Trades Breslau for Bickleton
Klickitat County in south-central Washington. Ruralite Country is a collection of local features taken from our monthly Ruralite magazine.
Ruralite Country - October 1999
by Mike Federman
As the 20th century comes to a close, few can deny the most important event of the last hundred years was World War II.
Before the war, most countries were in an economic depression, bogged down in a 19th-century mind set. By war's end, the world had entered the modern age.
World War II touched everyone. It didn't matter which side you fought on. The war meant patriotism, hard work and sacrifice. Yet amid all the sadness and destruction, love conquered the hearts of two people caught up in the chaos.
As they relax in their Bickleton home, Keith and Vera Jensen look as though they are meant to be together. After 50 years of marriage, they are as comfortable with one another's company as the reclining easy chairs they're relaxing in.
They were married in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1949. It didn't matter that Vera was a German or that Keith was an American G.I. who fought against her country and helped end Adolf Hitler's reign of terror. For the Jensens, the politics of war were of little consequence.
When Keith came home to Bickleton with his new bride in 1950, the entire community welcomed Vera to her new home.
It was the first time she'd ever seen such an arid landscape. The vast rangeland and wheat fields of Klickitat County were a stark contrast to the lushly green, small farms of her native country.
When the war began in 1939, she was only 13. "When you're that young, it doesn't really make an impact on you," Vera says, still speaking with a soft accent after all these years.
Daily threats of Allied bombings and food-rationing took their toll on the physical and spiritual strength of the country.
"You really didn't have a choice," Vera says of the participation in the war effort expected of German civilians. "We thought we could conquer the world. For most people, life just went on as normal. You kept to yourself and you didn't want to confide in your neighbor." Fears of reprisals from the Nazi party kept many families from voicing their opposition to the war.
As a young girl, Vera was forced to join the Hitler Youth, a mandatory training program for German children past the age of 10. "You were automatically involved," she says "It was mostly meetings and intramural sports, but I knew some young men who were really gung-ho about it."
Vera's parents never got involved in politics. Her father owned a medical supply business and the family lived comfortably in Breslau, a city at the eastern-most part of Germany that is now part of Poland.
Breslau was a major industrial center and many of its factories were converted into war-supply production. Although there were a few bombing raids, Allied bombers didn't have the fuel capacity to make extensive sorties as far east as Breslau. "You were absolutely scared out of your wits at the thought of bombing raids," Vera says. "We were lucky that we weren't a target."
All that change, however, in January 1945. The Russian Army had routed the Germans all along the Eastern Front and were on the outskirts of Breslau. German propaganda described Russian soldiers as ruthless barbarians, making their presence all the more terrifying.
"We could hear the artillery in the distance." Vera says. "We were told we had 30 minutes to evacuate. We put two suit cases in a red wagon and left everything else behind. Everybody was leaving at the same time."
Vera's grandparents stayed behind, however, and her grandmother was killed by the Russians. The rest of her family followed other German refugees to the western part of the country, eventually settling in the region that became the American sector following the war.
Vera never returned to Breslau. "I have no desire to go back," she says. "Everything has changed."
Shortly before the fall of Breslau, Keith was drafted into the U.S. Army four days after graduating high school. Because he had played in the band, he was placed in the infantry bugle corp stationed at Camp Roberts, California, in 1943.
After marching with the drum and bugle corp in a San Francisco parade witnessed by President Franklin Roosevelt, Keith was shipped over seas and given a plastic bugle, which shattered shortly after his arrival. "We disembarked at Le Harve (France)," he says. "It was still burning when we landed."
The 75-year-old veteran fought with the 71st Infantry attached to the 9th Army and later part of General George Patton's 3rd Army. His outfit was used as relief troops at the Battle of the Bulge and traveled furthest east of any infantry unit in the war. They met the Russian Army on opposite banks of the Elbe River.
"The day the war was over I borrowed a C.O.'s jeep," Keith says, breaking into a grin. "Well, no one was using it. A nun told me the war was over and took me into a basement for a toast."
After the war, Keith became a military police master sergeant in the Army of Occupation. On an evening patrol he came across Vera, who was out wandering around past the 6 p.m. curfew. She had run a pitchfork through her thumb.
Vera, whose father had restarted his medical supply business out of the back of his red wagon, was living on her own in Meiningen doing a variety of jobs including working as a switchboard operator and pitching hay.
"I put her in the jeep and took her home," Keith says. "Then I had to go back and check up on her."
Smitten by the young frauline, Keith's courting period had officially begun. Keith and Vera attended dances together and even after he returned to the states, they communicated through letters.
In 1949, "I got to thinking about this little gal and how her thumb was doing," Keith says, noting that he got a special visa to get back into occupied Germany. "All the other G.I.s were wanting to go home, not go back."
He met up with Vera and they were married. They came to Klickitat County, raised nine children and eventually took over the family ranching operation in Bickleton.
Although the impact of World War II was far-reaching, for many people it has become little more than documentary fodder on the History Channel. For Keith and Vera, however, the war nurtured a bond they will honor the rest of their lives.