Ingeborg Sapp, 78, has lived through the defining ideological battles of the twentieth century. And she’s going to tell her story on Aug. 13 at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum.
Sapp was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1932 as the Nazis rose to power. She doesn’t hide the fact that as she grew up she was swept into the reactionary wave.
“I couldn’t wait until I could join the Hitler Youth,” she said, adding that she did so around the age of 10. “I was absolutely enthralled by it.”
To be fair, everyone had to join the organization. But her enthusiasm was such that her father had to be careful around Sapp, for fear that she would report him. Her father never joined the Nazi party.
During the years of World War II, her father would follow the conflict on a large map fixed to the wall. As it went on, Sapp remembers how the fronts came increasingly close to home.
In 1944, when she was 12, Leizpig suffered heavy bombing. Every night, her family was forced to hide in their cellar. Her house was eventually struck and partially destroyed — while she and her relatives were inside. Their neighbors had to break down a wall to dig them out of the wreckage.
“It was a very scary time,” she said.
It was also a time of great scarcity. Both she and her father developed boils. A physician would tell them it was a result of malnutrition.
“There was a lot of this going on,” Sapp said. “People were hollow-eyed.”
She still clung to the idea of a German resurgence. She truly believed Hitler had the wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, that Nazi propaganda boasted were waiting in the wings.
But early in 1945, the residents of Leipzig began to hear the gunfire of the front, and knew that the Allied forces were close. American troops soon took Sapp’s town, bringing food with them.
“They gave us yellow cornmeal, which we had never seen before,” Sapp said.
The local Germans supplemented their diet with wild weeds and whatever else could be scrounged. The collapse of the Nazi state left her despondent.
“I was terribly disappointed,” Sapp said. “We all were. But with our hungry bodies we didn’t have much time to think about politics. We just wanted the bombing to stop.”
In the summer of 1945, at the Potsdam Conference, Germany was split in two. West Germany was handed over to France, Britain and the United States. While East Germany was given to the Soviet Union.
Suddenly, Sapp was living in a Stalinist satellite state. She remembers, with a bitter laugh, Russian soldiers parading about with armfuls of watches taken from the Germans.
Everyone she knew had a small garden patch that they relied on to survive. Black market dealings ran rampant.
Yet there was some, small, silver lining. When she was 16 or 17, in the late 1940s, she was able to join a rowing club. Under the previous regime, only the wealthy had this privilege. Her team grew increasingly competitive and was invited to West Berlin. There they saw a world outside the Iron Curtain.
“We saw for the first time what life could be like,” she said.
Soon, she’d leave East Germany for good. At 18, Sapp decided to cross into the west illegally. A man brought her and another woman to a cleared area where he knew when the guards changed shifts.
“I could have been shot,” Sapp said. “The man took us to the border, pointed his finger, and said, ‘run.’”
And that’s what she did. Making it safely into West Germany, she settled in Frankfurt, where she had friends. She quickly found a job, and lived there for about 10 years.
In 1959 she met her husband, a scientist visiting from the United States. They left for North America and married the next year.
Surrounded by a foreign language, she suffered from culture shock. But as she and her husband embarked on a six week tour of his country, to see Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, she was impressed by the U.S.’s “vastness and beauty.”
Similarly, she admired America’s freedom of speech. But Sapp said she was shocked the government did not provide healthcare, something all three German governments she’d lived under did “from cradle to grave.”
Some 50 years later, Sapp lives in Plattsburgh and has a summer home in Tupper Lake. She has two sons and five grandchildren. She still rows.
“I’m enjoying my life,” she said. “I’m trying to make everyday count at my age.”
Sapp will give a presentation about her life at 5 p.m. on Aug. 13 at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum, 1131 Mace Chasm Road, Keeseville. For more information, call 834-5180.