The year was 1945 and the end of World War II was nearing. Like many others whose lives were war-torn and shattered, Gertrude (Trudel) Kowarsch dreamed of escaping with her family to Western Germany. She and her husband, Willie (testimony in LandMarks, January 2011), owned a 100-acre farm in Eastern Germany about 60 miles from the Polish border. Willie was serving as a medic in the German army and had been sent to the Russian front. Trudel was a Red Cross nurse.
One day an urgent letter came from Willie.
“The Russians have destroyed the railroad lines; the German army cannot get supplies, warm clothes or food. We are cold and hungry, and we are unable to hold back the Russians any longer. Prepare to flee with our four children to Western Germany. Willie”
Shortly before Trudel received Willie’s letter, their nine-month-old daughter, Heidi, was recovering from ear surgery at a hospital in a nearby city. Using the train to visit was dangerous, because airplanes were constantly bombing the crowded trains. Every time Trudel visited Heidi, she appeared to be hungry, so she started taking her food.
Trudel told the nurse in charge that she had decided to take her baby home but was advised that it would be another four or five days before Heidi would be released. Sharing her concerns with her family, Trudel, also a nurse, believed she could care for her baby better, so she and her sister devised a plan to sneak Heidi out of the hospital. After riding the train back into the city, Trudel slipped into Heidi’s room. She listened until the sound of the boots of the German Secret Police guard on duty faded away, and then with Heidi in her arms, ran out of the hospital door, and hid her in the baby carriage that was waiting with her sister in the bushes.
That night, the Russians bombed the hospital, leaving nothing. “Praise the Lord,” Trudel said. “I had my Heidi. God had impressed me to go at the right time.”
One February evening in the dead of winter, just a few weeks after Willie’s letter, a German Secret Police officer came to Trudel’s house asking why she was still there with her children. He informed her that the Russians were near and that she would need to leave by 6:00 a.m. the next morning or they would be overtaken.
It was 20 degrees below zero. Where could a woman go with four little children and a horse, and how could she feed them all on their way? She did not know what to do. But then she remembered that her pastor had offered that they would be welcome in his home in the event they had to flee.
Just then two horse-drawn wagons full of German soldiers arrived at Trudel’s home asking for shelter and food, so she asked them to take her and her children to Weisswasser to the home of the pastor.
It was in Weisswasser that the soldiers were to report to the army, so they were happy to help. Surely this was an answer to prayer!
The trip to Weisswasser was very traumatic for Trudel and her children. Everything imaginable was on the highway—people, bicycles, motorcycles, a few cars, horses, buggies, mules and oxen. The police would say, “Don’t stop—just go, go, go!” The wounded or dead were pushed out of the way into the ditch.
Along the way they saw a farmer who had stopped his buggy for his mother to go into the woods. He was ordered to go or be shot. As he drove away, his mother came out of the woods crying, “Wait, wait!”
All at once she fell back onto the snow and the police pushed her into the ditch.
Tears came to Trudel’s eyes. Her children saw all these things and said, “Mama, let’s go home; let’s go home. We want to go home.” But they could never return home.
Finally they reached their destination, but not without hardship. Trudel’s oldest daughter, Renate, was on the first wagon of soldiers and Trudel was on the second wagon with the other children. When the wagons stopped, Renate could not get off. Her legs were frozen, so they carried her into the house and rubbed her legs with snow. They rubbed and prayed and some life came back into her legs, but even today she still suffers problems with her legs.
There was still not enough food to eat, but they were with the pastor and his family, sharing a special time of fellowship with such sweet people. This was not to last. The police came and said that mothers with small children would have to leave. That evening Russian airplanes threw out pamphlets saying, “Tonight we bomb the bomb factory.” It was right across from where the pastor lived.
There was nowhere to go, and Trudel decided to stay in the pastor’s home. They lay on their beds ready for whatever would come. They heard the planes flying low, heavily loaded with their bombs. They kept coming and then going, around and over the house. Inside the house the occupants were kneeling and praying, but nothing happened. Then, all of a sudden, the house shook with a big explosion breaking the windows—it was like an earthquake. Later they learned that the planes were misdirected and dropped their bombs in the woods outside the city. If the factory had been bombed, the whole city would have been gone. There was much praise to the Lord for His goodness.
The Russians were getting closer and closer, and again the police came with the warning to leave.
The marketplace was full of people waiting for trucks to take them away. As they enquired of the Lord the pastor had a better idea. He suggested that they wait on the side street. But there were even fewer trucks there than in the marketplace!
Acting on such a strong impression, they waited, and sure enough, it wasn’t long until a truck came that was big enough to fit the baby carriage in the back. An offer was made to take Trudel and her children wherever she wanted to go, but about ten miles before they reached the city, the driver said that that was as far as he could go. Trudel pled with the driver to take them to a warm place, but he said, “Sorry lady, just following orders. I’m not allowed to go into the city. You’ve got to get out now.”
Trudel wondered how she could walk the rest of the way to the city with four frozen and sleepy children who were all crying; they were so cold and tired and hungry.
Leaving the farm, Trudel had only been allowed to take 50 pounds with her, so she filled a handbag with food and put it in the baby carriage with Heidi. But now the empty handbag had been thrown into the ditch. The cries of the children tore at her heart. The food was gone and the journey they had undertaken seemed hopeless. Trudel sat down by the side of the road and cried, too. “Children, I can’t go on any longer. I’m tired, just like you are.”
All at once, she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was her seven-year-old daughter, Renate. “Mommy,” she said, “Why don’t you pray to Jesus? He will help us.” Trudel thought about how they had always prayed together and how she had told them Bible stories. She looked up at her little girl and said, “Okay! You know how to pray.” It wasn’t five minutes after Renate prayed until another truck came by.
The driver enquired why she was out there with her children. Wearing her Red Cross emblem, she asked to go to the Red Cross building. On arriving there, they soon discovered that the bomb had destroyed the whole building. So the truck driver took them to a restaurant that had been made into just one huge room. It was full of people with everybody lying on the floor—children, parents, grandparents, everyone. There did not appear to be any more room for them, and as Trudel decided to leave, an elderly man waved at them. He had room on his blanket for them to lie down. He went and got milk for the children; then helped Trudel get them settled down to sleep.
“Where are you planning to go?” the man asked.
“To the city of Leizzig,” she replied.
“That place has already been bombed,” he told her. “There is nothing there.”
“But, I’ve already bought the tickets,” she exclaimed.
Suddenly their conversation was interrupted. Renate awoke with a high fever and vomiting. The man immediately started helping to clean her up, objecting when Trudel told him that that was her job.
“I’m doing fine,” he replied. “Are you still going somewhere with this sick child?”
“Yes, the train leaves tonight at 2:00 a.m.,” Trudel answered.
“Okay,” he said, “we’ll see about that. You just lie down and sleep and I’ll call you and wake you up in time.”
Trudel fell asleep, and when she woke up, it was already morning.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked him.
“I knew you couldn’t take that sick child out to the train station in the middle of the night.”
“What should I do now?” Trudel sighed.
A few minutes later, Renate woke up, her fever was gone, and she seemed perfectly fine. The kind man bought breakfast for the children and offered to take them to the marketplace, so they gathered their few belongings and went with him. Heidi was still in bad shape from her ear surgery, so he talked to the man in charge of the trucks about getting them on sooner.
They didn’t have to wait long for a truck, and, as before, it was big enough to hold the baby carriage. As the truck pulled off, Trudel shouted, “Slow down, I want to thank that nice gentleman.” She looked out the window and there was no one in sight. “Quick, go around the corner,” she said. “He must have gone around the corner.” When Trudel realized there was nobody there, she felt sure that the nice man must have been an angel sent to help them.
The truck driver stopped at a restaurant, so Trudel could take care of the children. The sweetest old couple owned the restaurant and welcomed them as family and gave them a meal. Again, the Russian airplanes dropped pamphlets threatening to bomb the city. The owner told them they would have to leave.
Reluctantly leaving the elderly couple, Trudel and her children started walking down the road, pushing Heidi in the baby carriage. Soon a truck came along which picked them up. They had only gone about ten miles away from the restaurant when they saw the airplanes dropping bombs—it was like thunder and lightning, and the truck driver had a hard time steering his truck. More than a million people were killed that day. Praise the Lord; they were safe again!
The truck driver knew of a Red Cross train, which would be traveling to the city of Cam in Bavaria, so he took them to the train station. Before even boarding the train, the siren blew, warning them of approaching Russian bombers, so they ran into the bunkers for protection, knowing that if a bomb did fall on the bunkers, they could not escape. Everyone was terrified, and many were crying and screaming. Finally Trudel begged them all to kneel down and pray.
Two planes came and went and nothing happened, so the siren blew again indicating that it was safe to leave the bunkers. Trudel then suggested that no one leave before thanking God for His protection and blinding the pilots’ eyes from seeing the train station in the broad daylight.
Trudel and her children waited to board the train. Some mothers went into the train looking for seats while their children waited outside and some children went inside looking for seats while their mothers stayed outside with the baby carriages. All of a sudden the train started to pull away. Mothers screamed for the train to stop. Children screamed in anguish for their mothers, but the train did not stop. Trudel immediately took a rope and tied her three children to Heidi’s baby carriage. She was not about to lose any of them.
When the next train arrived Trudel and the children were able to get seats. Not very many miles down the tracks, shooting suddenly broke out. Everybody was out of their seats, hiding and screaming. Trudel knelt down with her children, right there on the train, and prayed. The bullets made holes everywhere and feathers from the beds were flying.
One old man who thought it safer outside the train, though Trudel cried for him to stay inside believing that God could protect him, ran behind a big tree, but the airplane people saw him. They shot at him, and he jumped all around the tree attempting to avoid the bullets but he finally succumbed to a heart attack and died.
The passengers had to leave the train and go into the woods so the dead and wounded could be removed from the train and it could be cleaned. There, Trudel and her children met a little girl seven years old who was wounded; her mother had been killed in the train and her father had been killed in the war in Russia. She also became part of Trudel’s family. Doctors and nurses went from car to car listing the casualties and were amazed to find that nobody was injured in the carriage where Trudel was praying. On the rest of the train there were 42 dead and over 120 injured.
It had been almost four weeks since Trudel Kowarsch and her four children began their journey across Germany. Arriving in the next city, Trudel, her children, and the little orphaned girl were offered a place to stay with a farmer and his family. In return they helped the farmer’s wife in the house and also out in the fields.
One day while working outside, Russian planes swooped down on them but there was no time to run for the bushes. Instead, they got down and prayed. As they prayed, the planes opened fire into the bushes. If they had run there, they surely would have been killed.
It came time for Trudel and her children to leave the farm and go on to the city of Cam. The lovely farmers offered to keep the little girl whose parents had died.
Meanwhile, Trudel’s husband, Willie, had been wounded a second time and taken to France where he learned of his wife’s flight to Western Germany. When he recovered, he joined his family in Cam where they had finally reached safety.
Picking up their lives again they worked the next seven years in a farming community before migrating to the United States of America.
Trudel had finally realized her dream. All of her children were able to get an education: Renate, a home health nurse; Deiter, a home builder; Willford, a pastor; Heidi, a nurse; Heinz, a pastor and Esther a physical therapist. Trudel, too, went to school and trained for home nursing, which she still does.
Trudel has received many written letters of appreciation for her unselfish care for other people. They include a surgeon in Houston, Texas, where she worked at a hospital; a state representative in Georgia; and the brother of a patient in Chattanooga, Tenessee, who called her his sister’s “guardian angel.”
“We all go through life and meet many people,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many. “Few do we ever really remember. … But I think the most vivid and lucid recollection I have of Gertrude (Trudel) Kowarsch is her 100 percent patience and compassion for her fellowman.”
To God be the glory for the things He has done through this faithful child of His.
Submitted by Trudel’s daughter, Heidi (Kowarsch) McFarland. She can be contacted by email at: email@example.com.
See also Willie’s Story (LandMarks, January 2011).
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