German Boy: A Child in War

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Broadway Books, 2001 - Biography & Autobiography - 424 pages
3 Reviews
“I think German Boy has all the qualities of greatness. I love the book.” -- from the Foreword by Stephen Ambrose

As the Third Reich crumbled in 1945, scores of Germans scrambled to flee the advancing Russian troops. Among them was a little boy named Wolfgang Samuel, who left his home with his mother and sister and ended up in war-torn Strasbourg before being forced farther west into a disease-ridden refugee camp. German Boy is the vivid, true story of their fight for survival as the tables of power turned and, for reasons Wolfgang was too young to understand, his broken family suffered arbitrary arrest, rape, hunger, and constant fear.

Because his father was off fighting the war as a Luftwaffe officer, young Wolfgang was forced to become the head of his household, scavenging for provisions and scraps with which to feed his family. Despite his best efforts, his mother still found herself forced to do the unthinkable to survive, and her sacrifices became Wolfgang’s worst nightmares. Somehow, with the resilience only children can muster, he maintained his youth and innocence in little ways–making friends with other young refugees, playing games with shrapnel, delighting in the planes flown by the Americans and the candies the GIs brought. In the end, the Samuels begin life anew in America, and Wolfgang eventually goes on to a thirty-year career in the U.S. Air Force.

Bringing fresh insight to the dark history of Nazi Germany and the horror left in its wake, German Boy records the valuable recollections of an innocent’s incredible journey.

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User Review  - bandpmom - LibraryThing

This book was one of the best books I've read in a while. Having a personal connection to war-torn Germany during WWII, my expectations were high. This book delivered. I was immersed into the life of ... Read full review

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User Review  - TimBazzett - LibraryThing

This is an eloquently told, often nearly heartbreaking story of what a young German boy endured as a refugee in the closing days and the years following WWII. Wolfgang Samuel tells his story with ... Read full review

Contents

Three The Train
34
CHAPTER TEN PAGE 165 Wolfgang in the autumn of 1948
88
Hedy at twenty and Willi twentysix
232
Epilogue
421
Copyright

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About the author (2001)

Chapter One

January 1945

I ran across the plowed field instead of following the smooth dirt path along the Bober River. I was afraid that someone might be lurking in the dense, dark bushes lining the steep riverbank. Besides, running across the field would get me home more quickly. My hands were stiff and hurting from the unrelenting winter cold. I wasn''t sure, though, if I would feel any more secure once I got home. I knew the Russians would arrive any day now. Maybe we would just wait for them. I was more afraid of the Russians than of anyone hiding in the bushes along the river.

It was nearly the end of January and next week would be my tenth birthday. Yesterday, I couldn''t wait for that important day to arrive. Tonight, it didn''t seem to matter much anymore. "I''m nine years old, almost ten," I chanted loudly as I leapt across the field from one frozen clod of earth to the next. "I''m almost grown up." My voice sounded croaky and brittle. I knew how to skip across a plowed field without falling. I had done it many times on my way home from school, skipping from the top of one clod to another. But never at night. The field was dusted with a fresh coat of snow, which, along with the intermittent moonlight, helped to outline the frozen rows of sod plowed in perfectly straight lines by a Russian prisoner of war working for the farmer down the road.

The moon, although frequently obscured by rapidly scudding clouds, provided a cold, bright, bluish light which allowed me to clearly see my surroundings. When the clouds opened up and the moon shone through, its light illuminated the landscape out to the far horizon. The night had an eerie, fairy-tale quality about it, of hidden beauty and mystery laced with my own fears. I felt as if I were caught in one of Grimm''s fairy tales; only the witch and her Pfefferkuchen house were missing. But the night was real, I was scared, and I was getting colder every minute. I stumbled on a clod of dirt and nearly fell. I recovered and continued my run across the field. There was little wind, but a chill ran through my body, nearly throwing me off balance. I should have dressed more warmly and taken my gloves when I left home earlier in the evening.

I forced myself to think of something other than the bitter cold. I thought about what I had read in the newspaper, about what happened to German women when they were captured by Russian soldiers. Awful things. I didn''t know what rape was, but it had to be terrible the way they wrote about it in the newspaper and spoke of it on the radio. I didn''t want my mother to be raped. She was all I had to hold on to, besides Ingrid, my sister. I felt a dull ache rise within me, as if a cold hand were squeezing my insides. Maybe I was hungry. That had to be it. It was my empty stomach that gave me that odd feeling. I couldn''t remember when I had last eaten. Maybe it wasn''t hunger I felt. Maybe I was afraid of dying.

I stumbled again, and fell flat on my stomach. I was trying to concentrate on my running, but I was so cold. I got up quickly, brushing off the snow and dirt. I had hurt my left knee and scraped my hands. There was some blood. I started running again, this time focusing intently on each step I took.

I had mixed feelings about death. Death had seemed noble when I read about it in my father''s old poetry books and in fairy tales. Last summer, though, when the fathers of many of my friends died in faraway places, death became real. It wasn''t noble anymore. I was afraid for my mother, my sister, and myself. I didn''t know where my father was, or whether he was still alive. He was somewhere in Holland or France, I thought, with the Luftwaffe. No one else in my family lived anywhere near us. I finally reached the highway, the Naumburger Chaussee. I felt better after crossing the field, away from the river and its dark bushes. I never was afraid to walk that way during the day. Then why was I scared to walk there in the dark?

Of course, there were the prisoners who had escaped from Stalag Luft III, the prisoner-of-war camp at the Sagan Flugplatz. I had heard the adults talking about a great escape from the camp the previous March. The next day several Hitler Youths came and got me and my friends to help them search for the escaped prisoners. The prisoners were English and American airmen whose airplanes had been shot down in raids over Germany. I didn''t know if anyone had ever found them or if they were still hiding nearby. The Hitler Youths made us play war in the bushes by the river, rushing us in groups from one clump of bushes to the next, while we were supposed to be looking. My friends and I didn''t want to find any of those men, and we didn''t.

I continued walking briskly east along the Naumburger Chaussee. I slapped my arms around my body trying to warm myself, and I blew into my stiff hands. It didn''t help. My fingers would barely bend. I started to run again. I wore my coveted Hitler Youth trousers, which Mutti had been able to buy for me by telling the saleswoman that I had been accepted into the Jungvolk early. I desperately needed long trousers for the winter, so Mutti lied a little about my age, and the saleswoman chose to believe her. I tied the trousers just above my ankles to make them blouse out. Wearing the trousers would be a sure sign to my friends that I was older, which I very much wanted to be. But as much as I liked my new trousers, they were too thin to protect me from the night''s bitter cold. No traffic moved on the road. No one was walking, driving a horse-drawn sleigh, or riding a bicycle. I was alone. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably.

Earlier in the evening my mother had asked me to walk her friend, a wounded army lieutenant, to the train station. She had met him at an army hospital where she entertained wounded soldiers by tap dancing for them. The lieutenant hardly spoke a word as we walked to the station. Why should he? I was just a boy. But I knew the shortest way to the station; that''s why I was showing him the way. The lieutenant had come early that afternoon. It was the first time I had met him. He sat beside my mother on the couch in the living room, and I caught a few words of their conversation. He spoke of Russian tanks being dangerously close to Sagan and tried to convince her to take Ingrid and me and leave Sagan right away. "You should leave today," he said to her. "My parents in Berlin will be happy to have you stay with them." The tone of his voice was urgent.

"It can''t be as bad as you say," Mutti replied with a nervous laugh. "When and if the time comes, we will be notified by the authorities and they will evacuate us. I will wait and see what happens."

"Hedy, the official authorization to evacuate Sagan will be given too late. Those orders are always given too late, because the Fuhrer doesn''t want to admit we are losing, that it''s all over. When the evacuation orders are finally issued, few people will be able to get out. You and the children must go now! It''s your only chance, Hedy. I know what I''m talking about. Listen to me, please!" It hadn''t been enough to change her mind.

What was Mutti waiting for? Unless she listened to someone soon, it would be too late. But my mother didn''t listen to anyone, least of all me. She was headstrong and could be stubborn. I felt so afraid of the future. I didn''t like feeling helpless, being little, being tied to a mother who didn''t want to understand what was happening around her. I was impatient to grow up, to make decisions for myself, not to be trapped in my nine-year-old body. My mother lived in her fantasy world, refusing to read the newspaper or listen to the radio. All my mother ever seemed to care about were her parties and tap dancing for the wounded soldiers.

On the way to the train station, the lieutenant had walked like a soldier, I thought, fast, with long, deliberate strides. He was lean and tall, his cheeks hollow, and his skin appeared gray, as if he had known pain or hunger, or both. I had a hard time staying ahead of him, which is where I thought I should be since I was the guide. His gray army uniform looked new and fit him well. He wore no overcoat, just his tunic, with a wide, black leather belt around his waist and a pistol strapped to the belt under his left arm. Probably a Luger, its holster was so large. My father had a pistol just like it. The lieutenant wore an oval, silver badge on the left breast pocket of his tunic--the Verwundetenabzeichen. The badge depicted a steel helmet over crossed swords rimmed with oak leaves. I knew what that badge meant; he had been wounded in combat, badly wounded. In one of the buttonholes of his tunic, he wore the ribbon for the Iron Cross second class, and another Iron Cross was pinned above the silver Verwundetenabzeichen, the Iron Cross first class. He wore still another badge on his tunic''s breast pocket, but I couldn''t make it out, and I didn''t want to stare or ask him about it. The silver epaulets on his shoulders glistened when the moonlight reflected off them. He wore a simple ski cap, like those worn by common soldiers, and his boots were of sturdy leather, laced high, with leggings around his ankles. His bloused pants were tucked into his leggings. I really liked how he looked.

We passed a group of marching and singing Hitler Youths. It seemed strange for them to be out on a cold, bleak evening like this. Didn''t they know that the Russians were nearly here with us in Sagan? I didn''t know how the war had started, but for as long as I could remember people had been dying and airplanes crashing. There were fewer and fewer men in the streets every year. Many of my friends'' fathers were dead or missing, mostly in Russia. In the newspaper they always called it a He

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