This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values (ColumbiaFAVS.com).
Hans Neumann was raised in a small, forested village in East Prussia, just five miles from the Lithuanian border. He was forced to leave his home at the age of 15, near the end of World War II. Germany was losing, and Russian troops were moving west.
Neumann’s family was one of the last to leave their small village. They left everything at home and traveled west, spending two days traveling across the frozen Bay of the Baltic Sea. Eventually, Neumann’s family arrived near Kiel, where he worked for eight years as a farm laborer. In 1952, he decided to try his luck in the United States. He secured a job near Mexico, Mo., where he has lived for the past 60 years.
He recently spoke at the Missouri Military Academy as part of Holocaust Remembrance Week – he shared his perspective, as a former member of the Hitler Youth. Columbia Faith & Values sat down with him to hear his story.
Listen to the full interview here, or read the transcript below.
Q: Thank you for joining me. Why are you here today?
A: The academy asked me to come speak to them about my “Journey to Freedom.” We fled from our hometown in Germany, from East Prussia, and just ahead of the Russian army. So we left our home and horse and wagon for 500 miles west, in the winter cold. The Russian army was very cruel on the German people. German, when they were in Russia, they did just as bad. But, the Russian army did more. So nobody stayed in our village. Men and women were killed. Women anywhere from ages 12 to 80 were raped, gang raped. And the young men they kept to drive our livestock back to Russia. So we just headed west. And 500 miles with horse and wagon and we left everything at home. All we took is food for us and for horses, oats and sheep skin blankets and clothes for us. Only cooking you did, most of the times you ate it cold, or in the evenings we built a fire and whatever we had we cooked and that was it.
Q: Can you describe what it was like to be in Hitler Youth?
A: When you were 10 years of age, you had to join the Hitler youth. And I think then when you were 12 you had to join the Hitler Youth. The Hitler Youth, we didn’t realize then. Actually, I enjoyed it. We marched and we sang, and we had activities, sports and everything. We had a good time. But I didn’t realize as a child that he had indoctrinated me. And also we had to go to leadership camp we were set up just like the armies here. You had a platoon, you had a company, you had a battalion. We were set up the same way. And leadership camp the cadres were wounded SS officers in World War II. And they were hard on us kids, strict and pretty cruel. But still you did not realize it. You were not a sissy; you had a good time, yes.
Q: Was there a moment when you realized what was really happening in Germany?
A: I was 15 years of age, so you don’t think that much about it. My parents, I am sure, thought. My sister worked for a Jewish family. She went back Monday morning and she came home and the Jewish family was gone.
I think they knew but we knew what happened. I think my parents knew what happened. But everyone was afraid to say something. It’s just like laws were so strict. If you would have been in the German army and you wife sent you a package of cigarettes or a package of cookies and I had been the mail carrier and I stole it, well the penalty was death. And it wasn’t six months or six years from now it was the next day. You were gone. And there’s nothing else. Everyone was afraid to say anything. Also you didn’t know if your neighbor was against Hitler or for Hitler. You didn’t know that. You could not listen to foreign broadcasts. A neighbor got caught, a good friend of ours, you know it’s a small village. And he got caught listening to foreign broadcasts. And they took him and he was gone for six months and he never would tell my dad what happened, really. It was that strict.
Q: I am interested to hear more about your parents. Talk about your father and was he involved in anything?
A: My dad was not. He had a small farm. He was the mayor in a little village. He was on the school board. He worked for the German government in the forest. He was the paymaster of the lumberjacks. So politics in the small community, we didn’t have much politics, you know. So he never was involved nothing.
I lived right next to the Polish and Lithuanian borders and so we had a lot of forests. And the forest was full of tanks German army and everything. The morning when the war broke out, me and my dad went up on a hill top and he cried. My dad, I never saw him cry in his life. He was a good man, but he was hard. Crying would have been bad, sissy more. He cried, and he said look how many young people are going to get killed now. And this is what happened.
OK, we lived right at that triangle of Lithuania, Poland and Germany. So when the war broke out with Poland that’s when the army was there. And then the next time the war broke out with Russia it was the same way. The forest was all full of tanks and German soldiers and everything, yes.
Q: Can you describe the journey you took after you left your home?
A: When we left our home we turned all the livestock loose, opened all the doors, turned it loose. And Dad only shot the dogs and let everything else go. So and then we just took the wagon, and two horses and we headed west. Russian troops were going west and driving west up north, so the only chance we had was to go over the ice was the Bay of the Baltic Sea. So for two days and one night we went across the ice. On the ice you couldn’t build a fire, you ate cold meat and cold bread. Also it was pretty hard going to the bathroom on the ice, but we survived. Only thing is our feet froze pretty bad. There was some water on the ice, which was why so many people broke through. Ten thousand people drowned there.
Q: How were you received when you traveled?
A: We were the last people that left. Our village was already empty, there were only three families. So were actually the last people in the wagon train. So if the wagon in front of us stopped, we stopped. So the village where we came through the people were already gone. You might look and find a chicken or whatever to eat and you took. We didn’t really see any people until maybe 250 or 300 miles. Then we saw German people. But then for awhile we didn’t see anything, it was just our wagon train that’s all that was.
Q: What happened after you ended your journey?
A: When we went to the western part, finally we ended up around Kiel. Just like if half of the United States goes to the other half, there’d be no jobs. You got twice the population. You cannot get any jobs. So I worked eight years on a farm. First, I had a fellow I knew who was in an office in Argentina. So I went to an office in Kiel and I paid either $20 or $50 and I was going to go to Argentina. I came back a week later and my money was gone and the office was gone. So then I tried for United States.
So I had to go one week in an American camp and have them check me and make sure I wasn’t a blooming idiot or a Nazi, or this or that. And then they have to have a sponsor here in the United States, and he had to guarantee me a job for two years, and that was in Molino, Mo. Molino, Mo., is a little town north of Mexico, not even a town but about 50 people, 70 people. I bought myself a map in Germany. I knew I was coming to a town in Missouri, a town named Molino. But I never did find Molino on the map. So all I knew was I was coming to Missouri.
Q: Are there other people that came to Missouri like you?
A: Not that I know. We are scattered all over the United States. We landed in New Orleans and were given a regular ticket to wherever it was to. And they gave us a $50 and that was pretty close to it. I bought myself a map in New Orleans. If we had to go on the train I was afraid we’d miss it. We had to change trains in Jackson, Miss. And I was afraid I missed Mexico, Mo. So I bought myself a map and didn’t go to sleep all the way, so as then to miss Mexico, Mo. And I never saw the people; I never saw their face until I was there at the railway station here.
Q: Could you talk a bit about how you were drafted and went back to Germany?
A: I came over in ’52, and then in 1954 I got drafted. I was still a German citizen. In civilian life you have to wait five years to get your citizenship papers. So when I got there I was a German citizen. So I went to the Second Armored Division in Kentucky. And so I got my citizenship papers after two years in Louisville, Ken. I was in the Second Armored Division of the Cold War, the Korean War. So I shipped back to Germany. I was stationed in Germany as a tank driver, but I also did a lot of translating for Court Marshalls since I spoke German.
Q: Tell me about what it was like when you returned to your hometown?
A: I went in ’97. My niece and nephews were much younger than me. But they left already before we left our home, so they couldn’t remember much, they were too young. So they asked me if I would go with them. We took two mini-motor homes from Germany and go and visit where we were born. I was the only link to find the place. So that’s how we went with two mini-motor homes.
Q: Could you describe some of the emotions of feelings you had when you went?
A: Our village was a small village of 520 people. I don’t know how many homes. But there were only five homes left. The rest of them were all torn down, brick or wood and shipped it all to Russia. It was sad, my niece and nephews cried. We didn’t even find the foundation; we just found an approximate area. And they cried. But I expected it, to find nothing, so it wasn’t that hard on me. It hurt but it wasn’t that hard.
Q: What do you hope people walk away from after the talk, what do you hope they are leaving with?
A: I don’t know. I feel like elderly people who have been through hardships or World War II, they understand it. The young people I don’t know if anything sinks in or not. And I leave them with a message, "Look, you can make it in this country if you want to." I hate to say this, but if you sit on your butt and blame everybody else, and I think it’s sad but it’s happened more and more.