It’s dreadful to experience war, but how much worse for children.
While interviewing WWII vets over a period of several years, I heard stories of children and teens who had survived in Europe and were now adults living in America. In 2019 I compiled their stories for a different type of book, no less exciting than the veterans’ tales, in fact more so considering these children often endured such horrendous circumstances as homelessness and separation from family. The book, It Was Our War Too: Youth in the Shadows of WWII, includes stories from East Prussia (below), Germany, England, France, Hungary, Romania, Belgium and Australia. The book is also available as an Ebook.
This excerpt tells about a relatively unknown occurrence during the war that resulted in the world’s worst maritime disaster.
In the dark hours of January 19, 1945, a rumble was heard outside the village of Mehlsack in East Prussia. For months nine-year-old Johannes Klaffke, his six siblings and mother Anna had huddled inside their home, wondering who would reach their village first — the Allies advancing from the west or Russians from the east. No matter who, the damage they would inflict was not to be underestimated.
During air raids over the past several months, the Klaffkes and their neighbors had watched in stunned disbelief as homes, businesses and other buildings, including the school where the Klaffke children attended, were destroyed.
Now, Johannes knew something even more sinister was approaching. The noise increased to a menacing growl as whatever it was neared the homes and businesses of Mehlsack. Suddenly an explosion ripped through the Klaffke’s kitchen wall. Shards of glass from the window flew in all directions as the Klaffkes, clutching each other, cried out in fear. A Russian cannon ball landed in their midst.
The enemy had arrived.
Up to that time, Johannes’ childhood had been peaceful. Even when Adolph Hitler took over Germany in 1933, Johannes’ parents had not agreed with his punishment of Jews, special needs groups and gypsies, but caring for their 11 children had taken precedence over worrying about politics.
When Johannes’ father, Albert, died in 1937, family members helped Anna and her children tend their farm, providing food and supplies. “Mother said she was glad Father was dead because he probably would have been thrown into prison for speaking out against Hitler,” said Johannes.
After the attack on their home, Anna and her seven youngest children hurriedly packed their bags.
Note: At the time four of the older Klaffke children lived away from home.
They would head west, joining an estimated five million displaced Germans seeking refuge wherever it could be found.
For the next couple of weeks, the Klaffkes trudged wearily through towns, sleeping wherever they could, eating little and relying on the kindnesses of strangers to survive.
At the Baltic Sea they crossed a frozen lagoon along with thousands of other refugees. In some places the ice became brittle, due to the weight of bodies. “Wagons broke through and I saw many people drown,” said Johannes.
The Death March took its toll. “We were all so cold and hungry,” he said. “Mothers with babies had no breast milk to feed them and the babies died. The mothers threw the little bodies on wagons to be buried in a mass grave.”
When Russian planes fired on the group from overhead, thousands of people fell, their dead bodies soon freezing.
In late January 1945, the Klaffkes tried to obtain tickets to head west on the Gustloff, a luxury ship belonging to Hitler. The ship had launched in 1938 and during the war, it served as a hospital, then barracks for soldiers. To the thousands of exhausted refugees who clamored to board the vessel it shone like a beacon of hope.
When the Klaffkes were not able to purchase tickets, Anna, a deeply religious woman, prayed for her family’s safety as they watched the Gustloff and its approximately 9,000 passengers disembark, heading west.
The next morning, however, the Klaffkes and others in the port were horrified to learn of the demise of the passengers. Nine hours after leaving port, the Gustloff had been torpedoed by Russian submarines. Only 996 of the original passengers survived the explosion and the ship’s sinking into the cold water. To date, the attack on the Gustloff is considered the worst maritime disaster in world history.
Johannes and his family endured more days of no food or place to sleep before eventually making it to a relative’s home. He later married a German woman and they emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s.
Six years later, they were sworn in as American citizens. Johannes and Marianne Klaffke became parents to four children. They established careers as a cabinet maker and business owner (Johannes) and teacher (Marianne).
The Klaffkes are still active with their community and church in Indiana. “When we took our citizenship tests, we vowed not to be a burden to the American government,” said Johannes. “We’re glad we can vote and that it counts.”
The entire story of Johannes Klaffke’s escape from danger is told in It Was Our War Too: Youth in the Shadows of WWII.