Oscar Sehnert was my father, Walter’s, first cousin. Both their fathers had been in the bakery business, but Oscar’s father had stayed in Erfurt, Germany, while Walter’s father had come to South Dakota around the turn of the last century.
While there had been some correspondence between the two families, the two cousins did not meet until Walter made a trip to Germany in 1934.
The two became great friends. Oscar and Walter were of the same age, and both were bakers. Oscar had recently married and he and his bride, Katherine, delighted in taking Walter to the dances and generally showing him the points of interest in and around Erfurt, in addition to acquainting him with the fine points of German bakeries.
World War II cut off contact between the two, so it was not until our family (wife, Jean, son, Matt, and I) made a trip to Erfurt (in Communist East Germany) in 1976, with Walter, that they again were able to meet. They were a great couple. Katherine was a very energetic, voluble, delightful lady, while we found that Oscar was ambitious and resourceful, while at the same time deliberate and calm.
These were traits which had served him well during the Nazi and Communist regimes. The first night we were with them we found out just how calm he was.
It was late in the evening when Oscar and Katherine proceeded to take us back to our hotel. It was already very dark, and though Erfurt was a city as large as Denver, it was very poorly lit, as was true of all cities in East Germany. Oscar, with Dad, led the way in Oscar’s car. Jean, Matt, and I, with Katherine, followed in our rental car.
There was virtually no traffic on the streets. We got within sight of our hotel, and Oscar turned onto the street leading to the front entrance, with us following close behind. Suddenly from the shadows a jeep roared ahead of us and turned in front of Oscar’s car, forcing us to stop.
Instantly three soldiers, carrying machine guns, and wearing red armbands, jumped out of the jeep. Two of them trained their weapons on Oscar, the other came back to us. Katherine, in the back seat of our car, began to wring her hands, crying “Ach Mein Gott,”, “Ach Mein Gott,,” over and over again.
The officer from the jeep talked to Oscar for a few minutes, then signaled the gunmen to rejoin him in the jeep and waved us on toward the hotel. It all happened so fast that I really did not have a chance to be scared, but Katherine was badly shaken.
When we were together again Oscar explained what had happened. We had mistakenly turned onto a one-way street, going the wrong way. Oscar had paid the small fine on the spot, and that was the end of it. He shrugged his shoulders in dismissal – no big deal. But for the rest of us, the sight of those machine guns pointed at us was quite unsettling.
Later we learned that Oscar and Katherine had had problems with the Communist Police before. Because of some minor brushes with the authorities they had lost the right to have apprentices in their bakery.
But one young fellow insisted on hanging around the bakeshop, and as is the nature of a bakery, a willing hand is quickly put to work. One day the Communist inspectors caught the lad taking bread from the oven – a clear violation of their ban on apprentices. The result was that Oscar was sent away to a prison for 3 years, with the added provision that the bakery would be closed during this period.
However, Katherine, too, was a baker and she possessed a great deal of spunk. She prevailed upon the authorities to allow her to keep the bakery operating-just until she had used up the supplies which were on the premises.
Somehow, she managed to scrounge supplies from stores and competitors for the entire 3 years, all the time pleading that she just had a few more supplies to use up when the authorities came around to check. Eventually they just stopped coming around.
Oscar, in the meantime, was having the time of his life. The prison, to which he was assigned, was populated by political dissidents, mostly doctors, lawyers and professors – learned men all. Till late into the night, he was able to talk to these gifted men about politics, philosophy, the arts; all subjects which Oscar found fascinating.
At the end of his sentence Oscar was allowed to resume his work at the bakery. Katherine had done a fine job, and because many in the community were sympathetic to their plight, the business had actually improved during Oscar’s forced vacation.
Oscar and Katherine had one daughter, Inge, who early on showed much promise as a modern dancer. However, because her parents were not in good favor with the Communist government she was denied entrance into the good dance schools.
Soon after the Iron Curtain was put in place, dividing East and West Germany, after the end of World War II, Oscar and Katherine determined that she must flee to the West.
In dramatic fashion, this 15-year-old girl managed to make her way, through Berlin, to freedom in West Germany. (She later attended dance schools in the west and has become a Diva in Modern Dance, performing to much acclaim, on stages throughout the world.) But once in the west Inge needed money – money that was illegal for her parents to send her from East Germany. Here again Oscar and Katherine were able to find a way.
A former acquaintance had left Erfurt right after the war, and had become wealthy as an industrialist of some sort. But he had left a daughter behind in Erfurt, to whom he wished to send money, which was also illegal in that Communist state.
Somehow Oscar and his friend managed to work out an arrangement by which Oscar would give East German Marks to the girl in Erfurt, while at the same time his friend gave Inge an equivalent amount of West German Marks. In this way, throughout the Cold War, Oscar was able to build up a considerable next egg toward the day when he and Katherine would be able to emigrate to the west.
We again visited Oscar and Katherine in Germany in 1977, this time at their home in Wangen, in West Germany. They had reached retirement age and began to receive the Communist East German form of social security, so of course the government was happy for them to emigrate west.
They had sold their bakery on contract to one of their bakers, and were free to leave, with just their personal possessions, and very few Marks. (They had managed to pass most of their remaining savings to the friend in Erfurt, thus putting the equivalent amount in the hands of Inge in West Germany.
And the West German government magnanimously honored the Social Security payment that they had been receiving in East Germany.) As it turned out, as soon as they were out of East Germany, the Communists confiscated the bakery payments, and continued to do this for a number of years. When the Iron Curtain finally came down, and the two Germanys once more united, Oscar was able to place a claim for the confiscated bakery payments and two valuable works of art, which he had been forced to leave behind.
It wasn’t until almost 10 years later, when Oscar and Katherine visited us in Nebraska, that we learned all of the details of their story. They explained that in Germany they did not talk to anyone about their money, their hardships, or their opinions about the government. As Katherine confided, “We never knew who might be listening. It was every bit as bad as living under the Nazis. We could have been reported to the authorities, and we surely did not want to go back to jail!”
Somehow, I’m sure they would have found a way to cope.
© Walt Sehnert, December 2000
THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE WAS TAKEN FROM THE DECEMBER 20th ISSUE OF THE < href=”http://www.mccookgazette.com/” target=”_blank”>MCCOOK DAILY GAZETTE ONLINE.
East German baker’s story an inspiration
We hope you read Monday’s installment of Walt Sehnert’s “From Days Gone By” column. If you haven’t, and if the paper isn’t already recycled, please dig it out and read it.
It’s the story of Walt’s father’s cousin, who plied the baker’s trade like the rest of the family. Unlike Walt’s father and grandfather, however, who became bakers in the United States, Oscar Sehnert stayed in Germany and learned to cope with the communist form of tyranny.
“It was every bit as bad as living under the Nazis,” Oscar and his wife, Katherine, told their American cousins after they were safely free of communist control.
The story is especially worth reading because of what America has recently gone through, and a useful benchmark as we watch those who threaten to march in the streets over the supposed injustice of November’s election.
Walt Sehnert recounts being stopped at gunpoint for a simple traffic infraction while on a visit to East Germany. His cousin went to prison for six months for the crime of allowing a young volunteer interested in learning the baker’s trade to help him in the kitchen.
The East German couple’s daughter had to flee to the West at the risk of her life to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
Walt’s story includes the inspiring tale of his relatives’ resourcefulness in overcoming the communist oppression to support their daughter in the West and fund their own retirement once they were able to leave East German themselves.
It’s a story that should make us all grateful this Christmastime for one of the greatest gifts we have received – a form of government which allows us to live, and worship, as our heart desires, without fear of reprisal.
It should also inspire us to get involved with the political process to make sure our rights and privileges aren’t taken away.