Staples man recalls last days of the Third Reich
This article is first in a two-part series on Heinrich (Henry) Kopka and his family, who lived in Germany during the World War II and later emigrated to the United States. Heinrich, now a retired mathematics and German teacher, lives with his wife north of Staples.
During the last winter of the Second World War, Heinrich Kopka and his family fled their farm in eastern Prussia while desperately trying to stay ahead of Stalin’s Red Army as it swarmed into Germany. The Kopkas traveled by horse-drawn cart at night to avoid being strafed by Russian planes. They would pass the “graves” of those fellow refugees who had perished along the way; buried in the snow since the soil was frozen solid. At one point, the Russian advance got too close to the the main road the Kopkas were using, thereby forcing the family to abandon what few possessions they had packed in the horse cart and proceed on foot.
Heinrich was nine years old at the time.
Before the Russians ever came, the Kopkas suffered under the Nazis as well. A devout Christian family, they were opposed to Hitler’s ideology on the grounds that it violated God’s law. This opposition caused problems in a Germany where schoolchildren were conditioned to stand and give the Nazi salute whenever a teacher walked into the room. Heinrich’s older brother Wilhelm was targeted outside a movie theater, for example.
“He was cornered by some of Hitler’s cronies and beaten up... because he didn’t belong to the Hitler Youth,” he remembered.
Although farmers generally were excused from military service in order to provide food for the war effort, a special exception was made in the case of Heinrich’s father, Gustav, as punishment for his family’s opposition to the Nazi regime. Gustav was drafted and sent to the Russian front.
“What made it so crazy was, my dad wasn’t even able to fire a machine gun because...as a teenager, (he) had been involved an accident on the farm,” Kopka remembered.
Despite his physical disability, Gustav was forced to become a courier, transporting messages between German units. He also went out early in the morning as a scout, observing Soviet positions. He was equipped only with a bicycle, a sidearm and according to his son, God’s protection.
“As the saying here goes, with the Lord, one person is a majority,” Kopka said.
Gustav was eventually transferred to the Mediterranean and contracted an extremely rare skin disease, so that as the war’s tide turned and the German armies were being crushed on all sides Gustav was in a Munich hospital, being studied by doctors.
However, his wife and children --including young Heinrich-- were right in the path of the Communist onslaught. After a nearby town was heavily bombarded two days in a row, the Kopkas were advised to leave their farm by a German soldier; in violation of standing orders from the Fuhrer. Heinrich’s mother, who had already been a refugee during World War I, knew what to do. She gathered the family and what possessions would fit into a horse-drawn cart, and set out into the frigid black winter night-- into a future that would be touched both by disaster and rejoicing.