Rarely do we have the opportunity to hear of the hardships, disappointments, separations and atrocities of World War II from the perspective of a European family that experienced all of these and more. Gerhard Maroscher, the youngest brother in his family of four, gives us personal accounts from his and his family’s life before, during and after the war. His book, Why Can’t Somebody Just Die Around Here?, takes us to Romania and Germany, through the trying days of separation, to life in a prisoner of war camp, to the treacherous days of escape, to reunion after the war and finally to freedom in America. I will give you highlights in this short blog and encourage you to get a copy for your library. It is easily found online. This book should help us all appreciate how precious our freedoms are.
The book’s title sums up the frustrations of the lives which just came through the conflicts of war and were experiencing its ravages. 1947 found this family as refugees in Ohrenbach, Germany with very little of the necessities of life. Food was scarce and hunger was a daily concern. Gerhard remarks, “Refugees like my family…never had enough to eat.”
Their father had studied at a Lutheran university before the war and was asked to officiate at funerals. Local farmers provided food for those attending the funerals, and Gerhard’s Dad would be compensated with “a substantial carry-out-order. This was the only time we had enough to eat…,” he remembers. Gerhard’s brother, Gunther, asked this poignant question of their Mom during an especially hard time of hunger. If someone would just die, they could eat.
The Maroscher’s story begins in Mettersdorf, Romania. This is a rural farming community in the Transylvania region of Romania. Originally a city girl, mom managed the household, managed the farm and raised the kids. Father Gustav had a prestigious teaching job and was paid very well. Life was good and the Maroschers looked forward to a life of peace and raising their children on the farm.
That dream would rapidly fade because the war clouds were already gathering. Hitler’s Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939 and, as the result of an agreement between Stalin and Hitler, Russia invaded from the east and consequently massacred 22,000 educated Polish people, including the Polish Army Officer Corps, as well as many polish leaders in the Katyn Forest Massacre.
Gustav had been conscripted into the Romanian Army in 1937. His teaching career was interrupted from time to time because of military duties, and in 1940 he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in an infantry unit in the reserves. Politics rendered Transylvania part of Hungary, so dad would now be in the Hungarian Army, as an ally with Germany. Later complications placed him in the German Army toward the war’s end.
Gustav’s unit began training for combat against the Russians in 1944. Gerhard remarks, “The youthful hope for peace and a happy family life was shattered, and replaced with hunger, danger, fear, worry, separation and many other hardships.”
Gerhard’s 24 year old mother remained in Mettersdorf with her two sons, four year old Gunther and one year old Gerhard, while Gustav was serving on the front lines against the Russian Army. On a September day the town crier announced that the Russians had breached the lines and were making their march to invade the area where Mettersdorf was located. The decision had to be made quickly whether to remain or leave for safety’s sake. The Russians’ reputation concerning non-combatants was not good and they decided to flee with only a few essentials. They were able to board a Red Cross train headed for Germany. They didn’t realize it at the time, but they would be leaving their homeland forever.
Even though it was a Red Cross train, there were numerous bombing air raids during the journey. Spotters would alert the engineer and the train would come to an abrupt stop. Everyone would disembark and scatter into the surrounding woods until the all clear sounded. Though a harrowing trip with many such raids, amazingly no one was killed in these raids.
Herzogenburg, Austria’s monastery had been converted into a refugee camp, and this is where the family found themselves. They were now under the Third Reich’s control. Millions of people were fleeing the Russian invasion and streaming into Austria and Germany, and the refugee camps were not equipped to handle so many.
This young mother had to be resilient and tough through these difficult days. Food was scarce and the boys experienced pneumonia and diarrhea. Mom and Gunther contracted diphtheria and were hospitalized for a time. Gerhard quotes his mom, “At the refugee camp I used to steal coal for heat. That way I could heat our room. You had pneumonia and I had to make hot compresses…I stole from coal cars. Every night I would go out. I was so afraid.”
When released from the hospital, Gerhard’s mom realized that her baby was starving to death and he wasn’t getting the nourishment that he needed. She went to the camp director and asked if she could use the camp’s kitchen when not in use to boil potatoes for her family. The director refused. She headed back to the living quarters and retrieved an automatic pistol that she had brought from home.
She returned to the director and pleaded with him because her son was going to die. He refused again and this prompted Mom to bring the pistol to his head. Convincingly she exclaimed, “I will shoot you like a mangy cur if you do not allow me to use the kitchen. My son will surely die.” Gerhard says, “My Mom was an excellent negotiator. He then agreed to allow her to use the kitchen. Since she had the upper hand at that point, she requested that all mothers with small children be able to use the kitchen when it was not in use. The director agreed.” Gerhard says, “I think he was wise not to challenge the lioness.”
Mom’s goal was to get to Weimar, Germany, where her sister lived. Wouldn’t you know it – they arrived there in 1945 during an allied bombing raid. They would survive nine such bombing raids while there.
During a raid, they were all “hunkered down in the cellar when the bomb came crashing in,” Gunther, Gerhard’s older brother remembered. “We found it half buried in the dirt floor in the basement. It went through the roof and all three stories.”
Gerhard said, “Thank God someone had a bad day at the bomb factory when they were assembling ‘our’ bomb.” (The pictures are of Weimar after an air raid.)
The infamous Buchenwald concentration camp was located just a few miles from Weimar and was liberated by American GI’s on April 11, 1945. Russian prisoners had already taken control of the camp and some had made it to Weimar before the Americans arrived in town the next day. The prisoners had tracked down many escaped Nazi SS guards and executed them. Some had looted homes and abused the citizens of Weimar, including killing some citizens and the rape of many women.
Those prisoners who had been unjustly kept at Buchenwald were able to leave and pick up their lives again. But there were violent criminals among them who pillaged the town for weeks to come. The Americans did not have a presence in Weimar after dark and there was no police protection. So, consequently each night was a night of terror. Drunken gangs would roam the streets looting and raping. This would last for three weeks until the Americans realized what was happening and restored order. Mom would be the heroine again as she devised a plan to keep her family and the family next to them safe.
During these days, Gustav was in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Of course, the family had no idea of his whereabouts and Mom did not trust the American soldiers. She said, “Remember, at that time we had been repeatedly bombed by the Americans and I did not know if your dad was alive or not.”
The Americans pulled out in July of 1945 and this void was filled by the control of the communist Soviet Union. Gerhard remembers, “We now lived in the wonderful communist workers’ paradise. How did we know it was wonderful? Well, that is what the citizens read in the newspapers, learned in school and heard on the radio. And if you knew what was good for you, you made no waves…”
Older brother Gerhard compared the Russian soldiers and the American soldiers: “Russian soldiers were indeed a sorry looking lot…always dirty…they smelled and their breath brought tears to your eyes…both enlisted men and officers were drunk much of the time…By comparison, the American soldier seemed cheerful, willing to engage, and share food, blankets, etc. with civilians. Indigenous people and refugees trusted the American GIs.”
These days of uncertainty brought many dangers and hardships and mom worked numerous jobs in her desperation to provide for her family. One of her jobs was as a seamstress, making Russian uniforms. Cigarettes were more valuable than money and the Russian soldiers paid her with cigarettes. She collected them and would need them later to facilitate their escape from the East. This wonderful determined mother is surely our heroine in this story. Against all odds she would find ways to protect and provide for her family.
Our next post will take us through the days of escape, survival, reunion and finally to freedom. The determination and victories accomplished by this family would be rewarded in their longed-for freedom of America.
To purchase this powerful book: https://amzn.to/32CJfQs
For a signed copy: www.themaroscherstory.com