Otto Heinrich Scholand – Part One
One of the many benefits of writing a historical novel (and, subsequently, a blog) is that you find yourself engaged in a lot of research. I loved that part of the process. Before I began writing My Mother’s Friend at the end of 2017, I interviewed several people who knew more details about the Second World War than I did. I was particularly keen on learning as much as I could about German POWs who were imprisoned in this country. (In the beginning, I knew absolutely nothing.) In July 2016, I spoke with Stefanie Fowler whose father, Otto Scholand, was a prisoner of war in America during World War II. I learned enough to fill two blogs.
Otto Scholand was born in Unna, Germany (population about 18,000 in the early twentieth century) on December 28, 1925. The city is located almost 300 miles west-southwest of Berlin and about 140 miles north and west of Frankfurt. During World War II, major Allied air attacks were directed at important military barracks and other installations in Unna. Also, a forced labor subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany was established in Unna in April 1944.
When he was just two years old, Otto’s mother died. As was the custom at that time, he and his two older sisters were sent to live with relatives who could care for them while their father continued to work. Otto lived with his Aunt (Tante) Anna for two years and grew to love her like a mother. When his father remarried, the children were brought home. Their new stepmother was not particularly agreeable or affectionate, and no bond could be formed between them. Eventually, more Scholand children were born during a worsening economy. Those were stressful times for Otto and his sisters.
Young Otto found solace at his church, the Church of St. Katharina of Alexandria, the one Catholic church in Unna. He wanted to serve his church as an altar boy more than just about anything, and his dream came true when he reached the age of ten. Months of intensive study and training ensued, and at last, the much-anticipated day arrived when he was selected to assist the priest at the celebration of the Eucharist. He would never forget that day.
Otto attended a public, all boys school in Unna. The first day of the first year of school is always celebrated in Germany, where each child receives a brightly colored bag filled with school supplies, sweets, and other goodies. The tradition dates back to the early nineteenth century. This picture shows Otto holding his Schultüte, or “school cone.” He looks happy—not too anxious, considering it was his first day of school. (He was adorable, wasn’t he?)
From an agreement between the Vatican in Rome and the German government, religious instruction had been allowed in public schools when Otto first began his formal education. But, as Adolf Hitler came to power, crucifixes in classrooms were replaced by pictures of der Führer and all religion classes were banned. Many families found ways to secretly continue those classes, however.
When Otto reached his teens, he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth. (See my earlier blog, “They weren’t all Nazis.”). The rules were strict: if a boy missed three consecutive Hitler Youth meetings, the police would show up on his doorstep. Otto was not at all pleased about joining the group, so he devised a plan: he’d attend one meeting, skip two, attend another meeting, skip two, etc. He never missed three in a row—his plan worked. Otto’s father was an opponent of Hitler’s Nazi Party and strongly disapproved of his son’s participation in the Hitler Youth. How could his son’s efforts as a faithful altar boy coexist with the tenets of the Hitler Youth? It made no sense.
Otto was just seventeen years old when he was drafted in May 1943. Germany had exhausted its supply of young adult males to fill its ranks, so they grabbed teenagers and older men to fight for what would become a losing cause. He was certainly not a follower of the Nazi ideology by any stretch of the imagination, but he loved his country, and that affection somehow helped make his situation tolerable.
On August 8, 1944, Otto and his unit were entrenched near Caen in Normandy, France. As he sat in his foxhole, a Canadian soldier approached him and pointed his weapon at Otto’s head. “Come out, boy!” the soldier commanded. At that moment, Otto’s life changed forevermore. He climbed out, surrendered his weapon, and emptied his pockets. He was allowed to keep his rosary, and in fact, it was the one personal item he kept throughout the years of his captivity.
Otto and hundreds of his fellow captives were soon transported by ship, first to England, then to America. It took ten days. When they arrived in New York City, they were astonished to see all the lights shining from the tall buildings. They’d been told by Herr Hitler that New York had been destroyed by their bombs. The Germans were also amazed when they were loaded onto regular passenger train cars for the next segments of their long journeys. Cattle (box) cars were nowhere to be seen. And they were well-fed. Welcome to America!
Otto was first sent to a POW camp in Texas where he was forced to pick cotton on stifling hot days. He then spent a brief time in a camp in California. In September 1944, he was transferred to Camp White, a U.S. Army training base near Medford in southwest Oregon. (The photo of Otto at the top was taken at Camp White soon after his arrival. He was eighteen years old.) Earlier that year, a portion of the camp had been converted into one of the first POW camps on the west coast. While there, Otto found that practicing his faith was allowed and even encouraged. The camp’s German Catholic priest led Mass and lively discussions each evening after work hours. During Advent in 1944, Otto and some of his fellow prisoners were given permission to build a large nativity scene in the camp’s chapel. The American authorities donated the materials, and a large mural was painted on the wall behind the crèche by one of the members of his group. Otto, who had inherited his father’s wood-working skills, was grateful for the freedom to express his Christian beliefs in that special way.
After the war, Otto was sent to England where he and his comrades were forced to repair the damage caused by his countrymen. When he finally returned to Unna in April 1948, he discovered his home had been destroyed by Allied bombs. Despite the hardships he faced, he was determined to finish his schooling, first as a master wood craftsman, and eventually receiving his master’s degree in architectural design.
In the early 1950s, Otto met Christel, the love of his life, at a church social. Next week, in Part Two, you’ll learn what came next.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.