Arlene Lighthall: New ties to the Old Country, part 2


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. 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. To refresh your memory of Part 1 of this story about Arlene’s childhood pen pal, Manfred Surig, a German refugee, click on this WNLP link:

Twenty-five years had passed since my last contact with Manfred. I assumed he was dead, for he was tubercular. On a plane from Amsterdam to California, I was seated next to a German who spoke fine English. He boasted he used to be a detective and he, “Columbo,” would find the Sürig family when he returned home. Using my old address for the mother, he found her and her son. Soon I was writing letters again to Manfred and his mother and the detective.

Arlene Lighthall

Not only was my old pen pal alive, he had completed law school and was an official with the Deutsches Bundesbank, similar to our Federal Reserve. His widowed mother still lived in Bremen. Meanwhile I had finished graduate school, married, become a mother, and had a teaching career. His father’s old tissue-paper manuscript that arrived in La Porte in 1945 had turned yellow and brittle in a file drawer. My renewed contacts via “Columbo” encouraged me to start reading it.

Translating was not an easy task as I encountered German expressions for which no English equivalent existed. The detective invited me to visit him and his wife, at which time he could help me with difficulties. When I told Manfred and his mother that I would be in Germany, they also offered invitations.

The detective and I spent the major part of several days working on the book before he drove me to Bremen, where I stayed a few days with Mrs. Sürig. We immediately formed a warm relationship and enjoyed long conversations in English and German. She arranged for us to join in Berlin a German tour group to cross through the ‘wall” into East Berlin. What an experience to pass from freedom into a Communist area of being constantly watched by armed military! Afterwards a train took us well north of Hamburg to meet Manfred and his family, where we enjoyed several days before my return to the States.

A few years later one of Manfred’s sons and his friend visited us in California. Appropriately that son is now an immigration attorney and we email. Once my husband and I visited both Sürig families in Germany. The detective had a vacation in Del Mar.

I finally finished my rough translation of the amazing experiences of the Sürig family and was curious to learn about other displaced persons. Extensive research of the period over several years brought forth no similar story. Much had been written about Holocaust survivors, but nothing about innocent German citizens who lived through bombings and pillaging and raping, guilty only for living in the wrong place. These people did not support Hitler, nor were they associated with the military.

Mr. Sürig had been a bachelor professor most of his life and was elated to have married at advanced age one of his science students and to be a father. For years after Hitler was in power, he pondered emigrating, always concluding it too chancy with a baby and at his age. Their story had to be told, but it was not publishable in its present form, only 80 pages of “dry” exposition.

About then I took early retirement to travel with my retired husband. I exchanged my love of teaching for a new career of writing and publishing travel articles in major papers and magazines across the country, but always on my mind was the German manuscript.

Hopping around the world had to stop when my husband became ill.
Home a great deal as a caretaker, I continued collecting books about the end of the war in Europe. I reread my translation and decided to write the story from Mrs. Sürig’s point of view, sticking to the facts but incorporating additional authentic historical material and characters and dialogue. Manfred gave me complete rights to his father’s manuscript. I created biographies and domestics details. Twice I’d spent considerable time with Mrs. Sürig and felt I knew her rather well. Yet it took courage to assume her persona. After the book’s publication, I sent copies to Manfred and his sons and nervously waited. What nerve did this American woman have pretending to be his mother? And a German woman to boot? Manfred replied he loved it, saying it was like hearing his mother’s voice. What relief!

In 2013 as a widow I was thinking that though I had been through both divided and united Berlin a few times, I didn’t “know” the city. I would rent an apartment in Berlin for two weeks. When I asked Manfred and his wife, Gaby, if they could come down from Neumünster for a get-together, he responded, ”Oh, yes, we’ll be there and want to take you to Poland.”

One not acquainted with history might ask, “Why Poland?” The area which Manfred’s family had been forced to leave was no longer Silesia; the town was no longer Liegnitz. The country was no longer Germany or East Prussia. It was Poland. Manfred had not been back in sixty-eight years to see the home where he spent the first eight years of his life.

In January 1945, before the end of the war, leaders of the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia met in Yalta (Crimea). Among the business items was what was to happen to Poland after the war. An exiled Polish government in London opposed the Communist one set up by the Russians in “new” Poland. Complicating the issue were underlying agendas: (1) the need of Great Britain and the U.S. for Russian cooperation to end the war against Germany, and (2) the U.S. desire for Soviet aid in the war with Japan. Russia needed a Communistic Poland as a safety zone for future protection from Germany. The simple immediate solution was to give Russia part of eastern Poland and to give Poland part of eastern Germany.

Manfred, Gaby and I easily drove through a Berlin this time divided by no wall and united. Initially in former East Berlin we passed by miles of immense, high-storied concrete apartment buildings, hastily constructed to house hundreds of thousands of post-war refugees. They suddenly ended, and for miles forests of tall, slender trees surrounded us almost to our destination, the former Liegnitz. Manfred was eager to see what he could remember of his early life before the nightmare began and to show me the places about which I had written.

We bubbled with enthusiasm as we walked through his previous neighborhood. I must confess some of my descriptions were not the same as reality. He showed me the building where he had lived his first eight years. (I had put their apartment on the ground floor; it was on the second story). We walked to where his father had taught, to the farm where his dad had cared for the Russians’ horses, to where Manfred and a friend had played with a grenade, to a field where they slept the first night, and even to his grandparents’ farmhouse where the family had found shelter another night. There we chatted with the present Polish owners. What a fantastic experience!

Manfred is now retired and, like me in early retirement, is traveling and publishing travel articles in Germany. That frail little boy, half dead in 1945, grew up to over six feet. He used to sail annually with two friends in a small boat from northern Germany to Cuba. After taking time out for prostate cancer, he took up cycling. Just two months ago I received his travel article detailing a bike ride from Germany to the border of Croatia. Due to the COVID pandemic, he turned back at that point to avoid a 14-day mandatory quarantine.

This account brings an end to my La Porte memoirs. It seems only fitting that they started with ancestors coming to LaPorte from East Prussia and my concluding with my own journey back to their origin. Almost nothing is published about these innocent Germans who suffered brutalities from not only Russians, but also from their own fellow citizens. Because it is so important to me that this account and its happy ending be told, I had Amazon price the paperback and ebook (“Tomorrow, My Son”) as low as possible. I hope you may want to read more than just my La Porte memoirs.

P.S. My father never missed his galoshes.

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