Canadian Baltic Immigrant Aid Society | Baltischer Hilfsverein in Kanada

Memoir: Hans von Riekhoff

HomePublicationsMemoir: Hans von Riekhoff
At the onset of Germany’s war with Poland on September 1st 1939, Latvia and Estonia proclaimed their neutrality. In spite of this the Russian Government demanded that these two countries grant military bases, particularly in port cities. Since no outside help could be expected, the Baltic Republics had to accept this demand and thus the end of their independence had begun.
This event also destroyed the possibility of the future existence of the Baltic Germans in their native land. We found ourselves in a hopeless situation. Clearly the Communists would annex the Baltic States sooner or later and the Baltic Germans together with Latvian and Estonian leading groups would be class-enemy number one according to the Bolshevik tenets. The transformation to Communist rule would bring our destruction as we had experienced it at the end of WWI.
Suddenly, during these depressing times there appeared a rumor that Hitler had decided to resettle the Baltic Germans in Germany. The rumor became certainty and we were called up to leave our ancestral land and return to Germany whence our forefathers had come some 700 years ago. For us these were heartbreaking decisions to make: to seize the chance to build a new but uncertain future in a Germany at war. However there was no other solution possible. The naked instinct of self-preservation forced us to grab at this chance. As many said half jokingly: ”Hitler called and Stalin pushed”
At first everything seemed confused and unclear. How would it all be accomplished? But slowly the situation became clear. It was explained to us that all German real estate would be received and liquidated through a trust company (Treuhand Ges.), created for this purpose. We would later receive compensation through this company in Germany. We would be transported by ships to Germany and were allowed to take hand luggage with us. Household items, packed and crated, would go into the ships hold. Crated furniture and other heavy objects were to be left in locked rooms in the houses. The keys to these rooms with addresses and a list of the inventory were to be given to the trust company for later transport.
Everybody was advised to await notification of the departure of the ship assigned to each family. The whole organization lay in the hands or our own people and ran smoothly. A special task was assigned to everyone. I was a block warden and had to visit those Baltic Germans who lived in my section to supply them with the latest instructions and keep contact.
We lived in Noemme, a suburb of Reval, situated in a large pine-forest. Just a year earlier we had built a delightful house and we loved our home in the woods. For years we had saved, planned and worked towards the fulfillment of this dream and now we had to leave it. I was busy with my assigned task and on the road from early morning until late at night. Being busy helped me through those last warm October days.
I had literally no time to attend to our personal affairs. The whole task fell on the shoulders of my wife. She had to take care of our children, 2 and 4 yours old, to dissolve the household, prepare and pack everything for our departure while helping an elderly couple who, had arrived from the country and was staying with us. It had been arranged, that all people who had to embark in Reval were accommodated in private homes. As the Estonians comprehended that the Baltic Germans were leaving the country they became very uneasy and developed a panicky urge to buy. A steady stream of prospective buyers for everything appeared at the door. “Why are you Germans leaving our mutual native land?” was a frequent question. What could we say? Most of them knew anyway and worried.
At the end of October (26th) came our turn to embark. Everything was packed and ready in the special room. The door was locked, the key and power of attorney surrendered to the trust company. A truck arrived to transport our baggage and we followed in a taxi. It was a sad departure. The port was very busy. From all directions people arrived in large numbers. The general mood was subdued, similar to a funeral. People greeted each other quietly, shook hands, frequently with tears in their eyes. Estonian custom control went without delay.
The ship was a large cruise ship belonging to the German Government (KDF) Embarkation took many hours for the 2000 passengers but we finally found our cabin, which exuded a feeling of warmth and the children and my wife went to sleep. Late in the evening the ship weighed anchor and started on its voyage. I went on deck and watched the lights of the city slowly disappearing. Lights were also visible at sea. They were from the Russian warships, their guns trained threateningly at the defenceless city. On the whole trip the weather was warm with calm seas, excellent accommodation and good food. It was like a pleasure-cruise.
We landed in Stettin, the capital of Pommerania (now Poland) where we were met by a troop of Hitler Jugend (young boys) who welcomed us with songs. The streets were decorated with flags and banners. Trucks transported us to a large Messehalle (trade & convention centre) where we were fed and greeted with stirring speeches as “German brethren returning to the Reich”. The same day we boarded trains, which were filled to capacity that took us to Posen (Poznan) in the western part of (occupied) Poland. Again, we were taken to the large Messehalle, fed and then taken to mass accommodation mainly in schools. Mothers with small children were housed in hospitals.
Life in the camps was dull, but we could come and go freely. We were examined by a medical team and received German citizenship. To obtain discharge from the camps we had to prove permanent employment. I found employment in the finance dept. and later in the Posen Fire Insurance Society. We were assigned an apartment, which had recently been evacuated by its Polish owners, which upset us very much. The displaced Polish inhabitants were resettled in the so-called “Warsaw Protectorate”. Farm labourers, small peasants and factory workers were not deported since their labour was needed.
I became dissatisfied with my job and decided to look for the post of an administrator of a farm estate. Meanwhile the settlement of the Baltic Germans on agricultural properties was taking place. They were first installed as commissioned administrators. A settlement of the claim for property left behind in the Baltic States was to follow. Then title of ownership was to be given to the new settlers.
After searching for a long time I found a farm that we liked in spite of the fact that it was completely run down. All the buildings were in poor repair, there were not enough cows or horses and the fields were poorly cultivated and full of weeds. We started with the renovation of the house. After several weeks we could move in but there was hardly any furniture. In April we received notification from the railway station that our furniture had arrived. This was the furniture that we had left locked up in Reval eight months ago! We were overjoyed and to our astonishment everything was in tiptop condition. Now I could devote myself to the restoration of the farm. Fortunately I had good polish workers on the farm and with their help we made steady progress and eventually produced good crops. Agricultural development ran full throttle without interruption until the end of 1944. The Polish population did not commit acts of sabotage and we lived as if it were in times of peace.
Eventually I was drafted to the Russian front, was taken prisoner in 1945 and spent the next 5 years in a Russian prison camp. My wife was able to flee with the children by horse and wagon to West Germany where we were finally reunited. When leaving, the Polish farm workers helped my wife. The women embraced their former mistress in tears, wishing her God’s blessing while the men loaded the wagons in silence and then kissed her hand.
In conclusion I want to say that though it had been bitterly hard to leave our homeland and in spite of all the loss and suffering that this disastrous war brought us, it gave the Baltic Germans who had been farmers and were newly settled on country estates a reprieve of 5 years. Quite unexpectedly we were transplanted into a life, which bore a certain resemblance to the days on our own country estates in the Baltic Provinces before World War I.