In Memoriam: Charlotte Skoutajan 1911-2010
By The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan
It was 1945 and the war was over but there was still little peace to be found. True, the guns were silent, bombs stopped dropping from the sky but most of Europe lay in ruins. The skyline of many a city resembled rows of badly decayed teeth.
With the end of hostilities the people came out of the rubble like ants emerging from their tromped on hill, seeking food, family and peace.
For Lotte, my aunt who lived in a German city in Czechoslovakia, just south of Dresden, there was bad news. Her husband who had served in the German army had been killed by a sniper's bullet as the troops retreated through southern Austria. She was now alone with Frank, her infant son.
A second blow followed closely: all ethnic Germans, there were 3.5 million in Czechoslovakia, were to be expelled from the country where they had lived for more than 3 centuries. The Potsdam Agreement stated that it was to be done in a humane way, in heated trains but the process was as crude as crude could be They were forced to leave behind anything of value, cash, bank accounts, jewelry, radios, only clothes and a few personal possessions were allowed and often these were taken as they crossed the border, and not in heated trains but cattle cars, or if living close enough to the border, on foot. The elderly suffered terribly, many died en route. Nor was the receiving country in a welcoming mood. There was little food or accommodation available. The occupying powers, Russians or Americans, went from house to house and where there were spare rooms the refugees were relocated.
Lotte and her son Frank managed to board a crowded river barge on the Elbe. She recalled how fortunate they were that the weather was pleasant and they could sit outside rather than in the dingy interior of the boat that was used to carrying coal and freight. There was no food except what each of the passengers brought along. Buckets were put overboard to draw water for washing.
The current of the Elbe River increased as the river narrowed to wind through the beautiful sandstone mountains known as the Saxonian Alps that divided Germany from Czechoslovakia. After several days travel the barge approached Dresden where Lotte had been born and where her widowed father and sister lived, but the city did not resemble anything she remembered, scarcely a church steeple remained standing. The famous Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was a pile of rubble waiting for another 60 years before its reconstruction. The sun shone through the windows of the walls that were left standing. It was all terribly sad to behold.
Lotte wanted very much to disembark here and search out her family but was not permitted. The barge continued another two days and finally docked at what had been an army camp.
As the ragged, dirty and hungry passengers scrambled ashore they were heartened by the sight of the Red Cross flag flying from a standard in the midst of the encampment. Surely this was a sign of hope for a hope deprived people. The Red Cross personnel and other authorities registered them and located them in the huts, assigning them to straw pallets. There was food waiting, a large kettle of thin soup with the occasional potato floating about and some bread of questionable vintage but if it wasn't green you ate it.
Lotte, a real survivor, settled down with her child. Later that first night she felt itchy, as well, Frank began to whine with pain. It was lice. Soon the whole camp was in agony as the pests nourished themselves on fresh blood in exchange for typhus and diphtheria bugs. By morning most were suffering from dysentery. The toilets were insufficient for the demand, people headed for the fields. Lotte was a very healthy young woman and survived remarkably well while others sickened and many died. The whole camp was then powdered with some white substance and the people were bathed in each others water or in the Elbe River which was dirty and cold.
Lotte begged the authorities to let her return to Dresden. She filled out forms and listed "seamstress" as her profession. It was a skill very much in demand. Nevertheless she had to wait several weeks before she and some others were loaded on a truck and taken to the once beautiful baroque city. She found accommodation along with a lot of others in a school and had no trouble finding work repairing clothes. There was little pay, just enough to get a bit of food nor was there much food to be bought or bartered. Cigarettes became the common currency of great value.
In many places in the city there were bulletin boards covered with pictures and notes of people seeking relatives. She also visited them and posted her own name. And then one day among the crowd she saw a familiar face. She could scarcely recognize her emaciated father. They embraced like never before. Lotte and Frank then moved in with her father and Marianne, her sister. Their former home did not exist having been decimated in the infamous Dresden bombing four months before the war's end. They shared a tiny apartment with three other families.
Marianne soon left Dresden for the west, not an easy journey. It entailed crossing the dreaded Iron Curtain. She decided that the Soviet Zone held poor prospects for one with secretarial skills. She settled in Cologne, a city that had experienced much the same fate as Dresden although to a lesser extent. Indeed, the famous cathedral was left standing although most of the glass had been blasted out by shells and bombs that virtually leveled to nearby railway station.
Marianne managed to get a good job and for many years sent countless Care parcels and other useful gifts to Dresden. When Frank was old enough and West Germans were allowed to visit she arrived in a new Volkswagen which upon departure she left for him.
Conditions in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) improved over the years. There are some today who believe it was better then than now. Unemployment is still a big factor in Dresden. But the city was rebuilt, more modern but lacking the charm of the old. River steamers some belching black smoke still take tourists up and down the river. The rebuilt Semper Opera once again presents wonderful music and tourists from the west flock to the Zwinger Art Gallery.
Before the war Lotte and her family used to visit us each Christmas in Czechoslovakia. I recall that I could scarcely wait for their arrival. The two sisters were always lots of fun. I missed them greatly when we fled from the invading Nazis in 1938.
With the war over it was still 30 years before I could visit from Canada. Even then in 1968 the city still bore the marks of the holocaust of 1945. Lotte lived in an old house with another family. Frank trained to become a specialist in crane construction. Work was plentiful for him in the post war period.
At age 97 Lotte suffered a devastating stroke and a year later, three weeks ago, ended her earthly journey in a nursing home. Frank and family had attended her faithfully each day. The bond forged between her and her son during those desperate post war years was very much in evidence.
Lotte possessed an indomitable spirit. She loved people and was a great walker. She remained healthy all her life until that final stroke and died just short of her 99th birthday.
Three years ago we interviewed her for the documentary film, Hitler's German Foes, which is based on my book Uprooted and Transplanted. Filmed by Czech Television in both English and German it has been shown 6 times on the Canadian Learning Channel. I was really quite concerned how she would manage under the lights, cameras and microphones that had invaded her little seniors apartment in Dresden. However, she remained "cool" as she told the story of leaving Czechoslovakia on that river barge so many years ago.
I marvel at the spirit that sustained her through difficult times. Her love for family and friends and a generosity of spirit, dominated her almost hundred years of life.
I wrote the above story at the very time that a small group of family and friends gathered in the cemetery chapel to bid farewell to her body. I had hoped to be there with them but as it happened I was unable to make the trip in time. Far away in Canada I celebrated her infectious spirit. Yes, there is a Spirit alive even through the "best of times and worst of times." Seek it now!
2 April 2010 — Return to cover.