Anita Dittman was a young Jewish teen (who was also a believer in Christ) in Germany during WWII. In this story below, Anita shares from her experience while a prisoner to the Nazis. Today, at 85, Anita still talks to people about those years. The following story took place in early 1945.
All of us were amazed that so many of these camps dotted the German countryside. Hardly anyone in Germany could know the extent of the Nazis’ extermination system. -Anita Dittman
By Anita Dittman with Jan Markell
We should think about making a run for it,” Hella said as we sat waiting for the dawn. “The guards are so scared will they care if a few of us are missing?”
“Hella is right,” Uschi chimed in. It was true that our ranks had dwindled in recent weeks. Anders and his men had little time to worry about a few runaway prisoners among hundreds.
“We’ll pray for the right opportunity,” I said to Uschi, Hella. “When it arises, we’ll know it!”
No one moved from her mattress all night as the clock ticked away slowly. The imaginations of all the women—whose emotions had admittedly been stretched to a breaking point—ran away with them.
But toward morning the guards burst into our quarters and gave us just three minutes to gather our few possessions and line up in the center of camp. Confusion grew to pandemonium as the impatient guards shouted their orders. They organized the men in one section of the camp and the women in the other. Every now and then in the early-morning darkness, mortar from a Russian tank lit up the distant sky. The approaching army had two faces, depending on how we wanted to interpret propaganda.
As we shivered in the morning cold, three huge horse carts drove up out of nowhere. The women were ordered to climb in. I saw it as a gift from God; I could never have marched with my leg. But as we women climbed on, we noticed that the men appeared to be staying behind in the camp.
Uschi was frantic as she sat beside me, seeing that she and Helmut would be separated.
“Helmut will be killed!” she cried as Hella and I tried to comfort her. She strained her eyes in the blackness to see Helmut as another twenty-five women piled onto our cart. Our friends Trautel Lindberg and Ursel Engel climbed on and sat next to us.
“Trust God for him, Uschi,” I pleaded with her as the guards hurried us. “He is the only hope any of us have. Helmut will be all right.”
“It is easy for you to say, Anita!”
The drivers of our horse carts were Polish prisoners of war who had served as slave laborers for the nearby German farmers. Our driver was a young Pole with hair almost as dark as the night. At the command of a guard, he gave the horse a slap, and we quickly headed out of camp toward the cobblestone road. I listened to the pitiful cries of the married women who were being separated from their husbands. The men prisoners grew smaller in the distance as our horse cart bounced over deep ruts in the road. As we rode away I strained for a glimpse of Gunther or Christian, but all the men’s faces had become indistinct.
Behind our three horse carts, each loaded with dozens of frightened women, were only two guards—on bicycles! They presented an absurdly comic scene as they tried to pedal their bikes in the snow and keep up with the carts. They rode and fell, rode and fell, before they found their balance.
“This whole situation is just made for an escape,” I whispered to Uschi, Hella, Trautel, and Ursel. “Those two guards can’t possibly keep track of all of us.”
“When should we do it?” Uschi asked, the tears still glistening on her cheeks.
“Not now,” I answered as the others looked to me for direction. “God must show us the perfect time. We can’t do it a minute before that.”
“But how will we know when that is?” Hella asked.
“I’ll know, Hella,” I said.
Most of the women on the horse carts stared blankly into the air. Cold and frightened, many had forgotten how to hope. And those who had been with their husbands were struggling with their sudden separation.
“Uschi, do you still have those cigarettes?” I asked with a scheme in mind.
“Somehow I want to bribe our Polish driver,” I said softly. “Do you have any money? Just a small amount?”
Uschi had been well-to-do before her internment, but it was Hella who pulled out a bill of twenty marks and showed it to us.
“Good,” I said. “When the time is right let me do the talking.”
“Anita, it will never work!” Hella insisted. “Cigarettes and money aren’t enough. We will be shot if he’s caught.”
After we had traveled several hours, the gunfire grew faint in the distance. Along our journey we passed a small train station, and a few miles later we arrived at our new home. Treacherous-looking barbed-wire fences circled the camp, with huge, ugly barracks in the center. It almost appeared to be a deserted death camp. All of us were amazed that so many of these camps dotted the German countryside. Hardly anyone in Germany could know the extent of the Nazis’ extermination system.
The huge entrance gate swung open, and two of the horse carts moved inside the camp. Ours remained outside for a moment as the two guards chatted together.
“Your plan is crazy!” Ursel said to me. “Trautel, Uschi, and I are going to make a run for it through the woods. You and Hella come with us.”
“I can’t. My leg will never carry me.”
“I’m staying with Anita,” Hella insisted.
As the two guards continued to confer inside the gate, Trautel, Uschi, and Ursel jumped down from the cart and dashed into the nearby woods. The other women looked on silently, too numb and frightened to react, and certainly not daring enough to join them. As we watched them leap through mounds of snow, we held our breath hoping that the guards would not see them. In less than a minute they had disappeared into the thick cover of the woods. Hella and I looked at each other and breathed a noticeable sigh of relief as the woods swallowed them up.
Finally the two guards separated and one came our way.
“What should we do now?” Hella whispered desperately.
“It’s now or never!”
“I need two of you to go and pick up some things for the camp,” the guard commanded.
I spoke up instantly. “Hella and I will go, sir.”
“The rest of you get down then. Into the camp immediately! Driver, take these two to the factory down the street and make sure they get these supplies.” He handed our Polish driver a list of items. “I will join you in just a moment.”
Our hearts raced with excitement as we saw God set up the perfect escape. Now if we could only bribe the Polish driver!
“Hurry up now!” the guard commanded one last time.
When the last woman got off the cart, the driver headed down the country road toward a small factory. Hella and I moved up nearer to him.
“To the train station,” I begged as I flashed the cigarettes and the money in front of his eyes. “We beg you, take us there immediately!”
Only God could carry out this impossible plan. What was in it for the driver except a little money, the cigarettes, and probably severe punishment? But an amused smile came over his face, and he slapped the horse with a makeshift whip. Hella and I nearly fell to the floor of the cart as the horse lunged full speed ahead. The driver slipped the cigarettes and the money into his pocket without saying a word. A look of delight was on his face. Maybe he was too dumb to realize what he was doing. Then again, maybe God had given us an angel as our driver!
“Do you remember where the railroad station is?” I asked him.
He nodded his head. Hella and I clung to the horse cart as we bounced frantically along. The camp grew small in the distance until it was out of sight.
“This time we will make it, Hella!” I said confidently. “God would not give us the perfect escape opportunity only to let us get caught again.”
The warmth of the midmorning sun could hardly penetrate the cold air and wind that blew in our faces. But it didn’t matter; the prospect of our freedom stirred up a warmth of its own within us.
Since the railroad station was only minutes from the camp, it came into view quickly. From the horse cart we saw about a dozen villagers roaming about the area and several more inside the station.
In the train yard stood a long freight train consisting almost entirely of flatcars. On each flatcar sat an army tank. Several German soldiers seemed to be inspecting the train as they walked alongside it balancing their giant rifles.
“Stop here,” I begged the driver again as we came within several yards of the train and the station. Hella and I climbed down from the cart, and my leg burned with pain as I accidentally landed on it. It was as though God was reminding me that He had allowed us to flee to the railroad station by horse cart rather than on foot just so I wouldn’t have to hike on my swollen leg.
The Polish driver quickly turned the cart around and left. How incredible it was that God had sent us such a driver to carry us one step further in our attempt at freedom! He had asked for so little, and he surely risked his life. His eyes had sparkled as he caught a glimpse of the excitement on our faces. As he headed down the road leading away from the train station, he turned and waved goodbye. Hella and I wondered what kind of fate lay ahead for this angel in disguise.
While we stood at a distance watching the activity at the train station, we heard footsteps coming up behind us. Hella and I turned around and saw Uschi, Ursel, and Trautel come out of the woods and head for us! God had timed their arrival at the train station perfectly. Surely He was at the very center of this whole escape plan.
Uschi, Ursel, and Trautel listened in disbelief as Hella and I told them about our horse-cart driver.
“We must look like fleeing villagers now,” I said to the others. “I’m going to ask one of those soldiers if we can ride the freight train out of here. It is too dangerous to wait for another train. You let me do the talking.”
“Anita, they will never let us ride on that train!” Hella said.
“It’s worth a try. Trust me.”
As we casually walked toward the train station, we tried to control any unusual fear that might be on our faces. Certainly, we were allowed some fear, since the Russian artillery could be heard again in the distance. But extreme panic might give us away.
I walked directly toward a handsome soldier who stood alongside a flatcar loaded with a demolished tank. He gave me a broad smile as he saw me approach.
“My friends and I are dreadfully afraid of the Russians,” I said to the soldier. “Would you allow us to ride your train out of here?”
“You want to ride inside a demolished Russian tank, kid?” he asked. “It would be a long, cold ride to our next stop.”
“It’s all right with us, sir. We would rather do that than be captured by the Reds.”
The soldier seemed amused at the prospect of sharing a tank ride with five girls.
“Let me check with my commanding officer, then,” he replied as he walked toward the train station. “If he agrees, it’s all right with me.”
The soldier walked inside the station while the girls stood a few yards away, nervously surveying the situation. Moments later he returned, a broad grin on his face.
“He says you can ride with me,” the soldier announced. “My name is Waldemar Stricker. What is your name?”
“I am Anita, and those are my good friends.” I turned and waved at the girls to come over. “They are Uschi, Hella, Ursel, and Trautel. Our families fled the village here a week ago, and we’re hoping to join them in Sorau.”
Fear of the invading Russian army had inspired this fabrication. In less than three months I would know how well-founded these fears were. But God was already preparing my deliverance—beginning with the blister on my heel.
“Well, climb in this tank, then, I’ll help you up. We go right through Sorau.”
I nearly forgot about the constant pain in my leg as our freedom drew closer and closer. Waldemar lifted the five of us onto the tank and then lowered us down into its crowded compartment. We sat close together so that we could all fit into the space designed for about three people. Then Waldemar dropped down inside the tank and squeezed into the center of the five of us. We all wanted to burst into laughter over the absurdity of the moment and over the tension of the escape plan. Moments later a whistle blew and the train inched forward. The five of us tried to fight back any tears that might give us away.
“Would you like some sandwiches?” Waldemar asked.
Our eyes lit up! “Oh, Waldemar, God bless you!” I exclaimed.
“Are you a believer?” he asked me as he reached into a bag for some food.
“So am I!” he exclaimed.
Oh, how good God is! Could He have sent us another angel in disguise? I wanted to hit Waldemar with a round of questions: How could he support a cause that exterminated Jews if he was a believer? How could he serve the devil Hitler? How could he kill innocent people by supporting the cause of this awful war?
As we slowly glided along the countryside, another soldier opened the tank’s hatch door and lowered himself down.
“I brought some hot tea,” he announced with a smile, obviously amused at the idea of girls riding in the tank.
Introduced as Klaus, he managed to find just enough room so that we all could fit in snugly. No suspicion was in the soldiers’ eyes as we laughed about our predicament. Rather, they were gracious and kind, and appreciative of having company for the lengthy ride to Sorau. . . .
I wanted to talk about the war, but it was too risky. Waldemar and Klaus would have the inside story, I was sure. Klaus was not a believer and seemed nervous whenever I mentioned God’s protection over me. So instead we asked all about the two soldiers and learned that they were among the few lucky ones to return from the Russian battlefront. They told of the tragedy of the war there, how thousands of German soldiers had frozen to death on their way to Moscow.
The German war strategists had planned on a swift victory during the summer months of 1941. Instead they ran head-on into a stubborn Red army that caused the battle to be dragged on into the winter. German men and machines froze that winter while the Russian army was prepared for the winter onslaught. It had been a drastic and fatal miscalculation on the part of the Germans, just as my mother had thought.
Our tank had dozens of shell holes in the top; as the snow began to fall, the large flakes landed on us. Nevertheless, exhaustion overtook us, and we leaned on the soldiers’ broad shoulders and fell asleep. However, we had instructed them to awaken us at Sorau.
Sometime later the jerking of the train awakened me. Looking out the shell holes, I could see it was pitch dark.
“Where are we?” I asked sleepily.
“About forty miles from Berlin,” Waldemar replied. I realized Sorau had come and gone and we hadn’t stopped.
“Why didn’t you let us off at Sorau?” I asked, sounding very irritated.
“My dear little friend,” Waldemar said. “I just wanted to protect you. My little radio here informed us that the Russians were about to launch a major attack on Sorau. We sped rapidly through the town. There was no time to stop and you certainly could not have jumped from a moving train.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought of Father. He loved to remind me how peaceful Sorau was—so peaceful he didn’t need God. I wondered if the present circumstances would make him cry out for God’s mercy.
“We are going to get out here for a short break,” Waldemar announced. “We are at a little train station where we can use the washroom and get a few rations.”
The pain in my leg had intensified, and I didn’t know how I would ever climb out of the clumsy Russian tank. But Waldemar and Klaus gently lifted all of us out of the hatch.
“I’m not sure I can walk on my leg,” I said to the soldiers as I rolled up my pant leg. My leg was twice its normal size.
“What happened?” Waldemar asked.
“It started out as a blister and got infected from dirt. It has been getting worse for some time.”
“You must get help for it,” Waldemar said as he leaned down to examine the ugly blue color of my leg. “You will lose the leg if you don’t get some help.”
Waldemar lifted me up and carried me to the ladies’ room. Then he gave me a clean toothbrush, some toothpaste, a bar of soap, and a clean towel. What luxuries! Klaus gave Hella similar items. After we’d been delivered to the ladies’ room, we stood inside and giggled over the absurdity of our situation.
“I think they’re guardian angels!” I told the others. “God has sent them to carry us to freedom, I just know it.”
“Anita, what should we do?” Hella asked. “We can’t go into Berlin! It’s just a shell of a city, and it’s too dangerous. We don’t want to go into any city that is being hit from the air.” . . .
When we came out of the bathroom, Waldemar and Klaus were waiting with what looked to be starvation rations for a soldier. They’d gotten only some hot tea, rolls with butter, and two eggs. Even so they graciously shared everything with us. Waldemar insisted that I eat one of the eggs to give me strength. While we ate, he put his protective arm around me again.
“Waldemar ,” I said sadly, “since we could not get out at Sorau and find our families, we have decided to go to Bautzen and Rostock. Can you help us get there?”
A pensive look came over both the soldiers’ faces. Our company had obviously been a high spot in their army career.
“I am sad to see you go, little one,” Waldemar replied. “I had hoped our friendship would be a long one.”
“But we must find our families, Waldemar,” I said. “You understand that, don’t you? We have no one in Berlin. Trautel has friends in Rostock, and Uschi has relatives in Bautzen.” . . .
“Well, all right then,” Waldemar agreed. “Our next stop is Furstenwalde, a suburb of Berlin. The two of you can catch a train directly to Rostock. Anita, you and the others will have to take a train from Furstenwalde to Dresden and then change trains for Bautzen. Plan on a long wait at each station. Trains don’t run on time, you know. The Allies have hit a lot of our railroads. Come now, we must get back into our sardine can.”
Waldemar and Klaus lifted us back into the tank and we rode quietly for another twenty miles. . . .
A few moments later the freight train rolled to a stop at Furstenwalde, and Waldemar and Klaus lifted us out again.
“They were wonderful!” Hella exclaimed about Klaus and Waldemar as the train sped out of sight. “I think Anita is right when she talks about angels.” . . .
It was midmorning when the train for Rostock arrived, and we bade Ursel and Trautel goodbye. Uschi, Hella, and I had to wait nearly six hours for a train to Dresden, and it was nearly dark outside by the time we boarded. I leaned back in the dirty, overcrowded train and tried to bask in my newfound freedom. . . .
[I]t seemed right to go to Bautzen, which just maybe the war had avoided. Also, I knew that my throbbing leg desperately needed medical attention.
Sometime after midnight we arrived at a train station in a suburb of Dresden called Arnsbach. It was Monday, February 12, 1945. For a while we sat sleepily in the train station, waiting for our connection to Bautzen. Suddenly the air-raid sirens began to wail, and panicking people began to scurry toward the shelter beneath the station. Hella and Uschi headed there, too, but I knew my leg could not carry me down the endless flight of stairs. Hella and Uschi looked at me in horror as they realized that I was staying behind.
“I can’t make it!” I told them. “You go without me. Go, I beg you. Don’t worry about me!”
Their faces were contorted with fear and worry over me; but as we heard the first bomb scream through the air, they turned and dashed toward the shelter.
I ran into the street, thinking it might be safer if I wasn’t inside a building. All too often people were entombed in buildings when the walls fell in. As I looked up I saw dozens of bombers streaming across the sky, and then I heard the sickening sound of whistling bombs falling through the air. Finally they hit their targets, and the earth around me went into convulsions.
“Dear God,” I pleaded, “I can pass through this safely only with Your help.”
Suddenly giant flames appeared everywhere, and Dresden turned into a bright orange glow. And like thunder after lightning came the deafening reports of the bombs. Monstrous fireworks buried uncounted thousands of Germans. I was in the middle of Dresden’s famous fire storm, produced by the rush of air from the intense heat. Huge columns of smoke blanked out the stars and moon.
From out of nowhere streamed hundreds of dazed residents. Many had mutilated bodies and wept with pain and grief. Terrified children roamed the area looking for their parents.
I buried my head in my hands and wept for Germany and her tortured people. How could I live with this memory the rest of my life? How I longed to scoop all of Dresden’s suffering humanity into my arms and tell them about Jesus’ saving power. For so many it was too late, but some were now before the mouth of hell, and I felt sure they would listen.
After what seemed like only moments the bombs stopped falling. An eerie hush fell over the burning city. It was the hush of death, broken only by the faint cries of her trapped and dying. More than 135,000 perished in the raid.
The train station had escaped a direct hit, and its frightened occupants scurried to the surface when the all-clear siren wailed. When Hella and Uschi surveyed the destruction all around us, they couldn’t believe that we had survived. Neither could they believe that I had stood unharmed in the center of the street as buildings fell all around me.
“I have a great big God,” I told them. “For some reason He wants me alive. It is the only explanation.”
Ambulance sirens wailed for hours that night as Germany tried to bandage her wounded and dying. Since the train station was one of dozens of makeshift hospitals, we watched the wounded being carried in. Hundreds of victims were attended to by a handful of doctors and nurses who had survived the fire storm.
The suffering of the innocent because of man’s inability to keep peace on earth will always be engraved on my mind.
(condensed fromchapter 13, “Escape” of Trapped in Hitler’s Hell by Anita Dittman with Jan Markell).