THE FLIGHT


From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" [Page 235]...
The next morning, Friday, January 19, 1945 Gretel decided that she had seen enough. She had sufficient evidence to report to the mayor. She asked him if it was time to prepare for the flight and whether she was allowed to start packing. His response was abrupt and aggressive. “Frau Fischer, you’ll be alarming the whole village with your fears,” he said, “we don’t have orders to pack, so sit back and wait!” But Gretel would not be browbeaten. Without the mayor’s permission she gave Anton and Ivan instructions to go to the shed and downsize the two wooden carts and prepare them for the escape. She ordered them to cover the front half of the cart with boards as protection against wind and snow, just as Gretel had seen it done on the Goldapp refugees’ wagon. Gretel had noticed there were sufficient boards stacked in the shed; if there weren’t enough, the men were ordered to pull extra boards out of the barn wall. Gretel told them this was to be done in secret, no one in the village must know about it and they should keep the shed door shut. 


From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" [Page 238]...
There was no sleep for anyone in the house that night.  The drones and thuds of grenades were endless, the ground trembled, walls and doors shook and windows rattled.  There was real fear that the house would collapse over their heads, and that the Russians would be upon them any minute.

Gretel couldn’t stand lying in bed any longer.  Looking towards the north-east, from her living-room window she could see smoke rising.  ‘That could be Wehlau burning,’ she thought to herself.  From the kitchen window she noticed several fires to the south-east.  They seemed alarmingly close.  It was truly frightening.  

Gretel heard steps behind her.  “We simply have to get away from here,” Mama whispered.  She had also been unable to sleep and was looking out of the window over Gretel’s shoulder into the dreadful night in which everything seemed to be lost.  In this instant they both knew it was not possible to remain in the house.  As painful as the prospect was, they had to come to grips with it and finally act.


From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" [Page 243]...
After Gretel had climbed up, Mama handed her the two small children who didn’t understand what was happening.  They had quietly watched the hustle and bustle around them all day and now they were being lifted onto a heavily loaded wagon when it was soon time to go to bed!  They didn’t ask and they didn’t complain, but Gretel did wonder what might be going on in their little heads. 

It was high time to leave, and there was no room for nostalgia.  They exited the village and Gretel turned around to once more contemplate what they were leaving behind, when she suddenly remembered that she was supposed to report to the K√∂nigsberg Gestapo the very next day, January 23.  Well, the gentlemen of the Gestapo would have to wait a long time to see her… at least there was one positive aspect to the flight, Gretel thought to herself wryly.


From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" [Page 254]...
Gretel learned from the Panzer group that a section of the Russian army, coming up from the south, had advanced as far as Elbing.  This meant that East Prussia was closed in, and an escape over land was no longer possible.  The Panzer unit was going to attempt to break through to the west the next morning, while the only route open to the civilian refugees was the frozen Frisches Haff, the Vistula Lagoon.

From their accommodations, Gretel and her group had a good view of the vast stretch of ice that was the lagoon.  However, it was now February, it had been raining and there were signs of early thawing.  The sky was clouded over that morning which meant that vehicles traversing the ice would be somewhat concealed from low-flying enemy planes which were known to target civilians.  Gretel knew that, not only was the weather conducive for the perilous crossing, it was also one of the last few days such a crossing would be possible.

Gretel couldn’t help shuddering when the horses finally took their first steps on the ice.  She knew it was risky, but it was their last resource.  They had been advised to keep a considerable distance from the wagon ahead.

With each step of the horses the mainland was left further behind, and was soon out of sight.  All the refugees could see was an interminable white surface of ice.  The Frisches Haff Vistula Lagoon was 20 kilometers wide at this spot.  They would need one full day before they could hope to reach the shore of the Nehrung spit.

Suddenly a loud crack resounded like a loud thunder bolt through the eerie silence, and the wagon shook slightly.  The ice must have split open somewhere.  Gretel briefly wondered whether they were only on an ice floe, rather than on continuous surface.

Anton stopped the wagon and everyone sat tense and still, listening for signs of crackling.  Over an open spot in the ice they noticed a wooden bridge.  It resembled a walkway over a creek and seemed strangely out of place.  

Even though the skies were overcast when they first started out, it was now clearing.  They were no longer protected by clouds and sure enough, to their utter horror, enemy fighter planes suddenly appeared out of nowhere and came straight at them.  They could clearly see shots raining down and hitting the ice around the wagons just ahead of them.  

Anton stopped the horses.  He and Maria leaped down and slithered under the wagon.  Mama jumped up from her seat and did the same, calling to Gretel to grab the children and join her.  However, Gretel was stuck in the rear of the wagon with the two boys…. there was not enough time to get out.

She looked up and saw the lead fighter aiming his guns at her wagon; the shooter positioned behind the machine gun was ready to pull the trigger.  Gretel pulled her children close and stared at the gun directed at her.  “Dear God,” she pleaded, “if this is it, please take all three of us”.   She couldn’t fathom being left behind alone, and what would her poor children do without a mother?

Gretel’s prayers were heard.  There were no more shots.  The shooter decided as if by a miracle not to pull the trigger.  Instead, the aircraft pulled up into a steep climb before her eyes and headed back into the thin layer of clouds, with all the other planes behind him.  They disappeared as mysteriously as they had emerged.


From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" [Page 271]...
The refugees’ trek continued the 465 kilometers along the coast of the Baltic Sea through Pomerania. Each day was taking them further away from their home.   The larger town after Stolp was Kolberg, followed by Stettin, followed by the crossing of the river Oder.  At the train stations of every town the same scenes were repeated – masses of people with their luggage, waiting for trains that didn’t come.  Only once, in Neubrandenburg, where they stopped at the station for a rest, there was actually a train standing on the tracks ready for departure, with people hustling to get on.

It was now March.  The flight had already lasted seven weeks.  For practically 50 nights the two young children had had to put their little heads down in a new and strange place, and the strain started to show.


From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" [Page 273]...
On April 24, American and Russian forces merged in Wurzen.  On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker at the Reich Chancellery, and on May 8 the German Army announced the unconditional surrender to its east and west enemies.  

Gretel and her children remained in the Russian zone.  Mama had reached the west zone that was inaccessible to Gretel.  Arno was in the U.S.  Papa was in the part of East Prussia that had been ceded to the Russians.  A dispersed family that had yet to find a way to reunite.


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