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Born and raised in Batesville, Cecelia Wilson graduated from Batesville High School and earned a Bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Cecelia lives in central Arkansas with her husband, Dennis, and has two children, a grown son and daughter, Cody and Cheyenne.
For more than a decade, Cecelia has been the Feature Writer for Searcy Living magazine. Over the years, she has penned articles introducing readers to governors, senators, Grammy Award-winning musicians, and individuals from all walks of life. In addition to writing articles, books, and youth plays, Cecelia is a singer, pastor's wife, play director, and acts in community theaters, commercials, film, and television.
Recently Cecelia was able to- in Edith's words- twist Edith's arm so she could write Edith Röpke Harris' amazing story. This harrowing tale ended up being a non-fiction book titled Back to Bremen which chronicles a mother and eight children navigating a back woods journey though Nazi Germany during WWII told from 5 year-old Edith's perspective.
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[00:00:00] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. This weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider's view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk taking. And now it's time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:17] KM: Today we have the pleasure of speaking with a German-born woman, who, as a young girl, lived in war-torn Germany and survived the harrowing experience of World War II, Miss Edith Röpke. Did I say that right? Röpke?
[00:00:33] KB: Yes, Edith Röpke.
[00:00:35] KM: Röpke.
[00:00:34] CW: Röpke.
[00:00:36] KM: If you say it in German, it's Röpke.
[00:00:38] CW: Röpke.
[00:00:39] KM: I'll try to remember that. She has a lovely German. Röpke. With her is a longtime friend, Miss Cecilia Wilson, an author with an insatiable appetite for the stories of World War II and who has written the book Back to Bremen, about its childhood. And what a childhood it was. Through the eyes of a child, Edith tells her story of nightly raids, bomb shelters, sleeping in her clothes, shoes ready, sleeping outside and walking hungry with her seven siblings across Germany, also about the silence that had to be kept about the children and families that disappeared. About her father who, for lack of a better word, was abducted one night at dinner to serve in the Nazi army and how, not long after, her eldest brother, Gunter, was taken and recruited as a Nazi youth.
Today we will speak with Miss Cecilia Wilson about writing the book Back to Bremen about her life as a preacher's wife, and contributing reporter to Arkansas’ Searcy Living magazine. And with frau Edith Röpke, about her German family's journey, and her mother's courage and self-determination that kept her eight children safe, fed, and together as they walked, rode and scurried across bombed-out Germany. It is my pleasure to welcome to the table author, Miss. Cecilia Wilson, and her protagonist, Mrs. Edith Röpke of the Back to Bremen. Welcome, ladies.
[00:02:10] CW: Thank you. It's nice to be here, Kerry. Thank you so much for having us both.
[00:02:15] KM: Oh, you're so welcome. Thank you.
[00:02:15] ER: Thank you.
[00:02:16] KM: Tell our listeners that we had to wait till Edith got both of her shots, COVID shots before we got together.
[00:02:21] ER: I know.
[00:02:22] KM: So, Edith, you have a lovely German accent. It's wonderful.
[00:02:26] ER: Thank you.
[00:02:27] KM: I could not put this book down. And I want to tell our listeners, it's Back to Bremen, by Cecilia Wilson. It is so good. I highly recommend reading it as a mother. I felt your mother. I felt like I was walking in her shoes. And as having once been a five year old girl and knowing how – I don't know. When I was a five year old girl I felt always a little bit scared something would happen to my parents. And I cannot imagine being a five year old girl doing all that also. So I walked in both of those characters’ shoes. So, Celia, this book is written from the point of view of this five year old girl. Did you find it hard to write? Is that called first-person?
[00:03:10] CW: It was interesting, interesting that you would ask that, because I started this book two or three different ways. And then I would just think, “I've got to start over again. This is not the voice I want to tell it in.” And finally it dawned on me that I needed to write it in Edith’s voice as this child. Because then, as you said, you as a reader could really understand the fear that she was going through. She could talk about that. So when I finally decided that's the voice that I need to write it in, it really came so easy after that. But I think it's probably like anything. You have to experiment a little bit. I started one direction and then, “Well, that's not going to work as well.” When I finally realized Edith was the voice that I wanted to use, then it was simple after that.
[00:04:00] KM: How long did it take you to write it?
[00:04:02] CW: Months. Absolutely months. I would go to Edith’s house. We're very good friends, and we live close beside one another in Cabot. I would go to her house and interview her. And then I would ride a little at a time. She would help me edit it and make sure that I was kind of on track with –
[00:04:21] KM: Accurate. Yes.
[00:04:22] CW: With accuracy. Absolutely. So it was months and months in writing it. And then as I –And I speak to a lot of different school groups, and I'm always reminded by the teachers to remind the kids that this is an ongoing process. You don't write it, it's done. And that's it. You can put it to bed. Editing is constant. I mean, she was my first editor. I let my daughter be my second, because it's got to be pretty nice and clean before you get it to a prospective publisher. Obviously, if you don't have a good product before you put it in front of them, they're not even going to give you the time of day. So I knew it needed to be pretty clean by the time I got it to prospective publishers as I was doing submissions.
And then what's funny is, is once I finally found a publisher, one of the first things they did was assign another editor. So we go through the whole process again. But even though that's a lot of work, I can absolutely tell you this was a labor of love. I loved every bit of it. Matter of fact, my publisher, assigned an editor to me from Missouri State University. And he laughed at me and he said, “What is wrong with you? I have never seen an editor who loved –” I mean, an author, “Who loves the editing process.” And I said, “Well, to me, that's just part of making this whole read better for the reader. So it's part of the fun. Even though it's work, it's part of the fun.”
[00:05:52] KM: Is this your first book?
[00:05:53] CW: It's not my first book to have written. It is my first book to have been published. And then I'm a feature writer for Searcy Living, which I've been doing for, I don't know, 20 years or so. So I've had plenty of practice writing, but writing a book is certainly, and particularly one about a true story, it's a process. Definitely, it is a process.
[00:06:17] KM: Yeah, it's a long – Writing a short story or for a magazine, you start it, you finish it. I'm not sure how you ever put all those pieces of paper together to do it. Did you use Scrivener or some piece of software?
[00:06:31] CW: No, actually. Good old Word. That's all I did. And to get my notes, I just made notes. I taped a lot with Edith. I knew Edith’s story in particular very well, because I've known Edith for 20 years. So I've written about her story. I loved it. And have written it in article format for magazines several times over the years. But as you said, an article is a shortened version of a story. You can hit the highlights. And that's about it. So I thought I knew the story.
But when we got down to writing this book, I realized there was a lot of detail that certainly was missing in an article. And what was so much fun about doing a more in-depth interview with Edith for the book was I realized just how much more rich this story was. I say this all the time. This is a story about Edith’s childhood, certainly. But what I realized when I interviewed her for the book, was this is actually a story about her mother.
[00:07:44] KM: It is. It absolutely is.
[00:07:45] CW: It is. She is the heroine of the story. And what I love about her being the heroine of the story is the fact that she's not some popular celebrity. She's not anything extraordinary other than a mother.
[00:08:06] KM: She's extraordinary.
[00:08:08] CW: Well, she is. She is.
[00:08:08] GM: Oh, yeah. Come to find out. Yeah.
[00:08:10] CW: Absolutely. But the point is, is that –
[00:08:13] KM: We all are.
[00:08:14] CW: Yes. And what I like about that is – And again, when I'm speaking to groups, particularly to young people, I like to tell them, “Hey, personally, I could never aspire to be Beyonce, or Tom Brady. But now I've got someone that I can point to you in Marta Röpke.” I can aspire to be a great mother. I can aspire to do the things that she did that were in my mind so heroic. And she wasn't necessarily hero to anyone but her family. But, man, at the end of the day, if you can say that, what a successful life you've had.
[00:08:53] KM: That's right. Before we get into Edith’s life story, tell me how the two of y'all met.
[00:08:58] CW: Well –
[00:09:00] ER: That's a long story.
[00:09:02] CW: Well, I'll shorten it. How about that? My husband is a Baptist minister, as well as being an estate planning attorney, but he's a Baptist minister.
[00:09:11] KM: Those don’t go together. Do they? Oh, no, they go together perfectly. You got to plan it all for when you're gone. Oh, it’s perfect.
[00:09:16] GM: And then you’re still around.
[00:09:18] CW: There you go.
[00:09:19] ER: [inaudible 00:09:19].
[00:09:23] KM: That is right. You're preparing for the afterlife while you're here. That's perfect. Financially and spiritually.
[00:09:28] CW: It has a lot of similarities.
[00:09:30] KM: Financially and spiritually.
[00:09:31] CW: It really does. You’re feeding the soul in different ways. You really are. And we met. He accepted this church near Cabot. And Harris's, Edith married name is Harris. She and her husband, Hank, were members of our church. And so we've known each other for 20, 25 years, something like that. So I've known her story that long, and loved it ever since.
[00:09:58] KM: What piqued your interest about it? How did you first get your interest piqued?
[00:10:02] CW: Well, I'm a history buff. And again, I've always loved to write. And mainly what I do is Searcy Living, for instance, is interviewed people from all different walks of life, senators, or governors, or first ladies, or just people with interesting stories. And everyone has an interesting story. They really do. So when I first heard Edith, and I think actually the first time I ever wrote it was just for a little newsletter for our church. So it was even shorter than a magazine article, just a few paragraphs.
[00:10:31] KM: Oh, so that’s how you found it out —
[00:10:31] CW: Yeah. I sat down and interviewed her. And I was amazed. Her husband, Hank, was a long, tall Texan with a very deep voice. He was very impressive. I love him.
[00:10:44] KM: With a perfect name, Hank.
[00:10:44] CW: Hank Harris. Henry Harris. They called him Hank. And he had an interesting story. Matter of fact, they met because he was in the United States Air Force in the 50s. And they met in Germany. He brought her over here. But it was Edith’s story that just stayed with me.
[00:11:02] KM: So that’s how you found –
[00:11:03] CW: I love World War II. What I love about Edith’s story, her mother's story, is that it is such a different perspective. You do hear the Jewish Holocaust stories, and I'm thrilled they're out there. They are numerous. But you don't often hear the stories of what happened, “Well, what happened to just a regular German family? How are they affected by the war?” Well, obviously, they're affected, particularly if you live in a city like Bremen. They're making more planes and U-boats. Yeah. I mean, air raids were common, obviously, throughout those war years, and in her childhood. So I'd never really heard that perspective. And I think it's a really interesting perspective that people need to hear. There's two sides.
[00:11:50] KM: Like you said, you can relate to. So, Edith, it's your turn. Cecilia told me you didn't necessarily think your story was worthy of a book.
[00:11:59] ER: That's right.
[00:12:00] KM: Why not?
[00:12:02] ER: Nobody wanted to read that. There's so much out there about World War II. And, I don't know, people are probably tired of it.
[00:12:16] KM: When did you change your mind?
[00:12:18] ER: After my husband passed.
[00:12:22] KM: When was that?
[00:12:23] ER: ’11.
[00:12:24] KM: 2011?
[00:12:25] ER: ’13.
[00:12:26] KM: 2013?
[00:12:26] ER: ’13. Yeah.
[00:12:28] KM: So, Cecilia kind of beat up on your long enough that you finally said, “Okay, okay. We’ll write a book.”
[00:12:33] ER: Like I said, she twisted my arm, and twisted it. She bugged me by it.
[00:12:40] KM: Lovingly.
[00:12:41] CW: Lovingly.
[00:12:42] KM: Lovingly bugged her about it.
[00:12:44] ER: And after that, my husband passed in October. And then right after the holidays, she approached me again, her and her daughter. We're going to do this book. I said, “No way,” because I had a lot of offers before. People ask me to tell the story and they would write about it. But I always turned that down. I said, “No.” She won.
[00:13:13] KM: So a lot of people have asked you about the story?
[00:13:15] ER: Oh, yeah. I used to work at the airbase. There was this one supervisor, Joan was her name. And she said, “We're going to write your story. We're going to write you a book.” I said, No, Joan. No. We're not going to do that.”
[00:13:33] KM: You changed your mind. This book I feel like is almost a love letter to your mother. And Cecilia kind of mentioned that. It's a book of prose paying homage to your mother that later, as an adult, you probably recognize that as you look back.
[00:13:48] ER: Yes.
[00:13:48] KM: Talk about looking back on your mother and what you thought –
[00:13:52] ER: Well, I said, “Child, you just go with the flow.” We had to do what we're told. But I didn't realized till later on –
[00:14:05] KM: Till you became a mother?
[00:14:07] ER: Yes. Then I realized I don't know if I would go be able to go through with this.
[00:14:14] KM: You really recognized how hard it was as you become –
[00:14:18] ER: Yes.
[00:14:19] KM: So this is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Miss Cecilia Wilson, author of the nonfiction book Back to Bremen, a memoir written through the eyes of a five year old German girl who survived the war-torn years of World War II under Nazi-ruled Germany. Joining Cecilia is her friend and the book's protagonist, Fraulein, Edith Röpke. Still to come, Edith's journey, how her German mother, Marta, risked it all through air raids, capture and the cruelties of the Third Reich to keep her eight children safe, fed, and together as they walked, rode and scurried across bombed-out Germany under the rule of a madman, Adolf Hitler, Danka Marta. Thanks, Mom. We'll be back.
[00:15:07] GM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Over 40 years ago, Kerry founded Arkansas Flag and Banner. During the last four decades, the business has grown and changed along with Kerry's experience and leadership knowledge. In 1995, she embraced the Internet and rebranded her company as simply flagandbanner.com. In 2004, she became an early blogger. Since then, she has founded the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland ballroom, began publishing her magazine, Brave, and in 2016, branched out into this very radio show, YouTube channel and podcast. In 2020, Kerry McCoy enterprises acquired ourcornermarket.com, an online company specializing in American-made plaques, signage and memorials for over 20 years. If you'd like to sponsor this show, or get involved with any of Kerry McCoy's enterprises, send an email to me, Gray. That's firstname.lastname@example.org. Telling American-made stories, selling American-made flags, the flagandbanner.com. Back to you, Kerry.
[00:16:15] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Miss Celia Wilson, author of the nonfiction book Back to Bremen. And with her is Miss Edith Röpke. It is Edith’s real-life and harrowing true story that is told in this memoir through the eyes of a five year old girl living in Germany during World War II. Let's start. You started, Cecilia, in chapter one called the End of the Road. Actually, the book begins at the war's end in 1945. Why start the book at the end, and then go backwards?
[00:16:53] CW: I'm so glad you asked that. I think as an author, you know that – And I'm this way when I read. You like to have a hook. You want to immediately pique someone's interest. So really, debated, part of the debate, the internal debate that I was having, where do I start? Do I start – As in chapter two, I believe I start with 1939. And then begin – Because it takes about a decade. This this book does. I love this particular story that I start with. It is a story about Edith and her brother, Karl Heinz. They're hungry. They're on the road back to Bremen, hence the title of the book, Back to Bremen. And they steal some bread.
I just thought it was a compelling story, a little light hearted in the midst of everything, all the chaos that's going on. I just thought it was a great place to start. And it really kind of helped – I thought I'd introduce you to all the characters. So when it dawned on me that's where I wanted to start, I was so excited. I couldn't wait to write that first chapter. Because I just thought that was a great place to start. And then you could backtrack.
You've been introduced to the characters, and then you can get back to the beginning. And I like that as a reader too. I have struggled with some books sometimes when I read them. And you know that you're going through that process of having to get to know everyone. So I thought this was a good way to not only introduce you to their names, but here's a little example of their personality too.
[00:18:40] KM: So that didn’t come from an editor. That was your idea.
[00:18:43] CW: Oh, no, no, no. That was me.
[00:18:44] KM: That was a great idea.
[00:18:45] CW: Thanks.
[00:18:46] KM: And so chapter two. You titled it And so it Began in 1939. Edith, you start talking about sleeping in your clothes, running for bomb shelters every night. Tell us about that? Well,
[00:18:58] ER: Well, we started ’39, September, when my dad was having supper at the dining room table in a kitchen. And these two Gestapo’s came in and got my dad. They say go to war. That's the last time we saw him for a long time, probably a couple years or more.
[00:19:18] KM: How did that feel? You're just sitting there at the table.
[00:19:19] ER: Yeah, I know. We’re having our supper. We’re having our dinner. So my mom was by herself with us.
[00:19:28] KM: So what was it like sleeping in bed with all of your sisters? Because the boys slept together and the girls slept together, and you slept in your clothes with your shoes –
[00:19:34] ER: Yes. We had this one big metal bed, but we always had to be dressed because the sirens went off all the time. You'd never know when they're going to go off. And you had to go to bunker. So that night, we just want to bet with our clothes on, had our shoes in front of the bed. And we all slept, like I said, in one bed. That's all we had.
[00:20:00] KM: So one day, on the way running to a bomb shelter, your mother fell.
[00:20:04] ER: Yes.
[00:20:06] KM: Tell us about that.
[00:20:07] ER: There was no lights, no electricity, no nothing, and our house was like over this way. And the bunker was right in the center on the house. So we didn't have that far to run. But we were running because the sirens already went off and we had to be in there.
[00:20:28] KM: You only have a limited amount of time to get there, right?
[00:20:31] ER: Yes. That's right.
[00:20:32] KM: And then they shut the door and it's locked in, and if you're out. You're out.
[00:20:35] ER: Yes. But she fell. And where she had my youngest brother, on the street. There was doctor. No nothing.
[00:20:47] CW: Eight months pregnant.
[00:20:49] KM: She fell, and you went on to the bunker.
[00:20:52] ER: We went to the bunker. We didn't want to go.
[00:20:55] KM: So why did you leave her?
[00:20:57] ER: Well, they made us go.
[00:20:58] KM: The people in the street?
[00:21:00] ER: Yes. The neighbors and strangers, and they all took care of us [inaudible 00:21:06]. We didn't know till it was all over what happened.
[00:21:12] KM: So you were in the bunker all night? Or how long were you in the bunker waiting to find out what happened to your mother?
[00:21:15] ER: It usually takes all night. Yes.
[00:21:18] KM: What do you do all night sitting in there? Tell us how you felt.
[00:21:20] ER: You just sit down.
[00:21:21] KM: Crying?
[00:21:23] ER: Yeah, cry for mama. And no daddy, no mama. So just with strangers in a cold place. Of course, those bunkers were cold.
[00:21:34] KM: How many people would be in a bunker?
[00:21:36] ER: The whole area where we live.
[00:21:39] KM: You would stand up or sit down?
[00:21:41] ER: No. There were benches to sit down on. Yes.
[00:21:45] KM: So it's morning. So you're crying all night waiting to get out to see what happened to your mother. And you come out and what happened?
[00:21:51] ER: We found out we had a brother.
[00:21:54] GM: That’s so crazy. Wow! So crazy.
[00:21:57] ER: Everybody wanted to know where he came from. Because they told us the story about the stork. There was sugar on a window sill. The old timely story. And my mom used to say that? Because we asked her, because she had babies all the time. But anyway, she didn’t go to the hospital. The house we lived in was bombed three times. And this time it got bombed. She was in the house, but no water, no electricity. No nothing.
[00:22:39] KM: So you took the baby back to your bombed-out house.
[00:22:40] ER: Yes.
[00:22:42] KM: Did you repair the windows?
[00:22:44] ER: She didn't have a doctor. She had one midwives. That's what she had.
[00:22:51] KM: So when you come out of the shelter, are there dead people laying around on the street?
[00:22:56] ER: Oh, yes. You just go – You step, and you're not allowed to touch them or check on them, because you weren't allowed to touch and make sure they okay or something. We figured most of them were dead anyway.
[00:23:12] KM: So these are people that were running to the bomb shelter that didn't get in time.
[00:23:15] ER: That’s right. That’s right.
[00:23:16] KM: And so your mother's out there –
[00:23:18] ER: And all ages, kids, grownups.
[00:23:24] KM: Do you have bad dreams about that?
[00:23:25] ER: Sometimes I do. Not that often. No.
[00:23:28] KM: So what do you think when you come out? And do you just become numb to it, I guess?
[00:23:33] ER: We didn't know any different at that time, because it was whole six years. We just had to go what we were told.
[00:23:43] KM: Just do what you're told. Thank you, Marta. So you go to your house to see if it's been bombed. Every morning you come out. Or practically, it got to almost every night, didn't it?
[00:23:53] ER: Oh, every day. Yes.
[00:23:55] KM: And you come back to your house to see if it's still standing. And usually the windows are blown out?
[00:24:01] ER: Oh, yeah, that’s always damaged.
[00:24:04] KM: And how do you repair that?
[00:24:06] ER: You don't. You just live like there, like you just clean up. I remember people cleaning up what they could, because there was – I mean, what can you do when the bomb comes? And the American’s were daytime bombers. But the English was night.
[00:24:27] KM: Oh, really?
[00:24:29] ER: Yes. So we had day and night.
[00:24:33] KM: Bremen was destroyed. Completely destroyed.
[00:24:35] ER: Yes, it was. Yes.
[00:24:38] KM: Why was it such a target for everyone?
[00:24:42] ER: Well, because it was a port, main port. All the ships come from overseas, and they had the factories there, the U-boats and stuff. And then Bremenhaven, which is the sister city, was about 15 minutes apart in Hamburg, Germany. Three of them were main points. They got bombed all the time. I mean, there was nothing left.
[00:25:12] KM: It's amazing that your mother had this baby in the street. And then goes home with it. And that baby is fine. Is your little sister – Or is it a little brother or a little sister?
[00:25:22] ER: Brother.
[00:25:22] KM: Is he still alive?
[00:25:24] ER: No, he passed away last year.
[00:25:27] KM: I mean, he lived all this time. And – Well, in a minute when the listeners hear all that you did, it's going to be amazing any of y'all are alive. But let's talk about your dad. Let's talk about your dad. He was an only child. Is that why he wanted so many children?
[00:25:46] ER: I don’t know.
[00:25:47] KM: Was your mother an only child?
[00:25:49] ER: No. She had one brother. We had one uncle. And he passed away. He was painting the house, my grandparents’ house, and he was painting outside the house. They had a bomb attack. That's how he got killed, her only brother. So there was nobody left. She was the only one survived.
[00:26:12] CW: That was in ‘44.
[00:26:14] KM: Right before the end of the war. Pretty close to the end of the war.
[00:26:16] CW: August of ’44.
[00:26:18] ER: ‘44. Yes.
[00:26:21] KM: So also, not long after your father was drafted into the Nazi regime, they showed up at your house for your brother, for your oldest brother. He was now the head of the family.
[00:26:37] ER: Yeah, he was drafted. They just also came in and said – Because I guess they needed all the guys to fight the war. And even they took the younger ones, the teenagers, because he was about 14. And he's the only one that really helped my mom with the rest of the kids.
[00:27:02] KM: They're all under 12, except for her. So he's now the man of the household.
[00:27:05] ER: Yes.
[00:27:06] KM: Gets a rap on the door. Nazis come in and say, “All right, Nazi youth, come on.” What does your mother think now? What am I going to do?
[00:27:13] ER: Just go on and do the best you can.
[00:27:15] KM: Yeah. She's a hero. All right. This is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Miss Cecilia Wilson, author of the memoir and inspiring true story Back to Bremen, and the leading lady in the book, Frau Edith Röpke. The once five year old little German girl who, with her brothers and sisters, lived through the war-torn years of World War II under Nazi rule and the ruinous behavior of a madman, Adolf Hitler, in his quest to create Aryan utopia. When we come back, we're going to talk about having to leave Bremen and where they were evacuated to. We'll be back after the break.
[00:27:54] ANNOUNCER: You know, at the very beginning of every Up in Your Business interview with Kerry McCoy, we tell you all the different places you can hear the show after it's been recorded. Sometimes you may get so engrossed in the program you miss that list. Well, here it is for you now to concentrate on.
[00:28:09] GM: All UIYB past and present interviews are available at Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy's YouTube channel, Facebook page, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Digital Version, flagandbanner.com’s website, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Just ask your smart speaker to play Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy.
[00:28:30] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Edith Röpke.
[00:28:36] GM: Good effort.
[00:28:36] KM: Thank you. Also known as, today, Edith Harris, her maiden name. And Miss Cecilia Wilson, star and author respectively of the nonfiction book Back to Bremen. Edith’s real-life and harrowing true story is told in this memoir through her eyes as a five year old girl living in Germany during World War II.
All right, you are about to be evacuated from Bremen. It’s a port city. That's just getting bombed in the day by the Americans and bombed by the English at night. People are laying around all over the street when you come out of the bomb shelters, and you're just stepping over them. There's glass everywhere. I remember reading in the book. You didn't say that earlier. But all that other stuff that I just mentioned you did talk about in the earlier section. But I did remember reading in the book that you couldn't play outside because there was too much – Too dangerous.
[00:29:32] ER: Yes. We didn’t have no childhood. I mean, we couldn’t do anything [inaudible 00:29:39]. Like you said, we couldn’t go outside.
[00:29:45] KM: And not just because of the bombing, but because of the glass and the debris and to get cut, and stuff like that.
[00:29:48] ER: Exactly. And the bodies took time to get rid of the body.
[00:29:54] KM: Did it smell bad?
[00:29:55] ER: Oh, yes it did. Yes.
[00:30:00] KM: All right. They have come. The Nazis have common said everybody has got to live Bremen. And they relocate you. Now –
[00:30:09] ER: Anybody, specially the large family.
[00:30:15] KM: They relocated you.
[00:30:16] ER: Yes.
[00:30:18] KM: So they tell you – Do they pay for you to move all your stuff? Or how do they do these relocations when they're going to evacuate a city? How do they do it?
[00:30:25] ER: Whatever was left in our house, they ship to [inaudible 00:30:33].
[00:30:34] KM: You don't ask me to say that. I'll just tell everybody it's right outside of Dresden, the beautiful City of Dresden.
[00:30:38] ER: Well, she used to say from crummy.
[00:30:40] CW: Crummy. Yes. It’s so long.
[00:30:42] KM: Say it again.
[00:30:44] ER: [inaudible 00:30:44].
[00:30:45] KM: Okay, what's funny about that, there's only like three vowels in it.
[00:30:50] CW: But it's like 29 letters. Yeah.
[00:30:54] ER: But it’s outside of Dresden. If you all know Dresden, because they got to China. That's the most expensive China you can get. And so we used to go to Dresden by train. We went to the opera house, to the zoo and all that, because [inaudible 00:31:19] is just a little village.
[00:31:23] KM: So they've come and they're going to move you. They tell you to pack up your stuff. They put you on a train. Give you an address, I guess.
[00:31:28] ER: Yes.
[00:31:30] KM: Your mother takes her whole brood of children under 12. Now she's down to seven, because the oldest one has been taken into the Nazi youth. He’s been drafted into the Nazi youth. And you go to live. And you pull up in front of this house. And it's beautiful. And what do you think?
[00:31:48] ER: We couldn’t believe it. But we’d to live in an attic.
[00:31:53] KM: Did you think at first, “Oh, I'm going to live in this beautiful house?”
[00:31:56] ER: We did, because they actually had red carpet going to the front door. But we had to go to the back door. We weren’t allowed to use the front door.
[00:32:07] KM: Because you found out the house belonged to –
[00:32:11] ER: A Nazi. Colonel Peiper.
[00:32:14] ER: Peiper. He had a wife and one son. We’re not allowed to play with his son. Like I said, we had to use the back door. We couldn't use the front door. And back then you always had to say, Heil Hitler.” Instead of good day or good evening, you had to raise your arm and say, “Heil Hitler.” If you don't, they shoot you. And this is an honest truth. The shoot you first, ask questions later.
[00:32:50] KM: Why are y'all not allowed to – You're not Jewish? Why were you not allowed to play with –
[00:32:55] ER: They wouldn’t let us.
[00:32:56] KM: Because you’re white trash or something?
[00:32:58] ER: He was a mean guy.
[00:32:59] KM: Well, any Nazi. Aren’t they all?
[00:33:01] CW: I would guess there was a –
[00:33:03] GM: Classism. Yeah.
[00:33:04] CW: Yeah, absolutely. I think he felt like he was in a different stratosphere than his family.
[00:33:08] ER: Wife's family was really nice. She was nice to my mom and everything. They became friends. Not close friends, but friends. They would talk and stuff. And then one night, my sister — Helga, the oldest one, of the girls. She went out one night. And then when she come home, she came to back way and –
[00:33:34] KM: She came in front way you mean. She came in the front door instead of the backdoor.
[00:33:37] CW: Where she shouldn't have been.
[00:33:38] ER: And he was in the hallway. She didn't salute him. So she went upstairs. And the next day he would – My mom, he said, “If you don't instruct your kids to say, “Heil Hilter” – He told her what happened the night before that, Helga, that she didn't salute him. He said, “You're never going to see her again.” So we assumed he’s going to kill her or drag off somewhere.
[00:34:11] KM: Your own country man. Isn't that interesting?
[00:34:14] KM: But they didn't.
[00:34:15] ER: No.
[00:34:17] KM: Because that was a warning.
[00:34:19] ER: She instructed. She was at us all the time. She’d say, “Heil Hitler.” Say, “Heil Hitler.” Because as a kid, we don't know why we had to say that. Why we couldn't just say good morning [inaudible 00:34:33].
[00:34:36] KM: Dresden was a beautiful city. It's an art city.
[00:34:39] ER: Oh, it was good.
[00:34:41] KM: And you could see it from the balcony of your attic, or from the window of your attic
[00:34:43] ER: Yes. February 13, ’45, there was the bombing of Britain. See? That's why they sent us to the East Germany, because the war wasn't that bad. So we're still on the balcony, and we saw these bombs fall. They look like Christmas tree. That's what they looked like.
[00:35:06] KM: Christmas lights?
[00:35:06] ER: Yes. I still have pictures in my mind. Of course they had a big zoo, we weren’t allowed to go out because some of the animals was still loose.
[00:35:19] KM: Lions?
[00:35:21] ER: Yeah. It could have been anything.
[00:35:23] GM: So after they bombed Dresden, they wouldn't let anyone go back in the city because the zoo animals had escaped. What kind of crazy – Yeah, of like random side effect.
[00:35:32] ER: I know. We weren’t allowed to leave the house for two weeks until they found all the animals, what was left.
[00:35:44] KM: You have a funny story in the book about your mother, and not you, but another – And I'm not going to tell this, because we're not going to tell the end of the story for the writer so the y’all buy the book. Thank you people. And I'm not going to tell the story about your dad either for the listeners. But, Edith, you did not go. But I will say it was an indiscretion. And your mother caught the train with your older sister and went to try and find him and got there, and it was a weekend off. It broke my heart for your mother and your father. The chances of timing of all of that were just so human. And so just – I don't know. Y'all need to read it. But I'll tell you, Edith’s dad got caught in an indiscretion. And it's heartbreaking to me. You've gone through so much. You make one mistake or two. I mean, made a few more, I don't know. But –
[00:36:39] ER: She surprised him.
[00:36:41] CW: Obviously.
[00:36:42] ER: It was a surprise.
[00:36:45] KM: And just how breaking? How disappointing to make all that effort and to go there and then to have that disappointment. And for him, the shame he felt from it all. So it was just the whole thing.
[00:36:58] CW: I'll tell you an interesting part about that whole part of the book. That was a part, you’re right, an indiscretion. Edith was not keen on letting me ride about that. And I twisted her arm again. There are a few things that I did. Respect her privacy on it, did not divulge.
[00:37:19] KM: Oh, tell you after the show. Will you?
[00:37:22] CW: But I did tell her, we need to tell this part of the story, because it does explain later where her father winds up in the war.
[00:37:34] KM: Mm-hmm. It does.
[00:37:36] CW: And so without that linchpin, you don't understand why he is at some point on the front.
[00:37:46] KM: Dresden gets bombed. And they evacuate you guys again. And the, oh, Mr. Colonel Peiper, the mean Nazi. I don't know what happens to him. Do you?
[00:37:58] CW: I actually hired a British reporter living in Germany to do some research for me. And she found out that apparently he was captured and he was put into a camp where he did not survive. This is by the Soviets. I don't know why he didn't survive. I suspect they may have been rough with him. I have no idea if I'm right on that. But I do know he was captured by the Soviets at the end of the war.
[00:38:23] KM: Oh, you reap what you sow.
[00:38:25] CW: You do?
[00:38:27] KM: That's really gratifying.
[00:38:28] GM: And that we’re all like, “Ahh.”
[00:38:29] KM: Thanks goodness.
[00:38:30] CW: And here's a point to, Kerry. You had mentioned that into the war, they bombed Dresden. The Soviet Red Army they hear is coming in from the east. At this point, the government is not involved.
[00:38:44] KM: Which government? The German government?
[00:38:46] CW: The German government is not involved with them being trying to be evacuated back out. It's chaos.
[00:38:52] KM: It's a free for all.
[00:38:53] CW: It is. So it's your own personal responsibility what you do with yourself. Now, nobody's calling any shots here.
[00:39:01] KM: Because everything's falling apart.
[00:39:01] CW: Absolutely. So the Soviet Red Army is coming in. They have gotten to know – Marta has gotten to know the Burgomeister, the mayor of the little village and he comes to tell her one night, “The Soviet Red Army is coming in. The war is coming to an end. If you want to get back home, you need to consider doing it.”
So, now, this is to me really important. This really shows the risk that this little typical German mother is willing to take. She knows that she has only herself to rely on to get her children back home if at all possible. So she's the one that makes the decision, “We're leaving in the middle of the night.” We’ve got to leave.
[00:39:45] KM: Because the Russians are going to – They're Germans. So they're going to capture them and put them in a prison war camp.
[00:39:51] ER: Exactly. Tell her what would happen to us.
[00:39:54] CW: Right. And you've heard a lot of the stories at the end of the war and pictures at the end of the war, real concerns about the retaliation for the earlier invasion of Russia.
[00:40:08] KM: You leave in the middle of the night and you're walking. And what's the first thing you do? Catch a train? Catch a –
[00:40:13] ER: Well, we took the train to Dresden. And then from Dresden, there was no transportation. We have to walk.
[00:40:22] KM: The war is about to be over. The Russians are coming in from the east. The Americans, I guess, are in the West. And so you're looking for the Americans. God love the Americans. And I remember reading that in the book. It's like, every time you saw an American, you were like, “It's an American.” It's like the heroes. And then we're now on foot. We were captured by the Russians. Tell us about your mother says, “Get up.” You’re in this, I guess, basically a prison war camp in the middle of a big gym, a makeshift prison war camp. And the Russians are standing guard around. But you've hooked up with two GI guys who say – And one of them is crippled. He’s on crutches. And he says, “We don't know what the future is for us here. It looks bleak. These Russians are not nice guys. Let's break out tonight when they're all asleep,” because they would go off and smoke cigarettes and drink, just like a bunch of dudes.
[00:41:22] CW: Some things never change.
[00:41:23] KM: 20 year old dudes. I mean, that’s what they do. So your mother gets all seven of you kids up. Tell you to be quiet. And you follow these two GI guys out. And you make it. It's amazing.
[00:41:37] ER: Yeah. It took nine and a half weeks.
[00:41:40] KM: And so you get out and you start hiding in bushes as you go along the road.
[00:41:44] ER: We do. I don't know if you ever saw a World War II movie. You crawl under the fence to get into the bush. And we actually did that.
[00:41:57] KM: While you're walking, you continue to talk about how the crowds in the street grew and grew and grew as you got closer to Bremen.
[00:42:06] ER: And at night we had to sleep in the forest. You don't have grass or wherever place.
[00:42:12] KM: So this is probably the last thing I'm going to tell. I was going to talk about a [inaudible 00:42:18] that was your mother's friend. She had two sons. And y’all stayed together. And this is when you realized what a good, Edith’s mother, Marta, did, because she had two teenage boys to keep up with. Your mother had seven children to keep up with. Only a few were teenagers. And they were in these massive crowds the closer and closer you got to the city. And she lost one.
[00:42:43] ER: Yes. And she never found out again. She went to the Red Cross and she never found out what happened. At that time, she didn't know her husband was dead too. She lost both of them.
[00:43:01] KM: And we're talking about just lost in a crowd. Just turn around and, “Hey, where's Peter?” And you're like, “Peter! Peter! Peter!” I mean I've lost my children at Disney World like that before.
[00:43:15] GM: And by children, she means me, twice.
[00:43:19] KM: He just wanders off.
[00:43:19] CW: I’m glad she found you.
[00:43:22] KM: It's a terrible feeling. I cannot imagine how [inaudible 00:43:26] felt.
[00:43:28] ER: And then after they got back to Bremen, she was still searching to the Red Cross, but never found out –
[00:43:35] CW: Probably four years later, I’m guess.
[00:43:38] KM: Cecile, you didn’t hire anybody to find out –
[00:43:40] CW: I think that’s one of the things that it’s not even a reality to be able to do that, because there would be so many families in the same situation that I'm sure did their own research during the time. And I'm sure [inaudible 00:43:53] probably four years later through the Red Cross and just could not find anything. So I don't think it would even be possible to do that type of research. And the only reason that I don't like giving the end away –
[00:44:06] KM: Yeah, we're not going to talk about the end anymore. We’re stopping right there.
[00:44:08] CW: And the only reason I don't is, because as a reader, or in watching a movie, the worst thing in the world was my sister to tell me the ending of a movie. It's like, “Why did you tell me that?” So I really think it's important to leave something for the reader to wonder about okay, “What happened? How is this resolved?” I do resolve everything for them. But I will go – I've had children asked me this in in classes, “Did everyone stay together?” And I said – Well, let me just tell you this. When they get back to Bremen, there is no home, there is no neighborhood. It's just demolished.
[00:44:46] KM: Don’t tell everybody.
[00:44:47] CW: Right. But here’s what I will tell people, is that when they get back to Bremen, the family is not intact. And it takes several years before the story is resolved and you know what happens to everyone else. And I think that's what I want to leave for the reader, because I think it is an amazing story. And I do like to wrap up those loose ends and do it at the end. But it is an amazing story that does, I think, honestly, read like a movie.
[00:45:20] ER: She did a terrific job.
[00:45:20] KM: She did a terrific job.
[00:45:22] ER: I’ll tell you that. To tell you the truth, I never thought the book will go anywhere. This is surprising.
[00:45:30] KM: Well, let me just tell you, it may be a movie one day. I really believe it could be a movie one day. And if I was a producer, I’d produce it. But I do know a few.
[00:45:42] CW: Oh, good. Okay, I have a Facebook author page and a website. So give me a call. It is absolutely – And I do mean this. I know I'm the author. So you expect me to say this, but this is a story I have known for 20 years. I absolutely love the story. And I really do love hearing from people that have read it and share with me what they think about it, because I'm very passionate about it, because it is a beautiful story. And it's true. That's what's so cool about it.
[00:46:14] KM: That is what's cool about it. Speaking of that, how do you buy the book?
[00:46:18] CW: You can go to Amazon, Barnes and Noble. It’s e-format, or paperback, or hardcover.
[00:46:28] KM: Does somebody read it? Is there an audio of it?
[00:46:31] CW: There is not an audio book. There is not an audio. But we talked about doing one time and nothing ever came of that. But you can get it in more than one format. Backtobremen.com is my website. And then I do have Cecilia Wilson author page on Facebook.
[00:46:49] KM: What’s the Goodreads? What does that mean –
[00:46:51] CW: Goodreads is a site that people go to and share books and –
[00:46:57] GM: Isn’t it kind of like Rotten Tomatoes for books? Like you talk about books and –
[00:47:01] CW: Kind of sort of. Yes. Well, Goodreads, yes. Yes, exactly. So there's plenty of ways to get it.
[00:47:06] KM: So you can buy it anywhere.
[00:47:08] CW: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
[00:47:09] KM: They don't need to call you.
[00:47:11] CW: They can, but they can absolutely go to these websites and get them much faster and probably delivered to them.
[00:47:16] KM: Cecilia Wilson is the author. Edith Röpke is at the –
[00:47:23] ER: Edith Röpke.
[00:47:24] GM: Edith Röpke.
[00:47:26] KM: He’s so good at it.
[00:47:27] GM: You’re trying mom. It’s okay. You’re trying.
[00:47:29] ER: I know. He sounds like a German.
[00:47:33] GM: German is cool.
[00:47:35] KM: And now Edith Harris is her maiden name.
[00:47:41] CW: Married name.
[00:47:42] KM: Married name. Sorry. Married name. Thank you. But yes, you can buy the book Back to Bremen. Last question, Edith. Do you have any lasting irregularities from your experiences like sleeping with the light on? Eating all the food on your plate?
[00:47:57] ER: My kids grew up, they had to eat everything on their plate. I feel we’re not going to throw anything out. And today I still do.
[00:48:10] KM: I bet you never go camping, do you?
[00:48:15] ER: No.
[00:48:16] KM: I can't imagine wanting to go camping if I slept outside for four years.
[00:48:21] CW: She’s done that.
[00:48:21] ER: Oh, no. No. My husband was a camper. He liked to fish and hunt and all that. He was born and raised in Texas. But he moved to Arkansas. And I didn't want to come to Arkansas, because we live in Colorado Springs. He was stationed at the Air Force Academy. I just love that place.
[00:48:47] KM: It's a beautiful place. The Garden of the Gods.
[00:48:50] CW: But aren't you glad you came to Arkansas?
[00:48:52] ER: Yeah. No. I'm here.
[00:48:55] CW: And she's been here for many years.
[00:48:56] KM: And you met him in the war? After the war?
[00:48:58] ER: Yes, the first part of ’57.
[00:49:01] KM: Why did you meet him 10 years later?
[00:49:04] ER: I was working in a snack bar on the base. Matter of fact, I just got that job to a friend of mine in Bremerhaven. My job was to do salads. So I was in the kitchen making the salad for lunch. Our supervisor came in and he said, “The girl on a girl called in sick.” So he made me move to the front and work the grill. And here are all these GI’s coming in. I said, “I can't do this.” I didn't know a fried egg on a grill or anything like that, breakfast. So he said, “Oh, just put them on the grill, flip them over.” He said, “And they don’t know the difference.”
[00:49:56] KM: Did you speak English?
[00:49:59] ER: I learned English type.
[00:50:01] CW: British English.
[00:50:02] ER: British. That's a little bit.
[00:50:04] KM: When did you learn that?
[00:50:07] ER: In school.
[00:50:07] KM: Oh, you did.
[00:50:08] CW: After the war, more or less?
[00:50:10] ER: Yes, yes. So everybody thought that I was English when I first came to the States.
[00:50:19] KM: This has been a wonderful interview. I cannot thank you two ladies enough for coming in. You are just both wonderful people.
[00:50:19] ER: Thank you for having us. Our pleasure.
[00:50:29] CW: No. We enjoyed it. We love talking about the story.
[00:50:33] KM: Well, if I didn't know and you're from Texas, or from Colorado, I'd have given you a Texas and Colorado flag. But I did give you a desk set with a German flag, a US flag and an Arkansas flag.
[00:50:42] ER: Well, look at – And I saw that.
[00:50:44] KM: That’s for you.
[00:50:47] ER: Thank you.
[00:50:47] KM: And Cecilia, you too get a German flag, because you love World War II.
[00:50:50] CW: I do. I do. Thank you so much. I love it. I love it.
[00:50:55] KM: I never didn't really ask you why you have such fascination with World War II. But why do you?
[00:51:00] CW: I’ve always loved history, always, throughout school.
[00:51:04] KM: It’s a fascinating card.
[00:51:04] CW: It really is. I'm not just focused on World War II. But I really love World War II. It is a fascinating part of history. And it is true. They are the greatest generation. And I know your parents’ story. And I'm in love with their story. And I have a connection to that. I was born and raised in Batesville. And your mother went to school in Batesville. So that just makes me love that story. I have a connection to that. So I don't know. There's just something about – I think that's why it's important for kids to study history. There's so much to learn. My goodness! We don't want to make the same mistakes. But hey, let's emulate what they did right? And Marta, is a history lesson all in herself.
[00:51:54] KM: Great place to end the show. In closing, to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening. And that is, whatever it is, we'll help you up your business, your life, your independence. I'm Kerry McCoy, and I'll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[00:52:14] GM: You've been listening to Up in Your business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today's show, go to flagandbanner.com, select radio, and choose today's guest. If you'd like to sponsor this show, or any show, email me, Gray. That's email@example.com. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Stay informed of exciting upcoming guests by subscribing to our YouTube channel or podcast wherever you'd like to listen. Kerry's goal is simple, to help you live the American dream.
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