Flight from Walbeck in the GDR

Flight from Walbeck in the GDR

Irmchen Remus was born on July 28, 1935, as Irma Meyer in Weferlingen. On this day, nobody suspects that Germany will be divided 10 years later.

Irma spends the first years of her life mainly with her grandparents in Weferlingen, who lovingly take care of her. While her mother goes out to work during the day, her grandmother works at night. Irma will not get to know her father.

When Irma starts school, she moves to Walbeck with her mother and stepfather. She experiences the end of the war while still at school. At first she is very happy when American soldiers arrive in Walbeck. The children are happy about the chocolate and chewing gum. But a few weeks later the Russians take over Walbeck. As a 13-year-old, she experiences how Walbeck is placed under Russian occupation. Only a stone’s throw away from her parents’ house, Germany is divided. The German-German border is created.

In 1948 the Meyer family have to vacate their house. Since Irma’s parents’ house is located directly on the border to the West, Russian officers confiscate the house. From the house they have a direct view of the border running along Klosterberg. Within four hours the family of five has to vacate its house and is assigned a two-room apartment. 

Irma's parents' house in Walbeck; Photo: private

The Russians stay in the house for one year. Four weeks before Irma’s confirmation in spring 1949 the family is allowed to return to their house.

The inner-German border is at that time not yet fortified, so people still crossing the border from east to west and back again. Irma and her friends also cross the “green border” again and again.

When they cross the border on their way home one day after visiting the Brunnen theatre in Helmstedt, located in the western part of Germany, Irma and her friends are taken into custody by Russian soldiers. However, they are released after a few hours through the intervention of her stepfather.

On July 28, 1949, Irma Meyer leaves the school in Walbeck. While English is taught as a foreign language in schools in the West, Russian is taught in the East. And so Irma finishes school with grade 2 in Russian.

A few months after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, was founded on October 7, 1949, on the territory of the Soviet occupation zone. The securing and guarding of the inner-German border in the east was handed over by the Russian troops to the border troops of the GDR. The border was now gradually becoming more heavily guarded.

GDR flag

For the almost 17-year-old Irma, life is becoming increasingly unbearable. The strained relationship with her stepfather, but above all the increasing lack of freedom in the developing socialist GDR, makes Irma decide to move on. When she hears in town that the border is to be “closed”, she and two boys from Walbeck resolve to flee to the West. On May 13, 1952, the three of them set off with a handcart in the direction of the border. They are accompanied by Maria, the sister of one of the boys. She herself does not want to flee, but only wants to help the others. The handcart is taken along as camouflage – they want to collect wood in the forest. In it, a pair of spare shoes for each of them is hidden, which they will put on after crossing the Riede, a small stream. When the small group meets soldiers patrolling the border, they are stopped. Since the young people know the border guards, they explain that they want to collect wood. They are allowed to move on. Maria takes the three of them down the monastery hill to the small creek. There Irma and the two boys cross the stream, put on their dry shoes on the other side and make their way to the nearby Helmstedt railway station. Later Irma describes the moment in freedom like this:

In Helmstedt we had a feeling, that is indescribable. We were free.

Irma Remus, interview on October 2, 2019

While the two boys stay in Helmstedt, Irma buys a ticket and takes the train to Wenden near Braunschweig to visit an aunt. The flight is not entirely unprepared for the three youngsters. One of the two boys immediately takes a job as a baker in Helmstedt and Irma leaves for Essenrode the very next day. There she is expected by another aunt, who has found her a job with the Gaus family in the household. Later she gets a job with farmer Weber of the same household.

What the three young people had heard some time before – the border is being closed – is now coming true. As more and more people use the permeable border to flee to the West, barbed wire fences are erected and dogs guard it. A few years later, the border will become an almost impassable bulwark.

No one has any intention of building a wall”GDR Head of State Council Walter Ulbricht on June 15, 1961

The building of the wall and the fortification of the inner-German border began with a lie. The journalist Annemarie Doherr of the Frankfurter Rundschau put a supplementary question to GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht at a press conference on June 15, 1961. Ulbricht assured that no wall would be built. Two months later the Berlin Wall was built. For almost 30 years it was to divide Germany.

border near Hötensleben; Photo: private

However, the construction of the Wall had the most painful consequences for the people in East Berlin and the GDR. For they no longer had a “loophole” to the West. And anyone who tried to flee over the Wall or the inner-German border could expect to be shot. The fact that the “order to shoot” actually existed has been documented in writing for several years. Many people lost their lives to flee. Source: www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/themen/deutsche-einheit/-niemand-hat-die-absicht-eine-mauer-zu-errichten–393932, retrieved 19.02.2020

Even before the Wall is built and the border fortifications are erected, people die trying to cross the border. Among the many people who lose their lives at the border is Irma’s father. Two days before his fortieth birthday, on January 28, 1949, Otto Karl Meyer dies at the border. In his death certificate the following is registered as a death sentence: “Death by shooting”.

Otto Meyer had becomes a casualty when he helps people fleeing from Weferlingen to Grasleben to cross the border to the West. On January 28, 1949, at 8:30 p.m. Otto is shot by a Russian soldier in a meadow near Weferlingen on the border. Irma only learns of her father’s death many years later. Otto Meyer is buried in Weferlingen.

A year after Irma’s flight, her younger brother, Heinz, also decides to flee and reaches Essenrode. Mother, stepfather and the youngest stepbrother, Klaus, stay in Walbeck.

When Irma arrives in Essenrode in May 1952, she feels well received and immediately makes friends. The relatives in Essenrode, the new friends and the young company with the “flag hunting” play a big part in Irma quickly feeling at home in Essenrode.
Flag hunting is an event for the whole village, especially for the youth. It is a competition for young men. They ride horses and have to beat a stick into a hanging little iron ring. The one who does it best gets a wooden flag. This flag is carried in a procession through the village to the winner’s house and is attached to his house. At night the whole village celebrates this in a barn dance.

Irma`s mother Martha; Photo: private

Irma especially misses her mother very much. In 1957 her mother visits Irma in Essenrode for her engagement to Paul Remus, her future husband. Shortly after the engagement Irma receives the news of her mother’s death. She dies at the age of 43 on September 21, 1957. Irma and her husband Paul receive permission to enter Walbeck for the funeral. Afterwards it becomes impossible for Irma to visit Walbeck. Due to its location right on the border, Walbeck is a restricted area and may only be entered by citizens of the GDR with a special permit.

In 1958 Irma marries Paul Remus, who had already arrived in Essenrode in March 1945 after a two-month flight from Pomerania. In November 1958 her daughter Bettina is born. Together with the parents-in-law they build a house. In November 1960 their son Roland is born and in February 1968 a second son,Torsten.

Only 33 years later, with the fall of the Wall, that Irma will visit Walbeck again. Since then, she always enjoyed visiting Walbeck and Weferlingen. And the fall of the Wall will be yet another surprise for Irma. Another daughter of her father, of whom she has not known anything until then, appears – Irma`s half-sister Erika.


View from the ruins of the collegiate church St. Marien over Walbeck to the Klosterberg; Photo: private

Flight from Tolkemit in West Prussia

Flight from Tolkemit in West Prussia

Anni Konnegen was born on January 24, 1932, in the small town of Tolkemit in West Prussia on the Vistula Lagoon. She was the youngest daughter of Gehrmann family. On her thirteenth birthday, Anni and her nineteen-year-old sister, Grete, begin their flight from Tolkemit. Both are separated from the family and are not allowed to leave Poland to join their parents in Essenrode until November 1957.

Anni Konnegen has recorded her flight experiences in a book which she begins with the following words:

This book is a journey back into my past… and it tells the sad story of the flight from our beloved home…Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

Anni Konnegen is born as the youngest daughter of the Gehrmann family in the small town of Tolkemit in West Prussia on the Vistula Lagoon.

Gehrmann family; from left: Lene, Anni, mother, Tonie, father, Grete; Photo: private

Father Ferdinand works in the brickyard in Panklau. When Anni is eight years old, her mother dies at only 42. Anni’s sister, Grete, now takes over the responsibility for the household and becomes a mother substitute for her younger sister. Until her flight, Anni attends the elementary school in Tolkemit while Grete works in the pottery making “Tolkemiter Erde”.

Administrative Structure of the Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Danzig-Westpreussen.png

It was January 24, 1945, my thirteenth birthday. Actually a beautiful day, but it was the day of my flight, the day I had to leave home with my sister Grete, then nineteen years old.

In the afternoon at 3 pm the first arrivals of the Russian Army came from the direction of Elbing and increased immensely in numbers until the evening. The The Russians went into the houses, picked out women and young girls and raped them.

Grete and I hid upstairs in the children’s room when dad came to us and said: ‘Children run!’ So we ran!!!

The Neumann family lived in Frauenburger Strasse. Grete was a friend of their daughter. We could hide there. For two days. Unfortunately we were betrayed and the Russians came and set the house on fire. The front of the house was on fire so we ran out of the back of the burning building. .

All around us only the whistling of the bullets could be heard. We couldn’t wait for our family anymore. They all fled a few days later.

Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

Anni and Grete are separated from their family. After both have been on the road for weeks under the most adverse conditions, their flight to the west fails in March 1945. Like many other refugees, Anni and Grete are overrun by Russian troops. Anni  continues to write about this:

Residence of the Gehrmann family in Tolkemit (the first half of the house on the left); Photo: private

Grete and I were all we had left. … My sister fell ill and got dysentery. After Grete’s recovery we got a lodging with farmer Rägger in Wusterwitz, in the district of Schlawe. At that time the month of March had already passed. Wusterwitz was evacuated two or three days later and we went on to Stolpe. …  There again, a few days later, it was “Save yourself who can.” The bridges were blown up. Again we ran! Alone! Always to where there were many people … until we arrived in Starnitz.

In Starnitz we stayed in school for a while. But already we were under Russian supervision and the locals did not welcome us. There I got dysentery and typhoid. Grete was kidnapped and made to work dismanting the railway tracks, so that now I was left all alone. Strangers took care of me a little.

After a few weeks Grete came back and we found an empty room with two beds and bench next to a stove in Starnitz where we took shelter for a good year.Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

Grete and Anni; Photo: private

Anni and her sister find work on an estate in Gottberg. While Grete works, Anni looks after Russian children. At first everything is still under Russian administration. Anni continues:

Now I had to get food and went begging and hoarding. A few farm wives would often give me a pot of gruel for Grete and me. . .

While Grete was working, I looked after the Russians’ children. So I got a small meal a day and a boy always shot sparrows for me to eat. …Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

In the summer of 1945 Tolkemit was reassigned under the Potsdam Agreement. Together with all of Hinterpommern, all of West Prussia and the southern half of East Prussia, it was placed under Polish administration and received the Polish name Tolkmicko.

At the Gottberg estate Anni meets her future husband, Erwin Konnegen. His flight from East Prussia had also ended here and he got a job as a tractor driver.

On October 9, 1954, we married and Erwin moved in with us. After the wedding I stopped working on the estate and we started our own cattle farm. Erwin and Grete worked on the farm and I took care of the household and cattle, which gave me a lot of pleasure. We had sheep, pigs, goats, chickens and geese. There was a lot to do…Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

1955 Anni and Erwin have a son, Wilfried, and 1957 a daughter, Marlis, is born. Anni has now started her own family and together with her husband and sister has created a good basis for her life. Nevertheless, the desire and longing to return to her parents remains.

Despite these positive events, we continued to work obtaining on our exit permit to Germany all these years. Starnitz remained under Russian supervision from 1945 to 1949 and has been part of Poland since 1949.

In 1956 we were told to become Polish, which we did not want, because we wantedt to join our parents in Germany. Finally, we were allowed to leave Poland at the beginning of November 1957.Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

Anni and her family spend one night in the transit camp at Friedland near Göttingen. The next day Anni’s father picks her up from there. The joy is great on both sides! Anni later describes her arrival in Essenrode as follows:

Only four days after our arrival, Erwin started work. Lene’s husband Erich had arranged a job for him at VW in Wolfsburg, which he retained until his retirement, just like Grete. Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus” 

After more than twelve years of separation from parents and family, arriving in Essenrode was not as easy as hoped. Even though the joy of being reunited as a family in one place was enormous, the newcomers faced quite a few challenges.

Nevertheless a difficult time began for us! Christmas came and we had nothing. We did not get any support from the church or community. Not even a helping hand was given to us. Yes, these Christmases were the worst and I wished I could go back to Poland. In Poland we would have had everything by now. During that time I cried a lot and said again and again: ‘If only we had stayed with the Polish.’

Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

But Anni and her family do not give up. After the separation from their parents, a terrible flight and the loss of all their belongings, they had already faced and mastered a total new beginning. Did they have enough strength and would it also succeed a second time?

So we had to start all over again in Essenrode! Bit by bit we had to rebuild everything. I worked on the estate of Baron von Lüneburg [the estate owner] to earn some extra money.

Yes, this is how we managed to save money and became builders in 1969. We built ourselves a beautiful house in a new housing estate in Essenrode. So in the autumn of 1970 we were proud homeowners.

So everything went back on track. Wilfried and Marlis grew up, went to school and then both were almost into apprenticeship, when something small announced itself to us. In May 1971, our baby Sabine was born. Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

Anni Konnegen is always drawn to Tolkemit on the Vistula Lagoon. Numerous visits with her children, relatives and friends lead her back to her homeland time and again. Anni Konnegen concludes her memories of flight with the following words:

Time passed and over the years we had created a new “home” for ourselves in Essenrode. There were good times, as well as not so good times.

But my “Heimat” will always be East Prussia.Anni Konnegen in “Ostpreußen – meine Heimat mein zuhaus”

Life at Elisenhof

Life at Elisenhof

At the beginning of the twentieth century, life at Elisenhof was characterized by agriculture – work in the fields and in the stables.

Gottlieb Boettcher bougt the estate in 1904 and constantly expanded it. Besides a cowshed with about sixty dairy cows, thirty cattle and a bull, there were pigs, sheep, geese and other poultry. Around the farm were the fields and meadows that were cultivated. The management of the farm is the responsibility of the landowner and a manager.

In 1944, twelve other families lived and worked at Elisenhof, in addition to the Boettcher family. The men were assigned special tasks. There was a man responsible for the cowshed and the cattle and dairy farming. There was also a blacksmith in the smithy to  carry out repairs. The other workers were responsible for the use of the horses on the fields. Mechanization came to the estate. Besides a wood-gas tractor, the manual work on the farm was supported by a diesel tractor, potato digger, grass mower, threshing and drilling machine, fertilizer spreader and other equipment.

During the war years, many of the men of Elisenhof fought as soldiers. Forced laborers replaced them on the farm. They were either civilian prisoners or prisoners of war, who came from Russia, Poland and France.

The women took care of the children, the household, the garden and their own livestock. Most families had many children and were self-sufficient, as well as working on the estate. They each had, for example, their own cow and geese and also a small piece of land for cultivation. The families lived rent free and were given the following rations: grain, potatoes, milk, and briquettes as fuel. For each child, a family received additional allownces of grain and milk. The hourly wage was 10.5 Pfennig.

The children attended the nearby school. Children from the surrounding estates were also pupils at the school. Pupils from the first to the eighth class were in one classroom by a single teacher. The grammar school in Preußisch Friedland, a short distance away, was attended by very few children.

school 1935 with children of Elisenhof; Photo: private

The school-age children had a variety of tasks to do besides attending school. Among other things, they looked after the pigs or geese, took care of their younger siblings, fetched water from the pump or helped with the potato harvest in autumn. For this task, the autumn holidays were extended – the so-called “potato holidays”.

Pig herding; Photo: private
Children of Elisenhof; Photo: private

On Sundays there was the “children’s hour”. All the children of the estate came together. They played, sang, read and learned poems. On special occasions the families celebrated together. There was the so-called “Federnball”, when the families came together, plucked the geese and processed the feathers into bedding. However, there was not only work, but also celebration. At the harvest festival, the people of Elisenhof and other farm communities paraded through Preußisch Friedland in a large procession. And on Christmas Eve there was a special surprise. In the morning, the Boettcher family invited the families to a communal celebration in the manor house.

Elisenhof from its beginnings until today

Elisenhof from its beginnings until today

The wealthy master coppersmith Johann Carl Voss, born in Preußisch Friedland in 1792, owned one of the most prestigious houses in the town. Among his possessions were gardens as well as fields in the immediate vicinity and, an hour away, the so-called Vorwerk, a rural estate from which the flourishing Elisenhof developed through the efforts of his second son, Eduard.

Eduard *1821 †1901 & Auguste Voss, née Kujath *1823 †1898 | Photo: Robert Brabander; Canada

When Eduard later retired, he moved into an apartment in Preußisch Friedland and transferred Elisenhof to his son, Otto.

Manor house on Elisenhof around 1900; Photo: Robert Brabander; Canada

Eduard Voss´s granddaughter, Helene Brabänder, born in 1876 (later “Brabander” after immigration to Canada) later remembers her grandparents and the Elisenhof as a “paradise of our childhood” and writes:

Under his guidance [Eduard Voss], Elisenhof had grown from a small farm, with a small, comfortable home, into a beautiful, profitable 1200-acre estate.

The Niedersee in Gneven, with its wild ducks and coot and the herons circling above it, is the epitome of the wild and untouched beauty of my West Prussian homeland. After the town of Preußisch Friedland,  Elisenhof was situated in flat fields, criss-crossed by moraine ramparts covered with blackberry and wild roses, so that the “Krause Len”, a huge single lime tree, was a landmark visible from far away.

When we children, coming from the Linden Station, drove to the estate in the old-fashioned carriage, admonished to rest by “Korel” (Karl) the coachman, our joyful excitement increased dangerously when we saw from afar the lined birch grove into which the garden of Elisenhof flowed. A semicircle of proud poplars surrounded the barns and stables like a watchful guard. The manor house, with its lime-lined gable and the paling fence of the vegetable garden, closed off the wide arch of the farm with a straight line. Now we turned into the Ebereschenallee around the last bend in the road. The crooked mossy trunks carried their feathered branches with the red umbels like a festive tree ornament. The day-laborers’ houses on the left came alive with staring children, barking dogs and greeting people, then the wagon stopped in front of the stone porch of the manor house, and with wide hearts full of expectation we plunged into the arms of our good, so much loved grandmother. Now the festive time began.Helene Brabander, in “Family History Voss – Brabander”, 1940

In 1904 Otto Voss sold Elisenhof to Gottlieb Boettcher, who had come into some wealth.

Helene Boettcher (*1870, née Papstein) and Gottlieb Boettcher (*1865); Photo: Christiane Sarreiter, née Boettcher

Gottlieb was exceptionally proficient. From the inheritance of his parents’ farm, he bought himself a small farm. He was soon able to sell it and, with his savings, buy a larger one with a brickyard. Good business years followed once more. At the beginning of the twentieth century he had again been able to save well. He bought the Elisenhof from Otto Voss.

– Rudi Witzke, son-in-law of Lydia Horn, née Boettcher

Boettcher rebuilt the manor house according to his own ideas. At the back of the house, the view from the newly designed terrace opened up into the manor park. Boettcher attached great importance to quality and design in his choice of materials. For example, he had Villeroy & Boch floor tiles, which were fashionable at the time, laid on the terrace.

Manor house with view to the terrace; Photo: private

The floor tiles from estate Elisenhof were manufactured in our Villeroy & Boch mosaic factory in Mettlach. According to the catalogue at that time, they had the article number 318.c “Gothic background pattern graphitized”. Production of these tiles began in 1907.AGNES MÜLLER / ABTEILUNG KERAMIKMUSEUM & ARCHIV,


Boettcher himself was killed in 1917, when the horses pulling his carriage ran away during a thunderstorm. First his wife took over the management of the estate and later their son, Theophil, and his wife, Gerta.

Gerta Boettcher (née Krag) and Theophil Boettcher; Photo: Christiane Sarreiter, née Boettcher

The work in the fields and in the stables was carried out jointly by twelve families of agricultural workers. They lived on the estate in workers´ houses built especially for them – the “Lange Reihe”.

Elisenhof after 1945

On January 29, 1945, Preußisch Friedland was taken by the Red Army. German troops drove them out of the town for a short time before it and so Elisenhof finally fell into Russian hands.

The Schwanz family had decided to stay at home, although they had a nineteen-year-old daughter, Gertrud, called Trude. As we learned later, the family had to pay heavily for this decision. Waldemar Lück in “flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode

While the workers’ houses were spared by the Russian soldiers, the manor house was destroyed almost down to its foundations.

Until the 1970s, Elisenhof had a rather miserable existence as an agricultural enterprise. Finally, agriculture was abandoned. Today, Polish families live both in the house built on the foundations of the former manor house and in the former workers’ houses. Elisenhof is now called Gniewno and belongs to Poland.

The flight from Elisenhof in Pomerania

The flight from Elisenhof in Pomerania

On January 29,1945, a community – the “Elisenhof-Trek“ – consisting of twelve families and two French prisoners of war, sets out from Pomerania to escape the approaching Red Army.

Flight to the West 1945, symbolfoto; photographer unknown

Already in December and increasingly in January, the first signs of a coming flight from Elisenhof appear. Streams of refugees from East Prussia pass by, filling the streets. Sometimes they stay overnight in Elisenhof. Even if the daily radio reports from the front are embellished with propagandistic victory messages, it soon becomes clear that the Russian front is drawing nearer.

On January 21, 1945, the authorities finally issue the so-called “Packing Order“ and order Elisenhof to prepare to flee. Three wagons made of wooden poles, tarpaulins and carpets are fitted with hoods. Since twelve families are to be accommodated in the covered wagons, only the most essential items can be brought along, most importantly food. In addition to the three wagons, a wagon fitted with ladder is loaded with hay and feed for the fourteen horses. Nobody knows where the flight will lead and how long it will take.

The flight from Elisenhof begins January 29, 1945. Waldemar Lück, then seven and a half years old, later remembers this day. In his flight memoir he writes about it:

January 29, 1945 was a freezing day. The thermometer dropped below minus 25
degrees. The thunder of guns and cannons was already threateningly close. In the
kitchen our dogs barked and whimpered. I lay in the cot next to my parents‘ double bed.
Later I fell asleep and woke up to knocking on the window pane. A voice shouted, Be
ready in an hour!

– Waldemar Lück in : “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode” 

Yard with stables and some of the wagons left behind; Photo: private, after the war

After all families are woken, they gather at and board the wagons in a previously determined order. Two French prisoners of war, the Bonuelle brothers, who had been sent to work on the estate, do not want to be “liberated” by the Russians under any circumstances and also join the trek. As wagon drivers, they play a major role in the success of the flight.

While the estate owner Theophil Boettcher is at war as an officer, his wife Gerta Boettcher takes over the leadership of the trek, supported by Waldemar Lück’s father, Emil. For orientation in the terrain, a Diercke atlas, found among the school supplies of Waldemar’s brother Gerhard, proves to be very helpful at first.

On a freezing cold night, the trek finally starts to move westward. Just in time, sixteen-year-old Kurt Nehring reaches the trek, which is already underway. Despite his young age, he had been conscripted for duty.

That night he [Kurt Nehring] had to transport military goods from Preußisch Friedland to Linde. Shortly before the destination, people said that Linde had already been occupied by the Russian army. He wanted to turn around, but on the narrow road he drove into the ditch and got stuck in the snow. He decided to take the eight-kilometre-long way home on foot. On the way he learned that the Elisenhof group was already on the move. So he ran the last stretch across the fields, always in fear of being late. Now he was considered a deserter and had to be kept hidden during the entire flight.

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

One of the Elisenhof families decides not to flee. The Schwanz family stays mainly because one of the daughters in the neighboring village of Rosenfelde nursing her seriously ill husband. A momentous decision. When Russian soldiers arrive later, the seriously ill man and Mr Schwanz are immediately shot and the daughter is raped.

In the icy cold, starry night the trek goes forward, reaching Peterswalde still in the darkness of night. The journey continues northwards to Ratzebuhr. When the trek arrives there around noon, the pressures are showing on humans and animals. Some of the children are sick with fever and the horses are exhausted. Because of fear of looters the trek is always guarded. Finally, the next night, the trek continues to Neustettin. The advance of the Russian troops make it necessary to take evasive action in a northerly direction.


After the strains of the past days it was important to regain strength. Besides, the front
had come to a standstill. So a few days’ break could be taken. One still hopes to return

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

What nobody imagines is that the stay in Zwirnitz will last from 2 February to 1 March. In the meantime, other members of the trek fall seriously ill. There is no doctor to be found. At a pharmacy in the small town of Groß Rambin, eight kilometres away, an attempt to obtain medicine fails. There are only different kinds of tea and a small bag of dried blueberries. It’s still freezing cold and the snows starts again.

Newspapers no longer appear and no radio is available. In a nearby mill, which also produces electricity, it is finally possible to listen to a radio from time to time. When the Russian army reaches the Oder near Küstrin, the families are urged to leave Zwirnitz, but there’s a difficulty. The administrator of the Elisenhof estate has fallen ill with pneumonia and is in the hospital in Groß Rambin. Members of the Elisenhof community visit the dying administrator one last time in the hospital, and he dies the following day.

Once again, everything is stowed on the covered wagons and the flight continues March 1, 1945. Passing Bad Polizin, the refugees head for Stolzenberg. In the meantime, lice infest the clothes of some on the trek, increasing the risk of typhus for everyone. The next day the families continue toward Oder, but in Plathe they change their route and go further north. Soon, this is seen to be a mistake. The trek turns back to Plathe, then continues to Naugard. The next destination is Gollnow. The roads are overcrowded with horse-drawn carts and refugees. To the astonishment of the refugees, they must always move aside for military vehicles, which are obviously retreating to the west.

Troop movement; Photo: private

Towards evening all refugee wagons had to drive into a forest before Gollnow to keep the roads clear. They said there would be armored columns. I still remember that evening very well. The thunder of guns was clearly audible. Shells hissed over the trees. Many refugees had climbed down from the wagons and sought shelter beside them or under large trees. The German troops withdrew behind the Oder River. The Oder crossing at Gollnow was no longer passable.

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

With the help of maps obtained from Wehrmacht soldiers, the trek makes its way north at night in secrecy and silence. Leading the way, Ms Hedwig Klabunde walks through the pitch-black night carrying a darkened lantern. They are silent and only communicate with signs. It is a ghostly procession through the dark forest, where not a word is spoken and only the muffled stamping of horses‘ hooves on the snowy ground can be heard. It goes on like this all night long until they arrive in a fishing village.

The proximity of the front creates unrest in the trek, so that the planned rest for the horses and the people is short. The trek starts moving toward Wollin. Since the area here is already equipped with many anti-tank barriers, the French wagon drivers need all their skill and ability to avoid the obstacles. The trek takes ten days to cover the twenty-seven-kilometre stretch across the island of Wollin to Swinemünde. The roads are so congested that on some days the trek only progress a few metres.

You had to spend the night on the wagons, which was difficult because of their narrowness and the cold. A big problem was nutrition. There was no food to be found anywhere. Not even bread. You had to live on the supplies you had brought with you. From time to time a fire was built at the roadside and hot tea was made from melted snow. The horses stood day and night in harness.

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

Little Christa on her mother’s arm Hedwig Minna Orthmann; Photo: private

The strains of the flight claim more victims. People fall ill as a result of the stress, the cold, the inadequate nutrition and the poor hygienic conditions, especially the already weakened infants. Two-year-old Christa Orthmann, for example, probably suffers from pneumonia. She dies March 8 in the arms of her mother, Hedwig, near the village of Misdroy.

It was not possible to dig a grave in the frozen ground. So the mother, accompanied by some girls, carried the body to the nearest village. This was the Baltic resort of Misdroy, several kilometres away. There the body was handed over to the authorities. It was not possible to wait for the funeral, because the trek had to continue. But a promise was made to bury the child with dignity.

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

Now back on the road, the trek to Swinemünde has to wait for days to cross the Swine River. To cope with the stream of refugees, a pontoon bridge is built, but it is destroyed during a diving maneuver by a German submarine. Now the only option is to take a ferry to the other bank. After another night of waiting, the trek finally crosses the river in the morning. The most dangerous part of the Oder crossing is done.

Photo: private

Thousands of refugees from the East – from East and West Prussia and Pomerania – are on the run during these March days, trying to continue their flight to the West through one of the last remaining open passages. The Elisenhof trek tries to avoid the congested roads and continues over the island of Usedom, past the Baltic seaside resorts of Ahlbeck, Heringsdorf and Bansin. The next evening and the following night the sky on the horizon is lit up by bright fire. The bombardment of a devastating air raid can be heard from afar. The attack is on the submarine fleet base. However, as discovered later, countless refugees are victims. The number of those who lose their lives in the attack is estimated at 23,000 people. One day earlier, the Elisenhof trek would probably have been among the victims.

The trek continues its flight through the small town of Usedom and crosses the Peene River, the third estuary of the Oder. In Anklam, the trek visits one of the so-called refugee control centers for the first time. Here, the trek can get warm soup as well as information about the next destination. The refugee control centers in these last chaotic days of the war point to different destinations for the various treks. This is to avoid overloading individual roads and to disperse the refugees. From now on, the trek is forwarded from control center to control center.

Via Friedland, the route continues to Neubrandenburg. The relentless destruction of the war and the consequences for the Elisenhof community are apparent once again. Waldemar Lück describes the events of that day at Friedland:

Mrs Seringhaus had ten children. Her husband and the eldest son were in the military, the second eldest in the Reich Labor Service. She was very pregnant and had to flee with eight underage children. Near Friedland she went into labor. So her eleventh child was born on a refugee wagon. She needed medical attention. She stayed with her children in a village. She left all her belongings on the wagon, because she wanted to join them soon. This was a completely unrealistic idea, because at that time nobody knew where the trek would go. Later we learned that the family was taken to a refugee camp near Friedland. This camp was bombed. That is probably how the whole family died.

Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

Despite this tragedy, the trek must continue its flight.

The route leads via Neubrandenburg to Waren an der Müritz. As the days go by, the weather gradually gets warmer and the first tender green shoots of the meadows and forests are seen. Overnight stays are mostly on farms in a straw bed in barns or stables. However, the lack of horse feed is causing the animals to become more and more emaciated. Some of them do not survive these strains. It is always very sad when one of the animals, such a faithful companion during these difficult weeks, can no longer stand and has to be left behind, completely lifeless.

In these March days of 1945, the flight, which had begun on January 29, has now lasted several weeks and has claimed its victims. However, the flight is still not over. The trek leads through Mecklenburg and the cities of Malchow, Plau am See, Parchim and Ludwiglust.

In a forest behind Ludwiglust there is another air-raid alarm. The covered wagons hide as best they can under high trees. Everyone leaves the wagons and runs into the forest for safety. The fear of the low-flying planes is great. After that, another dangerous challenge awaits them: crossing the Elbe near Dömitz.

The fear was great of being shot at by the low-flying aircraft on the long bridge.
Therefore nobody was allowed to stay on the wagons except the drivers while
crossing the bridge. My sister Magdalene got all the younger children together at the embankment. We waited until the wagons and the adults had crossed the bridge
without incident. When everything was calm, we went over the bridge. A few days later the bridge was destroyed in an air raid.

Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

The trek has been on the run for almost two months now. The trail continues from refugee control center to refugee control center in a southerly direction through the Wendland via Dannenberg, then Lüchow, to Uelzen. While the trail leads from Uelzen via Bodenteich to Wittingen, the trek learns that a temporary shelter can be found in the district of Gifhorn. In Wittingen, the trek is directed on. The village of Grassel is now named as the destination. The Elisenhof community stays together for the last time in a restaurant in Kästorf near the Volkswagen factory.

I can remember that we had to leave a weakened horse just before the finish. Via
Warmenau and Sandkamp, we came to Fallersleben.

It was March 28, a beautiful spring day. Toward evening we passed through Essenrode, the last village before our destination, Grassel.

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

The trek nears arrival at its designated destination, Grassel, but there’s a change of plan. The mayor and local group leader of Essenrode stop the trek. They tell the Elisenhof community that Grassel is already overcrowded. Their new destination is Essenrode.

Flight route of the Elisenhof trek from 29 January to 28 March 1945

On March 28, 1945, the flight from Elisenhof, which began on January 29, ends in Essenrode. The families from Elisenhof are distributed among the families of the village. The refugeesreception by the families does not occur without protest, as the village has already taken in almost as many refugees as it has inhabitants. In the end, however, everyone gets a roof over their heads.

While the flight from Elisenhof is over, the war continues. Even the older men who arrived with the Elisenhof trek are drafted into the Volkssturm (At the end of the war, the Nazis mobilised children and old men in the so-called Volkssturm for defence.) with the idea to defend the military airfield in Wesendorf. They are housed in barracks and the following night the airfield is bombed by aircraft and completely destroyed. As the American troops approach, the men make their way back to Essenrode on foot in the dark of night, which is repeatedly illuminated by exploding bombs.

Waldemar Lück will later describe the last day of the war for him and the experiences of the “old men” of Elisenhof in this way:

Since they were all conscripted for duty, they set off again for Wesendorf on Monday. There they met an officer. What are you doing here? he said. There’s nothing left to protect here. The Americans are already at the door. Turn around and go home.

From Allenbüttel, they walked along field paths and across meadows. From the valley they saw American tanks drawn up in front of the village. Always looking for cover, in order not to end up in captivity, they made for the village and arrived there completely exhausted in the morning.

On this day the Americans came to the village. For us the war was over.

– Waldemar Lück in “Flight from Elisenhof to Essenrode”

On April 11, 1945, the war ends with the arrival of American soldiers in Essenrode.

One month later, the Second World War in Europe comes to an end with the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht. The criminal war of aggression by Nazi Germany and the atrocities committed in the name of National Socialist ideology come to an end.

The consequences of the war and its continuing effects will accompany many people throughout their lives – including those from the Elisenhof community. Some of it is processed, some continues to have an effect, even upon later generations.

Thanks to

We would like to thank Waldemar Lück and all the others who have contributed to making the experiences of the Elisenhof community tangible for us as later generations. It gives us the opportunity to listen sincerely to them and what they have to say to us, and to share what they have experienced with each other – for a better future.

Refuge – Confidence – Future

“Remembering brings salvation […] and forgetting brings exile.”
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as Baal Schem Tov

Refuge – Confidence – Future

Over twelve million German refugees and displaced persons have to find a new home after the end of the Second World War.

With the advance of the Red Army at the end of the war, it’s not only German soldiers who are pushed back. The civilian population is also forced to leave their homes in the “eastern areas of the Reich” and to flee.

On the offensive in 1945, allied troops in the West and the East press forward and finally put an end to the crimes committed in the name of National Socialist ideology and to the Second World War.

The fugitives seek refuge

With the end of the war, refugees and displaced persons from Pomerania, West and East Prussia, Silesia, the Sudetenland and Wartheland, the Baltic States, Bessarabia, Galicia and other regions of the former Eastern territories come to the small town of Essenrode in Lower Saxony. In the following years, people from the Soviet-occupied part of Germany and later the German Democratic Republic (GDR) also flee to Essenrode. The population of the village almost doubles.

After the war there is confidence

There is a roof over one’s head, food again and, in time, work. Families that were separated by war are getting back together. New families are founded, houses are built and a new life begins.

The future can come

On these pages, we trace individual fates, present post-war biographies, and describe personal experiences – stories of refuge and confidence and future.

We believe that an engagement with the past and with its integration of the past makes it possible to shape the future freely and unencumbered. With the stories of flight and displacement, the accompanying exhibition, and the documentary film presented on these pages, we would like to make a contribution to the future and invite you to open yourself to this possibility as well.

Thank you

Our special thanks go to all the people who have entrusted their experiences to us as contemporary witnesses and to all those who have contributed to making the experiences tangible for future generations. It gives us the opportunity to listen sincerely to them and what they have to say to us, and to share what we have experienced with each other – for a better future.

Our thanks for the financial support of the project “Refuge – Confidence – Future” go to Braunschweigische Sparkassen Foundation, Gahnz-Fondation, Foundation Braunschweigischer Kulturbesitz as well as to the Bürgerverein Essenrode e. V. and the local council of Essenrode.