A Three-Part Series About a Fascinating Midland County Couple
By Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant
Part One: Herta’s Story
When Herta Gerden was still a young child growing up in northern Germany, a short distance from the Dutch border, the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazi Party, was becoming more and more powerful in Germany. “My parents were very much against Hitler, and my dad was not ashamed of it,” says Herta. “And neither were we kids. He told us that if Hitler won the election, then everyone was crooked, and Germany would go to the dogs.”
Herta and her family had to start watching what they said in public. “We had a couple Nazi families in our village, and their children went to school with us. One day two of the Nazis came to our house and said to my dad, ‘See that oak tree over there? As soon as this war is over, you’re going to be the first to hang from it.’ At that time I thought my heart was falling into my shoes. But Papa stood there and said, ‘I’m not hanging yet.’ And he ended up living to be eighty-four, while one of the Nazis died of cancer and the other committed suicide!
“We were Lutherans, although we almost never went to church, but I was confirmed, and when kids were confirmed they were automatically enrolled in the Nazi Youth. But my dad would never let us go, because we were done with school when we were fourteen. I wanted to be a teacher, but my dad wouldn’t let me. ‘All the professors are Nazis,’ he said, ‘and no Nazi is going to brainwash your head!’ So I worked for a year on the farm, each day from 5:30 until 10 at night.”
During the war, Herta’s father didn’t believe anything the German authorities were telling people, so he dug a hole, put a radio in it, placed a board over it, and put the milk pails on top, so nobody could see what was underneath. And while he was listening to the Americans’ German-language broadcasts, the children would be playing outside and would quickly let him know if any German soldiers were approaching.
After working on the farm, Herta got a job working in the bank. One day, April 20, which was Hitler’s birthday, the bank wasn’t flying its flag. “The military authorities came in and told us to put up the flag. My boss, a young man, who had lost his leg in the war, told them that he wasn’t putting it up because the British planes were flying low and shooting at everything. So the military people took my boss, along with six others, including some old people, and started walking them down the street with guns pointed at them. My boss told me to call Mr. Hoepken, an old Nazi who was not in the military anymore but still wore his brown uniform. So I called him and told him what happened, but he said, ‘I don’t want to go there, either,’
because he would have to go by bike. But I said that he was the only one that could do something, so he finally agreed to go. When he got there, the soldiers had already tied the people together around a tree in order to kill them. I couldn’t believe our own soldiers were doing this, just because my boss wouldn’t raise the flag! But Mr. Hoepken was able to talk the soldiers into letting the people go home. My boss came back, looking as white as snow. That has always bothered me. How could anybody be so mean?
“Just before the end of the war, my uncle was hiding a German soldier who had run away. He dug a hole under his bed, and he put Herman Baker in that hole, and would only move the bed to feed him. They lived in a smokehouse, so not many people would go there. But as the war ended, there was a group of German soldiers who caught Herman Baker, just as the American soldiers arrived from the other direction. They met right behind my window! I wish I’d had a camera. Papa and I watched as the Americans let Herman Baker go, and took the German soldiers as prisoners.”
Herta’s memories of that time are still very clear. “Some things you never forget,” she says.
One more thing she’ll never forget is the day she met a young refugee from East Prussia named Siegfried Jaschinsky. But you’ll have to wait until next month’s post to read his story.