Facing down the enemy – a young woman’s courage

It’s International Women’s Day, and it seems apt to celebrate Rike, who displayed remarkable courage on many occasions, not least when defending her home from invading Russian troops in 1945. Her story seems remarkably and sadly relevant today. Here’s some of her story (taken from Loving the Enemy: building bridges in a time of war).

As winter turned to Spring, news from the East worsened. The Russians were coming closer. The hysteria grew. Anxious neighbours advised Rike to remove the Stahlhelm symbol of the steel helmet above their front door as it would antagonise the soldiers of the Red Army. She and Maria set to work and soon only the motto was visible. Rike shivered as, one day, walking through the ruined city she saw graffiti proclaiming, ‘Enjoy the war, for the peace will be terrible’. She tried not to allow herself to be engulfed by fear. 

Rike decided to keep a diary to record her experiences of these troubled times; after all, her future was uncertain.

Langebrück, 17 April 1945
Ill will makes you unspeakably sad. Even though I know this, I can’t help feeling bitter. My lovely peace has gone.Hunger is my constant companion. For the foreseeable future my motto will be that of the great Socrates: ‘I do not live to eat, I eat to live.’
I wish I were still in Hochweitzschen with Dörte, but those happy days have passed. Will I ever be as happy again?

On 1 May Rike listened in disbelief to Admiral Dönitz’s announcement that Hitler was dead. He called upon the German people to mourn their Führer who died the death of a hero in the capital of the Reich. In response Mutschmann, Gauleiter of Dresden, one of the few cities where the Nazis still clung to power, called upon the people to fight to the end and to observe a period of mourning for their fallen leader. Rike, though she dared not express this, did not mourn the passing of the man who had brought so much suffering upon her country.

However, she had no time to reflect on this, because the clamour grew: the Russians were coming. Tales of the great vengeance they meted out on the German people were legion: widespread and brutal rape and murder. Women, girls, even children violated at will. And now, these Russians were near Dresden. There would be no escape. Hearing of this, Mädi fled with her two small children, Wolfgang and Christina to her husband’s family home in the beautiful village of Kipsdorf, in the Erzgebirge, near the Czech border twenty miles south of Dresden, leaving Rike and their home help, Marianne, in Langebrück.

Mädi tried to persuade Rike to leave with her, but she insisted on remaining. The pastor met her on the village street and said, ‘Fräulein, you realise the Russians are coming. You can’t stay.’
‘But there’s the house,’ she replied. ‘There’s Marianne. I can’t leave them. I must go back.’
So, Rike went back, despite the warnings, and steeled herself for the confrontation with the feared Russian troops. She held onto life lightly. If she died, so be it.

Langebrück, 17 May 1945.
In the last few days, I’ve decided to describe my most significant experiences so that later other people can know the truth about these terrible times.
On 5 May, a Saturday, I had set out to surprise my sister, who had fled to Kipsdorf with Wolfgang and Christina, with apples and other little things. But the pleasure was short-lived, for they’d announced on the radio the expected massed Russian attack on Saxony.
Mädi would have preferred to keep me with her, but the thought that, unless I left Kipsdorf immediately I might never be able to return to Langebrück, was so dreadful that I took my leave a few minutes later and set off on the road.

The only way to get to Dresden unharmed was to stop a car if you were lucky enough to find one. So about 6pm I stood expectantly on the road from Altenberg – Dippoldiswalde. Unfortunately, the weather was very inclement and rainy, so that I began to lose hope.
But, against the odds, and sooner than expected, a van stopped and promised to get me safe and sound to Dresden. The driver was going there, because the car needed a new spring and as it was going to the Benz factory, I could stay sitting on the wood gas stove at the back. It would, of course, have been far more pleasant to sit up front with the driver, but this wasn’t possible because there were other passengers.
Although it was a bit cool and windy, I was glad to be so safe. My new acquaintance graciously took me with him as far as Heidehof, where his unit lay.
I’ll never forget that journey and the generosity of the driver. I was even given lots of sweets and was offered a jar of honey that I could lick out, like the bear in the stories. You can imagine what that meant to a wartime stomach.
After a warm farewell, I walked to Blumenstraße where it was clear that even here at home, we were now in the immediate war zone.

We were now in the immediate war zone. The sky glowed from the huge fires over Meissen and Kamenz. The roar of battle shattered the silence of our village.

The sky glowed from the huge fires over Meissen and Kamenz. The roar of battle shattered the silence of our village. By now it was nearly midnight, and I was glad to be home with a roof over my head. Our Mariannchen, the faithful soul of our house, had packed everything up so that we’d be prepared in the event of a military evacuation.

A calm Sunday followed, though the radio carried news of Germany’s capitulation, which I was still unable to believe. On Monday morning we were ordered to evacuate by 10am. We got ourselves ready, but a rumour made us stay behind: Dönitz was going to speak to the German people. The day passed in an unending to and fro, and I decided to travel to Kipsdorf the next morning since everyone advised me to. At 5am I was looking about the village and -lo and behold! – two Russians on a motorbike came towards me. Too late! Now I had to prove myself, keep my nerve and show myself in control of the situation.
At about 9am the first carts drove down the stone road and then followed column after column – all Russians. I felt numb. Our worst fears had been realised and we dreaded what was to come; nevertheless, we had to carry on.
Marianne and I went into the village to fetch bread, and there we heard of the first atrocities and scare stories. We forgot all about bread and ran home, locked the door behind us and waited in terror for what might happen. When the morning stayed quiet, we decided we would plant a few potatoes in the afternoon. At least we’d have them safe in the ground.
Lunch was interrupted by loud foreign voices. Our hearts were in our mouths, and we rushed to the window. The Russians were entering the neighbours’ house. All you could hear on Blumenstraße were shouts in Russian and doors banging. We raced from one window to another. We put on Bolshevik headscarves that almost covered our eyes so that we really did look like Russian girls. I think I’ve never felt more relieved when the first group of Allies avoided our house. I have to say I thought it was a blessing from our parents that we were spared. Since the coast seemed clear we went out in the afternoon with buckets of potatoes into the garden. We had almost finished when the bell rang, and three Russians stood at the door.
They seemed to have their eye on the car. They were very disappointed that we didn’t speak Russian, but all in all they were pretty decent. They left without having once looked inside the house.

One sentence from the capitulation announcement rang in my ears: the German people are now at the mercy of the enemy, for good or ill. And as a result, our actions had to take account of that.

We were just about to continue our work when a Russian called to us from the neighbours’ garden and asked us to sit next to him on the edge of the wall. To refuse would have been an insult. He quickly explained that he was a Russian major and wanted to get to Weißig: could we show him the way on the map and point him in the right direction? Why not do him this favour? Still one sentence from the capitulation announcement rang in my ears: the German people are now at the mercy of the enemy, for good or ill. And as a result, our actions had to take account of that. But I must say that the Russian officer’s behaviour was exemplary; he was a real gentleman. He even gave me a watch to say thank you for helping him.

Another four Russians came to the house … Very soon they demanded to come in. They hammered on the door, and we opened up. … They were drunk, making them coarse and aggressive. Violently they tried to separate Marianne and me, but we held each other tightly.

This encounter strengthened me enormously, which was a good thing because what followed was awful. Another four Russians came to the house and examined the car; we watched from the veranda as they hadn’t rung the bell. Very soon they demanded to come in. They hammered on the door, and we opened up. Of course, they asked again about the car. I noticed straight away that they were drunk, making them coarse and aggressive. Violently they tried to separate Marianne and me, but we held each other tightly. One of these barbarians tore the watch from me that, shortly before, the major had given me. Perhaps that was the only means of preventing them from emptying the house.
Incredibly they left soon after. We said a prayer of thanks to God when finally, these four shut the door behind them. But not long afterwards two of them returned and wanted to be let in. They made their demands in Polish. We called over to Frau David, who is from Upper Silesia and speaks their language, and the novelty of being able to make ourselves understood caused the two to forget what they had come for. They came into the house and made themselves at home, telling stories of Siberia and reminiscing about life in the army. As they left, we gave them to understand that next time they should ring the bell, which with much gesticulating they promised to do. That was the last of that first day’s visits. We were more than exhausted. 

Now we had to turn our thoughts to the night. As we were still talking over the day’s events with the neighbour, I saw a man with his daughter and lots of luggage approach Reuthers Hotel. Mindful of our security, I invited him, since he needed lodgings, to stay with us. He gladly agreed, and we felt all the safer for his presence that night. The next morning, we put his bike together again for him and he promised to return very soon with much needed food in exchange for two bottles of wine we’d buried.

The Russians returned the next day and, once again, Rike found herself needing all her guile to dissuade them from raping her. Somehow, they listened, not all the soldiers were the same, and she was left unhurt. Rike didn’t know why she had survived when so many other women, not so different from her, hadn’t the same fortune. Why had God answered her prayers and not theirs? Had her parents been looking after her? Had God simply decided that she and her poor family had suffered enough? Whatever the reason, she was grateful for the small mercy she experienced.

Read more of Rike’s story by buying Loving the Enemy: building bridges in a time of war – get your copy here.

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