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THE SPECTATOR 17 September 1994

Swiss Family of Survivors

Nigel Clive


by Helga Gerhardi

Virona, £11.50, pp. 433
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This rare slice of autobiography comes from Helga Zirkel, Swiss by birth and now married to an Englishman, who was one of a family of four born near the Lithuanian border and brought up in Königsberg, the pre-war capital of East Prussia. She had the good sense to keep her diaries, when all else had been lost, which has allowed her to describe many moving and often scarifying experiences, fleeing before the Russian advance in the winter of 1944-45 and ending in the British Zone, before her family's repatriation to Switzerland.

Born in 1924, it was only when Hitler came to power that Helga realised she was different, not German. Her father, who ran a profitable business producing cheese and butter, discouraged her from using the Heil Hitler! greeting, her Jewish school friends disappeared and when the Fuhrer visited Königsberg in 1938, Helga was trapped into giving him the bunch of violets that were meant for her father.

At the start of the war, she joined the fire-watch at her school. Although Swiss, she had to do her war service and worked as a waitress and train conductress in 1943 before starting her medical studies at the university. Finding boy friends presented no difficulty, but she lost no less than five of them, killed on active service on the eastern front. A more unusual experience was meeting Hermann Fassbach, who was working on the V2 at Peenermunde and who quickly talked of marrying Helga without bothering to propose to her.

During an air raid on Königsberg, she was trapped in a bunker and only just emerged in time, leaving 63 others to be suffocated. She survived, to continue her hospital work in primitive conditions, caring for the wounded returning from Russia in cattle trucks. When the Russians broke through the German lines, the family scattered and Helga was given a phial of cyanide by her mother to be taken in preference to rape by a Russian.

There follows a gripping account of Helga's retreat to the West in a temperature of 25 degrees below zero, armed with a rucksack and a suitcase dragged on a sleigh, in the company of carts and animals crawling over frozen land and lakes. At one point, the ice broke and she lost her case and sleigh. For three weeks, she went without a wash or even taking off her clothes. They passed a village which the Russians had occupied, leaving the evidence of dead and naked raped women and an old man nailed upside down on the door of a shed. In the market square at Kolberg, the SS had hanged deserters from lamp posts and trees. Eventually, Helga jumped on a train to Stettin and took another to Greifswald, ending a journey of 350 miles. Then she collapsed from malnutrition, pleurisy and pneumonia and woke up in a well-kept hospital to find her mother at her bedside. Helga took a month to recover and when the war ended she and her mother cadged a lorry lift to Hamburg, which had been bombed flat, After a three-day queue outside the Red Cross, she found her father, old, fragile and scarcely recognisable.

A new hard life then began for them as refugees in an empty radio station. Helga's next objective was to reunite the family, which involved travelling south on a broken bicycle, jumping on lorries, making new friends and arriving in Mainburg, near Munich, to find both her sisters, Astra and Christel. All three returned to Hamburg to discover that Astra was expecting a baby by an Austrian who had disappeared from the scene. Then Helga's brother Hans turned up with his story of another agonising journey from Königsberg with his school friends. At long last, her father arranged for the family to have Swiss passports and they moved to Switzerland to begin a new life. But as they did not speak the Swiss dialect, once again they felt like foreigners, only this time they were in their home country. Throughout the many dangers she faced, Helga never lost her humour or her balance, and her multifarious experiences offer an unusual perspective on the second world war,

Helga is priced at £11.50, and is available from the publishers: Virona Publishing, 24 Putnams Drive, Aylesbury, Bucks HP22 5HH.

© 1994 The Spectator