|Oral history interview with Susanne Eisen by Brad Larson for the Oshkosh World War II project. She discusses her experiences in Oshkosh on the homefront. A transcript is on a computer file in the archives.
L:..Larson, and we're sitting in my office on February 22, 2001 and I'm sitting here with Susanne Eisen, is that the correct pronunciation? And we're gonna talk a little bit about Susanne's experiences in the Second World War.
Now, if you could just say something, say your name and I'll check the microphone.
E: My name is Susanne Eisen and I spent my... I spent ...1937 to 1952 in Germany.
L: Well, I'm not getting a good sound level here for some reason, there might be something loose, so I'm gonna give you this microphone.
L: Testing, testing, it was working here a minute ago. Maybe we just have a loose connection here... Test, test, test. I'll tell you what we'll do. You just hold that one and that ought to pick up both of us.
E: OK, Well, maybe you better hold it, you have more experience.
L: Test, testing OK, so we'll start out by saying, Susanne, you mentioned that your parents were living in Oshkosh...
E: No, no my parents were not.
L: You were not.
E: No my parents were living in Detroit, Michigan, from the late '20s - '29 to '37, when they went back to Germany and stayed. And I came to the United States again in 1952. By myself.
L: Well, tell me, do you know... do you recall your parents explaining why they left the United States and returned to Germany?
E: Well, it was a simple thing that my mother was very homesick, and did not feel at home in this country, and that happens. My father was doing very well, he had good work, and I now regret that we went back because I would have had a better life - not economically, but educationally, I would have had a better life.
L: Now, when they went back did they have children by then?
E: There was myself, and my next brother, who was a bit younger and then there were two more in Germany.
L: How old would you have been at the time that you returned to Germany?
E: Six and a half.
L: Do you remember it very well?
L: Tell me some of the things that you remember about that.
E: About the return?
L: About the return.
E: Politically, absolutely nothing. I just remember actually leaving the house, driving to New York, and being on the ship, and arriving in Germany. And from then on I started...I finished first grade over there, started second grade, and then we moved again, and that's when my father got work in Frankfurt. Before that we were in Bremen.
L: Is that where you had immigrated from? Originally? Your father and mother?
E: Yes, from Bremen. Yes.
L: So you were actually an American citizen...
E: I was born an American citizen and my father got the German citizenship back when he went back. And my brother and I, after the war, were told that we still had the American citizenship because we were born here and we could keep it if we came back to America, otherwise we would lose it. So I decided after... circumstances were not very good in Germany in the 40's and early '50s so I decided to come back to America. I had been invited by our former neighbors and decided to take them up on it, and stayed.
L: We'll get to that part in a minute, but one of the things I'd like to concentrate on, if you're comfortable in talking about this; you were only a little over six years old when you moved back, and a few years later World War II started. And if you're comfortable in talking about that I would like to perhaps record some of your memories - what it was like to be a child, what it was like to be in Germany during the Second World War.
E: Well, we lived in Germany when the war started when I was...
eight and a half when it started. In Germany, and at that time, children were emotionally and mentally much younger than they are now at these various ages. So, I was just a little kid. The air raids started in about 1940, '41, I guess, I'm not quite sure. That's when we as children first really became aware of war. We heard about it on the radio, there were mentions made, and if you were an adult you would have noticed that Mendelssohn's music wasn't being played any more, and things like that, and I'm sure my parents were aware of it. But my parents, having come from America, having been American citizens sort of kept themselves out of the political life altogether, you know, they just had no opinions. They just came back because my mother was homesick. So they didn't voice any opinions, they didn't say anything, except to take us kids to the air raid shelters during the air raids. At first we just went to the basement, when there was an air raid, down the basement was no protection but it made you feel better. I remember watching an airplane being shot down because my father curiosity looked out the basement door which was an outside stairway to the basement, and he saw an airplane being shot down, it was the only one we saw, and that was it. And we used to hear the noise, and the bombs, we used to look at the fires afterwards, and estimate where the fires were in the city - we were just at the edge of the city but we could see it.
L: The city were you living in at the time?
E: That was Frankfurt.
L: And that was being bombed?
E: It was being bombed considerably; I think it was 60% destroyed. By the time you go into fifth grade in Germany you take a test. And you get accepted or not accepted at a high school. High school starts fifth grade and goes to 12th. And it goes 13 now but it was 12th then. And that was in town, so I had to take two street cars. I had to take one into town, transfer, and go to the school, every day from the time I was ten years old. When the air raids got worse, then... we still had to go. But a couple of times we didn't get back home by way of street car because the one time our school was bombed, and it was an incendiary bomb and we...there was a lot of destruction around the school and transportation stopped, so we walked home. There were times when we would go home on the street car and alongside the street car everything was fine, and the next day you'd come to school and the piano...the music school had been bombed and the grand piano was hanging down from, you know, where the wall had been knocked away. And one time, we went past very near the school area, the
zoo actually had been bombed at the time and the school was just across the street from the zoo and the zoo animals had gotten out. And an airplane had been shot down and it had crashed between two multiple story buildings just one house away from the street car, so we saw that. And every morning after air raids on the way to school we looked for shrapnel from the [ ] which is the Civil Defense, the Air Defense guns, canons, and those grenades had shrapnel, different types of shrapnel, you know - brass rings, wafer-like copper pieces and other pieces and it was a contest going all the time, who had the best pieces in the collection. And I wish I had that I would have given it to EAA but I didn't have it anymore.
We lost everything too, but not from the bombs. We...I forget which year...but pretty early on, it must have been in '40, '41, they built the air raid shelters - these great big bunker-type things, and their walls were probably like ten feet thick - concrete. So about, even a bomb would just bounce off if it hit it. But it was a few minutes from home. So my mother...at that time...I was eleven, my youngest brother was one, and the other one was three, and two and a half, and the other one was two and a half years younger than I was. So every time the air raids came, which was usually at night, my mother had to wake us all up, pack the little ones in the buggy, and take us to the air raid shelter. And one time we came out the front door and they had these markers that looked like fireworks, like Christmas trees, where they would mark the area where bombs were gonna be dropped and since we had a copper factory nearby they had staked us out. And I came out and I said, "Oh, look at those!" and my mother slapped me because she didn't want people to panic all around us because...She said shhht, shhht, you know...Because they... it's frightening - when you already hear the airplanes and you know they have staked you out. Actually, the first bombs that fell in Frankfurt fell about a mile away from our house. We lived in a row house that was incidentally built by an architect who eventually left Germany because he was Jewish, his name was [ ], ended up in Detroit, and built a similar subdivision there. Same style except the exterior was a little different. Anyway, that's where we lived, in this nice little subdivision, where the school was part of it, it was almost built like a self-contained, it had a little store. It was a very, very nice neighborhood. And...
L: Was the war a topic of conversation in your household between your mother and your father?
E: No, no, no.
L: How about after the United States entered the war?
E: When... [ ]
L: In 1941.
E: '41. No, they didn't discuss it. If they did, it might have been later at night. As children, we were in bed early. By 8 we were usually sleeping. That's the way it used to be. Ah, no, it was never a topic, in fact on Kristalnacht, when they swarmed and took care of the Jews their way, now I am not taking sides at all, I know it all happened and I am ashamed of it but I was not involved, I was not able to do anything about it, but I do feel I have... I can speak about it. I remember the yellow stars. But as an eleven year old child you count stars. You do not see the human tragedy at all, you just don't as an eleven year old.
L: Did you learn about it in school - did your teachers say anything about the Jews in school?
E: No. Most of our teachers were people who were not fit for army, the males, were too old for the army [ ]. Politics was not...in our school, never discussed. I was a member of the Hitler[ ], which, at that time was simply a scout troop. We were not political.
L: What are some of the things you did as a member of that?
E: We sang songs, we did crafts, I guess they threw in some political stuff but I was not too aware of it. And we were very much into sports.
L: Did you have any role as far as the war effort in helping...do something?
E: Yes. We all collected phones, we collected food scraps, because that made our pork. Without the food scraps we wouldn't have had pork. We collected metal. We didn't collect glass, I guess they didn't have any way of utilizing it yet. But metal, all metal. We always had a wooden bucket outside for food scraps. And when I was in about 6th, 7th grade, we collected herbs - we collected plants to dry for herbal medicine.
L: So did most of the children that you were assoc...
L: Rags and herbs. Did most of the children have some role in the war effort?
E: In that respect, yes. We were very much encouraged to bring rags to school. We were... in needlework class we made baby shirts and donated them, mittens, and donated them...
L: It's similar to what children in the United States did.
E: I think so, yeah. Actually, I would say that the war effort in England and in America were more pronounced. And there was...it was not, I don't know if it was driven by famine or not. It was driven by nationalism in Germany, and by the need to have herbs for medicine because they were not farming herbs in those days, they had to find them at the roadsides and the meadows and so on. And in our biology class we learned which ones to collect, so, our parents encouraged this. And they had another thing which they still have - to pay a little extra for a postage stamp for welfare money, around Christmas time, or like the veterans here have the poppies - at Christmas time they sold miniature Christmas ornaments for welfare, although they almost did away with welfare but there were certain things that they were still doing, where they needed money. And I don't know exactly what but they made beautiful little things, like the things you had on the trees downstairs, little wooden things, gorgeous.
L: So this role continued all the way through, then.
L: Was your father involved in the war effort? Did he work in a war [ ]
E: When he went over there he was hired by [ ] Company, ATE for short.
They made refrigerators. Which at that time most people didn't have. Of course, because of that we had one and we had to lock the door in the apartment that went to the dining room, but we had one because of that. But it was converted to making hydraulic brakes for tanks. So he was in the war industry and that is, since he was an engineer, he was not drafted, and because he had four children he was not drafted. And eventually he was in the Civil Defense. He was drafted for that.
L: What was his role in that?
E: He had to periodically...I don't know...once every week or something like that, he had to spend a night observing the skies. Which is what they did in those days.
L: And your mother, did she have a role?
E: My mother was at home. No, she didn't, she had to raise the children.
I remember her attending some cooking classes on how to cook with very little to put into it...You know...
L: Now, one of the things you brought me here is some cookies, and you said that that's a wartime recipe.
E: Yes, it was called "Children's Cookies." And I still have it, it's in one of the cookbooks. And it has no fat in it, because butter was a very valued food commodity, and the rations didn't go very far. I think it came to about a stick of butter a week per person. And you didn't use it for baking. So my mother allowed me to make these cookies, and of course the eggs had to be beaten by hand. And it took half an hour of beating, so I wasn't too fond of make the cookies. But this is the recipe.
L: Were there food shortages?
E: Well, not shortages of food because we ate a lot of potatoes and vegetables. Our family of six used a thousand pound of potatoes a year.
Which means we cooked pots full, like that, every day. But that was the mainstay. Meat was very scarce, I can't remember what the exact rations were, but I think we ate it maybe once or twice a week. We had to pinch. We had a cottage cheese and I don't know that you're old enough to remember how to make cottage cheese from unpasteurized milk. Fresh milk from the cow. You let it get sour, you put it in a cheesecloth, and you let it drain and you get cottage cheese. We ate that instead of beef, so that was healthy, lots of cabbage, rutabaga, and things like that. It wasn't like the First World War when everyone was starving.
L: Did your parents ever make reference to the First World War?
E: My mother and my grandmother, they told...my father didn't say much, but they told me about how they were. They had no waste, no food waste, because they ate everything, except bones if they had any meat, and they practically lived on potatoes and rutabagas, so they weren't too fond of rutabagas anymore. And they said they were hungry.
L: Did anything change as the war went along? Do you recall
any memories of things changing - getting more severe or other...
E: Well, what I have to say right now is that the conditions after the war were worse than during the war. During the war if you were anywhere near industry or in a city, of course you were constantly aware that you might get hit by a bomb because it was always happening constantly and the parents didn't get much sleep.
L: In other words, from the time you mentioned, 1940, until the end, 1945, it was constant bombing?
E: It was constant bombing, the air raids. And my middle brother became quite ill when he was [ ] '39, so it must have been '44, '43, '44,
and he had scarlet fever, nephritis, what do you call that...the rheumatism, the joints from the rheumatism, that's an illness, and then he had dyptheria, all within four months. And after the scarlet fever he came home, but he was in the hospital, which was for infectious diseases and it was a great big villa that had been converted and it was full of kids. And at that point, while he was in the hospital we were sent to a small village, my mother and the three kids. A tiny little village, to be away from the bombs, this was arranged by the government. And my father stayed in Frankfurt, so he must have been the one to visit my brother, I'm not quite sure what the details were. But eventually she was supposed, my mother was supposed to go pick him up after he was no longer ill, and bring him home, so we all went back home.
L: You left the village.
E: We left the village and went back home. And stayed there and of course there was the air raid shelter now and we could go there. So, the place that he was in when he was ill was flattened by an air mine, a few days after,
and all the children survived, because they were in the basement.
Whatever it was dropped on them just sheered the building off, and the blood, the air pressure slammed the doors open, and the children ran out. And they had to find them later, the next day. They were all over the place. All the sick children.
L: How did that affect you as a child? Do you remember, do you have recollections on what you saw?
E: I remember the facts but not how it impacted me, if it did impact me. I mean, I was the oldest and like I say, I was eleven, I was ten when my youngest brother was born, and by the time they were being spoon-fed, I was feeding them a lot. So I had lots of responsibilities, in fact yesterday I remembered again for the first time that I had to polish the floor which a chore. Because it was this old porous linoleum and it had to be waxed with paste wax and then you had to go over it with this, I don't know, twenty pound block of steel with a rag under it to polish it. Yeah, I had responsibilities. And kept going to school. I mean, you didn't, as long as the school wasn't filling up with water or something, you went to school.
L: As the war progressed in the beginning of 1945, do you recall any changes that would have happened?
E: Yes, I have to back up a little there, because in, 19...it must have been in early 1944, when they gathered up our 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades, and took them to [ ] in Hessen, and distributed them among the people that lived there. And the people just stood there at the railroad station took a kid home. That's how organized it was. And I ended up living with an older couple who had no children, who were very nice, and I lived there until the war ended.
L: It must have been incredibly difficult for your parents to see their children...
E: Well, not only that, I was in [ ] my brother who was in 6th grade, I was in 8th grade, my brother was in 6th grade, he was sent to another village, my two little brothers were in preschool, in kindergarten, what we call preschool here is kindergarten in Germany, they were sent together with the kindergarten group, and the kindergarten teacher, to another village, so they were not close together. And then my youngest brother got scarlet fever, and couldn't stay there, and people were in the village took him in, a couple who had raised the woman's ten younger brothers and sisters but had no children of their own. They didn't want to give him back, in the end, they wanted to keep him. Which was another story. It was a sad story, really, because they ended up having to give him back; 'cause they would have done a very good job raising him. At the end of the war when the Americans were coming - just remember that, too. The people from the city of Frankfurt were fleeing before the advancing troops because, you know, we did hear about a lot of bad things happening, and they did happen, some of them. [ ] And we were drafted into feeding these people. So our host family donated food, and we went to our gym at the school and we were cooking the big pots of soup for these refugees. And my friends and I, as classmates, we were all very close. I had a group that I was with all the time. We kept saying, well, if they get too close, we'll cut our hair off and dress like boys, and they won't notice us. And then they just very quietly came to town and they didn't...
L: The Americans you mean?
E: The Americans came, yeah. And we heard them coming, and we were just accepting it. Eventually they were there, and one of them was standing watch in front of the house, there was a little bridge, and I just walked up to him one day and I said that I was born in Detroit.
L: You said this in English?
E: I think so. Well, we learned English from 5th grade on up.
L: Oh, did you.
E: Oh yeah. So I could express myself fairly well. And it's a funny thing, even though I had forgotten every word of English by the time I started learning it in school, there was a certain sound quality that until I heard American again I didn't realize I remembered it. You know, we were taught English...I had to learn it like everybody else. But the sound quality of American kind of helped me.
L: So you walked up to this American soldier...
E: Yeah, and he just smiled at me, didn't say anything, and I left, and we didn't have anything to do with him, in fact there were some black troops in town. They were truck drivers, I think.
L: How about discussions about Russians, as far as Russians coming to your...to Frankfurt, now that's...that's not in the Russian zone...
E: They didn't come to Frankfurt.
L: Were you fearful that they might arrive in Frankfurt?
E: No, I don't think that anybody anticipated that they would, because Frankfurt on the Oder River, is on the eastern... It's on the border of Poland. And Frankfurt on the Rhine River is west. So we were too far away. And as children, there was a lot of literature, you know, like comic books. But they weren't comic books, they were stories about the Russians and how bad they were and how the Germans were fleeing from the Russians, of course this was all propaganda but we didn't see it that way.
L: What kind of things would they say in these comic books?
E: Well, they were almost written stories about what someone might experience if the Russians came to town, and how they would brutalize the women, and the girls, and some of it we didn't understand at that age, but it was available to us, just like smut is available here, and we just sort of took to heart that we'd stay away from that situation.
L: After the war ended how did your parents gather you all up again?
E: Well...that's the part...my father at the time was on his way to northern Italy on business, on the train, when the war ended. But it hadn't quite ended. The train he was on was being bombarded by Americans. Everybody was under the train. And, as far as I know, a lot of people got killed. And then the war ended, somehow, in that time span while he was still down there and I guess he walked back to Frankfurt. But my mother, in the meantime, had also been put into another village, into a fourth different village, where she was had to work because she had no more children at home and she worked as a maternity nurse in a maternity hospital there. She had learned to teach, she had learned that, and that's what I learned eventually after high school. And my father took the bicycle from Frankfurt, borrowed one, and went to pick up my brother who was...I don't know how far away, but it was several hours on the bicycle, and he took him on the bicycle, and pedaled the bicycle to where my mother was. Then there were a couple of trains running later, it must have been a few weeks after the war ended before he came to get me, because I was the farthest away, or father away...
L: I would imagine you were worried - what was going to happen.
E: Well, yeah, I mean, I was in good hands, and I would have probably stayed with these people if anything had happened to my parents. But there was no telephone calls, my parents didn't visit me there in those months that I lived there, it was close to a year, more or less. I think my mother came once. And no telephone calls, nothing - an occasional letter. So he came to pick me up and there was a train, but it had no windows, and it had no lights, and nothing, you know, and took me there, and then, I was, at that time 14 1/2, my mother sent me to pick up my brother. And I had to ride on freight trains on top of coal cars and [ ] and stuff like that, and cattle cars to get to where he was. And fortunately, we were very lucky that a lady from the village where my brothers were - I think my father had picked up the one that hadn't been ill. My father had already picked up the one that wasn't, hadn't been ill, while the other one was in that home and they didn't want to give him up yet. I went to pick him up. We went there like I said, with this, this lady who happened to be in town and who was from that village. And I walked barefoot because the shoes didn't fit, from the railroad station, from one village to the next village, and went, got my little brother, and came back in the cattle car. How I managed to do that I still don't know. At 14 1/2 I had no experience with anything. I didn't know anything. But we made it, and we all got together and the place we lived in was the jailer's apartment in the lower level of the jail, the local jail. Because, of course everybody had been let out of the jail at the end of the war and there was nobody in there and they had no jailer. And eventually we left from there and went back to my grandparents'.
L: What was it like, could you physically describe the surroundings...
L: Where you were, at the end of the war in Frankfurt.
E: Well, we never went back to Frankfurt except when we were on our way to Bremen. By that time, and it must have been in the summer...It all happened - it's very hard to pin down the exact time but it was summer weather, the apples were ripe when we were living in the place where my mother was stationed. We didn't have anything to eat at that time, but my mother was hired by the, forced by the officers that were occupying the city, to cook for the officers, so she'd come home occasionally, they would allow her to take some mutton fat. If you've ever eaten mutton fat, it's like peanutbutter only it tastes horrible. It sticks to your mouth. You have to use it very hot. And no meat. We got some goat's milk. I went out and my mother had to work so I went out and I had to cook. And I'll tell you something, what we had to cook with was potatoes, mutton fat, apples and jam. That was it. I can't remember meat. I can't remember anything else. But in a way we were refugees, we were not locals.
L: You had no other belongings there?
E: We had nothing. When we left Frankfurt and we got scattered all over the place, some other people were allowed to live in our home, but all our possessions were still there. All of us had only what we wore, you know, like you go on a trip. That's all each of us had. And at the end of the war when the occupation forces came they freed the Russian prisoners of war who were forced labor in the copper factories, and cleared out that subdivision and put them in. And they destroyed everything. And then when they eventually allowed the owners, or the people who lived there to come back, to get their possessions, their possessions were gone, destroyed. I think my father found two pictures on the wall and the rest was all gone or had been destroyed or something.
L: So you had nothing from that point on.
E: We had absolutely nothing. My mother had packed up one suitcase that she had taken along, and it had the kind of things that you would take if your house was on fire and you had fifteen minutes. It was, I think, a particular piece of clothing that she was attached to, it was some photo albums, that kind of things, and that's all that was rescued. And when we went to Bremen we went from Hameln which was where my mother had gathered us all back together again. We went by way of Frankfurt, which was going a little bit south, and through Cologne, which was out of the way, and then up to Bremen, and it took three days. And all the railroad stations were bombed out, the tracks were o.k., but the stations were bombed out. I don't know if you've ever seen pictures of the street cars in the [ ], where the people hanging on the outside...Well, it was like that, traveling. We had one suitcase for the four of us. We didn't really have anything to eat that I know of...
L: Did you know that your grandparents were still alive?
E: Oh yes.
L: You did know that.
E: Right. We did have a telephone in Frankfurt but not anywhere else. That was the only place we could go.
L: What happened once you got there?
E: Well, the travel itself was more interesting because in Frankfurt we had to spend the night in air raid shelters because the station was destroyed, and the trains weren't running regularly, you just had to wait for somebody who would be kind enough to let you know there was another train leaving, and of course we caught the one to Cologne because it was closer to Bremen than Frankfurt was. In Cologne we stood for hours and hours, no roof on the station and it was raining. And here's... from 4-14 years old, and my oldest brother was quite ill. He had a very high fever. We just stood there and waited for another train. And I can remember being on the train, because there were so many people crammed into the compartment which had wooden benches on each side, that I stood from the time we got on the train 'til we got to Bremen, for several hours, I stood with one foot between two people holding myself to the luggage rack, holding onto the luggage rack. I had cramps in my legs for years and years afterwards.
But that's how we traveled. And we had slaughtered a couple of rabbits that we had raised in that little village, and packed them up and taken them along, and of course by the time we got there, three days later they were pretty smelly [laughter]. And we had to throw them [ ] I don't know what we ate on the way, I think we got water. And then when we got to my grandparents', they had already been ordered to take in refugees. Now they lived in a big villa because my grandfather was a physician and he had built this house for this. My great-grandparents lived upstairs and my grandfather had his practice and he lived around and downstairs. The lower level was the gardener and houseman lived there. And when we got there the gardener was still living there with his wife and child and the
middle level that been cut in half. My grandparents were living in the bedroom and living room and kitchen and the refugees took up the rest of the space. My great-grandparents, I don't know, they had taken in my aunt, with her children, because her husband was a physician in the war so he wasn't home yet. And she had four children. No, she had two, and she was having two more by '48. So he came home and found two more. And we lived, we occupied the dining room at my great-grandparents' and slept there. My... eventually we moved into a couple of rooms and we added, which was unheated. And it got to be winter and unheated was not very nice. But there was a bedroom up there and two of us - my middle brother and I - got the upstairs bedroom, and the other two slept on chairs in the former dining room.
L: Do you recall how your parents got you food, or how, if they worked, do you recall anything about it?
E: Well, you couldn't work for food, and my father eventually got a job in Bremen where the bridges were being rebuilt, because he's an engineer. And that was his job. And a couple of times he actually stole a couple lumps of coal from the stove that they were heating their quarters with
brought them home. And we had a little stove that was about this big, it was built especially for emergencies.
L: About a foot and a half.
E: Yeah, it was probably no bigger than that. You could put one kettle on top of it to cook with. And it was on legs, and we cooked on it and we heated two rooms with it. Two large rooms, well, two rooms that are about like this. Because then, by that time, the house, the house man
had moved back to Denmark, where he came from originally. And that
became free, became available, so six people lived down there. I still slept in the upstairs in the attic, but that's where we lived. There was still a [ ] in the house.
L: So this continued until 1952?
E: School stopped for about six months. So, we started school [ ] April to fall. And we all went back to school. And we had no books because if there was a swastika in the front of the book we were not allowed to use it. So the poor teachers had to teach us without any textbooks. We had no paper to write on, and we were writing on, whatever, you know, the edge of a newspaper or whatever, when we had to make marks. We just couldn't get anything. And part of the problem was [ ] the occupation forces had no planned on the fact that they had to supply these people with food, because they had destroyed their means of creating their own, growing their own. And they had very thoroughly destroyed. They had cut down forests on mountainsides without planning, and shipped the lumber to England, the wood, for firewood. In the meantime the mountainsides slid down, the houses were destroyed, and buried, and there was no new wood coming. And it had been, the forestry was a-1 in Germany, I mean it was the best organized that you can imagine like they finally do here now. Every time they cut down something they would replant. That's how it was over there so they were constantly replanting. This is a very small country with few natural woods and things. If they would have just cut it down and used it the people would have starved and drowned within a few years. So the same thing happened.
L: I'm going to stop right here, I need to put a new tape in. We're almost to the end.
L: So, now we're back on tape 2 and we're continuing to talk with Susanne Eisen, So we're heading toward immigrating back to the United States.
E: Well, in the meantime, we were in Frankfurt, well, we were in Bremen by this time, and trying to get back to normal. The government, well, it wasn't the German government, yeah, it was the still the American government, they just told everybody, you have zero money now. Everything is closed down. All investments, savings, anything. And they started us all out with a certain amount of money per person which was not a whole lot. And the only reason my father went back to Frankfurt to our place that was by now empty, which we didn't know but we were notified we could come back and get reimbursed for what was lost. And we went and got that which wasn't a whole lot, either. So he was lucky to find a job with the American Army. As a...I said that word earlier...procurer...he was in the supply department at the American armed forces in [ ] where all the supplies came in to do everything in the country. And because he spoke English well, and was familiar with American, they hired him and they were happy with him and he worked there for fifteen years. So he brought home the money and my grandfather occasionally would bring home food from the farmers he worked, mainly he went to visit as a physician, because he was a country doctor. And sometimes they'd give him milk and sometimes they'd give him potatoes and stuff. And eventually it got to the point that we could buy 1000 potatoes a year and feed the family with that. He would get the milk but not get paid, because they didn't have money either. Funny things, you know, chickens were fed with fish meal because it's all they could feed to the chickens and then the eggs tasted like fish. Things like that. I went back to school, my brothers went back to school. My oldest brother...now all three of my brothers only went through tenth grade. You don't have to graduate from high school if you're not gonna go to college. Because it's college prep. And they all learned trades. One was a ship builder, one was an electrician, and eventually he ended up with computers, and one went to sea. An officer at sea in the Merchant Marines.
L: Did they stay in Germany, your brothers?
E: The two younger ones did. The oldest one was a citizen like I was, and he had to come back by the time he was fifteen, excuse me, by the time he was twenty-five. I had to be back by the time I was twenty-three. So he came back. And we're both still here. We both lived [ ] A year and a half. And I finished high school, graduated from high school, wanted to go to college to be an architect. No money. And my mother didn't push it too much because she figured the boys had to support families eventually and whatever money there was should be used for the boys. So I learned maternity nursing like she had and then I couldn't get a job. So I was invited to a friend in Sweden, as a...what they now call an 'au pair' for a year. And by that time I had been invited to come back to America to one of our former neighbors. And when I came back from Sweden there still were no chances of getting jobs or going to college. So I accepted the invitation and came to America, by myself, on the train.
E: '52. And then I met my mother's best friend's son and eventually married him, but we're divorced.
L: We never got your maiden name in all of this.
E: Noack. N-O-A-C-K. And that name is in this area, in Appleton, New Berlin, New London.
E: Yeah, it's not all that, I mean, the spelling is uncommon. It's usually N-O-V-A-K or N-O-A-K. Noack with a C-K is not as common.
L: Do you remember what your reception was like when you got to Detroit?
E: Well, since I came to stay with friends, the reception was good. These were friends, neighbor's friends, who had a son my age and a daughter a little bit older. But my husband's mother was my mother's best friend, and they lived across the street, and that's how this happened. I applied for work at the hospital where I was born. Being that I was a maternity nurse, they hired me as a nurse's aide. I was not welcome by some people there who were anti-German. And it was because they said, you come over here from Germany and you are earning our wages. So I said, I pay taxes, too, and I am an American. I still had a bit of an accent then. I don't think I have one, anymore. But it turns out I still do. Other than that, I had had no problems. Like I say, I am an American, and was an American at the time.
L: How long did that anti-German feeling continue for you at the hospital? Until they got to know you? Did it end, or did it...
E: Well, it wasn't an aggressive kind of thing, it was just that it was stated. I was approached by this person one day and was told off. But I worked there until I got married which was the follow January, in '53, and then I left.
L: When did you come to Oshkosh?
E: In... around 1980. I lived in Michigan, and worked in Michigan until my kids were all out of the house. Which was...My daughter left in...the late '70s and came to Milwaukee because... my brother was in the Coast Guard and he was, at that time, living in Milwaukee. And he said, bring your stuff, we'll pile it in somewhere, you can stay with me, and because of my brother, my youngest son went to Gateway Tech in Kenosha. Because he came to visit a few times and... my brother retired from the Coast Guard, and before he retired from the Coast Guard he was working at the EAA Museum in Hales Corners, helping out, because he was a shipbuilder to start with so building things was his hobby. And he's still with them. Since '67. And from there I came, since I was managing Paint and Wallpaper Stores in Michigan, and then I came to Milwaukee and applied for a job, paint and wallpaper who was a wholesaler down there, and they sent me to Sun Prairie to take over one of their stores, because they had fired the manager. And when they closed that store they sent me to Wausau to manage the store where they had fired the manager, and then they closed that store because they were mismanaging the stores, and offered to put me back into Milwaukee, into the wholesaling part, and I declined. And by that time the museum was going to be built here, and my brother said apply for a job at EAA, the girl that's running the mailroom is not moving to Oshkosh. So I applied for it and got it.
L: So you worked at EAA?
E: I worked at EAA for fifteen years, until I retired.
L: Now, this is one of the questions that I ask all the people that I do oral histories with: if there's any vivid memory, if there's anything that really sticks out, what would it be, of those war years?
E: Of the war years? Well it's all still very vivid except for the emotions. I mean, as children, if you see a bombed-out house, you don't mourn about the people who might have been killed, you just see a bombed-out house. And if there's a piano hanging out of it, that's funny. This is a child's vision of things. I mean, we were children, at fourteen, we were not young adults, and we didn't see the seriousness. And I went back to visit couple times, and things in one way haven't changed at all, and in another way have changed a whole lot. I remember nothing specific that stands out. To us it was just a childhood with a lot of things going on. I remember going to the Opera with my mother, and at the end of the war the Opera House was destroyed, was bombed out. I think they restored it, I'm not sure. And I remember going swimming up in the mountains, about a quarter of an hour by streetcar up the mountainside, there was a beautiful swimming pool and park, recreation park, 3 pools, one inside the other, children's pools. That's still there. Still being used. Hasn't changed one bit, after all these years. And then the people I stayed with, like I say, in [ ], which was '44, '45 - one of our girls lost her mother in a bombing raid - because the parents had stayed behind in Frankfurt. We went to school in the afternoons, the local kids went to school in the morning because we had to share the school building. I remember some stealing shoes at the end of the war because there was a shoe warehouse in town. Everybody knew it was there but nobody could get shoes in the store. So as soon as the insanity started after the war, everybody ran over there and got themself a pair of shoes. And those were the shoes that gave me the blisters because I didn't have socks. That's why I had to go barefoot to get my brother.
L: The insanity, you mean everything was...
E: Total disorganization.
L: That must have been scary in and of itself.
E: Well, to us it wasn't. I mean, it might have been to some of my classmates and schoolmates because maybe they were not in a nice home. In fact, I know that, looking back, 20/20 vision, that there was sexual abuse in some of the homes. I know that. But I didn't know it then. And it wasn't being talked about. I mean, one guy who didn't have a child in his home - one couple - she was multiple sclerosis, I guess, and the man was a child molester, but I didn't know it until he approached me. But the family was friends with the family that I was with. So when they were going to transfer one of the girls to that home I did speak up. And that was very daring. But I just said you can't send her over there and then they grilled me about why and I told them.
Anyway, people went to the dairy, because people just didn't know - should we go to work, should we not go to work, are we getting the milk to process, are we not getting the milk to process... I mean it was just total disarray. So everybody said, 'oh, you can get some cheese down at the dairy,' and everybody just walked in and helped themselves. And I brought back some Camembert. I don't know if you know Camembert, but it's a soft cheese, it comes in a little round thing. We put it in a jar and I have a very vivid memory here. Very vivid. Maggots are the same color as cheese. And they had spread the cheese on the bread for me. And I ate half of it until I saw that it was moving. So I had eaten half a sandwich with maggots in it - live maggots.
L: I imagine that would be a vivid memory.
E: I was shuddering a bit. Yes, it was not pleasant.
But we formed very nice friendships. There was a group of four of us and we spent all our time together. And that was the real family, was the camaraderie, and the teachers were great.
L: Is there anything that you want to get on tape, that we should talk about, anything you'd like to get recorded?
E: In regards to that? I think...I mean, in Germany, they are just now, after fifty years, starting to teach the children about what happened during the war. Because the guilt feelings still hadn't left the people who lived through it. The guilt feelings are being fostered, too, by the fact that Germany's still paying Israel. They haven't stopped paying the money for what has been done to their families. And there is no time limit when it's gonna stop. So this keeps fostering not only the guilt of those who were there, but resentment from the ones who weren't there. Because Germany is not a rich country, Germany was always a poor country because they're paying out so much welfare to the immigrants from all over the place. They started letting the immigrants in because they needed them to work because the German men didn't come home - they were dead. My cousin was lost, too, in Russia, on the Russian front. He's one of those Missing in Action. Tens of thousands of missing in action. And the age group, that my age group would have married, they were gone. I mean, I was fifteen when the war ended, so the men that were between thirty, from twenty on up didn't exist. There weren't any. Very [ ] So those things are, I would say that, economically, the post-war years were much worse, the first few, because of the disarray.
L: Imagine you've been back to Germany...To visit relatives? Family?
L: Do people ever talk about the Second World War as a matter of conversation?
E: Well, they are very politically aware - who they're gonna vote for, what the parties are doing and so on, which we are not here. You know, I don't like politics in the first place, and I inform myself just enough to have an opinion. And they are very aware. And they are now, even more so, when, like, Kohl was doing things with the money that he shouldn't have done and so on, and they are punishing these. And now they are again, they were again confronted when the wall came down with the Eastern Germans who had committed all the crimes - they were still on the loose. And they are just now starting to teach the kids what it was like and that it should not be repeated. And over here, I watched the movies about the wartime Germany, and so on, and I watched "Schindler's List" and I am not unemotional about it. I had no idea, and I'm sure my parents didn't know that it was like that. And I wish the people would think more about what can happen here. I don't know if it still can happen, but you get this mass hysteria, and mass propaganda for the masses [ ] there is a lot of that going on here. And when my father was living here, when my father was asked by the Occupation Forces right after the war where we lived with my mother, and my mother was cooking for the officers, they were interrogating my father once, and in fact they interrogated everybody, and they asked him, oh, you lived in America, and what's your opinion of the Jews? And he said, and he shouldn't have said it that way but he said "They were Jewish." which was anti-Jewish. The Americans were very anti-Jewish, very, to the point where, the man I married, his father was part Jewish. His father was eighth Jewish, so he was sixteenth Jewish,
the name Eisen was Jewish name. They denied that his father's middle name was Mendel. In America! They made Martin out of it. I didn't find out until I started genealogy a few years ago that his middle name was Mendel. And that their families goes way back, to where the people had no last names, where the name Eisen was [ ] because he was an iron dealer, he chose that name. They lived in [ ], Germany, when they arrived there in sixteen-something I guess, they had no permission to settle down, to become part of the community. His name was Marks the Jew. So, these are other little things that you find out over the years. And then my daughter, she wasn't married, but her partner was full-blooded Jew. [ ] half Jewish, one thirty-second from my father's side, grandfather's side. This means nothing to me, I mean, it's a fact. I mention it as a fact. I have no opinion about the quality. You know, it's just a fact. I can't just not mention it because of what happened in Germany.
L: Well, we hope our museum here [ ] will help educate children here in Oshkosh. [ ]
Well, thank you very much, Susanne. This has been very fun. I appreciate it.
E: You're welcome. I enjoyed it, too.
Oral History Interview with Susanne Eisen
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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