Greene County author recalls childhood in Nazi Germany
November 21, 2013
Anneliese Heider Tisdale addresses a crowd of more than 60 people in Jefferson Saturday as she shared part of her book “Christmas Trees Lit the Sky” about growing up in WWII Germany. Tisdale moved to Iowa in 1947.
Anneliese Heider Tisdale's mother taught her at a young age to take any opportunity to learn. So while teaching at Kirkwood Community College, she signed up for a free book-writing and publishing class, and began writing about her memories of growing up in Nazi Germany to satisfy her children's repeated requests for a written record of her experiences.
Her first chapter was returned to her with a large message in red ink - "This is not for your children. You must publish this. This is history."
Last year, the former Greene County resident followed those instructions, publishing "Christmas Trees Lit the Sky: Growing Up in World War II Germany" after more than a decade of writing.
On Saturday, she traveled back to Jefferson to reunite with old friends and read a passage of her book. More than 60 people attended the author's talk, organized by the Jefferson Public Library and hosted by the First Presbyterian Church.
The book, which follows Tisdale's life from age 11, when the war started, to age 17, when the war ended, is sprinkled throughout with humor and German recipes. The title refers to the red and green flashes of light reflected by flares the Allied forces dropped before completing bombing raids on Munich. An innovation in warfare at the time, the German civilians did not know how else to refer to them.
She read aloud the chapter "The Surrender of Munich," in which she describes the tense atmosphere that characterized the final days of the war. Hitler had given orders to "defend every city to the last man," leaving German citizens to wonder, would they be "allowed to surrender or forced to fight?"
She describes the hopes and prayers of family and friends that it would be the American army, not the Russian army, that would arrive to liberate them. In the meantime, German SS officers slept on lawns, Tisdale reminding the reader that each of those men was "someone's father, husband, son or brother." Though their "hearts ached" for the soldiers, the civilians still feared being caught in the middle of fighting. While no action was taken to disobey Hitler's orders, no actions were taken to follow them either.
The night before the Allied soldiers arrived, Tisdale left to collect dandelion greens for the rabbits, unsure when the next opportunity would arise. A tight relief was in the air- "By tomorrow the war would be over, one way or another."
The morning of April 30 dawned with no rain and not too cold, Tisdale recalled. The landscape was blanketed by an unnatural, eerie silence, in which "even the birds forgot to sing."
As the family huddled in the basement, Tisdale wondered - could one of the incoming soldiers be a cousin? Her grandmother and aunt had traveled to the United States before the war began, after all.
Meanwhile her father waited for the key moment to drop a white sheet of surrender from the attic window - too soon, and the remaining German soldiers could shoot him for treason - but too late, and the incoming soldiers could shoot anyone they viewed as resisting. The timing had to be impeccable.
When the soldiers finally arrived, Tisdale's most vivid memory is of noticing their boots, with the trousers bloused at the bottom. Though she doesn't know why, she said, the image remains "clearly burned" in her mind.
Tisdale and her fellow residents quickly learned that Munich had become a city "without a government." The high officials had fled, leaving a mere city clerk to sign the official surrender papers.
Tisdale became a translator for the American army.
"They hired the younger people because they thought we had less of an ax to grind," she explained.
She was always thoroughly searched before she could interact with any of the soldiers. But, she added, they could not search her mind - she could have said anything she wanted.
"I still advocate that we need to know other countries' languages," said the German instructor.
With peace came dances - veritable balls for a teenager who had never had a date while her entire young adult life passed under the fog of war.
"When they said there were dances, we were there," she said with a grin. "My mother said, 'All you do, you come home from work and you change clothes and go leave again,' and I couldn't see anything wrong with that," she added, earning a laugh. "I danced the night away."
Before long, she fell in love with a soldier, who brought her back to Paton, Iowa, her passport identifying her as an "alien war bride" in 1947.
The city girl was shocked by the lack of electricity and running water. The adventures and challenges of adjusting to the agrarian region is the subject of her next book, which Tisdale is currently writing.
"After college, I said I won't write another paper, so I wrote a book," she said. "I figure if I have to (write a second one), it might as well go faster."
People often ask how the German people could have allowed the Holocaust to happen, Tisdale said. "Christmas Trees" reflects on this darker period of history through the eyes of a child who couldn't always comprehend the significance and nuances of the changing world around her.
She knew of Dachau's existence as a jail for political prisoners but not as an extermination camp. One chapter touches on her first experience being turned away from a Jewish shop by armed guards, another on the disappearance of a family running a needlecraft shop, one she now believes may have been Jewish.
Tisdale still has the ancestry passport she was required to complete when she was conscripted into Hitler's Youth with her fellow schoolmates at age 10. She recalled her father's anger when she and her brother discussed a BBC report, because listening to anything other than German radio was illegal. Both the individual committing the act and any of their family members could be punished without question.
"Testimonies like hers do more to keep freedom alive than any laws," said one woman in attendance.
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