Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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.
It had been almost a year since 10-year-old Philomena and her mother, Philomene, fled Odessa, Russia, in a boxcar added to a hospital train of wounded German soldiers. After spending the winter of 1944-45 in German-occupied Poland, they had joined a massive westward migration of German refugees fleeing the Russians, who would be among the victors at the end of World War II.
Berlin would fall to the Russians on April 23, 1945, and Hitler would end his life there on April 30. The Russians and the Western Allies would meet at the Elbe River, which would be a point of surrender for the German army, a prelude to the partitioning of Germany into four sectors occupied by Russia, France, Britain and the United States.
After a monthlong stay near Potsdam, Baker and her mother were alone. The plan to meet their relatives in Potsdam for a train trip to safety in western Germany had been aborted when the train they would have taken was bombed. They had to cross the Elbe River to reach the American sector and be safe from the Russians. And they had to walk.
They had no maps. They just kept asking people for the way to the Elbe River. Baker can still see the roadsides littered with things people had cast aside to lighten their loads. Only military vehicles were allowed fuel, so civilian cars and trucks were abandoned beside the road when their gas tanks ran dry. Everyone walked.
Hitler had ordered bridges and rails destroyed to hinder the advance of the Russians behind his army as it moved west. This “scorched earth” policy also impeded Philomena and her mother. They had just left the friendly family that had given them shelter near Potsdam when they were thrown to the ground by an explosion.
“To reach the highway we crossed a bridge,” Philomena recalled. “Seconds later it exploded — a timed explosive set by the Germans to slow down the Russians. My mother threw herself on top of me and debris covered our bodies. If we had been a few minutes later the bridge would have been gone, or we might have been on it.
“My mother led me away from the crowd into a wooded area to avoid low-flying Russian airplanes attacking those who were fleeing. We walked in the woods where we found mushrooms for food and brooks for water and shadow for rest.”
Later in their journey they came to a small village where the only two bridges across a river had been destroyed. But the rails and ties of one of them remained.
“‘We must cross this bridge,’ my mother said. “‘Follow me, do as I do and don’t look down.’ I followed her as we crawled across the ties while the river roared beneath us. When we arrived on the other side, my mother held me tight and shed tears of gratitude.
“We walked many days, sometimes given food and shelter by kind locals. I remember sleeping in a stable with horses and goats. Resting on the soft hay and straw surrounded by peaceful animals I asked my mother, ‘Is this how Jesus slept?’”
After days of walking, both mother and daughter had worn out their shoes.
“We were walking up one of the highest mountains in that region. The tar road was burning our feet and the sun was scorching our skin. One morning we awoke and my mother was so badly burned we had to stop.”
They found the burgomaster, or mayor, in the nearest village. All of the town’s doctors had been drawn into the war, and there was no hospital. Sick and injured people were spread out on the floor of a school on straw mats. They found a place for Philomena’s mother in this makeshift hospital and gave her daughter a mat by her side.
“We must have been there 10 days. She was covered with burns. I remember it was Mother’s Day. I picked a bouquet of field flowers for her and we put them in a drinking glass. I was so happy to bring her some cheer.” When Philomene had healed enough to travel, they resumed their westward trek.
‘A moving carpet of people’
In the last stages of the war, as Philomena and her mother neared the Elbe River, the Russians surrounded the Germans in what they called der Kessel — the kettle. The crowds of refugees thickened — civilians, German soldiers, army vehicles, teenage soldiers with missing limbs and bleeding arms, legs and faces. When a mili-tary jeep carrying German officers moved through, people stepped aside. One such vehicle stopped beside Philomena and her mother. An officer in a heavily decorated uniform gestured to them.
“‘Steigen Sie ein’ [‘Hop in’],’ he said, and helped us into the open jeep. He asked my mother where we were from and said he had a child about my age. He did not know if his family was alive and they did not know where he was. He wanted to help us. He offered me candy and rations, food they should have eaten. Without that ride, we might have been left in territory occupied by the Russians.”
When they reached the Elbe, a ferry was moving back and forth to the shore occupied by the Americans. Finally, they would be safe from the Russians closing in behind them. But they were stopped by a jeep announcing that only soldiers were allowed to cross. The single ferry could no longer transport civilians.
“The shores became a moving carpet of people,” Baker recalled. “My mother motioned: ‘Let’s move away from the crowd.’
“We saw an open barge loaded with coal and a company of German soldiers hidden in a cove. The captain agreed to let us cross with them if we helped remove some of the coal to lighten the load. It was raining as we threw the coal off the boat with our bare hands. A mother in tears with a baby and a toddler begged to come along. The boat could only carry half of the soldiers at one time.”
On the American side of the river, civilians were separated from the German soldiers who were officially received as prisoners of war.
“’We are here to surrender,’” the German officer stated. “The humility of surrendering really touched my mother,” Baker said. “The most touching moment for her was when they had to take off their wedding bands.
“As prisoners of war they had to turn over their weapons, jewelry, tools and maps, but the Russians would have killed them. They were blessed to be surrendering to the Americans, who were very humane. The German officer pleaded for permission to return for the rest of his men. The request was granted. Now that’s humanity. Who but Americans would allow that?”
Nonetheless, the American soldiers did not allow the German civilians to remain. Philomena, her mother, and the young woman with the two children were turned away from the American shore. They had to return to the coal boat with the German officer to be ferried back to the side of the river soon to be occupied by the Rus-sians.
“The grass reached my shoulders as we boarded in the rain and the dark of the night.” Halfway across the river, the boat ran aground on a sandbar — good fortune for the civilians, but the German officer was beside himself with concern for the troops he had left behind.
“Again, we threw out more coal with our bare hands to make the boat lighter, but nothing we did was helping. In the middle of the night, the Russians announced their arrival to the eastern shore of the river by firing shots. The Americans responded with shots from the other shore. Then the Russian soldiers returned to the village we had just left.
“The German officer shed tears for fear his men would fall into the hands of the Russians. The woman with the two children made a white flag of her camisole to help protect our boat from an attack.
“At sunrise, a fisherman appeared in a small canoe-sized boat. It was Sunday and he wanted to do some fishing before church. The German officer asked him to take us across the river. He said his boat was too small, but promised to return with a larger one. We thought they would never see him again, but he did return in a larger boat with a motor. He took the civilians first; then he went back with the officer to look for the German soldiers on the Russian side.
“We got out of the boat into the tall grass again. American jeeps drove back and forth patrolling the shore. The American soldiers saw us, but this time they looked the other way. They allowed us to continue our journey to freedom.”
Kathryn Olmstead may be reached at email@example.com.