Note: This account is the product of numerous discussions, interviews and writings between Frieda geboren Wedhorn, her son Norbert Grohmann, and Mark Rabideau. Every effort has been made to remain true to the intent, content and events of this life altering time.
During the days preceding Frieda geboren Wedhorn’s capture and deportation by the Soviets, heavy fighting began in and around the Wedhorn family home in Orlofferfelde, Westpreußen. During this time, around March 1945, Soviet Red Army soldiers came to the Wedhorn farmhouse, took possession and refuge within it and while there they attacked and raped Frieda (geboren Wedhorn). Shortly after the rape, the Soviet soldiers were forced to leave the farm, at gunpoint by their military superiors, to re-engage in the heavy fighting against German defense forces in and about Orlofferfelde.
Immediately following the Soviet evacuation of Otto Wedhorn’s home and raping of his daughter (Frieda), Otto (Sr.) decided to take precautions to protect his daughter Frieda from further danger by hiding her in a secret double walled area within the family stable, near their home. This was the same area were the family had previously stored “surplus” food stocks obtained by Otto Sr. through his private butchering service. (Note: This private service was illegal during the war because each German was allocated a specific quantity of food via a government controlled food stamp system.)
Unfortunately, Otto’s plan nearly produced disastrous results. The family home was very exposed, standing on the highest ground in Orlofferfelde. The stable of the Wedhorn house was hit by incoming artillery fire; no one really knew whether the shells came from German or Soviet weapons. Shrapnel struck the family’s horse in the neck causing the horse to bleed to death; screaming, gurgling and terrifying Frieda with its death throes. Fortunately, Frieda’s hiding place, with her in it, remained intact; she was uninjured. (Note: During that same military engagement, the nearby farm house of Hermann Recht was struck by shellfire.)
Throughout this bombardment and shelling, the Wedhorn family, excepting Frieda Wedhorn who remained in her hiding place, spent the night cowering in a tiny, dank, basement under the family home. The cellar was cold and wet; water soaked the floor. Frieda believes her mother, Ella Wedhorn, contracted a lung infection during this time, weakening her immune system. Frieda believes that this infection ultimately resulted in her mother, Ella, contracting a fatal case of typhoid when she was later incarcerated by the Soviets in an Elbing assembly camp.
The following day the Wedhorns along with Emma Recht, the wife of Ernst Hermann Ferdinand Recht, decided to leave for a safer house in the nearby town of Orloff. (Note: Emma Recht had come to the Wedhorns in January 1945 when the Russians over ran Tilsit in Ostpreußen; she was Ella geb. Recht and Otto Wedhorn’s sister-in-law. Her husband Ernst Recht had been conscripted to fight in the Volksturm and had been reported as missing in action. Ernst was brother-in-law to Otto Wedhorn Sr. and brother of Ella geboren Recht.) Ella Wedhorn (Recht), Otto Wedhorn (Jr.) and Emma Recht were the first to evacuate. Otto Wedhorn (Sr.) stayed with his daughter Frieda who remained in her stable storage hiding area; father and daughter waited until there were fewer Soviet troops nearby before attempting their escape. Early during the battles around Orlofferfelde, the Red (Soviet) Army had brought numerous horses to the Wedhorn stable for shelter; these remained even after the Soviets resumed fighting. As a result, it was not easy getting Frieda out of her hiding place and through the crowd of animals to safety. But finally, Otto Sr. and Frieda managed to sneak out; it was very early in the morning, quite dark, very cold and there was a thick blanket of snow. Fighting and bombardment continued in the area, but it no longer centered on their home. Frieda remembers seeing shells from a “Stalinorgel” (Soviet multiple rocket launcher) flying above her and her father in the early morning sky. The ground was covered by newly fallen snow; as she and her father walked they tripped over what looked like piles of snow in the fields. These ‘snow piles’ were actually the dead bodies of young men in Soviet and German uniforms who had fallen in the battles the days before.
Frieda and her father, Otto Sr., were not able to catch up with the rest of the Wedhorn family because they were arrested by Soviet soldiers. Instead of rejoining their family, they were brought to a house which was being used as a Soviet command post. In this house, there were already a lot of German civilians. There were also Poles who took all valuables away from the incoming Germans. While they were being held in this ‘command post’, Frieda noticed Ella, Otto (Jr.) and Emma Recht out on the street being force marched under gunpoint by Soviet military personnel. Only years later did Frieda learn, from her brother Otto, that the Wedhorn family, as well as the escorting Soviets, knew that she and her father (Otto Sr.) were being held and interrogated in the Soviet command post. But, family members were not allowed to talk to each other; and, instead were kept separate and forcibly removed to different assembly points.
Eventually, Frieda Wedhorn was jailed in a basement together with other German women scheduled for deportation to Soviet labor camps. Fortunately, Otto Wedhorn (Sr.) was not put on the list for deportation due to his old age (66); he tracked Frieda to each of the holding facilities to which the Soviets brought his daughter, all the way to Elbing. Shortly before Frieda was to be transferred to Insterburg, her father (Otto Sr.) managed to talk to her through the window of her basement prison cell, informing her of the bad news that she was to be deported to the Soviet Union and incarcerated in a forced labor camp. He informed Frieda that he would look for the other family members and try to bring them back home. As it turned out, he was not able to find anyone and he went home alone.
Over the next days, Otto’s daughter Käthe, his son Otto and even his mother-in-law Else Auguste Recht (Ekrut) showed up at the family farm. By the time Otto Sr. arrived home, the Soviet soldiers had stripped every “standing” home of whatever the soldiers could carry with them. The Soviets had thrown all the furniture and possessions which they could not carry or did not want out of the houses and onto the fields and the streets. As the remnants of the Wedhorn family returned to Orlofferfelde, they rummaged through the fields and streets to see what might be salvageable for use.
Later when Else Auguste Recht (Hermann Recht’s second wife) returned to Orlofferfelde from her unsuccessful evacuation attempt, she was unable to speak about what had happened to her husband Hermann Recht. She seemed to be in shock and was quite out of her senses. None of the remaining family members were allowed to go to Zeyersvorderkampen to discover Hermann’s fate. They learned much later that Hermann Recht had drowned or been murdered; and his body had been found in the Nogat River.
Following Frieda Wedhorn’s capture and incarceration by the Soviets in March/April 1945 near Elbing, Westpreußen, she was transported by truck to Insterburg, Ostpreußen. From there, she was transferred to a cattle car on a train for her journey into the Soviet East; this trip took about two weeks. While traveling through the ‘new’ Poland, Soviet troops had to “protect” the German women on the cattle train from the attacks of marauding Poles.
It became increasingly cold as the train moved Eastward. Every morning, the Soviet minders had to break ice off the train cars in order to open the doors and remove the corpses of the freshly dead German women/ prisoners. The rations for the captive German women consisted of hard bread, dry cheese and a bucket of water for drinking. There were only a few survivors by the time the train arrived at the Gulag. (Notes: The actual location of Frieda’s incarceration remains unknown; our search for information continues. But given the German women were civilians, Frieda believes the Soviets did not maintain incriminating documents which could be used to illuminate the acts of the Soviets who kidnapped and killed many of those Germans. Most certainly Frieda has no record(s) of her incarceration and servitude. We are working with the DRK Suchdienst to see if they are able to source any documentation regarding Frieda Wedhorn’s ordeal.)
What is known with respect to Frieda’s internment time and deportation is that she was incarcerated in two different labor camps and one POW Camp. The first labor camp was several hundred kilometers east of Moscow. In this camp, German women were forced to do heavy labor such as the manual unloading of coal from trains. Half of the approximately 800 German women in this camp died within the first six months that Frieda was interred. After about 12 months (perhaps in early 1946), Frieda was transferred to a second camp (Gulag). Her transfer was accomplished partly by train and partly by forced march. We know this happened in winter because Frieda recalls that she was forced to walk across the frozen Volga river. At the second camp, Frieda was forced to pile peat moss and/or still wet bricks for drying before they were fired. For a short time period, she was incarcerated in a third Gulag, this was a German POW camp where she cared for wounded and injured German soldiers. The conditions in each of the camps were horrific.
Shortly before being released in 1947, the few surviving German women, including Frieda, were forced to sign an unintelligible (to them) Russian document. Frieda remembers that the few survivors joked, they had probably just signed their own death sentences.
In the end, Frieda came away from her two plus year ordeal with a single document; it looks something like a birth certificate and is written in Polish. It is possible that the document might actually be a translation of a German original. (Hopefully we will obtain a copy and be able to translate its contents.) Every other material possession of Frieda Wedhorn was lost. Still somehow, she managed to escape with her life. She finally arrived and was released to a West German reception camp in Frankfurt/Oder in 1947.
As for the rest of the Wedhorns:
- Otto Wedhorn Senior was fortunate and survived the conflagration. Otto and the surviving members of the Wedhorn Family, with the exception of Frieda, were expelled into what became the German Democratic Republic (DDR- Deutsche Demokratische Republik; the Soviet Zone of Germany). In 1963, Otto Wedhorn (Sr.) died in a hospital near Fichtenwalde, a few days after having a stroke (Gehirnschlag). He was 84 years old. His daughter Kaethe was with him up to his end; but his daughter Frieda, could not visit him any more after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961.
- Ella Recht was raped by invading Soviet troops in her home in Orlofferfelde. In that same time period, Ella Recht’s deportation to the Russian Gulags was not undertaken because she had contracted typhus. The Russians let her go due to the risk of spreading infection. Ella died in a hospital in Elbing on May 18, 1945. It was her silver wedding day.
- Willi was killed in battle on the last day of World War 2, in Italy.
- Emma Recht was the „Schwiegertochter“ (daughter-in-law) of Hermann Recht and the “Schwägerin” (sister-in-law) of Ella geboren Recht and Otto Wedhorn, Sr. Emma Recht later found her husband; Ernst Hermann Ferdinand Recht had been reported missing in action after having been conscripted into the local “Volkssturm” together with many old men and young teenage boys. They both managed to survive the war; sadly, they had lost both of their sons (Ernst Recht and Egon Recht). Following the war they lived near Potsdam.
- With the erection of the Berlin wall in 1961, the ‘Brandenburg/ Potsdam’ branches of the Wedhorn family became, what was for most of its older members, permanently separated from their Western German relatives.The remnants of the family re-united when Germany reunified in 1990 (Deutsche Wiedervereinigung).
And as for Else Recht geboren Ekrut:
- Otto Wedhorn Jr. reported that after the end of WW2, when the Soviets turned governmental administration in Westpreußen over to the Poles and ethnic Germans were being expelled from Poland, Else Auguste Recht (geb. Ekrut) did not flee with the remaining members of the Wedhorn family to Fichtenwalde, near Berlin. Rather than joining Otto Wedhorn’s sisters in Fichtenwalde, she is believed instead to have fled to Danzig where she likely still had family or friends. It was at this time the Wedhorns lost contact with her.
- Another family story reports that Soviet occupation troops “assualted, beat, and threw Else into the Nogat river” near the Senger farm in Zeyersvorderkampen, Westpreussen.
It is likely that the truth of Elsa’s ordeal will never be known.