Archive for Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Baldwin City remembers life-changing decision near end of World War II

Karin Constantinescu poses with the photo of her late husband, Nicholas, who she met when they were both refugees in Austria late in World War II.

Karin Constantinescu poses with the photo of her late husband, Nicholas, who she met when they were both refugees in Austria late in World War II.

April 29, 2014

Karin Constantinescu says was too swept up in the momentum of events to remember exactly what she was doing May 8, 1945, when World War II ended in Europe.

Details like dates are hard to pick out in the swirl of activities, but the 89-year-old Baldwin City woman vividly recalls the larger picture of the European war’s last months. Her story was that of a refugee, who fled to Linz, Austria, from her hometown of Waldegg, about 25 miles southwest of Vienna, to escape Russian troops advancing from the east.

The life-changing decision to join German soldiers. attempting to surrender to Allied forces before being overrun by the Soviet army was made near Easter, or April 1, 1945. The decision separated her from her mother and 10-year-old sister, Ingrid.

“They told us the Russians were doing terrible things to young German women,” Constantinescu said. “My mother told me I better go. I went with a friend and her cousin.”

Constantinescu said she and her two traveling companies climbed on the back of German transport trucks with Waldegg residents of all ages. They traveled about a day and a half before arriving at Linz.

“We were told later we were the last ones they let cross the bridge on the Danube,” she said. “We were lucky. After that, they started turning everyone back.”

The 20-year-old Karin Garher was just one of millions to have their lives disrupted and transformed by the war. She would never again live in the three-bedroom stone house on a winding street in Waldegg, a village nestled in a valley of the Austrian Alps about a 30- to 45-minute train ride from Vienna, Constantinescu said.

“We would go shopping in Vienna, like you would go to Kansas City,” she said. “On Saturday and Sunday, we would take the train to visit relatives or they would visit us. I had an aunt and an uncle in Vienna. We used to do that all the time. And then we would go walking.”

Her father worked in a bakery within walking distance of their home, or did until he was conscripted into the Third Reich’s army during the war. The village was spared the destruction visited on so much of Europe. But just as in American, war made its presence known through absences.

“All the boys my age were gone,” Constantinescu said. “Some of them came back and some of them didn’t. I had a cousin a year younger than me who never came back.”

The town’s Jewish population had also disappeared.

“They were the nicest people,” she said. “They were gone. We never knew what happened to them.”

The only time she experienced the physical peril of war was when the Allies bombed a nearby airfield late in the war. She, her mother and her sister spent a terrifying night in a bomb shelter.

“When the was over, we all went to see. There were quite a few bodies,” she said.

Things were peaceful when she arrived in American-occupied Linz. She first stayed with other women in a church and soon found work at a maternity hospital being used to treat sick and injured American soldiers.

“I worked in the hospitality room, making sure they had cigarettes, coffee and things,” she said. “There were a few who wanted to ask me out, but we didn’t speak the same language.”

A handsome young Romanian working as a janitor at the hospital had better luck. Nicholas Constantinescu had escaped to the Allied zone with other soldiers from his country.

“They were having a birthday party for one of his friends,” she said. “All the others had girls to take to the party, but he didn’t. His friends asked him, ‘Why don’t you ask the blonde over there?’ I told him, ‘I’ll meet you there, but if you don’t show up, I’m leaving.’ But, of course, he did.

“You know how it is. You go on one date, then another. We were married in 1948.”

Because of the budding romance, Constantinescu decided not to return with her girlfriend to Waldegg about six weeks after they arrived in Linz. She stayed on, getting a job in a pencil factory. She did visit her mother on occasion, finding Waldegg had escaped mostly unscathed from the Russian’s arrival, but her father in poor health.

“He was a prisoner (of war),” she said. “I don’t know if it was the Americans or Russians. They kept him out in the open. He got very sick. He never really recovered.”

Constantinescu said she got work in a pencil factory and her future husband worked in a steel foundry and in a U.S. Army nightclub.

“The Americans were very good to us,” she said. “Everybody was supposed to go back to their home countries after a year. But Nick didn’t want to go back to Romania. The Communists were doing terrible things there. They let him stay because of the Communists.”

In the early 1950s, other young couples they knew were leaving for North America. Constantinescu said. They had a chance to emigrate to Canada, but they decided to wait for an opportunity to leave for the United States.

“When I was young and would want something, my mother would say ‘wait until your rich aunt from America sends money,’” she said. “So, that’s where I wanted to go and start a new life.”

The couple and their 2-year old son, Marion, arrived in the United States in 1951, sponsored by Jim Allen, who owned Allen’s Drive-Ins in Kansas City among other business ventures. Allen and his wife put them up at their Lake Lotawana, Mo., estate. Constantine cooked, kept house and watched the Allens’ boy, while her husband kept the estate’s grounds and maintained the family’s many cars.

After a year, her husband got a job at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto and she would move with him two months later into a worker village near the plant. In 1955, noisy neighbors prompted them to search for new living arrangements in Baldwin City. Nicholas would eventually get a job with General Motors in Kansas City. He died in 2002. She would work 22 years at Hallmark in Lawrence before retiring in 1980, Constantinescu said.

She has visited Austria five or six times since immigrating to the U.S., and she and her sister talk monthly by phone, Constantinescu said. She and her husband twice visited Romania.

Constantinescu said she “hates war,” but she is pleased with the life she has lived since fleeing her hometown nearly seven decades ago.

“I’ve lived here for nearly 60 years,” she said. “My son has retired here. My granddaughter and great-grandchildren live here. This is where I’m from now.”

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