Life as a Teen during

World War II:

An Oral History of

Helga Christa Hover

 

Caroline Oh

March 18, 1999

At the outbreak of World War II, Christa lived in the heart of the German city Kassel. Though only a teenage girl at the time, the reality of consistent air raids, drilling and bombings demanded courage, maturity and independence of her. As a trained dancer and actress, she found escape in theatre and the arts, as both a worthy mental distraction and literal flight from danger. Her grandmother’s farmland home provided family members with a safe haven away from the urban bombing target areas. But in this isolated rural setting, Christa and her family were still fighting a war of survival. At the end of the War, she met an American officer to whom Christa is still married. Although opposing the wishes of her father, Christa immigrated to America in 1948. Christa now lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is a recognized asset to the community.

 

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How did you first become aware that war was going to begin?

My father predicted it more or less in 1939. My parents and I were on a vacation trip to Austria and southern Germany. We visited nice vacation spots in the Alps. There were rumors among adults that understood. I was only twelve, so I wasn’t that interested in listening to something like that.

What was the first sign to you that the War had already begun?

In 1939, we already had black-out drills and what they call air raid drills for families. I lived in the city where you had an apartment right downtown in the center of the city. Germany is very inhabited in the center of its towns, its not just shops. I lived on a big square where the big State Theater which is a government supported art theater, opera house, dance theater and place with everything drama. And we lived on a big square right next to this theater. We had air raids where we had to darken all our windows. You could light a match on the street at night, and they would have all the street lights off just to see what it feels like. All store windows were dark. We lived in a five-story building and you couldn’t see a crack of light anywhere. Very discipline. They would do this at least once a month on a regular basis. So we knew there was something going on.

What city did you live in in Germany?

My hometown was Kassel. It used to be the capital of Hessin. It was not the capital anymore after the war because it was so bombed. They moved it to Respin which is also very famous because of the hospitals that the Americans used there to help debrief hostages and all kind of people that were in trouble. Anyway it’s a big city - I mean, not that big but 250, 000 definitely.

When you think of the war, what is the first image that comes to mind?

Well, living here [U.S.] for so long, the first thing I think is that it never happened. And then again, since I was twelve when it started and all my teenage years come to mind - thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and so on. The first year or so was almost a bit adventurous. My sister and I couldn’t believe that we had to do these air drills. But then Hitler marched into Poland, of course, and later on Czechoslovakia and Austria were already annexed in 1938. It became more and more serious. Especially when the first bombs were flying.

My hometown was bombed the first time in 1942. And the apartments that we lived in were damaged. Damaged to the extent that we could use three or four rooms off the apartment and then there was this big gap that was sort of shielded up with canvas and boards and stuff and we stayed living there. But we took all our valuable belongings with us to my grandma’s farm - who lived about thirty miles away, forty miles away - to keep it safe on the farm. Like paintings and silver and crystal and books and things we wanted to save. Then we lived practically out of suitcases.

But that was in 1942, we’re still back at 1939. We had air raids and warnings with sirens that go up and down for warning and even tone when the warning was over. But there were mostly planes flying over or being somewhere else. They were on their way; we never actually knew where they stopped to bomb. Life was very. . . oh, then we had ration cards of course and they got more and more restrictive because we got less and less per month. Each person got a ration card with coupons for butter or for sugar or whatever food - staple goods mostly. And so much meat, and so much cheese, and every month eventually these portions that you got each month with these coupons were smaller and smaller. And also for clothing and goods and textiles. When people lost their homes later on from bombing they would get replacement furniture, but it was all very low quality stuff that was slapped together fast.

How did your parents talk to you about the war? What did they tell you about it?

(Big sigh) My dad was actually drafted. He was a soldier also in WWI. Then he was what you call a Warren Officer; he was in charge of supplies and eventually he was sort of in charge of the kitchen. He was always around the food. (laughter)

 

Everybody wasn’t really talking about it. It was just what we had to do in order to either live through it or survive it or keep your spirits up. Because in the beginning of the first two years it wasn’t quite as hectic as it became later on - for six years total. That’s a long time to have a war - especially in your own country. We also had teachers talk about it. And we had air raid drills in schools, certain bunkers in basements.

Our basements at that time in Germany at that time, especially where we lived, were built in the eighteenth century by the Huguenots and even earlier than that they escaped from France. And all the structures had enormous deep basements with very arched ceilings - almost like the beer cellars here. They had very very thick walls - at least a yard thick - the arched ceilings. And the basements windows were way up so that they had shafts going down to the level of where your basement is. They were very safe. They had hydraulic doors, so they would be airtight. We were supplied with beds, bunk beds, wool blankets, sand, shovels, pick ax, all kinds of - I mean, it was really prepared, even at the end of 1939. And when the air raids went on and the sirens would go, we would always have to go to the basement of your own where ever you were. If people didn’t have very safe basements, then they had bunkers where they were sent to in certain areas - each district had its own area to go to.

What’s the question again? Oh my parents. . . They really didn’t prepare us because we were all aware of what was going on. The only thing we weren’t allowed to do and my father always tried to not abide by was listening to foreign radio stations. And eventually they were all jammed. You’d have short wave radio to listen to - France or English. Propaganda on both sides. Americans were not even thought of as being in the war. So it was a kind of danger. My mother was always worried about it and said, "Don’t do that!"

Anyhow, from then on in 1939 when the war actually started and Hitler marched into Poland we always had to have our blankets over the window. And you would get fined if anybody - they had patrols going checking for light cracks and stuff like that. So it had to be really pitch dark so you never saw anything from the outside. And there’s no preparation really because I was smart enough to know what was going on then.

Would you say that when you were describing all the air raids and darkness, that would describe an average day during the war?

No. Not at the beginning. It wasn’t going on everyday in our area. Some of them would be diverted to Northern Germany, Western Germany, Eastern Germany, Southern Germany. It got more and more intense as the war went on. We also heard a lot of news that was victorious of course in those early years - how we won a lot of battles and there were a lot of flight aces who got honors and we had news reels just like here. When we’d go to the movies, preceding every movie was the news reels about the Front - the fighting Front and the victorious things we had. And it was always accompanied by Franz Liszt - the Prelude by Franz Liszt’s music. (laughter) In fact we use it in this country too. It’s a very bombastic type of music. Every time a canon would go off it would coincide with the "ba" of Franz Liszt’s Prelude. Wonderful music. (laughter)

You had mentioned watching films. What kinds of films do you remember during wartime?

I can’t remember any real propaganda films. It was earlier when the Nazis came to power. They were all entertaining films. Morale films just to keep morale up - just like they had here. I was always watching the ones with a lot of dancing and famous movie stars that I knew from Germany. I don’t know if any of them still exist; some of them are still around. I enjoyed them, but they also had a lot of restrictions that certain movies were not allowed to be seen by teenagers under seventeen or fifteen. They were enforcing that very strictly - much more than here. Here, you know, you can sneak a kid in or they have to have a parent with them. This was even with parents you could not.

Would you say the films you saw focused your thoughts away from the war or they addressed the war?

They never addressed the war. No, never. They were all entertaining movies. We got a lot of movies from Austria because Austria had a lot of good actors and comedians and they showed a lot of operetta films with the music of Johann Strauss, Father Johann Strauss, Joseph Strauss, Edward Strauss. In fact the movie The Third Man with Orson Welles had three or four of those German actors from Vienna and from Austria in that film which I knew when I was younger, when I was a kid. And it really thrilled me every time I saw The Third Man (laughter). Of course, I was already in theater. That made a lot of difference because. . .

What did you do?

I was dancing ever since I was eight years old. And I was a ballet trained dancer and tap dancer. Then when I was fifteen I took acting classes already. So, my whole attitude was with the arts, directed toward that, and it occupied my mind. It was very important to go to classes. I had an entrance exam to go to the conservatory eventually for drama school. It was connected to the famous theater I told you about [the State Theater]. And it was, as I look back, when I was fifteen or sixteen that was one of the best years of my life because I was so theatre-struck. And since we lived so close to the theater I knew a lot of the actors that were hired. The system is really different; it’s all regional theatre where actors get hired by type and not by a particular role. They have a complete repertoire theater like Stratford where you’re there for several seasons. You get a contract for two years, three years and play types. I was in the ballet because I wanted to keep my dancing up and in the drama school. So it was all connected to this theater, and I just lived a block away in the same square. And it’s where I spent two-thirds of my life when I was in high school, or when I was in middle school and high school.

So, you continued to do all your acting and dancing during World War II?

Yes. I finally made my exam when I was eighteen, in 1944, there was a complete bombing of all the quarters where we lived in the meantime in 1943. We lost everything that we had. But I was already touring with the theatre company. And we were out of town. My dad was in France somewhere. First, with the occupation troops in France and Berating; that was 1941, 1942. Then he was sent back to Germany. Then he was back as a prison leader - we didn’t know where he was. He ended up in France, but that was just before the war ended.

What was the question? Oh, about the films. As I said, we weren’t allowed to see all the films, and I can’t really remember any of the Nazi propaganda films except for the newsreels. It was the only propaganda they would show to the public. Most of them were entertaining films. I also went with my Dad to a lot of opera. When I was ten I saw Butterfly the first time, I heard Stubbiest "Unfinished" and I would go on Sunday mornings to hear chamber music where some of the actors who were our couches would read some poetry. It was very cultured. They would try to keep everything the way it was if peacetime was on in the first few years when it was possible.

Except the bombing got worse and worse in 1943 and 1944, and then of course in 1945 when the Americans entered the war they would bomb during the day, strategic places. They missed half the time (laughter) by bombing the civilian houses of course. And the British would have fire-bombing going on during the nights. And that’s when we had these terrible burning cities and firestorms where bundles of fire-bombs were bundles together and burned everything to cinders. And it was terrible heat. That’s the one I missed when I was traveling with the theater troupe. And I saw, we were traveling by train - I saw the first city north of my hometown, called Hanover. It was totally bombed out and burned out like the center of the city was just gone - just a rubble piling, burning and smelling. And we escaped it.

Then I came home and my hometown was the same way because we were gone for almost a week. And it was bombed in that time when I was away from home. I didn’t live through this particular firestorm because I probably maybe wouldn’t have survived because I lived in the center of town and people did die from just being in the basement from lack of oxygen. I lost a lot of friends and some relatives. But most of my relatives were actually living somewhere else on a farm, for instance, on my dad’s side. My mom’s family was in such places as Southern Germany and Berlin. So we all lost some more distant friends and cousins. That was in 1943.

Although you were pretty young, did you get involved in the war in any way?

No. We were supposed to go to what they called a BDM which was for German girls and you know there was the Hitler Youth; I had a hassle with that too because it was always interfering with my theatre training (laughter). I sometimes got deferred and also left - which was a plus actually - every German boy or girl was supposed to spend some time on the farm and help farmers. And I was allowed to help my grandma’s farm. I lived there a lot during school vacations which we had around Easter and Christmas and summer vacations as well. I spent a lot of time on the farm, and I loved it because I love animals. I dealt with horses and cows. I had a tremendous variety of things going on in my youth. I never had a real big, large gang of friends or anything. I was mostly with adults or I was working in the theater or I was on the farm. And it kept me really healthy, really focused.

What was your principal source of information about the war during the war?

Since the radio was jammed, we would only hear what was out on German radio. Most of it was obviously very positive, and sometimes I don’t know if by word of mouth you heard something that wasn’t so good. Of course when they tried to assassinate Hitler - you know they had this pact going - we heard it only from the side that they caught whoever was trying to kill Hitler with the briefcase in his barracks. I’ve forgotten where this exact place was because it was always very secret where his headquarters were at any given time. We would only hear battles that Germany won - nothing real negative.

Oh, it was earlier that Hitler had a big speech or big address all the schools would gather in an auditorium and listen to it. Here, you know when Clinton speaks some stations pick it up. It was always an event when Hitler gave a big speech. And also obviously sometimes his propaganda minister, Grilles. They all had a bad side and a good side, obviously. Just like everyone else. But it turned out to be worse and worse later on.

Do you remember any slogans from the time?

No. Just "Zeik heil" (spelling?) and some of the marching songs. Germany had some tremendous military bands. There was always some animosity between party people from the Nazis - my dad was never one of them - and the military. The military was from the old Prussian and aristocratic generation from the nineteenth century; it derived from that. And military and especially Prussian officer tradition was very ethical in a sense. It had all kinds of rules and regulations of behavior, and gentleman like behavior. They always were at odds with Nazi phonetics and Nazi party people. You had to be extremely careful not to overstep their military bounds of being strategists, war/battle strategists. One example of this is in the film I think is called Desert Fox.

 

I just want to tell you in 1943 when we were totally bombed the theater got damaged to the extent that it could not be rebuilt. At least they did not investigate it enough to rebuild; they could not used it anymore at the time unless it was repaired. And there was no way anything was repaired during the war of substance. So, they split the drama department and sent it to a small town that was not bombed and probably never would be bombed because there was nothing special there to bomb, except people living there in a spa town, bath town. The opera department was sent to a different concert hall in my hometown that was not destroyed.

So I was shipped with the drama school. I had stopped going to high school, I just went to the conservatory school. We all got shipped to this town and that’s where I lived. My father was in France and my mom was living in my hometown. And after we were bombed out, everyone that was bombed out was assigned a different place of people that had left or fled the town just to be safe somewhere else and didn’t want to stay. Now you were assigned somebody else’s apartment that has left town or we had to share rooms and stuff like that. But anyway I wasn’t living there from October 1943 on until I graduated from the drama school.

And it was in August of 1944. I had to go to Berlin and make an exam we have because we have an arts position in the government. It’s sort of like a cabinet post - a cultural cabinet post. And we had to make an exam in order to qualify yourself as a full-fledged actor or actress - which I did in 1944. And then I was sent to entertain German Troupes counterpart of USO entertaining American troupes. I was supposed to go to Greece, and I got as far as Czechoslovakia playing a small theater piece. It was a little comedy or something for American occupation, for German occupation of Czechoslovakia and also in Greece. But we never made it there because the bombing got so bad and also the end of the war was sort of eminent. Hitler called everyone back that was on tour somewhere. They closed all the theaters and all the actors that could fight and were healthy enough were drafted into the army. And all the women had the work in factories to replace the population. And that was August, September, October of 1944. So, I was called back to Kassel. That winter I spent with some of my fellow dancers and girlfriends in some stupid factory making measuring instruments for submarines or something like that. I can’t even remember what they were.

How old were you at the time?

I was eighteen. And my mom had already moved to the country, at least on weekends. We had a lot of bombing going on from the Americans during the day and from the British at night. We couldn’t get any sleep. Around Christmas time of 1944 to 1945, we said we’re not going to be back to the factory, just disappear. We went to my grandma’s farm because we couldn’t get anymore sleep. I mean everything was going kind of chaotic by 1944. And we took whatever we had left of our belongings to my grandmother’s farm and stayed there. She always loved us very much. She wanted us to be safe obviously. So, that’s what we did until the end of the war - loved on my grandma’s farm. She had an extra bedroom and I doubled up with my grandma. We waited for the end of the war. But no one knew exactly when it was going to come. No one did. But it was during the winter.

It seems from what you said that you were only able to hear about Germany’s place in the war. What did you make of the US or the Japanese? Were you aware of any of that?

Well, it was reluctantly reported that the Americans landed in Normandy. We never heard the real bad news about the D-day type thing. Like in the movie Saving Private Ryan - no particular details. Then of course there was the Russian war - that was the bad part - where Hitler attacked Russia in the middle of it even though he had a pact that they wouldn’t fight each other. But each suspected the other that they weren’t keeping it. And he was trying to get ahead of it. The Russian War was actually the straw that broke the camels back because of the Russian winter. We had to give up all our skis and winter equipment to supply the German soldiers with skis and warm clothes. Everybody was chipping in; we were always trying to pull together obviously.

It’s like a death-fight in the end. And we didn’t hear much radio. Sometimes the radios were broken or confiscated. We just worried about survival; we didn’t care about much else. And being on the farm, we didn’t’ have to worry about the ration cards too much. Even though that was restricted too. But obviously my grandma had chickens to slaughter, rabbits, and pigs now and then. There was a lot of black market going on. It was bad for a lot of people, but the farm connection helped us out a lot. We had something to trade with. Money was useless. You have to have something to trade - like material, any sort of dry goods for food, vice-versa. Whatever you had to barter with was the only way to trade or survive. You don’t need money.

Do you remember when the atom bombs dropped?

Well, the war in Europe had already ceased. We had fled to the woods for a few days. Because we could hear the artillery from the Americans moving into Germany. We didn’t want to be bombed in the house in the village. So my uncle packed a big horse wagon, like a farm wagon, full of food and bedding and straw and hay for the horses and took a cow with us in the woods. It was the first camping experience of my life (laughter). We could hear the artillery going over us, whistling, when they were trying to shoot. We were kind of worried. That’s why we left the village itself. Not to get artillery on our heads.

And then we had a radio with us that had short wave radio that said the war was over. That’s when we went back, and of course there were the Americans. The first thing I saw was tanks. And guys running around with huge spools of wire tying to have all this connection going on. They had walky-talkies. We were scared to death. And they went away to my grandma’s house - she had a nice big house. And they used all the bedrooms. And my mom and I jumped into the barn and wanted to be safe. (laughter) Because there were all these rumors about girls being raped, and it happened. But we were not touched. They couldn’t find us. When I think back now, I was just ridiculous. It wasn’t that we were always constantly scared. We just did what we had to do. As a matter of fact, my uncle was very level-headed.

How did you and your family react when you heard the war was over?

Oh, well we were glad because we didn’t have to fear bombs anymore. That was on big big relief. But we had tremendous curfew restrictions. The farmers weren’t allowed to go in the fields or anywhere out of the house after 6 PM. It was just for security from sabotage or theft. They didn’t know how the Germans would react. But they were so glad the war was over and they wanted to be occupied by the Americans rather than the Russians. That was the biggest fear - when they drew the line there. My dad was in France at some prison camp; he didn’t know. And we weren’t allowed to travel because there’s actually a terrific train connection between the village and my hometown. And it took them another month or two before they allowed us to travel by train anywhere. Then we went back to our hometown by, I would say, June.

How long had it been since you’d been there?

Since October 1944 - when Hitler closed the theater and we had to work in factories. And then, Americans recreated some of the best hotels and places in spa towns and made headquarters for the free division near my hometown. And the fraternization or the communication between the Germans and Americans was always reasonably smooth. I can’t understand why it happened so fast because a couple of months later in June of 1945 I already worked for American Special Service. It wasn’t really a special service but this was a special service that the third division had in the spa town that they recreated where I could be in skits and be occupied as a dancer because the German theaters were still closed and didn’t open for a long time. Obviously German organizational things to run a theater wasn’t really allowed and wasn’t even possible. People were still in the army somewhere. Everything was still loose - there was no connection between anything. And the third division was a special division because they were very victorious in Italy, so they were allowed to have their own entertainment troupes.

They were trying to hire German dancers for their shows and also some German actors. That’s what I applied for with some of my friends who I was always together with in the same dance group. We had regular training - ballet classes in the morning and shows in the afternoon. We would also go to officers clubs and soldiers clubs for entertainment floor shows. We were allowed to eat in American mess halls. We got paid in what you call Allied money which was different from the German money. The only impression I had of the American army at this time was that all the GI’s especially were glad to get away from home and they drank a lot. All that was on their minds was booze and girls constantly. That’s the reputation they had. (laughter) And that’s where I eventually met my husband.

So, anyway the war for me was bad for six years, but better than for most Germans because of my connection with theatre, my interest in theatre and the arts, and having my grandmother’s farm.

How have your feelings about the was changed since you’ve moved to America?

It’s like a fairy tale to me now. Or like a past movie. But I was more mature than most kids. Different - I was always quite independent and level-headed. During that time, we just grew up much faster.

When you lived in Germany, your father was a German soldier and the US was the enemy. But now you’re in America where Germany is recognized as a primary enemy in WWII. How do you feel about the war now?

It’s all mixed together. My dad was never vindictive like that because he hated the whole damn war. He was too intelligent to not see through Hitler in a way, but he didn’t know what was going on. There was such a strict silence; you couldn’t talk about it. If you suspected anything you’d just keep your mouth shut because you never knew who was watching you. Or who was snitching on you. Or who was doing anything. It was sort of a hushed fear all the time in the Nazi regime. Since my mother came from an aristocratic family with Prussian officers. Actually her mother was a baroness. And my father came from a city of very pleasant, friendly people - naïve sometimes. It was this mixture that you just lived your life as good as you can and don’t mix in anything. You had to be very careful.