Skwierzyna Gallery > Haffke Family
Schwerin an der Warthe
I was born in Schwerin an der Warthe (now Skwierzyna) during the Second World War in 1941. Schwerin an der Warthe was a German garrison town, where my father, who was a "career soldier" since the "100 000 Mann Heer" of the Weimar Republic, was stationed as a "Stabsfeldwebel" which is equal to a "sergeant major". Some of my earliest memories are of the beautiful pine forests surrounding Schwerin and the walks we took, with friends and visitors from Berlin, in those peaceful surroundings. I remember playing with friends and being taken to outdoor restaurants in the town to drink "Brause" while the adults had coffee or beer. One day my mother took me to a "laundry mat," a forerunner of today's system which consisted of one room where you cooked the laundry in a large vat then rinsed it with hand-cranks and took the laundry to a huge "Mangel" which was a monstrous machine with two or more large drums rotating....I remember being very fascinated with these workings and wanting to explore them in more detail. Thus I put my head very close to the rotating drums to get a better look, while my mother was busy bringing more laundry in from the other room. I went closer and closer to these fascinating contraptions and suddenly experienced a pull beyond my control which brought my head right into these rotating drums. Of course, the drums were close together and my head would not have fit between them, but, nevertheless, my hair was pulled in and my head got somewhat "mangled." Screaming, "Mutti, Mutti...," my mother came running and had to shut off this machine in order to free me from its grip. Thank God, things weren't as bad as they looked, but a small part of my head was squeezed and even temporarily de-formed. Today I would surely have been taken to a hospital to be observed for internal injuries, but in those days we just simply went home and thanked God that nothing more damaging had happened. I did have a dent in my head which I outgrew eventually. Another story which seems important in retrospect, was my total and in-explainable "infatuation" with a woman named Frau Koch. She and her husband lived next door to us in the military apartment building and I was drawn to her as if by a supernatural force. She was a good person and surely didn't do anything consciously to alienate me from my mother. But I remember distinctly that I wanted her to be my mother and live with her. My mother was the kindest and most loving mother one could hope for and yet I wanted nothing more than to have Frau Koch as my mother.
I was only about two years old or even younger, when this strange "spell" occurred, which lasted until we left Schwerin. Frau Koch, which means "cook" translated, had a collection of cook-books with pictures of pots and pans and vegetables made into characters which one can find in children's books. These pictures were "supernaturally" fascinating to me and I couldn't get enough looking at them as they seemed to touch upon something very deep within me. As strange as it might sound, these colorful drawings of "humanized" pots and pans and vegetables enraptured me into a state of love for Frau Koch and hatred towards my mother. All I wanted was to be with Frau Koch and with those beloved cook-books. I screamed in terror whenever Frau Koch left from visiting us, or when we left her apartment to go back to ours. I screamed for Frau Koch and threw tantrums whenever we were separated. Just like a "normal" child would react when his real mother would leave him with strangers. My mother was horrified and confused as to what she had possibly done to bring about such alienation and even hatred within me. Frau Koch seemed embarrassed and also horrified by my behavior. I can remember the pictures in the cook-books, but only in a very general sense without details or emotional attachment. But when I look at pictures of Frau Koch holding me, I still experience a faint longing to be with her. Finally my mother decided on somebody's advice, to get a "healer and exorcist," who would "speak over" (Besprechen) people with ailments like warts and whatever. Although I remember absolutely nothing about it, he performed an "exorcism" on me and prayed for my release from this "bondage" to Frau Koch. I don't think that it was very successful since the "bond" was only broken when we left Schwerin. Frau Koch and her husband ended up in the city of Rostock, as they left on a previous train to ours.
My father was killed in Finland in August 1943. The war was coming closer to home with each day and the population of Schwerin an der Warthe gradually prepared to evacuate the town. I remember a cold and snowy day in February 1945, in the early hours of darkness, when my mother grabbed me and we ran to the train station where a train was waiting. When we got there she put me up into a compartment and told me that she still had time for her to run back and get at least some of our belongings to take with us. In the background we could hear Russian artillery and tank fire. The sky had turned blood-red not very far from us and everybody was scared out of their wits. I overheard talk of death and rape and torture and not even knowing what those words meant, was affected strongly by the general hysteria surrounding me. I was, for the first time in my life, alone with complete strangers, hysterical strangers, and I began to cry and carry on calling for my mother. I remember being very, very afraid that the train would take off with me on it and with my mother left behind. Then, finally, my mother came to the train pulling a sled with a large wooden crate on it. Some people helped her to get it on the train, and shortly after, this last train out of Schwerin took off. The Russian army about ten miles away our train was the last one to leave and everybody knew that it was our last chance to get out alive!
In the compartment, my mother became friendly with a lady seated next to her who was Frau Beumelburg, who owned a marina in Erkner by Berlin, and with a man who was a "Reichsbahn" employee who lived in Borken by Kassel in the western part of Germany. As we were moving along through the night, I began to enjoy the ride. Our destination was Berlin, probably 120 kilometers or so away from Schwerin. Suddenly we heard artillery fire and the train came to a dead stop. Bullets came zinging through our compartment and we all dropped to the floor. Everybody began screaming in fear as suddenly a railroad-man ran through the compartments calling for anybody who knew how to operate a steam locomotive to come forward since the original operator was shot to death and the Russians would soon get to the train and kill us all, or worse.
The man whom my mother had befriended, Karl Bott, from Borken by Kassel, jumped up and ran to the locomotive. Soon thereafter we suddenly felt the train jerking and beginning to move. Thus, Divine interventions, seems to have taken this train of refugees under its protective wings. I remember looking out of the compartment windows and watching the night landscape. When we came over a bridge, I remember seeing a train below us and thinking it was a toy train because it looked so small.
When we got closer to Berlin, we saw the whole city lit up in red like a flaming inferno. Nothing but ruins and desolation. The train was destined for Berlin, Bahnhof Zoo, and we slowly pulled into this train station which was in utter ruins. Thus, Herr Bott, our locomotive operator, kept on going and thus, our "journey of the damned" continued towards Borken, where our locomotive operator lived with his family. Thus we ended up in the town where I would experience the end of the war and the American occupation......and my first days in school. More of my story.
Text and Photographs © Holger Haffke 2007
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