German immigrant Alfred Schroeder found a new life in 1950s Cleveland
Alfred Schroeder has traveled the world, lost his family, gained a new one and made the best of nearly a century on earth.
At 94, the fiercely independent and upbeat German immigrant has energy to spare. He didn't hesitate to speak or struggle to recall even a single detail as he gave a tour of his impeccably maintained Parma home.
“I was born in Maidan, which is in East Prussia, very close to the Lithuanian border," said Schroeder. "My parents had a farm. I went to school in Maidan until I was 14, and I worked also on the farm, helping out, picking strawberries, raspberries, whatever had to be done."
The Prussian kingdom was part of the German Reich, in an area that frequently changed hands over the centuries. At its peak, it represented more than half of the German empire. The entire area that composed East Prussia is now divided between Poland and Russia. The Prussian people, who were German in language and tradition, but with their own distinct culture and traditions, are a fading memory.
The village of Maidan was near the major Prussian city of Braunsberg, now Braniewo, Poland. The Schroeder family farm employed Polish people from just across the border, and they enjoyed a good relationship with them, according to Schroeder.
“Although I had older brothers, they all went their own way, got a trade and established themselves. So on our farm, we needed help. And during the summer, every year we had a Polish woman working for us as well as Polish men. And the relation was with them just like it was one of our own," said Schroeder.
Their relationship with their Polish employees was so close that when the war broke out, the Schroeder family was trusted to hide a Polish man from the Nazis on their farm. He lived with them for years and survived the war in hiding with them.
“We got to meet this man, a Polish man, through some other Polish people who had worked on our farm. And since one of the men sent this man to our parents, they hid him there, which was very dangerous," said Schroeder.
"Had anybody found out at that time from the German government? There was a Polish man hidden? I do not know what would have happened to our parents," said Schroeder. "It was very dangerous.”
Too young for war
Schroeder had three brothers, all older, and three sisters, two of whom were younger than him. As World War II consumed Europe, Schroeder was too young for conscription and was sent to a boarding school. He has memories of meeting the man hidden by his parents on their farm, when he was home for Christmas.
All three of Schroeder's brothers were drafted and served in the German Army, fighting for the Third Reich, and were killed in battle. As the war ended, stories of massacre at the hands of the advancing Russian Army stoked fear among the German people of East Prussia, who evacuated. In the early months of 1945, roughly two million Prussians fled.
The Schroeders — Al’s father, mother and two younger sisters — were apprehended by Russian troops as they fled the family farm. Instead of facing any violence from the Russians, as they feared, they were ordered to return home.
“As soon as they turned around, a Polish man took our horse and wagon and he shot my father right in front of my mother, as well as my two sisters who were with my parents," said Schroeder. "And at that point, my mother was separated from my sisters, and each of the sisters were also separated from each other.”
Schroeder was still studying at a boarding school that specialized in training future school teachers. He had no ability to contact his family, but he hoped their good relations with the local Polish community would help to keep them safe. At this time there was rampant violence and reprisals in the wake of the fall of the Axis powers. Both the Polish people south of East Prussia and the Russian people to the north and east had hard feelings over German aggression during the war.
“Right after the war, Russian soldiers moved in, but the organization, as far as government is concerned, did not. So things were very tipsy turvy after the war," said Schroeder.
Schroeder’s sisters were each taken to different places within Poland, while their mother was sent to a Polish prison and was never seen or heard from again.
"In that prison where my mother was, there were no record, no records kept. So consequently, we never could find out what really happened to her," said Schroeder.
His sisters had to fend for themselves during this time, as he did.
"The older sister, she was 12 at that time and she worked for a farmer. She had to sleep with the animals in the barn, and she could not go into the house. And she was quite, quite mistreated by the farmer,” said Schroeder.
It would be nearly two decades before the Schroeder siblings would finally be reunited.
Alone in the world
“I was on my own. I was fleeing on my own, as well as my parents were fleeing on their own by horse and wagon, whereas I was fleeing then by way of trucks, trains, on a bike, on foot," said Schroeder. "And this was in the middle of the winter, which was the end of January in 1945. It was a very, very cold winter.”
Schroeder would spend over a decade as an itinerant worker in a divided and rebuilding Germany. First in Communist East Germany and then later in West Germany, as a farm hand, bricklayer and construction worker. Finally he had an opportunity to move to the United States, settling in Cleveland, where some distant relatives had made a home.
“The people that I lived originally, when I came to the States, I didn't like the whole setup. It was just not my style of living and relationships and so on. It was not conducive, let's put it that way,” said Schroeder.
It was then, in 1957, that Alfred Schroeder was introduced to Beatrice Helke, a fellow German expatriate, 30 years his senior. She had a house in Bratenahl that he moved into as a boarder.
“She was by herself, and she thought it would be nice to have a man in the house to perhaps do some outside work, cut the lawn and do other things. So I did get my food there. She cooked, she washed for me and she did whatever I needed her to to do," said Schroeder.
During this time, Schroeder was using his construction experience to work by day, while going to school by night to get his degree. He still dreamed of becoming a teacher, as he was on track to do at his boarding school in Germany.
"As things developed in the relationship between her and me, we adopted each other. She adopted me as her son, and I had adopted her as my second mother since I had lost my real mother right after the war in '45," said Schroeder. "I did for her whatever needed to be done since she was so good and trying to further my education as much as she could."
From 1957 until 1978, Schroeder lived with his "second mother" in her Bratenahl home.
"Later on she got worse with her health. And I did take care of her. Until the end. I fed her. I cleaned. I washed everything, her clothes and so on," said Schroeder. "I was just like a caretaker really, to the very, very end.”
With Helke's support over the years, Schroeder completed his degree at John Carroll University and quickly became a German language and photography teacher at Garfield Heights High School, where he would stay for his whole career.
All three of Schroeder's sisters were living in Poland after the war. Over the years, they had assimilated to Polish culture, and even became Polish citizens.
"They were married, already, each of them had a family. When they were younger, the Polish government demanded that they sign an application saying that they were Polish people, not German," said Schroeder. "And this made it difficult for me, their brother, to get them out of Poland, because Poland did not let anybody out at that time. No people could move to any other country."
The remaining Schroeder siblings were finally reunited thanks to the generosity their parents had shown two decades earlier. In the 1950s, while Schroeder was still living in West Germany, they were reconnected by the very man whom their parents had hidden on the farm.
"After the war, naturally, this Polish man went home and quite a few years later, I tried to reach this man. I wrote him a letter, and he did write me a letter back and gave me the information where my two sisters, my two younger sisters, were. From there on, I was in contact with them by mail, but only by mail," said Schroeder.
It wasn't until 1962, after Alfred Schroeder had emigrated to the United States, that he was able to visit his sisters in Poland and see them in person for the first time in nearly twenty years.
A neighborhood family
Schroeder has lived in Parma since Helke’s passing in the late '70s. He has made the best of his life here. Schroeder never married and lives alone.
He works out at the Donna Smallwood Senior Center, goes shopping, cooks and cleans for himself and does all his own landscaping and gardening. In fact, he's out in the yard so much, the Google Street View of his house shows him out front, working on the lawn. He even does yoga.
On a table in his living room sits a picture of a smiling young family. They are neighbors with whom he has developed a close bond.
"Very good friends. They live diagonally from me. That's their family," said Schroeder. "I just was there for dinner at Easter time. Christmas, before I had friends, I celebrated with my other friends, German friends. Christmas and Thanksgivings and things like that. But now that's shifted to them.”
Schroeder keeps his neighborhood family close by welcoming the people who move in with open arms.
“A young family moved in three years ago. Not everybody was so very happy about that. He was from Iraq and she was from Egypt. They had two boys and a girl. And the people thought, 'Oh, these are Arabs' and so on," said Schroeder.
Schroeder didn't hesitate to reach out to the new family and give them the kind of help he feels he received from people like Beatrice Helke.
"I talked to the other people, and I told them a little more about them since I had the first contact," said Schroeder, who helped introduce the new family to the neighborhood and put prejudices to rest.
Schroeder meticulously maintains a house full of beautiful artifacts of a life fully lived. The walls are covered in cultural pieces and artworks from his travels. He's particularly fond of pieces from his trips to New Zealand, Alaska and Africa.
He maintains his massive record collection, which includes classic jazz and classical, and is more than happy to pull a record from the library to spin on his antique cabinet record player that still works like new.
In his quiet, picturesque neighborhood, Schroeder's life is, like his favorite version of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony that he spins on his turntable, pastoral.
Asked if he still has memories of his parents, Schroeder is quick to recount a recent dream about his mother.
"I saw her. Yes, she was with other people together, with other women," he recalled. "And they all were wearing black. And she was ready to leave wherever they were at that time. And I said, 'No, I have to sleep. I'm sleepy. I cannot go along.'"
Schroeder remembers his mother with a smile, her image clear in his mind.