By Jerome Tharaud
Shots fired by heavy artillery were accompanied by a faint roaring, the roar of rolling tanks. The sound was ominous, like distant thunder, and the ground seemed to vibrate. That was enough for Margit and me to know that the fighting troops were nearby. We were overcome by terrible panic. We had to get out of here. Our only hope was to reach the highway to join the throng of people in flight."
In her recently published memoir, Ilse Wagner recalls the day in January of 1945 when she went from being an ordinary German student, attending a girls boarding school in Poland, to being a refugee.
Later, on a roadway crowded with fleeing civilians and the retreating German army, Wagner saw a mass of ragged prisoners from Auschwitz:
"Their feet were purple and swollen. Some of them had rags wrapped around their feet, while others wore shoes hand carved from wood. A few turned their heads, some of them gazing longingly at the truck, wishing they were riding in it. But most of the faces stared at us with an eerie blank expression. In their eyes was the dumb, empty look of herd animals. There appeared to be no minds behind the staring eyes. Here were humans at their lowest and most degraded. Without emotions, beyond caring, these people had suffered beyond limits of their endurance."
In the weeks and months that followed, Wagner found her way to her sisters' home in Neisse, Germany, and fled with them to Munich, where citizens cowered in cellars and shelters to avoid being killed by American air raids. She endured hunger in a small Bavarian town until Germany lost the war in 1945, then worked on an American air base near Munich, where she met her future husband.
By the time Wagner immigrated to the United States soon after the close of World War II, she had experienced enough hardship by age 18 to fill a book. That's what she did, in chunks over the next 50 years. Her book, "Refugee: Memories of War," was published this year.
"You're just numb," said Wagner, 74, of what it was like being there. "You see, you're just in a kind of stupor.
"The worst I didn't write, but most I did," she said in her Havre home, a world away from everything she experienced.
After the war was over, things were still hard, and Wagner describes how the negative caricatures of German girls in the U.S. military newspapers - they were portrayed as dirty, sloppy and diseased - affected her.
"After that," she writes, "when I looked at an American soldier, I pictured myself as he was supposed to see me - like the picture in the newspaper. Since I was a young teenager, the fact that we were not considered to be normal human beings with feelings, capable of being in love and falling in love with all sincerity and tenderness, bothered me deeply and drove me to the brink of suicide."
Along with the horror of war, she writes about the colorful, human things that still shone through the smoke of war.
She describes touching her brightly colored dresses in the closet before fleeing, receiving occasional treats like a bit of sour cream or some apple cider, being serenaded by village boys in Bavaria, and receiving a treasured golden watch from her father before his death.
Some of the towns and people in her book have fictitious names, she said, because she didn't want anybody to recognize them.
"When you live this kind of life you don't trust anyone for a while," she explained.
When Wagner came to join her new husband in Columbia Falls in 1947, she said, it was hard to relate to the girls her age - someone who had hid from the blitzes from American planes had little in common with the high school cheerleaders who dreaded blitzes on the football field. The desire to make people understand what she had been through led her to begin her manuscript.
Wagner, who was still learning English at that time, wrote the first part of her book over a two-year period in Harlem in the early 1950s with the help of her English-German dictionary.
Nearly 20 years later in Big Sandy, she picked up her project again and continued it. The manuscript had grown to about 80 pages when she left Big Sandy in 1969, and it was again put aside. It would be many years before she was again goaded into dredging the old memories to the surface.
In the 1980s Wagner began taking bus tours into East Germany, Czechoslovakia and beyond with other ethnic Germans who used to live in those locations before the war. Unlike Wagner, who had already left the Sudetenland - a chunk of Czechoslovakia inhabited by many ethnic Germans and annexed by Hitler in 1938 - when the Russians came through in 1945, many Germans were given 30 minutes to grab their things and leave their homes forever. Those who refused were shipped to forced labor camps.
Forced relocations continued under the new Czech government, and historians estimate that some 3 million ethnic Germans were forced from their homes in one of the century's least-noted ethnic cleansings.
Decades after the war, some former refugees began coming back to visit, Wagner said. At first the Czechs were afraid of the visitors pulling into their towns because they thought the busloads of Germans were coming back to take their homes back, she said.
"We just want to go home and look at our houses," said Wagner, adding that the Czechs are beginning to trust the visitors now.
The effect of the past hit home in the late 1980s, when Wagner visited the graveyard in Niklasdorfer - now called Mikulovice - the Czechoslovakian town where she was born and lived until she was 9 years old. She saw that history was being erased: Headstones with German names had been vandalized, and the graves of her grandparents were nowhere to be found.
"All the graves with Czech names were perfect, so the hatred was still there," she said. "That really bothered me that I couldn't find one grave of my ancestors."
Soon afterward, Wagner saw a documentary on television about a refugee who had a story like hers.
"So I thought, I'll write this book and I'll try to finish it and I'll try to sell it. I thought if people read it, maybe they'll be a little more peaceful." Eventually she also hoped a movie might be made out of it.
After several editing sessions with local creative writer Kathryn Holt about five years ago, Wagner fleshed out her narrative, adding color and life, until it was finished, 217 typed pages. Reliving the memories was difficult, she said, and she worried about having a nervous breakdown.
Holt said she helped Wagner edit, but that her role was mostly to support Wagner and convince her that her story needed to be told.
"That experience of being tragically uprooted is an important one to pass on. It's an important story to be told," Holt said, adding that the autobiographical nature of the account makes it more poignant.
Wagner got in contact with a book agent to try to get it published. None of the bigger publishing companies were biting, but she began to get letters from smaller vanity presses. In 2003 she received a letter from Xlibris, a Philadelphia-based publishing service.
The book was published this year. It is sold at the bookstore at Montana State University-Northern, as well as on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Wagner gets a small royalty for each book bought.
Copies of the book are also available at the Havre-Hill County Library.
While she still hopes her book will make people more tolerant, Wagner said eventually the idealistic intention of her project was supplemented by financial hopes. Wagner, who is no longer married, said that even though she enjoys her job at McDonald's in Havre, she had hoped the book would allow her to retire. "Right now I'm old enough where I need to quit working if I could," she said. The sober truth of the matter is that writing books is a hard way to pay the bills.
"You don't make a lot of money with a book," she said.
Wagner gets by, though, and even manages to afford a modicum of luxury: By foregoing a car for a moped, she is able to travel, and so makes the world her pearl.
Her wanderlust finds her striking out every year, and has taken her to dozens of countries.
Europe is Wagner's usual destination. She loves to visit, but has had some close calls: She has run across mafia assassinations in Rome, an attempt to bomb a train she was on in Spain, and rioting in Berlin.
"This was one thing when I came here, I couldn't understand is how Americans got along," she said. "That to me was wonderful. I don't feel that because I live in Havre, Montana, the Canadians are going to come down and say, 'You've got to pack your stuff in 30 minutes or you're going to a forced labor camp.'
"The world is beautiful, but I like to live here (in Havre)," she added.
Though Wagner, like many people, may struggle to make ends meet, she won't complain about it. Instead, she chuckles at the subtle irony of her American life: "All the things I never had, now I have too much of," she said, giving clothes and food as examples.
When Wagner came to the United States, she said the abundance was startling.
"I would never throw anything away. If my kids left anything (on their plates) I would eat it because I couldn't stand the thought of throwing it away - and then I joined Weight Watchers," she quipped.
Wagner said her experience has taught her that most ordinary people aren't bent on acquiring wealth or power, but instead are seeking a few basic things - food, clothing, some comfort and companionship. Having gained those things for herself, she said she does not regret what she has been through.
"I have really very little patience with complainers and spoiled people," she said. "To this day I don't feel sorry for myself - I want you to know that - because I've had a lot of fun."