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My Childhood Experiences as a Displaced Person

Engelhartszell, Austria & Durchgangslager Balingen, Germany

By Anne Koch Dreer

Published at dvhh.org 17 May 2008 by Jody McKim Pharr.


     The refugee camps in Germany and Austria were temporary lodgings, sometimes in barracks, not usually well insulted, where refugees were housed until they could find other accommodation or the authorities found some for them.  Sometimes this took years. The camps were often crowded, especially in 1944 and after the end of the war. The food was sometimes provided from a central kitchen and was very basic if not meager. Some Flüchtlingslager allotted a private room to families, if any were available but that also depended upon the number of family members.

     They sometimes had woodstoves for heating. Fuel, which consisted of wood or coal, was scarce. If they had a wood-fired cook stove they could prepare their own meals. Food was scarce and rationed. Most people were malnourished from being on the road a long time and failed to recuperate in the camps until conditions in general improved. Many of the small children and old people died. 


From left: my mother's youngest sister Magdalena Kolbrich Bakes, my mother Katharina Kolbrich Koch, mother's other sister Anna Kolbrich Bründl.  Their clothes were made from the long skirts they brought from Yugoslavia. Me, front and center; my skirt was made from an American army blanket.

     The refugees were not mistreated. Officially, Germany and Austria accepted us. In real life it was not always like that. There were hundreds of us imposing on the everyday life of people who considered someone living only thirty kilometres away as almost a foreigner. They thought we were Gypsies because we were poorly dressed and dirty. Though we were from Syrmia we were erroneously referred to as Banater, which they used in such a way that it was an insult. That name was usually embellished as Banater Grfrass which translates to Banater riff-raff.  

     We arrived in Austria with my grandparents in November 1944 after being on the wagon trek for four weeks. It had often rained and the roads were muddy. When there was a big hill to cross we all had to get off the wagon and walk because it was too much for the tired horses.  I was six years old, my older brother was eight, and our baby brother Robert was a year old, with my parents Josef and Katharina Koch (nee Kolbrich) when we reached the Austrian border.  Many women with children were put on trains because winter had set in and it was too cold for the children in the wagons. 

     We went as far as Engelhartszell in Oberoesterreich where they accommodated us in a school. There were about thirty of us in one classroom; some older people, the rest were women and children.  In another classroom there were more refugees. At night straw was spread over most of the floor for us to sleep on.  In the morning the straw was pushed to the wall of the room so we would not walk on it. We had no blankets, only the clothes we wore because my mother had to carry the baby. She was pregnant, which of course, I didn’t know at the time.  We only had the clothes we wore. We were dirty for there had been no chance for us to wash along the way. On the trek it often rained, so our clothes had gotten wet.  

     It was getting close to Christmas. Some local people had collected a few toys for us children because we didn’t have any. I got a small wooden building block that was arched like a bridge. My brother got a building block house. Some other children got different shapes. We put them all together and played, happy to have something to play with.  

     The war had not yet ended and there was a blackout curfew.  At night all the windows had to be darkened with black paper panels and the electric light bulbs were dark blue so not a ray of light could get through the windows. This was to avoid being spotted from bombers flying over the town. 

     At mealtime the refugees took turns in getting food for all of us in big kettles from a local hospital or convent.  I don't know which it was but there were Catholic Nuns there. It was usually sauerkraut and potatoes. I can still smell it.  When it was my mother's turn to get the food, my older brother and I were sometimes allowed to come along.  We had a cloth shoulder bag and strict instructions: 'If they ask you if you want bread, you always say ‘YES'.  Someone from the Red Cross came once in a while and gave us calcium tablets.  The Nuns also checked us for head lice.  If you had even nits (louse eggs), they saturated your hair with coal oil (they called it petroleum) and wrapped a cloth around your head. They gave us very fine metal combs to comb the nits out of our hair. I had very long hair and it hurt a lot.

     After a few weeks, through the Red Cross we found our grandparents. They had a room in a farm house. We went there and later found an upstairs room on another farm for ourselves. We lived in that one room for six years.  

     In the meantime my father found us. His unit of the Volkssturm was disbanded as the Russian front advanced into Austria. The Volkssturm was Hitler’s last-ditch attempt to use any man able to stand on his feet as soldiers, including teenagers and old men.  My father had previously been declared unfit for combat because he had fallen arches. 

     Our room on the farm was on the second floor above a chicken coop. The door downstairs was left open in the winter, making it hard to keep the room warm. Below our window was the manure pile, which meant a lot of flies in the summer. There were no fly screens. The outhouse was at the far side, behind the barn.  We had a wood cook stove, three beds, two large wooden boxes that served as benches and a rough table made by my dad who was no carpenter but it served its purpose.  The water had to be carried from the far side of the main farm house upstairs to our room and we had to carry the dirty water back downstairs again. This was very difficult, as we needed a lot of water. My younger brother was still in diapers and a half year later my mother had another baby. 

     We were fortunate to live on our own. Some people were in camps for years and were much worse off than we. All the food was still rationed and potatoes were often the only food we had. If occasionally we had pea soup from dried peas, I made sure I wasn’t home for supper. I disliked them so much that for the first forty years of my married life I didn’t cook them. Now I find my grown children like them. Of course when I was little we had no ham with it. 

     My father started to work on the farm in exchange for our rent and he got his lunch and supper from the farm kitchen. One of the farmer’s children would bring his plate of food up to our room. We children would stand around the table and watch him eat, so he always shared the food with us. My father found it very hard to accept that he was a hired hand and working for other people, when he once enjoyed working in fields he owned and hired people to help him. This must have been "social" shock to him. 

     We children were outgrowing our clothes and none were available at the local stores and no fabrics, either. All the factories had been bombed out. A few times we got parcels from UNRRA with clothing and food from CARE. One of them contained a tin of Graham crackers. After we finished the crackers the tin was flattened and used as a baking sheet.  

     Mother found out that fresh eggs and butter could be traded for other goods in the cities. In Salzburg, about 50 kilometres from where we lived there was a camp for Jews who had been liberated from concentration camps. They were waiting for emigration to the US and Palestine. Mother and my aunt scrounged a few eggs and a little butter and got a ride to Salzburg on the back of an open truck that was hauling bricks. They found the camp and very eager customers. Selling and trading privately was considered black marketing and very illegal. Patrols had to be avoided. This trip to Salzburg became an almost weekly ritual. For the butter and eggs they got flannelette blankets, American army blankets, cotton bags intended for straw mattresses (paillasse = Strohsack). Though mother was not a trained seamstress, she made winter coats for us from the blankets; underwear from the flannelette and all other clothes from sturdy and very durable cotton. Eventually she was able to get fabric dye and our wardrobe became a little more colorful. 

     One time in Salzburg a group of vendors was meeting with buyers in a park where the police patrol was not as frequent as the nearby camps, when a patrolman came along. Without attracting his attention some ‘vendors’ put their bags and Rucksacks out of sight behind them. One late-arriving Jewish lady came from behind them, took all the loot and disappeared behind some bushes. The guard confiscated what some people had with them and told the crowd to disperse. Fearing their goods were lost as well, mother and aunt turned to go home. The Jewish woman came back with their possessions and said, "now we can do business."  I suppose this could be called "honor on the black market?"  

     Another time mother went to Salzburg on a Saturday. She went to one of her usual clients who said she could not do business because it was the Sabbath. However she asked my mother to take the usual trade goods and leave her the butter and eggs. With all that trading there were sometimes even eggs and butter for our meals. 

     In 1945 my brother and I had to go to school. We had started in Yugoslavia but lost a whole year because of the war. The school was in the village of Tarsdorf four kilometres away. There was a footpath we could take or a gravel road. Our clothes often got wet when it rained because we had no raincoats and our shoes got caked with mud. They were also getting too small for us.  A cobbler could have made shoes but there was no leather available. The people in Salzburg had no leather to trade. 

     The refugee children went to the same school as the Austrians but had refugee teachers, a husband and wife team. The teachers main job seem to be instilling discipline on a group of frightened disadvantaged kids who were still traumatized form losing their homes and the long trek from Yugoslavia through Hungary and all the way to the western border of Austria. 

     The male teacher taught the lower grades. He carried a flexible stick, usually up his sleeve so the principal would not see it when he entered the classroom. This stick was applied to any part of the body, hands, across the shoulders, sometimes even the head and of course the backside. Any question we couldn’t answer, we got it. For every multiplication question we could not answer it was two smacks with the stick on each hand. When we saw the teachers on the street we would make a big detour so we wouldn’t have to pass by them. 

     When I was in Grade Three a new little girl came to our school. She escaped from a concentration camp in Yugoslavia with her mother and older brother. She was very skinny, had big brown eyes, looked very frightened and was afraid to speak. That teacher put her over the desk and whipped her so many times. The rest of us just looked on in horror wondering who would be next. 

     That little girl was Kathy Samuelson who I met sixty years later through (DVHH) Donauschwaben-Villages mail list two years ago. 

     The woman teaching the upper grades was also abusive, more cruel mentally than physically. Our parents knew this was going on, but because we were considered "DP’s" we had very little in the way of rights and had a lot of respect for authority. One time however, my mother and my aunt decided to put a stop to it.  By this time I was already in Grade Four. They confronted the teacher and afterward went to the principal. The two teachers were removed. The next school year with an Austrian teacher and Austrian classmates was my best ever. No more fear of getting hit. Encouragement to learn, explore and most of all ask questions. What a difference. 

     Due to poor nutrition and a lot of exposure to the elements on our long walks to and from school we were often sick with colds. By the time the last of us was sick, the winter was over.  We also got the measles, mumps and chicken pox, one child after the other. At that time my younger brothers were not yet in school. 

     We had no readers and the paper available was of very poor quality. There were inkwells in each desk at school but when we tried to write on that paper the ink just ran. The only pencils available were ‘ink’ pencils. If they got wet, or if your written pages got wet everything ran and turned purple. We had no bags in which to carry our notebooks, plastic in those days was unheard of. Since no erasers were available we used pieces of rubber from bicycle tires. That didn’t work too well and just smudged the page. 

     One year there was a Christmas party for the children at the local pub and each child received a small gift bag from a US aid agency. It contained a few candies and peanuts (it was the first time we tasted those) a little wooden broach and a lead pencil with an eraser on one end, which was new to us. What treasures. 

     We children had only homemade toys. I got a rag doll one year. My brother and I made animals from clay and dried them. We also played with marbles, self-made from clay. They were not exactly round but we marked them with our ink pencils to know which were ours. They also broke easily. 

     My favorite past time was reading. We had no books or readers at school. Our neighbors had old books from the turn of the century in their attic. I was allowed to borrow them. Some were huge yearbooks with many interesting stories, others more like Reader’s Digest monthlies. There were also old readers from the neighbour’s grown son and daughter’s school years. I read each and every one of the books and learned all the poems off by heart. 

     A favorite winter sport in that part of Austria was Eisstock schiessen. It was similar to curling. A wooden cone with a steel rim had a handle on up. You slid it on the ice, (there were many ponds around) to get it close to the target. Of course I didn’t have one but our neighbours had two heavy ones and one child-sized which was quite old and full of woodworm holes.  I was always allowed to borrow them. I liked the heavy ones. One winter the school had a Eisstock tournament about six kilometres away from where we lived. I was really looking forward to that, but because it was so far away, I couldn’t borrow one of the heavy ones and had to make do with a little ugly one.  On the way there all the other children made fun of me because of the ugly little Eisstock

     At the tournament we were separated into age groups. To every one’s amazement I got second prize. Was I ever proud!  When the principal congratulated me, I impatiently tried to grab the prize bag. On the way home everyone admired the ugly little toy and wondered how I had managed to get that prize with it. The prize pack contained a few trinkets, a wooden broach with alpine flowers on it: Edelweiss, Enzian (gentian) and alpine rose. It also contained a bag of brightly lacquered glass marbles. 

     We usually played with rag balls.  Eventually rubber balls became available in the stores but we had no money. The rubber balls cost five shilling. As a ten year old I found myself a job helping to rake hay at nearby a farm. I worked all week in the hot sun and got my lunch and supper there. At the end of the week I got five-shillings. I couldn’t wait to get to the store to get that ball. Then I found they sold all the five shilling balls and the new ones they got in cost seven fifty. Again no ball! 

     My youngest brother wanted a wheelbarrow badly.  At bedtime mother would always pray with us and talk about heaven and paradise, how you could have everything you wanted there. One evening little brother interrupted her and asked, "Even a wheelbarrow?" 

From left: Anne, Robert, Johann and Adam.

     The Austrian dialect was very different from our Schwowisch. Shortly after we settled in Austria some teenage neighbors invited me to have supper at their farm.  At the table they asked if I wanted Erdaepfle. It turned out they meant potatoes, which we called Grumbiere.  We soon learned to speak the Austrian dialect like the natives. We were even ashamed to speak our own dialect because it made us feel inferior.  This inferiority complex is still with me. When I speak to people from Germany or Austria I speak High German. 

     Even in lean times, our Donauschwaben young and old made the best of it and had fun. In the Tarsdorf area Donauschwaben families were relocated in different hamlets, mostly on farms wherever there was a room available. Families seldom got more than one room. Whenever possible the women would get together, sometimes walking several kilometers. One evenings several women were going to visit their friends in a neighboring town and the husbands decided to have a little fun. When the women returned home walking through the countryside, the men were hiding behind some bushes with sheets over their heads, howling like ghosts. Some of the women started to run and scream. One feisty woman grabbed a "ghost" and started beating him with all her might and would not let go. He finally begged for mercy and said, 'Res' loss mich doch aus, des bin doch ich' = Res (Theresia) let me go, it's me. It was a husband of one of the women. No more ghost tricks after that.  

     Another time the Austrians played some kind of game where one of the farmers had to hide and a group of men would be looking for him throughout the village. Occasionally they would call out, asking him to make a sound. The one hiding would answer with a 'yodeler. As a trick, the Donauschwaben women dressed him in a long skirts, put a kerchief and glasses on him and had him sit with a group of them, each one of them was knitting, including the farmer (sort of). The men looked for him throughout the village. Whenever their backs were turned, he would let out a melodious yodel. It was getting near suppertime when they finally noticed the rough working farmer's hands holding knitting needles and wool. 

     In the late 1940’s people started to emigrate to whatever country accepted them: the US, Canada, many South American countries, Australia, New Zealand and even France. Nobody wanted us. There were too many dependants in our family and not enough able-bodied workers so we didn’t qualify. 

     In 1950, we illegally crossed the border into Germany. There we had to go to a refugee camp again, this time in Balingen.  When we first got there they checked us for head lice again. This time we didn’t have any. Then they dusted us with a powder, which I think was DDT to kill any other bugs we could have had.  We were assigned to a barrack with bunk beds and a lot of other people. For meals we had to go to a large dining hall barrack. The food was lean but adequate. Within a week they found an apartment for us in the Black Forest near my aunt, who was already in Baiersbronn. This time we got a three-room apartment. It included a kitchen with cold running water. For the first time in six years all six of us were not crammed into one room. My father was off work frequently.  After many applications to emigrate we were finally accepted by Canada. My brothers and I were all still at school, so my father was accepted to emigrate first in 1953. The family was to follow later when he had earned and saved enough money to support us. Two years later, in 1955 we came to Canada. 

     We were very grateful to the St Raphaelsverein (a Swiss emigration association), which advanced us the money for the ship fares. We paid it back in installments as soon as we started working in Canada.



Last Updated: 04 Feb 2020

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