A Survivor’s Story

Maria Obrecht was born in Prima, Yugoslavia in August 1937. She was born the youngest of seven siblings to a large Catholic family. Her house was one of many on the street, narrow homes one against the other on an even narrower street. “There,” Maria murmurs as she gazes at an old photograph of her street in Prima, “The fourth one. That was my home.” She was too young to notice the sidelong glances at others in the streets and the quiet talks among friends and relatives; but Europe was on the brink of war when Maria was born and at the age of two, World War II began. The Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941.

A look crosses Maria’s face as she recalls some of her siblings. It is hard for her to remember everything that had occurred in her lifetime but a darkness she could never seem to forget is that of her oldest brother Joseph. Joseph at a young age was forced to join the ranks of the German army. Six years of war would follow for the unwilling youth, the effort included 8.8 million boys. A young boy who had to become a man overnight and fight in a war he wanted no part of is still a hard concept for Maria to wrap her head around. Her brother lost his right leg to war and with it, his childhood.

Another of Maria’s siblings, the only sister she had, was forced to become a nanny for a German Baron. Her sister’s story was so different from that of the Obrecht’s oldest son but in some ways so hauntingly similar. Both were forced to do things that did not want to do but unlike Maria’s brother, whose hardships were apparent in the faces of every passing soldier it was never truly known what had occurred to Maria’s sister in the home of the German family.

It was a cold day in 1941, or so how Maria remembers the day, that German soldiers came into their little neighborhood and took homes from families to give to soldiers to occupy for the duration of the war. Maria was far too young to understand the ramifications of what had occurred but her parents and the siblings she still had at home understood and realized that they were all sitting ducks in Yugoslavia. Maria and her family were given an hour at most to gather all they could carry from their home before the soldiers officially had taken the only haven Maria had ever known. From there, Maria and her family began their trek on foot from Yugoslavia to Austria.

It took Maria and her family three months to travel from Yugoslavia to Austria with all the possessions they could carry. Many nights were spent sleeping in abandoned train cars. Maria, although still so young remembers vividly the multitude of other families hiding, sleeping, eating and living their lives in the towering train cars. They were quiet and dark and damp but they were home and the numerous people Maria was surrounded by were her family.

“These were the barracks we lived in,” Maria says holding up another old photograph depicting a young girl with a small teddy bear in hand, amongst cabin like buildings in the background. The young girl in the photograph was Maria and the small teddy bear has dissolved from her memory long ago. A Catholic organization set up the barracks Maria and her family stayed in for a few weeks while traveling to Austria. This is where she was able to complete her first communion.

Although the war had ended, there were still many hardships for Maria to overcome. From Austria, Maria moved to Linz, Germany where she completed school. During that time, it was uncommon for children to gain an education past the 8th grade, so from there, Maria went to work. While living in Germany and after completing her education, Maria went to work for three sisters as their cook. The sisters taught her everything and helped her gather a small cookbook for her to keep which she still has today. “It’s all in German,” Maria says smiling fondly at the thin, frail book, “and I don’t remember much German anymore.”

At the age of 22 on Valentine’s Day 1959, Maria Obrecht officially gained her green card and came to The United States to live with her sister Anna who had already immigrated to Wisconsin. Maria’s life was filled with hardships, destruction and sadness. Maria is a woman of strength, of love and of compassion. Most whose life began like that of Maria’s would harbor ill will of all that have become and all that has occurred to them, but not Maria. Maria holds no resentment in her heart and hopes the future is surrounded by peace and love and not the hatred and ugliness that became of her world.

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