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Climax resident recalls her 200-mile barefoot journey after World War II ended

Climax resident recalls her 200-mile barefoot journey after World War II ended

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As celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II take place around the world this year, a Climax resident tells the story of her family’s government-ordered expulsion from Czechoslovakia to Germany after the war.

Ingrid Heckl remembers listening to the screams of women being raped by Russian soldiers in the woods outside her Sudetenland village in Czechoslovakia during WWII. She was 5.

Worse traumas would come after the war.

When her German-speaking family was evicted from their farm in Sudetenland.

When she walked the 200 miles to barefoot.

When she watched her 10-year-old brother shoot and kill a police officer raping their mother.

Ingrid’s family was among the millions of Sudeten Germans evicted by the Czechoslovak government and deported to Germany from 1945 to 1948. Czechoslovaks, like so many other Europeans who suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany, wanted revenge on ethnic Germans — and the Sudetenland was an easy target for revenge.

From her village of Kletscheding to Munich, and from Munich to the United States, Ingrid’s journey took her much farther than she could have imagined at 5, barefoot and marching to an unknown land.

Ingrid Heckl — now Ingrid Copeland, 79, and living in Climax — was one of the estimated 12 million German speakers who had fled or were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe into Germany and Austria by 1950. It was one of the largest refugee crises in modern history.

“I still wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares,” she said.

The Sudetenland

German speakers settled in what would become Czechoslovakia as early as the 9th century, said Chad Bryant, a history at UNC-Chapel Hill.

After World War I, German speakers found themselves a linguistic minority, living in the borderlands of the northern, western and southern parts — the “Sudetenland” — of the new country of Czechoslovakia.

In 1938, the Allies tried to prevent war in an appeasement called the Munich Agreement, granting Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. At that time, 3 million German speakers lived in the region.

Peter Gengler, a visiting history lecturer at Duke University and UNCG, said the agreement destabilized Czechoslovakia, giving Nazi Germany an opportunity to violate the settlement’s terms and invade the country.

Gengler said the Nazi occupation was brutal to Czechoslovak citizens, while it passively benefited the Sudeten Germans, as they were members of the so-called Aryan race. After the war, Czechoslovaks felt especially hostile toward Sudeten Germans, viewing them as traitors of their fellow citizens.

After Czechoslovakia’s liberation in May 1945, mobs and even local authorities carried out “wild” expulsions of Sudeten Germans, forcing many out of Czechoslovakia. They killed thousands of others through isolated acts of violence, local massacres and mistreatment at forced-labor camps that had been prisoner-of-war and concentration camps.

The Czech government-in-exile later revoked citizenship and property rights of Sudeten Germans and reached an agreement with the Allies to deport them to Allied-occupied Germany. Most of these formal expulsions took place in 1946.

It’s estimated that 2.5 million Sudeten Germans were deported to Germany, with three-quarters going to the American zone, which became West Germany, and the rest going to the Soviet zone, which became East Germany. Most of them had never lived in Germany.

Bryant said deaths weren’t recorded closely, but it’s estimated that 10,000 to 30,000 Sudeten Germans died from violence, illness and starvation during the expulsions from Czechoslovakia.

Expulsion to Germany

Ingrid, her mother, 10-year-old brother and grandfather left their home in Kletscheding on a cold day in March 1946.

Unlike many other evicted Sudeten Germans, the Heckls had a connection in Germany — Ingrid’s father. Gustav Heckl, who realized he couldn’t return to Czechoslovakia upon his release from an American war prison, found work in Munich and sent word to his family.

Ingrid packed a small suitcase, stuffed her pockets with cherries from the neighbor’s tree and cried over leaving her cat Mitzi.

Directed by soldiers, Ingrid marched with a group of Sudeten Germans along a dirt road. She remembers following a cart full of the group’s possessions — bags and blankets and remnants of their old life — until they reached a camp.

Historian Gengler said refugee camps — often overcrowded with few resources — were set up around Germany to house and process displaced ethnic Germans. Copeland doesn’t know if she stayed in these camps or the forced-labor camps in Czechoslovakia.

In the barracks that night, Ingrid ignored her mother’s advice and slept without her shoes on, hiding them underneath the bed. The shoes were gone the next morning.

Her mother showed authorities their papers, and they left for their next destination: a train station.

The cold March weather left ice and snow on the ground. Ingrid’s feet were frostbitten and bloody. Her mother tried to make shoe soles by binding rags to Ingrid’s feet. It didn’t help.

Dozens of Sudeten Germans were loaded into the dark, cold train car.

“How you throw a bunch of cows or chickens into a train car — that’s how they did it with the people,” Copeland said.

She remembers people singing and chatting, trying to keep their spirits up. One young woman in particular charmed all the passengers. She was Russian, with an infant, hoping to reunite with her fiancée and father of her child, who was German.

At one stop along the train ride, they heard shouting. Three soldiers opened the train doors. Ingrid didn’t know if they were Russian or Czech, but they dragged the young woman off the train. They argued, the soldiers insisting she go back to Russia. She refused.

The doors shut. They heard two shots — bang. Bang. One person peeked through the crack in the train door.

“Someone said, ‘They just shot that woman and her baby,’ ” Copeland recalls. “I hung onto my mother’s coat. It was so still in there, you could hear a pin drop. Then all of a sudden, somebody started praying and saying, ‘Holy Mary Mother of God, help us through this journey.’ Everybody started praying. And then, the train started moving again.”

They stayed at more camps and took more train rides over the next months. At the camps, she recalls seeing people beaten.

The details she remembers are those that would make an impression on a child — the humiliation of having to use the bathroom off the edge of a pond-sized hole. How her mother’s flour and sugar sacks were stolen. The strange hilarity she found in being forced to strip to her underwear, after which she and other refugees were hosed off with a white powder to kill any lice on them.

The family was assigned to work on a Czechoslovak farm for several months, where Ingrid’s mother, Anna, labored in the fields. Ingrid would sometimes help. At night the family slept in a barn with the animals.

One day, Ingrid walked with her mother and brother to the nearby village to get their papers stamped. On their way back to the farmhouse, her mother stopped at a carrot field to pick a bunch for dinner.

They were constantly scrounging for food.

“I was always hungry, and I was always cold,” Copeland said.

As they kept walking, a man in a navy uniform on a bicycle — Copeland thinks he was a police officer — stopped on the road to question them. He saw the carrots hanging out of her mother’s bag and asked where she had gotten them. When Anna answered him, he turned to the children.

“Did you know that your mama steals? I have to take her and put her in jail.”

“But the kids are hungry,” her mother said.

“Well, you did steal,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something about it.”

He told the children to stay where they were, and he led the young mother off to a wheat field.

Ingrid’s brother, Karl, told her to be quiet and follow him. They crept to the field, silently parting stalks of wheat, and found their mother and the man.

“This guy was laying on top of my mama, on the floor. Behind him was his belt, and his gun was hanging out,” Copeland remembers.

“My brother said, ‘Shh,’ and he went over, he got the gun and shot the man in the back.

“I saw my mama flip that man over. She got up, she grabbed her pocketbook, she grabbed me by the hand, and she says, ‘Let’s go.’

“We ran, we ran out of the field, we ran up that dirt road, we ran as fast as we could. Then, she said, ‘Children, this did not happen. You will never talk about this again ever. We’ll take this to our grave.’ And we never talked about it ever again.”

Copeland said her 10-year-old brother had nightmares for months after that. Her mother told him that he did the right thing, that she would never forget what he did for her.

“My brother is still my hero,” Copeland said.

A new life

In September 1946, Ingrid — still shoeless — arrived in Munich with her family.

One of the first things her mother did was buy her a new pair of boots. To this day, she has frost blisters that hurt in cold weather.

A few months after their arrival in Munich, 6-year-old Ingrid was playing in the street with friends when a U.S. military truck got a flat tire nearby. A soldier got out of the truck and beckoned the children over. Ingrid was the only one who went to him.

He kneeled down and gave her a piece of Wrigley spearmint gum. He smiled at her and patted her on the head.

From that moment on, she loved Americans. Ingrid chewed that gum for months, sticking it on her bedpost at night and popping it back in her mouth the next morning.

“This American soldier, he altered my life because he was good, he was kind, he was something that I had not experienced in a long time,” she said.

She listened to American radio, sang jazz and started to learn English. At 18, she found a newspaper advertisement for a family in America who wanted two German girls to be their children’s nannies.

So, in 1960, she and her friend left for New Jersey. Ingrid loved the United States, with its friendly residents and endless opportunities.

She returned to Munich the next year, where she met an American soldier named James Copeland. They married, had two children and moved to Georgia in 1966. Copeland received her American citizenship in 1970, and they moved to North Carolina the next year. They started a mobile home business and never left.

“I’m very proud to be an American,” she said.

Most of Copeland’s family has passed — her parents, brother and husband.

Recently,Copeland searched the German name of her village, Kletscheding — now located in the Czech Republic — on social media. She found a Facebook group with that name, full of posts written in Czech.

She saw photos of the village’s pond and the road she used to walk to her house. Then, she came across a snapshot of a Virgin Mary statue, located in the heart of her village. She and her neighbors used to gather around that statue to pray and sing.

She wept and laughed as she stared at the photo.

“I never thought I’d see that again,” she said.

At UNC Media Hub, students are hand-picked from various concentrations in the UNC School of Media and Journalism to work together to find, produce and market stories with state, regional and at times, national appeal.

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