|| War-torn childhood left behind for adulthood in Q-C
Comment on this story
MOLINE — Sieglinde Wegehaupt Paulsen came to America in 1951. By then, the 13-year-old had seen brutality and kindness, enough to make her life a series of mountains and valleys.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood|
Sieg Paulsen is a German immigrant who fled the Russian Army in 1945 when she was 7 years old. She walked 500 miles through the Czech Republic to Bavaria and freedom. Her father, an accountant and banker, was a prisoner of war and escaped a Russian prison camp. They came to the U.S. in 1951 and eventually settled in the Quad-Cities.
She spent a childhood under siege, a refugee.
The key to survival, she said, was to keep moving.
Born in Silesia, in a part of Germany that now is Poland, she fled the Russian Army with her family on Jan. 22, 1945.It was a brutal winter spent walking for three months with little food, no place to sleep and the fear of bombing.
From Jan. 22, 1945, to the end of March, 6-year-old Sieg, her mother and grandparents walked 500 miles to the Czech border and through the Czech Republic.
"We slept wherever we could find a place," Ms. Paulsen said. "A couple nights, we didn't sleep at all."
She and her family hoped to find a refugee camp in the Bavarian Forest.
"With very little food, no showers, no bath, we wore the same clothes we had on since the day we left," Ms. Paulsen said. "It was a matter of survival. Because not only did we have the cold and hunger, we were strafed by bombers, and you had very little protection from that. We had to keep moving. Behind us, we could see the red sky from the houses being burned by the Russian Army."
She said the horrific war was coming to a close, the losses staggering.
"Our lives were in disarray, and our country was in total chaos, and the future was something we did not even think about," she wrote in her recollections of those years. "Our day-to-day existence was the only thing on our mind.
"We had no idea where my father was or if he was even alive, and the same went for my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousin."
Her father, a conscripted German soldier, was captured by the Russian Army and housed in an electrified prison camp near Austria and the Danube River.
"The grapevine in prison camp was alive and well, and so my father heard, that within a couple of weeks, the prisoners were to be shipped to Siberia," she wrote. "My father was not in the mood to go to that desolate cold part of the world and took matters into his own hands.
"He had been previously wounded, and with the help of a rusty razor blade, he re-infected his healed wound. Since it had not healed before the trip to Siberia was scheduled, he was granted a reprieve."
Ms. Paulsen's father, Gerhardt, escaped. Swimming across the Danube, he presented himself to the American forces in Passau, a town near the Austrian border.
"After filling out the correct papers, he became like so many German soldiers a shaken, confused and broken man questioning the events of the last six years," she wrote. "His next move was to register with the Red Cross and start the process of finding his family.
"The Red Cross gave him the direction, and he was on his way for a wonderful reunion with the most important people in his life."
Gerhardt was 47, had lost his German business and the home he built. His parents had been murdered by the Russian Army. He was an accountant and a banker but found a job working in a small grocery store in Grafenau, a small German village of about 500 people.
He lost his job as the economy slowed and decided to try a new profession that would change his life along with his family's.
Mr. Wegehaupt learned how to weave.
"He built himself a loom and started with weaving some beautiful fabrics that, in turn, my mother sewed into some outfits for herself, my sister and me, and he also learned how to weave rag rugs," Ms. Paulsen said.
"When finally our visa to immigrate to America was granted, he took his loom along in hopes of using it to make a living for his family."
Ms. Paulsen, her parents and younger sister landed in America on Oct. 9, 1951.
"It was a beautiful sunny day, blue skies," she said. "You go by the Statue of Liberty early in the morning. It's awesome. It still gives me goose bumps."
The family drove to South Dakota, crossing the Mississippi River near Clinton, Iowa. Sieg's life changed. She was preparing for college while in Germany but had to learn English in a one-room country school house.
"I had to go back to fourth grade to learn English and American history," she said. "It was quite a shock. My father was looking for a job by the time we landed in Parkston, South Dakota."
They lived on a farm, and Ms. Paulsen moved in with nearby relatives whose daughter helped her acclimate to American culture.
"Nineteen fifty-one was a very hard time for jobs in this country," she said. "The soldiers were coming back from Europe, from the Pacific."
Her father signed a one-year contract to work for a farmer in Westfield, Iowa. All the while, he was weaving rugs.
Then, fate, if there is such a thing, took over.
"He ran out of string to weave the rugs with," Ms. Paulsen said. "So, he wrote to a company in Davenport, Iowa, to get more string for his rugs. Inside the box, the yarn was wrapped in the Rock Island Argus' want ad section. One of the ads said International Harvester was looking for workers."
Ms. Paulsen's father applied and got the job.
"That's how I ended up in the Quad-Cities," she said. "That's a synopsis of what my life was like."
Ms. Paulsen married Richard Paulsen, and they've been together for 55 years.
They have three children. Her husband ran the former Paulsen Electric. Ms. Paulsen, in between raising her children, worked for American Bank and Trust Company in Rock Island.
Through it all, Ms. Paulsen found some answers to questions about herself. Living in Rock Island at the time, Ms. Paulsen said she had Jewish neighbors who were kind and generous.
"They took me in like their own daughter," she said. "They could have shunned me. They did not. For that, I am always grateful. For years and years and years, I had guilt feelings I needed to suppress.
"They helped me understand that me, as a person, was not responsible for what happened in Nazi Germany. People don't understand. War is hell. You go through a lot of difficult situations on either side. You suffered from the bombings, the cold and the hunger."
As World War II forever is etched in her memories, so, too, is the site of the Statue of Liberty as she arrived in America more than 60 years ago.
"When I see the Statue of Liberty, it means we had opportunity," Ms. Paulsen said. "It was a chance to live our life that was not possible in Germany at that time.
"I was 13. As you get older, you realize the opportunity you had. That's why I'm blessed to be here."
-- Location:Central Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, between the Netherlands and Poland, south of Denmark.
-- Population:81,305,856 (July 2012 estimate). No. 16 in the world.
-- Language: German
Source: CIA World Factbook.