Giving voice to Hitler’s last victims

MARSHALL – One cold winter day in 1945 as the Third Reich was collapsing and the Red Army was advancing from the east, a family of ethnic Germans – a mother with three daughters, one an infant – were forced from their home in Poland. Fleeing for their lives they saw scenes of indescribably horror, streets littered with “German dolls” the bodies of children frozen to death, women raped and murdered.

Joseph Stalin gave orders to the Red Army, “Kill the Germans,” and “The German women are your rightful loot.”

Ahead of them lay three years of slavery on Polish farms, escape to Soviet-dominated East Germany, and ultimately freedom in the West. They were among the survivors of 15 million ethnic Germans expelled from the countries of East Central Europe at the end of the Second World War.

They survived due to their mother Leokadia Wenzel’s indomitable will and a clever stratagem. She taught her daughters to make themselves look grotesque, to feign spastic movements, blacken their teeth and hunch their backs to avoid violation.

Cold and hunger were their constant companions. On one occasion, Leokadia Wenzel endured a brutal beating from a Polish woman who wanted to adopt her baby daughter.

On Thursday night that baby, now Dr. Erika Vora, professor of Intercultural Communication at St. Cloud University, came to the Lyon County Museum to speak for the women and children she called “Hitler’s last victims.”

Vora is the author of “The Will to Live: A German Family’s Flight from Soviet Rule,” and “Silent No More: Personal Narratives of German Women who Survived WWII Expulsion and Deportation.”

“Silent No More” is a compilation of the testimony of 33 ethnic German women from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania who were expelled from the lands their families had lived in for centuries. Women who survived unspeakable horror, who would only speak to one of their own.

“Many were taken to the Russian gulag, worked, starved and came back skeletons,” Vora said. “They were not allowed to talk by the Soviets, and there was always the fear of the secret police. Then in 1989 the wall came down. As I was talking to each of these women they looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, how can you be alive? You are a miracle baby!'”

The 33 women and a few men who wanted to tell what they’d seen of the suffering of women and children brutalized because they came from the same people as the hated Nazi occupiers, even though many loathed the Nazis.

“I didn’t write this book to point fingers at any perpetrators,” Vora said. “There are many books about the Second World War. About the soldiers, the Holocaust, the Luftwaffe – how many books are there about the women and children? We must bear witness so they will not be forgotten.”

Vora said what struck her most about the women whose testimony she took was though the memories were painful enough to make them weep while telling their stories, there was not a single woman who was hateful toward the perpetrators.

“My mother said never be prejudiced, never stereotype someone because of their origins, or you are no better than them,” Vora said.