Reports & contributions | Refugees in World War II
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Refugees in World War II

by Katharina Pretli (Hotz),
Leamington (Ontario) Canada


In 1944, it was a very nice spring. I just graduated from high school in Gross Caroel and was planning to attend Budapest University in September. During the summer I worked for my parents on the farm. It was a very good summer. All the crops looked very good but our country was in trouble. Our town was full of Hungarian soldiers moving to the Russian front. My father was in the Hungarian army for a while, but they let him go home sooner because of his age. The German soldiers were moving back and forth. Our barn was always full of soldiers; Hungarian or German. We even had to make room in our house for the higher Officers. Once we had a Major in our front room and we stayed in the back room. Then in August and September it started to get worse. The soldiers were moving backwards and some German people were fleeing with covered wagons from Russia and Romania. In the fall we started to harvest our bountiful crop of corn, sunflower, beans, potatoes, apples, plums, and pears. The grapes just started to ripen.



In October, two German soldiers were sent to our town to have a meeting with our parents to consider leaving our town, Hodod, because if the Russians came in our town, they will gather all the German people who were able to work and ship them to Siberia. They only leave the old people and women with small children home. It was a very hard decision to make for our parents. The town people had a couple of meetings to see what to do. Nobody wanted to leave their home and everything they worked so hard for behind, but they were also afraid what was going to happen if the Russians moved in Hodod, because they heard very bad things what they done to the German people where they moved in. There was no unanimous decision. Some started to build their covered wagons. My mother didn’t want to leave her home and everything behind and just to go nowhere. My father was afraid for my brother, George, 18; and I, 16; and my Dad, 45, would be an easy target to ship to Siberia. So he started to build a covered wagon. Finally my mother agreed and they started to get ready for the road.


My dad butchered some young pigs. My mother butchered some ducks and chickens and she baked all the meat in the big oven what we had on our porch where she baked us bread, once every week. Mother put all the meat in a big 10 gallon pot and put all the fat from the pork and duck over the meat. The meat stays long time fresh in the fat. Mother also baked an oven full of bread. She sent me to the vineyard to bring a basket of grapes. We had many different kinds of grapes. I picked out the very best. Father was loading up the wagon with food and some of our belongings. He knew how to pack; he was in the first and second world war twice in Germany. He packed lots of suitcases and backpacks.

My brother, Frank, was married and he was a Hungarian soldier fighting on the Russian front. Frank and his wife, Kathrina, had a 1 year old baby girl, Kathy, and Kathrina wanted to stay home. The Russians wouldn’t bother her with the baby and she thought that if the war would be over, my brother would be looking for her at home. My sister-in-law lived with her mother and when we left home, she moved in our home so that no strangers would move in the house.


Some people already left with the wagon. On October 12, 1944, it was my Mother’s birthday. We gathered with the other wagons on the marketplace. It was late afternoon when we left Hodod. We left some of our family and friends behind. As the wagon was rolling down the hill, I looked back and saw the evening star shine so bright. I had the feeling I would never see my home anymore. We drove all night, father and brother, George, took turns driving the horses. The next morning we arrived in Gross Caroel, where I went to school. The first group of wagons was waiting there for us. The German military gave us two soldiers to look out for us where to stay overnight. We stayed so many different places, in barns, school auditorium. The worst place was in the middle of a stable with cows on both side depositing their loose stool, but it was warmer than on the wagon. Some people were nice; they let us stay in their house. One of the nicest places we stayed was in Budapest. They put us in their guest room with clean warm bath in the morning and they made us a nice warm breakfast. We walked a lot beside the wagon so it was lighter for the horses to pull the wagon. The German army gave us some canned goods, cold cuts, milk and bread, and for the horses, some hay and oats. The travel was very hard on the old people, children and pregnant women. One woman we had to leave behind to give birth in a hospital. Later she was reunited with her family, but for us teenagers it was not all that bad. It was like an adventure. We could always find some fun. One of the soldiers was very friendly with me. He tried to teach me how to shoot a gun.


We were very lucky; we were not bombed from the airplanes. Some of the other wagon trains from other towns got bombed. Their wagons burned down and the horses were killed. There were lots of airplanes flying over us, but they bombed mostly over the big cities. We were almost one month on the road getting closer to Austria. The weather was getting cooler; the army took the two soldiers away from us as they needed them on the front line. The one soldier, Julius Schroeder, gave me his field post number so that I could write to him where ever I end up.


Two or three days later, we got a message from a higher up that all the students that were planning to attend university had to leave with the train to Germany so they would not lose the year from school, so I packed my little belongings and left my parents, brother and sister behind and went on the train to Germany. The train was full of young girls and boys. We ended up in the province of Sudeten Land in Neustadt an der Taefel Fichte, what is now Czech Republic. When we arrived there, they took us in a restaurant. We were very hungry. We did not eat all day. We only got a half slice of thin bread and a half bowl of plain broth. We were still very hungry. We got lucky; nearby there was a vegetable stand where we could buy some carrots. It was so delicious that it filled our stomach. They divided us in three different groups. We settled in a nice big building there were about fifty girls we all slept in a big auditorium. We only had two classes because we only had two professors and not enough school supplies. They said we might have to repeat the class. It was a nice area with lots of evergreen forest. It was especially nice in winter with the white snow and the reindeers coming out in groups to their feeding place.


Christmas was coming and our professors wanted our cook to bake us some nice cookies, but the cook did not have enough supplies for baking. We could get supplies from the German army if somebody would go to the next city to pick them up, so they needed some volunteers. I was one of the 6 girls who volunteered. We left in the morning pulling three sleds. We got in the city at noon and got our supplies: flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, butter and chocolate. On the way back the weather got bad. The road got icy, windy and very cold. Each two girls pulled one sled. We had to go lots uphill and we slid lots of time backwards. It started to get dark and there were no buildings around. The sled was heavy to pull and we were very tired, but we had to pull forwards. If we stopped, we could have frozen to death.


Back home, they were very worried, they all waited up for us. We were supposed to be home at 6 pm and finally we arrived around midnight, very exhausted. All the girls and professors were so happy to see us. The next day all six of us stayed in bed all day to recuperate. So we had all our Christmas cookies and pastries for Christmas. The only thing missing for Christmas was my family. I started to look for them through the Red Cross. I wrote to every province, capitals, cities in Germany and Austria. Most of them wrote me back that they did not hear from Frank Hotz or from the Hodod covered wagon train. The only address I had was my brother, Frank’s field number and Julius Schroeder’s field number, so I wrote to both of them. I never got an answer from my brother, Frank, but I still wrote to him almost every day. Julius, answered me all the time. He sent me always so beautiful postcards. The last one came from Budapest. He wrote to me that he got transferred to Berlin. I never heard from him after that.


In January 1945, I finally got a letter from Linz, Austria from the Red Cross that the Hodod wagon train came to Eggerding in Kreis Schärding. I wrote right away find if Frank Hotz came with the Hodod wagon train to Eggerding. I did not know that my parents were not there. When they arrived in Austria in St. Polten, it was mid-November and too cold so they separated the old people and children from the wagon and they went with the train to Germany and the younger people stayed with the horses and wagons, so my parents were not in Eggerding, but my brother George was there. Our school teacher Ludwig Winkler was the spokesman for the Hododer and when they received my letter, they gave it to my brother George. My brother wrote to me right away, he was so happy to hear from me. And they also heard from our soldiers that they received letters from families from Thuringen, Germany and that our teacher Ludwig Winkler is planning to go to Thuringen to bring them all back to Austria to their families. My father worked in a flour mill in Alt Stadt, Thuringen. My mother cried a lot she was very sad that they had to leave everything behind and now even their children. From ten children, she had 1 left, my sister, Mary. Three little girls and three little boys died as babies. They did not hear from my brother Frank for a long time. They didn’t know where I was and they also did not know where my brother George was. Meanwhile our teacher, Ludwig Winkler was on his way with the train to Thuringen to bring all the Hododer people back to their families in Eggerding in Austria. My parents were very happy to hear from me and my brother George. So hey all went back to Austria.


My parents, and brother, George, and sister, Mary, settled in the Schon Bauer farm. They sold their horses and wagon. Father and George worked on the farm. My sister Mary went to public school and I was Sudeten Land, Germany, now the Czech Republic. Also wrote letters back and forth with my parents. The big cities were heavily bombed, especially the big industrial cities and we lived not too far from Dresden, a big industrial city. We could see the fire and smoke from far away so they thought we young people were too close to the fire so they moved us to a beautiful tourist town called Hammer am See. There were lots of beautiful villas and lakes. We moved in a villa named “Amelia”, a 3 story high with beautiful winding stairway. I had a room on the 3rd floor with my friend Gerda. There were about 50 girls. The life in villa “Amelia” was exciting. We had lots of fun. We walked to school every day, except Saturday and Sunday, but we were not too serious about studying when we were told we would have to repeat the class, they did not have enough school supplies and professors to teach us right. When we wanted to go out, we had to have a pass and permission from our professor, who was also our administrator. After 5 months, I received a postcard from my brother Frank, from the Russian front. He said he received all my letters, but he was not able to write to me because they were always on the move. He was happy and thankful for all the letters I sent him. I was very happy to hear from him and that he was alive. I sent a telegram to my parents in Austria to let them know that I heard from Frank and that he was alive and okay and was on the Russian front. My parents were happy to hear from all their children.


It was very nice in Hammer am See. We were young and full of energy. We had to take turns to help in the kitchen washing dishes and if there were leftovers, we could take them in our room. Also we had to take turns for our bath. The bathtubs and showers were all on the first floor. The Russians came closer and closer. My parents were worried that I was too close to the Russian front, so father decided to come from Austria to pick me up and take me back to Austria. One morning it was my turn to take a shower. I was dressed just in a slip with a towel over my shoulder. I was running down the beautiful winding stairway and one of the girls called me – “Hotz, you have to go to the Administrator”. I didn’t want to go back and get dressed. I thought, she’s just a woman, she saw many times in slips and nightgowns, so I knocked on the door, she said “Come in”, I peeked first my head in to see if she was alone, then I saw my father sitting there. I went in and put my arm around him and then the towel fell down from my shoulder. I was very surprised, tears came out, father always cried when he’s happy. Father told the administrator that he came to take me to Austria. The Administrator said she’s not allowed to let any girl go, but if she doesn’t know, then it’s okay. I took father to my room and finished my bath. Father said he felt bad that he came empty handed. Mother baked some cookies to bring to me but he had trouble. He was befriended by a Hungarian soldier when they were in Prague. The soldier said to my father that he will go to get his tickets and he could watch his suitcase and then when he came back, father can go buy his tickets and he will watch my father’s suitcase. But when my father came back, the soldier and suitcase was gone. Father was left with a little money in his pocket and a coupon for a loaf of bread. I said to father. It is okay, I have lots of food. I helped last night in the kitchen and I have a whole plate of boiled potatoes. Father’s tears came out and said you are so happy for this boiled potatoes, in Austria they feed the pigs with it. Then father settled in for one day and night in a hotel. My roommate, Gerda and I, visited him in the hotel. He bought us some soft drinks. The next morning I packed my little belongings and father came to pick me up. I said goodbye to my roommate and best friend, Gerda. I gave to her my address from Austria and we promised each other that we come to see each other after the war, wherever we end up, but I never heard from her after. I left in March 1945 and in April, the Russians moved in there. I received a postcard from one of the girl from south Austria. I wrote to her right away, but my letter came back, she moved on. I never found out what happened to the girls.


Father and I started our journey back to Austria. We did not go the way he came because the Russian were too close, so we went more to the west of Germany. We had to stop at every train station to buy tickets for the next train. Civilians were not allowed to travel long distance, only if they had permission to travel long distance. They needed the train for the soldiers traveling back and forth. So we slept at the train station and lived on a loaf of bread and soft drinks. We were almost one week on the road. It took father one week to get from Austria to Sudeten Land, now we were getting closer to Austria. Just before Passau (border city) I went to get tickets to the next station and then the Inspector was there and asked me for my identification so I gave it to him and he asked me how I got from Sudetenland all the way to southern Germany. I said that I am a refugee and that I am fleeing from the Russian, so he asked me where I want to go. I said I want to go to my parents in Austria, but he said you asked for two tickets, where is the other person? I did not want to get father in trouble because he was traveling without a document so I said my girlfriend travels with me. I give my girlfriends name. The Inspector felt sorry for me and filled out a paper, then give me two tickets all the way to the last station, Andorf, Austria. I was happy that we didn’t have to stop and sleep at the train stations anymore so I went with a big smile to father as he was waiting for me in a corner. He said to me “Don’t smile. There are too many soldiers walking around”. “But father” I said, “I got two tickets all the away to Andorf, Austria”, so he was glad too. We boarded the train for the last time. The train was full of German soldiers. There was only standing room. My father was afraid for me, being the only female on the train. He told me to always look down and not to smile. Father was in the First and Second World War and he knew how hungry the soldiers were for a young female when they were coming home from the war. Finally we arrived in Andorf, Austria. It took us one hour to walk to Eggerding, back on the Shon Bauer farm. Mother, brother, George and sister, Mary was eagerly waiting for us. They didn’t hear from us for two weeks. They did not know what was going on with us. There were lots of airplanes flying over us and the bombs were falling. My parents had a one-room apartment in the Schon Bauer house. My mother, brother and sister were very happy to see us. There were hugs, kisses and tears that finally we were all together. The next day I started to work on the farm. First in the morning I had to learn how to milk the cow; it was not easy. The milk did not want to come. After a couple days I got the right grip. The next day I had to learn how to load the manure wagon. My brother George was taking them out with the horses on the field and father and I was to have the next wagon load ready by the time he was to come back.


Side Two

My hands started to get full of blisters. I had trouble holding the pitch fork. My brother felt sorry for me. When he came back from the field he always took the fork away from me and helped father to load the wagon so I can get a little rest. After a couple days, my hands hardened up. In our spare time in the evening, my sister, 9 and me 17, liked to sing together. I knew all the songs from memory. I loved to sing even when I was working. The time went faster. My sister had a very nice voice and she also loved to sing and learn all the songs so we harmonized very nice together.


In April 1945 the war was almost over. The Russians came from the east and the Americans came from the west. We were hoping and praying that the Americans would reach us before the Russians. We were right in the middle. They gathered all the young people 18 and over to go and protect the region but in a couple of hours they all run back home. They were so afraid; my brother George was 19, and my cousin, Andreas Schartner, 18, he was shaking all over. He said it looked horrible out on the field. The bomb was falling, the solders were shooting and there was fire all over. You could hear the big noise and see the fire from a distance. The next morning we heard on the radio that the war was over. We were lucky the Americans reached us before the Russians. We liked the Americans better and knew we were much better off with the Americans than with the Russians. The American soldiers gave out chocolate and cookies for the kids and they sent from America used clothing and shoes for the refugees. We heard from our friend from the Russian side that the Russian soldiers were stealing jewelry, watches, cameras and expensive things they could lay their hands on. The Americans moved all the way up to LInz on the Danube and the Russians were on the other side of the Danube River.


The summer came and the wheat and hay was ready to harvest. We had to do all by hand, the farmers didn’t have harvester machines so I had to learn how to saw the hay and how to tie up the wheat in bunches. It was very hard job, especially for a 17 year old girl. I was so exhausted I was tying all night in my sleep. My mother woke me up, wondering why I was sleeping so restless; the sheet on my bed was tied together. The farmer gave us room and board and minimum wages. The food was very good. The farmers had their own food supply; vegetables, meat, milk, butter. They took the wheat germ to the flour mill and they had a press machine to make apple cider. They drink apple cider all year round. We worked three years on the farm.


On November 15, 1947, I married Mike Pretli at Linz on the Danube so I moved from Eggerding to Linz. My husband worked for the American army in the kitchen. In Linz there were lots of refugees so the government built lots of refugee camps. They were long buildings with large rooms. In one room there were 3 to 4 families. The families divided their corners with cardboard and papers to have a little bit of privacy. They had a wooden stove in the middle of the room and all families cooked on the one stove, taking turns. We could only buy food and food supplies with coupons, most of the time we had to stay in long lines to get some food. My parents and my brother and sister moved in the spring 1948 to LInz. My brother George found a job with a construction company for him and my father. They got paid better than on the farm. The company had better housing for them. My parents had a nice big room for themselves. In August 4, 1948, I gave birth to my first son Richard in Linz Hospital. My brother George married Maria Kreiter on October 3, 1948.


In spring 1949, we heard that the French government would like to have some refugees to come and work on the farms so we thought in Austria there were too many refugees and not much opportunity so then we decided to move to France for a better opportunity. The Pretli’s, Hotz and Kreiter and Leili family boarded the train to France. It took us 3 to 4 days to get there. Our patron picked us up from the train with a big truck. The Leili’s went to another farmer. They took us all four families to a big government farm. They grew acres and acres of sugar beets and some potatoes and wheat. Our first job was sorting and cleaning potatoes. The first word we learned in French was “pommes de terre” – potatoes. They only spoke French; it was hard to communicate by not knowing each others language. Our patron was pleased with us that we were learning so fast, the language, but we had no choice, nobody spoke our language. In the spring we hoed the sugar beets in piece work with a short-handed hoe, all day bending. It was very painful but it paid very good money. In summer our patron took us in a truck to a big city, Rheimes, where we all bought a shiny new bike. It was a luxury to be able to ride on our bike to the next town, Malmason, and the big city Laun. In the fall we had to pull the sugar beets out with a shorted-handed fork, and chop the leaves off with an axe, all in piece work. It was very hard work. The end of the day, we could hardly stand up. Then my husband got a job in the stables to take care of all the horses, cows and calves. I had to milk 12 cows every morning and evening. A French woman milked the other 12. The French people were very nice to us. They helped us with the language as much as they could. After one year we could go shopping by ourselves. On February 18, 1950, my brother George and his wife Mary had their first baby girl, Monica. We all lived on a big government farm called “Robert Shon” in the town of Malmason, the province of Aisne. Laun was the closest big city. Mother had a very big surgery in Laun Hospital; she was in very big pain. I went with her in the ambulance to Laun. The doctor told me what they were going to operate on, but I could not understand the big French word. I was just glad that they were helping her. Twenty eight years later, when mother passed away, we thought her appendix broke, they did an autopsy and find out she didn’t have appendix. She died because her big colon broke. They took her appendix out in France when she had the surgery.


In summer 1950, father received a letter from Mr. Joe Szakacs from Canada. Mr. Szakacs was a childhood friend of fathers and also a neighbor in Hodod. He came to Canada in the 1920’s and brought his family out in the 1930’s. He found out from our friend that father and family were in France so he wrote to father if he would like to move to Canada. Father wrote back to him that he would very much like to move to Canada, but only if all his family can come to Canada. So Mr. Szakacs find for us all sponsors, for all four families. We went with my parents to Paris to apply for our passport and immigration paper. The immigration doctor rejected my father. He had very bad varicose veins in his legs so he was not qualified to come to Canada as the bread-winner for his family. He had to have his legs fixed and apply again. My brother George said we, my husband and me and my little boy, should go ahead with our paper, he will stay in France until father can come too. We had our paper ready in January 1951 and then we said goodbye to our family and friends and went on the train to Cannes, southern France.


We boarded on an Italian shipped called “Atlantic”, a nice big boat on the Mediterranean Sea. We went around Spain, through the Straits of Gibraltar and stopped in Libson, Portugal to pick some more people up. The first couple days was very nice, good food with wine on the table until one morning when I went for breakfast, I saw the long spaghetti lying around the hallway floors. I got so sick I could not even smell the food anymore. We were 8 days on the Atlantic Ocean. We landed in Halifax, February 4, 1951. I was very glad to walk on land again. I felt bad that I left all my loved ones behind. I thought nobody would wait for us here in Canada. It took us 2 days with the train from Halifax to Windsor. When we arrived in Windsor, we were pleasantly surprised. Five families were waiting for us. The Szakacs thought we would not recognize each other, so they asked our friends, who came from Austria before us. We settled in the Szakacs farm, in a nice little house, a nice kitchen and living and 2 bedrooms. The Szakacs were very nice to us. They give us jobs right away for 50 cents per hour and 10 hours a day.


Mr. Szakacs took us with his pickup truck to Windsor to the Salvation Army where we bought our furniture and some appliances. They worked that summer for Mr. Szakacs and our friends came out to visit us. They brought canned goods and chocolate for Richard, who was 3 years old. In May 1951, my in-laws, Mike Pretli Sr. and Suzanna Pretli and their two sons, George (18) and Andy (16) had their papers ready to come to Canada. They came on an older ship. They separated the men from the women. The men all slept in a big room and the women slept in another big room. My mother-in-law was very sick with asthma, so my father-in-law was staying with her during the day. One morning when my father-in-law went to see her, she was not in her bed. My father-in-law thought she was in the washroom and waited for her, but when she did not come back, my father-in-law asked the women all around and nobody saw her. Then they went to the ship captain and they stopped the boat and the ship went for a couple hours backwards to look for her. My father-in-law and his two sons were devastated. They could not find her and the ship doctor came to the conclusion that she must be very sick; not getting any air so she went outside to get some fresh air and fell overboard.


Here in Canada we know that they were coming. We were waiting for them, for the telegram, when to pick them up from the train in Windsor. One Sunday afternoon when I was alone home with my son Richard, someone knocked on my door, I looked out by the window and it was my younger brother-in-law, Andy. I run out to welcome him with a big hug and then he started to cry. I said “What is wrong? Is your mother very sick?” “No” he said, “We don’t have a mother anymore”. Then my father-in-law and George came out from the taxi. We went all in the house crying. They told me what had happened. Then my husband came home, he was so happy to see them and then asked “Where’s my Mom?” and walking towards the bedroom, he thought she was very tired and laid down. When he found out what happened, he was devastated. It was hard to believe that their Mother could just disappear like that. It was a very sad beginning for them in Canada.


In December 1951, my parents and sister, Mary, and brother George and family, had their papers ready to come to Canada. They left France shortly before Christmas and arrived in Windsor the 31st of December. We were celebrating New Year’s Eve. Mr. and Mrs. Kreiter and their two girls, Martha and Sieglinde, came out in summer 1951 to Canada. My Father-in-law and his two sons, George and Andy, moved to another farmer. My parents and sister, Mary, stayed with us in the Szakacs’ farm. My brother George worked for another farmer.


In 1952, my husband and I worked in share cropping for Mr. Szakacs. In 1953 we moved to Mr. Gall farm in Harrow. We were share cropping there for two years. On June 12, 1953, my second son Erwin Michael was born. In November 1954 we bought our first farm on the 7th concession in Ruthven. The farm was much neglected. The house was in very bad shape. It was a 50-acre farm. In 1960 we bought our second farm, 24-acres with better building and a nice little house with inside plumbing right beside our first farm. The same year (1960) my brother, Frank, and his family came to Canada. My parents were very happy that we were altogether in Canada. In 1962 our third son Kenneth Frank was born. We grew all kinds of vegetables; late tomatoes, burley tobacco, corn and soybeans. In 1970, my husband and I were separated. He sold the 50-acre land and moved back to Austria and I stayed with my three sons on the 24-acre farm. In March 1973, my father-in-law, Michael Pretli, passed away in the Sun Parlor Home in Leamington, age 78. In 1974, March 16, my son Richard married my daughter-in-law Andrea Smith. On August 17, 1974, my son Erwin married Becky Ruscher. They separated 8 years later. In 1980, November 15, my husband passed away in Austria from an explosion. In 1979, January 10, my mother, Anna Hotz, passed away in Leamington Hospital from a colon rupture. In 1981, December, my son Ken married Michelle Strong, they separated 7 years later. My brother, George passed away with stomach cancer on August 16, 1985, age 59. In 1996, October 3, my son Ken married my daughter-in-law Christine Brady. On December 27, 1997, my son Erwin married my daughter-in-law Judy LeBlanc.


I worked the last 20 years as a health care aid in the Mennonite senior’s home. I retired in February 1993. My father, Frank Hotz, passed away with a stroke in the Mennonite Home on December 8, 1991, age 92. On April 1st, 1999, my daughter-in-law, Judy, and my son Erwin, gave me my first grandson Michael Martin. It made me very happy. After 20 years waiting for a grandchild, I finally got one. In 1999, I sold the house on the 7th concession in Ruthven and moved to Leamington. On November 28, 2002, my daughter-in-law Christine and son Ken gave me my second grandson, Jackson Tyler. It made me very happy to have two beautiful healthy grandsons. I am very thankful to God for my three sons and my three daughter-in-laws and my two healthy grandsons and all the blessings he gave me. Thanks God for everything.


Last Updated on Sunday, 31 October 2010 19:40