Originally published December 2015
Since it is her birthday tomorrow (December 23rd) I thought it would be nice to continue the series on my family with my mother, Hiltraud Margarete Lass Frennier.
My mom was born December 23, 1935 in Stralsund Germany.
The pictures are of her as a small child with her best friend ever; Vido, a wire-haired dachshund. And her in the early 1960s. (I always thought mom looked like Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched.)
As you know from my earlier posts, her parents were divorced when she was little. Before her reservist father was called to the war, he remarried a woman named Krista, who was the model for all of the wicked stepmothers in fairy tales. Mom was left with her grandparents and stepmother.
As the war progressed, mom was evacuated to a children’s camp near Prague, which is in the Czech Republic today. Along with some personal items, she was allowed to bring Vido. Her father visited her during his leave times. The Fuhrer visited the camp twice, and even singled her out to speak with her (and touch her hair) because of her traditional looks.
As Germany began to lose the war, chaos erupted, and most of the adults administrating the camp ran off and abandoned the children to their own fates. (The story of the lost children of Europe is a sad and lengthy one).
With the camp falling apart, mom took Vido, and was determined to walk home, a journey of over 400 miles. The story of this journey deserves a book. A nine year old and her dog walking through the middle of WWII alone. Mom honed her skills at judging people then, for one wrong decision would have cost her her life. (As one example, she wanted to board a train draped in Red Cross flags. A man warned her not to get on. American fighter bombers later destroyed the train killing almost everyone.) She passed Dresden one night as it was being bombed (so that means from Feb 13-15 1945.) She said she could always hear artillery to her right, and that was the Soviet army. Their delay in crossing the Oder River for three weeks allowed her to make it home safely. Before they arrived at the town, mom had to carry little Vido, because his feet were so bloody he could no longer walk. Both of them were starving and full of lice. Vido was bathed, while mom’s grandmother expertly combed and washed mom’s hair. She said that it was too beautiful to cut.
Around May 2, 1945, the Soviets fought their way into Stralsund. Since the city, unlike many others, had fought back, the Russians cut off food to the for nine months. (Three generals and many troops had drown in the bogs taking the city).
My mother’s family was saved by the kindness of Ukrainian troops who occupied their home. The commander and executive officer were married, and the XO was six months pregnant at the time! They allowed mom’s family to live in their own attic, gave them food, and took care of my mom. What noble people, showing kindness in time of war.
Life carried on, no longer under Nazism, but under Communism. Mom went to school and even joined the Young Pioneers, a communist youth organization. During this period, Krista and mom’s grandfather passed away, leaving mom and her grandmother alone. They discovered during this time that mom’s dad was alive and living in West Germany, while her mother was in England.
In 1953, the East Germans revolted against the harshness of Russian rule. Mom and her high school classmates fought Russian tanks in the streets. Without weapons, she was able to singlehandedly disable a number of tanks and force the crews to abandon them. The American troops, promised over Radio Free Europe, never came, and the revolt was crushed.
Mom went on to college, studying to be an x-ray technician, and even served her time in the East German Navy as a reservist. She got a job in a hospital.
Her participation in the revolt would not go unnoticed forever, and one day, her grandmother suggested that mom should go visit her mother for awhile. This was a signal to flee the country. Once again, my mother had a harrowing journey.
She bought a ticket on a train to one location, but remained past her original destination. At that time in Europe, Railroad Police were common, and they checked everyone’s tickets. As the men moved down the length of the cabin, mom hid behind the door in the bathroom; a tiny room with only a seat, sink, and mirror. The police opened the door to peer inside, and mom was lucky the door did not bump her. She got off the train and made her way to West Berlin, where the Americans captured her and put her in a concentration camp.
My great-grandmother is a true hero of this story. This woman, so harsh on her son, wanted to save her grandchild. She knew that she would take the brunt of what would happen. When my mother failed to report for work after a few days, the State Security Police, known as the Stasi, took her away to torture her for information. If she had told them anything, she would have been executed. She faked ignorance, and they believed her. Later, when they knew where my mother was, they forced her to send letters to mom asking her to come visit. Coded words in the letters let mom know she was being forced. I met her when I was two, not long before she passed away. (Mom was still on the “eliminate if encountered list” until at least 1969. She was only a minor nuisance after all).
At that time, thousands were fleeing the East, and the West was afraid of spies. The Americans were in no way kind to mom, but after three weeks, her father was summoned, and he took her to his home. His health was no longer the best, and he died not too long later. Mom moved to England sometime around then, to live with her mother and stepfather.
In England, mom worked as an x-ray technician, and suffered the persecution of Germans in post-war England. She did make friends, including blacks and Indians, who were treated the same way.
One day, she was invited by a girl friend to go to a party on an American airbase, and there she met my father. They had a love that endures even to this day, despite dad having died in 2002. Even though mom was a former communist and East German, the Air Force allowed them to marry. (Dad was with a unit holding the highest security protections, and even had a Q clearance from the Dept of Energy because he worked with nuclear weapons).
They were married in Massachusetts, and dad’s career brought them to Tennessee. Dad was gone with his unit much of the time, and the FBI began a campaign of harassment against my mom, despite the Air Force assurances. They were always outside the house in a parked car, and followed and harassed mom in public. I like to joke that our best friends at this time were black, since the FBI was doing the same to them, and they didn’t need so many agents to follow us when we were together. Eventually, after over two years, dad got the Air Force to make them stop.
Mom’s first experience in an American grocery store alone is a bit of humor. Her American English was still not very good (even after several years in England), and she wandered the aisles using a German-English dictionary. Eventually, she gave up, and just bought the same items she saw in other people’s carts!
Mom has had a life full of tragedy and joy, terrifying adventures and near misses, and has lived to see most of the people she loves pass away. The kindnesses of so many selfless people allowed her to grow and thrive. Despite a sometimes harsh exterior, mom is filled a deep compassion, and a love for those who suffer. I have seen her crying for war refugees and flood victims on the news. She hates war, but loves soldiers. She shared a love with her true soul-mate, something that most people only read about in novels. I am very blessed to have her in my life.