Robert Wagemann was born in 1937 in Mannheim, Germany.
Robert and his family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Nazis regarded Jehovah’s Witnesses as enemies of the state for their refusal to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, or to serve in the German army. Robert’s family continued its religious activities despite Nazi persecution. Shortly before Robert’s birth, his mother was imprisoned briefly for distributing religious materials. Robert’s hip was injured during delivery, leaving him with a disability. When Robert was five years, he was ordered to report for a physical in Schlierheim. His mother overheard staff comments about putting Robert “to sleep.” Fearing they intended to kill him, Robert’s mother grabbed him and ran from the clinic. Nazi physicians had begun systematic killing of those they deemed physically and mentally disabled in the fall of 1939.
“My mom and I were summoned to a, a part of the university clinic in Heidelberg, in Schlierheim, and there I was examined. And during the examination my mom was sitting on the outside of the room, and she overheard a conversation that the doctors would do away with me, uh, would ab…would abspritz me, which means that they would give me a needle and put me to sleep. My mom overheard the conversation and, uh, during lunch time, while the, uh, doctors were gone, she, uh, grabbed hold of me, we went down to the Neckar River into the high reeds and there she put my clothes on, and from there on we really went into hiding because now we knew that they really were after us.”
Ceija was the fifth of six children born to Roman Catholic Gypsy parents. The Stojka’s family wagon traveled with a caravan that spent winters in the Austrian capital of Vienna and summers in the Austrian countryside. The Stojka’s belonged to a tribe of Gypsies called the Lowara Roma, who made their living as itinerant horse traders.
“I grew up used to freedom, travel and hard work. Once, my father made me a skirt out of some material from a broken sunshade. I was 5 years old and our wagon was parked for the winter in a Vienna campground, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. The Germans ordered us to stay put. My parents had to convert our wagon into a wooden house, and we had to learn how to cook with an oven instead of on an open fire.”
“Gypsies were forced to register as members of another “race.” Our campground was fenced off and placed under police guard. I was 8 when the Germans took my father away; a few months later, my mother received his ashes in a box. Next, the Germans took my sister, Kathi. Finally, they deported all of us to a Nazi camp for Gypsies in Auschwitz/Birkenau. We lived in the shadows of a smoking crematorium, and we called the path in front of our barracks the “highway to hell” because it led to the gas chambers.”
Wilhelm Heckmann was a German concert and easy listening musician. From 1937 to 1945 he was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps in Dachau and Mauthausen. Heckmann founded the first prisoner band In Mauthausen, and was also instrumental in the founding of the large prisoner orchestra there.
The son of innkeeper Adolf Heckmann, Willi Heckmann grew up in the public house environs of Altena (Westphalia). During World War I, he served in the Patriotic Emergency Services and the military. After the war, Heckmann studied vocals and piano with Otto Laugs at the state conservatory in Hagen (Westphalia).
During the 1920s, he was a guest performer as the “Rhineland Tenor” in Wuppertal, Altena, Rheydt, Zurich and Berlin. He was also a silent film musician in the “Zentraltheater” in Altena and the “Thalia” in Wuppertal. During the early-1930s, he was a guest performer in Stuttgart, Gotha and Düsseldorf. Beginning in 1934, the Nazi government implemented a policy of “Gleichschaltung,” which brought professional musicians into line according to race. So-called degenerate music (“Entartete Musik”) was ostracized and popular, easy listening music (“Schlager”) was promoted. The music magazine “Das Deutsche Podium, Kampfblatt für deutsche Musik” (“The German Podium, Fighting Paper of German Music”) increasingly lauded Heckmann: “… during the course of several months, he has won over a large base of friends and supporters … with his fine, well-trained tenor voice …” “… Willi Heckmann – an all-around musical talent … his volume fills the room … piano playing, a pleasant chord, well-trained vocals, Herr Heckmann has it all …”
I was born near a small town in Poland, Tomaszow-Lubelski, Zamosc, on August 1, 1926. My father was a very rich man, but the Communists took everything from him. He was a big tailor, and he had learners under him.
In January of 1928, I was still a baby when the Communists took everything from him and sent my mother and father to Siberia. They put me into an orphanage in Kaluga, Russia. Since I was a baby, I don’t remember much about what happened. I remember being away from my parents, and I remember that there was so much going on. I remember being in the orphanage, too. My brother was about a year older than me, and Nina was maybe a year younger. My oldest sister was already married then, so only the three of us were placed in the orphanage.
There were eleven children in my family all together – I was one of eleven. Only four survived infancy – the rest died when they were young. My father was thirty-five years older than my mother – he had bought her from her family in the Ukraine. She was Ukrainian. My father was an alcoholic, and he beat my mother, and she would go have a child somewhere. I don’t know when or where, I just know there were eleven children. So much went on, I had no chance to learn anything, because I didn’t live with them very long. I was always so busy, I was always working. I would wash clothes, I would go somewhere with my father to do sewing somewhere in the country, I was always busy.
While in the orphanage, I got only five years of school education. (A note from her husband: Later after the liberation and working for the Americans she could speak Polish, Russian, German, some French and English). Kaluga was a regular town. I don’t remember very much about it, it’s been too long ago. I do remember having to walk to the school. Since the school was not in the orphanage, we had to walk, even when it was cold. I did well in school, went through the fifth grade. Most of the time, I had to work in the fields, or do gardening and I also played all kinds of sports.
There was no religion in the orphanage – you were not allowed any religion anywhere in Communist Russia. My father was Orthodox. I don’t know if he was sent away because he was rich, or because he was Orthodox. But I do know that if they came to your home and they saw a picture of Jesus or something, they would kill you on the spot.
I will always remember the war years of my childhood. Though we survived the Holocaust, my parents and siblings have not escaped the pain.
In 1941, the Nazi invaded Ukraine, my Motherland, and their objective was to annihilate the Ukrainians not to liberate them. Like Joseph Stalin in 1932-33 tried to kill the Ukrainians by starvation. My 2 older sisters and my aunt (who was 12 years old) barely survived that horror. We lived in Tomakovka at that time. As the Germans invaded untold thousands of civilians were rounded up, shot and buried in mass graves.
After setting up their operational head quarters, the Germans learned our family was one of two in Tomakovka who spoke German and my mother was put to work as a translator for a period of time. Mother knew that refusing would mean a death sentence for our entire family. My older sister, Nelly, (14 years old) had to shine their boots and wash their clothes while they lived in our home.
Because Germany had so many men in uniform, there was a tremendous shortage of workers at home to support the war industry. The German solution to this problem was to use slave laborers on a massive scale to relieve the shortage.
German army kidnapped young adults off the streets and shipped them to Germany as slave laborers to work in the most dangerous conditions. Forced labor camps were established throughout Germany. Thousands died in these camps from disease, starvation, allied bombings and harsh working conditions. The demand for more and more workers to replace the dead increased. My cousins and uncles were rounded up and transported to Germany. My sister, Nelly, was spared this fate because she could speak German and was put to work by the Nazis as a telephone operator for the military communications.
In February 1943 after the crushing defeat at Stalingrad the inevitable German retreat began. The Germans rounded up entire towns and villages along the way and transported men, women, and children to Germany to re-supply the slave labor camps. My family was included in this round up.