Even as a child, Waltraud Pless couldn’t help but see the way many Germans benefited from the Nazi regime. She didn’t have to look far: Her parents were broke when Hitler rose to power in 1933. Six years later her father was an officer in the Waffen-SS, the Nazi Party’s elite military division. By the time he went off to fight in the invasion of France, the family had two cars, a nice house, and a warehouse full of valuable “secondhand” furniture.
“Where did all his money come from?” Pless asks. “It’s clear to me now: It could only have come from Jewish households. No one can tell me he didn’t know Jews were persecuted.”
Her father once plopped her in the car for an errand to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the edge of Berlin. “I saw the people there, how they were living,” she says. Was she shocked? The impeccably dressed 85-year-old shakes her head and shrugs. “Things like that were just a given.”
Then, suddenly, they weren’t. In the fall of 1944, Pless saw the roads around their family’s home, hundreds of miles east of Berlin, filling with families fleeing the Soviet Union’s Red Army. For weeks she slept in her clothes, ready to join the river of refugees at any moment. Finally, on a freezing night in February 1945, the evacuation order came.
“I thought it was temporary,” she recalls. “As soon as the Russians were defeated, we’d be back home. That’s how powerful the [Nazi] propaganda was at the time.”
After weeks on the move, sleeping in strangers’ apartments and railway stations, she and her mother, brother, and sister were shipped to an island off Germany’s Baltic coast. The popular tourist destination had plenty of beds, but in April the rapidly advancing Soviets cut off access to the mainland, and there was nothing to eat.
Without electricity or radios, Pless and her family were unaware of Germany’s surrender until they heard celebratory gunfire from the Red Army units garrisoned in nearby houses. Constantly hungry, Pless spent that spring searching for food. One day, she says, she followed a farmer’s cart as it bounced along a cobbled road, gathering spilled potatoes into her skirt. Before she knew it she was alone in a field far from town. “That’s when a Russian soldier grabbed me and raped me,” she says. She was nine years old. Pless says she ran home to tell her mother, but her screams were met with silence.
That fall the family got word that Pless’s father had survived the fall of Berlin and was being held by U.S. soldiers in a camp near Hamburg. But there would be no going home: Their village was now Polish territory.
For the next decade the reunited family struggled, living first in pig stalls and barns, later crowding into small apartments with other families. In the lean postwar years, many Germans resented Pless and the millions of others displaced by the conflict as extra mouths to feed. “They discriminated against us, cursed at us,” she says, “just because we were refugees.”
Seventy-five years later, Pless feels neither anger nor guilt. “There are truly tragic stories out there. Mine, by comparison, is almost trivial,” she says. “I was nine—the war wasn’t my fault. But I’m not a victim, either.”
Today Pless visits schools in the Hamburg area to talk about her wartime experiences, motivated, she says, by concern.
“Look at the world now: People haven’t learned. It’s horrifying that neo-Nazis are back, and not just in Germany, in the U.S., in Scandinavia. People are still so easily manipulated.”
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