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Survivor Story: Anni Tissl Turkalak

As told to Rita Tomkins, 14 Jan 2013 

            Anni Tissl was born in March of 1923 in Timisoara, Romania, along with her twin brother, Emil.  Their mother was nearly 40 years old, and that caused some concern.  Instead of giving birth at home with a midwife, as most women did, she was brought to the children’s hospital on the other side of the bridge across the Bega River.  There everything went well. 

            Anni and Emil grew up in a small house with their parents and a brother and sister who were more than a decade older.  Their neighborhood, just outside Timisoara, was tucked behind a large turbine on the Bega.  For school they went into the city, into the Fabrikstadt area where the factories were.  Emil was much better at school than Anni; she struggled with having to do everything in Romanian since she was more comfortable with the Schwowisch dialect of German that they spoke at home.

            Emil was such a good student that he went on to the leading German secondary school in Timisoara, the Banatia.  Anni remembers with pride the red cap he wore there with a silver stripe around it.  From there he went on to become a brew master’s apprentice.  After a while Anni and Emil’s father left his job at the shoe factory where he had worked for 29 years and took a job in the office of the brewery.  Then every morning father and son walked to work together.  At lunchtime Anni would go there, too, to bring bowls of hot food that her mother had cooked. 

“My dad cried when my brother went to the army.” 

            The war years separated the twins.  Emil was called into the German Army, but his physical exam showed that the pneumonia he had suffered from as a child had left his lungs somewhat damaged, so he was not strong enough to be a soldier.  He was released to Vienna but from there was sent to Czechoslovakia. 

            Anni’s parents took Emil’s absence hard.  She remembers that her father cried when her brother had to leave home.  Her mother’s heart weakened, and she became bedridden.  It was Anni’s job to take care of her while Anni’s sister and their father went to work.           

“My dad said America will not let it happen.”  

            At the beginning of 1945, in the dead of winter, Anni’s father came home from work one day troubled about something he had heard.  There was a rumor that the government would be rounding up all the Schwowische girls and sending them away to work.  But he didn’t believe it.  He said America would never let something like that happen.

            Not long after, there was an official announcement.  At that time when the government needed to pass information to every household, they sent out an announcer, a man with a drum who would walk up and down the streets calling out the news.  In this case the news was that everyone was required to go to the town hall to register for service.  When they got there, the girls with German names were already marked on a list.  They were told to go home and make some preparations, pack up some food and clothing.

            Late at night on January 14, two young Romanian men with police batons came to the house. They marched right into the bedroom where Anni was sleeping with her mother.  She had to get dressed and come with them immediately.  They stayed in the room while she took her nightgown off.  One of the men was laughing.  Anni was looking at her mother.  She says, “I saw the fear in her eyes when she saw I had to get up and get dressed and never come back again, and I never even saw her anymore.”  Anni was 21 years old.

            All the young Schwowische women ages 18 to 30 from town, and the few men under age 30 who had not been drafted, were assembled in the schoolhouse. Anni’s father came there a few hours later.  He brought her a chicken her sister (who was already beyond the age they were looking for) had roasted for her.  He stood there for a long time looking on helplessly, but there was nothing more he could do. 

“They threw us in dirty cattle trains.” 

            When everyone was accounted for, they were made to march under guard, “like criminals,” she says, to the main train station in Timisoara, a good hour away.  There they were thrown into dirty cattle cars in the bitter cold of January and sent northward.

            When they got to the Romanian border, the train had to stop.  The tracks were a different size in Russia, so everyone had to get out into the deep snow.  From there they were put onto a Russian freight train that stank like it had just been used to transport pigs. The doors were closed.  They were on that train for eleven days.  Some of the men made a hole in the floor of the train car so people could relieve themselves.

            Anni is not sure where exactly in Ukraine they ended up.  Krivoy Rog is a city nearby.  The name Kolachesk sticks in her mind, but she is not sure whether that was the name of a small town or just the camp where they were.  She has not been able to find it on any map.

            They were housed in a big block building with many rooms.  She was on a floor with other women from Timisoara.  They slept on wooden planks with no bedding at all.  Still, they got bedbugs that caused painful itching. The work they were assigned was physically exhausting.  When the German Army had come through the area they had cut down all the trees in a nearby apple orchard.  The job of the Schwowe women was now to dig up the roots of those trees with shovels and hatchets to make way for a new road.  When each long day of digging was done, they were given a bowl of thin soup.  “They heated water and threw sauerkraut in it,” she says.  The shoes they had were worn through quickly.  As replacements they were given what Anni calls “some junk” for their feet.  Some of the girls got frostbite and had to have toes amputated. 

“I had to dig a grave.” 

            The watchman at the apple orchard where they were digging had his own little house there and a Russian girl working as his cook.  One day there was an unusual commotion in the house, and they found out that the young cook had taken the watchman’s gun and killed herself.  Anni and two other girls were ordered to dig a grave.  When they brought the girl out of the house, she was in an open casket with a loaf of bread on top of her.  This was a custom, to send the dead on to the next life with something to eat.  “I was so hungry,” Anni remembers.  The starving root-diggers looked on with envy and horror as the dead girl with the loaf of bread was carried by them.  Anni was thankful that she was not forced to do the burying. 

“When we were skin and bones, we were released to East Germany.” 

            After three years of this, the prisoners were reduced to skin and bones, too weak to work—they could barely walk.  One day they were “loaded onto a truck like pieces of wood.”  They were each given a slip of paper, a bill informing them of what they owed the Russian government for their upkeep.  Presumably this was to be paid at some later time, since, of course, they had no money.  This was their release.  They were placed on a train (this time with a door left open for fresh air and a thick, hearty soup to eat) headed west.  As they traveled through Poland, a few of the men on board died, and the train had to stop so that they could be buried. 

            When they arrived in East Germany, many of the prisoners were sick, so they were all held in quarantine.  A doctor officially diagnosed Anni as being undernourished.  After two weeks they were sent to be housed at local families’ homes while they recuperated.  For the first couple of weeks at the home where Anni was sent, she was so dizzy that she couldn’t stand up.  But for the first time in years she had enough food, and she slowly recovered.  She also wrote to her family in care of the brewery in Timisoara to tell them that she had been released and was in East Germany. 

            Anni says, “When my dad got the letter at the brewery, he was so happy he couldn’t eat.”  But he advised her not to try to come back home.  He thought it would be safer for her to try to go to West Germany, where her older brother had stayed after the war.

            It was illegal to cross the border from East Germany to West Germany, but there was a guide who was taking people.  They had to walk all night through the woods, and the guide said they needed to be careful of wild pigs, which could attack.  Anni was very scared, but they never saw any pigs. When they got to the border, they were spotted by a guard.  Their guide talked to him.  He said his group was just released from a Russian prison camp.  He offered the guard some of the Schnapps he had on his back.  The guard refused the drink, but surprisingly he let them go across the border into West Germany.  From the border Anni was able to take a regular passenger train to Munich to be reunited with her brother.

            She found out that Emil had finally managed to return to Romania, and was promptly arrested.  But when the authorities found out that he was a brew master, he was released.  As it turned out, Timisoara needed a brew master, and Emil was hired. Eventually Anni found work as a housekeeper and met the man she would marry and together they immigrated to America.  She never saw her parents again.  She did reunite with Emil in Germany when he was allowed to leave Romania in the 1970’s.  Later she even traveled back to Timisoara to visit her sister in a retirement home there.

[Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim Pharr, 20 Jan 2013]