By Suet Lee-Growney, Fort Sill TribuneApril 5, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla. (April 5, 2018) -- Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part feature on a retired Army spouse who lived through the horrors of World War II. The first part is about her life before and during the war.
"I could not even cry when they hauled (away) my dad," said Zitta Wilkinson, wife of retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Wilkinson. She shared memories of how scared she felt when the Schutzstaffel (SS) tore her father away from his family to an unknown location. Her family was forced to abandon their home to board a cattle train with no food or personal belongings.
That was all in 1939 when Zitta was 9 years old. Because of the war, she missed out on formal education, but Richard, her husband of 68 years, said she is exceptionally intelligent.
"You will find that she has a super memory for details throughout her whole life," he said.
One of Zitta's earliest memories of WWII was from 1939. She lived in a little town called Badeutz, Romania, occupied by settlers from all over Europe. Her Romanian family, who were of Pennsylvania-Dutch heritage, lived a primitive life without running water or electricity, but she said they had a very happy home. Despite her parent's effort to shelter their children from the reality of the impending war, Zitta knew what was going on.
"They were rounding up all the Jewish people in our town," she said. "(The Jewish settlers) were good people, productive."
Zitta said one day her Jewish neighbors, who ran a bed-and-breakfast inn, came to her house and asked for her parent's permission to hide in their cellar during the night. She said her father told them to bring a blanket, and they were welcomed to stay in their cold cellar until "hell" passed over.
One night, Zitta said the SS kicked open the front door. In fear, she said her mother and siblings huddled in a corner while they watched her father interrogated.
"Just the uniforms they were wearing were so scary," she said. "They grabbed my dad by the neck and my dad was not a big man, he was kind of a small man, and he was lifted off the floor and they started hitting him."
The SS thought by hurting Zitta's father, one of the kids would give up information about her Jewish neighbors' whereabouts, she said, but nobody cracked. Her neighbors were safe in the basement of their house under a hidden trap door, but her father was hauled off by the SS.
The next day, her neighbors fled and to this day she doesn't know what happened to them. Her father returned to them the following morning with physical injuries he endured the night before.
The night raids went on for another three months.
"As a 9-year-old girl, I thought: 'how cruel can people be to each other,'" she said as she recalls thinking of her wounded father. To her, she said her father did a good thing by helping his neighbors. Several days later, her father along with most of the other men and young boys in town were taken away from their homes to dig trenches for three months. When the SS took him, his family had no idea where he went.
One day in 1939, her father returned and told his family where he had been. Zitta said he looked gaunt and malnourished.
"He looked pitiful," she said. "Since my mom was such a good cook and homemaker, she nursed him back to health."
Zitta and her elder sisters took over her father's responsibilities to gather food for the family when he was gone and physically unwell to do so, which was doable during fair weather, but life-threatening during poor weather. She remembers attempting to return home after harvesting potatoes with her sister and they tried to cross a river during a heavy downpour. Although they were on the backs of their horses, the current was strong and the water was up to the horses' necks.
She said she remembers her sister Paula, 13 at that time, whipping the horse repeatedly to make it cross the water. As an animal lover she felt for the horses because they were getting beaten. But she knew they had no choice because it was either the horses or they could both drown and their family would have nothing to eat. Her mother had to stay home because she was pregnant with Zitta's youngest brother and caring for her other siblings.
This was only the beginning of when Zitta was forced to step up and be mature beyond her years.
"I remember my dad was told (by the SS), 'You and your family, you march to this train,'" Zitta said. "It was maybe four miles away. My mother grabbed my little brother, he was 3 months old at that time."
And so they did, but the family of eight did not know that would be the last time they would ever see their farm again. Zitta said she was scared, but she was afraid to cry in front of the SS. When they boarded a cattle train, they rode not knowing how long they would be traveling and to where. They had no blankets, seats, food or extra clothes. They traveled for three days before arriving in Bavaria.
On the train, her mother's milk supply started to dry up because there was no food and her infant brother began crying inconsolably. Back then, there were no such thing as disposable diapers, so the other women on the train ripped strips of their petticoats for the baby to use as clean diapers. But the cries continued and they were so persistent to where a frustrated elderly woman took the baby from the family, Zitta said.
"She was going to throw my little brother out the window," Zitta said. They managed to get the baby back after pleading.
When they arrived, they boarded buses to Strasperg Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria, near Ausberg. During the bus ride, they were lectured on the light policies after dark.
"You are not to turn on any lights, there are no lights, don't look for lights," she said. "There were barracks and we got to feel our way (in the dark) the reason why they didn't want lights was because there were planes that were flying every night over (Germany) and (the Allies) were bombing big cities. Anything that was lit up, they were bombed."
Zitta later learned the reason they were instructed to avoid detection from foreign air forces was because the refugee camp she lived in was located right beside a silk factory manufacturing parachutes for the German military forces.
Zitta was new to all of this and said all she wished for was to go home. Her father was too afraid to ask the SS any further questions.
"You just live, and you just do what you're told, and don't ask any questions," she said. "Don't talk to each other, don't cry."
Author's note: Next week, read more about Zitta's life at the refugee camp, how her family were declared Germans because of her father's skills and ability to speak German, moving to Poland and her family's life under forced civil service under German rule in France.