poppy image  “As Important As It Is To Tell The Story Of poppy image
Dachau And Buchenwald,
It Is Also Important To Realize That These Stories Are Only a Part Of
The Holocaust History.
Gakowa And The Other Six Of Tito’s Concentration Camps
Are Also a Part Of The Holocaust Story; a Part That Has Been Less Publicized.”

– Part of a testimonial written by Anton Zettl, professor at Northern Illinois University for "A Pebble in My Shoe"

By Kaitlin Warriner
Associate Editor
The Star, Sun Prairie, WI

“The train whistles a warning to announce its afternoon arrival in the town of Gakowa, Yugoslavia. I run across the street to welcome the large, black monster powering towards me. At 8 years old, I find it exciting and fun to watch the “goings on” of the people getting off, unloading their baggage and greeting their families. Finally, the train moves on, and all is quiet again.”
“We live at the edge of town by the train station, on a corner lot. Chestnut trees line part of the house and an orchard of cherry trees graces the front of our living and bedrooms. My favorite fruit are cherries and I cannot wait for them to ripen. During the cherry-picking season, I sneak into the orchard and pick what I can from the low-hanging branches. When a stomach ache follows because of my overindulgence, I suffer the consequences.”

Katherine and George Flotz

And so A Pebble in My Shoe begins -- an autobiographical memoir of Katherine Hoeger Flotz’s memories and experiences in the former Yugoslavia near the end of World War II. Chapter one reveals a happy childhood for Katherine in Gakowa. Chapter four reveals the life and struggles of the Flotz family, living 10 miles from Gakowa in Bezdan, whose son, George Jr. was to be Katherine’s future husband. The book goes on to tell aspects of both survivor’s stories until the two separate accounts become one at a German dance in Chicago many years later. The couple will celebrate 50 years of marriage this year.

“The Holocaust is known, this is not known. I think it’s a good idea to share this story because if these elder people who went through this don’t tell their story, it’ll get lost,” said George.

This is their story.

As the second World War ended, ethnic Germans (or Donauschwaben) left Yugoslavia in fear of the impending Russian invasion. Families were torn apart and belongings, homes and the feeling of security was lost.

Under Marshal Tito’s communist regime, the remaining ethnic Germans suffered the consequences for the actions taken by Nazi Germany. They became the ‘enemy of the state.’ Young men and women who weren’t drafted were sent to labor camps in Russia and exiled to the towns of Gakowa, Kruschiwl, Rudolfsgnad, Molidorf, Mitrovica, and Jarek – known to be cleansing sites. Mothers, children and the elderly were incarcerated in these towns in crowded houses with little food, no comfort and left to die.

Katherine, 9, and her sister, Erna, 3, were among the thousands of Donauschwaben who were punished for the actions of the Nazi party. The sisters lost both parents within a year.

Katherine Flotz

“My father was taken into the army in September of 1944, he was drafted into the Germany army, we were of German ancestry, living in Yugoslavia. We never did hear from him again,” said Katherine in a recent interview preceding a “Young and Restless” book club meeting on Sun Prairie’s east side hosted by Peggy Strother. “We lost track of him. He never returned. We don’t know where he died or where he’s buried – he was just reported missing by the government.”

Their mother died in 1945 from Typhoid Fever.

“Both her and I had Typhoid Fever, but I lived and she died,” said Katherine. “There was no doctor, help or medication so it was just a matter of who was going to outlive the other. It was up to God. I was 9, she was only 28.”

Unfortunately for Katherine and Erna, losing their parents was only the beginning of what was to become a horrible nightmare. Starting in late 1944, Katherine and her family and neighbors spent three years in a concentration camp in Gakowa, a small German town in the northeast corner of Yugoslavia, guarded by communist partisans of Tito.

Gakowa Memorial

“It was Nov. 25, 1944 – that’s when we were actually incarcerated, so to speak,” said Katherine. “We were taken into the town hall, about 2,500 of us, kept there, searched and interrogated. That night we were put into houses next to the town hall, men in one, women in the other and kept there for about two weeks.”

The conditions were nothing to brag about – crowded and filthy. People slept on the floor and lice and diseases were more plentiful than food.

“Soon, they let us out and told us to go back to our houses, which we found looted and vandalized,” remembered Katherine. “It was just before Christmas, so we just made the best of what was left.”

Their camp was one of seven in Yugoslavia where ethnic Germans were imprisoned to ‘equalize’ what Nazi Germany did during the Holocaust.

By March of 1945, other Germans were brought into the camps from the surrounding countries, making conditions even more unbearable.

“Most of the people who lived in Gakowa were able to stay in their houses, but in my case it was different. My family had a business, a tavern with wine in the cellar, so the head guy wanted to live in our house, he wanted to make our house his headquarters,” Katherine said. No switching was done until Katherine’s mother, Katharina, was buried and Katherine was fully recovered from Typhoid, because it was a very contagious disease.

“We were really one of the only families in town that had to leave our house,” Katherine said. “We only could take what we could carry.”

Katherine and Erna were separated and raised by relatives in the camp, later escaping in 1947, one of Germany and the other to Austria.

“My sister and I went to my mother’s family. My mother’s brother and sister took one of us each. We were raised by them all the way through until we came to America (Katherine in 1949 and Erna in 1951),” Katherine said. “My sister was only 3 and didn’t know what was going on. I was 9, going on 10, and now that I think about it, as a child, you don’t take things as seriously as an adult because somebody is there to tell you what to do and feed you and you just can’t believe what can happen. It’s unreal to me even now.”

As Katherine struggled to recover from Typhoid Fever, people were dying – hundreds per day, Katherine remembered. “They were burying them in mass graves.”

“The young people between the ages of 17 and 35 that could work were taken away to work in Russia because (Josef) Stalin wanted to be repaid by the Germans for what Hitler did to his country,” said Katherine, who remembers hearing that she was being treated unfairly in the camps because she was German and Hitler was losing the war.

Katherine also remembered that many grandmothers who were looking out for their grandchildren passed their food onto them, so they’d have a better chance of surviving. Soon the caretakers died, leaving throngs of orphans to roam the camps.

Although located in Yugoslavia, Gakowa was only five miles from the border of Hungary … and freedom.

“People started to try and escape after the second year – some were shot when they were caught and some were not caught. Most were caught and tortured. Some got sold and beaten up,” said Katherine. “We didn’t do anything until three years later when it was so bad -- there was nothing left to burn, no running water, no electricity, and no central heat – that we decided to escape.”

During an inky night in August 1947, Katherine and a group of 20 people crept the five miles to the border where they were caught.

“We were caught and the guy who guided us who was supposed to take us over, ran back to the camp, so here we are all alone with the soldiers who caught us. They had us wait, it was early morning, we sat around all day while they went through our things,” said Katherine. “That evening, the guy in charge said we could go. Why, we don’t know. He just said ‘go.’ I consider that another miracle that I’m here.”

Erna was not with Katherine as she crossed the border of Hungary; she left with the family members she was staying with a month later. The sisters were not reunited until Erna reached Chicago in 1951.

“From Hungary, we had to get into Austria crossing a border. We had no papers or money while we were traveling, so it was always done at night,” Katherine said. “We had very little food and you more or less had to fend for yourself.”

Katherine traveled on foot for two weeks when she finally reached Germany to stay with family.

“I was in Germany for two years. I went to school there – there was no school in the camps and I was only in second grade when the camps started – so that was all I had until I got to Germany and I was 12 years old,” said Katherine.

After two more years of separation while in Germany and Austria, Katherine came to America in 1949 when she was 14 and Erna came in 1951. They made Chicago their home.

Meanwhile George Jr. survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany in February 1945, while hundreds of thousands did not.

“My two brothers and my mom survived it,” said George. “I was 12 years old at the time.”

George packed up and went to Austria in 1947 to try to get to the United States, which he did in 1949, with one provision, that six months after arriving in the U.S. he had to enter the draft for the U.S. Army.

“Within 13 months I was in the Army and shortly after that I was in Korea,” George said. “I take credit for ending the war in Korea because after I got there, it stopped.”

The significance of the title, A Pebble in My Shoe came from Katherine’s memory.

“When we were in the camp, there was nothing to buy. Whatever you had was what you had. If you outgrew it, you had to trade. I had shoes that were pretty worn out and then of course we walked a lot and I had a lot of holes in my shoes and you get the pebbles in your shoes. It’s painful if you get a pebble in your shoe,” Katherine said. “It’s a metaphor for the pain and suffering we did in those camps. It just kind of came into my head and I thought that’d be perfect.”

Katherine started writing her memories from living in Yugoslavia down in a journal after graduating high school for personal reasons … until her children persuaded her to make them into a book.

“I would use my journal and George would dictate to me and we’d remember the story,” said Katherine of writing the book.

A passage from Deuteronomy lines the first page of the book, “Do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart in your lifetime, teach them to your children.”

The book is dedicated to their three children: Peter, Heide Marie and Katherine Ann; their five grandchildren, Daniel Paul, Lynne Marie, Clayton George, Cole Bates, and Marin Katharine; and to all future generations of the Flotz family.

Although Katherine and George lived in the Chicago area from 1949/1955-1993, they now reside in Indiana.

“I lived through Typhoid Fever and the camps to continue the story on for all the people that died in the camps or for the people who are too old to talk or express themselves,” Katherine said to members of “The Young and the Restless” book club. “Most say that they’ve never known about this when I tell them my story. There are other very bad things that happened to people than the Holocaust. I love to talk to people and I love to write and what better thing to do with those things than this?”

We gratefully acknowledge the kind and generous assistance of Kaitlin Warriner, Associate Editor of the Sun Prairie Star in granting us permission to reprint this article here for your consideration.

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