The Last Wolf Children
After losing their parents in the chaos of World War II,
children of former East Prussia (now Kaliningrad) are forced into a struggle for survival.
There is a name for those kids: Wolf Children – because they often slept in the woods.
Children were often the ones who survived, being fed the last bread from a starving mother,
who the children then had to bury.
I visited Reinhard, Elfriede, Erna and Gisela in their homes in Lithuania.
Elfriede Müller, born in 1934, became a refugee when she
was 11 years old. While in hiding, her mother and brother were taken
by the Soviets and sent to Siberia to work in a forced-labor camp.
Elfriede’s mothers wouldn’t return to Lithuania until 1990,
several decades after their separation, only to pass away three years later of cancer.
Reinhard Bundt, born in 1936, became a wolf child when he was 10 years old.
“My heart is German, but I’m Lithuanian.”, he says.
His mother told him on her death bed in their bombed-out house
in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad): “You have to survive, go to Lithuania.”
He went there all alone with nearly frostbitten feet in a cargo train in cold December.
Erna Schneider, born in 1936, became a wolf child when she was 9 years old.
She was seperated from her mother when Erna was deported by the Red Army in a cattle train.
One stormy night in a train station she managed to escape and fled into the forest.
Later she found out that all the children who stayed on the train were taken by boat to Russia
which was attacked. All of them died. Now she lives on a quiet lake in the countryside.
Gisela Unterspann sits in her little house in a tiny village in rural Lithuania
with a population somewhere between 10 and 100 people.
A run-down gravel road connects the inhabitants to the outside world.
It is peaceful here. Quiet.
“It’s not that I have a hard time remembering, it’s just that I don’t want to,”
Gisela says, as she bursts into tears. She doesn’t want to remember because,
in those days, she survived on next to nothing, begging for food every day.
She doesn’t want to remember because,
in those days, she saw her own grandmother die of starvation
and as she grieved the Russian soldiers shoved guns in her face
and told her “Go away, go away, we will kill you!”.
After her painful escape to Lithuania she ended up
on a forced collective farm in the Soviet Union called a kolkhoz.
There, she found her future husband, where she lived from then on.
The work was hard, pulling potatoes and roots out of the ground.
After she picked it, she gave it all to the Soviets.
She had to work seven days a week with no days off.
Until the dawn of the Soviet era, Gisela had always to cover up her identity.
She tried to keep the details of her story close to her heart because the government
threatened that anyone who wouldn’t report Germans like her would be punished.
She took a Lithuanian name and learned the Lithuanian language
in about three months. For 40 years, she lived with the constant fear
of being discovered and punished for being born in the wrong part of the world.
She holds an old yellowed letter in her hand, Express from Germany.
She can’t read it. Her eyes aren’t good anymore.
It’s dated April 18, 1961 and her name is written on the envelope.
It says in German: “My dear Giselchen, I am so happy that I know you
are still alive and that I have your address to write you.
We haven’t heard from each other in a long time. Your brother Dieter and I are healthy.”
The letter is signed: ”Your Mother.”
Her mother died two years after the first letter. Cancer.
She had never told Gisela about her illness.
Gisela would never see her mother again.
She is now 86 years old and after all those years of hiding her native language,
her German is almost gone. She sits quietly between the pauses of nearly every
sentence that she speaks. Gisela wants to forget all those horrible things she
witnessed but she can’t.
“It just stays with you like a scar. It looms over you,” she says.