Editor’s Note: This is the sixth 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.
For Philomena and her mother, crossing the Elbe River into American-occupied Germany meant safety. And they were there thanks to the compassion of American soldiers who did not obstruct their scramble onto the shore from the boat that had transported them after a rainy night of uncertainty on the river.
Their relief was interrupted by a loud speaker.
“There was an announcement that civilians who crossed during the night should register,” Philomena recalled. “They might have been asking us to register for food rations, but my mother was not about to take the chance of being returned to the Russian side of the river. We moved away as quickly as we could.”
They walked into a village where townspeople were waiting in the streets to offer refugees a place to stay. Philomena and her mother were welcomed into a family that made them feel like royalty.
“It was unbelievable. They had a beautiful room prepared with two beds, [comforters], clean sheets and running water. They pushed tables together to make a long table for dinner and set out beautiful dishes, silverware and linens. This house was full of love.”
The next day they left their comfortable quarters with hopes they might find Barbaraberg, near Weiden, where they had agreed to meet Philomena’s aunt and her family. They saw only one vehicle — a truck full of gravel — and the driver stopped to ask where they were headed.
“Weiden,” they said.
“Steigen Sie ein [Hop in],” said the driver.
That ride saved them a 25-mile walk to Weiden, and the truck driver suggested a shortcut through the woods that might lead them to Barbaraberg.
As evening approached, Philomena’s mother was anxious to find a place to stay. They had passed the house of a forester in the woods, but no one was there, so they walked on, eventually entering a small village.
“As we walked up the hill, we could see the steeple of a church and the roofs of houses. My mother was hurrying because it was getting late and she wanted to find the Burgermeister before dark.”
As they approached the village center, the church bell rang and people began to file out of the church after a prayer service. Philomena stopped to watch. Her mother urged her on.
“Hurry, we must find a place to stay.”
But Philomena lingered, observing specific worshippers who looked just like her aunt and cousins.
“Tante Julia!” she called. “Angelika! Johannes!”
Her mother was embarrassed. “Come, Mina, don’t be silly.”
But Julia, Angelika and Johannes turned when they heard their names, and they recognized Philomena and her mother. They rushed to greet each other in jubilant reunion. Once again, a series of coincidences had brought the two families together, this time in a village called Schwarzenbach.
Julia, her children and aunt had caught the last train from Berlin to Munich before Berlin fell to the Russians. During the night, their train was attacked by Russian planes, possibly because the pilots thought it was carrying soldiers. The train stopped near a wooded area so the passengers could jump out and hide. People scattered into the woods where they spent the night. They had no idea where they were, but started walking the next morning.
Julia’s family stayed two weeks in Weiden before they were assigned to jobs that suited their skills in the village of Schwarzenbach. Angelika, who was trained in child care, had a job caring for children during the day. Her mother, Julia, did the cooking. They and Johannes, the youngest, lived in the house that served as the day care center for farmers’ children. Alfred and Viktoria lived in a farmhouse where they cared for the animals used in the fields.
“There were no men older than 16 in the village. They all had been drafted. Women did everything. Everyone lived off the farms, and they welcomed people who could help them.”
And what about Barbaraberg? They had gone looking for this place where they had planned to rendezvous, but it was not even a town. It was an elevated hill serving as pasture for the animals of local farmers.
How could it be that both families would find their way to the tiny village of Schwarzenbach by such different routes? It seemed like more than coincidence.
Kathryn Olmstead may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.