Reini Martin shared her life’s story with a group of about 80 ladies at a Christmas crafting event this last December.
By Angel Wyrwas
Reini Martin shared her life’s story with a group of about 80 ladies at a Christmas crafting event this last December. “I tried to condense my story because it is long,” said Reini, “but it is my life.” And what an amazing life it has been.
Reihild Heiderose Wehnert Martin moved to Baker from Ryegate in October of 2015 after her husband passed away to be closer to her daughter, Deb Barth, and her family. Reini’s story begins in a small community on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany during World War II.
Her parents, Herman and Gisela Wehnert, were both from German families. “WWII was in full force in Europe, and America had not yet entered the conflict. My Dad had been drafted into military service before I was born, and served in the medical corps,” said Reini. “Even though my family did not buy into that Nazi business, my father had to fight as a German, they came to escort him to service.”
“My grandma and mom’s younger sister lived nearby so my two small girl cousins and I spent much time together. Our parents always did their utmost to shield us from the reality and the horrors of the war,” continued Reini. “Air raids and bombings increased as the war progressed.”
“Bombs dropped all around us and one hit within a block of our house. We were not sure that our house was still standing as we climbed out of the bomb shelter. This time we were spared. But as the fighting became more intense and Berlin itself was being reduced to rubble, it was becoming increasingly dangerous to stay. Food and fuel were rationed and becoming more scarce every week.”
Before the Russian army made it to Berlin, Wehnerts fled to the Stuttgart area in southern Germany. “At three years old I was too young to remember all of that, but Mom’s older sister and family lived near there,” said Reini. “I remember being on a train, at night – all blacked out, no lights visible anywhere. The train came to a violent, screeching halt. Baggage crashed down on us from the racks above. People were screaming, children crying. There was chaos and panic. Two cars de-railed because the track had been bombed. Thankfully, we were still upright because we had to get off the train.”
“My uncle had a dray business, still using horses and wagons locally, but he also had a truck or two for longer hauls. Somehow they had gotten word to him. I remember shivering in the dark of that night, perched on our luggage, trying to keep quiet,” she said. Through the help of family and friends, her mom, aunt and cousins found shelter in the attic of a farmhouse. “The mother, daughter and daughters-in-law kept the farm going while their men were also on the battlefront. Mom and my aunt helped with housework, gardening and fieldwork – anything to help make ends meet. Money was scarce, so there was a lot of bartering for goods and services,” Reini explained.
One day late in 1945, a ragged, sunburned stranger knocked on their attic door. “It was my Dad,” said Reini. “I did not remember him anymore and was very shy around him. Mom said we had not heard from him in a long time, not even knowing if he was still alive. I can only imagine the emotional toll and turmoil my parents endured – but what a reunion!”
Her dad had been captured by the Allies in Italy and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp there. When he was released from the camp, he and a wounded buddy had to find their way home with no money, mostly on foot, at night, hiding by day. Even though the war was over, many people did not know and her dad was still in danger as a German soldier.
The reunited family must now find a place to begin again. Their legal residence was still in Berlin and they were required to register there. But Berlin had suffered devastation during the war and the family questioned if there would be anything to go back to.
“We had to separate once again while Dad went back to Berlin to see what he could find there for living quarters, work and some kind of future for us,” said Reini. “When he came back for us we had to stop at check points, staying in refugee centers for “processing” permits, ID cards, cursory physicals, de-lousing (DDT powder and sprayed), etc. Refugees in our own country. We tried to live a “normal” life. Rationing of everything was worse than ever. Armed Russian soldiers intimidated citizens, even without words.”
“My little brother was born in 1947 during one of the worst winters. There was not enough fuel to heat the apartment, so our days were spent in one room we could heat. We had no bathroom and little running water. Every evening, at peak usage hours, the electricity would shut off for 3-4 hours.”
Reini started school that year. Indoctrination in Communist dogma was mandatory – at least half of the curriculum. Songs, poems, everything glorified Communism. Attending church was strongly discouraged.
“You could not trust your friends or neighbors – anyone might betray you to the authorities. Children were interrogated as to what their parents read and spoke about; which radio stations they listened to, etc. It only takes a generation of such intense mind control to “convert” the population. Young people who have had no other education or teaching begin to espouse the popular ideology. The older generation had been thoroughly intimidated and was dying out. The war was over but our freedom was gone,” said Reini.
The Wehnerts left Germany in 1951. “Ours was not a “hounds-snapping-at-your-heels” escape, though I’m sure my dad felt that way at times. Since the political situation was rapidly deteriorating, my dad was certain there was worse to come. He quietly pursued any and every possible avenue to get us out of the country,” explained Reini.
They must pursue a new country in utmost secrecy, of course. As a young man Reini’s dad had always wanted to visit America but the wars made it impossible. He inquired at the American Embassy in Berlin but found the waiting list for American visas was at least 5 years long. On a tip from a trusted business associate, who was married to an English woman, Reini’s parents applied for work visas to England. After jumping through several more hoops, the paperwork was complete.
Reini’s story continues next week with her family’s move to England.