Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles based on interviews with Philomena Baker, 76, a Bangor area portrait photographer and Reiki master, about her flight from Russia with her mother during World War II and their long journey, mostly on foot, into the American-occupied sector of Germany in 1944 and 1945.
With the beauty of a sunset — her last view of Russia — etched in her memory, 9-year-old Philomena Keller began a ride through the snow-covered Carpathian (Karpates) Mountains in a boxcar attached to a train of wounded German soldiers. It was spring 1944. Did the trip take 10 days? Two weeks? Today, she wonders.
Philomena Baker knows that she and the others crowded into two boxcars were privileged to be associated with the German military. Her mother’s position as an interpreter for the German army entitled her whole family to this escape from Russia. Later they learned the Germans who remained in Odessa were either shot or sent to Siberia.
The train ride would end in German-occupied Poland, where the refugees from Russia would be given German citizenship. But Philomena was unaware of the destination or the significance of the trip.
She felt safe with her mother, Philomene Keller, and relatives, huddled together with their few belongings to keep warm on the floor of the cold freight car. They shared the food they had brought — meat and canned foods that had been put up for the winter in Odessa — but it was not enough for the entire trip. Occasionally, they would receive leftovers from the cars carrying the wounded soldiers.
Word of the train with its two cars of refugees spread from village to village as it passed through the mountains. When the train pulled into a station and slowed down, the big doors of the boxcar rolled open.
“Villagers were waiting on the platform with big bags of bread,” Baker recalled. “They would throw the loaves into the boxcar for us to catch. It was cold and we were hungry.”
Twice a day, when the train stopped to take on water for the steam engine, the refugees were allowed to get out of the boxcars if they needed to. While the medical cars carrying the injured soldiers were fully equipped, there were no restroom facilities in the boxcars. Passengers would spread out in the uninhabited wooded areas along the tracks. The train whistle blew three times to call them back. The last whistle meant the train was ready to move.
After one of these stops Philomena could not find her mother after the doors to the boxcar had closed.
“Where is my mother?” she asked. “Oh, she is probably in one of the other cars talking to the soldiers,” her relatives responded. But she sensed their restlessness. She was worried.
Baker was in her 70s before she learned what had happened. Her cousin Viktoria finally told her the story that had been kept a secret all these years to protect her from the distress they all had felt. No one wanted her to know that after that fateful rest stop, her mother was missing.
Apparently, her mother’s modesty had led her too far from the track to get back to the train in time. She was alone in a vast land of snow when she heard the whistle. She started to run, climbing up the snowy embankment to the tracks. She had not reached the train when it started to move.
A man in the rear car, perhaps a medical assistant, saw her and shouted encouragement. Then more and more people saw her. They yelled and cheered as she ran to keep up. The snow slowed her down. The man stepped out onto the bottom step of the stairs, grasping the handrail with one hand and reaching for Philomene’s outstretched hand with the other.
“Viktoria just melts away when she tells the story,” Baker says, recalling her cousin’s words: “That picture is absolutely indescribable — your mother running through the snow and how everyone was cheering her on and how that man risked his life to save her. It was a miracle that your mother had the strength to catch up to the train and grasp the hand that drew her to safety.”
“I had no idea,” Baker said. “When we were reunited in the boxcar it was as though nothing had happened.”
The long train ride ended in Posen, Poland, where the refugees were hustled off the train onto the station platform.
“Immediately we were ushered into a room where we received our German citizenship papers. It was all very secretive and quick, so no one else would intrude and the processing would be legitimate. I looked at the date on my paper: June 1, 1944. In five days I would be 10.”
With the land of her birth behind her, Philomena now belonged to the country of her mother’s ancestors, a nation facing defeat in a war begun when she was 5 with the invasion of Poland, where she now stood. The Germans had gotten her out of Russia, but she and her family were not yet safe from the Russians. She had just begun her flight to freedom, most of which would be on foot.
Kathryn Olmstead may be reached at email@example.com.