Life wasn’t easy for Manfred Just, a German prisoner of war in the early 1940s who spent time at the Denison POW camp before returning to his home in East Germany, even after being set free and returning to home.
His family was from Sileia and his parents, grandmother and aunts were removed in 1946 like all Silesians and were only allowed to take basic necessities. Most of these were stolen on their way to Saxony. When Manfred returned, his parents had only two rooms and a small kitchen. Clothing and furniture were donated through the mayor and things were pretty tight.
Manfred began filling papers to go to the university as soon as he could, but it took two to three years of restoration work, first removing rubble and debris from the town. After a five year degree in chemistry or pharmacy, he would be 30 before he could begin earning his own money and he didn’t want to do that to his parents.
So, he had to report to the mayor who criticized his looks. To mark prisoners, they cut out a patch on the back of his English coat the size of a hand and replaced it with a patch of a different color. Manfred said he definitely stood out when he wore it, but fabric was only available with ration coupons.
“We found a way!,” he said, by making moonshine out of turnips and trading it with the Russians for old horse blankets. He took the blankets to the old clothing collection and received a receipt for ration coupons for suit material. He found a store that had the right fabric and two weeks later, he had what he called a nice suit.
At that, the mayor placed him as a teacher for the village school’s fourth grade. Through that work, he received food ration cards for workers. All food was rationed until 1958. When he began teaching, the newbie got the worst class — fifth and sixth grade with 42 students, a rough start with a monthly salary of 211 Marks. I’m not sure how many dollars that would be. By 1951, he had passed his second teacher’s exam and now was teaching students in grades one to eight.
Wages were not generous and food rations were limited, so in a 19-liter bottle, he always had some moonshine going. He also repaired radios, mostly for food. On Sundays, he went to the district city to a radio store to help with repairs and was allowed to use machine tools. This way he built a tape recorder that may have been the first one in the Soviet occupation zone. There were plenty of photo chemicals around so he also developed film for food to support his parents.
In 1950, elementary schools split the subject Nature Studies into chemistry, physics and biology and specialist teachers were being sought. He applied and was assigned to an eighth grade school for chemistry, physics and math and took over the continuing education for chemistry teachers in his district. In 1952, he was awarded a diploma as a specialist subject teacher for chemistry.
This system worked out so successfully, it was expanded to have graduated specialist subject teachers at ever school and he was one of three teachers from his continuing education program selected as a teaching assistant for chemistry.
In 1954, he married “a smart and pretty teacher.” They were now university assistants, but had no degrees so he and his new wife decided they would get their chemistry degrees through “distance learning,” aware it would be a hard time. They persevered and had their regular work during the week and on weekends and during school breaks they attended seminars and practicums to pass exams every six months at the University of Potsdam. Both graduated in 1959 and received offers to do their doctorates. In the meantime, they had two sons who complicated things a lot. His wife told Manfred, “you’ll go to Potsdam, get your PhD and I’ll stay at out local college.” That was the beginning of five more stressful years for the family.
In 1946. Manfred had become a doctor and wanted to go into industry research for his earnings to double. He was ordered to the ministry and appointed instructor for physical chemistry and math for chemists at the University of Erfurt, so back he went. In 1970, he helped design a new chemistry building that he said was a beautiful place for research and teaching. He received the chair position for organic chemistry that he described as a “highlight.”
Until 1990, they graduated up to 150 students annually with five year chemistry degrees. In 1983, Manfred became professor of organic chemistry.
Because he did not join the Socialist Workers Party, he had some trouble, especially when he was not allowed to travel to capitalist countries. His mother managed to escape just before the wall was built to take care of Manfred’s grandmother. Unfortunately, he could not travel to see her or even to attend her funeral.
It was hard to access literature and documents from capitalist countries, but every year he had to complete contact declarations and report on any contact he had made with people in capitalist countries, even letters to his mother.
Meanwhile his sons grew up and became fathers to two kids each. The family then grew by four great-grandchildren. When he and his wife retired, they built a house in the middle of Germany. The collapse of German Democratic Republic and their retirement came together so there were no problems there.
As a side note, Manfred said if you wanted to buy a car in East Germany, you had to apply. From there it could take up to 14 years to be assigned one. In 1964, it was his family’s turn and then they went on vacation every year, including to the U.S.
Last week I received an email from Manfred’s granddaughter, Sabine, who lives in Vancouver. She had been keeping up with my columns on Facebook and wrote to thank me for writing about her grandfather. She said the columns had turned into a great family project and bonding experience for Manfred and her living so far from each other. She was happy to learn about his experiences and her family’s life and now they can talk more often. She said it also explains their love for America as Manfred tells them so fondly about his time in Texas. She grew up in East Germany and never even dared to dream to one day see this country.
When the wall came down, Manfred’s youngest son (Sabine’s father) relocated his family to Stuttgart because he found work there. Sabine graduated high school and moved to New York to work as an au pair. She said her grandfather’s love for America was contagious and she loved it so much that she returned as an intern during her university years and worked for the German American Chamber of Commerce in Seattle.
She travels to the U.S. frequently and recently was in Dallas where her grandfather got his U.S. Army Projection Operator’s License. She said when he was a young man he probably never thought of having a grandkid that 70 years later would be in the same city in America. She has plans to make it to Denison one day and take pictures for him.
You never know what a few words will do for a young foreign soldier to revive memories of a stay as a prisoner of war taken to a foreign country. Life was not easy for him after Manfred returned home. But he has built a life for himself and his family and at age 94, I’m happy he gave me some memories of his time here too.
I have heard from many people in this area who have asked for more on the German POW. I hope those who have been keeping up with my columns have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. It has been an interesting experience.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her column. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.