Chatfield woman shares memories
of being refugee during World War II
Monday, October 14, 2013 4:57 AM
Chatfield resident Erika Kohlmeyer can easily recall how her childhood was spent in East Germany and then Poland during World War II. Even though she was only a young child, images of hiding in dark corners and memories of dodging people who might turn them in or kill them are still vivid in her memory. She and her family would eat food scraped and salvaged from refuse and stolen from fields just so the little family could live until the next day.
Erika Kohlmeyer, of Chatfield, pages through the notebooks that hold the details of her childhood as a World War II refugee.
"My earliest memories (are of) hiding in basements, bad, bad food. I remember when we had to get out and go to Poland. We lived in East Germany then, and we moved to Poland for five years," Kohlmeyer remembered. "Then the Russians came at midnight and told us to get out, to take only what we could carry. We had only an hour to get ready."
She added that she and her sister were only 2 and 3 years old at the time and they had never seen their father because he was away at war. "He had gone to the army in the draft, so it was up to my mom and my grandma to get us out," said Kohlmeyer.
Erika Schieffelbein was born May 24, 1941, in Muhlhausen, East Germany, the eldest of four, but at the time, the elder of two. She is the daughter of a prisoner of war, Emil, and his wife, Hilda, who were displaced from their homeland of Bessarabia, Romania, to Germany in 1940 when the Germans relocated 90,000 people of German descent and the Russians took over.
She grew up under the reign of the Third Reich and the wings of her mother and paternal grandmother, knowing only fear of what would come next, who would want to betray them, wondering who might be willing to take them in and share alms.
"Grandma was always with us because she was a widow. When we lived on the farm in Poland, we had a man and a woman helping us there," Kohlmeyer said. "When the Russians came and we had to get out, we had one suitcase each, and we had an hour to get out."
She recalled that the train was full, so her mother and grandmother and another man picked the two girls up and pushed them through the window.
"The man who was there...we didn't know if he was dead or gone after that, but we made it to Berlin and had to go to a shelter because the Americans were bombing," Kohlmeyer said. "We had to get off the train at the next town, where two old people offered to help us and let us go to their house - he was a shoemaker, and he took care of us while my mom and grandma worked in the fields. He kept me and my sister, Irmgaard, who was born in Poland, busy all day by letting us pound nails into the bottoms of old shoes."
The refugee family survived on vegetables stowed away in Hilda's loosely-made gunnysack pants made for that purpose, and on "pancakes" her mother-in-law made from salt and water.
Their journey to the West German border was a hardscrabble reach for freedom, for promises of nights spent without concern of where they would sleep, how to quell the aching in the children's stomachs.
In addition to it all, the family struggled with how to have faith that Emil would live to see them safe somewhere where civil liberties were real and tangible. He had been captured by the British and turned over to the Allied Forces as a prisoner of war in England, Scotland and then Virginia.
"Till we got out into West Germany, we were nine months on the road, had no place to live. Mom worked for the Russians and had to fill bomb holes, dig graves, worked in kitchens," Kohlmeyer said. "She took vegetables from the fields, just went house to house to find a place to sleep. It was usually a basement with a cement floor, but one night, we were sent up to sleep in an attic, but the fleas were so bad there that my mom said we just couldn't stay."
Kohlmeyer also recalled a time when they had been walking for a long time and night fell. "Mom and Grandma were walking through water and Mom was pushing a wheelbarrow. We came to a bridge, and there was a cop who stopped us," she said. "Mom was sure we'd get shot, so she distracted him, put us on the wheelbarrow and ran like crazy over the bridge. We got to town and went house to house, asking to sleep someplace."
Their arrival in West Germany meant resettlement and adjustment to being citizens, not people who were being hunted like prey.
"We got to West Germany, and we had to sleep in a school house. I was 5 or 6 years old then, and I remember sleeping on straw for a long time, then we lived in a house with other people...it had a single bed for four people and one sink and stove."
Her father, who was absent through the years she and Irmgaard were growing up, was reunited with his wife and children after his release in February of 1947.
"We had no idea we had a dad. He knocked on the door at midnight, and since he was my grandma's only child, we had been told he was dead," Kohlmeyer added. "He'd been gone five years...he told us he'd been a prisoner of war in Virginia, and he brought us chocolate and peanut butter. My sister, Siegrun, was born after my dad showed up that night, and she was only 10 months old when we left Germany."
Emil and Hilda Schieffelbein worked very hard to earn a living in West Germany, but even then, it wasn't enough.
Kohlmeyer related, "Everything we ever owned during the war, we lost. We had nothing. The first gift or present we ever got was when my mom worked in a West German sewing factory. Irmgaard and I got Red Riding Hood dolls...I wish I still had that, but it was paper or cardboard."
Making a living in post-war Germany was too difficult, so Emil determined to relocate his family, in spite of being told that a law prohibited former prisoners of war from becoming American citizens. Finding that to be untrue, he applied for immigration through the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's sponsorship program, in which Pete and Tillie Scharsch offered to assist the Schieffelbeins in coming to the United States.
"When we were first accepted, Dad wanted to get out of Germany because he felt we didn't belong there, so we were people without a country," Kohlmeyer said. "The first ship was going to Uruguay, but the second was going to America. When it happened, it happened real fast, and we had to sell everything or give everything away. We left Germany the day I turned 11. We had to stay in a camp for two weeks to be checked out, learn English...the first song I learned was 'You Are My Sunshine'."
Crossing the Atlantic was an ordeal all its own.
"It was 10 days and 11 nights...not a cruise, but a trip of hell," she stated.
Kohlmeyer explained that everyone was required to come to dinner at the mess hall, seasick or not, and there were vats and barrels on the ship to mitigate the symptoms of mass seasickness. She also recalled there were "white glove" room checks and that the food was horrible.
"My grandma chewed the bread, then gave it to us because there were nails in it and there were worms in the salad. We were not allowed to stay in our rooms, but I hated the smell of the kitchen...the coffee got to me and I had to stand up to the table which was so tall it was up to my chin," Kohlmeyer said. "I took bread out from the kitchen and hid it under my clothes and pillow. We hated the American bread because it was too soft. It was a terrible trip...very stormy. One time, I got caught on the deck of the ship and thought I was going to go overboard and die."
Kohlmeyer entered the halls of Ellis Island with her family on June 12, 1952, carrying her prized accordion, a gift from her father. "We got put into a great big room, and we had to be checked out again. If you had an accordion, they checked that out, and if you couldn't play it, they'd cut it in half, so my dad said, 'Erika, play real good.' And the Salvation Army gave us sandwiches...we'd never had sandwiches in our entire lives."
The Scheiffelbein family came to Chatfield after first living in Texas for a year. "We had to, because we had no choice where we were going because we had to work for a farmer for a year. We couldn't stand him, so the people who were our sponsors in Texas were nice enough to let us go, but we found other people from Germany and ended up with them in Colorado," Kohlmeyer said. "There were a lot of dust storms there and we lived in a hut. We knew somebody my grandma worked with at the rest home a guy owned...the guy was coming to Chatfield to see his sister, and he asked if my dad wanted to come along. He thought it looked just like home in Bessarabia."
She said she was in the seventh grade when her father found a house to buy near Chatfield. He worked for Charlie Pavlish at the lumber company and continued to farm.
Kohlmeyer said she didn't become involved in high school extracurricular activities because her father worked her on the farm, just as if she had been a boy.
"I just had to work the farm, the field, milk cows...but I loved farming, I loved living in the country," she said.
Kohlmeyer became a citizen when she was 19 and a senior in high school. Her brother, Erwin, was born that same year.
"I graduated from Chatfield High School in 1960, and I got married in 1961. He (Roland Kohlmeyer) drove up into our farm and asked if I'd go out with him. We were married and then he got out of the Navy," she summarized. "I got a job at Waters-Conley in Rochester making stereos and phonographs, and after that, I was laid off and worked at Saint Marys in the kitchen on the fourth floor. I loved cooking there."
The Kohlmeyers' first son, Kevin, was born in 1962, and their second son, Lyndon, was born in 1964. They adopted two daughters, and Erika calls her children beautiful, brave, her foundation.
"The girls...we got Heidi when she was 5 days old, and we got Kristal on Christmas Eve morning...we put her under the tree. She's 38 now," Kohlmeyer said.
She and Roland divorced after 23 years of marriage, when Heidi was 12 and Kristal was 8. "I had a beauty shop in downtown Rochester for 20 years after that, the Holiday Salon, and then I had it at home and worked for myself," she added.
Kohlmeyer has lived in the Rochester area for as long as she's been grown, attempting to be happy "wherever I am," and for the most part, finding her happiness, able to throw her head back and have a deep, hearty laugh.
She returned to Germany with her daughter several years ago, and it was at that point that she decided that she would never go back again. However, a stop at Ellis Island with her daughters "was so emotional...I started to cry."
The Kohlmeyer children are still learning their mother's story, but she is determined to pass it on to them so that they understand fully what it means to be first- and second-generation Americans.
She feels it is important to tell her 13-year-old granddaughter that it means so very much to have a home where she's free, where there's no fear, where dining on traditional German spaetzle noodles, pork chops, dark, hard German bread and gravy with her family at Christmastime is a blessing unto itself.