By chance, I found myself the link between a Canadian prisoner of war and a young German nurse whose lives fleetingly intersected during World War II. A shiver runs down my spine every time I retell this story.
The minute I pulled into Renate’s driveway near Waldeck, Texas, I knew something was wrong. Instead of beaming with delight, the now elderly German war bride stood ramrod straight, her face twisted in anger, or was it anguish? Hurley, her rescue pup, who usually trembled with excitement at my arrival, stood at attention at her side. Did he, too, sense Renate’s distress?
I racked my brain.
Had I said or done something to upset my client? During the course of writing her life story in 2012, she also had become a treasured friend.
At a loss, I got out of my car, attempting to act nonchalant. Renate looked through me, not even offering a greeting.
“Come,” she said abruptly.
Following her and Hurley into the house, I could not help but notice that Renate’s hair and clothing were uncharacteristically disheveled.
The tension level was brittle as we approached an oversized road map of Germany that covered the entire dining room table.
What’s wrong here, I wondered?
“I was there,” said Renate, pointing to a squiggle on the map, a road between Weimar and Bad Berka, Germany. She turned to look at me, wide-eyed.
“I was there. I saw him and I ran.”
Renate’s eyes filled with tears as she reached under the map and retrieved a book. It was Saddles and Service, the biography I had written about Canadian Winston Parker. I’d brought it for her to read the previous week.
Renate searched my face, seeking understanding. Then it hit me.
Could Renate have seen Winston in the latter days of his death march? I remembered key events on his timeline and, due to starvation and neglect, what desperate condition the POWs were in by then.
Winston’s 13th mission was his last
It had been a long war for the Canadian aviator.
On April 9, 1942, Winston’s Wellington bomber was shot down over Germany. The 23-year-old spent the next three years in a horrendously harsh prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIIIB, near Lamsdorf, Germany.
But the worst was yet to come.
The prisoners’ lives changed irrevocably, and not for the better, on Jan. 22, 1945, when their German captors marched the men out in long columns westward away from the camp. They struck out on this cruel and inhumane ordeal on foot in the dead of winter.
“Read aloud,” Renate told me, pointing to a bookmark that opened on page 120 of Winston’s story.
Winston recalls the Death March horror
“The first day, the group I was in marched 35 kilometers at a pretty fast pace that sure tested our limits. Then, they gave us shorter marches. We would march for 15 kilometers some days. We got so little to eat that we literally were starving.
“Sometimes, we’d go to wherever we were to stop for the night and after two or three hours of just hanging around, the Germans would bring in big tubs of soup called keebles.
“Some nights, there would be a ration of bread for us. Other nights, we were fed nothing. Sometimes we found leeks still in the ground. Eating those frozen leeks made us suffer terrible dysentery. A medical officer, who began the march out with us, taught us to burn wood and eat the charcoal in an effort to help control the dysentery. That was the only medicine we had.
“As POWs, we were very aware that the Germans considered us the lowest form of life in the country. Whenever others came along the road where we were marching, we were kicked off to let them pass.
“The British would come bombing at night and invariably, it seemed, they dropped bombs where we had slept the night before. It gave us great comfort to tell each other, ‘They know where we are.’
“Then one night the British dropped bombs too close to our column and one or two of our fellows were killed, although I was just shaken up.
“The Germans would sometimes put us into brick kilns or sheds at night. Occasionally, there were two or three sheds, yards apart with 300 men here and 500 men there. Some nights, we just slept out in the open.
“In the latter part of the march, sometimes as many as six to eight fellows just didn’t get up in the morning. They didn’t make it.
“We zigzagged on roads until we were south and west of Hanover, a long distance from where we had started. There, the Germans turned us around and marched us back in the direction that we’d just come.
“We awoke one morning to find there were no German guards. They had gone away in the night.
“The next thing we knew, some American jeeps and a tank or two came rolling toward us. Patton’s Army had found us. We had been liberated! The date was April 11, 1945.
“We had spent nearly three months on the road and traveled over 1,000 kilometers. I’d been on one the longest forced marches of World War II, which became known as the Death March.”
Renate relates her harrowing experience
“Now read what I told you a couple of weeks ago,” Renate instructed, pointing to the draft copy of her life story, Same Moon, Same Stars, on top of my notebook. She had recounted the ghastly experience she and her friend had endured when their train was hammered hard three times by Allied bombers.
“Blood was everywhere. Dead bodies, including those of the engineer and the conductor in their uniforms, were all over the street. People were crying and screaming. The train had been demolished except for the third car in which we had been riding.
“We turned our back on the terrible sight and focused on our predicament. How were Gerda and I to get home to Bad Berka now? We still had six kilometers to travel. We decided to try walking through the woods.
“Crossing a road, Gerda and I saw a group of men in filthy uniforms marching, more dead than alive. There was so little life left in them, they were so beaten up, they looked neither left nor right. They plodded along, with just enough energy to put one foot in front of the other.
“These were Allied prisoners taken from a prisoner of war camp before the Russians or Americans could liberate them. The guards with these men looked half-dead themselves, although they wore different clothes.
“The men were so pitiful that they frightened and unnerved Gerda and me.
“As 18-year-old hospital nurses, we had seen a lot of misery among the wounded soldiers and we had witnessed death, but somehow, this seemed worse.
To err is human
Raising her head, Renate met my eyes as she struggled to speak.
“I am so ashamed. We were so afraid of them. We ran.”
“Will you tell Winston that? Will you apologize for me? I won’t rest until you have talked with him.”
I did as I was told. I returned home and phoned Winston, who lives in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. After exchanging pleasantries, I explained my mission.
I hesitated slightly. Although more than half a century had passed, memories of the death march still were painful for him.
Then I dived in.
“Renate says she saw you toward the end of the march. The date and location in your book match her whereabouts as far as time and place go.”
When there was silence on his end of the line, I plunged ahead.
“Renate says she is sorry that her people, the Germans, put you and the other prisoners of war through that such a terrible ordeal. She also is ashamed she didn’t treat you with more respect herself.
“Will you forgive her, she wants to know?”
To forgive is divine
In a heartbeat, I had an answer.
“Tell Renate,” Winston said, “no apology is necessary. Our countries were at war. Tell her I know that German civilians like her suffered, too.
“Tell her I have had a good life and I hope she has, too.”
I scribbled down his words verbatim and called Renate, who picked up the phone on the first ring. When I finished reading her Winston’s response, I could sense her anguish dissipating.
She cleared her throat. Then she spoke.
“Well, then,” she said.
With those two words, memories of an encounter between two people whose lives were torn apart by war were put to rest.
She shifted to the present.
“You recorded no stories this week,” Renate reminded me, “so we are a little behind. Come on Tuesday prepared to catch up.”
More of her story
“I am going to tell you more about this American GI who came walking down the street on the 14th of September 1945, in Eschwege where my friend, Marga, and I were living. We were scared to death when he spoke, but he said he only wanted to practice his German,” Renate reminisced.
“He told us his name was Harvey Meiners and he was from Texas. I found it very interesting that his grandparents came from Germany and that’s why he could speak German, although not very well.
“He was sort of nice, not pushy like so many of the American soldiers.”
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The GI who approached Renate that September afternoon turned out to be the love of her life. Harvey and Renate Meiners enjoyed many happy years together. Over time, the German war bride’s homesickness was replaced with deep, heartfelt patriotism for her adopted nation and state.
Renate Macherauch Meiners lived to see her life story, Same Moon, Same Stars, published a few months before her death on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, at her home in La Grange, Texas. She was 88. Her book is available on Amazon.
When he entered the Royal Canadian Air Force in August 1940, Winston’s weight was about 174 pounds. Upon his release from captivity, he weighed less than 98.
Winston says the sacrifices that he and other Allied service personnel were called upon to make were for ‘the greater good.’ His life story, Saddles and Service, is available on Amazon.
Winston Churchill Parker marked the 75th anniversary of his liberation as a prisoner of war on Saturday, April 11, 2020, at his home in Okotoks, Alberta. He passed away a few months after his 102nd birthday in 2020.
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