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Reflections of a Mennonite holocaust survivor after the war

a woman with bandage over her eyes,
and another hugging her from behind
Lindsay Nance & Mallory Parsons as Annie, 2005

[The stage is bare except for a screen showing images and video footage of war. Any and all war. The screen goes black]

Annie: I don’t know where to start.

When I came to Goshen College in '49 and we would talk about this, they could hardly believe that there would ever have been any Mennonites in the military. Here you have been very fortunate that you have had alternatives. But, in Europe there was no alternative service. There was nothing for conscientious objectors and it was hard for me to make them understand that. I would just say, “Now if you had no alternative at all, and in time of war… In time of peace you would be a prisoner. If you refuse to join you would be a criminal and thrown into prison. But in a time of war you are a deserter and shot. If you don’t follow what you are told to do. And so, would you be ready to die? How many of you, there, would have this conviction that would be so deep that you would be ready to die for it?”

I think that’s still a good question.

I don’t know. I guess you would have to be almost as idealistic – but in a very different sense – as the suicide bombers. For a cause…

I don’t know.

It was in the daytime, 1939, that the war was declared. September 1939. I was fourteen years old and the sun was shining.


Young Annie: The soldiers came to the house and told us that we should be out within two hours with whatever we could carry. We had some kind of a little cart which you pull and my father was pulling that, but you couldn’t put much on there. Just some clothes and things. Food. And we walked for, I think it was three days with what we could carry of our belongings to a station near Nancy. At night we slept in the fields where we were… the side of the road. It was fall and the fields were empty. Wheat and oat fields mostly, turnips and sugar beats, and meadows for grazing cattle, all harvested. Only dry stalks and dirt to sleep on. The whole village was evacuated, so we were not alone in this.

Annie: When we were on the way, walking, there was no way – nobody could go back.

Young Annie: All at once I started crying and I told my mother, “We forgot our jewelry box.”

Annie: I was fourteen years old and that was suddenly more important to me than anything else I was carrying, because I was always looking into the jewelry box and wanting to put those things on.

Young Annie: My mother’s things, you know.

Annie: Here Mennonites didn’t have jewelry, but in Europe we wore anything like anyone else. Jewelry and buttons, collars and what, but the jewelry box was gone, we had left it behind. It’s Strange, you know, What remains.

Young Annie: We got to a train station where we were loaded into Boxcars. It was one big thing with about forty-six people in each one. It moved slowly like a freight train so we spent one night in there, and a day, from Nancy to Saint Etienne.

At the refugee camp we were forty-eight people in one big hall with concrete floor. There was some straw for our beds, and we would lie side by side with all the other people. We had a few blankets, army blankets that were given to us, but nothing like pillows or anything like that. After a few days we had fleas everywhere and the straw was just moving when you looked at it, which kept us from sleeping at night.

Annie: For a fourteen-year-old, what I remember that was the worst part for me was one bathroom, which wasn’t a bathroom, just a toilet, for all forty-eight people.

Young Annie: Two boards set together with a hole in the center, and a tank of water above that was dripping all the time.

Annie: It was the only private place you had to change your clothes.

Young Annie: My brothers and my father had to work in factories, which was especially difficult for my father who had been a farmer all his life and he was already in his sixties. But, we made it through the year.

So we were refugees for a year, until France was defeated by the Germans. And then we could go back home, but we were under German occupation until the end of the war. My oldest brother didn’t return with us because he didn’t want to live under German occupation. He stayed in Saint Etienne and kept on working in the factory, and got married there.

Brother & Father

Annie: When we got home there had been bombing all around, and a lot of shells had been exploded around the house. The walls were full of holes and no doors. No windows.

Young Annie: Holes is our hardwood floors from fires that the military had made during the winter when they were cold. They had used our house.

Annie: Soon my brother was taken by the Germans. First into this Arbeitsdienst, which means… I don’t know how they translated that. Arbeitsdienst…

Young Annie: That was what came before the military for the younger ones and it was mostly to dig trenches and what all, things that the soldiers, you know… preparations for… for the soldiers.

Annie: That was in Northern Germany. But after a few months he got sick. I don’t know if he got sick on purpose, but they gave him a furlough.

Young Annie: A week or something. He came back and said that some of the others had already been sent to the Russian front and he was not going to be a German soldier. He also found out that there were others who felt the very same way, and that they wanted to go into hiding too.

Annie: You see, all of those, it was not because they were conscientious objectors. But they were certainly objectors to being German soldiers. Because we were born French, you know, and felt very French and –

Young Annie: – Anti-German.

Annie: So…

Young Annie: That was the main reason. Because in this whole village There was not a single Mennonite except us.

Annie: So it had nothing to do with Mennonites.

Young Annie: My father was concerned, telling us that probably something would happen to us if my brother would do that. That the Germans would…

Annie: And they did.

Young Annie: It was five in the morning. There was loud knocking on our door. So my father got up to open the door, and then all these SS came in, rushed into the house and searched the whole place, all over.

Annie: They even threw mattresses down from the beds, to be sure that my brother wasn’t hiding somewhere.

Young Annie: They looked in the cellar, in the attic, everywhere. When they didn’t find him, they took my father.

Annie: They took a hostage in every house where a young man had gone into hiding in the village. That was fourty-eight people.

Young Annie: They gathered them in the center of the village at the courthouse, and I went after them with my bike cause I wanted to see what would happen to my father. (They speak almost simultaneously. It should be smooth back and forth)

Annie: I had supported my brother –

Young Annie: I followed him –

Annie: With all my heart.

Young Annie: I followed this whole group.

Annie: There was no way that he –

Young Annie: The SS had like a little office there where they were taking the names of all the prisoners that they took.

Annie: That he should be a German soldier. But at the-

Young Annie: And I went up to one of them and I told him that-

Annie: At the moment, of course, when they took my father…

Young Annie: That they should take me and leave my father.

Annie: I felt very guilty.

Young Annie: They got pretty annoyed with me…

Annie: And that’s when I-

Young Annie: And they told me, well, they could take me too…

Annie: I followed him. I followed this whole group.

Young Annie: They could take me too, if I wanted to, but they wouldn’t release him.

Annie: I felt very guilty.

Young Annie: So, of course, I went back home.

Annie: I felt so guilty.

Young Annie: And then we never…

Annie: I had supported my brother.

Young Annie: We never heard where they had been taken to.

Annie: I had supported him.

Young Annie: We only guessed that he was in some military prison, and that he might come back soon. But that didn’t happen. And it wasn’t till after the war that we even heard about concentration camps. During the war we were like between two zones: we didn’t get the French news and we didn’t get the German news either. And the thing about concentration camps is that it was kept pretty… secret. Even among Germans.

And I believe that.

Annie: I believe that because we had good German friends who lived near a camp and they… they never knew… what was going on in that camp.

So it wasn’t till after the war, when he came home, that we knew what had happened to him and that he had been at Buchenwald.

Young Annie: So yeah.

Annie: It took him a long time to recover from that – what had happened to him.

Bread Winner

Young Annie: I had to give up my studies of course. That was the main thing. The home had been so damaged that things were not easy.

Annie: I was the breadwinner.

Young Annie: I mean for washing or for anything. We had no running water anymore.

Annie: I was working at the print shop…

Young Annie: It was difficult for my mother especially.

Annie: And then the tailor, and then the book keeping and at the farm.

Young Annie: She was not very healthy.

Annie: And then this job just after the war…

Young Annie: My youngest brother was in school all along;

Annie: In an office where the returning prisoners would report about where they had been interned and their names and all.

Young Annie: French schools, German schools and then french schools again.

Annie: Their identity.

Young Annie: So he has a different experience than what I have, in a way.

Annie: And that’s where my father came through… through that office.

See, after several months we never thought he would still come because most of the prisoners had already been back for a while. But my father, he was one of those few who survived, because out of the fourty-eight in our small village only three came back. The healthier prisoners had been taken by the fleeing Germans… To be shot. But my father…

Young Annie: He was very small when he came home. I didn’t recognize him. He had tried… in the camp, he ate everything. Even things that some people couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. But he cooperated completely. He wanted to come home.

Annie: I was only fifteen when I started working at all those places, but I kept on. My brother gave me all these books and I – I would say I was self-taught. I did a lot of reading. Which helped me to find life a little more worth living.


Young Annie: Towards the end of the war we had sixty SS in our home for six weeks. What happened was, at the beginning of the war the SS were the elite army of Hitler. They were chosen and were very dedicated to the Fuhrer, you know. But towards the end of the war they put more soldiers into the ranks so that they would have enough SS. So some of these people who talked to us were not really volunteers and they had different opinions. At least, one of them said that to my younger brother. Tried to explain that he was an SS not by choice but because they had put him in. I would say that towards our family, or me, they were not any worse than the Americans afterwards, when we had Americans with us.

But, of course, they didn’t treat us that kindly.

Annie: But, I mean, there wasn’t anybody who ever hurt us… except that they almost found out where my brother was… and that would have been…

Young Annie: Because I would go and see my brother. On my old bike. And after a while they noticed this pattern. I would be gone for two days. And they asked my mother “Where does your daughter go,” and so forth. And she said, “Well, she’s going to help some relatives.” Which was true. So one day when I took off on my bike they followed me in their jeep. And then they stopped me and they asked me where I was going, and I told them, and they said, “Well, if you have relatives there, we would like to see them too.”

So. My brother kind of knew I was coming, and up in the attic he had made himself a hiding place in an old chimney that was not in use. So he could see me coming and see this jeep coming with me. The SS surrounded the whole farm where he was hiding and they searched everything. And, you know, they came up in the attic and were standing right beside that chimney. But they didn’t find him. I mean, that was a miracle.

Annie: He would only say later that his heart was beating so hard, he knew they would hear it. You know, that’s what you think, because you think somebody’s going to hear your heart beating. That was a complete miracle. It was amazing that they wouldn’t have seen that there was something weird about that chimney. I don’t know exactly… I don’t remember exactly what he had done there, if he had made a little door or whatever to crawl into there, but that was a very close call.

But till the day of his death my brother never forgave himself wholly, because of my father. But what, you know…?

Young Annie: It was too late for him. If he had come out he would have been shot, because he was already viewed as a deserter, and anybody they found who had gone into hiding was shot.

Annie: We knew some of them. Some of the young men who were shot… when they found them.

Young Annie: We had a cousin, in Lorraine, two cousins, and they were both soldiers. One was in France and he died, but the other was conscripted by the Germans, like my brother, but did not go into hiding. He was sent to the Russian front and there he died anyway.

Annie: So my brother, he couldn’t do anything about it. It was terrible for him every day. Perhaps even more when he was in hiding because he couldn’t go anywhere. I had jobs, and I had work, and I had a lot to do and what all, so even though it was bad for the whole family, at least we could move around.

Allied Occupation

Annie: When the Germans moved out because the allies were coming closer, they wanted us to move out again and follow them. Which we didn’t do, fortunately. At least they didn’t force us to do that.

Young Annie: We lived in the cellar for three weeks with little food, but it was certainly better than… because we were right in the fighting zone, with planes and tanks and bombing and shooting all around us. Shells exploding, until one day we didn’t hear anything at all and we crawled out, and here there were these huge tanks all around our house. And these strange people crawling out of them too.

Annie: Americans.

Young Annie: Americans. And then we had the little reconnaissance planes around. There were about ten of them in our meadow there. So during that time we had American soldiers in our home. They took over the house too, like the Germans had done. With the Americans, the first ones that came behaved pretty well. But after that we had soldiers all around. Infantry. And some of those stayed longer around and they didn’t behave that well.

Annie: Especially not with women…

What I learned, I think is that soldiers are soldiers, and in a time of war, that the worst comes out. Perhaps because any day could be… they could be gone the next day. Perhaps because they are far from home and they are in enemy territory, and so they… they can do anything…

Young Annie: Anything…

Annie: And my brother… Soon after he came out of hiding to welcome the Americans, they… Because they could not communicate, they could not speak French, so they loaded him up to take him to a prison camp as a German collaborator. Which he wasn’t, of course, and eventually he escaped, but that was…

Living as close to the border as we did, and especially close to the fortification line (the Maginot line), there were several times, things happening, that we were almost killed… by allies. When they would come down with their planes, you know, like, just right, and one time with the machine guns they were… We were outside waving at them, and they… they started shooting. With their machine guns. We could hear the things on our roof and all around. We knew how to, you know, throw ourselves down and not budge any more. But, there were things like that that happened that – Which happens in wars now too. You know, the friendly fire. They don’t know any more if you are an enemy or if you are a friend. So they shoot. But at least none of us, I mean, we were never injured. Which was a good thing.


Young Annie: The tanks moved on, but the planes stayed.

Annie: And I just… I just never talked about it…

Young Annie: They would fly over every day to see how far the front was, and then come back. One of them came back with only one wing…

Annie: I guess it’s a little bit like with the soldiers who don’t talk about their experiences till…

Young Annie: Just barely made it.

Annie: Till they are almost dying and…

Young Annie: But we were so tuned to all these noises of planes, we knew exactly when we heard the noise of a plane if it was a German Stuka, or if it was an RAF plane.

Annie: All along I thought that it would be quite an experience to meet one of the GI’s who helped liberate Buchenwald. And I thought, you know, how could that ever happen? And when the fiftieth anniversary of the war came around there stories and a lot of talk about Normandy and all. All at once there was this story in our paper. A man from Elkhart who talked about the time when he was liberating a camp. And I could not believe it when I read the word Buchenwald. I mean, it was just overwhelming. And I called this man right away and we got together. With his wife. They came to our house.

He told us the whole story, first about the battle of the bulge, how he almost lost his legs. I think they were frozen. But then the way it happened at Buchenwald. The very first soldiers who – they were called the scouts, you know, they kind of hide and watch. When they should storm this camp or what. So he said they were the first ones to get there. And that it was such a shock. Such a shock to see what they found, because they found… these skeletons. People who all looked like skeletons. And some of them who were very ill, like my father, and could hardly move. But also that, in the process of taking the camp over, that they killed a few prisoners. And he said that has haunted him all along. He said the same thing about never having talked about it. And his wife was surprised even at what he told us there, some of the stories. So that… That was quite an event.

We kept in contact, and he died. Two years ago or what, but I still have contact with his wife.

You know, then you really have different… How should I say? It’s kind of a dilemma. I’m against war. I’m against sending the military. Because you tell them, “Go in and kill.” But at the same time, that example. My father… It was pretty sure he would have died within a day or two, and, you know, he wouldn’t have come back if it hadn’t been for Americans, for the allies to go in there. So then it becomes, you know, it gets… Is that a just war?

But what? Do you hold it against the Germans for the rest of your life? What do you do? And in the case of the Mennonites especially, because of the persecutions and all that had taken place earlier, they had taken farms wherever they could find them. Either side of the boarders.

Young Annie: So we had relatives in Germany too. And a sister of my mothers lived in Bonn with one daughter, who was a little older than I was. She was twenty when this happened, when Bonn was bombarded. They were both killed.

Annie: There was another family on the German side – relatives – where someone was killed too. And so, you have to come to the point where you say there is no way that you can ever condemn a whole nation. Because over there, on the other side, there are people like your relatives. And who have suffered a lot too. And you just can’t live with this… you have to have… And even people like Elie Wiesel who keep telling you, you have to remember, you can’t let go of all this memory.

Young Annie: The nights are always cold this time of year, but the days are warm. Rain sometimes, but not that day. When the soldiers came there was sun.

Annie: He and I talked about that once and, you know, I just told him, as far as I’m concerned there has to be forgiveness.

Young Annie: Bright sun. I remember that.

Annie: Or else, you know, it destroys you too.

Young Annie: The soldiers came to the house and told us that we should be out within two hours with whatever we could carry.

Annie: That’s been my experience. Which he doesn’t quite agree with…

Young Annie: It was in the daytime, but early - dawn, and we had some kind of a little cart, which you pull.

Annie: But anyway, so that’s another dimension to this…