Interview with Mr Bohm
Herbert Bohm was born in nineteen-twenty-eight in Wünschendorf. As one of the oldest residents of Wünschendorf, he has an exceptional knowledge of the village and is referred to as ‘the computer’ by those who know him. Today, Mr Bohm lives in Ferdinandshof, the town to which he started a new life after returning from captivity following the war. During the interview Mr Bohm remembers his childhood in Wünschendorf and talks about his life after leaving school. He talks about the issue of nationality under Czechoslovakian and German rule and passports. On the subject of deportation, he talks about the movement of people following WW2 and speculates about whether it was necessary. Mr Bohm talks in depth about his life in Germany after returning from the war and the presence of Wünschendorf in his everyday life.
Wunschendorf, apprenticeship, World War 1939-1945, captivity, ferdinandshof, school, heinersdorf, exams, agriculture, soldiers, wintertime, memories, childhood, sledging, skiing, swimming, officials, borders, passports, nationality, military, family, wild expulsions, politics, Bavaria, zittau, Russia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, transport, mecklenberg, ankle, Friesland, homesickness, depression, elders, home, return, marriage, property, mountains, community, friends, stables, petrol stations, Masaryk, Switzerland, longing
Interview conducted by Sophie Dixon in Ferdinandshof, Germany in September 2013.
Interpreted by David Lion and translated by Felix Bollen from German
Sophie Dixon [SD]: Could you please tell me your name, your date of birth and how long you lived in Wünschendorf?
Herbert Bohm [HB]: Yes my name is Herbert Bohm, I was born on the eleventh of March nineteen twenty-eight in Wünschendorf and lived there until I was forced to join the army. I wasn’t at the front but engaged in an apprenticeship until the end of war. I was put in captivity until nineteen forty-eight and then I arrived here in Ferdinandshof , the new home for many of the residents of Wünschendorf.
[SD]: Thank you. Since you are the oldest interviewee, the first question I have is, are there any particular childhood memories that connect you to the village of Wünschendorf?
[HB]: Yes, well I went to school there. Five years of primary school and then I had the opportunity to go to secondary school in Heinersdorf . I had to do an entrance exam and went to school there for three years. The time spent in school was, of course, a nice time for all of us children and after once I finished school I went straight to do an apprenticeship. I learnt about agriculture until I had to serve as a soldier. A special memory from Wünschendorf was the wintertime because it was guaranteed to snow. After we finished our homework or had finished helping in the household, we went sledging and skiing.
A popular route was to sledge down the main road in Wünschendorf, which was downhill all the way, and when when there were three sledges at once, we could achieve a speed of sixty to seventy kilometres per hour. That was a lot of fun for us. In the summer we always went swimming. Next to Lindenhof there was a lake but we always had to ask for permission to swim because it was privately owned. Another option was a stream next to the border, which we dammed up so we could swim in there. Those are the memories I have with the other school children.
[SD]: How did you feel when Wünschendorf was back under the German regime?
[HB]: When Wünschendorf was added to Germany nineteen thirty-eight  we were relieved and happy as the unemployment rate decreased straight away. The sale of agricultural products increased and that’s why our living condition improved.
[SD]: You mentioned that after nineteen thirty-eight people had jobs again and the sale of products increased. So how was it before nineteen thirty-eight?
[HB]: Well, when Czechoslovakia was formed in nineteen-nineteen, Czech officials came to our area, which was ninety percent German and dismissed the German officials. Also some factories were closed and all production was moved to central Czechoslovakia, which is why so many people were unemployed. But in general life wasn’t too bad, although after time, in the thirties, the laws became stricter. Wünschendorf was a village right next to the border and at first one could cross the border without issues. Later anyone wanting to cross the border had to have a pass. There were many marriages between German people and newly declared Czech people so we were still quite attached to Germany and this new law was a burden for all of us. It got stricter and stricter up to the year of nineteen thirty-eight so everyone was happy when we were back under German regime.
[SD]: What happened to your passport? Did you have a Czech passport up until the year nineteen thirty-eight which was then changed to a German one?
[HB]: The passports didn’t expire and we didn’t need them unless we wanted to travel into central Czechoslovakia. When I was a child we often visited my grandmother and there was no problem up to nineteen thirty-six. Then we were asked to show our passports, but we could live with it.
[SD]: So you had a Czech passport up until nineteen thirty-eight and then got a German one, or did you own a German one before that?
[HB]: No we only had a Czech one and when we came under German rule, we did not have a passport at all.
[SD]: Where were you when the war ended? What were your feelings at that time?
[HB]: I wasn’t home of course because I had to serve in the military. I was in the south of Czechoslovakia in an area called Iglau  but I wasn’t put in the front. I did not experience the war end in Wünschendorf personally, but the fear of the end of war was present everywhere. It was already clear that we were going to lose the war nineteen forty-four, we just didn’t know how long it would take. We wondered what would happen after the war and that defined our lives in that time.
[SD]: What were your and your family’s feelings during the expulsion from Wünschendorf?
[HB]: I personally did not experience the expulsion from Wünschendorf but from what I’ve heard, I know that the so-called ‘wild expulsions’  started in June nineteen forty-five. The first ones who were expelled were probably members of political parties. They were led over the border and left to their fate but they travelled onwards because a large part of what used to be Germany was taken over by the Polish and they tried to stay in German territory. The normal expulsion started in nineteen forty-six when they first relocated the elders, most of which ended up in Bavaria. Then the factory workers were led to Zittau  by the Russian occupying troops because there, were industry and textile operations. The first transporter, which came up here to Mecklenburg, left in June nineteen forty-six. Then there was the big transporter going to (?) taking loads of people from Wünschendorf and also my parents. Another transporter went to Anklam . First the people were taken to a camp in Friedland  and from there, transport was organised to take them to Germany. The general state of mind of course was depressing. No one knew where we were going and what was going to happen. We didn’t know if we were allowed to come back and it was really horrible because many people died from homesickness and depression soon after they left home. Especially the elders suffered from that. The younger ones managed to deal with the situation a lot better.
[SD]: You mentioned you were unsure if you were allowed to return. Did you strongly believe that in the first couple of years you would go back or did you accept the situation as it was?
[HB]: We all strongly believed we would return home in the first couple of years, maybe for five years, so until around nineteen fifty-three. By then many of the elders had died and the middle-aged generation lost hope in returning, we got used to living in a new place so by around nineteen fifty-two - nineteen fifty-three, we lost hope in returning. It was only in the first couple of years that we were confused and wanted to go back.
[SD]: I would like to know when you returned to Wünschendorf for the first time and what your expectations were like in comparison to reality. Please touch on your house, the way it was still standing then and what had changed about it.
[HB]: The first time I returned was in nineteen seventy-two and my first impression was terrifying and depressing. Around seventy percent of all the houses had just vanished. Both my parents and grandparents houses had disappeared, and also the house of my wife, which she grew up in, was demolished. But after a little while I noticed that the area, our home with the mountains and valleys stayed the same. They couldn’t have pushed the mountains away. All the white rocks for example, they were still there. So this memory replaced the negative things. I was happy that I could see that once again. I want to put more emphasis on how moving from the mountains to the flat land (in Germany) was an enormous change for us. It was indescribable, and seeing the mountains again brought back the memories straight away. We enjoyed going back there for a holiday but we accepted that we couldn’t return and we didn’t want to either. Our new home was in Ferdinandshof, in Mecklenburg.
[SD]: Could you explain how your house had changed when you came back to Wünschendorf?
[HB]: Yes, I lived in House number one-hundred-and-eight. That was my childhood house and that’s where I grew up. When I returned for the first time in nineteen seventy-two, the house had disappeared and the same with my wife’s house. There were only ruins left from the barn. Oh yes, my wife lived in the house number ninety-eight, it was opposite the school and they had a farm. They also came here to Ferdinandshof and that’s where we found each other and married.
[SD]: After you moved to Germany, how much contact did you keep with the people from Wünschendorf?
[HB]: After we moved to Germany, the contact increased and became more intense than it had been before. More than one hundred people came to Ferdinandshof from Wünschendorf. We had a strong bond. On Sunday afternoons the living room of my parents-in-law was filled with people discussing if anyone had heard from acquaintances. It didn’t take long until we were in written correspondence with people who moved to other places in Germany. Our bond was enormous. Photographs taken of Wünschendorf were exchanged. The bond still exists today. I still write to many acquaintances from Wünschendorf and we talk regularly on the phone. I know it’s not called Wünschendorf anymore but for me it will never change. Every year we still have a bus journey to Wünschendorf which eighteen to twenty people attend each year. Not only people who were born there join these trips but also the younger generation who want to know where we came from. We have been accepted by the people who live there now, and they show interest in our past.
[SD]: How did the people in Germany treat you and welcome you when you moved there? Did you feel welcome or were you treated like refugees?
[HB]: Well, people were very skeptical about us arriving in their area, not only because we came from Czechoslovakia but also because it was already filled up with other refugees from Prussia  and Silesia . In nineteen thirty-nine, Ferdinandshof had a population of one-thousand-five-hundred. By nineteen forty-six it has risen to three-thousand, so everything was very crowded. This caused tension with some people and there were some fights, but soon it was over because we tried to get along and we were understood that this was the result of losing the war. One has to remember that Germany at that time was ruined by bombing and there were about eighty-million Germans who had to find space. Fifteen-million people had to move from what is now mainly known as Poland into the current Germany, which barely had houses to live in anymore. It was incredible, under which circumstances people lived at that time. And not only the refugees had troubles. Also the locals were troubled because they had to donate their own living space. The first three years it was very horrible. One had to start working again and anywhere, where there was work, there was a broad mix of people from different backgrounds who came together in one place. The situation turned positive through that because one could see the commitment coming from each person, trying to rebuild, to help the community and find friends.
[SD]: So what did you work as when you arrived in Ferdinandshof?
[HB]: I was let out of captivity in nineteen-forty-eight and I worked the first six months in agriculture, not far from Ferdinandshof. After this a stud farm gave me work and I worked for four years as a stableman. Then I tried to find work locally and there was a large grocery business which just opened up. We delivered groceries to shops. I did that for six years and then a large petrol station freed up so I applied there. One had to put a deposit of six-thousand Deutschmark. Back then that was a lot of money and I had to borrow it, but I was daring and operated that petrol station for thirty-five years until I got my pension. We will visit the place where it used to be. My whole family worked at that petrol station and we had little time for ourselves.
[SD]: I have one more question concerning the expulsion. Many people say it was necessary because the German and Czech people would not have been able to live together. What is your opinion on this?
[HB]: When Czechoslovakia was formally recognised in nineteen-nineteen, the president Masaryk  promised to form a second Switzerland. Since many citizens from different countries were now under the Czechoslovakian regime, Switzerland was influential because it was proof that multiculturalism could work. Shamefully this did not happen. Many officials didn’t know the Czech language so they were expelled first. One would have to allow the Germans three to four years to learn the language. But that did not happen either and the government just employed Czech officials. This could have been handled differently but we managed to live with it and would have no problem to continue to live there peacefully. Another mistake of the government was that the areas where are now abandoned weren’t maintained, which is still visible today. They could have given us the choice if we wanted to move or stay. But this is only my opinion. I mean, there was a marriage on the third of September nineteen-thirty-eight when the tension had already started to build, and we partied and walked up to the border and the Czech officials were friendly and waved so I believe it could have been possible. The Germans took over territory before and managed to live happily with the Czech people for eight hundred years, improving the agriculture and adapting to the surroundings. There was no hatred. It’s the fault of the nationalism and everyone worrying about their own rights.
[SD]: How often do you think about Wünschendorf? How present is it in your life?
[HB]: My longing and memories of Wünschendorf are still strongly present. I am in contact at least twice a week to other people from Wünschendorf either over the phone, through letters or in person. Most of the time we talk about whether any of us have been in contact with other people who used to be our neighbors. But by now my relationship with the locals here is just as strong and I feel very much at home. It is so important for me because it’s the place where I grew up and I spent my youth there. As soon as you come into contact with someone from there, this feeling comes up again. Even though this is my home now and I accept everything and feel comfortable here. My homeland is always present in my thoughts, and I doubt it will disappear since my wife is from there as well and my son knows a lot about Wünschendorf. So it will probably stay with me until I die. But as I mentioned before this is my home now and I don’t want to leave it.
[End of interview]
Ferdinandshof  62 km north east of Berlin [ 53.3943, 13.5322
Heinersdorf  today named Jindřichovice is a neighbouring village of Srbska [50.1659, 12. 3728]
 Reference to the Munich Agreement which took place in September 30th 1938. During this agreement the Sudetenland was officially annexed by Germany.
Iglau  today, called Jihlava [49.4002, 15.5905]
Wild expulsions  the earliest, and often unofficial, deportations of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia following World War Two.
Zittau  Today, a German town very close to the border of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. [50.896, 14.8072]
Anklam  A town in northern Germany [53.850290, 13.695973]
friedland  Today called Frydlant. A town 15km from Srbska [50.921396, 15.079751]
Prussia  the name for a state in Northern Europe which was abolished in 1947
Silesia  a region of Central Europe located mostly in Poland, with small parts in the Czech Republic and Germany
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk  President of Czechoslovakia - 14 November 1918 - 14 December 1935