Patz family found refuge in America
(NOTE: Having a German heritage is common amongst Central Pennsylvanians. To their descendants of a dozen or more generations later, the experiences of their travels and settling in America have been lost over time. Through Erika Patz Hort, who at age 10 emigrated here with her family, insight is given to their plight and perils in comeing to Pennsylvania and their Montgomery home).
MONTGOMERY – Recording the saga of the Patz family’s escape from war torn Poland to their eventual forever home in America was encouraged by Erika (Patz) Hort’s pastor. Destined to be delivered to the congregation, Erika said, “It was 2003, when I gathered my siblings to recount events. As I was the youngest of seven children, I had not experienced everything they had.”
“I needed to start the story with a little background about my parents, mother Emma and father Julius. They lived in Poland in West Prussia, in the town of Lipno County of Lichtenremuke, later renamed Jasienremuke,” she said.
As Germans living in Poland, Erika said, “My siblings went to German speaking schools and the whole community was made up of German citizens. Mom and Dad owned a farm, had a farm hand and mother a Polish maid named Manka. Dad also operated a flour mill which eventually closed due to a decreasing business and a storm which washed away the mill’s overthrow.”
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Polish Army came to the Patz home early one August morning at 4 a.m. Father was told to get ready for he had to go with them, a part of two to three hundred German men rounded up for a 70-mile forced marched to a big hall.
On the way if the men fell behind or could not keep up, they were stabbed to death. “My mother’s brother lost his life on this march. My father stepped out of line and the Polish soldier kicked him in the side. Due to sore feet, my father got to the point where he could not walk fast, so two neighbors dragged him along and he made it to the hall.” Erika said.
Without food, the men were locked in the hall two or three days. It was the intention of the Polish Army to gas them, however, the German Army advanced faster than anticipated so plans were changed.
“In September, my mother got word she should send someone to pick up my father. My mother’s father went and Dad rejoined the family at 4 p.m. on September 19, just in time for the birth of my sister Gisela,” Erika said.
From then until 1945, the family lived on the farm with life being somewhat normal. Due to the constant fear of war, a lot of the German young men were drafted and made to serve in the Polish Army.
According to Erika, “World War II was drawing to a close, when in Jan. 1945, the Russians moved into the area where my parents lived and they had to flee. At 2 p.m. the alert came to leave in two hours or be captured and likely killed by the Russian army. However, they lingered until 8 p.m. as mother buried valuables like silverware and pictures near the house, hoping at some point they’d be back which never happened.”
For the journey, the mother baked bread, took dried fruit, gathered eggs and whatever was available to eat on the journey, enough for four weeks. They left cows, pigs and chickens behind putting out feed for about three days.
The father built a hut placing it on the farm wagon, lined it with straw and took feather beds so the children would have a place to sit and be warm. Put in the wagon for the horses were bales of hay and bags of oats. They then rounded up the children, took the wagon and two horses and moved toward West Germany.
Erika said, “My family left in mid winter on Jan 18, 1945 spending two and a half months on the road. Three families stuck together helping each other on the horrible trip. Refugees were everywhere on the icy roads, however the Patz family chose to navigated back roads as soldiers were on the main highways. Refugees were not permitted to mingle with soldiers.”
Food ran out after four weeks and brother Ben recalled once going five days without eating. The Mother kept half a loaf hidden which was frozen when brought out. Ben chopped away at it with a knife and everyone got a piece.
It was about this time they came into an army camp and were given hot soup with some meat in it. They all ate and became sick due to days without food. After that, there seemed to be enough food to sustain life.
Brother Egon recalled their mother telling him she would go to the army camp in search of food. After stepping over hundreds of sleeping soldiers she reached the mess hall. After telling them she had seven children, they’d always give her food. Father sometimes left the wagons returning with a bucket of soup provided by Germans for refugees.
On the trip, they slept on the wagon, in barns, schools, or big buildings provided by German people who lived in Poland. German farmers provided barns given for sleeping including shelter for the horses. In barns, farmers kept sheep in one end and allowed people to sleep in the other on the straw covered ground.
BROTHER SEPARATED FROM FAMILY
At one point, Mr. Patz walked to the nearest town seeking a part for the wagon. While away, the line of refugees started to move so his wife had no choice but move with them. Eleven-year-old Ben walked toward the town where his dad had gone but could not find him, for in the meantime he’d come back to the wagon. Ben became frightened but caught up with the family by walking fast.
Brother Ben recalled having crossed the ice-covered high banks of the Weikzel River. The horses were nearly worn out as they was not enough food for them. Ben and his eldest brother Adelwin along with other boys, pushed the wagon up the riverbank and made it to the other side. Ben said the saddest thing he’d never forget was seeing horses and cows laying along the road, some dead and others dying.
Erika said, “When the journey began, my brother Ozzie was a year old and had started to walk and talk. However, on the journey he got sick as there was no milk or food for a baby. I remember mother telling me she had prayed daily that God would take him for he cried all the time and was skin and bones by the time they settled in Germany. It took him two years to recover and then he had to learn to walk and talk all over again.”
Sister Nellie got lice so bad that her head became infected. When coming to a town, mother was able to get a mixture. Because it burned, Nellie screamed, but eventually the lice were killed.
(Next week – Selling the horses, taking the train, relocating to Weste Sunderberg. Spring came and in July, 1945, our storyteller was born.)