The last post introduced us to the Queling family who, robbed of their home by World War II, found a new life in the Reichswald settlement in 1950. In September 2013, I had the good fortune to be able to meet two of the Queling children, Cornelius and Marianne, and ten other families who settled there. Hearing their stories of what the gift of a heifer meant to them was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.
The Reichswald settlers came from countries as far away as Lithuania and Romania, but mostly from what today is Poland, Czechoslovakia, and eastern Germany. Although of German heritage, the settlers came to the Reichswald speaking many different dialects. In our meeting, I asked them if it had been hard to form a community with such a variety of backgrounds. They said, “No. Our need welded us together. We all had nothing.”
The next day, over tea with the Queling family, Cornelius showed me a photo taken in front of the lovely large house in Silesia where they had lived.
Their father was mayor of their village. During the winter of 1944-45, when the Russians would come around, he would run off and hide to avoid capture. Marianne recalled one such time:
While father was hiding, we took everything in our wagon. Mama had the smallest child in her arms. The whole village was leaving. The Russians were attacking the whole trek and wanting to rape the women. We had a carriage with two doors. The Russians came in one door, and Mama ran out the other and into the forest to hide. Then we children were alone. The horse was rubbed raw across its breast. Somebody had to pull the carriage and we children had to push it and mommy was gone. In the meantime, mother and father went out every day looking, wondering, when will the children come home? After six weeks, we found our way home. We all stayed together, but we were so dirty. We had lice, everything. Don’t ask how we came home. We lived on potato peelings. . . .
When the family had to flee for good in 1945, Cornelius was 12 years old, and Marianne around 5. The family spent the next four years going from various camps, churches, or castles that could accommodate the refugees. They were accepted into the Reichswald in 1949 and settled on a 16 hectare (39-acre) plot, having to clear the land of the tree stumps. Marianne said they pulled out 32 wagon loads of stumps. At age 16, Cornelius became the man of the house when their father was killed clearing the forest.
When they received their heifer that June of 1950, Marianne said they wondered, “Who would give us such a large gift? Up to that point, everything had been taken away from us. Our heifer,” she said, “lifted us from the depths of despair and gave us hope.”
And that, my friends, is the legacy of the Heifer Project and the seagoing cowboys: lifting people from the depths of despair and giving them hope.
The Queling’s heifer gave enough milk that they could sell some; and widow Queling rationed their own food from what they grew so they could sell sugar beets and potatoes, as well, to be able to buy what they needed.
Today, driving through the thriving towns of Nierswalde, Reichswalde, and Rodenwalde carved out of the destroyed Reichswald forest, one would have no idea of the hardships endured by their settlers.
Next post: Meeting recipients of heifers and horses in Poland