WALCOTT, N.D. — As Gerda and Arnold Jordheim sit in their quaint home in Walcott, a small bird clock cuckoos in the corner of the room.
“Ah, that bird must be Norwegian. He’s always wrong,” Gerda Jordheim, 88, says in her thick German accent. Arnold, a soft-spoken Norwegian, just smiles, obviously used to being teased by his quick-witted wife.
The Jordheims then go to sit in their enclosed sun porch, which is almost blindingly bright, as the morning sun reflects off the snow outside. The bird clock, which has now stopped chirping, is one of more than a dozen in the room. Along with the many clocks, the porch (and the rest of the house) is filled with collectibles — figurines, dolls, stamps, spoons, beer steins, plates and more.
“I collect everything but money and men,” Gerda quips. “Arnold calls it my 'junk,' but I collect it all, ... I guess, because I can now."
Gerda’s desire to collect little trinkets later in life makes sense when one considers how her life began.
She was born to a single teenage girl in 1931 in the small town of Neufahrwasser, about four miles south of Danzig, what is now Gdansk, Poland. Gerda says her mother resented her being born, but her grandparents were kind and loving. However, when Gerda was just 6 years old, she watched in horror as her grandfather died by suicide. Two years later, she witnessed the Nazis invading her town.
Before the war was over, Gerda would lose most of her material possessions and endure almost unimaginable hardship, illness and trauma. Treated cruelly by those who were supposed to love her, tortured by conquering soldiers and even left for dead by doctors, she vowed to rise above it all. Gerda didn’t merely survive, she thrived. And her memories are as vivid as they were 80 years ago. (Gerda's responses have been edited for length and clarity).
The war begins
Gerda: "The first shot of World War II was shot just a mile from where I lived. Everybody thought it was thunder. It was just 5 o'clock in the morning. Then the radio came on, and they screamed ‘Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler.' These are the people of Danzig cheering the Reich. Can you imagine that? We didn’t know there was such a thing. Then Hitler took over, and we became Germans."
Until then, Danzig, West Prussia, had the status of a “Free City” and was mostly self-governed. After the Nazi occupation, they were forced to change their Polish-sounding last name of Kashubowski to Kalau. In 1940, Gerda was forced to join Hitler Youth, as was mandatory for all children, but she says she was kicked out for being an "undesirable."
'Undesirable' Gerda kicked out of Hitler Youth
Gerda: "I was an undesirable because I did not do as they were telling me how to do, and I pretended I was some stupid idiot. They could not have that because Hitler youth was perfect. But it was very hard for me to be able to not stand, sing and march with the Hitler Youth girls because I had to stand on the side and watch them. My grandmother — she hated Hitler — she said that it's the best thing that could've happened to me."
The 'biggest Nazi on our street'
As much as Gerda and her family hated Hitler, they had to stay quiet because if they were caught speaking against "Der Fuhrer," they could be taken away.
Gerda: "My grandmother’s sister-in-law was the biggest Nazi on our street. Her name was Anna Rosa. She always was watching everybody. We didn't know that she was with the Nazis, so one day she did come across the street to her sister and all of the relatives. She heard all of us talking. Then she said 'If you were not my sister, I would have you put away,' and then everybody knew what she was. We saw her stand on her house straight across from us with binoculars.
"Then when the war ended and the Russians came in, she came to the relatives and said 'Take me in, hide me, hide me.' Because she had put lots of people from our hometown away, they came for her. And I think they got to her because we never saw her again."
Gerda brutally attacked
We now know that Russian soldiers were given the green light to sexually assault any German woman or girl they chose in the earliest days of occupying a city after the war. It was seen as appropriate revenge for what German armies did in Russia. Some estimates say at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped, and many appear to have suffered multiple rapes. Gerda says she and her cousin Lieschen, both just 13 years old, were repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers occupying Danzig. Understandably, she is reluctant to talk about it.
Gerda: "When the Russians came in on the 27th of March — well, you know, they did all kinds of things. The Russians were there for three days. For three days and two nights, they were allowed to do their business, and then after that it was forbidden. We were not safe."
Russian commanders, while giving soldiers free reign for a couple of days, demanded order by the third day. When two soldiers attacked Gerda in the woods later, a Russian officer stopped the assault and shot one assailant dead. The other attacker was later hanged.
Forced into a concentration camp
Following the war, Poland took over former German areas including West Prussia, where Gerda lived. Together with the Russians, the Poles forced German families out as part of their ethnic cleansing program.
Gerda: "At first they let us stay in the apartment, and then a few days later, they told us to get out on the street to count everyone. We had a knapsack with clothes and everything, and they said, 'No, no, just leave it, you’ll be right back.' I had to leave it all there. I had no birth certificate, nothing. So they counted us, and then said 'march', and we had to go to Danzig, the main city, to the railroad station, and there were these boxcars standing, and they pushed us in there. The Russians were sitting on top of the cars and banging their guns and singing their songs because the people in the cars ... they were all crying. They pushed about 80 of us in there. They told us we were going to a new city."
But in fact, they were being sent to Mittlebau-Dora, a former Nazi concentration camp. Gerda was assigned to clean out the ovens where people had been exterminated years earlier. She tears up when she remembers the horrors of what she experienced.
Gerda ended up developing a very serious case of typhus and was sent to a hospital in Berlin. After treating her for a while, doctors checked her pulse three different times and declared her dead. She was taken to a makeshift morgue in a bombed-out part of an old building. The next thing she remembers is hearing screaming.
Coming back from the dead
Gerda: "I thought that it was me screaming again. I touched my head. There was nothing there because they had poured kerosene on my head to kill the lice, so I had open sores and it burned like the dickens. But the screaming was from the nurse that had come down the stairs and looked into the makeshift morgue and saw me sitting up. Then the doctor came in and was so happy that I was okay, but not my mother. My mother wanted me gone. She said to me, 'Why didn't you stay dead?'"
Gerda says if she had “stayed dead” her mother would have been able to use Gerda’s ration stamps, but she wouldn’t let her mother get to her.
Gerda: "But I thought, 'I am going to show you. I'm going to make it.' By golly, I made it. But not in my wildest dreams did I think I had to take a Norwegian to boot. I thought that I could do it on my own." She winks.
Arnold: "That’s the breaks."
Gerda: "Yah, sure."
When Gerda met Arnold - from church to shots fired
Gerda: "I didn't believe in God because we had to clean out the concentration camp, you know, and what you saw in there ... you didn’t think the Lord would allow that to happen to his children. So I hadn’t been to church since ‘45. Then, all of a sudden, one of the girls who worked as a maid with me for the Americans (in Wurzburg, Germany where Gerda settled after the war) said to me, 'Gerda, let's go to the American church.' I said, 'No Elsie, I'm not going,' and I said that for a few weeks. They had Wednesdays just for the maids that worked for the Americans, and one time I got mad at her and said, 'Okay Elsie, let’s go.' Then I went, and there he was, sitting there in the other room, just like that there. I peeked in there, and I said, 'Oh Elsie, that’s the guy I want.' Elsie thought he was so sexy, and then she said to me 'Have you looked in the mirror lately?'
She didn’t get to meet Arnold that day, but in January 1957 at a bar/restaurant, Arnold ended up sitting next to Elsie and Gerda when Arnold noticed Gerda had a gun in her open purse.
Arnold: "It looked like a little cap pistol, you know, so I thought I should check it out. Of course, I had a few beers in me, so I was feeling pretty brave."
Gerda: "He said to his army buddies, 'Look it here — little pistol-packing Annie.' And before I knew it, he pointed it to the floor and bang, bang — he shot it off twice."
Arnold: "It turned out to be tear gas. The whole place filled up and cleared out." He laughs.
Arnold offered Elsie and Gerda a ride home in his new Volkswagen, but Gerda wasn’t having it. But eventually, Arnold talked her into going out with him.
Arnold: "She was cute and kind of feisty. That first night we met, we sat and talked up by that Wurzburg Castle until 5 o’clock in the morning. I told her all about my life in Walcott, and she told me all about her life."
Gerda: "I thought he would never come back after that, but he did."
Arnold: "That didn’t scare me off. I knew that during wars terrible things happen, whether it’s WWI, WWII, Vietnam or Afghanistan. A lot of terrible things happen."
Coming to North Dakota
They dated throughout 1957, eventually got married in Germany and moved to Walcott in 1958. Gerda was in for a culture shock.
Arnold: "When we first came, we lived with my parents on the farm west of Walcott while we looked for a house. We finally found this little bitty house. ... No running water. We had an outhouse."
Gerda: "I had never seen an outhouse my whole life until I came here. One day, I went to sit down to do my business, when I felt a bite. Wouldn’t you know it? A chicken was down there. He must have thought he saw the moon, but it was my butt. Uffda!"
Gerda actually used the Norwegian exclamation "Uffda" frequently during the interview, but she explained, "it's better than saying "Himmeldonnerwetter noch einmal!" (The German equivalent of Uffda, which according to Google Translate means "Sky Thunder Again!")
Before moving to America, she was warned Americans would not be welcoming to her because of anti-German sentiment stemming from the war, but Gerda says everyone was very welcoming, including her new in-laws.
Gerda: "My father-in-law was an old farmer and never had anything bad to say. My mother-in-law, she was an angel. She was the only mother I really knew."
Arnold: "My mother was really a kind, gentle person and accepting of things. But you know, the whole Jordheim family were strict Norwegian Lutherans, so the first weekend she was here, my grandfather Nels Jordheim, who came from Norway, came up to her and real bluntly said to her, 'Are you Lutheran?' She was baptized Lutheran, so that was good."
Over the years, Gerda and Arnold raised three sons in that little 600-square-foot house they bought after they married. Arnold added onto it "about six times."
Arnold even built two small buildings in their backyard — one a Norwegian stabbur, the other a two-story Black Forest house — as a way to share their heritage with their sons and grandchildren.
Arnold worked as the postmaster and city auditor, while Gerda volunteered at a coffee shop. In the ‘60s, they took part in a German club with other Fargo-area men who married German women. They've been back to Europe several times, including in 1995 when Gerda reunited with lost friends and relatives on the 50th anniversary of the evacuation of Neufahrwasser. She even revisited the old box cars that took her to the former concentration camp. So many bad memories, but Gerda chooses not to dwell on them.
She says people have asked her how she stays so positive and upbeat after all she's been through.
Gerda: "Well, I used to always tell people to forget about it, but that doesn’t really work because I still have the nightmares. That is very hard. I don’t remember everything, but I do in my dreams. But I always say I started living when I came here to Walcott. My mother-in-law was an angel. She showed me what a mother was supposed to do. That all helped. And he helped, too (gesturing to Arnold), but he used to be so obedient. Now he is kind of a dictator."
Gerda winks again and Arnold just smiles.
Note: Gerda's early life coincided with the beginnings of WWII in Europe. To get a better understanding of how events of the war lined up with her life, take a look at the timeline below. Gerda's life is seen to the left (in blue) while the events of the war are to the right (listed in red). Infogram by Emma Vatnsdal.