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Ronnie Thomas

Ursula Howard talks about her life under Nazi rule and the hardships, including the loss of her mother, she experienced at the end of World War II.
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
Ursula Howard talks about her life under Nazi rule and the hardships, including the loss of her mother, she experienced at the end of World War II.

Witness of Nazi Defeat
Ursula's story: Life under Hitler, escape from Poland at war's end

When Ursula Sollors Howard, 74, of Decatur hears youngsters complain of being bored, she has an urge to tell them about her childhood.

World War II robbed her of any childhood boredom. Her life was fear, work and uncertainty.

This is a smidgen of the story Howard would tell the bored: She was born in Ottmachau, Germany, a decade before the world exploded. The family moved to Porombka, Poland, where her father, Max Sollors, a former casket and furniture maker, managed a sawmill for the war effort.

She said Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party took the facility from its Polish owner. Her father bought the sawmill from the government, got the former owner out of a concentration camp and hired him, along with about 100 other Poles.

By 1943, the German war machine began buckling before American and Allied troops. Howard's mother, strong-willed Hedwig Fabian Sollors, wrote Adolf Hitler: "I have sent three sons to fight for you. I no longer believe the effort is worth our sacrifices."

Surprisingly, Hitler sent her a bronze bust of himself with a letter explaining his position. In 1944, her middle son, Anton, died in combat at age 20.

In January 1945, Howard and her parents sped westward in a horse-drawn buggy as the Russian Red Army approached.

She recalls her mother saying, "Don't lose that schwein (pig)," referring to the Hitler bust. They were departing on a months-long journey into hell.

"A Russian fighter plane crashed into a bank just ahead of us," Howard said. "We stopped the buggy and walked over. I said, 'Dad, where's the pilot?' I looked down. His burned legs were between my feet."

They reached a schoolhouse at Gischewald and joined about 20 other evacuees. The 13-year-old Howard read a book Hitler authorized about how the Russians would butcher German civilians.

"About midnight, we heard them marching up. Then came knocking on the door," she said. "There were about 15 soldiers with weapons drawn. One spoke in Polish. 'Don't be afraid. We're not going to hurt you,' he said. 'We want to know if you have German soldiers hidden here.' Some ran upstairs. They returned and said, 'No soldiers.' They said, 'Good night,' and they were gone."

Hitler Youth killed

The next morning, Howard walked outside and saw a member of the Hitler Youth, about her age, hanging from a tree. Others lay dead on the ground. The family walked to another town and found shelter in a stranger's home. Howard went for water. When she returned, her father was gone.

"Mother was crying, saying the Russians were looking for him and were going to kill him. He sneaked out back and hid with the goats," Howard said. "He rode a bike home. Mother would never see him again."

Howard later learned that her father trusted the Poles at the sawmill and believed they would hide him. Instead, they alerted authorities and Sollors fled.

Mother and daughter walked toward Ratibor, where Howard's grandmother lived. First, they reached the home of Hedwig Sollors' high school girlfriend, who was a doctor.

"She gave us oats, and we spent the night," Howard said. "I overheard her tell Mother, 'Hedwig, your cancer is back.' Mother replied, 'I just hope to find someone to take care of Ursula.' "

Horse meat

They reached Ratibor, but no one was home. They ate canned fruit. Howard found a horse frozen in the street a block away.

"Mother cooked some of the meat for us. We decided to walk to an aunt's house in Woynowitz, 15 miles away," she said. "Mother had become too weak. I placed her in a wagon and pulled her. She lived one week after we arrived. She died June 1, 1945, at age 52. My aunt put together some pieces of wood for a casket."

Howard went to a friend's house in Gleiwitz, hoping to locate her sister, Rita, who was a medic in the German Army. She learned her sister's fiance, a soldier, died in the war.

Looking for food, Howard and her friend found kernels of corn where a gristmill had burned. They ground it in a coffee grinder.

Hidden by priest

"I took it to a bakery that had just reopened. Polish guys there had worked for my father and recognized me," Howard said. "Hitler had left behind so much hatred that the innocent had to suffer. Some Poles turned on Germans to help the Russians. They called the police. I dropped the bread and ran to a Catholic Church, where a priest hid me."

After dark, she returned to the house. Her friend said, "Good news. Your father is looking for you." The son of her dad's friend, who worked for Sollors as a bookkeeper, brought a note and Polish money for her to ride a train.

"The note read, 'Your father is safe at my father's place.' It was a farmhouse outside Ratibor," Howard said. "When we were at Woynowitz, we were only 15 kilometers from him."

They reunited the next day.

"I told him, 'Mother is gone.' We held each other and cried," Howard said. Later, they visited her gravesite with other family members.

Potatoes and fish water

But hard times were far from over. On Christmas Day 1945, in Ratibor the family had potatoes and fish water for dinner. Max Sollors moved his family to Kravar, Czechoslovakia, in May 1946. His daughter, Rita, married and still lives there.

Howard said she left the Hitler letter and bust at one of the many stops she made during those hectic months.

She met her husband, James Howard of Flint, in Pirmasens, West Germany, in 1955. They married and moved to Morgan County in 1957. The couple lived in France and Puerto Rico before he retired from the Army in 1973. At one time, she spoke six languages.

She has never been bored.

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
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