Our emotional response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is related to our life experiences with previous wars. We also watch the unfolding war through the lens of age. Those still living from the “greatest generation,” and their children, from the “silent generation” (born 1928-1945) lived through WWII, the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Younger generations never experienced a war in which the global order appeared to be threatened, while older generations did. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as awful as they were, did not threaten this order. Older generations are less surprised than younger ones by the invasion; they have long viewed Russia as a historic aggressor. But everyone, young or old, can relate to the images of cities being crumbled, innocent civilians wrenched from their homes, and mothers with babies fleeing for their lives. 

Gunter as toddler in Munich
Gunter as toddler in Munich

I’m here in my home with my husband, Günter Hofmann, and his sister from Munich, Germany, Helga Marx. Helga arrived in San Diego February 25, just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began and has been with us the past three weeks as the bombing and horror of war has continued. This invasion is barely four weeks old, yet it has already brought trauma and death to children across Ukraine. Even if stopped tomorrow, an entire generation would bear scars from the destruction and terror of seeing their world torn apart. 

Helga and Günter: Both of you were children during World War II. Do you think you’ve bourn scars from the war? Do you relate to what’s happening now and think about what happened to you then?

Günter: Yes. I couldn’t sleep the first night after watching the invasion on the news. I had flashbacks to the bombing of Munich. The difference from what’s happening in Ukraine is that we had bombing but no occupying force trying to kill us.

In Ukraine, children have been killed by cluster bombs, munitions that have been banned by international law. Do you remember what kinds of bombs were dropped on Munich? 

Günter: Five-hundred-pound bombs. But also incendiary bombs, which started fires.

Was the bombing of Munich selective, that is, aimed at military installations, or were bombs purposely dropped on civilians? 

Günter: They called it “carpet bombing.” They just dropped hundreds of bombs every night, falling wherever—not targeted.

Helga: I had no flashbacks, but I was only three-years-old then. I have no memory of this.

Günter, you’re three years older than Helga, so you would have been a boy of six. What are your recollections?

Günter: My father was away fighting the war, first in France, then in Russia. He was assigned to the Motor Pool. We three children—Helga, her twin Helmut, and I—lived on the second floor of a four-story apartment building in Munich. When the sirens went off, my mother took us down with our bedding to the basement where wooden bunkbeds were set up. We stayed there all night with the other families and listened to the bombs falling all around us. The entire building was shaking. We went back to our own quarters when the all-clear siren sounded. 

You have said that you suffered a lot of problems during this time. Can you describe one of them?

Günter: “Yah, I was starting to wet the bed.”

What did you do during the daytime?

In the mornings, all the boys my age went out into the streets. We figured out which building had been bombed the night before and looked for fragments of bombs that we could exchange like souvenirs. 

Like American boys exchanged baseball cards?

Günter: Something like that. 

What is your earliest childhood memory?

We lived in Munich in a second-floor apartment with kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. I remember back to when my father still living there before he went to war. I had to take afternoon naps on the couch in the living room, which had a very intricate pattern. I looked at that pattern and put my fantasies into it, whatever they might have been. There was a beer tavern next to the building. My father would give me 50 pfenning to go get him a mug of beer with foam to the top. I had to carry it back carefully, so it didn’t spill. But sometimes, I licked the foam.

Gunter, parents, and siblings
Gunter, parents, and siblings.

Did your parents provide you with any type of schooling during this time?

I went to a Protestant kindergarten a couple of blocks away, which was very nice. There was a spinster Sister there who was very sweet. And in the afternoon, we all had to lay down on the floor on a big mattress. I remember that.

When was your father conscripted into the military? 

It was 1942. The German armies conquered France first. I think he had a good time there. He went to cabarets. He went to Moulin Rouge, and he had a Pathe movie camera. He brought back souvenirs. He took movies of the topless dancers and showed them to us. That was the first time I saw a woman’s breast! 

What part of the military was he in and what were his duties?

He was an engineer, so he oversaw maintenance of tanks and resolved mechanical issues. Then in 1943, the Barbarossa started, and Germany invaded Russia. And I didn’t see him for two years. After that, he would come home—just for a short time—on leave. 

How did your mother make the decision to evacuate?

Günter: Several nearby houses had been bombed or destroyed. So, she knew it was only a matter of time before a bomb would hit our building and we could be killed.

Who did she know in the countryside?

Günter: During this time, when a girl reached 18 or so, she would spend one year with a family with children. We had such a girl, Lotte. She was very sweet, and she helped my mother a lot—especially with my twin brother and sister. She had relatives in this village of 1000 or so. She helped us get into two rooms in a farmhouse. 

Helga: This is when my first memories of the war began. I was five-years-old and we siblings were evacuated to a very small village near Munich called Paunzhausen. There was no bombing, and the only noises were the mooing of cows and the clucking of chickens. No tractors or cars. Very quiet. I had a nice and beautiful childhood there. But our family had to live in one room—five children—including two cousins—and my mother.  Later, we got another room.

Günter, what are your memories of the country and the home you lived in?

Günter: I think my mother took us out there in 1943. Yah. It was strange because the two rooms were one big room, actually, with a stove and an oven and two couches for the women. Five children slept in the bedroom. There was no toilet, no running water. There was one toilet downstairs, but we had to go into the barn where the cows were. There was a little compartment there. We moved a pump handle back and forth to get water and bring buckets up to our second floor. And we had to dispose of the water after we used it. We also had a chamber pot which I had to empty each morning—being careful not to slosh it around! I was only seven or eight years old.

Did you have a wood-burning stove? 

Günter: Yes, and of course, we had to bring the wood upstairs each day.

Helga: My mother had to take care of five children, and that was really hard work. And there was no washing machine. There was a small room off the farmer’s kitchen. My mother had to heat water in a very big pot and bring it to this little room to hand-wash the clothes. In the summer, she could dry clothes outside and during the winter months, she brought them  to the unfinished third floor attic to dry. 

The farmer had two sons in the war and another son, Heir Michael, who was disabled. He could barely talk intelligently but we always played with him and never teased him. At this time, children like him would have been killed, had the authorities found out. In this little village, nobody told, and he was safe. Michael was very quiet, but he liked to sing. We had a record player and he loved listening to that.

While on the farm, did you get enough to eat? 

Helga: Well, we always had enough milk. We put it into a big wooden drum to turn to make butter. Next to the farm was a baker. He made very good bread, and once in a while, he’d give us a roll. So, we always had enough to eat. The farm lady had a little garden and sold some of  her vegetables.

Günter: My mother hitchhiked 40 miles to Munich and had a very good trade going. She brought butter, milk and eggs to Munich and, in exchange, brought back lamps, light bulbs, shoes, and clothes for the people of the village. She did way more than her part!

Günter, you told me about the time when the farmer butchered a pig, which was illegal. I think my readers would be interested in that process.

Günter: Yes, the government owned all the cattle and produce of Germany. But my uncle was a butcher. One weekend, he came out to the farm, and we all blackened the windows with newspapers. It was a Sunday and so, while the church bells were ringing, he stabbed the pig. For the rest of the day, the adults made boiled pork in a big pot and made sausages. It was a long, busy day! The children, too young to help, were shooed out of the way.

I can imagine. How did your parents explain the war to you…what they had to do?

Günter: My father was away in Russia. My mother didn’t explain much, so we didn’t know much about the war. And there was no information from the outside. We were not allowed to listen to BBC or any other station. We had a radio, so we got the Nazi propaganda.

Helga: But Lois, the adults had no newspapers. The radio news came on only in the evening. Our days were pretty calm. We had no idea what was happening in the world.

Did you have your own thoughts about what they must have called “the enemy?”

Günter: What was there to think about—just the enemy.

What kind of clothes did you wear? You had no stores open, no way to buy things, right? How did you get new shoes when you outgrew them?

Helga: We had only old clothes handed down from my two cousins. Luise was four years older than I and Gitta, two years older. If clothes were torn, you had to patch it. And you couldn’t buy new clothes.

Günter: We had a tailor in the village. He could mend clothes and also make new ones from blankets and stuff. I had no one to pass clothes to me, so I got pants made by my grandmother from material she obtained somehow. She also knitted sweaters and high socks for me. 

Helga: In Ponzhausen, old ladies spun wool from sheep, and Mutti made warm pullovers from this.

And shoes?

Helga: We wore no shoes from April until October. Except for church, we were barefoot all the time. Helmut and I had to go out into the pasture to tend to the cows, and when it was cold, we put our feet into fresh cowpies to warm them! (Laughter) For winter, we had shoes with wooden soles and a leather strap. 

Günter: I remember, we pulled up beets, hollowed them out, and filled them with milk from the cows to drink. A nice treat for us out there.

When I was eleven, I had to attend school in Munich, so I lived with my stern grandmother. I came back on the weekends. On Saturday afternoons, I took a train all by myself to Reichertshausen, the closest station. Then I walked about an hour through the forest to Paunzhausen. It was very scary. 

Panzhausen and surrounds
Panzhausen and surrounds.

What was it like when the Allied Forces came through the town at the end of the war? You were about ten then?

Günter: Yes. My first experience: I saw the remaining men in Paunzhausen make a tank barrier at the entrance to the village. Which was a joke because the tanks just drove around it. There was a group of young SS soldiers, kids really, 18 or 19 years old, stationed on top, next to the barriers, supposedly to hold off the tanks. I saw some tanks shooting, hurting, and killing some of these young soldiers. I saw one with his head half blown away. I’ll never forget that. Anyway, those tanks went around the barrier, came down the main street, past our house. 

My mother put out a white flag. They stopped and went into our yard. I remember there were black American GIs on top of the tank who threw down chocolate and oranges. They were so friendly! 

Had you ever seen a black person before?

Helga and Günter in unison: No, never! 

You weren’t afraid because they were friendly?

Günter: At first, of course we were afraid. We didn’t know what they would do. But later, not.

Was this the first chocolate you’d ever tasted?

Günter: Yes. It tasted wonderful! I loved this new taste, the way it melted in my mouth.

Helga: And so sweet! They also gave us chewing gum. 

So, your impression of Americans turned from negative to positive based on this experience?

Günter: Yah.

And did it stay that way?

Günter: All the way to right now. 

You’ve told me that you were very impressed by the Americans that came through Bavaria. Why?

Günter: Well, they were not as vengeful as the French and British occupiers who oversaw other quadrants of Germany. Those countries had endured hardship and wanted to punish the German people for that. For instance, our relatives in Mainz—controlled by the French—didn’t have much to eat. So, Mutti sent them packages with bread and ham.

Helga: They were always hungry. It was sad. They had wine, because they had a big vineyard and wine restaurant, but they had nothing to eat. So, they sent us bottles of wine in return for food. 

Günter: Also, the farmer’s sons, Bert and Lenz, were in a prisoners-of-war camp, and didn’t have much to eat, so she sent them packages of food as well. They never forgot that.

I thank you very much for your comments as children of World War II. Now, I’d like to close by going back to Ukraine. Helga, as a European, are you surprised that Russia invaded Ukraine?

Helga: No.

Günter: I’m not surprised either. Putin rejected Ukraine’s legitimacy as an independent nation and surrounded the country with troops and weapons. Of course, he planned to attack. 

You said Putin would not be content with “a minor infringement.” Do you think this invasion by Putin is in character?

Günter: He wants to restore the Soviet empire. Russia was very brutal under Stalin. He took all the wheat from Ukraine and brought it to Russia, starving four million Ukrainians to death. Putin is in that mold. After World War II, Russian soldiers were encouraged to rape German women who lived in the Russian sector. They were vicious overseers. Putin won’t stop until he’s forced to. 

Helga, Günter has lived in the U.S. for the past 55 years and is accustomed to U.S. news and viewpoints. But you’re visiting here from Germany. What do the Germans think about the Russians now? They apparently embraced wandel durch handel, “change through trade.” Are you surprised that hasn’t deterred Putin? 

Helga:  I’m not surprised.I think that this Russian leader, Putin, will never stop. He will not only take Eastern Ukraine. He likes to get the whole Ukraine. That’s my view.

Helga and Günter, I thank you very much for giving me this interview. 

Children in Ukraine

As of March 25, 2022, more than 3.2 million refugees have fled the violence in Ukraine, the majority of whom are women and children. Children on the move are at risk of hunger, illness, trafficking and abuse. Another 7.5 million Ukrainian children under 18 years of age are under grave danger of physical harm, severe emotional distress, and displacement following escalation of this war. According to Save the Children: “Ukraine’s children are caught in the crossfire of this adult war. It should never have come to this…the risk to their mental health and potential for long-term trauma cannot be underestimated.” Save the Children has been operating in Ukraine since 2014, the Russian invasion of Crimea, delivering essential humanitarian aid to children and their families.  You can donate to the Ukrainian Children’s Emergency Fund by going here or to UNICEF here. 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.