Saturday, February 23, 2013

TOP STORYS >> Young witness tells of evils in Nazi Germany

Leader staff writer

“War is the most devastating, unheroic activity that man has ever devised. No one wins,” Ilse Nunn told Cabot High School history and psychology students Wednesday morning.

Nunn was “not quite” 9 years old when World War II began with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The German native was 14 when the devastation ended.

Betrayal and deception haunted her family throughout the war.

She described how “a pall or rather pervasive fear hung over our daily lives. For six years, Hitler ruled and he did it with an iron hand.”

She explained how their leaders kept Germans in the dark. “Horrors about the concentration camps were whispered behind closed doors, but no one knew anything for sure,” Nunn said.

Nunn, who lives in Jacksonville, admired her grandmother’s acts of defiance. Her grandmother was friends with an elderly Jewish couple and Nunn played with their grandchildren before the war.

The Gestapo, the secret police, told her grandmother that her son would lose his job if she didn’t stop being friends with the couple. Nunn’s grandmother told the couple to come to her house at night and the friendship continued until Nazis took the family away.

“There was nothing we could do,” Nunn said. The Jewish grandfather was hung in the square.

Many Germans who wanted to help or simply wanted to find out what was going on paid the ultimate price. A close friend of Nunn’s cousins informed the Gestapo about the couple listening to BBC news on a radio in their basement.

“One couldn’t trust anyone. Suspicion held sway over the population,” she recalled.

Nunn, whose maiden name was Kalmering, added that she heard her parents talking about how their country would lose the war.

Even as a child, she knew instinctively not to mention the conversation to anyone because her mother and father would have been killed for not being loyal to Hitler.

Instead of “good morning,” Germans were required to salute and say, “Heil, Hitler!,” Nunn recalled.

Her cousins, who were also a mother and a father, were shot to death by a firing squad. Their bodies were donated for scientific research.

Nunn said, “It is still unknown what happened to their three sons.”

Her uncle committed suicide after the couple was executed.

“There is still no end to our tragedies,” Nunn continued.

Four of her family members died in bombings.

Nunn also described the ration cards her family used to get food and supplies during the war. The cards told you what you could buy and that depended on the size of your family.

Nunn’s family didn’t starve because they lived near the Baltic Sea where a lot of fishing was done, she said.

The family’s cellar was cold enough to keep potatoes and other foodstuffs that weren’t rationed.

Clothing and candy were rationed too, Nunn said.

The children could have candy for Easter and Christmas only.

She described to the Cabot students the destroyer her father served on as an engineer.

“It was so beautiful,” she said.

Nunn said she saw the ship as a little girl. The sailors served her a refreshing nonalcoholic red drink. They let her see the engine room, which was so clean it shined.

Nunn said her father’s cabin was so nice she wanted to bring it home to live in.

This imagery stands in stark contrast to what her young eyes saw later.

The ship was sunk when the British and the Germans violated Norway’s neutrality in pursuit of iron ore.

On March 12, 1945, Usedom — a Baltic Sea island on the border between Germany and Poland — where Nunn lived, was bombed.

“The bodies were piled a mile high on the walk. Everything shook that wasn’t nailed down,” she said.

At one point during the war, Nunn recalled, she was the one who ran into the open to get what the family needed. Her life could be risked, but her mother couldn’t die because she had to take care of her younger siblings, Nunn said.

She also remembered riding on a truck to the last bakery left standing where she received half of a loaf of bread.

“There were people screaming you couldn’t help. I will not forget that,” Nunn said.

Germany was divided into four sections after the Third Reich was defeated. The British, French, Americans and Russian took over one section each.

Usedom was part of the Soviet-controlled section of East Germany at the end of the war and the area’s residents weren’t safe.

Nunn said, “(The Russians) came in droves. I screamed at the top of my voice and then I prayed. I just expected to die every minute.”

Nunn’s family left on the last train heading west.

Each family member had just one suitcase and the journey was long.

“For my family, cold and hunger became very real, but God helped us through,” Nunn said.

Nunn continued, “Here was Germany at the end of the war, a huge pile of rubble.”

Areas the size of Jacksonville and Cabot were nothing but debris, she added.

America eventually shipped cornmeal to the Germans. “(They) began to feel sorry for us,” Nunn said.

She noted that her fellow citizens weren’t warmongers.

“They were hardworking, nose-to-the ground people and they didn’t believe in debt. (The government) sent you to where you were needed and you had better do your best,” Nunn said.

But the Germans rebuilt and her homeland no longer shows the scars of that dark time, Nunn said.

She said the four most prominent Nazis “took the coward’s way out.”

Hitler married his longtime girlfriend, Eva Braun, hours before they both committed suicide in his bunker while the Red Army was advancing.

Braun bit into a cyanide capsule and Hitler shot himself. Nunn said witnesses claimed the bodies were burned and taken to Russia.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife poisoned their seven children and killed themselves as the Soviets closed in on Berlin.

Herman Goering, the Nazi party leader, was captured and committed suicide in his cell before he could be tried for war crimes at Nuremberg.

Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s most well-known generals, committed suicide rather than being shot by a firing squad after being implicated in a plot against Hitler.

At the end of her talk, Nunn offered the students advice.

“I suggest you learn all you can in school and in college because no one can take from you what you have learned,” she said.

Nunn then urged the students to be informed about candidates for political offices so that they can vote for the person they think will do the best job.

She left Germany in 1950 and married an American soldier. He was in the Army and had just one stripe, but it took nine months for her family to be declared “deNazified.”

The couple had three daughters and all of them served in the military against Nunn’s wishes. She told the students she was proud of them anyway. One daughter became a nurse and the others teachers.

David Copeland and history teacher Mike Nash organized the presentation.