When Margot Hall steps through the doorway of her Newtown home, two bricks stacked nearby remind her of a place far away and long ago. She thinks of the home in Forst-Berge, Germany, where she was born in 1939, the stucco-covered brick façade and the gleaming red roof tiles. She remembers large family celebrations, and peeking into the living room through the keyhole of the wooden door on Christmas Eve, as her father embellished the Christmas tree with ornaments, and set out the handcrafted village and train that ran about the base of the tree. She recalls happy times, and happy people.
Ms Hall was just 5 years old when Russian soldiers banged on the door of the home and stood by as her parents, Elli and Karl Sachs, hurriedly packed a handcart, bundled her infant brother Christian into a carriage, took her by the hand, and fled.
Walking eastward in the chill weather of autumn, the family moved from one vacant house to another, staying just ahead of the fighting. “We were homeless,” recalled Ms Hall, an odyssey that would last until the end of World War II.
“At the end of the war, we returned to our home,” she said. But the stay was short-lived. The town had become part of Poland through a US and Russia agreement, and Polish soldiers ordered the German family out. Pushing the handcart and carriage, the family took its few remaining possessions and one last look at house, and headed to Briesnig, in the Communist-run part of Germany. Her mother’s mother lived there, and unlike the first time they were displaced from Forst-Berge, this time they were not forced to go to the east.
In Briesnig, Karl Sachs established a sawmill, and for a time, they were settled. Many of the privately owned manufacturing businesses were soon taken over by the government, however. Misfortune greeted the Sachs family again, when a trip to visit relatives in Berlin coincided with the sawmill burning down. “My father became suspect by the Russians. Whenever something like [the fire] happened, [the Russians] thought it was sabotage, so that a business would purposefully slow down materials the Russians could use,” Ms Hall said. Afraid that they would be arrested if they returned to Briesnig, they stayed in West Berlin.
“My mother did travel back once, to get some of our clothes and possessions,” Ms Hall said, a trip that was treacherous, with soldiers checking papers and a fear of arrest. “We had only the clothes on our backs in Berlin,” Ms Hall said. Her mother was detained on the return to Berlin, “But don’t think my mother was arrested,” said Ms Hall. “ She somehow got through, and returned to Berlin.”
In 1950, the Sachs family left Berlin for the town of Aachen, near the Dutch border. “My father and my mother both found employment and housing. I have good memories of Aachen. I graduated from high school, and I even had a little job. But my father wanted a better life for us,” said Ms Hall. When Church World Services offered to sponsor the family to go to America, they boarded a transport ship, settling in Bristol, Conn., in 1956. She was 17 years old.
“I didn’t think I would see the house in Forst-Berge ever again, really. We had lost all connections to the town,” she said. “My aunts had reported that the house was standing for a number of years, even though about every other house there had been demolished,” she said.
But two years after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Ms Hall found herself standing in the village of Forst-Berge, with her mother, her husband Robert, and her three children, Elinor, Marianne, and Stuart.
“We couldn’t find the house; all of them were gone. For some reason, though, we had brought with us a picture of my mother and father standing in the area. We tried to orient ourselves to where our house would have been,” Ms Hall said. Where fences had separated yards and walkways had wound themselves about the perimeter of homes, though, it was now a field of trees and brush. “Everything was overgrown, but we finally came to a spot where we thought our house had stood,” she said.
As the Americans wandered the former Forst-Berge, they were observed by a motor patrol. “We were about to leave, when a motorcycle with two Polish men came alongside us, wondering what we were doing,” she said. It was the older gentleman on the motorcycle who assured them that he knew exactly where they house had stood, having lived in that area himself as a young man. He led them back to just about the place they had suspected was the building site.
The motorcyclists also pointed out a church under construction, set way back. It was being built using the bricks of the houses that had been demolished.
“Where the house had been, we dug around a bit, and found several bricks where the interior stairwell had been,” Ms Hall said. Each family member selected a brick, and they have cherished the bit of family history brought back to America, since.
Her mother’s joined Ms Hall’s brick in 2002, when Elli Sachs passed away.
She likes passing by the rough clay bricks as she goes in and out of her house. “It’s a nice memory,” Ms Hall said. “It’s like they’re looking in on me there.”