Remembering A First Day of Freedom

A solitary walk and a tale to tell

When the war was over, Marylou Ruhe was working as an interpreter at a displaced persons camp near Hanover, Germany. The camp was a showcase for visiting dignitaries, the British military police, and American journalists. One day they had a special visitor: Eleanor Roosevelt.

After the camp inspection was over, one of the journalists in Mrs. Roosevelt's entourage asked Ms. Ruhe if she would agree to be interviewed. Reluctantly, she agreed. After some basic questions, the interviewer surprised her by asking what had been her most memorable experience. This is what she told him.

The days were getting longer, the sun rose earlier and had some warmth to it. We were slowly thawing out and had almost stopped shivering after the long cold winter. The day it happened for me and my fellow inhabitants of the barracks in Salzwedel Labor Camp was April 14, 1945. Something was in the air, we could feel it and almost breathe it.

A new beginning was dawning; the forced-laborers in the cruelest war in the world were out in the open roll-call area, standing and waiting. It was quiet. The bombs had ceased falling, the cannons were silent, no planes droned overhead. The world stood still.

A woman held a bouquet of flowers (from where I could not imagine). And then it happened. The dark green armored tanks with white stars burst through the double barbed-wire gates of the camp, and an enormous cry rose from our lips as we welcomed our liberators.

We were free!

The German camp commander held a white flag and stood with bowed head on the steps to the military headquarters. The German guards still remaining in the camp had white bands on their sleeves.

We were free!

The friendly faces of the GIs were grinning at us in wonder, as we climbed the tanks and lorries, screaming, crying, or struck dumb at this momentous event.

We were free!

Nothing in the world could equal this feeling. The years of oppression were over; the heavy load of suffering, pain, fear, and despair was lifted from our hearts and replaced by hope. We could dream again; the future was ours again. It was almost too much for us, this awesome feeling of elation, this tremendous change in our lives happening in one instant.

"Yes," I told my interviewer, "the first day of freedom was the most memorable day in my life."

I had an overwhelming urge to be alone. After having been with many young women in the barracks, sharing a daily march to and from the munition factory, and working side by side on 12-hour shifts, I wanted to be alone.

I walked the silent, empty streets lined with trees in spring's early bloom. I walked alone in the pretty town of Salzwedel. The town looked just as it had every day, when we were being marched to the munition works. Marched under the watchful eyes of the guards with their rifles at the ready, as if we, the slave labor, would ever dare to break our ranks.

The inhabitants of the town avoided our eyes, pretending they did not see the human beings being led like docile dogs through the streets of their town.

Today, the difference was in the town's stark emptiness - leaving its buildings, shops, church, and schools intact but devoid of populace. Only white sheets and towels hung out of the windows as signs of surrender.

How peaceful it was. How free of fear I was. Free of the fear of living and the fear of dying. It was like being in a limbo, suspended between heaven and earth, with visions of blue skies and sunshine forever.

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