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"Wolf children"

Monika Griebeler / agMay 9, 2013

The Second World War ended in May 1945 - but not for the German "Wolfskinder," or "wolf children." On their own, they made their way from East Prussia to Lithuania, a decision they'll never forget.

Luise Quietsch holding a photography of herself as a child. (Photo: Monika Griebeler)
A former "wolf child," Luise Quietsch opens up her photo album.Image: Monika Griebeler

When Alfreda Pipiraite turned 18, she believed she'd made it. "But no, they said to me, 'You German pig! You Hitlerist! Fascist!' And so on," she told DW. "It was particularly painful whenever a member of my family called me that."

After all, Alfreda was really Luise, a German born in 1940 in the town of Schwesternhof in East Prussia, today in the Russian region of Kaliningrad. At the age of four she was adopted by a Lithuanian family as a so-called "Wolfskind," or wolf child. During the chaotic final stages of the war, more than 5,000 children, according to historian Roth Leiserowitz, fled from East Prussia to Lithuania, looking for food as well as peace.

Such children were robbed by the Second World War of practically everything: their parents, their home, their language. It also robbed them of their past and what could have become of them.

The children, most of whom are believed to have been between four to twelve years old, stumbled away through forests, alone or in groups, some of them without shoes. Their bellies were bloated, their arms no more than twigs, their teeth beginning to rot. Sometimes they ate grass, at other times frogs - and often, simply nothing.

Sneaking away

At the beginning, Luise, together with her aunt and cousin, fled westward. On the way, the smouldering remains of burned-down trees pointed skywards like burning needles. Cadavers of horses lined the streets. Next to those were broken down carts and half-opened suitcases. Every now and then, Luise recalls of her flight in a covered cart, a teddy bear was seen peeking out of them.

Fugitives on the run in East Prussia in February 2012. (Foto, Winter 1944.)
During the biting winter of 1944, thousands fled their homes in East Prussia, losing homes and relativesImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

'I said "Oi, stop! I want to have that one," she said. Her memory is fragmented. Much is forgotten, even more remains suppressed.

"Suddenly, we were overtaken by the Russians. I remember the women screaming terribly. They were being raped just a few steps away from us. I didn't understand what was going on," she says.

During a bomb attack she was separated from her aunt. A cook from the Red Army took the young girl along as it marched toward Lithuania. One day, during her life in the barracks there, she spotted a woman behind the fence who beckoned her with some candy.

"And I walked, walked, walked along the fence until I found a hole. Through it I escaped and got settled with the family. Yes, simply sneaking off, I say!"

Luise laughs a lot - out of joy but also out of embarrassment and shame. Against all odds, she got lucky. Her name was changed to Alfreda. The family organized Lithuanian papers for her and sent her to school.

"I always had everything. I was always dressed and never hungry. I was a very little girl - of course I needed a family," she says. "Sometimes I even forgot I was someone else's child."

Old photos of Luise Quietsch and her Lithuanian „adoptive family“ (Photo: Luise Quietsch via Monika Griebeler)
Wolf children in Lithuania - a look into the photo album of Luise QuietschImage: Luise Quietsch

Insulted and raped

Others had to fight longer for their survival. Roth Deske came to Lithuania for the first time at the age of 13, illegally, hitching a ride on a freight train. She was caught and kicked out - and immediately jumped onto the next train.

In Lithuania she begged for food and then took it with her back to East Prussia - again and again. When her mother died, she was left with her three siblings. Carrying the youngest one in her arms, she crossed the border again on foot. "He was only skin and bones, barely able to walk on his own," she recounts in a book by journalist Sonya Winterberg entitled "We are the wolf children."

Other "wolf children" swam across the Neman river or walked for kilometers on end. Those who made it to Lithuania and found a new family often had to work hard - on the field, in the stables, as a herder, messenger or maid - for their food and quarters. Only few were allowed to go to school, meaning that even today, many former wolf children are illiterate. Some were cursed at and beaten, Luise says.

"Some girls were even raped by those Lithuanian hosts. Later they were told, 'Stay quiet or it will only get worse.' And they've stayed quiet to this day."

'Are you nuts?'

In Lithuiania, the fate of the "Vokietukai," or "little Germans," has long been taboo. Shame over the country's own behaviour as well as lingering prejudices are among the explanations for the absence of public discourse.

Old photograph of Luise Quietsch as a little girl (Photo: Luise Quietsch) via Monika Griebeler, DW
Luise Quietsch as a little girlImage: Luise Quietsch

There's also another reason. "Fear was what people were threatened with during the Soviet times," says Lithuanian author Alvydas Šlepikas. "The whole family was under threat of being deported to a labor camp in Siberia."

The goal, in other words, was to keep a low profile at all costs. It was for this reason, too, that many children were not allowed to attend school - and why they needed a new Lithuanian name. They also had to speak Lithuanian and renounce their German origins.

"That had always been a secret," Luise recalls. "I knew I didn't have any rights. I had to be quiet and obedient. And that's how I was."

For years, even her husband and daughter didn't know of her German roots. "Before my marriage I told my husband: 'I'm a German.' And he said: 'Ha ha! Are you nuts?' And it was no longer a topic," she says.

Fear of the 'Russian sister'

Since Lithuania's independence in 1990, fears have receded. The "wolf children" began looking for their families and writing letters to the Red Cross. That's how Luise found her siblings again - 48 years after their separation. For other wolf children, it was more of a shot in the dark. Those who had come to Lithuania as little children had often all but forgotten their German past.

Sometimes, too, German relatives were not keen to be reunited with their long-lost relatives. With some, there was a sense of fear of the "Russian sister" who might want to claim her share of the family inheritance.

Luise Quietsch in front of her old family home in Schwesternhof, formerly East Prussia (Photo: Luise Quietsch via Monika Griebeler)
Luise Quietsch visits her old family home in Schwesternhof, in today's Kaliningrad regionImage: Claudia Heinermann

Today, around 80 "wolf children" still live in Lithuania, at times in very poor circumstances. Their pension is minimal. Only since 2008 has the Lithuanian government supported "wolf children" with what is referred to as the "orphan bonus." The monthly sum equates to roughly 50 euros ($66) - but only if the children can prove that they were born in East Prussia.

A jumping jack revived the language

As for hopes of a return to Germany, they were shattered by red tape, missing language skills and the lack of an education. The German government has taken a rather reluctant stance toward the "wolf children."

[Wolf children] live under miserable circumstances," said former parliamentarian Wolfgang von Stetten in 2007. "It is a disgrace for the German state that - despite all efforts - it hasn't been possible to provide these people with a small extra pension."

It's something that Luise doesn't have to worry about. She was able to go to university and has always earned enough money. Today, she and her husband live in the city of Vilnius. Their living room is stacked with books - German ones, too.

Luise Quietsch in front of the Vilnius cathedral (Photo: Luise Quietsch via Monika Griebeler)
Today Luise Quietsch lives happily in Vilnius - married, with a daughter and grandchildrenImage: Luise Quietsch

Luise rediscovered the language at the beginning of the 1990s, rather by accident. When passing by a toy store, the German word for jumping jack - Hampelmann - flashed before her mind.

"I wondered, 'How do I know that?' I was really surprised myself, as I though I'd forgotten everything. And then - I started learning German again."

"Luise" has returned in Lithuania - and Alfreda, at last, could leave.

As part of the "Nahaufnahme" ("Close-up") project, DW journalist Monika Griebeler has been a guest writer for the Lithuanian news portal delfi.lt. It's a project by the Goethe-Institute whereby journalists from Germany and other European countries swap places for a number of weeks. In return, Lithuanian journalist Vytenė Stašaitytė visited Deutsche Welle during December 2012.