“I can remember the hearing the machine guns going tat, tat, tat” she said wide eyed with horror. She had a German accent and spoke staring at the ground as if she were looking into the past. We were on my Dad’s farm picking cherries on a Saturday with several groups of family members moving from tree to tree. It was in the early 1970’s, but she spoke as if World War II had happened only yesterday.
Maria Wolfe was born in Germany to an Anglo father and a Jewish mother. She was the wife to two of my uncle Robert’s brothers. She was working as a dental assistant when German officials came and took her. She was told they were taking her home, but instead they took her to a prison camp. She was a teenager then and had no idea what was happening. The work camp she was taken to made uniforms for soldiers. Most of the other’s in the camp were young girls and women also. They lost all contact with their families while there and with the outside world.
One night she and two other girls heard the guards talking. They were saying that they were going to close the camp down in the next couple of days. When someone asked about transporting the women another said that they would not be going. They were to shoot all the women and bury them before leaving. It seemed unbelievable, but that was what they were saying.
That night she and her two friends escaped the camp climbing over the fence. Once on the other side they stooped down in the dark wondering what to do next. One of the women said that they should go back. She said they must have misunderstood what the guards were saying or else the guards knew they were listening and were just trying to scare them. Surely, they were not going to kill all the women in the camp. That could not be possible. No one had ever heard of such a thing.
The young woman climbed back over the fence and went back toward the compound buildings. Maria and the other girl watched her disappear and then turned toward the woods. They split up going in the direction where they thought their families lived. During the next two weeks she hid in the woods making her way back toward her home. She remembered watching farmers come out in the mornings and evenings to throw scraps out for the cattle to eat. She would watch until they were gone and then run out to pick up the scraps to eat. By the time she reached her home she was so dirty and poor that her family did not recognize her.
Later, when the war ended she would marry an American soldier named Howard Stewart who had fought in the war against the Germans and was now stationed there. Tragedy struck her again when the military plane he was being transported in went down and disappeared. The search for his plane was finally called off leaving her alone and pregnant. The United States military sent her to the United States to be with her late husband’s family. She arrived in the U.S. alone following the war, young, pregnant, Jewish, and with a German accent. She was met by one of her husband’s brothers who was also in the military and had been dispatched to escort her. By the time they reached the Stewart family farm in the hills around Mountain City, Tennessee he had agreed to marry and take care of her and the unborn child.
Years later the military notified the family that they believed the plane had gone down in a deep lake and could not be recovered. A marker was put up by the Stewart though they had no body. There is an image of a plane on the front of the tombstone. Together Lester and Maria went on to have more children and live out their lives happily. She never knew what happened to the other woman who escaped with her. She wondered for a while after she escaped if they really had killed all the women at the camp and thought it might have really have been the guards trying to scare them. Then the news of the concentration camps began to come out. Both she and her husband are gone now leaving her remarkable story to be remembered and wondered at by her children and grand children.
An interesting footnote to this story is that approximately one million brides and soon-to-be brides from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and even Japan followed their American service man home to the United States from 1942 to 1952.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark on Nov. 4, 2008