Barbara Hermes was born in 1938 in Cammin Pomerania, Germany. She tells of her life on a farm prior to World War II and exploring the Baltic Sea where her father worked at a coastal resort in Dievenow. She details the horrors her family experienced in 1945 when they evacuated their hometown to flee the advancing Russian forces. She describes surviving an air raid, hiding in ditches to avoid the Russian military, barely making it to safety, reconnecting with her father, and her mother’s heroism throughout the terror they experienced. Her family applied for a visa in 1952 to come to the United States through the sponsorship of her father’s sister living in America. They came to the U.S. in 1954.
Hermes, Barbara (interviewee)
Franklin, Bill (interviewer)
Cleveland German-American Oral History Project
"Barbara Hermes interview, 07 February 2020" (2020). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 195002.
Bill Franklin [00:00:06] Adjust myself here. My name is Bill Franklin. And today is February 7, 2020. I am a Cleveland State University student, Project 60, and tonight I am interviewing Barbara Hermes. And we're at the Cleveland Donauschwaben at 7370 Columbia Road in Olmsted Township, Ohio.
Barbara Hermes [00:00:48] My name is Barbara Hermes. My maiden name is Jordan, and I was born in Cammin, Pomerania in Germany. Well, at least it was Germany at that time. History does its thing. My father worked at the airport in Dievenow, which is a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. And it's actually at a resort, a sea resort on the Baltic. But they had an airport and he worked at the airport as an aircraft mechanic. My mother was from a tiny, tiny village south of there, in a village called Schnatow with the T-O-W at the end, which is very indicative of towns in that area. They had a small farm and actually our grandfather, August Knoll, was the only free farmer who owned land in that village. The rest of them were what was called Tageloehner or tenants (day laborers). They had tenants and they worked for the good spirits at the Count there who owned all the land around, but our grandfather had a farm. He, well, our mother met my father and they moved then up to Dievenow. And that's where I spent most of my early childhood years. And when were you born? On February 10th, 1938, and my early childhood memories are of just going to the Baltic and sand so white and so fine and so lovely, and playing in the sand and loving to go into the waves, even at a very early age. And of course, my other memory is of spending time on the farm, my grandfather's farm. And and we had a stork's nest on one of the barns. And the storks were always a big part of our childhood memories. We got our our uncle would catch frogs and we would be able to help him feed the little stork. That was one that had a broken wing, and he sort of almost became a pet. Otherwise, the storks, of course, migrate. So those are some and one of my memories is of our grandfather, who would then drive us back to Dievenow. And he would allow me to hold the reins of the horse on the way home, because, of course, that horse knew his way all by himself. So I could be so proud as a 6 year old and sit there and hold the reins and let that horse take us back to the farm. He was what? He was really wonderful. I also got to walk behind the plow and help him plow the field and other chores. It was a wonderful place to spend a childhood.
Bill Franklin [00:05:19] It sure sounds like it! And what language did you speak?
Barbara Hermes [00:05:22] We spoke German. [crosstalk] Yes. And although my grandfather and grandmother spoke Plattdeutsch, or Low German, and my mother spoke Low German, but my father did not. And so we children never actually learned Low German very well not to speak. We did understand it because we could communicate with our grandparents, but we never did learn to speak it very well.
Bill Franklin [00:05:58] Was there a big difference between Low German and High German?
Barbara Hermes [00:06:00] Oh, there's a big difference. Oh, yes.
Bill Franklin [00:06:06] And your experience from 1939 through the war. Were you in that same area throughout the war?
Barbara Hermes [00:06:23] Well, my father was drafted into the into the German army, and so the later years between. I don't remember. I think maybe he was drafted in '41 or '42 and then he was gone until after the war had ended. And from that time on, my mother spent most of her time helping on the farm. And we spent most of our time on the farm in Schnatow.
Bill Franklin [00:07:06] When your dad came back is that when you immigrated.
Barbara Hermes [00:07:12] Well, there's a whole lot of history in between there. Do you want me to carry on or do you want Erika to talk up to that point? Well, in 1945, the war was raging. And even as a child, I would know and learn some of that.
Bill Franklin [00:07:47] So you were 6 years old already by 1945?
Barbara Hermes [00:07:50] I turned 7 in February of 1945. In January of 1945, my grandfather died and his only son was also drafted into the army. So there was no manfolk around the house. I was I started school in the village of Schnatow.. And the teachers were also all drafted so that there really weren't any teachers, except they brought out some very old retired teachers to take over some of the classes. In the eastern front was moving closer. And there were forever. big speeches on the radio by Hitler. I remember that booming voice as a child. Of course, I didn't know a whole lot of what was being said, except I know our mother and grandmother would say, well, it sounds like they're holding just fine, and they're doing just fine, because I guess Hitler was one of those politicians who knew how to lie very well, and repeat in a loud voice the lies that he was telling the German people, and so people believed it. But so life would carry on, even though apparently the war raged on the eastern front and and pushed ever closer. And so on the 4th of March at 11:00 p.m., someone from from the mayor's office walked around to each house and said, you have to we have to be out of here by 6:00 a.m. get your things together and you will have to leave. And so this the Russian front is is going to be here and you will, you have, to leave, so pack up and get going as quick as you can. And you know, that's easier said than done. And so there was this horrendous scramble around the house to figure out what wagon to take. We had one horse on the farm. What things were most important. So the feather bedding was definite. And the whatever jars of canned goods we still had in the basement, the large jar. Those kinds of things, those kinds of things were brought up. Our grandmother, he did the oven and they quick made up a bread dough 'cause it was time to bake bread, but they hadn't baked yet. So they felt they needed to bake bread real quick. So they could take some bread and gather together some clothes and, you know, just frantic, frantic goings on.
Bill Franklin [00:11:31] And at this time, you had no idea where you were going, right?.
Barbara Hermes [00:11:35] West, just west because the fighting front was coming from Russia and coming from the east pushing westward towards us. And our mother would say to both of us, to Erika and me, you know, sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. But, you know, even as a child, when all this is going on, you can sense there is things are wrong, and, of course, couldn't sleep. And then they got us dressed. Oh, and the neighbors came over and said from the Count's house they were going to give them some oxen, could they borrow one of our wagons so that they could also pack up, because they didn't have a horse and they didn't own a wagon. So they you know, they were given a wagon, so, and they got some oxen and so that they could pack up. And it was just all a huge scramble. We finally got going and out of the village. And that was, as I said, my grandfather had died in January. Their only son was also in the army. But his he had gotten married just months before. So his young bride was there. My mother, my grandmother and us, two children, my sister and I. And put us on the wagon and started up the road. Well, as one can imagine, wagons packed to the hilt came from every small village and all converged on the one main road that went westward. And that was so clogged already that hardly anything moved. It was a paved road. We came on a dirt road from the village, but but then came to the paved road. But it was totally clogged on one side. And then the military would come and say that the trek of wagons had to absolutely stay on one side of the road, because the other side had to be kept clear for military vehicles and military equipment, whatever they were bringing. It was extremely difficult for the horse, for our horse, which was a very spirited horse, to just sort of plod along real slow. So our mother had a hard time reigning in. At one point, the horse just bolted out and the soldiers just pushed the whole shebang into the into the ditch next to the road and and the wagon and the horse and mother had to get it back out and then noticed that some of the reins had broken in this whole process. And she felt she needed to go back. We had packed a bicycle. So she said, okay, you keep going. I'm going to go back on the bicycle because they were to the farm because there was some substitute reins that shewould get that were there that she thought would do better than what she had. And so she left us and she went back. So I think, I when I think about it, I feel so lucky that our mother caught up with us again. And because how easily could we have been permanently separated at that time. But she made it back okay. And we plotted along, sort of yard by yard and then as it got darker, we came through villages that were already totally empty because the people had also fled and left. And then women would go into the kitchens and heat up some milk for young children or for us. And so that we would, you know, have something warm to eat. And then it got fully dark, then you could see, well, also for ever there was military traffic going along this road and occasionally they would be carrying injured soldiers. And it was rather dramatic for a child to even see all this. Then when it got dark, you could see fires along the horizon. And people would you know, they would talk to each other. You could walk next to the wagon, nothing went very fast. It just was at a walking pace. And they said it was some of the villages, some of the villages in the area, the villagers had set fire to their farms because they said they didn't want it to fall into the hands of the Russians. So they just had let all the all the animals, farm animals out of there, out of their stalls and had set all the buildings on fire. And and you could see them along the horizon, which was scary. But that wasn't the worst, because it wasn't much after that that you could also hear that the fighting and the shooting and the big, and see the flares and, yeah, I don't know if there were bombs too, but you could see it along the horizon. And then and then came the word people just running up from behind and and yelling and saying the Russians are rolling their tanks right over the over the trek. Over, the treks. So our mother pulled us off the wagon. And by that time, there were already military people yelling in Russian. Well, I know now it was Russian at that time, of course, I didn't know that. And shooting and indiscriminately shooting. And our mother just pulled us off the wagon. And our grandmother took us into the ditch next to the road. It was a deep ditch, I guess, a drainage ditch. And she, and so and she said she had us lay down in the ditch and be behind some big trees. There were trees planted along the roadside. And she said, you stay right here. I have to go back and free the horse, because by that time she had knotted all this stuff together and it was difficult. And she wanted to free the horse so that the horse could run away. And and our poor mother all her life was still sad and sorry that she wasn't able to free the horse. When after some (and the tanks rolled right over) and, well, we never saw them, Erika. But but we could hear the rumbling going on. And so our mother finally came back after what felt as a child like an enormously long period of time. And she took us by the hand and she took our Aunt Gathud and grandmother, they took each of them. Our aunt took one of the children. The mother took the other child by the hand. And the grandmother was given all the hand bags that had whatever valuables we had put together, like birth and marriage certificates and whatever little money we had and whatever papers they felt were important to have gave them to the grand mother to hold. And we crossed a freshly plowed field into some distant woods.
Bill Franklin [00:21:08] And from there where did you end up?
Barbara Hermes [00:21:14] Our grandmother tripped and fell and lost the handbags. And so at that point we no longer had any papers at all. Literally, when people say with the clothes on their backs, that's how we emerged from those woods and ultimately walked along a road with many, many others towards Swinemunde where we were taken into a Red Cross. What am I saying in. Yeah, I'm I'm getting ahead of myself. We we had to we had to cross a bridge. This was another rumor, a rumor that was going around of at the trek that it said we're not moving. We're not moving. And if we don't cross the bridge across the Oder river, we'll never make it because the German army is going to detonate that bridge to keep the Russian front from advancing across the river. And if we don't make it before they detonate the bridge, there's no way we can go anywhere. So that was another worry. And we we did actually we did actually make it across the bridge. And as I now read, accounts of that bridge being detonated the very next morning, I know that we just made it across in time. Now, that was to the city of Wolin, which sits on the west side of the Oder River. We were on the east side of the water over the Oder river. The Oder River ultimately became the border between Germany and Poland. In Wolin our mother as a young woman had worked in the household of superintendent. And she knew where that where the street where he lived. And she said, we're going to go there. And we did. And that family said, oh, of course, we'll take you in. And they had an extra bedroom that they said, "you know, don't worry about anything. We have an anti aircraft artillery on the hill outside the city, and we've been protected. Everything will be just fine. So even if you hear some shooting, don't worry about it. Just get some rest". And they were awfully nice. And and so, you know, we were exhausted. So at that point, I certainly remember sleeping. I don't know how well our mother slept, but in the middle of the night, started to do the firing of this antiaircraft artillery. I assumed, we assumed, was happening. And our mother would say, well, it's OK, don't worry. Just go back to sleep. It'll be okay, it'll be OK. Until the windows fell out of the house and the house next store stood in flames. And at that point, then the air raid alarm came on. And then quickly we gather, just gathered up the clothes and out of the house to the air raid shelter there. People were just streaming. Obviously, people knew where that shelter was and and streamed to the air raid shelter.
Bill Franklin [00:25:32] And then you made it through the night?
Erika Wagner [00:25:36] By mistake, grandmother forgot to put her skirt on.
Barbara Hermes [00:25:43] She had by mistake grabbed the superintendent's pants, which were black, instead of her skirt. So we were in this air raid shelter and our grandmother's yammering, "I get to wear these pants. I can't wear these pants, I need my skirt." so our mother, again, she ran out of the air raid shelter back to the house to get out our grandmother's skirt and got safely back and got back in because they locked the door. Yeah. Anyway, anyway, we were in all this horror, exceedingly lucky that we had made it. In the morning we came out. When the blew the all clear that the all clear siren, which is different than the get the to the air raid shelter siren. When they when they blew it the all clear and they opened the doors and they let us out, and they said you don't go back to your houses, you leave this city as fast as you can because the front would be arriving. You need to get out of here. The Russians, the Russian front is advancing. So that trip from that area shelters through the city of Wolin is probably my most horrible memory because there had been no aircraft strife shooting and there had been bombing. So houses were set, were burning and that the treks that had come somewhat earlier than we were all in the city. The streets were just full of horses and trucks. And so because they did with low flying aircraft, there was strafe shootings. They were dead horses lying, or dying, horses everywhere. And everywhere there were people running and screaming and yelling for loved ones and others carrying people on stretchers that were injured. It was just a horrible, horrible scene.
Bill Franklin [00:28:38] Now you were just on foot. You lost your horse. And you were just running?
Barbara Hermes [00:28:44] We were... Yes. We had the clothes on our backs. That's what we had. And so when we got to the edge of the city, by a house, there was a little hand cart and our mother, there was a military person, our mother asked if she would be allowed to take this little hand cart. And they said, take anything you want, just get out. And then they put the grandmother and Erika in her lap in the hand cart and the two women pulled the wagon. I got to push from behind as best I could. And then we we got on the road and this road, all just people walking and fleeing, not unlike some of the pictures that we see from war torn areas now where refugees are carrying a few belongings and just multitudes of people going down the street and fleeing. And so we were going along this road, and of course, the irony is that allied airplanes, low flying planes were strafe shooting the fleeing people so that whenever we heard an airplane, we, everybody just dove for the ditches. But then we made it to Swinemunde too, and there was a Red Cross facility in, I don't know, a school. I just remember it was a very large room where they had some mats on the floor where we could lie down and sleep and spend the night. And then next next day, we went to the train station to try and catch a train. Trains were not regular anymore. So train schedules meant nothing. You sat at the train station and hoped the train would come, and when the train came, the people just converged on it. But from the previous station, it was already full. Our mother shoved us through a window, and she clung onto the outside of the train and hoping eventually she'd make it in, which she did. They put Erika into the baggage, luggage nets that they had on those trains. They put her up there because of course, everything was horrendously crowded and crunched together, and our mother did make it on the train. And again, I think we were enormously lucky that she did and that we weren't separated at that point. But I think as the train pulled away, people pulled her into the train. Yeah. They pulled her in. So she, now we were on the train. And she had wanted to take the train to Frankfurt because my father's birth city is Frankfurt in southern and central Germany. And of course, his relatives were there. And so mother wanted to go there. But whenever she met any one of authority, they said, don't go to Frankfurt. It's being bombed into the ground. Don't go to Frankfurt. Don't you have some other place to go? Then she decided that she would take us to North Germany, where her sister had married someone in a small town called Ostendorf. And so, you know, taking one train as far as it would take us and another train and another train, we eventually ended up in Ostendorf. And there we lived from 1945 until 1954. We lived in Ostendorf. That's where I went to elementary school from grade 1 to grade 8. Our father eventually. Well, actually, our mother found our father, and that went like this. Well, first of all, I wanted to tell that the West German government had a unique way of dealing with the refugees that came in. Each household had to register how many rooms they had in their house and how many people lived in this house. And then the decision would be made, how many rooms they could give up to refugees. And so we were assigned rooms on a farm house, in a farmhouse. We had, at first, just two rooms and then later got a third room yet that was assigned to us. But one can imagine if people had to just give up their rooms to total strangers, that these strangers were not too terribly welcome. I mean, it meant they had to cramp their style. Really. Just imagine if we would try to solve our homeless problem that way in this country. It wouldn't be looked at too favorably, would it? But that's where we lived. And well, our mother would any, there were occupational forces that had camped in on the pastures of this farmhouse. And mother would always ask about, because she knew our father's unit, and, you know, where he had last been, and so forth. And so she would always ask where this unit would have ended up and did find out that it ended up in Bavaria. So she left us with our grandmother, the two of us, Erika and me, with our grandmother. And she hitchhiked mostly on military... You know, in Germany, you had nobody had any cars anymore but with military vehicles down to Bavaria to see if she could find our father. And she did. And he was in an American prisoner of war camp. And so she could tell him where we had ended up because he would have no way of knowing where we would have ended up. And as a matter of fact, as in my childhood. I remember these huge posters of more than a hundred 100 pictures of more than 100 children that said, "have you seen us"? You know? Have you seen these children? Of children that were lost and that the parents couldn't find them. It was everywhere. Yeah. So anyway, our father came home.
Barbara Hermes [00:37:28] Erika, do you remember the year?
Erika Wagner [00:37:29] Well, he came home that year, I remember it was at Christmastime in 1945.
Barbara Hermes [00:37:35] No, not the same year.
Erika Wagner [00:37:37] Yeah, in March we left and then I think...
Barbara Hermes [00:37:40] In November. I know he came late in November... and, and came then.
Bill Franklin [00:37:53] So you were without your parents for quite a while with just your grandmother?
Barbara Hermes [00:37:58] Well, yeah. She was fine. Our the village was occupied, this was the British zone, so there were British soldiers everywhere. And there was a camp right next to the house where we lived. And you know, they were kind. I remember one time they gave us a whole box of sandwiches. My grandmother and we were walking and somebody gave us a big box of sandwhiches, and our grandmother wouldn't allow us to eat them all because she said, we have to save some for your mother when she comes back. So they were kind, but also not such nice things happened. Like, the house where we stayed, a road went by there and military traffic, and at one time somebody just shot into the front door. The window was shattered, but luckily nobody was hurt. But our mother then instructed us that whenever militaries came through, and they would come through, hundreds of vehicles at a time, so nobody could cross the street. She told us we had to never look out the window. We had to hunker down in the rooms and not look out the windows.
Bill Franklin [00:39:44] It's quite a story. Did you have any other relatives in that area. Were there any uncles, aunts, cousins?
Barbara Hermes [00:39:55] No, actually, not, except mother's sister who had married a young man from that village that, and mother's sister, as Erica had said earlier, was in Norway in the, what was it called, the information core or something like that. So she was in the army and in the information corps in Norway and then eventually she came also to Ostendorf. How she knew to come there,I'm not sure. I'm not sure how they connected. But of course her mother in law lived there and her husband was from there. Yeah, exactly. So, but that was the only relative. The rest of, mother's brother was left in the east, in Schwerin and actually on the train journey, our aunt, who had started the the trek with us from Schnatow left the train in Schwerin, where she knew her husband was stationed in the army and they connected there. And they ended up being, then they were united. And after the war lived in East Germany, what was then East Germany. And because of the wall in Berlin and because of the really tight border, we could not get together with them for many, many years. But otherwise, we had no relatives. Father's relatives were all down in Frankfurt in the Frankfurt area. So I might say yet that I went to school there. And then, our father had a sister, who over the years would send us these packages from America. And I cannot tell you how important this package when it came from America. It would be kept a secret by our mother if it was anytime close to like Christmas or so, that nobody would be allowed to open it up until the holiday came. And then this package from America would be opened. And it was just the most wonderful things would come. What would, you know, appear that we would get. So that was wonderful. And this very sister who sent these packages lived in Evansville, Indiana, and she said, we can have you come to America. My husband and I will sponsor your family. So apply for a visa to come to America, which is what we did. Well, he applied in 1952. It took two years for the visa. But there's another story with that, because the visa for our grandmother, who was supposed to come with us, came through much earlier, because, you see, she our father had been in the German army, so that process took a long time, to get a visa to come to America. But our grandmother's visa came early. By the time our visa came through, hers had expired. And there was no way they were able to renew that or extend that. She couldn't come with us to America. She had to stay there. But we ultimately came in 1954. And now I don't want to talk anymore.
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