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Detroit Lakes resident Willi Humbeck lived in Germany during worst of World War II

Detroit Lakes resident Willi Humbeck, at his home in Diamond Willow Assisted Living. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes

World War II is a distant memory now; most people living in this country have no memory of the violent conflict that swept across the globe more than 70 years ago, leaving many countries in shambles.

But for Detroit Lakes resident Wilhelm “Willi” Humbeck, the memories of that time are as clear as though they happened a year or two ago.

Willi was not quite six years old when Adolph Hitler began his push to conquer Europe, on Sept. 1, 1939.

While Hitler later came to be viewed as the very definition of an evil dictator, in the years before the war began, the Germans saw him as their savior, Willi said.

“When Adolph Hitler came in charge on Jan. 1, 1933, everything changed in Germany — times got better,” he said.

Prior to Hitler’s rise to power, Germany was still under the yoke of a crippling debt incurred by the events of World War I.

“Before he came in power, people had no jobs, no food,” Willi explained. “When he started building up for war, that meant work for the people, and everyone started living better — that’s why the people ‘hailed’ Hitler.”

Of course, the soon-to-be dictator’s intentions became clear shortly after that first invasion was launched — but for many, it was already too late to escape.

Such was the case for Willi’s father, who was drafted into the war at its inception, and quickly rose to become the commander of a small prisoner-of-war camp, where he oversaw Polish, French, Czech and Ukrainian prisoners.

It was not a death camp, Willi said firmly; the prisoners were treated fairly well at that time.

Even after they became disillusioned by witnessing the persecution of a Jewish family from whom they had been renting a home in Essen before the war, Willi’s father served without dissent.

“He had no other choice,” Willi said, noting that his family initially felt indebted to Hitler because the government had funded all of Willi’s medical expenses when he became ill and had to be quarantined as a toddler.

Later, he said, “We knew it was a dictatorship” — and anyone who went against Hitler ended up dead.

Willi’s father (who was also named Wilhelm) had urged the Grossmans (the Jewish family with whom they were living) to leave town, but they had repeatedly refused; Isaack Grossman was a World War I veteran who had been heavily decorated with awards for bravery, and he felt he and his family would be unharmed.

It was wishful thinking; like all the other Jews living in Essen at that time, the Grossmans were turned out from their home and put into a small camp in town, surrounded with a barbed wire fence; Willi and his mother brought them food, though it was frowned upon.

The next day, the prisoners were gone; Willi learned many years later that the Grossmans had died on their way to a concentration camp.

After his father was drafted, Willi and his mother eventually went to live with a farm family closer to the prison camp, so his father could come visit them on weekends; his older sister was serving in a female version of the Hitler Youth Movement, and he rarely saw her.

Sometimes, Willi said, he and his mother would go visit his father at the prison camp.

“We were in no danger,” he said. “The prisoners liked him; everybody liked him. We could go into the camp without fearing anything.”

Eventually, a chronic stomach disease led to his father’s discharge from the German army (it was the same stomach disease that later claimed his life, Willi said somberly), and the Humbecks returned to Essen.

By this time, the air raids had gotten so bad that the people of Essen were living in bunkers “day and night.”

By the time October of 1944 arrived, Willi’s father knew it was time to escape from an embattled Essen.

“We left by night,” he said.

His father’s connections as a former POW camp commander came in handy, as he made arrangements for his family to take shelter with a farm family in Sauerland.

His father also made a daring night rescue of his sister from the youth camp where she had been living — 160 miles away.

Though it doesn’t seem like that far to travel these days, in the 1940s, it was a lengthy journey indeed.

“I think my father was an amazing man,” Willi said.

The Humbecks continued to live with the Kirschhoffs on their farm until spring, when the air raids began to spill over from the main cities into the countryside.

“It was total war,” Willi said. “They shot at everything that was moving.”

He distinctly remembers one instance where he was walking from the farmhouse into the woods, and heard the distinctive clop-clop-clop sound of bullets striking the ground. He looked up and saw an airplane approaching low to the ground, with machine guns blazing.

“I looked up into the sky, and he was so low that I could see his grinning face,” Willi said.

He tried to take shelter in a hole nearby, but was unable to reach it at first, taking shelter behind a big pine tree. The bullets continued to rain down on him, but he remained unscathed other than getting some cuts and bruises — and peeing his pants.

“I think he (the pilot) could have killed me, but he didn’t,” Willi said.

By mid-April, they could sense that the end was near, he added. The first big clue came when the German soldiers ran up to them, shouting “The Americans are coming!”

Then, the Americans came, sitting on top of their tanks. The German soldiers had fled, taking whatever civilian clothes the farmers could scrounge for them, so they could hide from their conquerors.

The Americans — one of whom spoke perfect German — came up to the farm and accepted their surrender, then confined the Kirschhoffs and the Humbecks into the basement of the farmhouse, for their own safety.

The next morning, they were allowed to leave the basement, but found that the soldiers had taken all their fresh produce — leaving behind a big bottle of whiskey and a pile of C-rations, which contained everything from chocolate to peanuts and other goodies.

“That (the chocolate) was a treat for me,” Willi said.

At that point, Willi said, “We knew the war was done for us. Nobody would shoot at us anymore, and there were no more air raids.”

A few weeks later, the family returned to Essen; initially, Willi said, his father stayed behind to protect the few possessions they had managed to salvage from the war, hoping to find transportation to return their things home.

“The few belongings we had left really meant a lot,” Willi explained.

He and his mother and sister, meanwhile, set out to walk the 120-130 kilometers from the farm to their old place in Essen.

“We had to walk through the train tunnels,” Willi said. “That was quite an experience.”

During their trek home, the family encountered a truck that had been adapted to run on wood coal rather than gasoline, which was pretty much nonexistent in Germany at that time.

“The Germans are very inventive,” Willi said.

Unfortunately, the men who were behind the wheel of the truck were not too scrupulous; they wanted to take Willi’s sister with them, but not him or his mother.

“We said no,” Willi added, noting that it wasn’t too hard to figure out what his sister’s fate would have been if she had gone with them.

Later, a second truck came by, and the family driving it agreed to take them back to Essen willingly. Along the way, they acquired more and more refugees, eventually packing the open truck so tight “it looked like a can of sardines,” Willi said.

But he and his family made it back to the home of his mother’s parents, who took them in (their old place had been bombed out by the air raids).

“They were living in a house that was 1,000 years old,” Willi said. “It still used gas light.”

They made their way to Essen, where they found their old home had been reduced to a pile of rubble. They eked out a living until Willi’s father made it back to them, about a month later.

Willi recalls the day he saw a big truck coming over the hill toward him, with his father hanging onto the outside and the family’s belongings in the back.

“They transported him and our belongings, and they didn’t want anything in return,” Willi said. “They must have been some big-hearted guys.”

Finally, the family was reunited, and moved into an abandoned home in Essen that was missing its windows and had a leaky roof.

Slowly, they began to rebuild their lives, as Willi and his father used their bartering skills on the black market to help their small family survive.

At one point, Willi gave up his apprenticeship as an auto technician and found work in the local coal mine to help his family make ends meet.

“I was a stripper,” he said, noting that his job was to help strip out the mining equipment from each vein of coal after it had been emptied of the rocky fuel.

“It was hot down there,” he said, noting that he worked almost 2,000 feet underground. “We wore shorts, shoes and a helmet.

“I did that for two years. I was 17 when I got out of the mines.”

He decided to go back to school, to get a degree in business. It was then that he met his future wife, Margot. In 1953, they got married.

Willi eventually dropped out of school to become a full-time salesman, selling radios, record players and eventually, televisions. Their son Michael was born at this time.

In 1957, his sister married an American and moved to the Twin Cities, and in 1965, he and his family followed them to the United States.

“I sold our apartment for 2,000 deutschmarks, and gave all our furniture to my brother-in-law,” Willi said.

After getting a physical and the necessary papers to emigrate to America, they boarded an ocean liner and arrived in New York Harbor on May 19, 1965.

“When we landed, I said to my wife, ‘We’ll be back in one year,’” Humbeck said.

That was 48 years ago. They never did go back.

Today, he and Margot live at Diamond Willow Assisted Living in Detroit Lakes, where she continues to make a slow recovery from the effects of a stroke suffered in February 2011.

Though he eventually lost the sales business that he built when he  moved to Detroit Lakes in 1974, Humbeck said, “My wife and I are still together. We’ve been married for 60 years, and together for 62.

“It’s still a happy ending.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454