Now and Then: Hans Dittmar

Hans Dittmar

A heart-stopping moment in the life of Hans Dittmar occurred in 1947 when he escaped under the cover of darkness across the East German border to West Germany. “My mother had packed a lunch and hugged me goodbye before I took the train to Nordhausen, near the border between east and west. On the train, I met a dealer who crossed the border regularly to sell his wares from a briefcase. It seems condoms, three for a mark, were hard to get in West Germany at the time. He assured me that he would get me across safely if I shared my lunch with him.”

“He said that about 30 policemen would be monitoring the station at Nordhausen looking for escapees. He added that the train always arrives late because its boiler is burning soft coal which creates less steam,” Hans explains. “As we neared the station, we jumped off early to avoid the police and began our trek to the border where we hid in the bushes. My companion said we should let someone else go first.”

“Soon people passed us, crossing from the other side. They told us that five Russian guards were currently incapacitated, enjoying the contents of a confiscated suitcase of spirits. This was our chance to make a run for it. From the top of the hill we could see the guard post at the bottom. All the lights were on and there was a big wooden beam across the road. We grabbed our packs and hurried down the hill. Machine guns were hanging on the wall of the guard post. We kept a low profile and ran as fast as we could until we were well inside West German territory.”

Hans had been born to Franz and Bertha Dittmar in Niederrossla, a small community of 3,000 people in Thüringen, Weimar, East Germany on December 10, 1929. “Our family soon moved to Mechelroda, a smaller village of 30 houses. It was one hour to the nearest butcher, grocer and baker. There were eight children in the family. I was the second youngest,” Hans continues. “My father died when I was two in 1932. The day before he died, he had spread fertilizer on our farm, getting some on an open cut. My mother was in the hospital with child-bed fever after giving birth to my youngest brother. My father came to the hospital at five in the evening and by next morning he was dead. My mother was left with eight children.”

Siblings were: Fritz, who later served in the army and the navy and lived to be 96; Freda, Marie, Rolph, Heinz, Kurt, and the youngest, Werner, who never saw his father. “Only Heinz and I are still alive. My mother remarried in 1935 and we got a new sister, Regine. Stepfather Karl Güth was a happy man and a hard worker. He came home weekends from the flour mill, which ran 24 hours a day.”

The family ate what they could grow. “We would slaughter a pig in the spring and fall to feed us. We also had two goats, chickens, geese and ducks. Beef was purchased as needed and we grew vegetables. The animals lived on hay in the summer. Clover, cut with a scythe, was stored in the barn for winter fodder for the livestock. Turnips were an occasional treat for our animals.”

Before Hitler became the power-hungry Fuhrer the world knows, he had brought prosperity to Germans. “I owned a pair of shoes for the first time. Nevertheless, during the war all shoes went to the soldiers. Volkswagen (translated to People’s Car) began its production. The company was kept private, with no public shares, to keep profits/costs down. Volkswagen shares did not go public until the 1960s. The original intent of the government was that all workers would save five marks a week for about four years, and then buy their own Volkswagen for 1,000 marks.”

At age six, Hans was taken to Hitler’s ‘Kinderland Verschickung,’ an exchange program that allowed urban students to see what rural life entailed and rural children to see city life. “I stayed with friends of my mother in Hanover. This was my first exposure to an apartment and city life. The father was a cashier in a Nazi organization. I was homesick but I only cried once. I quite enjoyed city life. The visiting was soon over and I happily came home again.”

School in the village was a one-room establishment with eight grades, taught by a member of the Nazi Party who was always in uniform. He had the only car in the area. “The older kids started school early in the morning; the younger kids arrived two hours later. My impression of early academic years was not very positive. In fact, my informal education was much more valuable.”

The war started in 1939 when Hans was nine. “Whenever enemy planes passed over the school, we were sent home. Our little village was never hit but a neighbouring village did get bombed once. The Allied planes tried to hit the autobahn but they got the fields next to it instead. Two buildings were damaged but nobody was killed. However, if the Allied planes missed their mark they would jettison their heavy bombs to get home, so some rural areas did get hit.”

In 1945, the 14-year-old was caught up in the ‘Volksstorm,’ Hitler’s last-ditch effort to bring young men into the failing war. “I remember two weeks of gun training. On the last day I had to put the gun back together, very quickly, blindfolded.” His long-term plan was to join the navy but he had to be 17. Hans signed up as a law clerk in Weimar.

“One night I was in the law office alone at dinner time. I could hear planes roaring towards me. It is a terrible feeling but there was no time for fear. I picked up two good typewriters and headed for the basement. Through the window I could see the bombers flying right at me. My heart sank. The first planes dropped smoke markers but I knew the next round would be bombs. I sat alone in the basement under the vaulted ceiling for what seemed like hours but was really only about 15 minutes. The whole building shook as bombs hit in rapid sequence.”

When silence returned, Hans ran outside. “The entire opposite side of the street was rubble as far as I could see. One kilometre of homes and people were completely wiped out.” Luckily, his side of the street was largely intact, suffering only minor damage. “It was the luck of the draw.” Later Hans found out that 600 people had died that day in Weimar.

“On a hot day April of 1945, we heard that a small number of American tanks were coming near. The bombed autobahn was not functional, so they came through our village. At noon, the sirens went off and I saw them at a distance; one tank was visible, the others shrouded in dust. I was nervous about what would happen next,” Hans confessed. “They began to cross our old village bridge. Six tanks made it over but the seventh crashed into the water along with the bridge. Soon an alternate route was established and several thousand tanks streamed thought the village until dusk.”

A day or two later we learned that one German soldier, still in his army uniform, had been shot by someone in the tank brigade in a neighbouring village. He was taken to the church where he died. We also found one person dead in the forest. They were the only two local casualties from the American advance. The occupation lasted two months.

On July 1 that same year, the Red Army of Soviet Russia marched in. There were miles of foot soldiers, many of them farmers from Siberia; no equipment followed. This occupation was more troublesome. “The Red Army considered anybody with more than two suits a capitalist and anyone with a skill was considered a specialist. The soldiers were very isolated here. They couldn’t read or write so there was no communication with family back home.”

Many civilians were targeted. “Some of the soldiers drank too much and then problems happened. We heard the story of one young bride who was going to the next village to get her wedding dress. She was raped and killed by members of the Soviet army. She was buried in her wedding dress.”

Kindness was shown too. One young soldier took Hans’ bike. Hans knew where the thief was staying and he bravely confronted an older man, who happened to be the older brother of the thief. Fortunately the man slapped his younger brother and not Hans, then gave the bike back to its owner. Despite this kindness, Hans was soon disenchanted with communism.

He offered to cut wood for the Soviet government. This earned him food coupons in the form of a certificate that arrived monthly. One month the certificate did not arrive and Hans knew what this meant. The next step was conscription to work in uranium mines where Germans reportedly died. It was time to make his big move. His mother packed him a bag of food, hugged him, and realized she might never see her son after he escaped to West Germany.

Once across the border, Hans found much devastation from the bombing. He was surprised to find a different dialect in the west. The teen walked until he found a broken shelter, the remnants of a railway station, in Dortmund. There he got a few hours of sleep. “I walked to the Ruhr Basin, to a coal mine, looking for work. The supervisor asked me where I was from and I told him. Then I noticed the Russian star on his shirt. He got angry and said I should have stayed to help rebuild East Germany. I knew this job would not work out.”

The Red Cross was helping people find jobs and they sent Hans to a farm. “I had food and shelter. At 17, in 1947, I was officially on my own, earning 88 pfennig (cents) an hour. I remember being kicked by a horse that didn’t want to come back to the barn. The injury healed. An x-ray, years later, found permanent damage in my chest area. I was relieved to learn it was not a growth.”

Hans’ sister Marie and her husband had arrived to West Germany earlier and they alerted Hans to some better paying jobs. Soon he was forging steel for a big company that made Volkswagen transmissions. He had learned how to use a metal press and now this skill was in high demand. “I was making up to $3.20 an hour and I saved money, living with my sister’s family. I was up by 4:30 each morning and took the train to work for a six o’clock shift.”

Hans decided to visit East Germany and applied for a visa. He promised to take a package of sausages to the brother of a friend he had made in West Germany. On the day he delivered the sausages, Christa Wendelmuth, an old school chum from Grade 6, and who was living in the west, also happened to be visiting this home. She remembered ‘Dicker,’ as he was known in school, and was very glad to see him.

The two friends began to date in West Germany. Both were lonely, away from family. Hans soon felt Christa would be a great mother but there was one issue that might separate them. “Whatever happens between us, I am going to Canada and nothing will stop me,” he confessed. Christa was in full support and Hans was elated. In March 1952 the young man had saved enough money for his passage and the emigration process was initiated. Christa would come later.

Hans filled in applications, got inoculated for small pox and tested for tuberculosis. Later in 1952, he got on the Greek ship ‘Columbia’ in France and landed in Quebec. He soon found work at INCO in Sudbury. Christa arrived in March of 1953. The couple was married in Sudbury in a Lutheran Church on Pine Street on March 28, 1953. “Two of my brothers, also relocated to Canada, joined us,” Hans shared. “Christa cooked our own wedding dinner for two at home.” Their honeymoon was deferred for 20 years.

The couple soon bought a house in Madison Heights on the way to Garson. Hans started as a miner at INCO and stayed for seven years, working in maintenance, above and below the ground. He retired as a mine maintenance planner in 1985 at age 55, earning an award for 23 years of no injuries.

Hans and Christa had five children. Christa was a wonderful mother. The kids couldn’t leave the house without a good breakfast. “When I came home there would be no toys on the rug. The kids were told not to confront me with their ‘bad news’ until after I had finished my coffee.” Radio and television had to be off during dinner; no interference was allowed.

Daughter Liane advanced in human resources in Azilda, working for the government. Herman did very well as general manager of new construction projects such as opening new mines in Australia. Wayne is a plumber and works with Mike Varey Construction on Manitoulin. Anne is retired, having worked with mentally challenged individuals in Orillia, and Brian is a property manager as well as manager of transportation for Manitoulin Transport in Eastern Canada. In the mid 1970s, the Dittmar family began to build a cottage and sauna on Manitowaning Bay.

Hans also took up scuba diving and gave lessons up to level four. “We took the family to conventions which often included some diving, even in the winter. Wayne and Herman took diving as well and Herman became a snorkel diving instructor, passing his qualifying test at age 12.”

“I also helped relax the rules at the Sudbury Diving Club so you could enjoy a drink occasionally. I remember one meeting where people had become very agitated discussing training courses. Suddenly a naked girl, dressed only in a face mask, streaked in front of the podium. All the dissention regarding the validity of training courses evaporated,” he chuckled. “In time, I wound up being president of the Underwater Council, which included 250 members. I am still proud member No. 12. There are over 30 honourary members now.”

After the kids left home, Hans and Christa moved to Wawa where Hans became a maintenance superintendent for the gold mines. The couple enjoyed their time there. When the mine closed, part-time work was available for a while. In 1991, the family moved to Gore Bay. They sold their Manitowaning cottage and Hans became a building inspector for Gore Bay and surrounding area.

“The three most important events in my life were getting married, coming across the border to West Germany and coming to Canada. My favourite season has always been fall when the food is ready for picking and the walnuts are ripe. As a boy, I recall the perfect echoes each walnut missile made as it struck our metal roof. The next day you could pick up wheelbarrows of them.”

“I am proud that I was able to build with my own hands; I built this house, all but the roof and the masonry. Both floors have in-floor heating. I am also proud that I still have a sharp memory at 84. Do I have any regrets? Only for not seeing enough of our world, even though Christa and I spent six weeks vacationing in Europe and travelled to South America several times.”

“What do I fear? The only thing I fear and avoid are cats. I am not afraid of dogs. I don’t drink much. I learned my lesson in Germany as a young man. I remember one morning after too much indulging the night before. ‘What are you doing to yourself?’ I thought. I became much more prudent in my use of alcohol after that.”

“Christa never allowed me into the kitchen for the 60 years we were married. She died one year ago, in January of 2014. I miss her very much. I have learned to cook. Next spring I will take my granddaughter Jenny to visit family in eastern Germany. All our children went back to see their parents’ country of origin. It was good for them to spend some time in a small village of 35 houses.” Hans now has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Earlier, when the writer had arrived to Hans’ beautiful home overlooking the harbour in Gore Bay, she was very surprised to see a traditional German flan cake. The crust was perfectly moist, topped with a layer of pudding, fresh berries, and glazed with clear gelatin. Hans confirmed he had made this himself. That was impressive! Topped with whip cream, that cake was absolutely divine at ten in the morning. Delicious Chinese tea was served with the cake.

“Manitoulin is a peaceful place where you can still live in security and be near the water. In Germany, it was rare to live by water. City people in Canada might accuse us of being a little ‘behind the times’ but that’s alright. Manitouliners are good, down-to-earth people, and very familiar with each other. I borrowed a tool once from someone at the Legion and my wife knew I had been there (the Legion) before I got home. I am very comfortable here in the house Christa and I shared. We have a terrific view of the harbour. I can’t imagine living anyplace else, certainly not Germany. Manitoulin is my home now.”