Centenarian recalls WWII Russian concentration camp
When Russian soldiers arrested Katherine Riedlbauer’s entire village in World War II Yugoslavia, she was fortunate to survive the walk to the prison camp. Even after catching typhus, she eventually escaped the camp with her life and her 4-year-old daughter.
“They wanted us to die,” Riedlbauer says now, having celebrated her 100th birthday on Feb. 22 at Atlantic Shores Rehabilitation & Health Center in Millsboro.
Yugoslavia was a new country, formed in the World War I peace settlements, to include part of Austria-Hungary. People often spoke German and even considered themselves to be German.
“We were living in a village with 16,000 people,” said Riedlbauer, who was born in a part of Hungary that became northern Yugoslavia. “We were German people in that town.”
At 17, she married Josef Fabach. In 1940, she gave birth to her daughter, Cathy Wills, who now lives near Ocean View. That, she said, was the best time of her life.
Then Germany invaded in 1941 and sent many people to war with the Axis Powers, including Riedlbauer’s husband, Josef. But when communists took Yugoslavia back, Germanic families left behind were punished. In 1944, the Russians told Riedlbauer to pack her belongings and come outside.
Russia had begun mass arrests.
“They went house to house. … They took everything from us. They took my home. I lose my money,” she recalled, in what is still a bitter memory for Riedlbauer.
Families were instructed to bring everything they owned. Riedlbauer tried to hide some money wrapped in her daughter’s turtleneck. Soldiers wouldn’t search the baby carriage, she thought. But that idea proved fatal for other women.
“They shot a lady and an 18-year-old girl because they had hidden the money,” Riedlbauer said.
Young Cathy could do the math, so the child tugged the money out of her clothes.
“She said, ‘Give it to them, Mom, or they kill you,’” Riedlbauer said. “Then I lost everything.”
“I saved your life, I’ll let you know,” Wills added.
“We didn’t know what would happen,” Riedlbauer said, remembering six women who were taken away around a corner.
At other times, soldiers shot people in broad daylight for walking too slowly to the concentration camp.
“They wanted us to see them.”
Surviving a concentration camp
They marched to a tiny town with only one road. Camp life was miserable. People slept on straw, and Riedlbauer toiled in the fields, picking corn and other crops. When the children’s hair was shaved, they all looked the same, running around in black underpants, she recalled. Riedlbauer initially couldn’t recognize her daughter.
They were fed peas and beans, but no salt. Without that basic compound, their bodies didn’t function, and women didn’t “bleed” properly, she said.
“They didn’t care. They want us to die,” said Riedlbauer.
She remembered 8,000 people dying in one year, when typhus swept through the camp.
“I lost all my teeth, all my hair,” she said. “My hair grows back, but not my teeth.”
She was among the 10 percent of the prisoners who survived the illness.
“They scared us every day. They said every day they want us to die.” That’s why no salt was in the food, she added. “The young ones, they died.”
After a year, Riedlbauer escaped. Breaking out of this prison wasn’t the same as escaping a German death camp. The concentration camp had no fence, so Riedlbauer, her daughter and another woman simply walked away down the long empty road, hiking from 2 a.m. to 6 p.m. that night.
When she was stopped, Riedlbauer used her father’s name, Payerly. He hadn’t been arrested, because his name didn’t end with an “e.” With that Hungarian spelling, communists didn’t think he was German.
She hid at her father’s house while he worked. It was absolutely freezing, she recalled, but lighting a fire would give the girls away, so mother and daughter huddled in a cold bed instead.
But a neighbor knew she was there. At risk of being turned in, Wills’ godfather helped them escape again, and they started walking.
“We walked until a car came with soldiers,” and Riedlbauer, noting that she tried to hush her talkative daughter. “I said, ‘Honey, don’t talk, because they would lock us up.’”
Luckily, the young soldiers were not listening.
After the war ended, her godfather got the family onto a Russian boat. They sailed on the Danube River in “all kinds of weather,” bound for Vienna, Austria.
They couldn’t stay there very long, either. Wills caught tuberculosis, and the doctor said she’d die without more food and milk. So they planned to leave for the United States around 1949.
But her husband couldn’t go. Although Riedlbauer said he hadn’t enlisted, the U.S. government believed he had volunteered to serve Germany. She could emigrate and become a U.S. citizen, and then he could follow, and she’d be responsible for him.
She mistakenly thought that would be a two-year process but was startled to learn it would take five years. Josef died in an accident two months before he was to have been allowed to join her.
Living in America
Arriving in New York, Riedlbauer was amazed to see multi-story houses. Then, moving to Baltimore, Riedlbauer looked after an aunt and uncle whose daughter was a nun in a strict European church that wouldn’t let her leave.
Riedlbauer was already an expert seamstress, having begun work at a factory around age 13. She never revealed her high earnings in that wage-per-garment system. So she sewed men’s clothing by day and rode the streetcar to a bakery each night. By working two jobs and renting out the bottom floor, she could afford to buy a house. She also helped bring Wills’ godparents to the U.S.
Decades later, Wills’ widower godfather proposed to Riedlbauer.
“They were always good friends,” Wills said, joking that “he wanted German cooking.”
The marriage lasted until his death10 years later. Riedlbauer stayed in her Bel Air, Md., condominium, still carrying her own groceries up 25 stairs. Wills’ family and her mother moved fulltime to the Delaware coast about five years ago.
Riedlbauer and Wills have visited Europe twice since leaving, but they couldn’t quite get back home, due to political turmoil. Communist rule ended in 1990, and the country split, leaving a smaller Yugoslavia. Civil war and strife in the Balkan Peninsula led to Yugoslavia breaking up in 2003.
Now Riedlbauer is happy living in Delaware.
“It’s beautiful — my god, this whole country’s beautiful,” she said, happy now in Millsboro. “I love it here.”