A Three-Part Series About a Fascinating Midland County Couple
By Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant
Part Two: Siegfried’s Story
Between World Wars I and II, East Prussia (Ostpreussen) was a German province, bounded on the north by the Baltic Sea, on the east by Lithuania, and on the south and west by Poland and the free city of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). It was in East Prussia that Siegfried Jaschinsky was born and spent his boyhood. His father was a forester, and his family was self-sufficient, raising dairy cows, growing a variety of crops and saving the potatoes and grains for the wintertime.
“I had a good childhood,” says Siegfried (known to most of us as Ziggy), “even though times were tough. We didn’t have a lot of money. It was the Depression, just like here.” The winters were often brutal. “Sometimes we had four feet of snow. The only way you could get around was on a sled. Most of us went to school on skis, but sometimes we just walked uphill to school and then slid back home on our backpacks!”
Then the war started in 1939 and Siegfried’s dad got drafted to protect East Prussia from an anticipated invasion by Poland. This never materialized, so he went back to his foresting job, only to be re-drafted in 1943, by which time Germany was drafting all able-bodied men. Siegfried himself was put to work at age 16, digging trenches and tank ditches in Lithuania for the German army, which was now retreating from Russia. He was able to go back home to bring in the harvest, but then returned to Lithuania to dig trenches near one of Hitler’s hideouts. There was hardly anything to eat, but some of the boys found some potatoes and dug them up.
When Siegfried returned home on October 20, 1944, “the streets were all full of people going to the train station. I met my parents there. My dad was on furlough, and they already had everything packed in a big box in the train car. Everyone was leaving the area because the Russian troops were on their way.”
After a long wait, the train finally took off and headed downhill to the next town, where they had another long wait. Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion. Siegfried thought it was a bomb, but it turned out that the train that was following them had lost its brakes and crashed into his train! There were three cars on top of each other, and unfortunately one of them held all the Jaschinskys’ baggage. Some people were injured, including Siegfried’s brother when a suitcase fell on his head, but finally their train was able to take off again, managing to stay just ahead of the approaching Russians. The family got off the train when it stopped in the center of East Prussia, and knowing it wasn’t safe there, Siefried’s father dropped them off with relatives who lived on a big estate outside of town, and then returned to his army post.
On January 20, 1944, the Russians bombed the city where Siegfried had found a job in the county building. The first building to be hit was the hospital, even though it had a big red cross painted on the roof. The family got on the train and left town, but the Russians had already blocked the tracks to the west, so they headed northwest. Eventually, as the train approached the front, they had to get off and travel on foot in the dead of winter. They passed several bombed-out towns, saw a couple of dead bodies, and were fired upon by a big Russian plane. Then they actually crossed about ten kilometers of the Baltic Sea on the ice. On land again, they found a large refugee camp where the Red Cross was passing out food.
The next day, Siegfried crossed the Sula River and, now separated from his family, got on a train that took him toward the Czech border. “At one station the German SS was waiting, and they made everybody get off the train. Every man who was above a certain height they would take, but I was not all that tall, so I got through.” The train continued to Berlin. Everything there was bombed to rubble but the tracks were still intact. The train went through Leipzig, and got close to the Czech border. A kind family took him in because he had no place to go. Finally, in April, the American troops arrived. But there had been an agreement made with the Russians, and that part of Germany was to be under Russian control, so the Americans would have to move out.
Siegfried immediately decided that he, too, would move out. “I said that I wasn’t going to stay there, because the Russians would send me back to East Prussia to do forced labor. So I took off by foot, all across Germany. There weren’t any passenger trains, but I did hop some freight trains.”
Siegfried’s parents managed to get word to him of the place where they would be going, a village near Bremen. The Red Cross was keeping track of the names of arriving refugees, so when he arrived, he went to the county building and asked if his family was in the area. And yes, they had indeed arrived! Siegfried then headed west about twenty kilometers and walked up to the house where they were staying. “My mother couldn’t believe it,” he says.
Siegfried’s journey, for now, was done, but his good luck was just beginning, because nearby lived a certain young lady named Herta. To be continued…