Brauweiler Displaced Persons' Camp

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This is part two of the memoirs of Andrew Dettre.
For part one, click leaving Holland

Andrew celebrating his 90th birthday. Click here, download pdf.

Shortly after my arrival at the DP camp at Brauweiler (outside Cologne), I discovered, under the archways, a plaque which read: "1520: der deutsche Kaiser Karl V. besucht, auf der Reise nach Aachen, wo er gekront wird, der Kloster Brauweiler." (The German emperor Charles V. visits, on the way to his coronation in Aachen, the monastery of Brauweiler.)

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"The kaiser thought very highly of Brauweiler," the village priest once told me. "In fact, he remembered the place in his will." "How nice," I replied. "I doubt if we will remember the place in our wills." Of course, we might have been spoilt and expected too much. Like a door on our room, for example. Or warm food. Or firewood. We might have had the snobbish attitude that what may please a king doesn't necessarily please a reffo; I don't know. All I do know is that the place, in the first few months of 1949, in mid-winter, was dismal, cold, depressing and no place for a gourmet let alone a gourmand.

Brauweiler itself is a big village or small township near Cologne, only a few miles from the majestic Rhine. There is nothing unusual about the village: it's tidy, orderly and thoroughly German in character. It escaped any war damages unlike Cologne itself which, when I first saw it in January 1949, was a series of unconnected ruins, with most shops operating from makeshift wooden huts.

'My' Brauweiler was not the village itself but something else. For many thousands of people, in the 1947-plus period, it meant a refugee camp composed of an ancient, stone-built monastery and a fairly modern former jail, linked through some sort of a courtyard.

It had those army-type communal toilets where people sit side by side, like battery hens. At first it's awkward, even embarrassing and often fails to produce a result but after a while one loses his inhibitions. That or severe constipation are the alternatives.

Under the former monastery building, which had two stories, there was a network of cellars or catacombs. Close to the monastery was a more modern two-story building which housed some of the camp's administrative offices, a Red Cross depot and a volleyball court. From time to time, the Red Cross people would hand out used clothing to those who needed it most. I remember a friend of mine, Imi Horvath, once received a nice blue pair of slacks from them which was the perfect fit except for one thing: it was a woman's garment and had no fly.

The camp itself was large: it could accommodate up to 2000 people. Most of the camp inhabitants were Poles who had been dragged to Germany as slave laborers in 1939 and 1940 and now, even after almost 10 years, could hardly speak a word of German. Several times a day the camp loudspeaker would bark out "uwaga, uwaga," (attention, attention) making announcements to the Poles which nobody else could understand. There were a handful of Yugoslavs, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians and about 35 of us, Hungarians, too.

The administration was in the hands of British Army officers. You couldn't say the camp was badly run; it would be more appopriate to say it just wasn't run at all. The Brits weren't harsh, cruel, vicious or mean; they were worse: inefficient and indifferent.

Winter supplies such as blankets or coal arrived in May and regulations concerning cold summer showers were posted in November. All this made the enforcement of the various regulations rather simple: these activities just didn't exist.

At that stage, we Hungarians were still classified as 'Fluchtlingen' (refugees) and, to make things worse, as ex-enemy. Thus in the first few weeks, our rations differed vastly from those of the Poles, for instance, who had already been classified as 'displaced persons', being the victims of Nazi brutalities. Many of the Poles were employed by the British Army in some simple jobs, often in kitchens, stores or in maintenance. They received a British Army uniform which had been dyed black but was still warm and practical. On top of that, they were given some special army rations, such as cigarettes and then stole whatever else they needed.

Feeding refugees was a rather simple task for the British. At 2 pm every day we queued up outside the camp kitchen where a Polish kitchen hand dished out our daily ration: half a loaf of black bread, a dab of butter and marmalade, a small piece of cheese and wurst and a spoonful of brown sugar. On top of that we were given a large tin container of soup, almost always looking like grey, disturbed water, with a few pieces of unpeeled rice floating on the top. Only one of us and the three huge taciturn Yugoslav brothers could swallow it. Another container had what was referred to as coffee. Both cauldrons had to be carried to our quarters from the kitchen, some 200 metres away.

It was estimated that the calorific value of all that was below 1000, possibly 800. Not enough to thrive on but just a shade too much to die. We took our rations back to our room, sat on our bunks and slowly, methodically, ate the lot. By 2:30 pm it was gone. Then, to preserve energy, we stretched out on our bunks, talking about the old days or about the uncertain future. We wouldn't get up until perhaps 6 pm or so when we would go on a short walk, to visit some people in other rooms or simply to sniff out what was happening in the camp.

So food or rather the lack of it was the main topic among us: food which can be obtained, traded, stolen or conned. In due course, we became apt at all of these. The first and easiest method was to sell whatever possession you could spare for food. One day the Polish kitchen hand told me that he liked my shirt.

"Come to my room this evening," he said. "We will talk. And bring the shirt." Later that day I exchanged that Swiss poplin shirt for two loaves of dry black bread. Eventually a few more of my garments finished up with the Pole.

In the camp we got to know a very nice and cultured Polish couple, Jerzy Kowalski (possibly Kowalczuk?) and his wife. He was a lawyer from Warsaw and some sort of an aristocrat. In the camp, even amidst all that poverty, they looked always neat and almost elegant. Jerzy worked in the camp office with the British and his wife was in charge of the kindergarten, which received fairly generous food provisions.

After we got to know them, once or twice a week, my friend Hapsi and I were invited to visit the kindergarten after lunch when the littlies were put down for a rest. We sneaked in and Mrs. Kowalski took us to the kitchen where there was always some food left over in the pots: soups, vegetables or occasionally some stew. One day they even invited us to dinner in their own room. Hapsi and I wanted to show our gratitude and take some flowers. However, as we had no money, we had to resort to some unorthodox methods: we went out to the nearby cemetery and lifted a nice bouquet from a tombstone.

The kindergarten building's basement also had the only bathhouse with warm water; otherwise we had to wash ourselves in icy cold water, even in January and February. The bathhouse attendant charged us half a mark for a tub of hot water and Hapsi and I shared it, tossing for the privilege of going in first.

Hunger is a great source for inspirations. Someone once discovered that not far from the camp there were fields growing various vegetables. So we organised a raiding party of three or four and, after sunset, visited one of these fields, digging up with our fingers from the cold, sometimes frozen earth, whatever we could find, mainly carrots, potatoes and parsnips. All are delicious when cooked in water with some salt added. My father used to send me newspapers from home and in between the pages usually sneaked in an envelope with nice red Szeged paprika. That certainly added spice to our concoctions.

Once I also received a food parcel from a family friend of mine in Cleveland, Istvan Tamas, a well known journalist and writer. It had some tinned meat, margarine, coffee and sardines in it as well as a pair of overalls and new pair of boots. Both were promptly exchanged for more food.

All this would not have been half so bad if we didn't know that the majority of camp inhabitants, namely all the Poles, had been getting "displaced persons" rations which included meat, vegetables, cooking oil and even some fruit.

Going hungry was bad; going for days without a shower or lacking any privacy for a toilet was rotten. But being cold in the middle of a German winter was probably even worse. Some one dozen of us - all Hungarians except for the three huge Serbian brothers - were given a 'room' at the ground floor of the monastery, with its sole window overlooking the courtyard and picturesque colonade. A little ante-chamber led to this room from the street; this always remained unoccupied. Neither the outside chamber nor our actual room had a door; nobody could ever tell us what happened to it. As it was almost impossible to survive in such conditions, without a door, we decided to hang a blanket where our door should have been, taking it turns who would give up one of his two rough army blankets for the night.

Our room also had a tiny, old fashioned black stove which would have worked with wood or coal - if we had any. All our requests to the British major went unheeded so we decided to find wood where we could, dismantling facia boards, skirtings, benches and even window panes to keep the little stove happy. It didn't heat up the large, windy room with stone flooring but if you huddled close to it - or perhaps embraced it - you might have felt a brief rush of warmth.

After a few weeks of numerous complaints by us, the administration decided to vacate our doorless room and relocate us in the former jail building. This was, until the war, a proper jail. It accommodated hundreds of us in cells big enough for two: two bunks and a small table was all that fitted in. There was, of course, no handle or knob on the door and it could only be closed from the outside; when Hapsi and I were inside, we pulled the door in and then half closed it by hooking a piece of wire through the hole where the knob should have been. The block had its own communal toilets and washrooms: if I say these were adequate, I tend to err on the generous side.

By now, we Hungarians were also reclassified as DPs and our food ration went up sharply. We were still not what you call well fed but we weren't starving either, as in the previous weeks when sometimes a week or longer would pass without a warm meal.

We 'organised' - a generic refugee word which covers a range of activities: borrow, steal, etc. - a little cooker which worked with kerosene and concocted at least one main meal a day on that. However, it would be correct to say that our meals were irregular and haphazard.

The indoor volleyball court in the camp was in constant use by the bored British soldiers and the Polish camp guards, so we had no hope of getting a game there. Frankly, we didn't care much: our energy levels were so low that sport - and sex - were hardly ever on our mind. But there was also a soccer field, all marked out, with goals. And soccer was somewhat different.

After our food rations had improved, a Polish fellow approached me and asked if we could arrange a Poland-Hungary match. I agreed, seeing that we had about the same reservoir for talent: 2000 Poles and 35 Hungarians, of whom some 10 were women and children...

Still, somehow we managed to find 11 men willing to risk limb and reputation and the match duly took place. Much to the admiration of the spectators and the loitering British soldiers, we went down 'only' 1-3, after a heroic battle. After the match the Polish players and officials invited us to their quarters and filled us up with sausages and vodka.

Another memorable episode concerning the Poles occurred at the little church just outside our camp's gates. One day, loitering on the street, we noticed a small gathering near the church entrance. Presently a young couple emerged, broadly smiling, with a priest behind them who must have just married them. A few friends and relatives threw confetti and there was the usual hilarity surrounding the event.

Suddenly a young German woman came out from the crowd of onlookers, with a baby in her arm and rushed up to the Polish couple.

"Here, Ziggy, this I believe is yours," she screamed and thrust the baby at the stunned man, then left. We never found out whatever happened to the baby or to Ziggy's marriage. It was certainly one of the weirdest wedding presents I have ever seen.

A perennial topic of conversation was where to migrate. It was a unanimously held view that it's madness to stay in Germany which, early 1949, was bombed out, starving, occupied and seemingly without a future. Some of the major cities near the Rhine - Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen, Munster, Gelsenkirchen and others - were so badly destroyed during the war that experts seriously wondered if it was possible to rebuild them. Instead various plans suggested that they build new cities a few miles further away...

So Germany looked hopeless. In fact, Europe looked hopeless, too. The Soviets, in one of Stalin's whims, decided to break the Four Power agreement over Berlin which guaranteed the right of all allies to hold a piece of the city and, equally importantly, access to Berlin through the various occupied parts of East Germany. It was this agreement that the Soviets had abrogated and decided to cut Berlin off from the rest of the world, perhaps hoping to starve and freeze the city into submission. Thus the historical Berlin Airlift was born through which the Allieds, mainly the Americans, kept Berlin alive by flying in, every few minutes, huge supplies of food and fuel to the population. This went on for months during which Europe lived in fear of World War III starting any minute.

That was something for which none of us in the camp had any appetite. When World War II ended in May 1945, I wasn't quite 19 and grateful to my fate which kept me alive and, in fact, out of uniform. So it was natural, against that backdrop, that none of us at Brauweiler was keen to stay in Germany a day longer than necessary.

But where to go?

The camp was awash with rumors, stories, furphies, half-truths and daydreams about possible destinations. Almost everyone knew someone whose friends or relatives had already settled in some overseas countries; every bit of information which filtered back from them duly circulated among the camp dwellers and was subjected to endless disputes and scrutiny.

While I tried to obtain as much information about overseas conditions as possible, I had little doubt where I wanted to go: to the USA. I had a family friend there, in Istvan Tamas in Cleveland, I spoke English fairly well and I had always been attracted to what used to be vaguely referred to as the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle and culture.

But it wasn't to be. Despite Istvan Tamas sending me an affidavit, guaranteeing to the authorities that in America he would help me and make sure I would not become a burden on the state, I found out from US authorities that I'd have to wait for my turn on the small Hungarian quota - about five years or so.

That ended that dream. Then, one after the other, various emigration officials kept arriving from overseas countries. Some of the refugees decided to volunteer and, once accepted, duly left for Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. I had no appetite for these politically unstable places and kept waiting. However, when the Canadians came to our camp, I decided to try my luck. Canada, I argued, was close to the USA, safe, not too far from Europe and rich.

I wanted Canada but Canada didn't want me. The only applicants they accepted were people who were physical workers and looked the part, too. People who would in due course finish up working in mines, railway building projects or as lumberjacks. When I went along for an interview, I had my hands dirtied and roughed up on the cement in the courtyard. This was to impress the Canadian official with my suitability for physical work. He asked my name, age and occupation.

"Bricklayer," I said casually. I felt confident that my command of English would mitigate in my favour.

"Show me your hands." I showed them, palm down.

"Turn them around," he ordered. I did and he stared at my two undoubtedly dirty, even scratched hands which were anything but typical of a brickie's.

"Thank you," he snapped, "next please."

That was the end of Canada for me. It was several weeks later that an Australian delegations arrived - a mission, as we used to call them - where we also applied.

Their temporary office in the camp had a huge poster on the wall. In this there was an enormously powerful man, in singlet, wearing a slouch hat, who was using a long steel rod to lift some railway sleepers into position. His muscles were bulging, his arms were shining with sweat and, into the bargain, he was giving a huge, toothy grin. A truly happy man, I thought. The caption under this figure simply said: "Australia: a man's job awaits you." I must admit I was impressed with this. Blue skies, blazing sunshine, a well fed strong man in the poster who appeared happy in his job even if lifting railway sleepers with my bare hands never belonged to my armoury of ambitions.

What did I 'know' about Australia? Not a lot but perhaps a bit more than most others. I 'knew,' for a start, that Sydney was the capital. Everyone 'knew' that. Nobody had ever heard about Canberra. I also knew that it had some marvellous tennis players, such as Crawford, Quist and Bromwich; that it was a month's sailing from Europe, closer to Asia, with English as the native language and a sunny, temperate or even subtropical climate.

That's it. Plus what my old English teacher, Jozsef Kurusa had told me in Szeged about the place. In his youth, in the 1910s and 1920s, he worked for a big shipping line, roaming the world, ending up as captain of some large cargo vessels. As such, he had the opportunity to visit Australia several times.

"It's a paradise," I remember him telling me. "There are no rich and no poor in Australia, only a happy middle class. The unlucky or the unemployed are helped, the social security safety net is the best in the world. It is a classic example of a well organised, civilised Anglo-Saxon democracy." That's the place for me, I thought and applied. Within a week or so I was informed - together with several others including three of my friends - that we had been provisionally accepted; a final medical and political screening would take place in a huge camp at Fallingbostel, near Solingen within weeks.

So about 10 days later we packed our meagre belongings, put the travel voucher in our pocket and took the train to Solingen, saying goodbye to Brauweiler. We stayed at Fallingostel only for a few days; both the medical and political screening was rather superficial. However, it was here that I saw a notice pinned to the camp office notice board that English teachers (not English teachers but teachers of English...) were sought by the Australian Education Department, on IRO's behalf. The job would be for at least three months and it would be in one of the three giant pre-embarkation camps near Naples: Capua, Aversa or Bagnoli. When I inquired, I was told that the three months would come off your two-year work contract in Australia, that we'd get paid 10,000 liras a month and we would have to work as teachers in the camp under the direction of Australian officials.

I volunteered and almost at once, after a language test, was accepted. This was some time in July 1949. Within a week our entire 'transport', those destined for Australia, was taken by trucks to another great camp, Seedorf , near misty, wet, cold Hamburg . This, we learned, was to be our last German camp before transferring to Italy.

At Seedorf we stayed in timber huts, with elevated bunks. Of the four 'original' friends only three of us remained as Imre Horvath dropped out. At Fallingbostel, they found he had VD and was thus ineligible for migration to Austeralia. Actually, he never followed us even after his recovery.

He was admitted in a sanatorium in Germany and spent half a year there undergoing treatment. After that the Australian authorities still knocked him back. However, he managed to enlist the support of a Protestant church oranisation which sponsored him as a migrant to the USA. While he was in a German hospital, the three of us tried to make his life a trifle easier by sending him an occasional food parcel, nylon stockings or a few dollars from Australia.

Then, around 1951, he finally landed in the USA, in Cleveland of all places, then the most 'Hungarian' of all American cities. Within months he was called up in the US Army, sent for basic training to New Jersey and no more than six months after landing in America he was shipped out.

"We are leaving next week," he wrote to me, "and nobody tells us where. I just hope it's not Korea as I have absolutely no interest in an Asian dispute." Well, it wasn't Korea: Horvath and his regiment were sent to Salzburg, Austria, the very city from where, in 1948, after his escape from Hungary, had begun. Now he was back in Salzburg, in GI uniform, part of the American occupation troops - without speaking either German or English.

Later, after being demobbed, he wrote to me that he was studying medicine at the Ohio State University, with a GI scholarship. After that, contact was lost and I don't know whatever happened to him.

But back to Seedorf. We were idling in the camp, waiting to be taken down to Italy. There was nothing to do and none of us was interested in hitching a ride to nearby Hamburg for a look-see. By now we had seen enough bombed out German cities and we heard that Hamburg would have been one of the very worst of them.

It was in Seedorf that I had a brief taste of big-time business. A very slick and prosperous looking Czech approached me one day in the canteen and asked me what my plans were for Australia. I told him my main plan was to survive.

"You could go into business, you know," he said.

"I have a 21-month contract to fulfil," I said.

"Well, maybe on the side. Interested?"

"What kind of business?" I asked. He took a deep breath.

"Do you know how mirrors are made?"


"Yes. Do you know the secret of it?"

"No, but why is it a secret?"

"It's a special trade, passed from father to son. Ask people here in the camp if they know how it's made and not one will know. Try it."

"And where is the business in that?"

"Aha," he raised his eyebrows, "I can sell them the secret and they will have an instant business proposition in Australia, Canada, USA, wherever they are going. You can help me and make a few dollars commission."

I accepted. Secrets always intrigued me. However, he still didn't tell me how mirrors were made - even today I am not sure - but he provided me with a sales spiel. The 'secret' was for sale for $20 and my commission for procuring a client was to be $5. During the next week or two I made about $15 in commission. My Czech friend offered to sell me the mirror secret for my $15 - a big discount, he assured me - but I decided to keep the money. Mirror manufacturing in Australia was not among my vague plans.

After about two weeks at Seedor, we packed our bags, boarded some buses and were taken to a railway station where we were packed into a train. We were all in third class compartments, of course, wooden seats and all but at least we all had a seat. The journey was boring, long and extremely tiring. I think it took more than two days, slicing through Germany from top to bottom, then through parts of Austria, northern Italy, past the ruins of many small towns and villages, before arriving at the Adriatic town of Senegallia, between Rimini and Ancona.

In Austria the train passed through the town of Kufstein, in whose castle or fort several Hungarian patriots of the failed 1948 revolution against the Hapsburgs languished. (Has a Hungarian uprising ever succeeded?) In nothern Italy we zoomed past the ruins of Monte Cassino, the famous monastery on a hill around which such furious battles had raged in 1944.

But at least we were out of dreary Germany and were welcomed by the warmth and sunshine of lovely Italy. It wasn't until 1972, on the occasion of the Munich Olympics, that I revisited Germany. By then almost all the ruins had vanished.

For more about Brauweiler, photos and e-mails from residents, go to Brauweiler page 2.

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