SHORTLY before Hitler came
to power, Helga Gerhardi and her Swiss immigrant family were
living a comfortable existence with cook, nanny, and maid in
the east German city of Königsberg.
Later, Helga had to struggle
against inhumanity, the elements, starvation, deprivation and
horror, after the cruel enforced separation from her family.
Fleeing the invading Russians
in the winter of 1944 as part of a refugee column, she embarked
on an overland escape across frozen wastes and the treacherous
waters, from Königsberg (now Kalingrad) to Greifswald on
the Baltic Sea.
Now 69, Helga, who settled
in Britain 45 years ago, has carried with her through the years
painful memories of torture, slaughter, famine, oppression and
crippling cold as she crossed frozen lakes and terrain with no
food or warmth.
She has now written a first-hand
account, telling the story of herself as a young girl who survived
against all odds after the Russian Army penetrated her border
homeland, raping, mutilating, murdering and shattering families.
For many years she couldn't
speak of the atrocities and moving bravery she witnessed during
the war years, but through careful and gentle persuasion from
her family she has transcribed the events into print.
FOR Helga, the first signs
that dramatic change was on the way came as a schoolgirl in Königsberg.
She was aware that Jewish schoolchums were in class one day,
then disappeared without trace overnight.
Foreigners living in Germany
treated with contempt by the SS. Lightning searches were carried
out on Helga's family home.
"Terrorising and wrecking
homes seemed to please them," says Helga "I remember
one particular night the dreaded knock on the door came and a
sergeant pulled out all the freshly-ironed linen from our linen
press before trampling over it all with his jack boots."
As a non-German she was
not allowed to wear the uniform of the Hitler Youth, and was
ostracised in class because her Swiss father forbade her to 'Heil
Her main problem was with
rager young teachers who rose higher as they forced the aims
of The Fuhrer. Undaunted, Helga never lost sight of her self-esteem
and this led to several teacher-pupil confrontations.
As a schoolgirl, Helga
actually met Hitler when she tried to make her way home in Königsberg
with a bunch of violets for her father. The streets were full
of Hitler Youth and SS but by accident she found herself on the
road in front of Hitler's motorcade and an SS officer pulled
her back, then told her she could give the flowers to The Fuhrer.
As Hitler bent down to
take the flowers she told him, "They're for my father,"
but still he took them. She was not in Hitler Youth uniform and
The Fuhrer asked her why this was so. She replied, "I'm
Swiss". Helga recalls the crazed look in his eyes. "His
eyes were hypnotic and lacked any form of kindness. I remember
shivering and didn't know why exactly."
THE war began to change
course in the winter of 1944 and the fear that Germany would
go to war with Russia became a reality.
Stories and news of the
violation of women and the capture of young men who were transported
to Siberia soon reached Königsberg, and Helga's family planned
to flee the Russians.
"My brother and father
were away in the war and we didn't know if they were dead or
alive. My mother was forced to take a job some distance away
leaving my sister Christal and me on our own," says Helga.
"My sister and I had arranged that if or when the time came
to flee we would make our way by a certain route."
That time came and Helga
called her sister at the hospital where she worked and was told
she had been evacuated with wounded patients to Pillau.
Helga realised the Red
Army must be very close for them to evacuate the hospital, and
this was confirmed when she called back home; there was no sign
of Christal. Helga packed a rucksack with food and brandy, and
decided to head forn the route she and her sister had agreed
"I waited in vain
one more night for Christal, and in the morning locked the door
of our home and left with no idea of what I was about to experience."
The whole of eastern Prussia
was intent on escaping. Transport was at a virtual standstill.
Helga remembers fingering the little phial of cyanide, given
to her and her sister by their mother that she wore round her
"The Russians had
a saying: The first wave gets the wrist watches, the second wave
the women and girls; the third wave gets what's left."
To this day Helga remembers
the phial which became her talisman for so long.
"My mother was so
brave to give a daughter such a gift for the events which may
surround her during such dreadful times. It helped me on the
frozen lakes and fields, when we came across slaughtered villages
in which evil had reached infamous frontiers.
"I so desperately
wanted to live but I knew that if the worst came to the worst
I at least had my little phial. Even to this day when I'm stressed
I touch the place on my chest where my only friend the phial
of cyanide hung for so long."
She dispels the myth that
there was camaraderie in refugee columns.
"As a rule you kept
yourself to yourself and said absolutely nothing, especially
had food or extra warm clothing. I had quite a bit of food with
me initially but soon learned that everyone else pretended they
had none. The refugees from farms had carts and they would only
let you sit near the cart to shelter from the blizzards, but
never in or on it in case you stole something."
IMAGINE trudging from London
to Glasgow, inadequately dressed, in Arctic conditions, across
country. with no food and no shelter.
On this first leg. lakes
had to be crossed, miles of frozen water which looked safe but
in fact often gave way with fatal results.
"Once I saw an old
woman who had fallen through the thin ice and was screaming for
help; she stood no chance."
Along the route were grotesque
groups of frozen corpses and animals. Helga learned to keep looking
straight ahead, walking on.
For days, nights, weeks
and months she was filled with fear of being shot at. She negotiated
snowdrifts and ditches, and traipsed up and down hills.
"I still remember
waking up and being literally frozen stiff. I couldn't move at
all. I was terrified and told the woman next to me."
The woman told Helga to
take off her boots and to rub her feet and legs with snow.
"After a while I got
some sensation in my feet and legs and I followed her advice
many times on my exhausting journey."
WHEN she was writing her
book, Helga's husband Bob often came home to find her huddled
in a blanket as the memory of the events triggered the deep-routed
emotion of the ordeal she'd endured.
The two things Helga treasures
most now are having a family to love, and warmth.
"I promised myself
I would never ever be cold again," and reaching across to
touch her husband's hand she continued, "and thankfully
Bob has never let that happen to me".
Bob, the director of an
electro plating company in Buckinghamshire, met Helga in Switzerland
in the summer of 1947, and by December Helga was in England preparing
for their wedding in the summer of 1948.
Once in England, Helga
became a tailoress and taught tailoring in Oxford for many years.
DURING her ordeal, when
Helga reached the safety of Greifiswald, she collapsed and was
very ill with pleurisy.
Her ordeal was only half
finished. For she was still determined to find out what happened
to her family - through the Red Cross.
She and her mother both
had the address of a Frau Fassbach. One of the nurses in the
hospital where Helga was being treated, Sister Wanda, contacted
the family Fassbach and her mother appeared in her hospital ward
to pick her up.
Then came the search for
her father, sisters and brother. The family, which once lived
so well, had to start again as repatriated refuges in Switzerland
when they eventually returned.
Helga's story is not a
story of the war, despite its menacing backdrop. It is a testimony
of the heights and depths humanity can reach.
"The war ended
and, having lost everything, we lived like Gipsies, in terrible
poverty, on an abandoned radio station, sleeping on palliasses.
There was no sanitation, running water or heating, and very little
food. I travelled from the north of Germany to the south, 800
km, with a broken bicycle, in search of my family, and even got
imprisoned. In the end, our family was united, and the Swiss
Embassy helped us to return to Switzerland."
Helga is priced at £11.50,
and is available from the publishers: Virona Publishing, 24 Putnams
Drive, Aylesbury, Bucks HP22 5HH.
© 1994 Choice