December 28, 1997 in Idaho

Gentle Scribe Shares Wartime Tale

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Nothing in Barbara Ohler’s rustic Saxon village prepared her for war.

She spun wool, wove, baked bread and cleaned the barn, just as her ancestors had for 800 years. She lived in Tschippendorf, along Romania’s border with Ukraine, where her German ancestors had settled. She was as German as they were.

War burst across Europe in 1939 as Barbara turned 15.

Tschippendorf heard little about it. There were no phones and only one radio in town.

Age-old traditions continued undisturbed. Barbara married Mike Weber in 1940. Mike had been born in America, but his family had returned to Tschippendorf when he was a baby.

Three weeks after their wedding, Mike went to war.

It took Barbara nearly 50 years before she could write about the eight years that ripped their lives apart.

Last year, comfortable in a new home in Post Falls, Barbara finished her book, “Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy.” She published it herself and has sold 800 copies, often to people with similar histories.

“I had a book in me,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to go about it.”

At 74, Barbara is lighthearted and gracious. Her slight accent is the only hint that she’s not a born and bred American.

She and Mike celebrated 57 years together this year.

“And we still love each other,” Mike says, with a smile for his wife.

That they found each other after the war is a miracle. Both had heard far-off rumblings of war in 1940, but they hardly noticed until the Hungarian army drafted Mike.

Hungary had absorbed Tschippendorf. Mike was assigned to border patrol in the Carpathian Mountains. A shot to his head sent him home.

Even in 1943, his village still was untouched by war, except for the absence of its young men. Barbara had a baby girl that year. Mike recovered from his wound and returned to his post.

Hungary and Romania joined the Axis in 1943. The following year, war reached Tschippendorf.

In September 1944, a man with a drum yelled throughout the village that women and children had to prepare to evacuate. The Germans were moving them to safety.

“No one slept. Everyone cried,” Barbara says. “We’d never traveled anywhere. We had no suitcases, boxes. We wrapped our stuff in a tablecloth.”

With dozens of women and children, she trudged 10 miles over a mountain to Bistritza, where Army trucks picked them up for a 60-mile trip to a transport train. She worried that Mike would never find her.

Soldiers crowded the women and children into boxcars, shuttled them back and forth for a few days, then parked them on a dead track. There they sat for several weeks until Mike’s family passed by in a wagon train from Tschippendorf.

Bombs had hit near the village. Everyone had evacuated and joined thousands of other refugees on the roads. Barbara joined her in-laws. She’d scrounged and begged for food for weeks. She’d washed Maria’s diapers in creeks, but they never dried. Maria coughed constantly.

“That poor little baby,” Barbara says. “After awhile she couldn’t cry anymore. She made little kitten sounds.”

A month of rugged westward travel took them across Hungary to a first-aid station in Austria. It was Barbara’s first experience with hot and cold running water.

Soldiers noticed Maria’s cough and steered Barbara to a train that would take them to a refugee camp in Austria. A kind passenger gave Barbara bibs, ration cards and money.

“It makes you believe there are angels around,” Mike says.

Barbara found most of her townspeople in the refugee camp, and a message and money from her mother, who was in Czechoslovakia. Barbara boarded another train with Maria and headed through war-torn Austria to Czechoslovakia.

A relative knew Mike was on the Russian front and sent him word that Barbara and Maria were alive. Mike wrote back that he was hospitalized with a wound in the leg. Barbara was relieved he was alive.

At the end of April 1945, as Russians advanced into Czechoslovakia, Barbara returned to the refugee camp in Austria for safety. A week later, the war ended.

Barbara found work and a room on a farm in Vorchdorf, Austria, which was under American protection. Mike escaped death in front of a Czech firing squad, then chose to surrender to American soldiers for the best treatment.

But a few days after his surrender, Russians rounded up the Hungarian soldiers in the American camp, loaded them into boxcars and transported them to a prison camp near the Caspian Sea.

For six months, Mike was allowed no outside communication. Barbara hunted for him through the Red Cross, but with no luck. Then Mike began hunting for her. Eighteen months into his incarceration, the Red Cross located Barbara.

Mike wrote to her in a code they’d created during their courtship.

The Russians released him in December 1948. He weighed 90 pounds. The train fare he was given wasn’t quite enough to reach Vorchdorf and Barbara, but a passenger chipped in the difference.

“That was a good Christmas,” Barbara says.

The Webers stayed in Vorchdorf, living for a while with 12 other family members in a two-room shack. Eager to end their refugee life, Mike and Barbara applied in 1951 to emigrate to the United States through a church program for displaced people.

Mike didn’t qualify because he had lost his U.S. citizenship fighting for the Hungarian army. Barbara committed herself as head of the household and Mike was allowed to emigrate as part of the family.

After a month on ships and trains, the Webers arrived at their neat two-bedroom home in Wenatchee, Wash., and started a new American life.

“We were in heaven. We still feel that way,” Barbara says. They’re retired now after raising seven children and an orchard of apples. They’ve returned to Tschippendorf several times.

Barbara and Mike mastered English in a few years and were asked to tell their story throughout Washington. A friend finally convinced Barbara in 1992 to write a book, if for no other reason than to give to her children.

“It was a lot, a lot, a lot of work,” she says, thumbing through her 222-page story. “But I’m glad I did it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE TO GET THE BOOK “Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy” is a detailed account of the Weber family’s wartime odyssey. It costs $12.95 and is available by calling 773-0965.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE TO GET THE BOOK “Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy” is a detailed account of the Weber family’s wartime odyssey. It costs $12.95 and is available by calling 773-0965.


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