Helga Anker, who grew up in Germany during World War II under Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s Red Army, and became matriarch of a clan rooted in the earliest days of Tuolumne County, died Sunday at her home at Priest Ranch, close to her family’s business, Priest Station Café. She was 86.
“She passed peacefully,” her son, Steve Anker, who runs Priest Station Café, said Monday. “I was with her when she stopped breathing. Every moment’s precious. It was an honor to be with her when she died.”
She was born April 26, 1933, in her family’s second-floor living quarters above the Belgern railroad station on the Elbe River, in eastern Germany.
‘The second war has started’
She was about to start grammar school at age 6 in September 1939 when a neighbor opened the mail slot in the door at her grandmother’s apartment and called through, “The second war has started.”
She had an aunt, Tante Hanne, who loved Hitler and went to the Nürnberg rallies, mass meetings where Hitler hypnotized his followers. Tante Hanne would return from the rallies aglow and full of propaganda.
Her brother, Paul Tilch, finished high school and entered the German Army at age 19 in 1941. When she turned 10 in 1943, she had to join the 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 she learned to play the woodwind recorder.
She was 11 years old in February 1945 when Allied Forces bombed Dresden, 50 miles to the southeast. She and her family could see the bright red sky burning for days and nights.
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. 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 Anker 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.”
‘The Russians were terrible’
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.
“The Russians were terrible,” Helga Anker 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. She 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 Anker 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. She was 12 years old and she was repulsed by men behaving as animals.
Part of a pioneer family
In early April this year, she 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 the 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 Anker 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.
Halega Anker is survived by her eldest daughter, Kim Anker Paddon. of Los Angeles, a former school teacher, counselor and organizer; her daughter Denise Anker, who manages the new Lucky Buck in Buck Meadows; her eldest son, Conrad Anker, a world-class alpinist known for his May 1999 discovery of remains of George Mallory, at 27,000 feet elevation on Mount Everest, 75 years after the English mountaineer perished there in 1924; and her son Steve Anker, who manages Priest Station Café. Service arrangements are pending.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.