Saugerties woman recalls childhood in Nazi Germany

Inge Backhaus

Inge Backhaus

In 1973, Inge and Fred Backhaus built their dream home in Saugerties. They’ve lived in it ever since, contributing to the community in multiple ways and raising two sons.

Inge shares her time and her gifts of knitting, crocheting and sewing in support of the charitable endeavors of the Saugerties Monday Club and her church. Fred is an active member of the Friends of the Library and other community organizations.  One would never guess the movie-like history which Inge has lived. This quiet, white-haired volunteer spent her childhood in Nazi Germany where, for seven years, her mother moved her from place to place in order to keep her safe.

The story begins with Inge’s parents, visitors from America who were trapped in the home of their birth when Hitler came to power. Inge’s mother was in the midst of a difficult pregnancy. Her grandmother was critically ill, delaying her parents’ efforts to get back to the United States. Thus, this immigrant couple, who loved living and working in America, was trapped in the cataclysm which consumed Germany and the rest of the world.


Inge’s grandmother lived on a large farm in a tiny village in East Prussia. Of necessity, her parents moved into a small house on her grandmother’s farm. When they lost first their infant child and then their parents, they moved to the small town of Neustadt.

Inge was born there in 1933. Her father worked as a jeweler and watchmaker. As the winds of war affected his business, he trained as a movie film operator, became a theater manager, and moved his family to French-held Alsace-Lorraine. Despite Germany’s conquest of the territory, the family lived quietly in an apartment and operated two movie theaters.

1943 brought about two significant changes in the life of the Pochwalla family. Another daughter was born, and Inge’s father was drafted into the German Army. He was sent to occupied France to show films to German troops. Inge’s mother continued to run the movie theaters alone with her two small children until 1944, when all German citizens were ordered to leave Alsace-Lorraine.

Back in Germany, Inge attended an unheated girls’ school where every girl had to bring a log daily for the wood stove. That semblance of normalcy changed when the school became an Army hospital. Cafes and shops became classrooms, as the women of the town sought to continue educating their children between air raids. Was Inge frightened? She “grew up in war and thought life was like this everywhere,” she replied

In 1945, Germany ordered children to be sent to Bavaria. Families were separated as their offspring traveled north to the camps established there. Inge describes sleeping on straw-stuffed mattresses and following rigid rules about what to do and when to do it. She was still, she says, naïve about the world events which directed her life.

In response to the liberation of France by the Allied armies, the fearful people of Bavaria placed children with farm families to protect them from what they imagined was coming. With no communication from either her mother or her father, Inge was placed with one such family. She describes being treated well and expected to work as the others did.

Inge was still wondering where her parents were when her aunt appeared at the farm one day riding a bicycle. The woman had ridden hundreds of miles through city and countryside to take Inge home.

The two departed Bavaria on a single bicycle headed for Neustadt and Inge’s mother. Inge and her aunt got to Manheim in the American-occupied region of Germany. Contrary to the gossip and their fears, they were treated kindly and permitted to travel onward.

On reaching home, they found American engineers rebuilding the town’s water supply while other personnel worked to re-establish normalcy for the fractured families of war. The twelve-year-old girl was finally in a peaceful place. Her father came home uninjured, she was reunited with her sister and mother, and the family began to work towards returning to the United States. Seven years passed before Inge was permitted to leave Germany. Seasick and alone, she traveled from Rotterdam to Albany.

Inge lived with an aunt and uncle, and worked as a beautician. She met Fred Backhaus, a U.S. Navy veteran in 1956. Three years later, they married. The German survivor of war and the German- American sailor began a new adventure first in Albany and then in Saugerties.

That adventure has lasted 57 years. Our town is richer for the presence of this courageous woman, who lived through a war, married, raised a family, and has earned the respect of all who know her.