Growing up in Germany ... during World War II

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Americans had it rough during World War II. Fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and friends were away at war. Many would never return home, and a lot of those who did return home were maimed for life, either physically or emotionally.

Those who remained at home had to endure shortages of all kinds and rationing of most commodities like gasoline, tires, sugar, coffee and a ton of other things. Still there was enough for everybody to eat and most urgent needs were met without too much difficulty.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe such was not always the case as war raged on in many countries. It was the world against Germany in the European theatre and the residents of Germany were in very hard straits.

Growing up during the war in Germany as a young child was a very hard thing for Karl Foerster, but he survived, got back to his native United States, and grew up to be a very successful businessman. That included owning six Century 21 Real Estate offices, including the one in Mineola. Pretty much retired now, Foerster spends time at his ranch near Hainesville and his apartment in Dallas, living the good life and only remembering the hard times of his early years.

Foerster was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1938, the son of German immigrants who became naturalized citizens of the United States. But being born in the U.S. did not necessarily mean staying here. German tradition came into play when Karl’s grandfather in Germany died. Karl’s father, Fred, was the oldest boy in the Foerster family, and tradition had it that the oldest boy took on the responsibilities of the family farm. So later in 1938 the Fred Foerster clan moved back to Germany and Fred became a farmer, a job he did not like and did not fit into very well. Besides, war broke out in 1939, the Foersters could not return to the U.S., Fred didn’t want to keep farming, he had a brother who did and so things started to change.

Fred, an accomplished woodworker and designer, got a job building models of new cars for the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany. Volkswagen was a monument to the German people in the eyes of Adolf Hitler. Volkswagen literally means the peoples car - volks (people) wagen (car) and the mile-long plant that built them in Wolfsburg was almost a national monument in Germany. For the war effort, air-cooled engine-powered vehicles were developed at that plant for military use.

By 1944 Germany was ravaged by the war, but still holding on to Hitler’s dream of world domination. Karl was getting old enough to be very conscious of the hard times his family was enduring. Food was scarce. Potatoes and bread were the major part of the diet as Karl remembers in those war days.

“There was no meat to be had by the citizens, but there was a butcher shop. My dad had a deal with the butcher to get bones, with no meat left on them, and he would bring them home, take them down into the cellar and break them into small pieces with a hammer. Then he would boil the bones in water until all the fat that might be left anywhere on them and all the marrow of the bone boiled out and floated to the top of the water. He would then skim off this little bit of fat and marrow and we would add it to whatever we had to eat to provide us some more nourishment,” Karl remembers.

Another interesting way the Foersters obtained a little extra food was very ingenious. Father Fred built a sort of seven-sided cage or box out of wood that was open on one side. The Foersters lived on the second floor of a government apartment complex and a string was dropped from a second story window to the ground in the backyard. There it was tied to a stick which propped up one side of the box. What few bread crumbs Karl and his sister could scrounge up would be scattered on the ground under the box, then they would scamper upstairs to the window and keep a close watch on the box. Whenever a sparrow or other bird would hop under the box for the crumbs, the children would yank the string, pulling the stick out and letting the box fall, trapping the bird. Thus, another piece of fresh meat was obtained for the Foerster stew pot.

In 1944 when Karl was 6 he saw a big wagon loaded with potatoes come by his house. He asked the driver if he could have some of the potatoes.

“He told me no, but he said he would tell me where the field was and that I could probably go scrape the field and find a few potatoes,” Karl recalled. That put his fertile 6-year-old mind to work and Karl quickly hatched a plan to fill his mother’s pantry with potatoes.

“I had a little wagon and I took off with it and walked a couple of miles to where the field was and I filled it up with potatoes. I would guess I had about two sacks of potatoes in that wagon. The little wagon was not made for that kind of load and it broke before I could get back home with the potatoes.

“I didn’t really know what to do. I finally decided to hide my wagon and go home to see if I could get some help. When I got home and told my story nobody could believe what I had done, but my family went down the road with me and when we got to my wagon they all helped and we got home with a lot of good potatoes,” Karl said.

Karl remembers bombs falling around the Volkswagen factory regularly. Not too many bombs fell in the area where they lived, but the explosions in the area rocked their home and broke out windows on occasions. There were bomb shelters in the town and the apartment house had cellars that served as bomb shelters. Karl remembers spending countless hours in those bomb shelters while sirens and explosions filled the air.

Much to the benefit of the Foerster family, there was no actual ground fighting that transpired in their home town of Wolfsburg.

“The closest I can remember to actual fighting was that late in the war a German tank came down the street and turned at a corner a few blocks away. A few minutes later an American tank came the same way and turned at the same corner. Shortly after that there was a big explosion from the direction that the tanks had gone. I think I know what happened, but it would only be a guess,” Karl recalled.

When the American troops came through Wolfsburg they primarily liberated prisoners and went on their way as best as Karl can remember. However, when the Russian liberation forces came they stayed, they took over residences as their quarters and there were lots of assaults and rapes.

“It was not safe at all for a young girl to be out alone at that time,” he remembers, adding, “that was probably the scariest part of the war for me.”

With the war over one would expect things to get better quickly for the residents of Germany, but they didn’t.

“We had no valid currency. Nobody could buy anything and besides there was nothing to buy. It was still very hard for some years after the war, especially in our area which is what the Western world would have considered to be behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in days to come,” Foerster remembers vividly.

After the end of the war Fred Foerster’s brother Ted, who Fred had sponsored to immigrate to the United States before the war, was with the U.S. Army Intelligence in Germany. He went searching for his family and when he found them they first had a great reunion and then he had to move on, but left several cases of rations with them to supplement their meager pantry.

During the war the German residents had hidden most of their valuable items so they would not be confiscated. This included burying their valuable things in the yard. So, after the war with no currency, the black market was the only way to obtain things. A simple loaf of bread might require a family to dig up a cherished and expensive silver bowl to trade for just that one small loaf of bread.

As opportunities arose after the war ended, Fred Foerster decided it was best to return his family to the U.S. as soon as possible. The oldest sister Gertrude was the first member of the family to get back to the U.S., being able to return in 1947.

In 1949, 11-year-old Karl and his 10-year-old brother Fredrick boarded a transport ship with 600 other immigrants and sailed for America, arriving at the Ellis Island immigration center in New York Harbor in May of 1949. They were at Ellis Island for only a few hours being checked in then they were transported to New York’s Grand Central Station to catch an overnight train to Chicago. It was while waiting for the train at Grand Central Station that Karl experienced drinking a Coca-Cola for the very first time. Earlier he had had his first piece of fruit and his first piece of chewing gum ever while on Ellis Island.

Fredrick and Karl traveled on to Bellville, Wisconsin to live with his uncle Ted and his wife Violet. It was already summer, and Karl had to start school in September but he couldn’t speak English. So during that summer he had to learn enough English to be ready for the start of school.

He started grade school with a heavy German accent, but continued to gain proficiency in English while struggling with his lessons in an unfamiliar language.

One winter Karl got very ill with a high fever and was kept home from school for several weeks. “Doc Meyers made many trips to the house to give me penicillin shots. And, during that time Arnold Knight would bring me my lessons so I would not get far behind in school. To pay off my bill to Doc Meyers he had me change the water solution of his x-ray room. There was no running water inside so after I emptied the tanks I would go outside of the front door and hand pump the water into pails for filling the tanks again,” Karl recalled.

In the summer of 1952 Karl worked on a farm for a few weeks, then went to work at Ethel and Jerry Nedow’s Marquette cheese factory where his main job was to work the cream separator, cleaning all the disks and putting it together again. He would also go into the cellar and take the brick cheese from the salt vats, dip them in a color dye and store them.

“One cold winter night I was walking out of our back door to bring some wood in for the old kitchen stove when I heard a glass break. A large flame came out of the back of the Kingston Creamery and I ran back to the house to tell Uncle Ted. He had me run to the Stroshein Grocery Store so they could set the fire alarm. It was one of the biggest fires that Kingston ever had and the creamery gave me a $5 reward for my action,” Karl remembers.

He also remembers making spending money by mowing yards with a push mower for some of the elderly townsfolk and cleaning the chicken coops of the Morris farm. He also found that catching nightcrawlers at the Kingston Park provided him with a ready commodity to sell fishermen.

The town had a free movie weekly on Thursday night during the summer and the always thrifty Karl would get up real early on Friday mornings to go and look for coins that might have dropped out of the pockets of movie-goers.

When Karl and Frederick came back to the United States it was anticipated that their parents and younger sister would follow the next year. It was actually not until 1956 that they got cleared to move back to America. In those seven years, a lot transpired in Karl’s life. In 1953 when Karl was 15 he moved to Garland to live with his older sister who had married and was now Mrs. Martin Biar. As a result, he began attending Garland High School.

Karl had no experience in athletics, but liked sports and became a manager for the Garland Owl football team. Bill Ellington, who later became a coach and assistant athletic director at the University of Texas, was the head football coach for the Owls at the time.

On one football trip Karl was sitting in the back of the bus and as boys will do they were talking about all sorts of things. Karl got to telling about living in Germany during World War II and about American bombers coming over their town of Wolfsburg and dropping bombs on the Volkswagen factory and around the town. Coach Ellington was sitting at the front of the bus and overheard a part of that conversation. That caught his attention and he called Karl to the front of the bus to talk to him.

He had Karl repeat about where he lived and about the bombs being dropped and then he dropped a bomb on Karl. Ellington told Karl that he was in one of those American B24 bombers that dropped bombs on Wolfsburg. Ellington had been a sergeant in the U.S. Air Corps and was a gunner on one of the B24s that flew two missions dropping bombs on Wolfsburg in 1944.

That made for interesting conversation between Coach Ellington and Karl and they became good friends with a special bond and no hard feelings.

While he was still in high school Karl began working part-time at a small paint company, Roach Paint Company. He started going to Arlington Junior College, but wound up working full-time for Roach Paint Company, where he remained for 26 years. He saw the company grow to 460 employees and held an executive position. When Mr. Roach decided to sell the company, Karl decided he didn’t want to work for the new owners and retired to a 300-acre ranch with 60 head of cows in Grand Saline.

After a bit, he got bored there and when the Century 21 office in Grand Saline went on the market he purchased it and went into the real estate business, a business he is still active in today.

Now at age 79 Karl has sold all his real estate offices and just works part-time selling real estate. He is selling his ranch in Grand Saline and is planning to split his time between the Hainesville ranch and his apartment in Dallas.

Looking back over a lifetime of events in two countries spending time right in the middle of World War II, Karl Foerster can truly say his life have been far from the ordinary, and certainly not boring.

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