By Darren Lum
With tears welling up, Johanna Cius, a Hyland Crest resident the past five years, apologizes for her country during the Second World War.
The 89-year-old from Austria has an experience that isn’t heroic or death defying. It’s a perspective that isn’t often told. There are gaps. It’s been more than 70 years.
Just before the war, she said Austria was a poor country with little potential for economic prosperity.
She was 13 and the third oldest of 12 children, attending elementary school in the city of Linz located near the Danube River.
“We were lucky to have a pair of shoes,” she said.
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler came and took over the country, bullying his way to incorporating Austria into Germany. The soldiers came March 12, 1938. He promised them a brighter future. He built factories. He was not going to accept a refusal to join the Third Reich.
“It was taken by Hitler. He promised and then he started the war,” she said.
By April, the country held a plebiscite. Results were skewed to indicate 99 per cent of the Austrian people wanted this union. The Roma and the Jews were not permitted to vote.
Johanna didn’t know about the concentration camps until after the war.
At 18, Johanna moved to the country’s capital, Vienna to receive education to work in the insurance industry. She lived in a youth home run by Hitler during the height of the war.
“You couldn’t say good morning. You had to say, ‘Heil Hitler,’” she said.
Every night at 10 p.m., the Nazi approved radio station would play music sung by Lili Marleen. There were various rules enforced by the Nazi regime that included lights off at night, one radio station and you had to join the Hitler youth.
The feeling of distrust even among those she knew was strong.
“You couldn’t even trust some of your friends in case you say something,” she said. “They hang you and kill you if you’re against the Nazis.”
At this time, the threat of bombs was a constant concern. She remembers when close to midnight everybody had to run to the bomb shelter.
On Sundays, she and the other residents of the youth home had to help clean the ruins of what was left behind from the bombing.
Cius remembers while walking with her friends, seeing people wearing a yellow star.
Austria had close to 192,000 Jews in 1938, dropping to 57,000 by December 1939 because of emigration. Forced deportation of Jews by the Nazis started in October 1941. They were sent to eastern Europe. By 1942, there were only 7,000 Jews in Austria.
During the war her soon-to-be husband Stan, who was 19 and from Poland, was sent to a prisoner of war camp in the Austrian countryside to be part of a labour group. He was forced to wear a P on his coat, indicating he was Polish. He helped plow the fields with oxen. It’s something he never did before, she said. The work was hard and difficult. None of the men at the farm were allowed to speak to each other or be “friendly” with anyone nearby. While they ate soup with nothing but stale bread, the “owner” watched them and would pick his teeth from eating a meal the young men like Stan could only imagine. He tried to escape three times, but was found and taken back each time.
When the war ended Johanna remembers the white flag on her roof and how much she wanted the Americans to come.
“I will never forget when the Americans came,” she said. “We were all happy to see them come.”
By the spring of 1945, the Soviet and American soldiers occupied Austria.
It took years before the country recovered from the war. She remembers how buildings were still bombed. There weren’t any telephones or vehicles, she recalls. The country was divided into four regions: French, English, Russian and American. She lived in the American region.
She met Stan after the war. They first saw each other on the street in Linz in front of where he worked, which was a hospital that cared for Jewish people injured from the war. They married June 2, 1948 and had four children, three boys and one girl. He found work in Canada and left for Norland a day after the wedding. He cut paths for hydro lines across Ontario. She came a year later. They lived in Norland, Peterborough, and then Minden for 65 years. Stan died last year on March 17.
“I never forget anything. I think about lots of times,” she said. “I just feel sorry that Austria [fought] Canada and the United States, but I’m so Canadianized now. I feel badly about the people who were killed in the war.”
Remembrance Day is a time of sadness for her.
“I feel really sad. When Remembrance Day comes and all the people who died, you know, the soldiers. I feel really sad,” she said.