Forgiving and forgetting is a good idea; unfortunately, it’s a challenging thing to do. But one woman has faced her demons head on and decided to put the memories of her childhood fears and hardships to rest.
Lore Dietrich and little brother, Hartmut, led the idyllic lives of children of wealth and privilege. Her father was a successful physician who ran his practice from his home in Konigsberg, the atmospheric capitol of pre-World War II Prussia.
“I had a very happy childhood,” Lore said.
There is a generation of people who might not have even heard of Prussia, a country whose identity was silenced by the Soviet Union which annexed it and expelled its German inhabitants, creating an exodus of post-war refugees.
But the Prussia of Lore’s early life was a different place.
Lore described the country as a northeast state of Germany with elaborate architecture and an abundance of intellectualism. Its most famous son was the eighteenth century philosopher, Immanuel Kant. It was the home of the great University of Konigsberg, which was to draw students from all over the German-speaking world. But the state had other gifts coveted by its Russian neighbors.
“Prussia has the only amber mine in the world, which was why Russia was so keen to get their hands on us,” Lore said.
Lore’s early years, before the expulsion of the German citizenry, were happy ones. She described herself as a spoiled and spirited child, who took delight in startling her father’s patients as they entered the house through the front door.
“I was a somewhat naughty child. There were two mighty lions on either side of the entrance to our home. I would perch on one of them and roar as the patients entered,” she recalled with a smile.
“We had an easy life. My mom helped my dad in his practice. There was a nanny, a maid and a gardener. I was spoiled rotten by my nanny, my Anni,” Lore confessed.
But suddenly, things went terribly wrong.
World War II broke out, and Prussia found itself buffeted about in a maelstrom of Allied air raids. Lore recalled the bunkers her family would escape to for protection.
“For little kids it was so scary. All these strange people crammed in together. I have no good memories of going into those bunkers,” she said.
Prussia lost its autonomy in 1947 when the Allied Control Council abolished it in a bid to resolve post-war German issues. The Soviet Union swooped down to claim it, and Lore’s nightmare became even worse.
“There was no gas. People were having to leave on foot. But Dad still had a few connections. He booked passage on a boat for my mother, my little brother and me,” she said.
Her father and beloved Anni stayed behind to take care of patients. Both became prisoners of war. Dr. Dietrich would be imprisoned in Denmark, but Anni was to suffer far worse in a work camp in Russia.
“We could only take with us what we could carry. Mother wore two fur coats. She had sewn the family jewelry into the lining. Dad had included ampules of morphine in the lining as well with the instructions for her to give it to us and to herself in the event we were captured,” she continued.
The voyage would prove to be extremely traumatic. The Baltic Sea upon whose beaches her family had spent many happy summers, had adopted a treacherous nature.
“It was scary, dark. I was a sick little girl, throwing up. People were crying. We finally landed in Mecklenburg, Germany. It was the first place we could land,” Lore said.
And the fates were to develop even more cruelly over the next four years. Lore described the period of time she and her family were trapped in East Germany.
There were many refugees, but the people of a neighboring village of Mecklenburg took the family in. They lived in the attic of a farmhouse for the duration of their stay. Women and children had to glean for bits of wheat left behind by the harvesting combines. The refugees would take the scavenged wheat and winnow the chaff from the grain by hand. With their small harvest they would make a watery soup. Lore’s mother was a bit luckier than the others, due to her medical training, and was able to opt out of harvesting work by doing nursing work instead.
Soviet soldiers were stationed in Mecklenburg, and they sporadically made rounds to the villages, ostensibly to check on things. But rape and pillage were the true motives for the drop-in visits.
This was to be the catalyst to Lore’s intense hatred and fear of Soviet soldiers. It was as though the vicious monsters of her homeland’s fairy tales had come to life.
The women learned to hide when the soldiers made their raids. Lore’s mother felt she could move more quickly without her little ones with her and faced the dilemma of leaving them behind. But the strong-willed children would not have it.
“We told her we would tell the soldiers where to find her if she didn’t take us with her,” Lore recounted.
Oddly enough, if the children had been left behind, they would have been relatively safe.
“Russians love children. They wanted to hold my little brother in their laps. They missed their own children, but he would scream. We were programmed to be afraid of the soldiers,” she explained.
Her horrific experience was to continue during the course of their exile. Lore, at the tender age of eight, was to witness the rape of a neighbor’s daughter. She described how he chased the young woman around a bush before catching her.
“I thought he was going to kill her,” she said.
Despite the dramatic events that unfolded around her, Lore and her family did survive the four years and made their way to Southern Germany in 1949.
In time Lore would meet an American soldier stationed in her homeland, and she became a bride living in the United States. Though she obtained her American citizenship and lived safely in her adopted country, her fears were so deeply rooted she suffered from nervous ticks and nightmares.
She experienced the panic again in the 1970s when she went to Berlin to visit her godparents. During the course of her visit, she found herself on an efficient and comfortable German train and settled in for what she anticipated would be a pleasant traveling experience.
“I got in, felt cozy, very comfortable,” she recalled. “Then we got to the border. The German personnel got out and the Russian soldiers got on. They locked all the doors.”
The old terrors hit Lore like a sledgehammer.
“Suddenly I was that little girl again. I thought, ‘They are going to do something horrible to me,’” she said.
When the soldiers shuffled through the passengers, checking identification papers, Lore’s American passport solicited a more gentle and polite attitude from the man who examined it. But she experienced remorse as she felt the need to conceal her German heritage and spoke only English to the soldier to ensure his attitude would remain gracious. Her fellow German passengers were not able to mask their citizenry, and Lore felt a great deal of guilt for the coarse treatment they endured during the remainder of their journey.
In 2010 Lore decided to finally confront her past in order to put her demons to rest. She wanted to go home to Prussia. And she wanted her adult children to accompany her.
“I had always been a restless child. But I was affected by it all as an adult, too. I walked in my sleep. I had anxieties. I wanted my kids to know what I was about. Why I wouldn’t let them watch war movies or play with guns when they were small,” she said.
But the Konigsberg Lore returned to was nothing like the home she remembered.
The Russian annexed city was renamed Kaliningrad in honor of one of the original Bolsheviks, General Mikhail Kalinin. By the time the dust had settled after the initial Russian occupation, there was not a single German left in the city.
“The Soviets had purged everything German from Konigsberg. They had acted on their rage and anger at Germany. Over 100,000 citizens were murdered. Only 25,000 survived,” Dietrich said.
“They repopulated the city with Russian citizens, whether the citizens wanted to or not. Nothing German was left. Only Russian could be spoken. All of the signs were in Russian. They had left nothing of the character of the city,” she added.
She spoke of the hardships she witnessed in modern day Kaliningrad.
“The residents of the city are very poor. I saw little old ladies sweeping streets to make extra rubles,” she said.
Lore had determined to face the despised bunker that had traumatized her so as a little girl. None of the war era “panic rooms” were available for touring, but she and her family managed to locate a bunker museum.
“I tried to go into the museum. I got about a third of the way in and got claustrophobic. I had to leave,” she said.
She was further appalled at the condition of the churches that had been desecrated by communist Russia.
“I was offended by the conditions. They took out the altars and the organs. They had taken the altar of the church I had been baptized in,” she said.
During the course of her visit, Lore eventually saw her home. She heard it was still in place and asked her tour guide to help her find it.
As the cab traveled to the place her grandfather had built so many years ago, she had an opportunity to visit with her guide, who had become something of a friend during her stay in Kaliningrad. He told her a story that began to thaw the ice in her soul she had developed against the people who now occupied her country.
The guide said he had always been afraid of America and its people. Then 9/11 happened while he was living in Moscow. He stopped at a flower shop to buy a bouquet to take to the American Embassy. He was overwhelmed to find the iron fence hidden behind a surplus of flowers brought by well-meaning Russian citizens, expressing their grief for America’s pain.
“It was then I began to think, ‘Why can’t we get along,’” Lore recalled of the moment she heard the story.
In time, Lore, her family, and the guide located the house she had grown up in.
“Sure enough, it was still there. I could hardly recognize it,” she said. “The Russians are fond of dark green and red, and they had painted it. The hedge had been taken down, and they had built a stone wall around it. Officers were living there, and there was a Russian guard at the gate.”
“I could see the house through the cracks in the wall. I looked for my lions that had once stood at the entrance. But they were gone,” she said.
Lore and her companions continued their furtive prowl around the property, and she grew increasingly shocked at its marked change. There was a recreation hall within the stone walls. And that’s when Lore made a surprisingly pleasant find.
“At the entrance of the rec hall sat my lions. They didn’t fit there. The hall was big, and they got lost. The Russians had painted them red,” Lore recounted.
One pivotal moment happened at the end of her stay that opened the door to an even greater degree of healing. She and her family attended a parade to honor fallen soldiers at a Russian War Veterans’ cemetery. Both German and Russian dignitaries were in attendance. At one point, Lore spied a tiny, ancient Soviet soldier, a multitude of medals decorating his blue uniform. Lore was struck by his frailty.
“My son said to me, ‘Look at him, Mom. He can’t hurt you,’” Lore said.
She felt compelled to make contact with the Russian soldier.
“I went up to him and shook his hand. I felt a little better,” she said.
Lore began to feel the initial stirrings of closure. The trip to Kaliningrad had not brought her home back to her, nor did it erase the gruesome memories. But it did serve to give her a sense of finality and resolution.
“I discovered you can’t go home again. But I’m at peace now,” she said. “I know I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor.”