Surviving the Nazis and the Soviets

Local woman was a German refugee during World War II

T-R PHOTO BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ Gertrud Schakat Tammen, 85, evacuated East Prussia in the mid-1940s at 13 years old, as a refugee bound for western Germany. Here she sits with a map of her hometown of Tilsit, East Prussia, which is today part of Russia. Bombing by Soviet forces was so prevalent before the evacuation, that as a child, Tammen used a red crayon to mark every spot on the map where a bomb had dropped on the city. She has lived in Marshalltown since 1954.

Gertrud Schakat Tammen, 85, has resided in Marshalltown since 1954, becoming a United States citizen in 1962. Tammen speaks with a slight German accent, a reminder of her childhood in East Prussia. When the Nazis finally allowed the masses to evacuate lands quickly being captured by the Soviets, Tammen and members of her family narrowly escaped to western Germany. These evacuations, and the expulsion following World War II, is regarded as the largest forced migration in world history.

Tammen was born June 24, 1931, in Tilsit, East Prussia, then a northeast German city near the Russian border.

After the city was captured by the Soviets in 1945, it was renamed Sovietsk, and is now a city in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia. Growing up, Tammen knew her country was at war with the Soviets, and later British and Americans forces. She listened to the radio news with her father Otto, and saw films at the local movie theater. She knew food was being rationed for the first time in her life. She and other little girls joined the Jung Maedel where they sang patriotic songs, went to plays and swore allegiance to the government.

Tammen’s mother Ida disliked the fact that many “party” events were held Sunday mornings — the same time she wanted to take her family to church. Club participation was mandatory, even though her family didn’t belong to the Nazi Party.

“If you wanted to advance in life, you had to join the Nazi Party, so many people did,” Tammen said. “I even remember seeing Nazi boots sticking out from under the robe of our church minister.”

In July 1942, the Nazis bombed the Soviet city of Stalingrad, breaking the two countries’ 1939 Nonagression Pact. The Soviet Union successfully stopped the German’s advance; two million people perished. The dueling superpowers continued to battle.

On April 20, 1943, Tilsit endured its first heavy air attack by the Soviets. The bombings became so prevalent, that young Tammen used a red crayon to mark every spot on the family’s map where a bomb had dropped on Tilsit. She keeps the map with her other documents pertaining to the war.

In October of 1944, Tammen and her mother left Tilsit for the relative calm of Annaberg, in Saxony, Germany. They returned to East Prussia for Christmas, to reunite with her father who worked as a machinist, breaking up ice on frozen waterways. But on Jan. 13, 1945, the Great Russian Offensive began, and the family was desperate to return to Annaberg. Nazi officials had repressed the efforts of civilians to evacuate until the Red Army’s advances could no longer be halted.

“The Russians had taken control of the roads, so the only way out was to cross the frozen Frische Haff (a brackish water lagoon on the Baltic Sea),” Tammen recalled. “On Feb. 1, 1945, my mother, my sister Eva, three aunts, cousins and my 81-year-old grandmother, on top of a covered wagon pulled by two strong horses, made our way to the town of Stolp in Pomerania (today a city in northern Poland).”

The mission was called Operation Hannibal, whereby German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia and the Polish Corridor vacated these areas, in what was the largest emergency evacuation by sea in world history. Over the course of 15 weeks, between 500 and 1,000 vessels of all sizes transported 800,000 to 900,000 refugees and 350,000 soldiers across the Baltic Sea into Germany and occupied Denmark.

Tammen and her family arrived in Annaberg on March 3, 1945, but thousands of people weren’t as fortunate. The greatest known maritime catastrophe happened during Operation Hannibal on the night of Jan. 30, 1945, when the passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff, built only to harbor 1,880 passengers — and forced to carry over 10,000 German refugees and soldiers — was struck by three Soviet torpedoes and sank. Over 9,000 people were killed.

On May 8, 1945, Soviet troops marched into Annaberg, unleashing a reign of terror. Tammen kept a diary of these experiences — a possession prized by her family today. On May 20 she wrote: “We have a curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The Russian prisoners who had been released, are looting. We have to lock the doors. If we kill one Russian, 50 Annaberg residents will be shot.”

Tammen’s family fled to Berlin in July, then got sent to a refugee camp in Lichtenrade, then on to Hagenow-Land, finally reuniting with her father in Kiel, that December. Tammen recalls sister Eva being tasked with scrounging for sustenance, selling their belongings in exchange for loaves of bread. Even Tammen’s two prized dolls were sold to buy food.

“People called us refugees. We weren’t welcome wherever we went,” Tammen said. “It’s like how Syrian and Burmese refugees are treated today.”

Eventually, Tammen and her family settled in Leer, a city in Lower Saxony, Germany. She graduated high school there in 1950, and went on to nursing school. She met a local young man named Frank Tammen, and fell in love. The couple broke up for a period, and Frank made plans to relocate to the United States to live with relatives in New Providence, Iowa who were willing to sponsor him. But before he left, he and Tammen got back together and were engaged to be married. A year later, Tammen made her way to the United States to be with Frank. The couple wed in Marshalltown on Dec. 18, 1954, and had three daughters: Dorie, Ingrid and Linda. Tammen worked as a nurse and Frank labored as a bricklayer, helping to construct the original power plant on East Main Street in Marshalltown.

Even though he was not yet a U.S. citizen, Frank was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving from 1955-57, missing the birth of his first child, Dorie. The couple became naturalized citizens in 1962, right before heading off for a family trip to Germany.

In 1996, Tammen was reunited with three childhood friends: Heta, Inge and Gretel. In 2001, two children’s books based on her war diary were published, written by Diana Star Helmer: “Once Upon a War” and “Diary of a War Child.” Frank passed away in 2007. Older sister Eva, 93, still resides in Germany.

Today, Tammen lives a quiet life, and enjoys spending time with daughter Dorie, whose passion for history she channels in her work as General Manager of Riverside Cemetery.

“Hearing my mom’s story has made me very sympathetic to immigrants and refugees,” Dorie said.

Tammen and her family made a few trips to Germany through the years to visit relatives. Eva returned to Tilsit after the fall of the Berlin Wall, noting how much the city had changed and how devastated the familiar old buildings had become. Tammen has never returned to Tilsit.