German emigrant tells of life at war and peace

Published 07/07/2015 | 00:00

Helmut during his latter days.
Helmut during his latter days.
Helmut Loy as a prisoner of war.
Helmut in uniform in the early 1940s.

THE Nazis stole Helmut Loy's youth.

Shortly before he died at the age of 88, he spoke of his lost childhood, his time on the run from the Allies, his years as a prisoner of war (POW) and of a return to a devastated Germany rebuilding from the ashes of war.

Helmut and his wife Gisela came to live in Wexford in 2011.

His son-in-law Karl Schmidt was working at Wexford General Hospital and their daughter Sibylle thought that her parents should live close-by. So Helmut and Gisela left Italy where they had been living for many years, and moved to Wexford.

Helmut loved music, had attended the Conservatoire in Nuremberg and was a fine pianist. In Wexford he frequented the festival operas and concerts.

His abiding love of science, physics and astronomy, never left him and he was constantly looking for someone with whom to share his interests.

He was born in the small town of Roth, near Nuremberg in 1926.

Asked about his first memories of the Second World War, he said that in August of 1942, all the students in his class had to go to Nuremberg Castle at the end of the holidays.

'We had to bring a toilet bag, pyjamas and so on. In the morning we had some school lessons. In the afternoon we learned to work with fire fighting appliances like fire fighters. At night we slept in the old Castle granary. This had been a Youth Hostel for a few years. Thank God, there was no bomb attack in that time on the Castle.

Aged just 16, he said real soldiers were needed to join Rommel in North Africa, or at the Front in service against the Russian troops, so youths filled the void at home in Germany.

'That work ended in March 1943 at the Castle, when on orders from above we received a call-up from the command of the Luftwaffe.

'We had to go to the outskirts of Nuremberg where we were trained as Luftwaffenhelfer (air force auxilliaries). We lived there in wooden huts as it was a camp.

'In the morning we had school lessons again, after a short lunch, we were taught how to work the flak (anti-aircraft guns). After three months we started to work on the anti-aircraft battery.

'Russian prisoners carried shells and ammunition to help us. They had a bad time, because their food rations were small, and it was a hard job. Sometimes we gave them our army bread, when we didn't need it, because we got bread from our mothers when they visited us on some Sunday afternoons.

'I remember an attack when we were shooting against the bombers. A fire bomb exploded near our aircraft battery and one of our fellows was dead. Also women worked in the army, three of them at the searchlights were killed also.'

Helmut said that when he was 17, he had to give up studying at the Music Conservatoire. French lessons ceased, 'they made us study Italian instead'.

'We did physics, mathematics and Latin, my good Latin professor was forced to go to the army and died in Russia. To be honest, the old professors did their best, but it was not like before. But we all learned English, nevertheless. I had good marks. All that ended in October, 1943.'

Helmut said he and others had to go for a special course to the Reichsausbilddingslager (pre-military training camp) at Stegskoppf, together with 500 Luftswaffenhelfer from all over Germany to study high-frequency technique, that was in March 1944.

'I think that saved my life, because there was a possibility that I would go into the Luftwaffe.'

'One day I got a letter calling me up for the infantry to go to Poland to fight the Russians. But then I got another saying that I was not going to Poland, but to Berlin instead. My cousin went to the Baltic and was killed there and the same would almost certainly have happened to me.

'A very strange thing happened around this time. I was on a train going one way to Berlin and another train came alongside going the opposite way to the eastern part of Germany. Suddenly I saw my cousin on the other train and at the same time he saw me - for an instant - and then he was gone. That was the last time I ever saw him.'

'I was then sent into the Luftwaffe where I had to swear I would fight (for) Hitler. I have to say I was never interested in the Nazi Party, although my father and uncle were both in it. I didn't like it, so wasn't a friend of it.'

Helmut recalled that as a 10-year-old he had to go with the Hitler Youth, complete with brown uniform and swastika. Nazi propaganda and anti-Jewish sentiment was endemic in the Reich at the time.

'I was not against the Jewish people. But there was always anti-semitism in Germany,' he said.

'We had to learn all about him (Hitler) at school and celebrate his birthday every year. I did not like all the physical activities and so they made a separate group for boys like me. They put me in a special telecommunications department and so I didn't have to do sport. I hated football and other games.

Asked what his parents thought of what was happening in Germany as the Nazis became increasingly powerful, Helmut said his father 'was in the Party whether he liked it or not, because he didn't wish to lose his job'.

Ironically, he was later he was to lose it because we was a member of the party.

During the war, Helmut was posted to an island in the North Sea where newly-invented radar was being used in the fight against British and American bombers besieging German cities, the British RAF Lancaster heavy bombers by night and the endless waves of American Flying Fortresses by day.

'When the war ended we blew up all our equipment so the enemy could not have it. When all this was done, I went into the kitchen looking for something to eat and I only found sugar. There was a lot of it so I filled an ammunition carton with it and swapped it for other food and things.

'About a month before this I met a German soldier who had escaped from the enemy and he had an American Colt revolver with him. I had cigarettes and exchanged them for the Colt, it took the same bullets as the German revolvers, so I had ammunition.'

Helmut said that with a friend, he set out for Nuremberg, which was about 200km away, but when they were near Frankfurt they were confronted by a group of Americans soldiers who took them prisoner.

'I quickly threw the revolver into a corner because I knew if they found it on me they would think that I had killed an American to get it.

'We were held there for a few days and then trucks arrived with American soldiers who put the two of us in the largest prison camp in Germany, near Remagen on the river Rhine.'

He said he couldn't remember how long he was held at the camp.

'There were no huts or tents. We had to dig holes in the earth to sleep, it was very cold, my feet were frozen at night and have been so ever since. We got water from the Rhine. A lot of prisoners died from drinking this water.'

Later Helmut and the other prisoners of war were taken to France to a small town called Bolbec, near Le Havre.

'It was a transit camp where the American soldiers gathered before returning to the States. They also shipped out German prisoners to the US to work on farms and so on. After they left we occupied their tents. The next station was Chartres, where I saw the famous cathedral, but only from the outside because we were sitting on an open truck.

'There we changed from being American prisoners to a French POW camp near Orleans. The French needed German prisoners to help them clear the streets. We had to repair bridges and streets which we - the Germans - had destroyed. We used to take the sand from the river Loire. We were transported on big American trucks, but guarded by French soldiers.

'Orleans was the principal camp were I stayed throughout my internment for a period of nearly three years. In Orleans we worked outside the camp, such as in a factory producing electrical irons for domestic use.

'There was an American unit besides the camp at Orleans and I spoke very frankly with the American there and one day they told me that they would leave France and they will go to Germany next day and "if you want you can come with us on our truck tomorrow morning".

'But it was during the night and the guard would not let me go out so I had to wait until he slept and then went out, but I was too late because they had left already. So I had lost the chance to be home earlier.

Helmut said his French captors didn't work him too hard, but fed their prisoners only the bare minimum.

'There were German cooks but they could only make soup from potatoes mainly.. you queued up and the cook gave a big dollop of food inside your pot, and if there was some left the last one got a little bit more, so we would all try to be the last man.

Helmut said he was treated 'well enouugh' by the French 'all things considered.'

One of his jobs as a POW was repairing radios for his captors.

'We were wearing our old uniforms with a PG on the back and I had a stripe on my sleeve which counted for something. I was privileged, because I needed to buy material for the radios.

'I had some private money because every week we got a ration of tobacco and because I did not smoke, I sold mine. And when I went into town accompanied by an Algerian soldier with his rifle, to buy materials for the radios, I could buy bread and things.'

There was a library at the camp and through the Swiss Government, the POws were sent books and magazines through the YMCA who also sent manuscript notes and musical instruments and things.

'An orchestra was started in the camp and the conductor was the former conductor of the orchestra in Augsburg. I remember three special symphonies, 5th Beethoven, the Unfinished Schubert and Mozart's The Magic Flute.'

Helmut said that by the end of his third year as a POW things had changed 'and we were given greater liberties.'

'No longer prisoners we could go outside as civilians and I worked at Sully sur Loire.. I was also able to work at a small workshop where they had a vapour machine on the same principle as James Watt's steam engine and they made electricity and also radio. I made radios whilst my two colleagues put electricity lines into houses. I also did radio repairs.'

'The French were friendly towards us and I made connections with somebody who owned a factory and he invited me into his home. He had a daughter who played piano, and so I had the opportunity to play the piano again. It was the first time in a long time I had played in a private house. These people were very friendly towards me.

'I had the time to build my own radio, and I remember it was a big case of wood and inside were the loud speakers and the tubes, and when we were liberated, I had it on my back and arrived back in Germany with it. I had that radio for a very long time.

'I got to like France very much and later, for many years, after I was married, my wife and I would take our holidays there and we tried to see as much of France as we could. We also visited some French people I knew when I was a prisoner.'

Helmut said he finally headed home in August 1948 when all the German prisoners of war were repatriated.

'We went by train as free men, first to Paris, changing trains for Germany, but I cannot remember where. I had a very big haversack to carry.'

Asked about the Germany he returned to, he said his family's situation was bad because his father, a member of the Nazi Party, had lost his job as a top official in the post office in Nuremberg.

'He had to work in an American Prison Camp and my uncle, who was also a Party Member, had to work to dig turf like my father in Hammelburg. This happened to a lot of Nazis.'

'Ninety per cent of Nuremberg had been destroyed and they were living in one room in a barracks in a small town.'

Helmut said he was able to make up for his lost education at a technical university in Nuremberg where he studied there for six terms and got a diploma-engineering degree

After obtaining his degree he joined a company in Nuremberg which made telecommunication equipment, electronic tubes, radio and television sets.

'My experience from the war helped me in this. Afterwards my father came back to the Post Office and got his old job back and we got an apartment in Nuremberg.

Asked how he felt about what happened to him and other young German because of the Nazi regime, Helmut said none of them had a normal adolescence.

'I lost a lot of my childhood, always having to change schools because they had been bombed and listening for the sounds of air raid sirens warning us, both at night and day of air raids.'

In 1959 and 1960, Helmut wento the USA.

'The transistor had been invented in the United States and after a few years the company I was working with began to make them. I had made an important invention myself while working there, but we needed special machines to make it, so the director sent me to the United States.'

'Despite all the bombing and cities destroyed throughout Germany, people were amazed how quickly the country was re-built and functioning like never before. This was because of the Marshall Plan (an American iniative to aid Europe following the war) and to some extent by the women the so called 'rubble women' the' trummerfrauen' and the general population as well.'

Judith said Helmut had an inquiring mind and a sense of humour.

He loved to tell me of seeing Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady on Broadway. His particular interests were in music, electronics, chemistry, astronomy and physics. At our first interview he began by telling me he felt honoured someone should wish to hear his story; to which I can only reply that it was an honour for me to hear it.

Wexford People

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