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Helgas Story

Helga, pictured with her husband Ronald Gerhardi



The enemy
soldier who
showed me
true love

Former refugee Helga Gerhardi recalls her poignant wartime romance with a young American soldier

 Helga as a young Girl
No regrets: Helga Gerhardi as a young woman and, below, with husband Ronald  

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The memory of those lovely, soft brown eyes staring into mine will always be with me. He was a young American sergeant called Sam I was only 21, a medical student and refugee in search of my family, from whom I had become separated by the war.

The war in Europe had been over for just two months. I had been sleeping rough for weeks, fleeing from the Russians pouring into the east of Germany. I had witnessed the rape and murder of women, and carried a phial of cyanide in case I should be caught myself.

I had been given a lift in the back of a lorry by two German ex soldiers, who were breaking the curfew in an American-occupied zone. Sam was one of a group of soldiers who stopped us.

We were ordered out of the lorry, but I couldn't get down. It was then that this kind young American held out his arms. It was the first act of kindness shown to me in weeks, and as I looked into his face, I felt my heart miss a beat.

I hoped I would be able to stay with him, but was bundled instead into another Jeep and taken to a small German prison in the next town. The warden and his wife led me into a small, empty, whitewashed cell lit by a bare bulb. It did not even have a bed in it. I sat down on the cold floor and wept.

Suddenly the door opened and there was the warden's wife with a camp bed, a warm blanket and food. She smiled and told me that the young American must have a soft spot for me.

There was bread, cheese, sausage and butter. I went to sleep happier and more comfortable than I had been for a long time, secretly hoping to see Sam again, so I could thank him.

The next morning breakfast arrived courtesy of my new-found friend. Then Sam himself came to take me to be interviewed by an American officer. As soon as I saw Sam again, I realised I was rapidly falling for him, and suspected from the way he looked back at me, that he felt the same way.

Later that morning, following a brief interrogation, I was told that I was free to go. But to my great distress, the bike I had been using had a flat tyre. I had no other form of transport, and felt like crying again.

At that point, Sam stepped in to rescue me once more, lifting my bike out of the lorry and promising me he could mend it by the following day - if only I would spend the rest of the afternoon with him.

I hesitated for a moment, knowing that many of the other American soldiers had frauleins, girls they bought with cigarettes and stockings. Many refugees were by now so desperate that they would do anything. I, too, was desperate, but not so much that I was willing to lose my self-respect.

But I looked at Sam's face and seeing how sincere he was, decided to trust him. I smiled and agreed to wait. It was wonderful, the first time I had been able to laugh or relax With someone of my own age since the war started. In the afternoon, Sam and I went for a walk, chatting and exchanging life stories before finally holding hands and kissing. We knew we had fallen in love.

The next three days were idyllic. As soon as Sam came off duty we spent every second together.

Sam was desperate for me to stay on with him, and I was terribly tempted. I felt that he meant it, but was very afraid of becoming just another soldier's girlfriend, possibly to be abandoned when he finally went back to the States. I was also missing my family dreadfully and was anxious to continue my search.

When I told him my reasons for being reluctant, Sam proposed to me. I still remember his exact words, 48 years later: 'Marry me, I don't want to lose you. I love you.' He gave me his heavy silver signet ring - engraved with two crossed swords next to the words 'U.S. Infantry.' We had been together only 72 hours, but we were two young people in love and that was enough for us.

I could see that Sam meant every word he said. But I wondered if he would still mean it in a few months' time, when he had returned to his homeland and I was still waiting for a visa to follow him.

I told him that I would write to him when I had found my family, and that if he still wanted me to come to America then, I would.

The next day Sam and another soldier drove me to the next town. Just before we got there, Sam asked the driver to stop, and we walked into the woods together to say goodbye in private. I shall never forget that moment. Sam took my face very tenderly between his hands, looked searchingly into my eyes and asked: 'You will write, won't you?'

Perhaps he sensed, even before I knew it myself, that this was the end. Our meeting had been a very happy interlude during an extremely traumatic period in my life. I did love him, and I'm sure that we could have had a good life together. But it was not the right time for me to commit myself

I never wrote to Sam. Of course, I often thought about it, but by the time I was reunited with my family, I found myself with too many responsibilities to think of leaving them. I was scared too, at the idea of travelling all the way to America to marry a man I had known such a short time.

Several years later, I married an Englishman called Ronald and we had two lovely sons. I'm now a grandmother and very happy.

I don't regret that I never contacted Sam again, but I often think about him, and wonder how my life might have turned out differently. I still have his ring, which I have kept for all these years. I hope he forgives me - and understands. Most of all, I can never forget his lovely, soft brown eyes.

Clare Campbell Helga Gerhardi's autobiography, Helga, is published by Virona, £11.50