Helga Anker is 85 years old and she’s been living up at her family’s place, Priest Ranch, high above Moccasin and Don Pedro Reservoir, since 1986. She’s matriarch of a clan that goes back six generations to the earliest days of Tuolumne County’s infancy in the 1850s.
Thursday morning she worked in her kitchen preparing a cake she calls “American tiramisu,” for her daughter Denise’s new restaurant, The Lucky Buck, out further east on Highway 120 at Buck Meadows. The day before she made a carrot cake for The Lucky Buck. She also makes desserts including apple crisps and cheesecakes for guests of her son Steve, who runs Priest Station Café, which dates to 1853.
She grew up in East Germany during World War II under Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s Red Army. She sits at a table sipping coffee at Priest Ranch and she doesn’t flinch as she recalls nightmarish episodes of her childhood.
‘War has started’
She started grammar school at age 6 in September 1939 in Torgau on the River Elbe. Torgau was home to Marienkirche, a church consecrated by Protestant reformer Martin Luther in 1544 and where Johan Sebastian Bach played organ in the 1700s.
On Sept. 1, 1939, young Helga heard a neighbor, Frau Neuel, open the mail slot in the front door at her grandmother’s apartment and call through, “The second war has started.” She had an aunt, Tante Hanne, who loved Hitler and went to the Nuernberg rallies, mass meetings where Hitler hypnotized his followers. Tante Hanne would return from the rallies all aglow and full of propaganda.
Her brother, Paul Tilch, finished high school and entered the German Army at age 19 in 1941. When Helga turned 10 in 1943, she had to join Hitler Youth like all other German children.
The girls wore dark skirts, white blouses, and neckerchiefs held together with leather knots. They marched and sang patriotic Nazi songs, and Helga learned to play the woodwind recorder.
She was 11 years old in February 1945 when Allied Forces bombed Dresden, 50 miles to the southeast, and she and her family could see the bright red sky burning for days and nights.
A second cousin of Helga, a young man in the German Army, died of starvation on a prisoner-of-war train returning from Russia. He was two miles from his mother’s home in Dresden when he was tossed out of the train.
“The other prisoners just threw him out,” Helga said. “They were in cattle cars, not passenger cars.”
In April 1945, she and her family and her neighbors were ordered out of Torgau as Russian and American forces pressed forward from the east and west. They were staying in Mahitzschen, and her mother sent her on an errand to the village, and she heard a plane flying low next to the road she was on.
“I heard it first, that’s why I ran to the ditch,” Helga said. “It was a small plane, loud, American. The plane was shooting at me. I could see the pilot’s face. He looked at me. It was so fast, he was flying, I was sitting. I felt he wasn’t shooting at me, he was shooting at his enemy. He was sent by his government.”
Mahitzchen was soon ordered evacuated, and Helga’s family returned to Torgau after Armistice Day in May 1945. It was her first time seeing Russians, Americans, and black soldiers in the U.S. Army. The Russians and Americans were totally different from each other, Helga said. The Americans were polite, they were clean, they didn’t rape anyone, and everybody was sad when they left seven weeks later, when Germany was divided into east and west at the Yalta Conference.
‘We could hear women screaming’
“The Russians were terrible,” Helga said. “They walked around all day long raping, raping women, going into apartments and taking things. I remember seeing one Russian with 10 wristwatches on one arm, watches he’d taken from other people. They were looking for women, liquor and food, in that order.”
She watched one Russian soldier drunk, and a German man looking out his window, and the Russian took out his pistol and shot the man dead right there. Helga and her family had a cellar where they kept fruits and vegetables in glass jars. The Russians brought a sheet to carry out 60 to 70 jars of canned peaches and green beans, and the sheet broke and all the jars shattered, leaving inches of sticky filth covering the floor of their basement.
“We could hear women screaming, all the time, day and night, the raping,” Helga said. “That went on for eight weeks. It got so bad the Russian commanders put them all in the barracks and they couldn’t get out. That’s when it stopped.”
They didn’t appear to know how to use toilets. Helga was 12 years old and she was repulsed by men behaving as animals.
Brother survives war ‘barely’
Helga’s brother Paul had been pulled out of high school at age 19, forced into the German Army and sent straight to the Russian front, Helga said. He was in a class of 24, three came back alive, and one of the three died within a month.
Paul was a Morse codeman who worked in support of troops at the front, which may have increased his odds of surviving. By age 24 he was a prisoner-of-war with no teeth. He and other German troops were captured in Germany by English forces.
The prisoners’ food was so poor that, when Russian planes strafed their POW train, Paul and other German prisoners jumped from their moving cattle cars to the ground, and the force of the landing brought his weakened teeth together so hard they all fell out, Helga said. Helga and her family saw him once between 1941 and 1946.
“He barely survived,” Helga said.
Later Thursday, Helga took a visitor to the old 1852 Divide Cemetery, up Highway 120 past Claim Jumper’s Outpost in Big Oak Flat, to help explain how she came to be part of one of the Mother Lode’s oldest pioneer families.
At one plot there is a headstone for her husband, Wallace “Wallie” Anker, who died in April 2010. She met Wallie Anker in Berlin in May 1955. Wallie had served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and he’d been assigned to Germany and he was studying at Free University of Berlin.
They married later that year in Berlin, and they went to New York City in March 1956. They stayed there until they could scrape together enough cash for a second-hand car and drove to California in 1957.
Wallie was the son of Joe L. Anker and Margaret J. Anker. Margaret Anker was the daughter of Daniel Corcoran and Jessie Corcoran. Jessie Corcoran, a native of Scotland, was a niece of Margaret Priest, also from Scotland. Margaret Priest and William C. Priest had run the original Priest Station and Priest Hotel, and Margaret Priest’s first husband was Alexander Kirkwood, founder of Priest Station back in 1853.
When Kirkwood died in 1870 there were 3,000 men in Big Oak Flat and 10 women, Helga said. Margaret Priest, a pistol-packing toll collector, and William Priest, an engineer, helped ramrod improvements of Old Priest Grade and the original Big Oak Flat Road, and extend that route into Yosemite Valley with the Chinese Camp and Yosemite Turnpike Company.
William Priest was one of the first commissioners of the newly protected federal Yosemite Grant, and he helped build the Great Sierra Wagon Road that later became Tioga Road and the east end of Highway 120 that reaches to Mono Lake and the eastern Sierra.
Helga’s eldest daughter, Kim, 62, lives in Los Angeles, and is a former school teacher, counselor and organizer. Her daughter Denise, 60, manages the new Lucky Buck in Buck Meadows. Her son Conrad, 56, is a world-class alpinist known for his May 1999 discovery of the remains of George Mallory, at 27,000 feet elevation, 75 years after the English mountaineer perished on Mount Everest in 1924. Steve, 53, manages Priest Station Café.
These days Helga says she’s really not afraid of anything. She says she’s probably too blunt sometimes, and she says that’s probably a German failing to be so blunt. She’s proud of her children and her family’s history, and she says having survived World War II somehow made life easier for her.
“The biggest shock of the war was coming to America and finding out about the Jews and their genocide by the Nazis,” Helga says. “I had no idea and neither did my parents. Where we were it was swept under the rug. Hitler and Stalin, and Mao should be in there, too.”
Today she says she doesn’t worry about the past, it’s water under the bridge, and she doesn’t fret about the future, because she can’t control it. But she’s not afraid.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.