NOTE: This is the first of a two-part feature series about Mildred Schindler Janzen’s amazing journey from living under Hitler’s regime to a Communist Russian work camp and eventually to central Kansas. It should also be noted that Mildred was born in Great Bend, not in Germany as Friday's paper stated. Today focuses on Janzen’s life in Europe, while part two takes up her move to Kansas. Look for part two of Mildred’s story in Sunday’s Great Bend Tribune.
Mildred Schindler Janzen of Ellsworth celebrated her 92nd birthday on a sunny March 11 with her daughters in Great Bend. But 76 years earlier, she lived through enough fear, darkness and uncertainty to write an entire book. In fact that’s exactly what she did in her recently documented memoirs, “Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin - One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany.”
Co-authored by Janzen and Mississippi biographer Sherye Simmons Green, the book is a chronicle of Mildred’s journey from Hitler’s Nazi regime, to Stalin’s conquest of eastern Europe to her arrival to the United States and central Kansas. Mildred recently donated a copy of her book to the Great Bend Public Library.
As the title suggests, surviving Hitler’s rule was just half of the drama that unfolded for Mildred, who was raised on a farm in the German countryside in the thick of World War II. Many 16-year-olds today are focused on college entrance exams, prom, social media status, who’s trending, hair styles and fashion. But for Mildred growing up in wartime Germany, staying alive and keeping her family together were all that really counted in a country that had been ravaged by Naziism and threatened with a Russian Communist takeover.
Depression and rise of the Reich
Before World War II, Germany experienced a horrible depression from fallout of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Germany suffered more than any other nation as a result of the recall of U.S. loans, which caused its economy to collapse. The German depression virtually paved the way for Hitler’s assent to power as he coaxed, lied, threatened and charmed his way into the chancellory.
“During this time, Hitler was promising unrealistic things to the people,” said Mildred. “That’s how he got power and people believed him. He promised all the factory workers a Volkswagen in their driveway and a chicken in every pot.” She added that his campaign included pledges that were not financially feasible.
“He promised these things to the factory workers while the rural people were supporting the country with mandatory portions of eggs, meat and grains,” she said.
“Socialism is not what people think it is. The freedom that we enjoy in this country is priceless and not fully understood by many here who enjoy it.”
Who to trust?
Mildred said many of the Nazi soldiers were common townspeople. “And they knew everyone from our small town of Radach,” she said. Before 1945, the community was part of Germany but is now in the administrative district of Gmina Dobiegniew in western Poland.
“Even though our parents did not agree with Nazi philosophies, we respected their authority and got along fine with them.” She added that her parents and other members of the community would often gather in the evenings to discuss Germany’s growing political situation.
“My mom warned my dad not to say anything that would make him a target,” said Mildred. “The Nazis were already watching him because they knew he’d been to the United States.” Fritz Schindler spent time in the U.S. and Kansas in the 1920s on a business venture and returned to Germany before the war broke out in Europe.
Mildred recalled how her parents would listen to the radio in an attempt to stay updated with the evolving initiatives of the Third Reich. As Hitler’s plans continued to unfold and despite propaganda-laden media reports, many Germans began to see the encroaching darkness of the Fuhrer’s agenda which led to several assassination attempts.
“I remember hearing my father saying, ‘they missed him again’ when hearing of failed attempts to kill Hitler,” said Mildred. “My parents instinctively knew he was not leading the country in the right way and that his leadership was dangerous to the German people.”
Hope to despair
In the blink of an eye, Mildred’s life as a teenager on a quiet, comfortable farm was uprooted as, following the Nazis’ defeat, Russian forces sacked much of the German countryside and overtook most of the nation’s agriculture industry. Part of their tactic was forcing German citizens to work camps which were being erected throughout much of post-war Europe.
“We didn’t have time to think about anything,” Mildred said. “We did what we had to do or we were shot. It was a fate forced on our family.
“I was just so frightened. We didn’t know what would happen the next day or the next hour,” she said. “The Russians had defeated Hitler and were taking over a lot of farmland.”
From the Swastika to the Sickle
Surviving Hitler’s rule and the collapse and defeat of the German war machine, Mildred and the rest of her family eventually fell into the hands of the Russian Red Army and were sent to work camps.
Following the invasion by Russian troops of the Schindler family farm on Feb. 1, 1945, Mildred’s father, Fritz, was taken captive on March 5 and was never seen again. After evading capture herself, Mildred was finally taken to a work camp a week after her 16th birthday.
Although they were enemies during World War II, the Nazis and Russians were both cut from the same cloth in terms of their brutality and barbaric view of human life.
“You didn’t ask questions with the Russians,” said Mildred. “They gave orders and took what they wanted when they wanted.” She said a constant challenge and danger was attempting to communicate with Russian soldiers.
“We didn’t speak Russian,” said Mildred. “And they could shoot you if they gave you an order and you didn’t comply. They never accepted that we didn’t speak their language as an excuse.”
To accommodate, Mildred said hand signals and other non-verbal cues were utilized in communication efforts. “Sometimes they would yell and point and we had to take quick action to avoid the firing squad and stay alive.”
Following pressure from Stalin, a post-war border shift between Germany and Poland was formally recognized by East Germany. With the family farm now in Polish territory, Mildred said the Poles posed another threat to her family’s livelihood and existence.
“With the Poles, we actually survived three dictatorships,” said Mildred. “It didn’t matter who was telling you to leave your home, you did what they said or risked being executed.”
The situation hit home for Mildred as her mother fell sick and became too ill to leave her home. “We told the Polish soldiers she was too weak to go to work and one of them said, ‘we shoot her,’”
“So we set up a hand cart for our mother to lay in and moved her that way, which saved her life. My brother and I took turns pulling the cart.”
On one occasion, in an effort to avoid being taken to a Russian work camp, Mildred’s mother decided to disguise her daughter’s health.
“My wise mother dressed me up to look ‘sickly’ so the Russians would not pick me to go to a work camp,” said Mildred. She added that as her father was being taken away, he commissioned her mother to keep the family together.
“So we had to be creative,” she said. “We took rancid lard and rubbed it on my neck, bound it with cloths so my neck was very stiff and rubbed flour on my face to make me look pale and sick. I’m not sure I could’ve thought of that to protect my daughters.”
Mildred noted that unlike the Nazis, the Russians designated their camps as work camps only, not death camps.
“While there were a lot of people who died from sickness and other issues at these work camps, they were not labeled as actual death camps,” she said. Mildred added that she did not learn of the Nazi death camps until after her arrival to America.
On enduring family separation
Up until age 16, Mildred never experienced life away from her loved ones.
“This was the first time I was separated from my family,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. It wasn’t easy. I was just so frightened. Our peaceful farm life was abruptly ended when soldiers arrived at our doorstep and changed our lives forever.”
With her family pulled apart and their fate uncertain, Mildred said there was little if any room for laughter or happiness. “It was all sadness and I felt so completely alone,” she said, adding that the lack of friendships outside her family added to the pain.
“There were no other relationships during war times,” Mildred said. “It was a dark time. No one ever took names. No one cared.”
From Europe, to Ellis Island to Kansas
Mildred’s journey to America was long and complicated. It all started with her mother sending Mildred away from a refugee house by train to stay with an aunt in Berlin in February, 1946.
“This was to avoid being sent to Siberia with other German girls,” she said. “My mother made an appeal to the town mayor to allow me to make the trip to Berlin under the guise of getting winter clothes.”
Mildred was at first hesitant about leaving the refugee house. “I did not want to be separated from my family but I obeyed and took the trip,” she said.
“My mother sent along a piece of paper she told me might help me get a job in Berlin, attaching it inside my blouse before getting on the train,” she said. Mildred said she was welcomed with open arms upon her arrival in Berlin.
“My cousin worked at the consulate and took me with her so I could apply for a job,” said Mildred. A document hidden in her blouse was her doorway to America. She finally boarded a ship, the SS Marine Marlin, and started her trek across the Atlantic to a different life.
“After some months I was finally on my way to America to live with my aunt, Tanta Anna Herb, Uncle Charlie Herb and cousin Margaret,” Mildred said. While her time on the ship took longer than she expected, Mildred arrived in New York Harbor on Jan. 24, 1947. A week later she boarded a train for a 1,440 mile trip to Great Bend where she was greeted by her aunt, uncle and cousins.