the Harten Family Story
By Gertrud Harten – 1939 to 1948, and Karin Harten Schramm – 2019
My parents were both from Hamburg, Germany. My father, Wolfgang Harten, born in 1907, finished his apprenticeship in an import/export company in 1927. At that time Germany was suffering under the hyperinflation after World War I which caused considerable internal political and economical instability in the country. The unemployment rate was high. A company, importing Tagua from Ecuador, offered him a job there, which he gladly accepted. He arrived in Ecuador in the middle of 1928. Tagua, “vegetable ivory”, is a nut found in the seeds of certain palm trees. It is named so for its resemblance to animal ivory. The palms are native to South America. The Casa Tagua, for which my father worked, exported Tagua from Ecuador to Europe for the production of buttons for expensive clothes.
In 1937 my father traveled on vacation to Hamburg, where he met my mother, Gertrud Ahlers, born in 1909. My mother had been a governess, working for a wealthy family in Rhineland-Palatinate. That year she had received an offer from an uncle in Chicago, Illinois, to travel there in order to teach his children. She was quite adventurous and accepted the offer.
However, when she arrived in Hamburg, by chance she met my father and they immediately fell in love. Within a little over 4 weeks after meeting they got married and traveled to Manta, Ecuador in September 1937.
My mother had never been outside of Germany with the exception of Switzerland and Austria. Ecuador at that time was extremely primitive. The trip by vessel took more than 4 weeks and to exchange correspondence with Germany took at least 4 weeks, too. My father had told her all about that, but also that the Ecuadorian people were extremely friendly and would welcome her. At that time she didn’t speak one Spanish word…
Throughout their first years in Manta, they were extremely happy. My mother was open to all new things, and I can say that everything was new for her. Not only the people, who were as friendly as my father had promised her, also the language, the surroundings, the climate, the vegetation, the food and everyday life, where she had to deal with servants, who were completely different from people in Germany. However, being so much in love with my father, she learned to cope with all these things and was very happy.
In July 1938 their first child was born in Guayaquil, Alke a baby girl. This, of course, added to their happiness.
They had only a little over a year left for their untroubled happiness.
From now on I’ll cite texts from my mother’s many diaries. All her life she liked to write, not only diaries, but also hundreds of letters. After her death in March 1991, I inherited all her diaries and the letters she had exchanged with a friend in Hamburg. I decided to write a book in German about her life just for her descendants, which I did in 2008. A couple of years later, I was contacted by an Ecuadorian friend, a University professor in Quito, María Cuvi, asking me whether I would like to translate the “Ecuadorian part” of the book to Spanish and she would try to find a publishing house and people who would help us with the financial side. In 2014 the book GERTRUDIS – Diaries of a German woman in Ecuador: 1937 to 1956 was published by Abya Yala and financed, amongst others, by the Cooperación Alemana de Desarollo, GIZ.
Thus I have translated parts of the Spanish book into English for the purpose of its publication in the United States and to make that part of history known to following generations. These are mostly direct translations from my mother’s diaries.
In August 1939 we received awful news from Germany. They talked of “war” and a despairing time began. Every night we listened to the radio and we simply didn’t want to believe that the situation would really break into a war. But, in fact, that happened. The Second World War broke out on September 1st 1939. Our dreams of traveling to Germany every two years had to be postponed for an indefinite time. In all Ecuador hostile feelings against Germans prevailed.
The first years of the war had been relatively quiet for us, although we were, of course, terribly affected by the news from Germany and Europe. When in August 1940 Hitler declared the “Blitzkrieg” against Great Britain, our anguish increased tremendously. We could not believe that Great Britain would not counterattack. And we were right.
It became impossible to send money to Germany. The contact with our home country was of great importance to us. Wolfgang always sent money to his father who was supposed to build a house for us to which we could retire one day. Letters between Ecuador and Germany always took more time. Due to the war it was impossible to send letters directly. Keeping contact with our families became increasingly difficult and we were full of anxiety. Finally, in September 1941 letters from Germany reached us containing the good news that both our families were alright.
In August 1941 I found out, shocked, that I was pregnant. Our second child would be born in April 1942. On one side we were happy, on the other we were very worried since we did not know what would become of us in the future and, especially, what would happen to German citizens in Ecuador.
On September 15th 1941 Ecuadorian officials, accompanied by police, knocked at our door. They had the order to search our department looking for clandestine radio equipment, which, of course, they did not find. We had only one “normal” radio with which we could hear news from Germany. But they were looking for spies…
In Manta, the small town where we lived, there were a few persons spying on us, but most of our Ecuadorian friends stayed firmly at our side. They helped us as much as possible and, which was more important, they supported us emotionally.
Suddenly bad news followed one after the other: all Germans in Ecuador were put on the Black List with the exception of Wolfgang. Why? Did they overlook him because his behavior was always so even-tempered and everybody liked him? Ecuador sided with the United States. Lists were published of all Germans who would be deported, but our names were not on them. Therefore Wolfgang was named Vice-President of the Casa Tagua in order to try to save what he could.
In March 1942 I felt very bad, I shivered, although the temperatures at that time were very high. Unfortunately our doctor was in the United States. Therefore Wolfgang had contracted a German nurse who would be at my side when giving birth. But she was also on the Black List and had to leave Ecuador together with all the others.
Wolfgang had to leave Manta to go to Guayaquil on business matters. He was terribly preoccupied when saying goodbye to me. And I was in great fear of what might happen to him. I didn’t want him to go away. On April 4th 1942 at 9 p.m. he embarked a small vessel which would take him to Guayaquil. At my side was only a young German girl friend – she would also leave as soon as deportation took place.
In that night again I felt a terrible chill and, simultaneously, a terrible heat. I woke up on Sunday April 5th (it was Easter Sunday) with a terrible headache and all my body was hurting. I tried to prepare lunch in the kitchen, when suddenly everything went black around me and I fell. Somehow I dragged myself to my bed. When my young friend came back from a stroll with Alke, she found me with high fever. At 7:30 p.m. the birth pains started and I don’t remember anything about it, not when my baby boy was born and nothing about the days after his birth. When I woke up several days later they told me that I had suffered the worst malaria one could have. People around me, who were not prepared for an event like that and terribly frightened, had burned my feet with hot water bottles and shaved my head to put ice on it, in order to bring down the fever. Thank God our doctor returned in time to save my life!
Wolfgang, when arriving in Guayaquil, received a telegram informing him about my grave health situation. He decided to leave everything and to return to my side “as soon as possible”. At that time to travel from Guayaquil to Manta “as soon as possible” was to take a coastal vessel which needed about 28 hours to make the trip. When finally Wolfgang arrived at my side the worst had passed and he could take his baby in his arms. Wolfgang was very happy about his son, Wolf Rüdiger, who really had chosen the worst possible time to come to this world, embroiled in a terrible war.
A good friend, who was deported with the others, took letters to our families in Hamburg. They contained the news of Wolf’s birth. I terribly missed receiving news from my parents and siblings. What was their destiny? Our letters would reach their destiny, but we were still without any news. The anxiety we felt about our relatives in Germany was exasperating.
On May 13th 1942 I still could not walk because of my burned feet and was sitting next to the window looking out to the seaside. I pointed out to Wolfgang the unusual tranquility of the ocean. The palm tree in front of our house was motionless, which was quite strange in windy Manta. The birds were still. The quietness was disturbing. Wolfgang carried me to my bed where they had placed the little tub in which I would give Wolf his bath. Suddenly we heard a tremendous crash, everything around me started to tremble and fall. I had never experienced anything like that. It seemed to be the end of the world. An incredible confusion was all around me. The house trembled without stopping, everything tumbled down. The baby’s tub turned over and Wolf and I were soaked. Wolfgang immediately protected Alke in her bed. The most terrible thing was the cries and shouts of people on the streets.
The earthquake was very long and persistent, it seemed to last an eternity. It was the worst earthquake we had experienced up to that time. Later we learned that it had reached 7.9 in the Richter scale. Throughout the following days, there were a lot of smaller aftershocks, but none of them was as terrible as the first.
In mid-year 1942 almost all Germans had been deported to Germany to a completely unknown destiny. The Ecuadorian Government had allowed us and a few other Germans to stay in Ecuador due to health or age reasons. Since I had been so sick during Wolf’s birth I could not be transported.
We did not know what would happen to us. I was still sick, either in bed or in a wheelchair. Wolfgang had to manage our household alone: taking care of both kids, dealing with our servants, doing the shopping. Besides he had to take care of the affairs of the Casa Tagua of which he still was Vice-President.
At the beginning of June we had to say goodbye to our beloved Manta. Our good Ecuadorian friends offered to keep and guard our things until we returned. When would that be? Fortunately, at that time we did not know that we were going to be away six long years…
On board the small coastal vessel “Colón” we left Manta – our destination was Guayaquil. There we moved into an apartment in the building owned by our friends, María and Otto Schwarz. Since she was Ecuadorian, her husband had not been deported. The same happened to her parents, the Klaeschens, who lived in the first floor. Although he was German, his wife was from Peru and since he was older, they had been allowed to stay. We moved in to the third floor.
I never liked Guayaquil – a town with a terrible, humid climate. Since the German School in Quito had been closed, the three Schwarz children were also in Guayaquil. Together with these excellent friends we spent some very calm months, however, always with the terrible worry about our families in Hamburg.
Before Christmas 1942 the Ecuadorian Government decided that due to the “high danger of espionage” represented by us (!) we had to move to Cuenca, away from the coast.
We arrived in Cuenca, a wonderful colonial city with a fantastic climate, at a height of about 2500 meters (approx. 8.200 ft). We decided to move in with the Klaeschens to a finca (farm) which had belonged to already deported Germans.
All properties and financial assets were confiscated by the Ecuadorian Government. Once a month we were allowed to take 5.000 Sucres from our bank account, which were not enough to cover all costs. Therefore we bought some rabbits and poultry. We planted vegetables and were very happy that in the finca there were several fruit trees. We did not have electricity or running water. We pumped our water from a well, cooked on a kerosene stove and lit the house with kerosene lamps and candles.
Since all Germans still in Ecuador had been brought to Cuenca, a small colony formed – we visited and helped each other.
At the end of March I found out that I was pregnant again. We were desperate. Our Karin was born on November 16th 1943 – the birth was extremely easy. That same night we had the wonderful experience of hearing on the radio a message from my brother, Werner. The only possibility to exchange messages with a maximum of 25 words was via the International Red Cross. It was very unreliable since we never knew when a message would be transmitted. We had already heard in the radio that Hamburg had suffered under terrible air raids in July 1943 and that 80% of the town had been destroyed. My brother’s message informed that, although our families had lost everything – their living quarters and belongings, they were all alive and had been evacuated from Hamburg.
The date was December 23rd, 1943, and it was 5 p.m. I will never forget that day or that hour. Wolfgang had walked downtown to Cuenca in order to do some shopping. Suddenly a military vehicle stopped in front of our door; I held my breath. Two American soldiers, holding rifles, had come looking for Wolfgang. I begged them to please give us a little more time in order to be able to pack his luggage, to please come back in an hour. Thank God they agreed. Terrified I saw in the vehicle a couple of our German friends. I rushed to pack Wolfgang’s bag. When he finally came, we only had a few minutes left and there were so many things to be clarified. Then the American Military Police came and picked Wolfgang up. Suddenly I felt an enormous emptiness. They had taken away my Wolfgang and I stayed behind alone with my three small children.
On Christmas Eve they allowed us to visit our husbands in the Police Station. We had intensive talks in order to decide what to do. Women and children would stay on in Cuenca until receiving further news from our husbands. We promised that we would not move without their authorization.
Next day they had taken them to an unknown place. Later we learned that since before the war the American Government had decided to detain German citizens living in South and Central America in order to exchange them with American Prisoners of War.
Since the Ecuadorian Government was going to give us only 1000 Sucres per month per family, some of the women decided to move together in order to be able to make ends meet. From that moment on, there were four mothers, ten children and eight servants in our farm. Our beautiful home had become a small madhouse!
An incredibly hard time started. I couldn’t count on Wolfgang’s loving support and had to deal alone with all problems. All the time, one of the children was sick. At the end of January, Wolf became very ill with gastro-intestinal disease. The doctors in Cuenca couldn’t help and advised me to travel to Guayaquil with him. However, since I was German, I was not allowed to travel by plane. An Ecuadorian friend bought a ticket and went through the passenger door with Wolf in her arms. Hidden, I could pass the barrier with Karin in my arms. I couldn’t leave her in Cuenca, since I was still breastfeeding her. After passing the barrier, I took my Wolf in the other arm and boarded the plane. Upon arrival in Guayaquil police was already waiting for me, but, as the doctors in Cuenca had informed the clinic in Guayaquil by telegram about Wolf’s gravity, an ambulance was waiting for me and brought us to the clinic. There I was allowed to stay with my little ones. The attending doctor negotiated with the authorities that from then onwards I should be allowed to travel by national airlines since my three children were Ecuadorians.
A few days later, one of the ladies staying in the farm in Cuenca with me, brought Alke who was suffering from a very bad bronchitis. Thus all my three children were staying with me in the clinic. For several days, Wolf struggled between life and death. When he overcame the crisis, Alke’s tonsils were taken out. And all this happened only four weeks after Wolfgang had been taken away!
After the children’s recuperation, we were allowed to travel by plane back to Cuenca. Upon arrival, I was told that a telegram of the Ecuadorian government had been received in which they informed us that at the end of February a ship was coming which would take us to the place where our husbands were staying. We were paralyzed. We hadn’t heard anything from our husbands themselves and we had agreed with them that we would await their letters. Also my children still required a lot of care. A change in Wolf’s diet would be a great danger. We decided to stay in Cuenca.
At the end of March 1944 many letters arrived from a Detention Camp in the United States. All of them had only one message: “Come as soon as possible. We will be taken to an Internment Camp for families in Texas.” Before receiving these letters, disastrous news had reached us. One of them, published in Ecuadorian newspapers, said that Wolfgang had been shot for being a spy. But I simply would not believe that and I had been right. My Wolfgang was still alive! I felt an enormous gratitude.
In April we were informed that a ship would come in the beginning of May. So we closed our farm in Cuenca, leaving so many things behind, since only 25 kilos per person were allowed on the trip. I left all valuables and all household items I had brought from Manta and Guayaquil in the good hands of our best friends in Cuenca. In those very hard and difficult times I could always count on my Ecuadorian friends.
We returned to Guayaquil and, also there, we stayed with Ecuadorian friends. The ship which arrived in the beginning of May was full, so we continued waiting. A “war of nerves” started for us. In June the arrival of another ship was announced, but that one was also full. The same happened with a ship announced for August. The time of waiting was interminable and demoralizing. The children came down with measles and Karin was very sick. At the end of September we heard that a ship would come in the beginning of October and we would be able to travel with it. I was determined to board that vessel – maybe it would be the last opportunity to join Wolfgang. Although Wolf and Karin were still weak, I bought enough powdered milk and medicine for the trip. We were taken to Salinas, a small port on the Pacific Ocean, were we were put into a small hotel.
Next morning, from our hotel room, we saw a huge American war vessel. At last our day of departure, October 9th 1944, had come!
But what then happened to us was unbelievable. They took us to the ship’s infirmary where they examined us and “allowed” us to travel. They took the milk and medicine I had brought for the children away from me. 156 women and 47 children, Japanese and German, were taken to the hatchways where we had to sleep in hammocks which hung one above the other. We were allowed to go on deck only 2 hours per day in order to get fresh air. And during the crossing of the Panama Canal not even that! Still to this day, I feel indignation when thinking of that trip.
Karin became dangerously ill with gastroenteritis and was not given any medicine. She almost died. Many hours I spent beside the hammock where my little one was lying, burning with fever. Her lips were dry and her eyes glassy. Continually I put absorbent cotton, sucked up with mineral water, to her lips. María Schwarz helped me with the nursing, enabling me to sleep from time to time. She and her children, who were older than mine, took care of Alke and Wolf. I prayed and prayed that, upon arrival in New Orleans, I could deliver my little daughter into her father’s arms.
Finally, in the beginning of November 1944, at 4 a.m., they took us out of our hammocks: we had reached New Orleans. The first thing the American authorities did to us was to “clean” us, putting us into hot water and disinfecting us using DDT! They did not consider Karin’s grave health situation at all. I was exhausted from the long trip, taking care of Karin all the time, without proper medicine and possibilities to nurse her. Both of us fainted for a long time.
When we recuperated we were taken to an elegant “Pullman” wagon. We felt like being in heaven and, suddenly, Wolfgang was standing in front of us. They had allowed all husbands to travel to New Orleans to meet their families, which was a wonderfully kind and friendly act.
After ten long months of separation we were finally together again. I had missed Wolfgang so much and I had worried terribly about him! I felt so relieved to have him back in my arms. Very frightened, Wolfgang looked at his little Karin, whom, thank God, I could put into his arms. But she was more dead than alive. Wolf recognized his father and when Wolfgang took some sweets from his pockets, he right away gained back the confidence of his son. Alke ran into his arms and didn’t want to leave her father ever again.
We enjoyed our trip on the Pullman wagon until reaching Crystal City, although we were terribly worried about Karin. She was still comatose.
The first thing Wolfgang told me was that already in August he had received letters from Germany. All our families had so far survived the war, although they had lost everything due to the heavy bombing which took place in Hamburg at the end of July 1943. They had been evacuated and lived in different places. These letters had reached us after three interminable years. In that moment, I felt an immense gratitude and relief. On 6th November 1944 Wolfgang could at last write them the good news that the family was together again.
Right after reaching the train station of Crystal City, we were taken to the Internment Camp which was outside of the town. The Camp itself was a small city surrounded by walls and barbed wire. The first thing we did was to take Karin to a kind doctor who healed her after a couple of weeks.
Afterwards all German internees from Ecuador came to greet us since they had been in the Camp already for some time. Wolfgang took us to our small bungalow.
In the Camp, German and Japanese internees lived in separate sections. Although there were no set boundaries between the two groups, there was no interaction. Everything was separated: schools, communal centers and the shops. The bungalows consisted of double and triple units, with common bathrooms and toilets outside. For big families like ours (three children and their parents) there were a few bungalows with their own bathrooms and kitchens in the inside. We were so lucky that we got one of these, comfortable and good. It was small, but we had everything we needed to live. I can confirm that during our stay we were very well-treated by the American officials.
There was a German school in the camp, which Alke attended, and a kindergarten, to which Wolf went daily. There was food in abundance as well as clothing for the whole family. Wolfgang worked in a workshop and he was paid for his work. Thus we were able to buy our food. Medical assistance was excellent. After Karin’s recuperation, I had surgery on my feet which had been burned during Wolf’s birth. Their recovery was complete.
Cultural activities in the Camp were manifold: there were theater performances, concerts and cabaret. Adults’ education took place in English and Spanish lessons, which I made use of. There was a cinema and a library. We played cards and I was very happy to be able to play bridge again, a game I have loved almost all my life.
Sometimes there were devastating hurricanes. At times it seemed that the bungalows would be pulled out of their rudimentary foundations. I suffered under the insupportable heat from April to October, reaching over 110 degrees. We did not lack anything, but we missed our freedom and our beloved family in Germany. They were suffering from hunger and were dying of the cold.
Wolfgang told me what had happened to him during the time of our separation: after their departure from Cuenca in December 1943, the men were taken to Guayaquil and from there by ship to Panama, where they were brought to a miserable camp for prisoners of war in a place called “Culebra Cut”. They had to work like slaves, under terrible heat and deprivations. They were not treated badly, but didn’t own adequate clothing and the food was frightful. They stayed in that hell over 3 months before they were taken to New Orleans. The trip there was horrible! Normally it took two and a half days to travel by ship from Panama to New Orleans, but their ship was under such a disastrous state of disrepair that the trip took two weeks. 250 Germans and 250 Japanese men had to travel in a convoy and in zigzag. Four of them had to share a hammock for sleeping, and several hammocks hung one above the other. The toilets were in terrible conditions and they were allowed only 15 minutes on deck daily. They were tremendously relieved when they finally reached New Orleans. From there they were taken to an Internment Camp in Kenedy, Texas, where the situation was similar to that in Crystal City.They were not forced to work and received 30 dollars a month. In the Camp, they could buy the New York Times so that they were informed about the situation in Germany.
The Crystal City Camp was a paradise for the children. When Karin recovered from her illness, she walked hand-in-hand with her brother Wolf to the kindergarten. There was no danger, since there was no car traffic. Only the guards walked through the Camp and were Wolf’s great friends. For the children, people outside the walls and barbed wired were the “prisoners.”
We were anxious to be exchanged and daily prayed for it. But days, months and years passed and we could not return to Germany. In January 1945 a list was published with names of hostages who had been chosen to be exchanged for American prisoners of war. Our names were not on the list. Suddenly the atmosphere in the Camp became full of hatred and misgivings. And from Paraguay, Bolivia and other South American nations more families kept coming.When finally World War II ended on May 8th 1945, everybody who had sufficient financial means to pay for their trip could leave the Camp. The rest, like us, had to stay in the Camp waiting for what destiny had in store for them. On July 1st 1945, I wrote in my diary:
We are still in the Camp in Texas, behind walls and barbed wire. After the terrible end of the War we ask daily, what will become of us? To return to our beloved home country, which is not ours anymore, which is completely destroyed and in which everybody is suffering under terrible conditions, would be awful. May God save us from such a destiny!
Summer and autumn passed in that terrible heat, and although we knew how terrible the situation in Germany was we kept hoping to be able to return to Germany. We were desperate to see our loved ones again.
In January 1946, I noticed that I was pregnant again. Another shock, since our situation was still uncertain. At the end of March, we heard that the Camp was going to be closed in a couple of weeks and that our trip was going to be paid for. We could decide whether we wanted to travel to Germany or to the country where we had lived before the war. Since we were aware of the situation in Germany, we decided to return to Ecuador.
In May we were taken from the Camp in Crystal City to a quarter of New Orleans called Algiers. We were taken to an American Navy Base with a jail for prisoners of war. Once again we were behind barbed wire. We were desperate, food and lodgings were miserable.
We stayed three weeks in that prison and only a few times we were allowed to go to New Orleans. But when we could do that, it was wonderful. Once we took the children to the zoo, another time we saw the great Mississippi, where big and impressive paddle steamers crossed.
When news came that Ecuador was willing to receive Germans who had lived there before the War and had been in Internment Camps, we were terribly happy. On 29th May 1946 at 8 a.m. we were taken to the airport. We were very excited, but they had us waiting several hours. When, at last, at 3 p.m. we boarded the airplane, they immediately informed us that we had to disembark again because the plane was damaged. Hours later we left and after a 7-hour flight we reached Panama.
And what happened there was unconceivable! Right away they separated Wolfgang from us and we were not allowed to approach him. We were kept under armed surveillance, even when we were eating and sleeping. We lost all hope of returning to Ecuador within a short time. We had to eat and sleep separated from our husbands. Only at 7 p.m. we were allowed to go near the barbed wire to talk 20 minutes with them. The children asked me whether war had started again. After 8 interminable days we were informed that we could travel to Ecuador and that we had only been “under quarantine”! But why had they separated us from our husbands? We were never told.
During transportation to the airport, we were accompanied by soldiers. Even at the airport, we could not move freely. There was always at least one soldier at our side. Finally we boarded the plane and we landed approx. 3 hours later in Guayaquil. It was July 1946 more than a year after World War II had ended.
Subsequently I’ll give a brief account of what happened to our family after returning to Ecuador:
My parents were given the opportunity to go back to the finca in Cuenca, where we had lived before the war. Since all our financial assets had been confiscated by the Ecuadorian government, we didn’t own a dime. My father started to work in a small shop selling fabrics – he hated the job. But my mother always said that those two years living in that wonderful colonial town with a great climate, were the best in their whole marriage.
On 9th October 1946 my youngest sister, Barbara, was born in Cuenca. Her birth was a very difficult one. My mother suffered a miscarriage at the end of 1947. She was so sick that afterwards she couldn’t have children anymore.
In June 1948, Otto Schwarz offered my father the management of his import/export business in Manta and so we finally returned to the small town, which my parents had loved so much. Although life was very difficult under the still primitive circumstances, their love for each other and for us children helped them to manage and give us a wonderful and happy life.
In 1953 my parents could take a vacation in Germany – for the first time after 16 long years. The reunion with their family in Hamburg was memorable.
They returned to Manta in December of that year. And in May 1954 my father suddenly died due to medical malpractice. My mother was devastated!
After working very hard two years in a guesthouse she had opened in order to earn enough money to travel to Hamburg and have a financial basis for a restart there, she returned with us to Hamburg in May 1956.