(Posted: Feb. 10, 2011)
It’s a long journey from the Rhine River in Germany to the San Gabriel River in Liberty Hill, but it’s a trip that changed the life of one local resident.
Helga Smith was born in a world at war. And from her Liberty Hill home surrounded by her correspondence and other memorabilia, she tells a story of a life that is a little less than ordinary.
“I don’t call, I write notes,” she explains of the letters to friends and family that cover her living room table. Newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, old photographs add to the neat little piles.
Mrs. Smith was born in 1938, months before the start of World War II began in 1939. A Bavarian-born German, it would be seven years before Mrs. Smith would begin living a peaceful life. Her experiences as a child are harrowing, and speak volumes about the tragic events that occurred during that time.
“I was scared,” she recalls, “even though my mom was always trying to comfort me. She’d say, ‘It doesn’t bother Helga, she’s got elephant skin.’ But it did. You just manage, because you have to manage.”
Her home was bombed and the seventh floor apartment where they lived had sustained serious damage -- a wall was knocked out between the rooms.
“My two sisters and I would go from room to room through that hole in the wall,” she said.
Daily events were often interrupted by the sounds of horns warning residents to take cover -- bombs were anticipated. In response, residents scrambled for the nearest shelter.
Her family’s shelter was the basement of a nearby apartment building, and when the horns would sound, up to 20 people would crowd inside.
“We learned to always take a little blanket and have a small suitcase packed...we had nothing else besides clothes. You just didn’t want to be there without something,” she said.
The shelters were cramped, poorly lit and extremely damp, she said. The building next to her shelter was hit once, the bomb falling through eight floors before exploding on the bottom.
“We all had gas masks on. There were a bunch of old men there, the young men were all at the front lines. They had pickaxes and they opened up the exits so we could get out. I just remember everything was so cold and damp. I ended up getting pneumonia,” she said.
Like most German men of the time, Mrs. Smith’s father was drafted into the military. Those who refused were punished, so joining was a life or death choice for her father. He spent his time on the front lines, far from his wife and three daughters. For Mrs. Smith, her mother and her sisters, survival became the main focus.
“I don’t remember if we ever had anything to eat,” she said. “One time, we went to see this butcher, a friend of my mom’s. She asked him for anything he had. He had cow udder. But you know, he cut it up, and she made weinerschnitzel out of it. It was certainly better than nothing.”
Food was so heavily rationed that a family could get as little as a quarter-pound of meat a week -- nearly unthinkable when compared to the number of fast food restaurants that tout a single sandwich with that same amount. Paper money became almost worthless, she said. One might have stacks of cash and only be able to purchase a bottle of milk.
“It was nearly 1,000 marks for a pack of cigarettes. Stuff became currency,” she said.
Bartering for necessities became common place. In fact, she said her mother traded a coat for medicine to treat her pneumonia.
“The doctors, they would trade you, if you had some dishes that were pretty or something like that. My mother had a nice fur coat, and she traded it for some medicine for my lungs. That saved my life,” Mrs. Smith said.
With most of her first grade year spent in conditions such as these, war became a way of life for Mrs. Smith.
“My aunt, her house in Cologne was bombed nearly three times, so she had to come stay with us for a while,” she said as if describing something so common as a holiday visit. She remembers her mother’s reactions to the major bombings in nearby Nuremburg, “...the sky was on fire!” Mrs. Smith remembers in January 1945, five months before the end of the war, the British airplanes flying so low to the ground that hey knocked the windows out.
“We had to cover them with cardboard, because there was no glass available,” she said.
She has fond memories of the Americans who were occupying Germany at the time.
The Americans would bring supplies from their quarters to the local bakery and arranged for bread and other foods to be baked for the soldiers. They would bring oranges and other fruit, which at the time was the only fruit Mrs. Smith had ever seen.
Beginning in April 1945, the Soviets battled the Germans in Berlin. During this time, Adolf Hitler, Führer of Germany, committed suicide in a bunker there, and two days later, Berlin surrendered. The war had reached an end.
“When we heard the war was over, we were jubilant,” she said. With American help and the Germans’ fabled spirit for hard work, the country began picking up the pieces of its shattered streets, and life started easing toward the first bit of normalcy Mrs. Smith had ever known.
“I remember a fresh food market, it was the first one I had ever seen. Meat and vegetables everywhere. It was the best,” she said.
Eleven years later, Mrs. Smith met another American soldier who changed her life. She was a regular at a restaurant, Prince Heinrich’s, which he frequented.
“They had a jukebox, and people would dance. It was a nice place, a clean place. You could take the kids, the family in there....and they served a wonderful weinerschnitzel,” she said.
They married, and Mrs. Smith began her long journey to Liberty Hill. She traveled from Germany to France, and in France, she boarded the SS United States, a passenger liner that impressed her partly because it had once carried Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. From France, she crossed the Atlantic making her way into the United States through New York.
She said she remembers first seeing the Statue of Liberty from the ship.
“I thought she was just the greatest thing. I saw her and it really hit me,” she said.
From New York, she flew to Dallas, and it was there Mrs. Smith had her first experience with Texas weather.
“My husband, he didn’t tell me about rattlesnakes or the heat, and we didn’t have any TV in 1956 in Germany. I stepped off the plane in Dallas, and the heat just hit me. I dropped my camera and I think I broke it,” she said. A flight to Austin, a drive to Liberty Hill and Helga Smith would finally be in the town she would call home.
Mrs. Smith raised five children in Liberty Hill, and when they got older, she went to work for the Texas Rehabilitation Center as a secretary for 12 years. She founded downtown Liberty Hill’s flower shop Fantasia Flowers, before selling it some years ago.
While traveling back to Germany many times through the years, she was always happy to come home to Liberty Hill.
“I love it here,” she said.