stressful all night walk fleeing to Austria, our refugee family finally reached sanctuary with welcoming generosity of international charities. My mother had decided that we three children ages 8, 3 and fifteen months were to go with her.

Meanwhile, our father was making his way across minefields and barbed wire with the help of a guide (people smuggler) to meet our mother at Vienna St Steven’s Dome on 23rd December. He miraculously managed to meet our mother, still carrying his precious French horn which even we as children were not allowed to touch as it was his livelihood. 

Refugee Family in Germany

Despite the fact that we had nothing but the clothes on our bodies and depended on hand outs by church and other charities for clothes and food, we were luckier than most other refugees. My mother had two aunts in a small German village who wanted us to stay with them.  

With the help of a refugee organisation, my family was put on a train on 24th December. This was very different from the overcrowded, noisy train that we had taken with my mother from Budapest. I asked my mother how much we will have to walk this time.

She hugged me and reassured me that this train was taking us to a train station close to the village of Nordenberg. That was where her aunts lived. We would then be picked up from there by car. I had never sat in a car before and was very excited. 

Rothenburg ob der Tauber 

The closest station to Nordenberg is a small town called Rothenburg ob der Tauber, famous for its amazing Christmas market and a well preserved mediaeval old town. In fact, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War knew about the historic importance and beauty of Rothenburg and he ordered the US Army General in WWII not to use artillery in taking Rothenburg.

The town surrendered despite orders from Hitler and thus saved the old town for prosperity.

When we arrived in Rothenburg railway station on 24th December, a small delegation led by the mayor of Nordenberg met us to greet the refugee family. He was carrying a large food hamper and held a little speech which I didn’t understand. The little town sparkled with Christmas lights and looked like a fairytale town to me.

Nordenberg 

We were driven in two cars to the village of Nordenberg which at that time consisted of around 20 houses, mostly farms. It had about 150 inhabitants at that time. This was a bit of a culture shock for us as we had lived in Budapest and then stayed in Vienna. I had never seen a live cow before. 

Our great aunts lived at the top of a hill overlooking the farms surrounded by a small garden. They were tenants of two elderly twins and occupied the first floor of the house, while we all shared one of the ground floor bedrooms and the living room with the land ladies. The aunts and the twins must have been in their late 60’s.

The twins always dressed in the same flowery dresses with white aprons, their grey hair in a tight knot at the back of their heads. The aunties wore black only, as seemed to have been the fashion for elderly ladies at the time.

So a refugee family with two young children and a toddler joined the quiet household of four elderly ladies who were living in a struggling post World War Germany recovering from the Russian occupation.

My father was continually practising his French horn to prepare for the auditions he was attending across Bavaria to try and find a job. The twins bore our presence with more patience than our aunts who adored our baby brother but were less keen on an eight and three year old who spoke no German. 

Village school

In January, I was sent to the local village school. Of the ten children there, five were the sons and daughters of the teacher. All the girls were dressed in the same material, and wore white aprons on top of their dresses. They all had very long blonde plaits.

The two boys wore traditional German leather shorts “lederhosen”. I shall never forget the feeling I had when all the children surrounded me and chatted away in German which I didn’t understand. The dialect spoken in that area of Germany sounded different from the German I heard my Mum speak with my aunts. 

My only friend 

The teacher’s children didn’t seem very keen to make friends with me. That is how I made friends with a girl who also was on her own in class and in breaks. She taught me to speak German.

After a few days when my aunts saw me arrive home with her I saw that they seemed unhappy about something and they called my mother. She explained to me later that my aunties did not want me to speak to ‘that girl’ as my new friend was the illegitimate daughter of a Russian soldier. She said that it was better if I didn’t bring her to the house.

If I wanted to be friends with her, I should make sure that my aunties didn’t see her. She told me that the girl did not choose her father and that not all Russian soldiers were bad people. I spent every day after school with my new friend and later in life often wondered what had become of her. 

My great Aunts’s peculiar habits 

Once a week a large van came to the village selling groceries. That is when the  larder was filled up. My family was totally dependent on the two elderly relatives. We shared one kitchen with the landladies and the aunts, but my mother was not allowed to cook.

The younger of the two aunts was in charge of food. I remember the huge, round loaves of German bread and especially the bars of chocolates and bananas in the larder. I had never even seen a banana before.

Every evening, the aunties cut bananas in half, lengthways and gave us all half a banana each with a spoon. We scraped the fruit out of the banana peel. They said it lasted longer that way. In memory of our aunts, my siblings and I still sometimes eat a banana with a spoon. 

When I was older and we talked about our time in Nordenberg, my Mum told me that her aunties were very tight fisted. They dreamt all their lives of going to see the Rhein which was two hours train journey away from Nordenberg. They had quite a bit of savings which they left to my Mum in their will in the 70’s. But they died without having been to see the Rhein.

Moving on again

One day in spring my parents told us that we were going back to Vienna as Dad couldn’t find a job and we could not stay with our aunties any longer. We had been in Nordenberg for around three months. By then I spoke a bit of German and was able to say a tearful good-by to my friend who I was never going to see again.