In a tiny Yugoslavian town of 1,700 inhabitants, Auer remembers an idyllic childhood where doors were unlocked, children played freely outdoors and food was plentiful. On Oct. 8, 1944, their lives were shattered.
“I was 15, my sister was 18, and I had another who was 17,” said Auer. “It was Holy Thursday and I remember that my dad turned 42 on that day. My dad, (Franz Lehmann,) had been drafted into the German SS and was stationed by the Danube. We were told that the Russians were coming and my dad told my mom to take my sisters and me and run, and that is what we did.”
For four weeks, the family wandered through farm fields, stowed away in barns, and slept in ditches. They learned to eat whatever they could forage from fields until they finally reached Bavaria.
“We spent two weeks near the Autobahn until the war was over,” said Auer. “There were some people who couldn’t escape their homes due to the planes flying over day and night shooting people. I would have been a wreck if we had stayed in our home.”
Although she wasn’t in the direct path of the bombings, the fear of death permeated her life for months, and while on the run, she remembered hearing that if they could just get to the American soldiers they would be fine.
The family stayed for three weeks in a Catholic town in Hungary and walked to Vienna, Austria. After that, they boarded a passenger train and stayed for more than a month at St. Elizabeth School with an American soldier guarding their safety.
“There were 51 of us, our luggage was lost on a freight train and we all stayed in a one room school house,” said Auer. “We only had what we had on and we ended up with lice galore and were forced to eat rotten food because that was all they had.”
|Name: Marianne Auer
Parish: St. William, Waukesha
Favorite movie: “The Sound
Book recently read: A set of books from my hometown telling the stories of escape
Favorite quotation: “Don’t throw bread away because I see
it as the Body of Christ.”
(Catholic Herald photo by Amy Rewolinski)
While Auer’s family managed to escape, many were not so lucky. Women and children were raped, and placed in starvation camps. More than a third of those from her town died. Yugoslavia suffered 1.7 million dead during the war, out of a total population of 15 million. Of these, more than 300,000 were killed in action. Another 400,000 were wounded.
“Some made it through, but more than 20,000 German kids are still listed as missing in Yugoslavia, and some are missing because they were so young and ended up being raised in the Russian culture,” she said. “We cried bitterly about losing our family members, about my grandmother being raped, but what could we do? We were helpless.”
After reuniting with their father, who escaped a Russian concentration camp, the family arranged for a fresh start by planning their move to America. However, with a job and a steady boyfriend, Auer wasn’t too excited about the prospect of moving.
“I was making good money and brought it home to take care of my parents, but my dad really wanted me to go to America because I was single,” she said. “I married April 26, 1952 and was happily married for only three months because my husband had a blood clot in his lung and died – he was only 22. I knew I would never marry again.”
Heartbroken, she agreed to move. In 1955, she got a job over Memorial Day weekend in a sewing factory overlooking Lake Michigan. For the first time, she felt the sting of discrimination and said she was treated more like a slave than an employee.
“I made just 75 cents an hour for piece work and was treated like a Nazi,” she said. “I worked seven weeks in that store and no one would talk to me. It was very bad.”
Her mother learned of an opportunity at the Sid Harris Sewing Factory and landed the job, which paid $3 an hour. However, since Auer spoke little English, she rehearsed her resignation speech for days before she got the courage to face her boss.
“My boss kept yapping and yapping, and I looked at her and said simply, ‘Margaret, I quit,’ she said. “And I went to my new job.”
After working for several years at Sid Harris, she became a U.S. citizen in 1961 and accepted a job at Amron Ammunition Factory in 1962, working there until retirement.
Throughout every step of her life, her faith has been her guide. She has missed Mass only a couple of times in her life, once was Oct. 8, 1944 and the other time was the day her watch, a gift from her late husband, stopped ticking.
“Actually, I was late for the first Mass because the watch stopped and so I just stuck around for the next one,” she said, laughing.
“My dad was a strict Catholic and made sure we knew our faith. We never ate a bite of anything without saying grace. I remember one time when I was working at the sewing factory, I was so hungry that I gave my dad the money from my work and grabbed something off the table to eat. He said, ‘Young lady, we pray before we eat. You won’t starve to death – you pray first.’”
Because of her dad, she learned to never waste even a bit of bread. He reminded Auer and her siblings that many children have nothing to eat and wasting bread is similar to wasting the Body of Christ. To this day, she refuses to throw bread away.
“If I am out and can’t eat the bread, I bring it home and eat it the next day, or give it to a dog, or to chickens – but I never waste it,” she admitted. “It hurts me to see people wasting bread.”
Auer lives near St. William Church with her 83-year-old sister Anna Rill, and, according to her associate pastor, Fr. Jason Lavann, is one of the rocks of the parish.
“She attends daily Mass, weekend Mass and helps with funerals, sings in the choir and ministers in her own way to those who have passed away,” he said. “I really appreciate her. She may be small in size, but she is big in faith and a sweetheart. She volunteers in a lot of things. If there is something going on here, she is usually involved and that is such a cool thing.”