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Former refugee shares experience of having lived in Adolf Hitler's Germany

At Bridge of Life church in downtown Hagerstown, Lisa Kohlstadt shared memories of war

April 09, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com

They left on a warship, refugees with a few bags that contained all they owned in the world.

They had lost their homes, some of their closest kin and were trying to redeem their shattered existence.

Lisa Kohlstadt's family lived in Adolf Hitler's Germany.

But in January 1945, with defeat imminent and the Russian army at their front door, they fled.

Kohlstadt was 9 years old, she said, when her widowed mother decided it was too dangerous to stay on their farm near Danzig, which is now part of Poland.

"Germans didn't run when American soldiers were near," she said. "But with the Russian armies, no one wanted to stay. They were known to rape and kill and burn your homes."

So the mother of five, who was also caring for her pregnant sister and her three children, made the decision to leave everything behind.

"That was war," Kohlstadt said. "We became refugees."

Today, Kohlstadt is a guardian of wartime memories that are too terrible to describe, she said, yet too important to forget.

Now in her 70s, the White Marsh, Md., resident shared her story Saturday morning at a meeting of Hagerstown Aglow, a branch of an international organization of Christian men and women.

The event was held at Bridge of Life church in downtown Hagerstown.

Kohlstadt said she grew up carefree with few needs.

But Hitler's rule changed everything.

Prayer was no longer allowed in school, the Jewish population was being dragged from their homes and people feared for their lives. Germany had been taken over by a dictator.

Kohlstadt, who is Christian, said she remembers her mother being upset with the treatment and harassment of Jewish neighbors, who were driven into the streets.

"She knew it was wrong and did what she could to help," she said. "She would make soup and take it to them — a small gesture, but one that showed she cared."

Kohlstadt said males, "no matter how old or how young," were ordered to serve in the military and that included her father.

"There were no choices," she said. "You served or else."

When the family received word that her father had been killed, "it was devastating. But my mother was a strong woman, a woman of faith. She did what she needed to do to protect us and keep us safe, with bombs flying."

"But there was darkness all around us," Kohlstadt said. "War was in our own backyard."

And, in 1945, the Russians were coming.

Kohlstadt said her mother made the decision to leave Germany and head for a nearby harbor where ships were taking refugees to other countries.

The family left with mostly the clothes on their backs. She does, however, remember her mother sewing a few valuables, a few personal mementos into the hems of their coats — items that still are in the family today.

But when they arrived at the harbor, the ship was filled to capacity.

"Once again, my mother had a strong faith and remained confident," she said. "Her confidence blanketed all of us. And soon news came that destroyers that were supposed to guide the mother ship would take on refugees. It was a miracle."

Kohlstadt said the family landed safely in Copenhagen, Denmark, but the refugee camp was overflowing, so they were put on a train and headed to another camp.

"My sister had scarlet fever and we were quarantined there, but we were alive," she said.

When the war ended, people began making their way back to Germany, which she said was mostly rubble.

"But life began to just happen," she said.

Several years later, Kohlstadt said her sister was given the opportunity to take part in a program made available to German students to study in America for one year.

Her sister ended up later marrying the American who, as part of the Church of the Brethren Volunteer Service, knocked on her door to help guide her through the process.

They later met by chance in New York City during a sight-seeing trip and corresponded. He returned to Germany to ask for her hand in marriage.

When the couple moved to the United States, Kohlstadt said she was lonely and missed the sister she had gone through so much with. So, at her mother's encouragement, she obtained a visa, boarded a ship and sailed to America.

In the 1950s, she married a German who was her brother-in-law's best man. While she was living with her sister in the U.S., he had come to visit and the two got to know each other. After marrying, they stayed in America, she said, because there were no opportunities in Germany.

Kohlstadt said she shares her experience of Hitler, war and families torn apart as often as she can because, as the generation that lived through World War II dwindles, there are other generations that need to understand evil and the constant vigilance required to prevent its recurrence.

"War is terrible and it sometimes can be difficult for people to hear of such cruelty," she said. "But we can't remain quiet. The church cannot be quiet. We have to turn our backs on evil and sin."

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