Kansan documents life in war-torn Germany during World War II in memoir 'Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin'

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Mildred Schindler Janzen holding home-baked blueberry muffins in her kitchen in Ellsworth.

ELLSWORTH — Although she grew up in Germany during World War II, Mildred Schindler Janzen was born in Kansas. At the dawn of World War II, Janzen's German grandfather died; her parents, both born and bred in Germany but living in the U.S., packed up their belongings and headed back to their homeland with baby Mildred in tow. 

Mississippi biographer Sherye Simmons Green and Janzen, 92, explain in detail this Kansan's harrowing tale of familial love, survival and brutality in their recently-released memoir,  “Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin — One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany.” 

"Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman's Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany," by Mildred Schindler Janzen with Sherye S. Green.

Janzen does not forget a detail - she remembers feeding chickens and milking cows on her family's East German farm in Radach.

At the beginning, her childhood was idyllic. She and her younger brother Horst helped with the farm, attended school and were doted on by their parents. Her mother Anna enjoyed cooking and often made kale and pork cooked in a large kettle. But as Janzen grew older, she saw signs that something was not quite right. Her parents became anxious, talked in whispers and sat by the radio at night. 

"My mother would tell my father, 'Don't say anything Papa. You've been in America for eight years,'" Janzen said. "My father could not speak up. He had to be very careful."

One night, Janzen heard that someone failed in an attempt to kill Hitler. Her father was upset. She said her father said, ‘They missed him again." 

"They (the Nazis) told you exactly what they wanted you to know," she said. "He (Hitler) made it sound so good. He promised the factory workers a Volkswagen in their driveway and a chicken in every pot.”

At the same time, the German economy was in turmoil and farmers were required to give away much of their beef, chicken, eggs and shoes to the government. 

"There was no free speech. Hitler outlawed guns," Janzen said. "We're told things, but they are not the complete truth."

Although Janzen was not told what was happening with the Jews and did not know about the concentration camps, she did hear about Kristallnacht.

That day the Nazi soldiers burnt Jewish businesses, homes and houses of worship, killed almost 100 people and took away around 30,000 Jewish men, bringing them to Dachau, Buchenwald and other concentration camps to serve as slave labor or be slaughtered. The day after Kristallnacht, Janzen's father traveled to Dresden and witnessed the bloody aftermath.

"The Jews were good people," Janzen said. "They did not deserve this."

Surviving the Red Army

In 1945, Stalin's troops came in. For Janzen and her family, as they were German, this was worse than living under Hitler. Her region fell under Polish authority, and her father Fritz was taken to a Russian work camp. The Russian soldiers ransacked the farmhouse, using their guns to make a point.

“They gave orders and took what they wanted when they wanted,” she said. “We didn’t speak Russian. And they could shoot you if they gave you an order and you didn’t comply."

Although her mother tried to protect her, eventually Janzen too was taken away. Unlike the German concentration camps, the Russian work camps did not have ovens for mass slaughter; they had lice, crowded conditions and not much food to go around.

"It was just everybody for themselves," Janzen said. "You're afraid every minute of the day."

After several months in this work camp, Janzen, 16, was set free, and, she said, by some miracle she found her way home. But the Russians were not through with her family yet. Soon they made them leave home; never to return.  

Eventually, Janzen made her way to Berlin and then to the U.S. Each event, she called a miracle. 

"It's just a series of miracles that she is here," said Janzen's daughter, Susan Nickerson. 

Kansas is home

Anna Schindler (L), Mildred Schindler Janzen, Leon Janzen and Horst Schindler (R) meeting at the Hutchinson Train Station on Oct. 10, 1953 when the Schindler's arrived in the U.S. This picture was on the front page of the Hutchinson News.

Now in her early 90s, Janzen lives in Ellsworth. Having returned to the U.S. after the war, she learned English, completed high school, married a Kansas farmer and raised her children on a multi-generational farm in Lorraine. 

When she first came back to Kansas, she was alone. A family took her in and helped her assimilate. But all the while, Janzen worried about her family back in Germany, especially her mother. For years, she tried to help her mother immigrate. Because her father had never come back from the Russian workcamp, she believed the worst and was right.

One day, in 1953, Janzen reunited with her brother Horst and mother Anna at the Hutchinson train station. Her years of fighting to get them to the U.S. paid off. 

"Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin" recently won a soon-to-be-announced national award. The book can be purchased from Sunberry Press and is also available at Salina's Smoky Hill Museum gift shop. 

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Learning from history

For Janzen, living under socialism and communism were difficult. She is concerned the U.S. might be headed down a difficult path.

"Socialism is not what people think it is," she said. "The freedom that we enjoy in this country is priceless and not fully understood by many here who enjoy it."

Janzen said she is seeing warning signs that the U.S. is going down a troubling path. She said she sees signs of what was happening in pre-war Germany is happening in America today.

"She's lived this before," said Nickerson. "That's what's so concerning."

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Mildred Schindler Janzen and her daughter Susan Nickerson in Janzen's home in Ellsworth.

Janzen said it is important to learn from the past. She feels her life has been blessed, and she hopes her story let others know about the difficulties of living under Stalin and Hitler.

"I feel like it's happening again, and it shouldn't be," Janzen said. "All of this segmentation is so troubling. They are Americans, and they should be proud of it."

Janzen wants to share her story so history does not repeat itself. She is also thankful to be able to share her life with a new generation.

"I've had a good life," she said. "I'm just so thankful to the Lord that I had the chance to be here."