NOTE: This is the second 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. Now 92 years old, Mildred has published her memoirs in the book “Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin - One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany.” Today’s story takes up with her family’s move to Kansas. It should be noted that Mildred was born in Great Bend, not Germany as previously stated in the first half of this feature. To read the first part of Mildred’s story of survival in worn-torn Germany and Poland, see the March 19 edition of the Great Bend Tribune.
Before further exploration of Mildred Schindler Janzen’s experiences in Kansas, it’s important to examine her family’s history in the Sunflower State.
“My parents had lived here, helping with thrashing crews in the 1920s,” she said. “They came over to seek their fortune and met up with Charles Herb, a farmer with land near Hudson.” Mildred added that Herb used Fritz’s farming skills as a hired hand and they became fast friends. Following Fritz Schindler’s stint in Kansas and his return to Europe, Charles Herb took a trip to Germany to, as Mildred explains, seek out his roots.
“While he was in Germany, Charles met my father’s family and fell in love with his sister, my Aunt Anna, bringing her back to the U.S. as his wife,” said Mildred. Although she is proud of her roots, Mildred said Kansas is home. “I’ve made my life here since I came over as a teenager,” she said. “And it’s been a wonderful and fulfilling life in this wonderful state and country.” But during her young life in Europe, Mildred would discover just how strong her ties to Kansas and Great Bend were and how those ties served as her passport to America.
Treasure in the basement
Near the end of the war, a cache of family valuables and important documents were found still safely buried under the basement floor of the Schindler family farm. “All the bricks in the basement floor had been dug up by someone looking for valuables--except for the corner where they were actually buried,” Mildred said.
As it turned out, that piece of paper that accompanied Mildred from the German refugee house to Berlin was her birth certificate and was one of the family documents uncovered from the basement of the Schindler farm.
Mildred said it wasn’t just the discovery of the document that was significant, but the information the certificate contained. “I was shocked to learn that I was actually born in Great Bend six months before my parents and I returned to Germany,” she said. “That birth certificate was my ticket to America.”
St. Rose and a new language
In 1947, Mildred took a job in the diet kitchen at Great Bend’s St. Rose Hospital and moved into the employee housing on the hospital grounds. Anyone who has visited with
Mildred and is unfamiliar with her history would assume she has spoke fluent English her entire life. But in a new country meeting new people and taking on a new job, Mildred said the most difficult transition was learning to speak a brand new language.
“When I lived with the Herbs, both Tanta Anna and Uncle Charlie spoke fluent German,” she said. “But when I went to work at St. Rose Hospital, I knew very little English and it caused some issues.”
She experienced further difficulty after she started high school in Lorraine.
“It was very frustrating to sit through classes and not understand any of the language,” said Mildred. “It was a good thing Esther (Dobrinski) was a former English teacher and her husband, Carl, and his mother, spoke fluent German and could interpret and explain things to me.”
She added that in America, she experienced greater freedom in getting to know other people and knowing herself.
“In war-torn Germany, you kept to yourself,” Mildred said. “But here in America, I’ve been able to develop lifelong friendships especially in high school and my church family.”
Love and reunion in Hutchinson
Mildred graduated from Lorraine High School at age 22 in 1951 before her engagement to Leon Janzen during Christmas that same year. The couple began dating in 1947 and were married on May 2, 1953 at First Baptist Church in Lorraine.
Five months later, Mildred received a telegram that her mother, Anna “Mutti” Schindler, and brother Horst were in the United States. Following seven long years, on Oct. 8, 1953, just two days after receiving the welcomed telegram, Mildred, attended by Leon, was reunited with Anna and Horst at the train station in Hutchinson.
“I have to say that the two happiest days in my life were when I married Leon and when I was reunited with my mother and brother on that October day in Hutchinson,” said Mildred. “There were a lot of happy tears shared on both occasions.”
Mildred and Leon became the proud parents of two girls and two boys with the arrival of their first born, Karen, in 1954. Kenton was born three years later before Susan and Galen in 1958 and 1964.
The aftermath of war
Hitler’s crimes against humanity have served as a perpetual black eye on Germany. For Mildred, learning of the atrocities of Hitler’s evil came after her arrival to America.
“Things were bad but I didn’t know just how bad they were in Germany and other parts of Europe until I arrived safely to the U.S.,” said Mildred. Much of Hitler’s atrocities were not brought to light until after the war, including his persecution and murder of six million Jews in what would become known as the Holocaust. Mildred also explained her parents had an idea of what was happening under Hitler’s agenda “but perhaps not the full extent of what had taken place,” she said.
Mildred recalled a husband and wife in Drossen who operated a store. Her mother and father befriended the couple and began an occasional trade relationship. “They were such a nice family and I wonder what ever happened to them,” said Mildred. She added that one of the greatest difficulties in coming to grips with postwar life is the uncertainty of those she left behind and never saw again.
“On our last trip to Drossen, the store’s windows were broken out and no lights were on,” she said. “We never knew what happened to that sweet couple.”
Return to Germany and Poland
Mildred and Leon returned to her homeland twice, in 1997 and 2000. “These trips are detailed in the book,” said Mildred. “It was bittersweet to be back where I lived as a child through the war, which is now Poland.”
Putting life story to print
Mildred said she wants to convey a vivid understanding of what she lived through to following generations. “I wanted to write down my experiences for my grandchildren and for my nieces and nephews – my brother’s children, and so that history does not repeat itself,” she said.
“I’m the last one in my family that knows the story and if I don’t tell it, the experiences the Schindler family went through will be lost forever.” As a 90th birthday gift, Mildred’s daughter, Susan, surprised her with a typed version of Mildred’s handwritten accounts.
“And that got the ball rolling,” said Mildred. “One of our relatives knew a woman who’d been a history teacher and was also an author who was looking for a World War II story to write.” Enter Sherye Simmons Green from Jackson, Mississippi, who agreed to write Mildred’s memoirs.
“She made a trip to Kansas over a long weekend to interview me, my family and friends.” said Mildred. Green then returned to Mississippi to begin the writing, interweaving Mildred’s story with what was going on at the time. “The rest,” Mildred said, “is history.”
For details on Mildred’s memoirs, visit www.sheryesimmonsgreen.com/survivinghitlerevadingstalin and the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/msjmemoir.