- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2008

GOODBYE STALIN

By Sigrid von Bremen Thomas

Durban House Press, $15.95, 242 pages

REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

Sigrid von Bremen Thomas was one of the 13 million who fled or were forced to leave Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Her exodus took her from Estonia to Poland, to East Germany and then under a hail of bullets to West Germany, and finally to the United States. Mrs. Thomas‘ riveting story is the subject of her memoir, “Goodbye Stalin,” a true-life account that reads like a novel.

The von Bremens were aristocrats, powerful Estonian landowners, rulers, decision makers, descendants of a long line of Teutonic knights who invaded Estonia in the 13th century yet retained their German heritage. They spoke German as well as Estonian. They lived according to a code of formal, good manners. As Mrs. Thomas points out, she “curtsied and kissed Grandmama’s hand every morning.”

The Baltic nobility lost much of its property in the Estonian agrarian reforms in the 1920s, and Sigrid’s father, Karl Ernst William (“Bill”) von Bremen turned to agriculture. By the time Sigrid was born in November 1931, he was comfortably wealthy again.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Baltic Germans were “repatriated” into Poland, now part of greater Germany. In the spring of 1940, the family moved to a large farm near Kalisz, Poland, which Bill von Bremen converted into a vegetable gardening enterprise. Sigrid started school under the rituals of the Nazi state.

In January, 1945, the family received the official order to evacuate into Germany proper in view of the advancing Red Army and rumors of barbarous revenge. They set off, joining a caravan of other German-Baltic refugees, with four supply wagons loaded with food, warm clothing and the family silver.

They drove through snow and ice. When their Polish drivers deserted them, supplies were reloaded into a single wagon; the silver was abandoned. When Russian planes flew overhead, Mrs. Thomas writes “My mother leaped from the driver’s seat screaming, ‘Into the ditch!’ I don’t remember how I jumped, but I do remember lying in the snow, amazed to see my 82-year-old Grandmama … there as well.”

As they headed towards the Oder, the old border between Germany and Poland, Sigrid “grew increasingly cold, hungry and tired. For the first time … [she] was overcome by hopelessness, despair.” They managed to cross the bridge shortly before it was blown up.

The family settled deep within Germany proper. In mid-April, American tanks rolled into their village. Bill von Bremen described the Americans as “tall athletic figures with free-swinging gaits — no rigid military bearing — the greatest possible contrast to the German military. There are no loud commands, no shouting, no blustering, no standing at attention… They take comfortable material existence for granted, and it produces the foundation for an entirely different mentality. If the German army had been supported by this level of well being, it would have been invincible …”

Sigrid spent the next six years, first under Russian and then later under East German communist rule. There was no heat; there were long lines for food; there was political indoctrination. “The three post-war years blend in my memory into equal parts hunger, cold, scarcity, school, and a shared sense of making do under grim circumstances. Even our sweets were sour.” By 1948, life began to improve. Sigrid apprenticed as a dress designer. A visit to West

Berlin convinced her that she had to leave “the drab, depressing DDR” where there would never be a future for her.

In mid-summer 1951, Sigrid began the secret and dangerous journey across the border via a strip mine that was not heavily guarded. The guide took Sigrid and a few others down a path and through the woods. As she ran, “taking short leaps down the steep slag … I heard gunshots. I felt the air of passing bullets on my cheeks… I jumped over some tracks ahead of an oncoming coal train… With no breath left, I collapsed behind a bush.” She had arrived in the West.

With the help of relatives and family friends living in West Germany, Sigrid soon made a life for herself. She abandoned the idea of becoming a dress designer, ultimately took a job with the American Occupation Force and made new friends, including an American soldier named Rich Thomas. She immigrated to the United States in 1955. Her parents left the East for West Germany a few years after Sigrid’s escape.

There’s a happy ending. Sigrid worked at Life Magazine in New York as a photo editor; she married Rich Thomas; had two children; and worked as a landscape designer and free-lance writer specializing in horticulture and equestrian sports.

Mrs. Thomas touches on moral issues raised by her early life: Her father’s unquestioning adaptability to the Nazi regime; the much more tragic fate of the millions of Jews exterminated by the same SS officers who were protecting the von Bremens. She recognizes that her exodus was one experienced by hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom did not survive. But she also acknowledges that she was a child, more involved with the normal issues of growing up and the process of survival than with the political and social implications of the Nazi and Communist regimes, which she did not understand. She fled the DDR not for political freedom, but because of its drabness.

Reading “Goodbye Stalin” I wanted very badly to meet the author since much of what she experienced and felt echoed in my own memory, beginning with our births that were only about two weeks apart. The summer of her daunting escape to West Germany in 1951 was the same summer I returned to Germany for the first time after my own exodus.

She came to America on a troop ship full of refugees in a cabin shared with five others. I came to America on a ship with 600 French refugee children in a cabin of only four, not six, but we too hit a nasty storm on the Atlantic and were sick, sick, sick in our cabin. And we both ended up in Washington with newspaper men as partners.

There is no doubt that the book resonated with me for deeply personal reasons, but for any reader “Goodbye Stalin” can stand on its own merits. It’s an exciting story told honestly, from the heart, with verve and enthusiasm for life. There is neither arrogance nor self-pity for the loss of the wealth, power, possessions and prestige that were her family inheritance. Her memoir is the tale of a plucky young girl growing up, interlaced with the account of some harrowing years and experiences. She deftly brings in the family history and background.

Mrs. Thomas died in October of 2007, just short of her 76th birthday. She leaves a fine legacy.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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