Tales of a traveler

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The following is a story told to me recently by an American who lived with her mother and father in Salzburg, Germany after World War Two, where Shelly D’s father, a U.S. Army officer, was stationed with the Allied occupation forces.

The small wiry woman with barely a gray hair is 85. She is a hiker, a bicyclist and a world traveler. She said she had no claim to fame, but her teen years were “a bit unusual.”

In her words, here is her story, one that she admits to having told many times:

“Mother and I lived in Hagerstown, Maryland with my mother’s parents for four years during the war — ’42 to ’46. After it was over, my father sent for us, so we went to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and got on a U.S. Army transport ship. I was 15. We joined Father in Austria, in Salzburg, where he worked in a military tribunal interviewing low-level Nazis– he called it the ‘denazification effort.’ They were sorting out what to do with all those captured officers. He also was an officer in charge of a depot of reclaimed vehicle ordnance — jeeps, troop trucks — abandoned on battlefields and in towns and along country roads. It all needed to be repaired or scrapped or cannibalized.

“When we first came to Salzburg, Father showed us around and drove us to the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s hideaway 6,000 feet up in the Bavarian Alps. He said that by the time the Americans got there [at the end of the war], the French had taken everything of value. I don’t know that it was true because he was laughing when he said it. You go in through a tunnel and all kinds of store rooms, up the elevator and at the top it was just a big empty house. Everything was gone, the furniture, everything. The views were good, absolutely, huge picture windows with no glass left in them. It was very beautiful. I saw it then, in 1946, and I saw it in 1980 I think it was. Tourists go there now.

“Mother had a lot of Austrian friends in no time. One of them was a woman my mother admired; in fact Mother called her ‘formidable’ because she got her German doctor husband out of a British holding prison. He’d been drafted into the German army and captured by the Brits. He was not a Nazi. The doctor was telling my mother about a patient he had in Lambach outside Salzburg where we lived, who needed penicillin. The doctor said he had no way of getting more. So Mother went to the Army hospital and persuaded a young corpsman there to give her penicillin. She had a way about her. She was very good at persuading anybody to do anything.

“The other thing is that Americans are very soft-hearted. Veterans were sent home and the replacement troops did not have the animus against the enemy; they had no personal hands-on experience with the war. They just saw that the German people were down and out, so they helped them, often against Army regulations and so forth.

“We’d been there a year or so — I was in a high school, a boarding school for dependents, in Vienna — when Father gave Mother and me a trip to Prague for Easter. Our train came into Nuremberg, where we had a layover and had to put up at the Grand Hotel, across from the depot. This is where all the press of the world stayed while they were covering the Nuremburg trials, which had been going on since 1945 or ’46. The bigwigs were already disposed of. They had been tried and executed, or they were in jail or they had committed suicide. That spring of 1947 they were trying 10 or so doctors who had experimented on people in concentration camps, things to do with forced malnutrition or extremes of temperature, that kind of thing.

“My mother was talking to all of the press people in the lobby. They faked passes for us to the trials and she passed herself off as a correspondent. I was by then probably 16, and I don’t recall that I knew how important it was, it was just what was happening and we got to go. It’s hard to get into the mind of a 16-year-old girl, don’t you think? I certainly didn’t think at the time that Mother was performing any big feat. My mother was just my mother, acting like I’d always seen her act. She was well aware of what was going on. And she had no fear.

“The next morning we went to the trials. There were exhibits in the Palace of Justice in the hall outside the courtroom, I remember, some sort of gruesome things having to do with torture.

“It was more interesting to me that we were given headsets and told to push the button next to the language we wanted to hear. We did so and the man asking the question in German was translated instantly! Into our ears came our familiar language. The simultaneous translations going back and forth — English, German, Russian, French — it seemed like magic to me.

“I didn’t know this at first, but Mother had other things up her sleeve that trip.

“A German friend of my parents had lost track of her sister during the war but thought she was in Nuremberg with her child. The husband had deserted her. When the friend learned that Mother and I were going to be in Nuremberg she asked if Mother might look for the sister.

“Mother didn’t hesitate. She started calling around through connections in the Army and asking questions. On our first stop in Nuremberg, Mother already knew the whereabouts of the sick sister. Mother went to the hospital to talk to her. She was dying of tuberculosis. So then both Mother and I went to the farm where the little girl was being kept. The farmers wouldn’t let her go because they needed her ration book. Mother said, ‘I will be back.’

“On our return trip from Prague, Mother talked again to the woman in the hospital, sick nearly to death by then, and knowing she could do nothing for her my mother put into action her plan to return to the farm for the youngster.

“Mother commandeered a jeep — she just showed a soldier her Army I.D. as wife of an officer — and away we drove to knock on the door of the farmer and his wife. They didn’t want to release little Monica, but my mother just put her into a snowsuit and off we went. That surprised even me.

“The little Monica was only 6 years old. We had to smuggle her onto the train, I guess because we didn’t have a ticket, I’m not sure; or maybe Mother just said he was my little brother because we had to fool the MPs if they questioned us. The little girl didn’t know what was going on, and she sat there looking so frightened. Suddenly she started singing, in German. The American guard stuck his head in, perplexed, and Mother said, ‘Isn’t it just wonderful how they pick it up at this age?’

“The soldier smiled and left the compartment, and the three of us rode on to Salzburg, where the little girl was restored to her aunt. The mother soon died of TB, and my father, who learned about it all after the fact, just smiled at my mother.”

~~~~

Shelly and her family returned to the States in late 1948 and resumed their lives. Shelly was 17 and said she was by then so different from everyone else that she had no friends. She never did adjust, she said, and remained independent the rest of her life.

What stuck to her that is apparent 65 years later is the same spirit of intrepidness that was her mother’s.

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