Some more Memories of our Time in the Refugee Camp in East Frisia, Germany in 1953

Before t am going to tell you about our move to  the Old House of Rocky Docky in the Rhineland region of Germany, I want to talk a bit more  about our experiences in the refugee camp in Aurich, East Frisia.

emblemMost children live in the present.  To this day I always liked to live in the present moment rather than in the past or future.  However, writing my blog now forces me to relive the past.  This is a request of our five sons who want to hear my side of the  “Peter-Gertrud Story ”  my husband is writing,   I have to admit that I actually start enjoying this trip on memory lane.  Now back to the past…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery day is a new experience for children and I enjoyed every day of my new life.  No time to think of the past.   School was exciting because of our inspiring and kind teacher.  With so many families living  in close proximity in the camp my brother and I had lots of friends.   Most of the time we spent outside playing in those endless meadows surrounding the camp.  There was never a dull moment  because someone would always come up with an exciting activity or game.  We skipped rope, played ball games, did yoga type gymnastics  often inventing new poses, had talent shows singing and performing songs we had heard on the radio.  We played all the old fashioned games like marbles, hopscotch, hide and seek, catch or make belief games.  Sometimes we would just collect daisies, dandelions or other flowers  to braid wreaths, or  we would  lie back in the lush meadows and daydream.

dandelionLooking back now from an adult perspective life for my parents was not that idyllic. They were eager to have a place again where they could put down roots and call it home.  But time dragged on.  Sometimes my mom would take us to the picturesque  town of Aurich, where my dad had found a temporary position as dental technician at the local dentist’s office.  On those outings my mom would slip quietly into the beautiful old church to kneel down and pray a few Our Fathers. Often it looked like she was crying.

1024px-CatholicChurchAurichMy brother and I loved these town outings because my mother would buy us cones with whipping cream, a specialty of the region, which is known for its sweet and rich cream from happy cows grazing on those lush pastures.  My mom would drink East Frisian black tea  with little “clouds” of heavy cream, also a specialty of the region.

220px-Tee_mit_sahneNovember 11, is a special holiday  for children in East Frisia, called St. Martin’s day.  A  few days before  the special night we were taught at school how to make paper lanterns.  We also learned to sing special St. Martin’s songs.

On the night of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we dressed up in costumes and then walked in a group from house to house singing the songs we had learned.  Like at Halloween we would receive candies or other goodies in return.  For my brother and me it was the first time we experienced such a magical night.

5In contrast to Halloween it does not have any scary origins. The historical St. Martin was known as a friend of children and the poor and there are many legends about his kindness and charity.  He once shared his coat with a beggar in a severe snowstorm to save his life.  Often this legend is reenacted in a parade with St. Martin riding on a horse with the beggar wearing half his coat.

Martin Pferd





Memories of the Aurich Refugee Camp (1953-54)

After our first night in the crowded dormitory shared with twelve strangers and with other strangers passing through our room  from the adjacent sick room my mother was very upset.  She feared for our health and well being due to the proximity of the contagious people who had to pass  frequently through our door to visit the facilities or other places in the building.

After my mother voiced her concerns to the management we were assigned to a small private room which was furnished with two sets of metal bunk beds, a table with four chairs and a small wardrobe.  Although this room was smaller than my father’s study in Gotha we felt happy to have more privacy.  We still had to share our door to the hallway with the occupants of the neighboring room; a young widow and her two children.  Her son was five years older than my brother and I, while her daughter two years younger than us.  But in spite of the age difference we became good friends.

Rainer and Gabi’s mom always looked glamorous. She  dressed like a film star.  I knew how film stars looked like from pictures of American actors and actresses which were in the packages of chewing gum.  I had  started collecting  those pictures when staying with our friends in Dortmund.

When I made a comment about her mom’s clothes to Gabi she told me her mother’s secret.  Her mom had found a way to contact fan clubs of actors in the United States.  She would tell them of her plight as  widowed refugee asking for charitable donations.  Among other things she would receive big parcels with the most fashionable, expensive outfits, shoes and accessories often only worn a few times by her idols.


liz taylor

Gabi’s brother Rainer went to the Merchant Marine Corps  as a cadet   after he turned 14 years old and had passed grade 8.   He brought me a beautiful scarf from one of his training sessions in Hamburg, the biggest harbor in Germany.  My mom proudly displayed it on the wall as you can see on the picture. I admired and adored Rainer.  He would be traveling to many of the places my dad had shown us on the world map.


My brother and i adjusted quickly to our new life in the camp although we did not like to eat in the crowded and noisy dining hall.  I in particular was a very picky eater and often felt nauseated just from the food odors permeating the building.  My father who had experienced extreme hunger in the war had no sympathy with me and would get very upset and angry when I refused to eat certain foods or left something on my plate.   Eventually my mother would feed us separately at different times so my dad could enjoy his meals without stress.

CantineAfter a long break in Dortmund my brother and I were able to go to school again right at our camp.  Makeshift classrooms were set up in one of the large lecture and meeting halls.  We sat at round tables which was a nice break from individual desks.

I always loved school and even enjoyed homework.  Since we were instructed by one teacher in a multigrade setting we had to work independently for long periods of time.  Math problems were my favorites because when they were completed we were allowed to read or draw.  I would always draw beautiful princesses in lavish dresses.

I remember the day I received my first report card.  My brother and our friends were walking across the big court yard back to the living quarters when we were stopped by a stranger.  “Well”, he asked, “who of you children received the best report card today?”   Immediately some of our friends pointed at my brother, some at me and some at another boy.   “Let me see your report cards”, the man demanded.  Timidly we handed them to him.   After studying them for a while he handed them back except mine.  “You have the best,” he said with a smile, “congratulations, you deserve a reward.”   He reached into his wallet and gave me some money, the equivalent of about  $5.00.   I was so stunned I could barely say thank you.  I never had so much money before.  My dad was so proud hearing the story that he matched the stranger’s reward.

Although I missed my best friend in Gotha, I made lots of new friends.  After school we would play on the big meadows surrounding the buildings.  Contrary to our parents the restricted living area in that small room was not an issue.  We had lots of space and freedom to roam on the meadows and green spaces surrounding the barracks.

One day we ventured as a group out of the camp confines to a nearby treed area to play hide and seek. It was almost getting dark when one of the kids shouted,  “Let’s go back, there is a dangerous man trying to catch us!”   With pounding hearts we raced back to the camp gate and breathlessly told the attending guard that we were pursued by a dangerous man.  Although, as I found out later none of us had actually seen this man, we were totally convinced that we were telling the truth.  In our minds he existed.  I guess this is a small example of mass hysteria.  We never ventured into that forest area again.





A Year in the Refugee Camp in Aurich Germany (1953-54)



Happy to be finally reunited with our beloved parents we had to say good bye to our new friends in Dortmund.

Our parents told us that we would not go back home to Gotha for a long, long time until the two separated Germanys would be reunited again.

First we would have to live in a refugee camp for some time until we would hopefully find a new home in the Rhineland region where my mother was born.  After the destruction caused by the war and the rapid immigration of refugees from the East housing was in short supply.   There was a construction frenzy all over West Germany to keep up with the urgent demand for housing.  People had to live in temporary shelters often for a long period of time.

We were assigned to live in a refugee camp in Lower Saxony.  Abandoned military barracks were converted into a refuge camp in Sandhorst, a small community close to Aurich, a quaint small town. This camp could house thousands of refugees.


The buildings looked bright  and clean.  They were surrounded by lots of green spaces.  There were meadows and lush pastures stretching to the endless horizon on this flat landscape.


aurich meadow



We were assigned to a room with six bunk beds.  Three other families shared the room with us. From our dormitory a door led to another room about the same size.  Occupants of that adjacent room shared our door to the hallway.  Thus there was a lot of traffic through our room and there was little privacy.

We were told that we should  avoid close contact with the people in the neighboring room because they had a very contagious disease. I noticed that my mother looked quite shocked when she heard that. My brother and I, however, were very excited  with the prospect of sleeping  on the upper bunk beds

After we stored our small suitcases under our beds, the camp attendant led us to a big hall lined with multiple long racks of clothing in all sizes.  They were donated by American charities and other organizations and people from all over the world. We were invited to pick some clothing we needed and liked.  That was exciting for me, because I had never had the opportunity to chose a dress on my own.  I had always worn hand-me-downs sent from my mom’s distant relatives.

I picked a dress, which the attending lady told us was donated by a family from South Africa. I loved the dress and imagined a girl like me having worn it in a far away place.

The kind lady invited us to pose in our newly chosen clothes for a photo out on the lawn in the mild spring air. We all looked happy on this rare family picture, the first one  in the “Golden West”.








First Impressions of the Golden West in the year 1953.

I want to continue talking about my memories of the first years in the Golden West.

My sister’s friends,  who hosted us while my parents were in the refugee camp in Berlin to ask for asylum, were very kind to us.  Their two young sons became our friends and especially my brother loved their toys.  The Meccano set was his favorite.  He would amaze us with his elaborate constructions.



For a while we were distracted by our exciting new esperiences.  But as time dragged on without any contact with our parents I started getting  very homesick.

I missed my parents who had vanished so unexpectedly.  I missed my loving sister and my two little nephews.

Elsbeth family

I missed school and our friends.  (Except for a short visit to see what a West German school looked like, we were not allowed  to attend classed with our host children.)

I missed our beautiful, spacious home in Gotha with the large windows letting the light shine in.  I missed the comfort and warmth sitting with our dad on the bench of our tile stove listening to his stories.  I missed exploring the world on the big map covering  the wall in his study.   I missed playing with our friends on our quiet street flanked by old linden trees leading to our beloved castle park.


I missed our family bike or tram excursions into the vast forests…   I missed my mom’s cooking since I was a picky eater.   I even missed my teacher Mrs. Goose, who for some reason was not liked by my father.


thur wald

Before going to sleep i dreamed about what I would tell my best friend Anneliese about the Golden West.

I was going to tell her that our home in Gotha was a much better place.  That  here in Dortmund people lived in small crammed apartments on busy streets where it was not safe to play  or even walk alone.


On weekends instead of going to the park or hiking in the forests people would visit the graveyards that looked like parks.  But you could not freely run or roam about or play and explore.  You had to walk respectfully and quietly like adults and sit on stone benches near the graves  to silently pray or meditate.

grave angel

I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden.   It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.  As for the big allure of freedom it was overrated.   Although,  I could have chocolate and even bubble gum,  I felt more restricted here than at home.

My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except to the nearby fenced-in playground.  They would drop us off and pick us up,

In Gotha we were allowed to play for hours in our neighborhood.  Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own.  A  friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some of the historical highlights.

Gotha Schloss


Famous Gotha Lovers (Liebespaar)


Thus, we learned that even the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship.  Since our dad was a history buff,  he had told us about Napoleon who fascinated him.

bed Gotha

Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home, which I seemed to be losing.  Every night I prayed that we would return  to Gotha  soon.

But day after day my brother and I were told that we had to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.

One afternoon, my brother and our new friends  were at the nearby playground with a group of other children.  I was gently swinging back and forth dreaming of playing with Anneliese when a boy I had never met started pushing me.  At first I didn’t mind.  Then in spite of my protests, he pushed me higher and higher.  My screams to stop seemed to entice him to push even harder and higher. I was terrified of the dizzying height and the unrelenting forceful behavior of the big boy who seemed to delight in my distress.


All of a sudden I lost control and fell flat onto the ground face first.  The fall knocked the wind out of me and I struggled for a long time to gasp for air.

Suddenly it was very quiet on the play ground.  All the kids had run away except my brother and our friends.  They stood around me looking worried.

Luckily, I was not seriously hurt.  However, my faith in the kindness of people in the Golden West was shaken.  I had never met such a mean bully at home.

train dort

Miraculously, the next morning our hosts told us that our parents were on their way to get us.


A Short Interlude Before the Continuation of The First Years in the Golden West

Before I start my post,  i want to mention that I don’t always use the right names of people.   For example.  my first teacher’s name was not Mrs.Goose.  My father could be very sarcastic.  He didn’t seem to like my teacher and called her often “Dumme Gans”  which meant “stupid goose”.    As I stated in my post,  she was definitely not stupid and I liked her.  But I cannot remember her real name.

At this point I will digress a bit more to show how miraculously life is interconnected often in strange ways.

When I was twenty one years old I moved from the Golden West to the Wild West in Canada where I married Peter.  For 10 years we lived in Alberta and then moved to this wonderful place Fauquier in British Columbia where we raised our five sons.

In Fauquier we became friends with  Richard E.  who had also immigrated to Canada from Germany, a few years before us.

After the Berlin Wall fell, and  Germany was reunited, Richard invited us to his farm to meet his pen pal Peter. Richard and  Peter, who lived in former East Germany,  had corresponded for many years without ever meeting each other.   Now Peter and his wife Edelgard  finally free to travel decided to meet Richard in person.  They celebrated their 25th anniversary  on his Apple Grove farm.

Richard E.

Peter and I were quite surprised to find out that we were born almost at the same time in the same place.   This is quite a coincidence since Germany  is heavily populated and has a lot more towns and places than all of Canada.

Peter still lives in Germany.  When he started reading my blog he was all excited.  He tried to help me with some research about my school in Gotha.

He sent me the picture of the beautifully renovated school which I inserted in my post. He also tried to find out more about my first teacher, Mrs.Goose or Frau Gans.

He had contacted the principal who was distraught that he could not find any records or information on this teacher.   “Our records from that time are a bit sketchy”, the principal had apologized.

I had a hearty laugh.  But I realize that I should warn you that I try to stay as closely to the facts as possible but sometimes I use poetic freedom especially when I write about people I met along this miraculous journey of life. GeeseArtI painted this picture from a photo our son Stefan took on the golf course.   Geese are beautiful and not “stupid.”

First years in the Golden West

My last post ended with the train chugging through the night carrying my mom, my twin brother and me to the Golden West.

My mother had been granted permission to travel to West Germany to visit her dying guardian aunt.  She was allowed to take us with her under the condition that our father stayed back as guarantor for our return.  He would be severely punished if we didn’t come back.

Although i was dead tired, I fought sleep and attempted to keep my eyes open. I kept my face pressed against the cold, damp train window  staring into the dark night waiting for the first glimpse of gold when we entered the west.

In spit of my valiant effort to stay awake, I must have dozed off for a while in my mother’s arm. Suddenly the rhythmic clanking sounds of the train rolling over the tracks stopped and the train came to a screeching halt.  My brother and I woke up with a startle.

Two uniformed conductors entered the dimly lit compartment. My mother handed them some papers, which they studied for a while. Contrary to her nature my mom did not say a word nor did she smile, but sat stock still tightening her grip around us.

Without saying a word either, the conductors returned the papers and  left the compartment. Shortly after, the train whistle blew, smoke from the engine drifted by the window and the train started rolling through the night again.

Suddenly my mom’s face lit up and she began hugging and kissing us exuberantly.  “We are in the West now. we are in the West, we are free, we are free,”  she repeated over and over again.

My brother still half asleep showed no reaction to her expressions of  joy. but dropped his head into her lap and continued sleeping.

I was completely bewildered.  Why didn’t I see any gold?  There was not even a star in the sky. Only total darkness. The Golden West we had entered looked exactly like the East we came from.

Suddenly it dawned on me that the Golden West was just a figure of speech, a metaphor for something  extremely precious and magnificent like gold.  Somehow it seemed connected to Freedom.

Too tired to ponder this mystery any longer, I snuggled into my mother’s warm arm.  I let myself be lulled to sleep by her happy sing song and the rhythmic clanking and rattling sounds of the train carrying us closer to freedom.

We arrived at Dortmund at sunrise.  At the station we were warmly greeted by my sister’s friends who had escaped to the west a few years earlier.  The young couple with their two sons, who were about our age, took us to their small apartment not much bigger than our front room at home in Gotha.

After freshening up and having some breakfast my mother told us that we would stay with this kind family for an unspecified time. She would have to see her aunt and then travel immediately to West Berlin,   But she and our dad would reunite with us as soon as possible.

My brother and I were too dazed and confused by all the recent events that we did not ask many questions. The two friendly boys engaged us into play and shared some chocolate with us, which helped us recover from the strenuous train ride and made us feel welcome. Without making a fuss we kissed our mother good bye.

I do not know all the exact details of my parents’ defection to the West.  I only know that my mother went by night train to West Berlin where she met up with my father and both asked for political asylum at the Marienfelde refugee camp.

While my mother had traveled with us to Dortmund, my father had traveled to East Berlin where he had relatives. He did not take a suit case.  To remain inconspicuous he carried only his leather briefcase with his small portable typewriter and important documents. In East Belin he went on the subway train and quietly left the train at a West Berlin station.   At that time the wall did not yet exist and people could escape  this way.  That’s why the wall eventually was erected.


My parents then spent a few weeks at the Marienfelde refugee camp, which processed the flood of asylum seekers from the East.  After receiving their refugee status they were then allocated to a refugee camp in northern Germany.  Our first year as refugees in this camp will be the topic of my next post.