Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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.
Discharged from the train that carried them across the Carpathian Mountains into Poland, the refugees from Russia, now German citizens, needed places to stay. Towns and villages in German-occupied Poland and across Germany were ready for them.
Residents who had space to offer in homes, barns or vacant buildings registered with the Burgermeister, the chief town official. When refugees entered a village or town, they looked for the Burgermeister, who would help them find shelter. They also received coupons to redeem for food.
Once Philomena, who was five days away from turning 10, and her mother received their citizenship papers upon arrival in Posen, Poland, they were directed to a nearby small house that had been vacated by its owners. This would be their home for the winter.
“It was a nice little house beside a road going through a small village,” Baker said. “My mother tended the post office and maintained the telephone switchboard. She taught me to connect phone calls. Often, they were soldiers calling home from their stations.
“Aunt Julia and her family lived across and down the road. Her oldest boy, Josef, was drafted into the German army. Viktoria, Angelika and Alfred were old enough to do farm work. Johannes and I were too young to work.
“When the school year began, I took a bus every day to a school in Schlehen, about seven kilometers [just more than 4 miles] away. Different ages of students were grouped together in one classroom. All of a sudden, I could speak German. It was easy to learn among my new German-speaking friends.”
Spring arrived, and the apple trees were in full bloom. Word spread among the refugees that the Russian army was beginning to encircle the area and that they should prepare to leave. Josef was visiting his family on leave from the army and called his military unit for instructions on how to rejoin his company. He was told that he had been cut off from his unit and should stay with his family.
“Word got around we were going to leave in the morning,” Baker said. “Johannes and I, because we were the youngest, would ride on a wagon with the elderly aunt, who was ill. Everyone else would walk.”
The next morning, Josef insisted on wearing his army uniform. His mother protested, warning him that she thought it would be dangerous. But he wanted to make a political statement and joined the mass of refugees as a member of the German military.
“The road was crowded with people, anxious to get away from the Russians,” Baker said. “I remember the apple blossoms. They were beautiful.
“Suddenly, there was a commotion. A Volkswagen pulled up alongside us and stopped. A [German] military officer covered with medals stepped out, pointed to Josef and told him to get in.
“We never saw him again. Can you imagine? His mother was there, his aunt was crying. There was no way to communicate with the commander who had told him to stay with his family. The officer who picked him up didn’t believe he had tried to rejoin his company. We learned later he was shot as a deserter.”
After a winter of relative comfort in German-occupied Poland, Philomena, her mother, her aunt and her cousins were homeless, walking with other German refugees toward an uncertain destination — west — bereft over the loss of Josef. At least they had each other. Then, the two families became separated.
They were excited when they learned that they might be able to catch a train bound for Germany. The station platform was jammed. Everyone wanted to be on that train.
“Aunt Julia and her four children and aunt squeezed into one of the cars,” Baker said. “The train started to move. People were clinging to the doorways and hanging from the windows. The train pulled away, and [my mother and I] were left at the station with many other people. We waited for the next train, but it never came. It had been bombed by Russian airplanes.”
So they continued walking. When they reached a village, they found the town office, where the Burgermeister connected them with people who had offered space for refugees to stay.
Baker speaks fondly of the young mother who welcomed them to her small farmhouse about 20 kilometers (just more than 12 miles) from Potsdam, where she was living with her infant and her mother while her husband was off at war. Philomena and her mother had been there for some time before they discovered that her Aunt Julia and her family had found a place to stay in Potsdam.
“One day, I was walking to visit a school friend when I saw a girl getting off a bicycle on the embankment by the highway,” Baker said. “The girl looked just like Viktoria. I called to her; it was Viktoria. We rushed into each other’s arms. It was a surreal moment.”
Philomena’s older cousin had set out on a borrowed bicycle to look for her relatives. She was cycling from village to village asking the Burgermeister in each town if anyone named Keller had requested a place to stay. She had been riding most of the day when Philomena spotted her.
“I took her to the farmhouse where we were staying,” Baker said. “She told us about the lovely place where they were staying in Potsdam. It was owned by an opera singer who filled the house with music when she practiced, sometimes even when they were trying to sleep.”
So the two families were reunited and were able to visit each other during the month or so they spent waiting for word that it was time to move on.
“We never knew what the Russians were doing,” Baker said. “We depended on hearsay and spies for the news.”
They would learn later that the Russians were about to take the last major German stronghold — Berlin — a few kilometers east of Potsdam. The Russians were moving toward the Elbe River from the east, and the Allies were approaching the river from the west. The Elbe would be a point of surrender for German soldiers.
If Philomena and her relatives could cross the Elbe River, they would be on soil controlled by the Americans, but they had to get there ahead of the Russians.
“Everyone wanted to be in the American sector,” Baker said. “Word got around that the Americans were humane. So that’s where everyone was aiming to go — toward the Americans.”
Philomena and her mother planned to take a train to Potsdam, where they would meet Julia and her family. From there, they would travel together on the train from nearby Berlin to Munich, in the safety of the Western sector. But they had a contingency plan, in case they became separated again.
“A friend of Angelika in Potsdam had told her about a place in the American sector called Barbaraberg, near the city of Weiden,” Baker said. “She wrote the name of the town on a piece of paper for Angelika to take with her. My mother and Aunt Julia agreed that we would meet in Barbaraberg if we lost each other.”
The plan was well conceived. The two families were separated before their journey even began. As the German army retreated, they left a trail of destruction behind them to impede the advance of the Russians. Timed explosives wiped out bridges and ripped up train rails.
“The train we were supposed to take to Potsdam never came,” Baker said. “It was destroyed by Russian dive-bombers. We were going to have to find our way to the Elbe River on foot.
“We packed up our belongings and said goodbye to the kind young mother who had given us shelter. She had made fresh loaves of bread for us to take.
“I learned later that my mother had entrusted this young woman with our precious family photos and documents.”
Months later, once the two were settled and safe, Philomene returned to retrieve those pictures and documents.
“I have them today because they were kept safely during a time in our journey when they might have been destroyed,” Baker said.
Kathryn Olmstead may be reached at email@example.com.