YOURS - 12 JUNE 1994

Helga's tale of courage

As a refugee during World War Two, Helga Gerhardi was separated from her family. But in an unbelievable feat of human strength and endurance, she made the return journey home across hundreds of miles of frozen wastelands to reunite her splintered family in post war Germany.

MEG PRINGLE ADAMSON takes up the story..

 Helga and husband Ronald
No regrets: Helga and, her husband Ronald

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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 Hitler.'

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 upon.

"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 neck.

"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 if you 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 Publications Ltd