Stories From World War II, Part 2

As promised in last week’s blog, I continue the stories of the two women we met on our trip to central Europe. Both women were living during World War II, although this week’s woman, Anne, was born in Austria at the end of the war. Her mother Marie and her grandmother Etta told her the story about her birth all of her life. When Anne came to talk to our group, she said she hadn’t told many people about her family’s story, but now that she was older, she wanted to say thank you to Americans because they were the ones who freed them from the Germans. As with the last story, I’ve change the names, but not the story.
Anne’s family lived in Innsbruck during the war. Anne’s father and husband were both gone, being forcibly “drafted” by the Germans to work elsewhere. Etta and Marie were left to fend for themselves and Anne’s young brother. Marie was pregnant with Anne and had to scrounge for tools that she’d sell to the Germans so she could buy food. Just like it was with Alma in the previous story, hunger was a constant companion of Marie, Etta, and Anne’s brother. The Germans must have liked the tools Anne sold to them because they forced her to work for them. While she didn’t want to work for them, she was allowed to eat in the Officers’ Mess so she had more food than other townspeople.
As her time drew near, Marie needed a doctor. The closest doctor was in Seefeld, a 17-mile trip up the mountain (and I emphasize up). She’d heard that the Germans were going to destroy Innsbruck to stop the American advance. She didn’t want to go to Seefeld because she didn’t want to leave her son behind, but she couldn’t take him with her. Her fear of Innsbruck being destroyed kept her from going, even for the birth of her child. Close to the due date, Etta finally persuaded Marie to go to Seefeld to have the baby and leave the boy with her. Marie rode the train up the mountain and Anne was born soon after. The doctor was amazed at how fat the baby was and asked the mother about it. The mother had to confess that she had a job with the Germans and got more food than most other people.
Two days after Anne was born, Marie insisted on going back to Innsbruck because she was worried about her son. She also knew that the Germans might destroy the city any day. The doctor said no, she was too weak. Ignoring his advice, Marie left the hospital and started walking back to Innsbruck with her newborn baby. As she walked down the mountain, she kept seeing piles of clothes along the way. She finally looked closer at one of the piles and saw that it was concentration camp prisoner. As the Americans got closer to the camps, the Germans sent many of the prisoners away so that the Americans wouldn’t find them there. These “piles of clothes” were those who had been sent away. Trying to get home, they had gone as far as they could before dying on the side of the road.
Marie tried to hitch a ride back to Innsbruck, but no one stopped for her. She almost turned back. A lot of traffic went by because the Germans were fleeing from the American forces. Finally a German soldier stopped. He gave her a ride and let her out close to Innsbruck. The Germans never destroyed Innsbruck as she had feared, but it was full of people from the northeast that were fleeing from the Russians. There were rumors about a hidden German force waiting in hiding to fight the Americans when they arrived. The American forces heard the rumor as well and it made them leery about entering the city. They needed a local who would work with them to ensure peace.
They found someone, a Tyrol officer who, with two other men, parachuted into the mountains above Innsbruck to meet with the Resistance. They covertly worked among the people of Innsbruck to negotiate a peaceful surrender. When the Americans knew it was safe to enter Innsbruck, they were welcomed by all the people there. The German commander in Innsbruck was forced to send out a broadcast for all troops in Tyrol to surrender. Hitler killed himself a month later.
At the end of Anne’s lecture, she was teary eyed as she said thank you to the Americans who rescued her people from the Germans and the Russians. She was very grateful that the Americans freed the city because if the Russians had arrived first, her life would have turned out very differently. She also mentioned the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild her country and how much it meant to everyone. It was the second time we heard those words and the depth of appreciation was just as sincere. Again, I felt very proud to be from the country that had done so much good. We saved many people and they were grateful to America, even all these decades later.
I must finish the story of those poor concentration camp people who died on their way home. The people of Seefeld gathered their bodies and buried them in a mass grave in their cemetery. They erected a cross over the grave, but a few years back, the townsfolk replaced that cross with blocks of concrete with the Star of David on them. No names are given. They died alone and unidentified. Across the walkway are the graves of German soldiers who died. Their names are on the graves, in stark contrast to the nameless ones who suffered so much and died trying to get back home.
As an additional footnote, I recommend you do some research about the men who saved Innsbruck during Operation Greenup. The men who parachuted in were Frederick Mayer (German-born American spy), Hans Wijnberg, and Franz Weber (Austrian Wehrmacht officer). Their stories are amazing ones.

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