/She was 12 when the Second World War started… 100 metres from her home

She was 12 when the Second World War started… 100 metres from her home

As bombs rained down on the Free City of Danzig, a 12-year-old girl snuck out of the candle-lit cellar where her family and neighbours had taken cover.

On the playground, Eva Schmidt found a piece of exploded shell, still warm, embedded in the earth. She dug it out with her shoe and carried the souvenir back down to the cellar. 

“I was lucky I didn’t get hit with that shell, that piece, because it would have been the end of me,” said the now-92 year old, who still has that same piece of shrapnel in her Edmonton home.

As a girl, Schmidt and her family lived near the harbour, on the German side, across the river from the Westerplatte Polish military base in the city now known as Gdansk. Hours earlier they had heard a German destroyer fire shells at the garrison 100 metres away.

It was Sept. 1, 1939. The Second World War had begun.

The annexation of Danzig returned control to the Germans, who had lost it at the end of the First World War.

Britain and France didn’t declare war on Germany until Sept. 3, with Canada officially joining a week later. By early October, armies from Germany and the Soviet Union occupied Poland. 

Schmidt lived out her teenage years under the Nazi regime. Her older brother and cousin were drafted and went off to war as teenagers.

At first, Schmidt apprenticed as a map maker. But as more and more wounded soldiers returned, she volunteered her time at their bedsides, writing letters and offering words of comfort. She remembers the screams echoing through the warehouse, converted to a makeshift hospital, as patients had limbs amputated without anesthetic.

Eva Osterwoldt, 92, took cover with her family in a cellar in Danzig as Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

The escape

On March 20, 1945, Schmidt and her family were among the last residents still living in an apartment building near the harbour, the city around them in ruins. They were told they had to get out before things got much worse.

The Schmidts and another family boarded the pilot boat of a neighbour responsible for towing ships out to sea. They pulled up alongside the last freighter leaving port. It was already crammed with wounded soldiers, escaping officers and refugees streaming out of nearby countries such as Estonia and Lithuania.

Show more understanding to refugees. Try to  get to know them or try to get by to know why they came and what their problems were.– Eva Osterwoldt

The captain refused to let the families on board, until the pilot issued an ultimatum.

“He said, ‘If you don’t take these two families, I will make it hard for you to get out of this harbour,’ ” she recalled.

With just the clothes they wore, a sack of potatoes and the shrapnel splinter tucked into her sewing kit, Schmidt, her mother and her sister boarded the freighter and steamed west to Hamburg.

A few weeks later, that same tugboat carried her father, which allowed the family to reunite. Her brother, conscripted into the German army and wounded fighting in Normandy, became a prisoner of war. He also survived the war.

In Hamburg, Schmidt met a former Wehrmacht soldier named Siegfried Osterwoldt, whose young life had also been filled with war-time drama.

An aptitude for math landed Siegfried in the artillery, where he served in France and later in North Africa, according to his obituary published in April 2016.

After he surrendered to the British in 1942, Siegfried was loaded onto a ship with other German and Italian officers and sent halfway around the world, his obituary said. His final destination was a POW camp outside Wainwright, Alta.

 

As a 12-year-old girl, Eva Schmidt found this piece of shrapnel the day the Second World War began. (Craig Ryan/CBC News)

Eva and Siegfried married in 1951 and three years later emigrated to Canada. They raised three children in Edmonton and had five grandchildren.

Siegfried died in 2016, at the age of 97.

Eva Osterwoldt still has that 80-year-old piece shrapnel in her living room.

“This piece is a reminder of the weapons of war … and that we should always try to keep the peace,” she later told her granddaughter in a recorded interview about her life.

Looking back at a long life shaped by the horrors of war, she has a message about the sense of hope she found in her adopted home of Canada.

“Show more understanding to refugees,” she advised Canadians thinking about that long-ago war. “Try to get to know them, or try to get to know why they came and what their problems were.”

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