An Interview by Philip Wright, with my mother Stefanie Wright, nee Schalk.
From her childhood through to her arrival in Hertford, England.
Born December 26th 1926, at No. 44 Weixelbaum, Steiermark, Austria.
Ever since Stefanie could remember she lived with her Grandparents, two uncles and one of her brothers, Alois. The farmhouse was very small and rustic, it was timber-framed and consisted of mud and cow dung sun-baked brick walls and a thatched roof, and just a plain dirt floor, which would be mopped daily to keep it clean. There were only 3 rooms on the lower level, no running water, and the water had to be drawn from a well, and small attic space for storage. The toilet consisted of a rickety old wooden shed at the bottom of the garden. There was no heating in the small farmhouse except the fire that was used for cooking. Stefanie and Alois had no toys to play with, but they did have the wide-open spaces, woods and fields to play and roam. Life was extremely hard and basic on the farm as everyone had to chip in and do their work so that it was not all left to Grandfather and Grandmother.
Stefanie started school in Weixelbaum when she was 7 years old, and at the school, there were some 200 children.
In 1933, Grandmother died, and Stefanie aged 7, was left on the farm with only Grandfather and her brother Alois. Then Stefanie had to double her workload on and about the farm, feeding the pigs, milking the cows, and much other work before going off to school, and then on her return from school starting work on the farm immediately doing more or less the same work. During the severe winters, we would be woken by Grandfather at about 02:00 hrs, we put very cold leather boots on, a thin coat over my nightdress and Grandfather would scrape the snow from the thatched roof to stop it from collapsing under the weight, and Stefanie and Alois would shovel the snow away from the farmhouse to save the walls from being damaged. Stefanie can remember this being extremely cold, hard and uncomfortable work.
Grandmother had 13 children, 2 of whom died at birth. As the children were born, the older children had to sleep in the barn on the hay with the cows, until they were old enough to be hired out to work at other farms where they would stay, sleep, work and be fed, and all for a pittance of money.
World War 2
At age 13 years, just before school broke up for the summer holidays, (1939), soldiers came and commandeered the school, and that was to be her last time in education, as the war had now started. Then it was mandatory that all children would have to do one years work as a “Pflichtjahr”, duty year, on the land at a farm to assist the German war effort. When Stefanie’s year was finished the farmer from the next farm wanted her to stay and work for him as she was a very good worker, but she declined.
Stefanie then had to go to the Labour Exchange where she found work as a helper in a “Kindergarten”.
When she was no longer required she had to go back to the labour exchange where she found work with a family in Mureck, where the wife was very ill and her husband was a policeman. They had three children to be cared for. When the wife was well enough, Stefanie had to find alternative employment.
Her next employment was with a teacher’s family in Mureck, again looking after the children.
Her next employment was for a Judge and his family in Radkersberg. There was a patch of land nearby which was needed for growing vegetables and Stefanie with many other people would use a pickaxe to try and break up the ground, but the ground was very hard and compact, then there was a bomber raid and a bomb fell not far away and she was very scared, and later Stefanie became very ill from the hard arduous work.
Stefanie was given the choice of going into the women’s land army, which she accepted, and was sent to Klagenfurt to work for 6 months.
When her work with the land army was over she decided to travel to Graz and found work as a conductress on the trams until May of 1945, (aged 19), where she stayed with her beloved auntie Anna. During her time on the trams, she experienced many bombing raids in Graz and couldn’t believe just how lucky she was to escape with her life, which many others were not so lucky. They had to take shelter in the tunnels and caves under the “Schloßberg” in Graz. Then Stefanie and her friend heard the news that the Russians were coming through Austria at pace, and this was very bad news for all women.
The Dash to Germany
Stefanie and her friend heard through the grapevine that the bicycle manufacturers in Graz were giving the bicycles away rather than let the Russians have them, so Stefanie and her friend took advantage of the free offer and decided to cycle from Graz all the way to Germany, via Bruck an der Mur, where Stefanie and her friend stayed with Stefanie’s mother overnight, then they both started their epic journey, trying to keep ahead of the Russians. Stefanie and her friend would sleep in hedges, ditches, empty schools, old barns, under trees, or tunnels, with little or no food, which had to be begged for. Sometimes they would occasionally come across the Red Cross from whom they would get a little food as well as a few other necessities. Naturally, the two girls would accept lifts on the back of oxcarts, tractor-trailers, lorries, etc. Stefanie’s friend said she had relatives in the town of “Neustadt an der Aisch”, in Germany, and that they would both be very welcome there.
As they crossed over the Austrian border into Germany, everyone was rounded up by the American soldiers and placed in a large field with approximately 10,000 German and Austrian soldiers for the next 6 weeks. During those 6 weeks, both girls were interviewed by the American soldiers and asked where we wanted to go, and they both said into Germany to Neustadt an der Aisch, where her friend had relatives and that they would look after us. The 6 weeks in that large camp was from July to mid to late August 1945.
Finally, the two girls were told that they would be taken into Germany by army lorries. The journey was a difficult one as all the roads were totally bombed out and farm tracks and mountain roads had to be used over the mountains and glaciers which was very dangerous, some of the roads were so dangerous that the soldiers had to get out and push on the side of the lorry to stop it from sliding over the edge into the ravine below. The journey was to last a terrifying and dangerous 8 days.
At the end of our lorry journey, we were dropped off in the dead centre of Nuernberg at 23:00 hrs, it was totally pitch black and very cold, and to add insult to injury, the curfew had already started at 21:00 hrs, we both sat on the steps of a large building and kept very quiet and still. Then a jeep pulled up with two American soldiers inside, they asked us what we were doing there and where we wanted to go, we tried to explain as best we could and said we needed to get to “Neustadt an der Aisch”. The Americans drove us as far as they could until 02:00 hrs and said this is as far as they could go because they were lost and there was no road signage. They dropped us off in the middle of some fields on a farm track then drove away.
We could see a small light coming from a farmhouse some 200 meters away, we walked to the farmhouse, knocked on the door and were greeted by the farmer. We asked if he could put us up for the night, but he said it would be better if we slept outside in the long grass by the small chapel next to the road, as there was more chance of being seen by passing carts and lorries that could take us both further along to our destination. We slept in the long grass, only to be frightened out of our skins at 06:00 hrs by the chapel bell that rung automatically at that time in the morning. At 08:00 hrs we stared to thumb a lift, and a while later a lorry stopped driven by two black American soldiers who very kindly drove us to the centre of “Neustadt an der Aisch”. During the journey, they would both be looking through the small window at the back of their cab and smile at us.
When we were dropped off we saw a Cafe house on the other side of the street and decided to knock and ask for some water to drink. A very kind lady opened the door, we asked for a drink of water and we were asked to come inside. She told us that we could have a drink and a bite to eat, but first to go up to the bathroom and tidy ourselves up as we were very dirty and bedraggled. We were given coffee, bread and butter and some cake. We told her where we were going to and we asked if we could leave our small bundles of belongings with her, which she agreed.
We then walked for about 45 to 50 minutes further outside of town and finally arrived at her friend’s relatives house. We were welcomed with hugs and kisses and made to feel very welcome indeed. A male relative collected our belongings from the Cafe house. 2 days later, I and my friend went to the local labour exchange to find work as we felt it was unfair that her relatives should feed us for no money all the time.
I found work for 10 months as a waitress, cook and chief bottle washer at a local restaurant with hotel rooms, called a “Guesthouse”, and my friend found work in a brewery as a kitchen maid. One day, the lady employer of my friend came to me and she was crying and asked me where my friend was, as she had not turned up for work, I said that I was not sure and that it was a surprise that she was not at work, but I also explained that some time ago she had asked me if I would go back to Austria with her as she was homesick, but I said no, not at the moment, so I presume she has just run off back home to Austria alone.
Back to Austria
I read in the local newspaper that now the Russians had withdrawn from Austria, and that the Austrian government would assist anyone to return home through the repatriation program. It also said that to get on the program you must have a passport. I went to the local government offices and filled out all the required documentation, and within 2 weeks my passport had arrived. I was then instructed to go to the main railway station at a certain time on a certain date where a train would be waiting. I arrived and found a further 30 returnees, we were told we would sleep in an empty school for two days. Then the next morning at about 06:00 hrs we would be put on the train for our journey back. Next morning we were all told to get into an empty freight truck, nowhere to sit, just bare metal flooring. The journey back to Bruck an der Mur, took a week because all the railway lines were mostly bombed out, so many diversions and overnight stops had to be made.
On arrival, I walked to my mother’s house only to find that she had moved, so I went to the local council offices to find out her new address. I was given the new address which was on the mountainside next to some woods. I stayed there and got work in Bruck as a nanny to 4 boys.
Walter Harold Wright
One day on one of my days off, (28th May 1946), I was with another girl in the town square next to the ornamental, “Brunnen”, Well, and we were approached by two English soldiers, one of which would become my future husband. His name was Walter Harold Wright or better known to all as “Harry”. Us two girls walked off to the cinema across the square and the two soldiers asked us if we would like to go in to watch the film, and we said, no! (20:30 Hrs). Then us two girls with the two soldiers in tow walked back to my mother’s house on the mountainside. When we arrived us girls climbed the steps outside and left the two soldiers there. After that, harry and I would meet irregularly and go for walks for the next 3 weeks, after which Harry was posted away to Graz. Harry moved with his regiment and we had no more contact…
Then after 1 month, there was a knock on the door, and to my greatest surprise, Harry was standing there. After this meeting, we would meet only once a month, Harry would travel by train to Bruck, and the next month I would travel by train to Graz. On one of my trips to Graz, I collapsed and was seriously ill with appendicitis. Harry took me to my Auntie Anna’s house, and from there I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where my appendix was removed, but I had an infection in the wound and had to stay in the hospital for 6 weeks. After this, I stayed in Graz with my Auntie Anna and found work as a housekeeper to an English army Major, Major Miller and his wife. They were very nice people. During my time in the employ of Major Miller, Harry was posted to Vienna and Harry and I spoke once a week by telephone. During Harry’s time in Vienna, he was making all the arrangements for our wedding, and I had to go for various interviews and the checking of all my documentation too. Everything worked out well in the end and we were given the OK by the British army to marry.
The wedding day, Friday 18th July 1947, at the Evangelical church, Heilandskirche, Kaiser-Josef-Platz, Graz. We didn’t have any honeymoon, but as a surprise to us both, some of Harry’s soldier friends had arranged a surprise picknick for us, high up a mountain in a field with radio music. We all had the most wonderful time at the picknick, sadly, it was soon time to start back down the mountain in the back of the army lorry, but, the driver had much too much to drink and was speeding and swerving along the steep and twisting mountain roads, it was then that my new husband, Harry, shouted at the driver to slow down and drive properly or stop and to let us off. The driver behaved himself. I was dropped off at my Auntie Anna’s house, but Harry had to return to his temporary barracks at the “Steiererhof”, in Graz. The next day Harry had to return to his regiment in Vienna. I was then taken by Major Miller to Klagenfurt, continuing in my employment and Harry followed on to Klagenfurt 6 weeks later in September of 1947. Harry then found me a room in a hotel for 6 weeks which was paid for in cigarettes. I then left the employ of Major Miller.
“So, the journey to England begins, 24th October 1947”
I was to start my journey on 24th October 1947, after staying overnight at Klagenfurt railway station. The train set off at 07:00 hrs and arrived at our destination the “Hook of Holland”, in the evening of 26th October. I had travelled with 31 other married women, (to English soldiers). We were all shown into a very large warehouse or hall, where a big meal was waiting for us, all prepared by the Red Cross. Then at 22:00 hrs we were taken to the ship for our crossing to Harwich, England, which took some 10 hours. Then we were taken to the railway station and put on a train to Liverpool Street station, London. When I was met by my husband Harry, we took the train to Hertford, arriving at our final destination on 27th October 1947 at 14:00 hrs.
“It was only then that I can say that my real life began”
on 21st November 1948 our first son, Harold Werner Wright was born and on 4th March 1954 our second son, Philip Wright was born at home in our prefab house, No,50 Cecil Road, horns mill, Hertford. We then moved into a 3 bedroom house, No. 57 Cecil Road, horns mill, Hertford.
Then sometime later Harry and I adopted a girl, Erica, who was born on 27th August 1958. Now our family was complete, and we spent many a happy year at No. 57 Cecil Road. All the children’s schooling was done in Hertford, mainly at Morgans Walk, and Balls Park Secondary Modern, now called Simon Balle School.