Arlene Lighthall: New ties to the Old Country, Part I 

 

A photo of just a few of the millions of refugees forced to leave their homes in East Prussia after World War II. (infomigrants.net photo; click to enlarge)

WNLP editor’s note: Here’s another chapter from the memoirs of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall. Arlene, who now lives in Del Mar, Calif., grew up in La Porte. WNLP readers’ many responses to her memoirs have added more sweet stories of our hometown. Arlene graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities; she also studied in various European countries.

As I was starting La Porte High School in the fall of 1945, the Second World War had  just ended. When I began writing these memoirs, I intended to end them at that point. However, it seems only fitting that I include one more story that takes me back to the Old Country of my forefathers to complete the circle. 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

New and different roots sprouted in my freshman year and have been growing for 75 years. Muriel Russell, my Latin teacher at LPHS, told us of refugees in Germany who lacked clothing and requested we bring donations. Mom gathered my brother’s outgrown clothes, and Dad said he didn’t need two pairs of galoshes. Mrs. Russell suggested we tuck in our names and addresses; perhaps we would hear from  someone.  

A letter arrived, written in English, from a Mrs. Sürig in Bremen, Germany. She said her husband, age 60, was overjoyed with the galoshes because his large shoes were falling apart, a replacement impossible. The clothes fit their young son. Mom answered with another package, sending some of her own garments and so many more of my brother’s that I  expected to see him running naked. Dad was smaller than her husband.

Over time their boy, Manfred, and I became pen pals, as did the two mothers. That family in Germany probably came to know La Porte better than the town they left, Silesia, because every package and letter to them was packed with photos of La Porte. Mom sent pictures of public buildings and our house while I tried to find those that were connected with my activities like the church, a movie theater, Central Junior High School, LPHS, and downtown stores. When Mrs. Sürig had access to a sewing machine, Mom sent her yard goods and a picture of J.C. Penney, source of the fabrics. 

Before this time, in early 1945, every day for weeks thousands of East Prussian Germans who lived close to Russia and Poland had been passing through the Sürigs’ town to escape the approaching enemies. Reluctant to leave his home, Mr. Sürig felt they would be safe, being neither Party members nor Jews; they stayed. Not much later, Russian soldiers arrived and gave them 30 minutes to evacuate. 

Ironically, many La Porteans who had long lived in northern Indiana before my ancestors arrived in the 1850s also were forced from their homes to make space for immigrants. Before the town had even incorporated in 1835, the native inhabitants, Potawatomi Indians, had a deadline for getting out. A prominent statue at the La Porte courthouse shows one of those Indians breaking overhead a spear symbolizing acceptance of white settlers. Less generously, those settlers and the U.S. government forced the Indians out of the state and west of the Mississippi in the 1830s. Although the exodus was more peaceful, they had to abandon the land of their forefathers. 

Why have humans been so dedicated to lines on a map? Incited to the point of war, nations massacre each other over boundaries. Disputes over property lines have resulted even in neighbor killing neighbor. Was expelling Indians from their native territory that much different from what happened in Europe? 

In February 1945, before Germany surrendered and while they still could, the Russians shipped 165,000 Germans aged 17-50 to Russia for ten years of forced labor. Fortunately Mr. Sürig was too old and their little son, 8, was outside the age category. Indiana wanted free land for new settlers; Russia wanted free labor. 

The Sürigs were among the 12 to 14 million Germans expelled from their homes. The Russians, in their push to Berlin, had driven this family of three from their home in East Prussia. As my ancestors’ generations earlier had taken root in La Porte, so had theirs in Silesia. Silesia would become Poland. New boundary lines were drawn. 

As the war ended, complete chaos reigned. Two million Russians in the west didn’t want to be repatriated to Stalin’s Soviet Union; especially Cossacks and Ukranians would have to face the gulag, or firing squads. Russian soldiers traveled east to get home. Going in the opposite direction on the same roads were displaced Prussians. Czechs moved north first to Prussia and then west toward Berlin. German soldiers, like those from Russia, were also traveling eastward home to East Prussia and, to their dismay, found Poles occupying their houses. 

Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill were the architects of the new geography before the  war had ended. With a destination of La Porte, my German ancestors had voluntarily left Prussia 100 years earlier; now it was called Poland, and part of the eastern part of what was old Poland would be Russia. Should I say my ancestors came from Poland?  There was no Poland when they left.  

Thanks to the Big Three’s new geography, Poles learned of the proposed new national boundaries. They flocked at once from all directions into East Germany to claim for themselves homes and land and to send packing any middle-class and upper-class German residents who remained. In just June and July alone, Polish police expelled 700,000 to 800,000 across their new border. Survivors from camps had no place to go. In all, 14 million homeless people were on the move in Europe, and the Allies had to settle 28,000 people per day. 

In La Porte we didn’t know much about the experiences of our adopted family until, in gratitude, Prof. Sürig sent us a slim, tissue paper, carbon copy account of their exodus. We still didn’t know much because none of us on Niles Street could read German. His wife had told us of soldiers coming to their apartment to say they must vacate within 30 minutes. Pulling a small wagon with what they could hastily gather, they joined throngs on the roads.  

Having been raised in frugality, I didn’t want to waste the manuscript, so I studied German in college. The young son and I let our four-year correspondence dwindle away. He had been in tuberculosis sanatoria several times, probably as a result of his starvation on the arduous journey. Although his ancestors had settled in East Prussia and he grew up there, he now had no home, as if we had to leave La Porte where our forefathers settled. How could he understand why Poland wanted to be ethnically pure? What was that? What might I learn if I translated that manuscript?

(WNLP will post Part II of New Ties to the Old Country soon.)

One Response to “Arlene Lighthall: New ties to the Old Country, Part I ”

  1. Alice

    Jul 29. 2021

    I love how you relate what happened to the native Indians here to so many people in Germany. How sad that greed and power destroys innocent human beings. And that lesson is never learned because the story never has an ending.

    I love your writing and your stories. They should be compiled in a book and placed in the La Porte Library.

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