Mary Lawrence, of the Aylesbury Ward, has been a member of the Church and interested in family history for more than 40 years. Mary’s Ukrainian parents met at a displaced persons (DP) camp in Augsburg, Germany at the end of World War II. She wanted to go to Augsburg, and Pfaffenhofen where her mother had been forced to work on a farm when she was only 18. The ‘Iron Curtain’, which had separated Eastern Europe from Western Europe, had prevented access to family and other information. Even after a visit to the Ukraine in 2005, with much filling of forms, deciphering of gravestones with Cyrillic script, and questioning family members, it had not been possible for her to complete four generations of her family history.
This year she felt strongly that she must go, and her children helped her get there.
Finding information about the DP camp and forced-labour arrangements, in preparation for the trip, proved extremely difficult. There were literally hundreds of camps at the end of the war, including several near Augsburg. Emails to archives in both towns provided no helpful information.
Regardless, Mary booked tickets to Munich and arranged her accommodations, praying for help and inspiration, but anxious about how she could possibly find what she was looking for.
The first day, Mary felt impressed to go to Pfaffenhofen. Thinking the local tourist office might help her, she tried but couldn’t find it but—she later discovered the building was being repaired and its sign had been removed!
After trudging unsuccessfully up and down the main square, she went into a bookshop. A very helpful assistant, who spoke excellent English, showed her a book which had a short paragraph about forced labourers working in the area during the war. More importantly, the assistant said the book’s author, Reinhard Haiplik, lived locally, had been in the bookshop the previous day, and provided his phone number.
Attempts to find the tourist office had also paid off. The member of staff knew little English, but Mary managed to convey that she’d like to speak to Mr Haiplik. A phone call established that he would be happy to come along to the office. He spoke good English and he was very pleased to tell Mary about her mother’s likely experiences and to see her mother’s photograph, taken in Pfaffenhoffen during the War.
Hardly believing that the next day would live up to first, the next morning Mary set off for Augsburg, praying for help and inspiration. Her first stop was at the local tourist office where she was given two possible DP locations. Mary was warned to expect very little, as both sites were now housing estates.
Mary selected Reesepark, which the United States Army had taken over in the post-war years. There were three long, tall buildings around a large, open central area—buildings resembling barracks. They now appeared to house artist studios and small businesses, but as it was a Saturday there was no one to ask for information. But another smaller building nearby was very busy, and enquiries revealed that the site was indeed an arts centre. They were holding a children’s art day, and the director, Gerald Fiebig (who wouldn’t normally work on the weekend), was present.
Gerald made time to talk to Mary, enough to confirm that the arts centre had once been a German barracks and then a DP camp. It had housed only Ukrainians (some 6,000 of them) and had been known as Somme, a word that had appeared on Mary’s father’s identity papers but had meant nothing to her until then.
They met again at the end of Gerald’s working day. He told her he wished to document the history of the camp, as the old barracks were due for demolition in 2019. The information and photographs Mary could give him would contribute greatly. He also put Mary in touch with Canadian Roman Korol, who had lived at the camp for some years as a child and who posts information about the camp on a website—he is hoping to organise a reunion before the demolition.
Her second day had proved to be every bit as miraculous as her first. There were so many instances of Mary’s prayers being answered. Family history research is about the places where people have lived as well as names and dates. Although Mary’s efforts to find dates and names seem to be blocked, she feels closer to her parents by having been to places that were important in their lives. Her faith has been greatly strengthened by the answers she received to her prayers.