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.