Luftwaffenhelferinnen, assistants in the Luftwaffe, march in Vesoul, France. This photo belongs to an 89-year-old Lehigh Valley woman who says she was among the marchers.
Over the last year, I’ve been meeting with a Lehigh Valley woman, now 89, who served in the German air force during World War II.
She offered a fascinating glimpse of life in Nazi Germany, and now I’m going to share it with you.
At age 18, she was drafted into the Luftwaffe in March 1942. After training in Stuttgart for the air-protection service, she worked in a Munich bunker. Her job was to take information from lookouts scanning the skies for enemy bombers, and then alert civil defense authorities to set off the sirens that called residents to underground shelters.
Later she served in German-occupied France.
After the war, she fell in love with a GI in the occupation force and followed him to his home in the Lehigh Valley, where they were married.
Here is her story, as she told it to me:
The messages came from the soldiers in the mountains. They looked out for the enemy planes, and from the lookout commander we got the Meldungen [messages] over the phone: “Five bombers are approaching 1582.” That would be the code for Munich. “Attention for the siren.”
We had to give real fast the messages to the station where they had a siren. We were in charge that the siren went off so all the people would rush into the bunkers. It was very hard and dangerous work. The English, the Russians, the American bombers came. There was no rest. We were young girls; we should have had fun with boys. We should have had a teenage life, with dances and parties.
Those sirens could wake up the dead. When it was over, we got the message: Enemy planes are leaving. When there was everything clear, then we gave the message that it’s clear and the people came out of the bunkers.
Hermann Goering was my boss. He was obsessed with his planes. The belly he had! He treated us very good. He came to our bunker in the Luftgaukommando [air defense district command headquarters], checking up. The Luftgaukommando was a big building in the middle of the city. The basement was the bunker. It was specially made for protection. There were about six or eight women in there. We were Helferin [Luftwaffe female assistants]. Later I was promoted to Oberhelferin.
One time in Munich, I have to tell you, they really came – the Americans. There must have been 15 or 20 bombers. I just got the message out when we got a full hit. It knocked down at least four stories of our building. Everything was destroyed, but we were not hurt because of the way the bunker was built.
There were soldiers that were put on that spot to watch, and the windows were marked in fluorescent color where we were, so in case we were buried they could find us. Our room was still there and a big barrel of water with blankets, and we threw the blankets over us and the soldiers pulled us out of the windows. This was near the Englischen Garten – it was a park — and it was all fire. We could see the phosphorus bombs.
I think I had a nervous breakdown. I was in a hospital for some time.
My mom’s parents came from northern Italy. My dad came from Niederbayern. We lived in Tegernsee, a resort near Munich. Tegernsee is a big lake. My father was a brewmaster, but when he came back from world war 1914-18 he didn’t work anymore because he was injured. He had a short leg. He got a pretty good pension. We could live not extravagantly but modest.
We had a beautiful childhood, nothing but skiing and mountain climbing and skating. I was good at skiing. I zigzagged down 1,200-meter mountains. We went swimming in the lake and played by the waterfall. We picked berries and gathered wood for the big stove in our kitchen. Our house was a chalet on a hill. We had a radio. We had a dog, a cat and a deer named Hansy for our pets. Hansy slept on the floor by my bed. We had a big family – eight girls and two boys. It was like the Waltons [on TV].
One day we were in school. I was at least 14. The teacher said, “12 o’clock a train will arrive at the station and we’re all going to go up there. Adolf Hitler is in person appearing there.” We were glad to be called out of school. We were looking forward to seeing him. I thought he was a good leader.
We walked to the station, up the hill. We were boys and girls together, I would say about 40. I saw this train and all this commotion. There was the railroad station gate and the building where you buy your tickets, and there were benches to sit down and there was a fence.
Hitler was behind the fence. He had the Gestapo with him, bodyguards. Every one of us got a chance to squeeze through and see him close, from 6 to 8 feet. Our greeting was all together, “Heil Hitler,” with our right arms at eye level. He was talking to us and the teachers. He made a speech about how we should grow up and we should behave ourselves.
That crazy Hitler was a man that anybody would have accepted because he brought work, he had good ideas – the Autobahn – and Germany just grew and grew. So you lift up your arm, “Heil Hitler” – how many times! But then we found out that there was something wrong.
One time the Gestapo came to my house, four of them. They said to my mother, “You are under arrest. You bought from the Jews and you were told not to.” There were three or four of us together, and we were very scared for my mom. I was hanging onto her. She said, “I have 10 kids. I have every one in a Catholic school and I need clothes for them, and the Jewish people are the only ones who give credit.”
She went to Munich and bought clothes from the Jews. It was in a black book where they mark what you owe, and the Gestapo had that book. They knew everything. They were going to put her in a concentration camp for that. So she said, “I’ll go with you all right, but wait till I get my Golden Cross. You can give it back to Hitler. I don’t want it.” She went in her bedroom and got it.
She had the Golden Cross because she had 10 children. Hitler worshiped German mothers. The Buergermeister gave my mom the medal. He was the biggest Nazi in town.
The Gestapo said entschuldigen [excuse us]. They were shocked that they bothered my mother. They took off. They were more scared than we were. Hitler would have had their heads.
In my hometown, the Jews had to wear a yellow star and they were not supposed to be served in a hotel, restaurant or anywhere. My mom thought that was terrible. She said, “Why are they doing that to these poor people?” We were raised to love people. We were not raised like that. My mom loved all people and animals. She had a heart of gold. She passed on that love to every one of us. I’m proud of her for that.
You won’t believe the movies they showed in school! They showed us movies about what the Jews did to young girls. They made it that you actually hated them because of how cruel they were and how they chopped the heads off animals and sacrificed them.
I heard they were rounded up in trucks, they were put in trains, but I never saw them rounded up in my hometown. It was a small village.
The more Hitler got power, the more he tried to destroy and make wars against small countries, the more you started realizing he’s going too far. But you couldn’t say anything. You were never allowed to question his speeches. At the end, we just listened to marching songs — “Deutschland Ueber Alles” [“Germany Over All”] and “Die Fahne Hof” [“The Flag Flies High”] – and raised our arms.
When I graduated from Berufschule, I got drafted. I had to go to Stuttgart with another group of girls. That was our learning place. The instructors were all Luftwaffe officers. We had to know the planes. We had an awful lot of gymnastics. Hitler was nuts with that. We had to always be very healthy.
Finally the instructors said, “You’re ready for plane attacks, you’re ready for the job,” and we were set up at different bunkers. I was sent to work in the Luftgaukommando in Munich, which was the most important headquarters.
When we were finished with our jobs, we had get-togethers and dancing. They had a band, they had waltzes – Johann Strauss. We were in uniform, sometimes we dressed in our civilian clothes. Officers were there. That’s where I met [a bomber pilot] and he asked me to dance. He was handsome, and he was happy and relaxed – different from other pilots. We got engaged.
I think I was in France when he was shot down over London and killed. That was hard in the beginning. I got a letter from his parents. I sent all his pictures back to them.
After Munich, then I wound up in France. First we were stationed in Vesoul, then in Rennes, where we were still in combat with our pilots, and there I saw no bombings. We were there to occupy the country. The French people hated us — can’t blame them. They killed one girl from my hometown who was in the Luftwaffe. She was pushed into the subway in Paris. It was her own fault. She wasn’t supposed to go by herself. She was supposed to have a soldier with her.
First in Rennes they were teaching us Morse code, but that is for the birds. We were going to be transferred to Sweden. Then everything changed. I learned first aid. They took the swastika off and put the red cross on the arm of our uniform and we were helping the nurses. We had to take care of the wounded German and English fliers. You think these English would take a cup of milk or tea from us? No way. They were scared we’d poison them. Those young boys were very nervous, so scared.
When I came back was a fiasco. The officers took off by plane or cars and left us behind. Soldiers took off too. We were released from our duty. We were told the war was over. Now let’s find our way home from France, 1,000 kilometer. We didn’t know what to do. We could not travel by day because they were still shooting, the Spitfires were coming down.
We were tired of sitting in the woods, so one day we took a chance to get into a hay wagon – three, four guys and three, four girls. A French farmer, he had farm stuff in the wagon. I had my duffel bag on my lap.
Wouldn’t you know, over the top of a tree comes this Spitfire and starts shooting. One of the soldiers said, “Achtung, raus von Wagen! Schnell, macht schnell!” [Get off the wagon, hurry!] Somebody gave me a push and I flew into a ditch. One girl got off too late and got hit in the back. She had a white sweater on. Blood was gushing all over. She collapsed and died. They rolled her into a ditch and left her there.
My duffel bag on the wagon was all full of holes. It had perfume from France. I had delicious French rolls in the bag, and they were soaked in perfume.
We went back into the woods. We never did go by day anymore. It took me two weeks, maybe three, to get to Munich, mostly walking. Of course, Munich was a pile of stones. My aunt lived in a big apartment house. It was in pretty bad shape. She gave me what she had to eat and I slept with her for a while, then she helped me find a train that was still running that took me back home.
I find nobody. Through the loudspeakers they’d been saying: “Everybody defend yourselves. Kill or be killed. The Americans have black faces. They have knives and machetes and they chop your head off. They will murder you. Germans will all die.” That was Goebbels making propaganda, Goebbels with his big mouth.
It scared everybody, so my people went into the mountains. I couldn’t find my mom and my sisters – my father died of kidney failure during the war. Finally, I just had an idea where they might be, and I walked in the woods and looked around, and I found them. My mom was there with a big rucksack where she had a stale loaf of bread, for God’s sake. She made a promise to God. There was a Virgin Mary chapel on a big mountain, and she was going to go there on a long walk because she thanked God I made it back. And she did.
We stayed in the woods until it got dark. Then we inched ourselves down. Not a soul in town. There was nothing wrong, and no black Americans were there trying to kill us with knives. My mom burned my uniform. I had a T-shirt with a big swastika on it. She didn’t want anyone to see that.
Days went by and we looked down the hill at the dirt road. One of my sisters hollered, “There’s a funny-looking brown car with soldiers in it.” My mom said to us, “Get up the attic, go hide!” It was a jeep and there were four American guys in there, and they were all white like we were. They were not black at all.
The Americans came into the house. They were gentlemen, but one guy put his big boot on the table. My mom called to us, “You can come down now. It’s OK.” She said the Nazis were big liars, like they always were. The soldiers gave us candy bars, chocolate, and they were very nice.
Later, truckloads of black and white American soldiers came to my village. There was no truth about black people being any different from the rest of us.
Some soldiers picked me up in a truck at my house and said, “You were in the service. You have to be interrogated because of the concentration camps.” They took me to Bad Aibling. They had me at the prison camp two weeks. I slept on straw.
I was interrogated by Jewish men in uniforms. They were cold and accusing. They went through my whole family, what I did in the war, what my brothers and sisters did. They asked me in German: “Did you go near any of those concentration camps? Did you ever go in them?” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That was the God’s-honest truth.
When they found out I was just doing my job, they released me.
Was I glad that stupid war was over!