From Germany’s ruins to Fort Kent, Maine

Posted Dec. 31, 2010, at 11:57 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:54 a.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a series 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.

Bayreuth, Germany, had anticipated an influx of refugees. The German government constructed special dwellings called Behelfsheime, or emergency homes, for German citizens who had fled Russian-occupied Eastern Germany. Philomena, who was 10 years old at the time, and her mother eventually moved into one of these houses. They were simple wooden structures with a shed roof and unfurnished apartments containing only a wood stove and a cabinet for food.

“We entered through a common door into a nice foyer,” Baker said. “An apartment consisted of a kitchen and a smaller room containing a bed made out of boards. It was comfortable. We were lucky. Everyone was grateful.”

Bayreuth was heaped with the rubble of war. “We had to climb over mountains of debris to get from place to place. The streets and sidewalks were full of stones and dust fine as sugar or flour. We would see furnishings — a bed, a chair — still sitting in upstairs rooms of bombed-out buildings.”

Every morning Philomena spent several hours in a long line, container in hand, waiting for her daily ration of milk.

One day, as she walked home, she was surprised to see her mother weeding a garden on the opposite side of a tall wire fence. She called to her and waved, but her mother gestured that she should hurry along and not linger by the fence that separated them.

“She was fortunate to have a job, even a menial one, I realized later.”

Bayreuth was the location of a U.S. Army base, and American soldiers introduced German children to games and traditions that were new and fun for them.

“They would get the children together for holiday games they had played at home. They organized Easter egg hunts and three-legged races — games we had never heard of — and they gave candies for prizes. They were not soldiers; they were young men away from home. They were always doing nice things for the children, and I was one of those.

“We were so fortunate to be in the part of Germany occupied by the Americans. We looked up to them. They were kind and good.”

But even in Western Germany, Philomena and her family were not safe. The Russians wanted those who had fled to be returned. They were rounding up Russian refugees and sending them back to Russia on trains.

Fortunately, Philomena and her family had obtained documents identifying them as being not from Russia, but from Alsace-Lorraine — the home of her ancestors, the territory between France and Germany from which the Germans in the colonies around Odessa had come.

“My mother, her sister and all of us children were now from Alsace, not Russia.”

Schools that had been converted into hospitals gradually reopened as schools and Philomena was allowed to enter at the sixth-grade level. At the end of sixth grade, she passed an exam for admission to “gymnasium,” the German school for students preparing for professions such as law, medicine, pharmacy and the priesthood that required a foundation in Latin, Greek and English. She was one of seven girls in her class, as only men were expected to pursue the professions requiring higher education and a background in languages.

The years passed.

After Philomena graduated from gymnasium, she learned about a vacancy in the U.S. Army Special Services library. The librarian encouraged her to apply, but Philomena was sure she did not speak English well enough for such a position.

“Don’t worry,” said the librarian. “I will prepare you for the interview.”

The librarian knew exactly what Philomena would be asked, and coached her on the answers to each question. She was confident Philomena would learn English quickly once she got the job, and she was right. Philomena was hired and learned not only how to be a librarian, but also how to take and process photographs.

She obtained the training necessary to operate the photo lab at the U.S. Army base at Amberg, Germany. Besides processing film and printing photos, she also taught military family members how to handle a camera and compose photos. She also took them on photo tours of German cities.

John Baker from Fort Kent, Maine, was one of the people she served in the photo lab. She was not interested in romance. She knew of relationships that had ended sadly for young German girls who fell in love with American soldiers. Nonetheless, John stood out.

Their friendship grew after she was injured in an auto accident. John was among the many people who came to visit during the three months she spent in the hospital with a fractured pelvis.

He continued to communicate, expressing his growing affection with increasingly larger boxes of candy. The first contained four chocolates, the next eight, and so on until one day she received a 5-pound box of chocolates.

Philomena became Mrs. John A. Baker on Aug. 12, 1959. Three months later, she boarded a military airplane reserved for dependents of soldiers with the rank of sergeant or higher. Most civilians and nonmilitary travelers still crossed the ocean by boat at that time, hoping to arrive in America in two weeks. Philomena was there in hours. Three days before Thanksgiving she arrived in Fort Kent, Maine.

Maine

Philomena Baker will never forget her arrival in Fort Kent in November 1959. That first Thanksgiving in the United States is still vivid in her memory.

“My husband’s mother, Irene, accepted me with open arms. ‘You are my daughter and will always be my daughter,’ she said. Her children were the sisters and brothers I never had. They truly, truly accepted me as their sister.

“All the girls were peeling potatoes, making apple pies, setting a beautiful table, and I was part of it. It was wonderful. I could not have come to a better family. I had left my German family behind, but I had new brothers and sisters, and I couldn’t have loved them more.”

John Baker was the son of a veterinarian, Alton Baker, who had followed his father, Jesse, into the profession, treating animals all over Aroostook County. John Baker was a partner in A.D. Baker and Sons, hardwood contractors. A registered Maine Guide, he also operated Camps of Acadia on Eagle Lake and guided sportsmen on hunting and fishing excursions.

In Fort Kent Philomena Baker turned her experience as a photographer into a business — Baker Studio. She competed successfully with Stevens Studio of Bangor for the contract to take school photographs in Fort Kent and became a leader in the local chapters of Business and Professional Women and Dollars for Scholars.

“I loved the people in Fort Kent. They were my extended family. I felt as though I had always lived there.” Many Fort Kent residents visited Philomena after her marriage ended in divorce and she moved to the Bangor area with her two daughters, Debbie and Grace, in 1970. Stevens Studios was pleased to hire her, and she worked there for two years. Then she opened her own studio in Hampden, adding on to her house and growing her business into the largest studio in Maine.

Baker was among the first photographers in Maine to use and process color film. She operated a professional color lab and processed work for professional photographers throughout Maine and New England.

“Photographers all said they would never change from black-and-white to color,” she recalled. “I was drawn to color. The film and the camera were lighter in weight than the heavy 4-by-5 professional-format cameras we used until the early 1970s.”

Baker’s gift for photography has deep roots. She is the daughter of a woman who cherished her photos and saw their value in preserving the people she loved — a woman who, leaving her home forever with only the things she could carry, chose to carry her family photos.

Baker’s mother, Philomene, remained in Bayreuth, where she worked initially at the U.S. Army base. She visited her daughter in Fort Kent and later moved to New York City where she lived and worked for several years at a Catholic residence for retired women. Then she returned to Bayreuth and lived in a retirement home until her death in 1991 at age 88.

Philomena Baker is the now grown-up 9-year-old child, who, leaving her home forever, stopped, mesmerized by the golden shades of the setting sun and said, “I must always remember these varying colors of gold.”

She is the woman who, at 76, still remembers the day when her family began walking from Poland to Germany as “a day when the apple trees were dressed with beautiful blossoms.”

Kathryn Olmstead may be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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