Jan 2019

The Amis Are Coming

U.S. Occupation of April 1945

by Ute Jansen-Alonzo

 

Walking to the river did not take more than twenty minutes. For us children, however, it was a hike. That day there was an urgency to get there fast. The word was that the Americans were coming down the Eastlander Road, which crosses the river at the sawmill. Anxious with anticipation, we did not want to miss any of these maneuvers.

We settled on the railings of the bridge, dangling our knee-socked legs and straining our necks, looking eastward. The little river was flowing peacefully and merrily beneath us with its clear water moving over the shallow riverbed.

There was excitement in the air when at a distance we heard unfamiliar rumblings of motors coming our way. Then we saw them in the bright afternoon light: little truck-like vehicles with no roofs slowly approaching us. It was an unbelievable sight – one after another, fifty or more of them, manned with two or three soldiers clad in camouflage uniforms, with matching helmets – smiling and waving at us. These were the “Amerikaner” or “Amis,” a term we had heard often that evoked images of something so different than what we had grown up with. Their faces were open, cheerful, and of different colors: they were light, tanned and chocolate brown. Only in stories had we heard about men with dark skin color. We were in awe staring at them, as this spectacle passed right in front of us. One by one, the military vehicles, called jeeps drove over the bridge causing it to tremble with each crossing. After the last vehicle crossed the bridge, a whole horde of children, I among them, followed them into town.

For the adults in the village it was a different story, they knew what this meant. With a sense of defeat and foreboding, they were ready to comply with the victor’s requests, whatever that might be. The two hundred year old three-story, half-timber house of my grandparents on my mother’s side became the headquarters for American Majors.

We were evacuated, and we moved to the big Westphalia-style farmhouse, which belonged to my grandparents on my father’s side and was located at the end of town, half an hour away. All this seemed normal to me, as we had visited my grandmother often. I loved to visit the animals in their stalls, the horses and cows that lived under one roof with us. Often I could pet the newborn calves and I was thrilled that I could stick my whole hand into their mouths like a lollipop. I was always surprised at how clean and pink my hand looked afterwards compared to the un-licked hand. I believe these were the moments I connected to nature and my love for animals became part of me.

Only my grandmother was still living there with two of her nine children, the rest had been serving at the front or in Russia. Two of them never returned. Now many family members lived there together. Cousins from bombed-out cities shared a big room upstairs. They were grouped by age. The bigger children slept in little rooms above the horses and cattle where hay was stored. It was often bitter cold and my mother heated bricks in the wood burning stove and we all took a hot brick wrapped in a towel to bed. In the morning, the windowpanes were covered with ice flowers.

My mother with her five children was in a constant state of stress – but she knew survival. My father was a surgeon in a military hospital in Poland during the war and had to stay in a British POW camp afterwards for a few months. In fact, he turned himself in after fleeing from the Russians through Czechoslovakia. When I saw him after his return home to the family he was a thin man, quiet and reserved, a gentle person but a stranger to me.

As time went on my mother began to barter with the soldiers and their superiors, trading some wine or liquor she had hidden for egg and milk powder and other staples. To the delight of the whole family, she was able to secure some raw coffee beans at one time. The roasting process was an adventure on the kitchen stove and the aroma of fresh coffee could not be disguised. The whole town knew who had been blessed that day!

Since not much clothes and other items could be taken out of our house at the time of the evacuation, my mother had the nerve one afternoon to sneak into our house where a Major was sleeping in one of the bedrooms. She needed some of the children’s clothing, which was stored away in a chest of drawers. She opened the door to the bedroom carefully pushing down the door handle with extra care – and with accuracy went right to the drawers. She had it all rehearsed in her mind and she did not waste any movement pulling the drawer open, grab what was needed and close it skillfully. The sleeping military man breathed evenly throughout this whole routine. Mission was accomplished – and she was out of the house as fast as she came in. Outside some friends had been waiting with anticipation. Everybody was relieved to see my mother return with arms full of clothing.

My two older sisters, Marlies and Hella, teenagers at the beginning of the post war years during the occupation were curious and at the same time shy watching these young foreign army men now living among us. Both of them noticed that American soldiers were very friendly with young children, of which I was one. They also knew that these “Amis” had a supply of sweets and chocolate, but my sisters were too embarrassed to approach the men to ask for anything. So they dressed me up cute and fancy with bows in my hair and taught me a few English words. Keeping themselves out of sight, but watching, they sent me to one of the Jeeps with a couple of relaxed “Amis” who lifted me into the Jeep. I remember the smell of cigarettes, leather and chewing gum. The words I had learned were: “Please, please chocolate.” These three words worked wonders and with a couple of chocolate bars and chewing gum in my hands, I returned to the hideout where I was greeted with great joy and praise.

As I look back, that was my first job in public relations and it was pretty profitable. My mother also utilized my services – but more for practical purposes. She took me along on some of her outings to negotiate with the “Amis” for the basic household needs. She was always dressed with a touch of elegance—it paid off.
Later I saw photos of the postwar years and I noticed that we always wore tidy and pretty outfits. My older sisters disputed that, because they remember wearing older clothes that did not fit them well anymore. New clothes were not available. But then the “care packages” arrived from the U. S. They brought a new spirit into the village. Never had we seen such colorful clothes and the intense pinks, blues and greens were an unusual sight. The women in my family were used to subdued tones, especially during the war years and they could not imagine wearing such bright colors. My sisters were elated though trying on dresses, which made them feel like young women now. I watched them with fascination as they chattered and laughed checking out their new image in the mirror. With skill, they altered these American dresses for their own perfect fit. In fact, Marlies eventually became a seamstress and designer.

Marlies would design and sew the dresses for the women in the family for all events to come. I was amazed at the fantastic fabrics she schlepped home from somewhere. The agreement was, when she designed an outfit for me, I had to do the dishes when it was her turn, so she could work on the dress to meet the deadline. When it was time for the fitting, she emphasized the waist, to which I objected – to no avail. I had to accept the tightness as it was the look of those days.

The postwar spirit remained in all of us for years. I think of that time with a certain yearning. Eventually we all returned to the bombed-out cities under construction, where school and studies became our focus. My sister Hella pursued journalism and I attended a well-known art academy and ended up in Communication Arts. Later in my career, I became the art director of a major national magazine in the U.S.

I will always carry my postwar life with me like a knapsack on my back.




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