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Tag Archives: Escape the Iron Curtain

X is for Border Crossing

If you’ve been following A to Z, you know X is coming to you one day late. My apologies as I let a spring cold hold me back. Moving forward…

Working on 2nd edition cover of My Years Hidden As a Boy (Book 2)

Working on 2nd edition cover of My Years Hidden As a Boy (Book 2)

You also know that Irene crossed the East German border more than once in her years hidden as a boy. The first time, though, was one of the more harrowing at least until she was a young adult and fleeing spy accusations. This excerpt is much condensed, so, as always, I encourage you to get the rest of Irene’s memoirs.

Early in March of 1947 I set out to find my way across the border from East into West Germany [to look for my father]….Snow still covered the ground and an icy wind was blowing. From my hometown Chemnitz I was able to catch a train to…Glauchau….[next train to] Zwickau.

….I must have looked like…the homeless pitiful children who had come from [Poland]….They had pity on me and….gave me a cup of hot water that smelled like bouillon to which I added my two raw carrots Mama had given me for my trip….

“This little boy sure looks like he has come along way.”

“Poland?” suggested another?

I thanked them with a smile and stayed quiet.

….The next train took me to Plauen….Two men in western clothing were waiting on the platform, and I suspected by their speech that they were Czechoslavakians and that they must have been on the other side of the border before. A trail of ragged people, men and women, followed the two men.

….After all that zigzag riding we came back to Plauen and here we regrouped…..We finally reached the last train station, and beyond it was no man’s land, several miles of land between borders where nobody except for patrols were allowed to be. So we had to start walking. The leaders counted 22 people. Among us there were German soldiers who ran away from the Russians and wanted to be a POW with the Americans rather than with the Bolsheviks….Some women were among us but no children.

“Quiet!” whispered one of the Czechoslovakians sharply. “No talking or else.”

…in Lobenstein we came to an iron gate….I was pushed in the ribs….I saw some people arguing. Some woman had talked to a stranger….

As we got in a single-file line our silhouettes were like black shadow in the snow. It was then that I heard a sound that reminded me of someone chopping wood. No one said so, but I knew that the woman who had not obeyed orders was not with us anymore.

….Silently and swiftly we moved along…I began to doubt my strength to keep up. We were told that anyone dropping out would give the others away. I knew they had knives under their jackets and might kill anyone that got in their way.

….The soldier with a small bundle over his shoulder looked back and saw me struggling. Without a word, he grabbed my hand and pulled me a few meters uphill.

Our leaders whispered, “Don’t talk. Sound travels. Don’t step on any wood. It will snap and give us away.”

Irene's World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin) Books 1, 2, and 3 in one volume.

Irene’s World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin) Books 1, 2, and 3 in one volume.

….My heart was pounding so loud that I felt everyone around me could hear….The snow was deeper here….The stream was a good eight feet wide and too far to jump to the other side.

“Take off your boots. Shoulder them and cross!” was the whispered command….The soldier and i were just behind the Czechoslovakians. They saw how frail and tired I was.

“Look,” one of them whispered in my ear. “Over this mountain in front of us, there is freedom. Let’s go and don’t stay behind.”

….I cried silently, knowing not to show weakness. I prayed silently. As I prayed, I felt my energy return. The icy water was not the worst of it. It was all the sharp stones on the bottom that made it hard to walk through. I knew if I didn’t make it, they would kill me here at the border. It happened every day and Mama and my brothers would wait in vain for my return. (Excerpt from Survive Little Buddy: Iron Curtain Memoirs by Irene Kucholick Copyright 1996. All rights reserved.)

They did not make it across without further mishap, and I laugh to read once more the invention of the Czech leaders. Even so, shots were fired. “Then I heard a bang,” Irene writes. “One of the bullets had hit something in my knapsack. Whatever it was, it saved my life.”

Once again I am struck by a small kindnesses, a a worn soldier lending a hand. A moment of encouragement, a little help, can shine brightly in a dark place. Most of us live so much better today, but we never know who around us might be in a dark place or dark moment of their lives. Our hand, our thoughtful word can be a light today as well (K is for Kindnesses).

Irene does not often reference her faith in her memoirs; this moment stood out to me. This is because in my own dark times, it was clinging to faith and prayer that brought me strength as well.

_________________________

Kristin King is an author as well as the publisher of Irene Kucholick’s historical memoirs. Kristin lives as an expat in The Netherlands where the past few days have included 3 to 5 hailings amidst spring rain and occasional sunshine. Today she sat in the floor writing whilst her dog stretched out on the couch.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in Memoirs & History

 

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Q is for Questions from Readers

2nd Edition mockup cover of My World War 2 Childhood (Book 1)

2nd Edition mockup cover of My World War 2 Childhood (Book 1)

Most readers have questions for Irene after reading her memoirs. When I accompanied her to a book club (largest I’ve ever been to with 20+ people), I took notes of their questions and her answers. You can leave a comment with your questions and we’ll try to get answers for you before A to Z Historical Treasure ends. (Q&A from notes–not transcription or video.)

Q. How and when did you begin writing?

A. Around 1980 I began. People think only Jewish people died, but that’s not true. A lot of Germans died in concentration camps. I had friends sent to Mauthausen.

Q. Was it hard or helpful to write it?

A. Very hard to write and then 9 years later I felt so much better with it written down. (Like is had been an albatross around the neck)

Q. It sounds harder under Stalin. To hear that 1st hand, well…we don’t usually get that. We hear a lot about soldiers, but to hear about a regular girl…

Working on 2nd edition cover of My Years Hidden As a Boy (Book 2)

Working on 2nd edition cover of My Years Hidden As a Boy  (Book 2)

 

A. Mama said you go as a boy or not at all.

Q. How long till you came to the USA?

A. (Escape was in 1953). 1959 we moved to Ft. Sill Oklahoma. “I’m in the wild west here,” I said. And my mother said “Oh no. Get out. Get out now!” I brought my hospital reference books in German.

…We were 3 years in Ethiopia then in Paris. So many French people spoke German. At market I tried English and the man at the stand said, “You are German. Speak German to us.”

Q. (People expressed interest in Irene’s German-American Club)

A. We meet in the Lutheran church. We speak German and English. Saxony was Lutheran. At club each told their story and people had a much harder time than I did.

The Hunger Days came up and a women’s mother was visiting. She said, “We were never hungry.”

“Well,” I said, “They were Nazis.”

Q. What was scariest?

A. When we went to Grandmother’s and artillery came in. It goes everywhere. And I thought when my knapsack got hit with a bullet.

We had to take the drugs to make sure the patient was getting the right pharmaceutical. Had to know by taste.

Q. How long were you in the mines?

A. Months. After that I would have died.

Q. What diseases did the miners have?

A. Lungs and for women uterus. I had to have mine removed. And I told my husband and he said, “It’s okay. We’ll adopt, after we get out of the army.” (They never did.)

Irene's World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin) Books 1, 2, and 3 in one volume.

Irene’s World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin) Books 1, 2, and 3 in one volume.

Q. When you escaped and that Doctor unlocked the window for you, did you ever have contact with him again?

A. No. I didn’t want to get them in trouble. I would have liked to contact the land lady but I was afraid to.

Q. Besides what you wrote, did informants in your building do other things?

One family…he checked if everybody was gone and reported people not in the basement (i.e. bomb shelter). And he said “They went to the roof and sent signals.”

Q. Did you have any writer support?

A. Walter (i.e. husband) pushed me. You have to have someone to push you to write this.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A. People see what happened to me, but other people…like my friend from Luxembourg had a much harder time.

When my local book club read Irene’s book, a couple people had a hard time believing so much happened to one person. Yet, Irene emphasizes repeatedly that hers is only a small portion compared to so many other people who had it worse. She has such respect for these survivors and for being as accurate as she could in her memory. Anne Frank is often held up as the example, to represent the Jewish struggle during the holocaust. Irene Kucholick’s memoirs serve as tribute to other peoples so affected and to the many she knows personally.

Remember to send in your own questions and add Survive Little Buddy to your Want To Read list.

Meanwhile…up next is R is for Russian Accordion.

________________

Kristin King is the publisher of Survive Little Buddy, Irene Kucholick’s Iron Curtain Memoirs. When not doing this A to Z theme, Kristin blogs about life as an expat in Holland, reading, soulful Sundays, and recently began Foodie Fridays.The Best Practices for Blogs say to focus one subject….

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2016 in Memoirs & History

 

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O is for On Vacation Soviet Style

Gral Muritz resort today

Gral Mueritz resort today

Summer is on its way, and a couple hours ago I confirmed with my husband which weeks this summer from which I could choose to take our family to Spain for the first time. We work within limits, mainly schedules, and go where we please, for the most part.

You will see vacations behind the Iron Curtain were a bit different. We continue to follow the A to Z adventures of Irene Kucholick with excerpts from her Iron Curtain Memoirs. (All rights reserved.)

My first vacation provided by the State was not to a place where I really wanted to go, but I had to go where I was told. I was sent to Gral Mueritz, a beach resort on the northern shore of East Germany.

….My new vacation clothes, which were hard to come by, consisted of a bathrobe suitable for beach wear and a two piece beige dress trimmed with brown that felt suspiciously like paper.

….Our trip should not have taken more than six hours but instead it took us one entire day and one entire night. We knew that many times the whole train was delayed on dead railroad tracks to let more important trains pass. At the end of our journey, with our luggage in hand, we stood in line for lodging in hotels or boarding houses, now all owned by the State. In a vacation house I was assigned to a room with four beds in it. After I plunked down on one of the beds two more girls that I did not know arrived.

….I wanted to see the Baltic Sea as soon as possible, so I left the house and ran down to the dunes….The air was invigorating and rushed through my hair as I ran…into the cold water that flushed around my ankles.

“This is life! This is freedom!”

….Our food was the same as what I ate at home, except eel was served more frequently. Ever since I knew that eel feed on dead humans, I did not care much for it. But in a time when food was rationed, I ate it…

….The important thing for me was the sea. Once I walked along the beach the whole day, forgetting both lunch and dinner. I walked where there were no people–just myself and the sea. It seemed so free and it breathed in rhythmic swells and continually roared a song of freedom. I sang back to it as I walked along its shore.

Irene's World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin)

Irene’s World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin)

[First verse of song, finished in German and English in book]….My thoughts they are free, no one can ever guess them. They flee away, like shadows in the night. No human can know, no hunter can shoot, I declare to the sea, my thoughts are free!

….Out of nowhere stepped an armed guard. suddenly I was back in the real world of an armed police state.

“Where are you going, Fraulein? Turn around! Turn around! What are you doing out here? Waiting for a boat that will take you to Denmark, eh?”

“Don’t get excited, I am going.” Everything is guarded, I thought….It was so depressing…I lengthened my stride to put distance between myself and the guard.

[Next an old German folk song, Nun Adieu Du Mein Lieb’ Heimatland]

….One day we returned from an outing only to find that the…dining room was closed…the few things [in town] were on ration cards. So that day was without provision….

Suddenly a voice over the loudspeaker filled the air. “All persons not employed by Wismut A.G. must leave the resort.” We learned some vacationers had secretly rented some boats in the hope of getting to Denmark. Silently I prayed that those people with children in their boat would reach the safe shores of Denmark and freedom.

….I washed my new dress. It turned out to be paper–more disappointment. I had paid half a month’s salary for this paper dress.

[Excerpts from Book 3 of Iron Curtain Memoirs, in Survive Little Buddy]

The mention of eel, called “paling” here in Holland, doesn’t make my stomach turn as much as it used to. When Irene references their carrion eating ways, though, I can’t help picturing the dead soldiers in the tide in those first 20 minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. I think I’ll steer clear of eel on our vacation to Spain.

Next up, P is for Publishing Unexpectedly.

_________________

Kristin King is an author, NGO co-founder, and currently living as an expat in The Netherlands, where smoked eel is very popular. Bought whole from the fish monger across the street from her grocery, you twist the head and pull down to skin the eel from end to end. A couple of her sons really like it. Luckily, they don’t read her blog.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in Memoirs & History

 

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K is for Kindnesses #AtoZChallenge Historical Treasure @AprilA2Z

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 7.41.12 AM

Kindness can be radical.

Kindness can be powerful.

Kindnesses can change the world.

There was a movement several years ago called Random Acts of Kindness (RAK). People were talking about how to take action, how to go through the day looking to seize moments to be kind. Perhaps it was the movie/book Pay It Forward that kicked things off. I really don’t know.

One easy kindness many tried was to pay for the next person in line. On the morning commute when there was a toll booth, they paid for themselves and the car behind them. At a drive-through window, some Kindness perpetrators paid for the meal for the vehicle behind them.

The Christian radio station I listened to in Maryland encouraged listeners to engage the world this way and tell what happened. They also asked if someone benefited from an RAK to call in to testify about how that kindness effected them.There was the single mom barely scraping by who cried uncontrollably because the car in front of hers paid for her family’s meal.

There was a teenage girl dressed as a boy behind the iron curtain, a girl riding the rails in East Germany looking for her father, a girl with a friend bartering for food on the black-markets and earning pennies for a song or two at the station. Her name was Irene, and her memoirs are my A to Z Challenge Historical Treasure.

We learned that Russia was demanding restitution from Germany. The one who loses a war always must pay to the winners. However, Russia wanted more than what Germany had ever been worth.  We saw railroad tracks removed by German POW’s to be shipped to Russia, along with just about everything else of value. From a clothing factory, every single sewing machine was sent to Russia. By losing so much railroad track, we now had such a crippled train system that it was no wonder people were so excited about the arrival of two trains at once.

Visit War History Online for this and other images.

Visit War History Online for this and other images.

….Even as we watched, we knew we would not be able to get on this train with our bags of food. It was just too crowded. We plunked down to rest and waited in front of two low basement windows.

“Look Krista, we can see down into the kitchen of the restaurant. I wonder for whom they are cooking?” Hungrily we sniffed the kitchen smells. The cook saw us and smiled. We waved back then and turned to watch for the next train.

A tap on the window caused us to turn back around and see the cook gesturing for us to come in. “You kids our there. Come into the kitchen and I’ll give you a bowl of soup.”

He didn’t have to repeat this offer. We quickly gathered up our bags and found the stairway down to the kitchen.

The aroma of food brought tears to my eyes. I’ll never forget how good that warm soup felt in my stomach.

“You kids look kind of undernourished. Here, have a piece of bread.”

Grateful for his kindness, we devoured the soup and bread. That meal was one of the best I had ever eaten. The cooks asked us where we came from and told me to take my hat off. when I didn’t, he took it off for me. His eyes opened wide.

“What kind of a boy are you?” For an instant he was not sure if I was a boy or a girl.

Slapping me on the back he said, “Break your neck and a leg,” which is an old German saying for wishing someone luck….A sudden commotion outside caught our attention.

….To our surprise we saw two nuns in the their black robes screaming

Irene's World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin)

Irene’s World War 2 Childhood, (teen)Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape to Freedom (East to West Berlin)

and running away from the train….Russian soldiers were in full pursuit and…intoxicated….People were forced to watch as they knocked the nuns to the ground…

….We finished our meal and thanked the cook. “You kids be careful getting that food home to your folks,” he warned.

Touching my shoulder, the cook whispered, “Survive little buddy. It’s better for now to be a boy.” [Excerpted from Book 2, My Years Hidden As a Boy, of the Iron Curtain Memoirs Series by Irene Kucholick]

When it came time to give her manuscript a name, Irene called it “Survive Little Buddy.” I changed it in the first edition because we put the memoir out in thirds. Before the Iron Curtain: My Wold War 2 Childhood, Behind the Iron Curtain: My Years Hidden As a Boy, and Escape the Iron Curtain: My Journey to Freedom. In the second edition, though, we are taking the book back to her original title.

Inspired by an act of kindness.

Kindnesses can save lives.

____________________

Kristin King is an author, publisher who aspires to more random acts of kindness.

 

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2016 in Memoirs & History

 

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