Monday, July 31, 2017

God Planned It: Escaping from East Germany

My maternal grandfather's youngest brother was named Friedrich Lange (1905-1988). Unlike his two older brothers, he remained in Poland, married in 1929 a few months after his mother died and had three children. He was drafted into the German Army in 1943; was taken prisoner by Czech partisans in 1944, who turned him over to the Soviet Army; and was held in a Soviet prison until 1949.

Meanwhile, his wife fled German-occupied Poland in early 1945 in advance of the Red Army and made her way, with the children, by wagon, to Zeitz, Germany, where she had family. After V-E day, Germany was divided into four occupation zones under the control of the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union. According to the pact signed in Potsdam, the four occupying countries were to treat Germans in a uniform manner, but this goal was never achieved and each country pursued their own goals and aims. The Soviets required reparations and took factory equipment, even entire factories for their occupation zone. Britain, France and the U.S. focused on economic reconstruction. The Soviets extended Communism to their German zone and collectivized farms. In 1946 the U.S. announced its zone and the British Zone would be merged to form Bizonia -- the start of the German division. The Soviets reacted by announcing Ostmark and suspended all land and air traffic to Berlin. The famous Berlin Airlift, to provide food, coal, and other necessary supplies to the western zones of Berlin ensued.

The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was established on 21 September 1949 and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), a month later.

Soviet occupation zone in red; U.S. and British troops withdrew from purple
area after fighting ceased; heavy black line was the border between what
became East and West Germany; courtesy of Wikipedia

Friedrich Lange and his family found themselves in East Germany. They lived on a small farm until Friedrich's health continued to deteriorate to an extent he could no longer help with the farm work. The government moved the family of five to a one-bedroom apartment in town where they remained until 1956 when they escaped. Their son believed it was a miracle planned by God. 

His mother had been looking for a sign from God letting them know when they should escape. The daughter of a friend, who worked at the bank, had been ordered to report any large withdrawals the family made. When Theofile, Friedrich's wife,  learned the government was monitoring their banking transactions, that was her sign from God it was time. 

When she told her family, it was time to go, they thought she was crazy. Friedrich told her the police would not let them leave together at the same time. Theofile refused to lie to the authorities but she was determined to escape. So she and their son went to the police station to get visas to visit relatives in West Germany. The policeman told them they could not go together unless other family members remained in East Germany. She told them her husband and two daughters were still in the country. So the police gave Theofile and her son visas. 

Theofile sent Friedrich and their daughter to the police station immediately. At the police station they were told they could not leave unless other family members remained in the country. Friedrich was able to say truthfully that his wife, daughter and son were in East Germany. Theofile and her youngest left East Germany on the 6:00 p.m. train and Friedrich and his middle daughter left the next morning. Their eldest daughter was married and wanted to stay in Leipzig where she and her husband lived. As their son said, “God planned it; we were just along for the ride.” 

In West Germany, they went to Wettmershagen where Heinrich and Olga’s families lived. The husband of Heinrich Lange’s daughter got Friedrich's son a job in the Volkswagon factory. Richard Lange’s wife came from Canada to visit. After hearing her talk about Canada, Friedrich and his family decided to settle there permanently. The application process took about six months and they left on 4 August 1957 aboard the Arosa Line’s SS Kulm, an old U.S. Army transport, from Bremerhaven and arrived in Quebec on 15 August 1957. They took a train to Winnipeg to reunite with Friedrich’s siblings, Richard and Heinrich. My grandfather traveled from Maryland to Winnipeg in 1958 or 1959 to see his youngest brother for the first time in 50 years and meet his family. 

I was so fortunate to be contacted by one of Friedrich Lange's grandchildren, who put me in touch with her father. He and his wife shared so much information with me and were so patient with my follow-up questions and constant digging. We shared many laughs together on the phone. I cannot thank them enough.

Left to right: Richard Lange; Theofile (Strohschein) Lange; her son; and a daughter of
Heinrich Lange, another brother of Richard and Friedrich Lange. The photograph was
taken on the front porch of Richard Lange's home in Winnipeg on the day Friedrich
Lange's family arrived in Canada; courtesy of Friedrich Lange's son

No comments:

Post a Comment