Elizabeth Reichert, 82, sits in her brightly-lit kitchen with a half-eaten slice of pizza still on her plate. She slowly turns the pages of her family photo album, looking at the black and white images of bombed out villages and towns pass her by–a reminder of the darkest period in her childhood: surviving the aftermath of World War II
Reichert Family Portrait
Born on April 1, 1931, Reichert was the second eldest of four children. She and her family lived in the predominantly German-speaking village of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. Her ancestors lived on a farm surrounded by forest and hunting grounds dating back to the early 1600s–a farm that she now lived on.
Photo: Reichert family home in 1944
“World War II changed a lot for us,” said Reichert, looking down at her unfinished pizza.
She went on to explain that in 1938, Czechoslovakian border districts like Bohemia, Moravia and parts of Silesia were conquered by Hitler and his Nazis. The now German occupied border became known as Sudetenland. That’s when her father, Edward Reichert, was forced to join the Army.
Photo: Edward Reichert in uniform
Over 60 million people were killed during WWII. Although Reichert’s village was safe from bombing during most of the war, her real struggles with the war came about when Germany lost the war in 1945 and the Czech ruled over them once again. It wasn’t until 1993 that Czechoslovakia peacefully dissolved into its constituent states, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.
On June 29, 1945, at the age of 14, Reichert and her family (this included her mother and three siblings since her father was imprisoned in a war camp in France) were suddenly awoken in the dead of night by their neighbour, telling them the Czech Army has ordered them and many other families in their village, to pack up their things and get to City Hall by 5 a.m.
Although Reichert says she doesn’t understand why the Czech Army ordered her family to leave their home, she, as well as myself, believe it might have something to do with the fact that her father was a soldier for the German Army (also known as a “Nazi,” though Reichert did not implicitly use that specific term when speaking about her father or the German Army).
Reichert says she and her family had to walk about two and a half hours to the nearest train station. Once they got to the train station, they loaded the people on. They did part of the journey toward East Germany by train and part of it on foot. When the train got to a part where the tracks were bombed out, they were forced to walk again.
“We couldn’t do anymore,” said Reichert. “The people got sick; the few weeks-old babies died, so we said the next city (Magdeburg) we stay, we don’t go further.
After crossing the Water Bridge over Magdeburg’s Elbe on foot (the train couldn’t cross it since the tracks were bombed out), Reichert and her family eventually stumbled upon a bunker where they stayed only one night.
The day after Reichert’s experience at the bunker, the older people who were also staying in the bunker went looking for work in the city, which they found on the same day. The older people found work at a construction company who took everybody in everyone from Reichert’s village who had bee traveling together. The owners made everyone move into the barracks which, during the war, were where the French prisoners were forced to stay and work. Since the war was over, the barracks were now empty.
“We were lucky,” said Reichert. “We had at least wood to burn. My mother found work in the kitchen’s so she brought some food home. My brother started a trade, my sister went to school and I took care of my younger brother.”
Photo: Reichert family in Magdeburg 1946
Reichert and her family stayed in the barracks for a year with the city of Magdeburg in ruins.
“Mama said ‘Don’t go far away or you won’t find the way back,’” said Reichert. “We were looking in the craters for pots and pans. We had nothing. No knives, no nothing.”
Everything changed for the better in 1946, when Reichert’s father was released from prison camp in France and with the help of the Red Cross, was reunited with his family in Magdeburg where he found work in the same company as his wife.
The family eventually moved into a prefab house after the architect living there left for West Germany and offered them the place.
“We were so happy we were out of the barracks,” she said, smiling. “With fifteen people sleeping in one big room, I was very happy to get out.”
In 1947, I started a trade to become a dress-maker and after three years of schooling I received my diploma in haute-couture.
“Since my cousin was already in Montreal, I decided to follow her with some of my friends,” said Reichert, who on July 1st, 1955, arrived in Montreal by boat where she got a job in the city as a professional dress-maker.
Top two photos: Reichert and her friend boarding the M.S. Seven Seas and the boat that took her to from Germany’s Bremerhaven port to Montreal.
Two years later, now a Canadian citizen, Reichert married her husband, an Austrian, with whom she started a family.
Although Reichert is still scarred by what she saw and had to live through when the war ended in 1945, she doesn’t let that stand in her way of living a full and happy life. Every Sunday, Reichert meets up with a couple of her German-speaking friends (who have also had their own experiences with the war) have coffee and cake and play card games.
Despite being 82 years old, Reichert, a widow since 1992, still shovels her driveway herself when it snows, occasionally does cross-country skiing and visits her son in Toronto three times a year.
I watch her finish her slice of pizza. Since that fateful night in June 1945, Reichert has returned to Magdeburg on a few occasions to visit her family and friends.
“Every time I go to Magdeburg, I visit my neighbour, the boy sleeping next to us outside of the bunker and I say to him, ‘Mama shut the door, it’s drafty in here!’” she said, laughing so hard her eyes begin to tear up. “I want to go back to Magdeburg–not this summer, but perhaps the next. But I will go back at least one last time.”