A child’s life during wartime

by Jurgen Lett

In 1944, at the age of ten, my sister Iris was old enough to be expected to join the Hitler Youth. My mother was not happy about it but was afraid of the consequences if Iris did not join. Iris was attracted by the activities, such as sport and camps.

The period of NaziĀ Gleichschaltung (forced coordination) began in 1933, where all German institutions and organizations were either Nazified or disbanded. Hitler Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach sought to eliminate all 400 of the other competing youth organizations throughout Germany. Consequently the Hitler Youth, League of German Worker Youth was the sole official youth organisation in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Although partially a paramilitary organisation, they also ran sports like athletics, skiing, cycling, fencing, swimming and soccer, plus summer camps and field trips. Iris joined and participated in some peaceful activities.

At the same time the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth was deployed in the Battle of Normandy against the British and Canadian forces near Caen, France, suffering eighty per cent losses. Nearly 20,000 Hitler Youth participated in the 12th SS Division. Over 3,000 died while attempting to repulse the D-Day invasion.

Hitler Youth, Germany’s sole official youth organisation 1933-45

While we enjoyed our childhoods in Hohensolms Castle, the war was never far away. One morning Tante Rikele called the children together but did not explain who the men in suits were, or why they had come to visit. However she made it very clear how dangerous it would be if anyone knew about them or what they were doing. Later we learned that one of the men was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, spy and uncompromising opponent of the Nazi regime. The suited men had come to talk about anti-government actions. In April 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested by the gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel, near Berlin. Accused of plotting to kill Adolf Hitler, he was tried and found guilty. He was executed on 9 April 1945, as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My Life in the Castle

by Jurgen Lett

Moving to Hohensolms Castle was a journey of nearly 200 kilometres from my home in Wuppertal. It was 1943 and the castle was managed by my Tante (Aunty) Rikele as a church youth centre . During the World War II it served as emergency accommodation, away from the bomb-ravaged cities. Built in the 14th century, this Medieval castle is now an international language school.

Hohensolms Castle

Fuel was in short supply and a solution had to be found to take my mother Martha, sister Iris and I to our new home. Our neighbour, who owned a trucking company, agreed to take us in a truck which had been modified to run on timber. A wood oven behind the cabin heated the wood without burning it, producing gas which fueled the motor. These wood gas generators were not uncommon during and immediately after World War II, as Germany produced Holzgas kits to retrofit to cars, trucks and even tanks to preserve the limited supply of fuel.

Truck running on wood gas

I remember stopping to gather more timber from the forest, before continuing on our way. The truck had insufficient room in the cabin for our little family, so I traveled in the back amongst our belongings. I found a space between the furniture, and made a nest of straw. A spare tyre was fastened on top of the nest and I popped my head up through the tyre to watch the view. I felt pretty special.

Living in the castle was like living in a commune. The meals were taken communally, starting and ending with prayer. Tante Margarete and Tante Amanda managed the kitchen, with the older children helping to prepare the meals. Finding food for so many people every day was a constant struggle. We kids collected bucket loads of stinging nettles, which were made into a delicious spinach. We were careful to avoid touching the leaves, as the sting from them lasted for days.

Most of the people in the castle were cousins, uncles, aunties or extended family, with only a few families who were not related to me. Most of the men had been recruited to the army, or, like my father, who was an architect and a master builder, to essential services. Consequently there were only two men at the castle, Onkel (Uncle) Theo and Onkel Paul, who were too old for military service. Occasionally other uncles came to visit while on leave from the army. They were happy times. My favourite was Onkel Gustav, Tante Margarete’s husband. Sadly he was killed in the war.

A bomb in the garden

by Jurgen Lett

When I was two years old my mother’s mother was living with us.
She was a loving generous lady and we called her Grossmutter (grandmother). Before our home town of Wuppertal was bombed, she moved to Hohensolms Castle near Frankfurt, in 1942.

My mother Martha, sister Iris and I remained in the family home in Wuppertal-Beyenburg. When the air raid siren sounded, we retreated to the cellar, which had been prepared for extended stays, with food and bedding. Another siren rang several hours later indicating that it was safe to leave the cellar. One day we heard the second siren and came out to inspect the damage. We found an incendiary bomb against the wall of the house, which fortunately had not been ignited. However the window of Iris’s bedroom had been smashed and glass was found under the covers of her neatly-made bed. Official documents from the town hall ten kilometres away were found in our garden.

Beyenburg is a village on the outskirts of Wuppertal and the village suffered only minor damage. In contrast, other districts of this industrial city were extensively bombed with incendiaries. In February 1943 the British bombed the Goldschmidt adhesives factory, which made wood adhesive used in wooden air frame components. The pharmacology firm Bayer was targeted, as were other factories. Over 6,500 people died as a result of the bombing of Wuppertal, and 38% of the built up area was destroyed.

Wuppertal town hall, where my father Ernst worked as the city architect

My mother (we called her Mutti) decided it was time to move somewhere safer. After the first bombing in 1943, Mutti packed up the house and we moved to Hohensolms Castle.

August’s story

by Ian Lett

Carolina Lett was born in St Petersburg in 1821, when this port city on the Baltic Sea was the capital of Imperial Russia. She had three children, the oldest being my grandfather on my father’s side, August. He had a sister who was a year older, and a brother, age unknown. Carolina did not marry and nothing is recorded of the children’s father, or fathers*. August took his mother’s surname Lett, and that is how I inherited the name.

August was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, France on 6 September 1861 .
Carolina died when August was nine years old and he was sent to an orphanage. The children were separated and August thought that his sister had died, but ten years later he found that she was living with another family.

August served an apprenticeship and became a baker. He then joined the army, where he learned to play the bugle. August was so righteous and sincere in his religious beliefs that he was teased by his fellow soldiers. He was uncompromising in his views and was not universally liked.

*This data comes from my Ahnen-Pass, or Ancestor Passport, which listed ancestors of citizens of Nazi Germany. It was also known colloquially as the Nazi Passport. While not compulsory, it was a convenient way for those without Jewish heritage to show this to authorities. For those with a Jewish ancestor, the Ahnen Pass showed a “J” next to the ancestor’s name. The primary objective of the Ahnen Pass was to create extensive profiling based on racial data.

Family tree showing Jurgen #1, August #4 and Carolina #9

Jurgen’s story

by Jurgen Lett

A fertiliser silo exploded a few kilometers from my grandfather’s flower nursery. The family were picking flowers for the market when the blast knocked them all to the ground. Several lost consciousness. When they came to they found a huge boulder amongst the flowers. The glasshouses were destroyed. My mother, Martha Genaehr, was 18 years old.

The family belonged to the United Evangelical Mission (VEM) and several family members had worked as missionaries in China and Indonesia (former Dutch East Indies). They asked the church if they knew someone who could redesign the glasshouses. Ernst Lett arrived at the front door. Remarkably, he lived in the family home while the glasshouses were being designed and built. Ernst became part of the family, and later became friendly with Martha. While they were keen on each other, it was over ten years before they were married, mainly because they could not afford a wedding and setting up a house.

Ernst Lett, brick layer, master builder, architect, building inspector

Ernst was required to study architecture and learn a trade as part of his training as a Baumeister (master builder). He chose the trade of bricklayer, and here can be seen on the tools. Note the wooden clogs. He later worked as a building inspector for the City of Wuppertal, with an office in the town hall. Ernst was born in 1900 and this photo was taken in the 1920’s.

Martha was born in 1903 and had six sisters and five brothers. She worked as an au pair in Utrecht, Netherlands while she was single. All of Martha’s brothers played brass instruments and on Ernst’s birthday they stood outside his bedroom and play for him. Not wanting to miss out, Ernst jumped out of bed, climbed through the bedroom window and ran around the back of the house. He stood behind the brass quintet and played with them on his cornet, for his own birthday.

Cornet aka piston