War nightmare: No dreams of tomorrow
The small strand of miniature gold medals that Tania Willis recently donated to the Thomas Watson Museum and Research Library in Braintree may not be worth much as a military collectible. But to the 82-year-old Braintree resident, they are a tangible link to the nearly four years she spent as a forced laborer in Germany.
The medals belonged to a retired German colonel in whose home she spent much of the war as an unpaid, underfed teenage house servant.
‘‘I didn’t see milk for 3½ years,’’ Willis recalled.
She was born in Moldovia, which was then part of the Soviet Union. As a girl, she was taught that Joseph Stalin would always protect the Soviet people. But the German Army, which invaded the Soviet Union 66 years ago tomorrow, was able to capture a large portion of the nation’s western flank, including her hometown, in October 1941.
Willis, then just 16, was among the hundreds of thousands of men and women from Eastern Europe who were captured and forced to work in German homes and factories during the war. She spent her first two weeks working in a cannon factory before being herded into a freight car for transport into Germany.
Once in Germany, Willis was chosen to work in the house of Friedrick Tolpe, a retired World War I colonel, who lived in the small Bavarian town of Garmisch-Parken. She believes she was chosen by the colonel not because she was a skilled housekeeper, but because her age meant additional rations for the house.
Willis had few freedoms. She was forced to wear a letter on her clothes indicating her home country. She received no pay for her work and was rarely allowed to leave the house except to buy food or fetch a stein of beer for the colonel.
‘‘We couldn’t be on the streets after 8 p.m.,’’ Willis said. ‘‘Truant officers would come around and check.’’
The colonel’s wife, although in her 40s and much younger than her elderly husband, was jealous of the teenage girl and treated Willis poorly, often hitting her in the head and face.
She remembered being told by a Soviet friend that her ration card entitled her to one orange per week. The friend asked if she had been getting her oranges.
‘‘No,’’ she said, ‘‘but I did clean up an orange peel.’’
The worst time came when she found out she wasn’t going to be sent back home after three months, as the German soldiers originally told her, but that she was there for good.
Willis wept as she remembered the hopelessness she felt as a teenage servant, taken away from her family and unable to even check the newspapers for war updates.
‘‘I never had dreams like a young girl about what tomorrow would bring,’’ she said.
Her life changed abruptly early in 1945. The colonel and his wife turned her over to German security forces who put her in a slave labor camp. The change was actually welcome.
‘‘I had more freedoms there,’’ Willis said.
She was working in a converted opera house in Garmisch making gas masks when American forces captured the town in April.
With no word about her family back home, and fearful she would be treated as a criminal if she returned to Russia, Willis got a job as a waitress at a hotel called the Pension Astoria, serving American troops.
It was there that she met a military policeman from Brockton named Ronald Willis. She spoke little English, but he knew German. Although he teased her at first, they were married seven months later.
‘‘He was a nice man and he was crazy over me,’’ Willis said.
At the ceremony, Willis wore a wedding dress made by a local woman from parachute silk. Willis bartered for it with cigarettes.
Just 20 years old, Willis sailed to New York City on a boat filled with war brides. Her new mother-in-law met her at the dock with open arms.
Willis was a celebrity when she arrived in Brockton. As the city’s first foreign war bride she was the subject of newspaper articles, and received phone calls from other Russians living in the area welcoming her.
Willis said that while she half-expected the streets of America to be paved with gold, she was still overwhelmed by the more mundane, such as nylon stockings.
‘‘I was like a hick,’’ she said.
Her husband came home in 1946 and they were able to buy a small house in Brockton with the help of the GI Bill.
Later they moved to Holbrook and eventually, in 1959, to East Braintree and the Arborway Drive home where they raised their three children. Her husband died in 1988.
She has kept in touch over the years with a friend named Louise, a fellow house servant she met in Germany, who also married a GI and now lives in Indiana.
‘‘When I talk to her, we say everything that happened, happened for the best,’’ Willis said.
Rick Collins of The Patriot Ledger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .