“May I help you?” asked the woman behind the counter.
When I walked into the small country store to buy a coke and a moon pie, I noticed the dark-haired woman behind the counter but hadn’t really paid any attention to her. But when she spoke, I looked at her with curiosity.
She had an accent, one I had never heard before. It wasn’t British, but I thought it must be from Europe. Foreign accents stand out in the mountains of East Tennessee, where everyone speaks with a distinct southern drawl.
It was a very warm Saturday in 1983 and I was enjoying a day off from my job as a reporter for the Elizabethton Star. It was my second summer working for the newspaper and it had been a very busy week. A leisurely drive around Watauga Lake near the little town of Butler was just what I needed for relaxing and unwinding. I had turned onto a narrow road that crossed a long bridge and meandered around the base of some very tall hills when I spotted the store up ahead. It was nearing mid-afternoon and I realized that I could use some refreshment, so I pulled into the small parking lot and walked inside. The bell above the door rang merrily as my eyes adjusted to the soft light of the store’s interior.
“I was hoping to get a coke and a moon pie,” I replied.
“Of course,” she answered. “There are some bottles of coke in the cooler and the moon pies are right behind you on the rack.”
There was that accent again, and her voice was low and husky, making everything she said sound mysterious and intriguing. I looked at her more carefully. She was probably about 60, with a face that had obviously been very pretty when she was young. She had dark hair streaked with gray, and it had been pulled back, away from her face, and gathered at the nape of her neck with a small white ribbon.
My curiosity was aroused and I could not resist asking where she had been born. I was learning the work of news reporting and had developed what they call in the business, a nose for news.
“I am from Austria,” she said with a hint of pride, obviously glad that I was interested. “I have been here in the United States since 1947, and behind the counter of this store for almost as long.”
“You were in Austria during the war?” was my next question.
Her countenance darkened and she closed her eyes for a few seconds, as though trying to obscure the vision of a memory. After a moment, she finally spoke. “Yes, I was there. I have tried to forget those years, but the memories still torment me. Maybe if I talk about that war, I won’t be haunted any longer.”
An hour later, I got into my car and started the motor. But the car just sat there, idling, as I thought about everything she had told me. I then drove back to my little one-room apartment in Elizabethton as fast as I could to put her words on paper. It was a great story. Quite by accident, I had encountered someone who had been a member of the Nazi army!
The following Monday I spent a couple of hours at the newspaper office typing up the story, which I presented to our city editor, Rozella Hardin. “I think you should read this right away,” I said to her. “I hope you’ll agree that it deserves a spot in the paper.”
She agreed, and said it would be on the front page of the Sunday issue, which was an important place for an article to appear. But then I realized that I had not asked the storekeeper if I could publish her story. The memories had poured out of her like a dam bursting, and I had been so caught up in her tale that I didn’t even mention that I was a reporter. I drove back to Butler the following day. She was helping another customer when I walked into the store, but when she spotted me, she smiled. “Have you returned for another coke and a moon pie?”
“I have to be honest with you,” I said when we were alone. “I am a reporter for a newspaper. I work for the Elizabethton Star, and I would like to write about you. Is that OK with you?”
I thought I detected some hesitancy and I began to panic, but then I said that the July 4th holiday was approaching and it would be the perfect story because through her words, we can understand what is so good about America. “You can help us all to be more patriotic,” I told her, and she grabbed my hand. “Oh yes,” she smiled. “I love this country. When I arrived here as a very young woman, after going through that awful war, I wanted to kiss the American soil. Go ahead and put my story in your paper.”
I had brought along a camera and took her picture, but she wanted her husband to be standing next to her. “After all,” she smiled. “He is the reason I am here.” She also gave me a faded snapshot of her wearing a military uniform. “It was my official ID photo. It is probably still in the files somewhere, if any of the Nazi army records survived.”
Austria was “liberated” on a cold March day in 1938. Bordering Germany, the country offered little resistance as the Nazi army marched across the border. Hitler called it liberation, but Hilda Platzer, a 13-year-old school girl in the town of Scharnstein, didn’t feel liberated at all.
“What happened to our wonderful country was a terrible thing,” she told me. “Everything changed overnight. I left school one afternoon, saying ‘treu Osterreich’ to everyone. That means True Austria. But that night, everything changed. Our chancellor, Kurt Von Schuschnigg, addressed the nation on the radio and urged all Austrians to obey the Germans. He said there was nothing anyone could do to prevent the takeover because the Nazi government was too powerful. He ended the broadcast by wishing all Austrian citizens good luck.”
When the young Hilda went to school the next day, most of the teachers were wearing ugly brown uniforms with the swastika. “The teachers who did not wear them, the ones who remained loyal to Austria, were discharged,” she explained. “And at the end of the day, instead of saying ‘treu Osterreich,’ we had to say ‘heil Hitler’ as we left the school.”
She completed her schooling under Nazi rule, graduating from high school in the spring of 1943. Those years, she said, were spent in misery and fear.
“I had to live under Hitler’s cruel hand, hating every minute of it, but not able to say one word against the government,” she told me. “We were forced to walk a narrow line, and if we got off of it, even just a little bit, we suffered and suffered dearly. I couldn’t trust anyone, not even my closest friends, because anything I said against the Nazis would become known.”
I asked if anyone in her family joined the Nazi party.
“No, but we were expected to attend party meetings,” was her answer. “I was always finding excuses not to go. They fed us nothing but propaganda at those meetings, praising Hitler and talking about the battle victories. We knew that most of what they said wasn’t true because we listened in secret to the Allied broadcast over the shortwave radio. It was on every night at nine o’clock.”
“It was against the law to listen to those broadcasts,” she continued. “And we would have been arrested if anyone had found out, but mama turned the volume down so low that it could not be heard outside the window, or even in the next room. I am not sure where those broadcasts came from, probably England, but we knew that we could trust what was being said. We knew it was the truth.”
When Hilda graduated from high school, the war was at its peak. Everyone living in the Nazi controlled region was expected to contribute to the war effort and she found employment in a Nazi government office as a secretary.
“I was constantly under observation,” she remembered. “Several times I discovered that my desk had been searched. I managed to stay out of trouble, but in 1944 I became careless and made a serious mistake.”
Air raids were common and every time the sirens would go off, she and the other secretaries would carry their typewriters down three flights of stairs to the basement.
“One afternoon, American planes flew over,” she said. “We had all learned to recognize the American planes when we heard them, and instead of carrying my typewriter downstairs, I walked over to a window and watched the planes going over our city. I thought that I was alone and, thinking out loud, I said, ‘Ich hoffe, die Jungs schaffen es nach Hause, um ihre Mütter zu sehen‘ … I hope those boys will get home to see their mothers. But I was not alone. One of the bosses heard me. ‘What did you say?’ he asked me, and when I did not answer, he said, ‘One more outburst like that and you will find yourself in a work camp!’ “
She was careful not to say anything else that would offend her bosses, but the damage had been done. A month later, in November of 1944, she received an official letter from the government. She was conscripted into the Nazi army.
“I’m sure I was being punished, but I really wasn’t surprised,” she said, remembering that day. “They were drafting everybody, old men who had been in the First World War and young boys, who were called Hitlerjugend… Hitler’s Youth. Even my father had been drafted when he was 40, in 1942, so why not take a 19-year-old girl?”
Leaving her mother at home alone, she reported to Vienna on January 1, 1945, as ordered. She was assigned a uniform and, by way of Prague, ended up in Olmutz, in what is now the Czech Republic.
“It was near Auschwitz,” she said, “that terrible place where so many Jews were gassed and their bodies burned. We noticed an awful smell in the air, but we didn’t know what it was. At that time, we did not know the horrible things that were happening there.”
Her job for the army was supposed to be in communications, but she was never trained in that or any other field.
“There was no time to be trained,” she remarked. “The war was beginning to wind down by that point. The Nazis were losing and we were always running from the Russians. We were terrified of them, but if someone was captured, they were treated better if they were Austrian. The Germans who were captured by the Russians had a rough time.”
Her memories of those final months of the war were particularly poignant. “The conditions were very poor, but we were young and our bodies could stand it. The hardest part was having to leave so many people behind when we evacuated an area. They were mostly old people and young children, sick and too old to run or fight, and we had to leave them behind to face an almost certain death. It was horrible,” she said and took a moment to gather her thoughts. “But there was nothing we could do. Those were very bad days.”
After a few weeks of eluding the Russians, she found herself in an all-girl military camp near Nuremberg, in Germany.
“One night, while a group of us were in Nuremberg getting supplies, the city was bombed!” She said, and added, “There were explosions and buildings were flattened. I can still hear the sounds of those explosions, and the horrible screaming!” She shuddered and sighed heavily. “And when the worst of it was over, we re-grouped. We were all there and OK, although shaken and very dirty.”
“But as we were starting back to our camp,” she continued “spitfires flew over and started firing bullets. We had to run and dive into a ditch. We lay there head to foot and kept very still. The girl in front of me raised up and looked back at me. Her name was Helga. ‘I hope you are praying,’ she said, but before she could put her head back down, a bullet hit her and she was dead.”
She said that when the bombardment ended, she cut off her dead comrade’s dog tag but left the body in the ditch. “We had no choice,” she said. “We had to get back to the camp in a hurry and there was no way we could carry a body as it would slow us down.”
In late March, with the Nazi defeat inevitable, the girls were told that the army had been disbanded and they were free to return to their hometowns. “I started home on April 2, 1945,” she said, “but many of the girls had no home to return to, as there had been so much bombing and destruction.”
“I managed to get a train ticket,” she continued. “The train would be leaving from Schwabach, in Germany, but the station was bombed before I could get there.” With a train ticket that was no longer valid, she had to hitchhike back to Austria, and it took her almost two weeks to reach Scharnstein, which had been spared the worst of the bombing and was still intact.
“I had only been gone for three months, but I was so dirty and so thin from hunger that no one recognized me,” she said. “But was happy to be home. The nightmare had ended. My mama was still there, but we never saw papa again. Two weeks later the war was over.”
Not long after, several American servicemen passed through Scharnstein and Hilda caught the eye of one of them, a lanky young man from Butler, Tennessee named Lee Roy Dugger. They married and he brought her to Tennessee, where they lived the rest of their lives on the shore of Watauga Lake, operating a small country store. Lee Roy died in 1999 and Hilda lived to be 91, dying in 2016.
The afternoon that I wandered into her store, she was a contented wife, mother and grandmother, enjoying a quiet life on a Butler back road. But she was still haunted by the horrors of that war.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night having nightmares about those years,” she admitted. “But when I look around and realize where I am, I feel calm again. Hitler was evil and made people suffer terribly. We were all afraid, but I am not afraid any more.”
She wiped away a tear and looked at me with a smile. I touched her hand and said, “I hope the nightmares never come again.”
The story was published in the paper on Sunday, July 3rd, and it brought her a great deal of attention, with people driving to Butler to meet her and tell her how much they had been moved by her story.
“I am glad you are here,” one woman said to her. “Welcome to America!”
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