Wolfgang Samuel’s story covers the time between his tenth birthday, January 1945, in Eastern Germany to January 1951 when Samuel, his mother and her new American husband leave Germany for America. As the narrative begins, Wolfgang, his sister Ingrid and their Mutti (German for “mom”) leave in the middle of the night to flee Russian troops entering their city. This is the first of many three-suitcase trips. The family of three lives with Mutti’s parents until they again travel west. The formal end of hostilities did not bring an end of deprivation, an end of hunger, or an end of violence.
An uncomfortable aspect of this story is the extent Mutti went to provide for her hungry family. It is a sad story, delicately told, of a desperate woman who exchanges sex for soup. Mutti was a beautiful woman, estranged from her husband, who was used to flirting for favors. In the flurry of packing up and leaving, Mutti dons a silk blouse, silk stockings, a black velvet jacket and makeup. When her mother disapproves, she replies:
truck heading west to the American lines. Do you think anyone is going
to stop and pick up a frumpy-looking woman with two children and an
old woman by her side? No. They’ll stop for a pretty, well-dressed woman,
if they stop at all. I am trying to look my very best. If we are lucky,
someone will have a heart and will take a look at me–and stop for us.
Carnage caresses his life. Besides daily bombings, Wolfgang lives through a strafing attack on a long column of refugees where people five feet from him were killed. He witnesses a school fellow’s drowning. His father shows up and leads them in a night crossing, dodging Russian patrols, through a blizzard to the American zone. And yet, in the way a child focuses on the immediate things, he also remembers the loneliness of being ostracized by other German boys, the boredom of bad schools, the shame of ill-fitting clothes and the petty corruptions of life in a refugee barracks.
Living next to RAF Fassberg, Wolfgang witnessed firsthand the continual air traffic of the Berlin airlift. When the Americans arrived, Sergeant Leo Ferguson made his entrance. He fell in love and married the now-divorced Hedy (Mutti’s name); he was the means for Wolfgang and his Mutti to move to Colorado. Wolfgang’s sister Ingrid remained with her father. Enamored with pilots and airplanes, Wolfgang served in the U.S. Air Force for thirty years, retiring as a colonel. In June 1998, Wolfgang Samuel was a speaker at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin airlift. His story arrested the attention of Stephen Ambrose, who encouraged Samuel to publish his book.
I cannot conceive of circumstances leading to the choices Hedy made. I shuddered and recoiled as I read. I have a relative who lived through post-war Austria. In the past, when I have asked for this person’s story, the answer was always a silent shaking of the head, a polite refusal to revisit that period. I still have no idea what that story would be, but after having read this book, I am inclined to never again ask that question.