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Refugee shares story with Seton eighth-graders

Most of what the eighth graders at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton know about World War II they learned through books and movies.

Henry Tetzlaff changed that this week. He lived through the war, originally living in East Russia and then escaping to a refugee camp in Denmark.

On Tuesday morning, Tetzlaff, the grandfather to Seton student Johanna Tetzlaff, presented a human side of the war to the eighth grade students. For more than an hour, he talked about how he spent much of his childhood on the move. He spent more than three years with his mother in that refugee camp, while his father was in the German Army.

He doesn't necessarily describe himself as a strong person because of what he experienced. Rather he refers to his faith.

"I describe myself as a person who puts his trust in God," said Tetzlaff. "God gives you the strength."

And that is what happened during those years, according to Tetzlaff.

The family was living in East Prussia (now mostly Poland) in 1939. His father farmed, "and life was pretty good," said Tetzlaff. "My father had a motorcycle and then he got a side car and my sister and I would ride in that while my mother and father rode on the motorcycle."

While they farmed with horses, they did have a tractor and eventually, his father bought a car.

"But in 1939, my father knew something was happening," said Tetzlaff. "The war began. We could hear the news through the radio. At that time we thought it was a good thing."

Germany began losing the war and Tetzlaff's father was drafted in the German Army and left the family. As the family stayed on the farm, a Russian prisoner of war, who did become a good family friend, was sent to them. This was in 1945.

"God used him to help us," said Tetzlaff. He helped with the farm and helped the family when they fled the area. Tetzlaff's father had already begun making plans to have the family leave, and those plans were put into action.

They left East Prussia in February 1945. Winter was the best time to go because the area was frozen, including the lakes and rivers. The packed wagon, led by horses, could travel over frozen waterways.

"It was just a much better time to go," said Tetzlaff.

"We left everything behind because the most important thing was making sure to stay alive," said Tetzlaff.

As a child, much of that did not "sink in" at the time, he said. Rather, he and sister and brother considered the trip in the wagon an adventure. Most of Prussia's residents were also leaving, being relocated to the west.

As they traveled to the west and to the Baltic Sea, where they would travel by boat, Tetzlaff recalled it was cold, conditions were not the most desirable and there was no medical care available.

"We were so cold," he said, but you had to stay alive," he said. "I remember my mother never complained; she prayed a lot."

His brother became sick with pneumonia on the trip, and when the family reached Denmark refugee camp, he died.

Denmark became the destination because it had a large refugee camp.

Thousands of people lived in that refugee camp, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by the British. The Tetzlaff family stayed there for 3.5 years. The longer people stayed there, the more attempts were made to organize schools and churches.

He does remember the sirens which went off. In fact, when he first heard the warning sirens being tested here in Minnesota, his memory took him again back to that camp.

"I heard that, and my heart was beating faster," he said. "I wondered why, and I knew."

People began slowly to leave the camp and the Tetzlaff reconnected with the father in West Germany, who had been in a Russian prison camp.

"It was a tough time," said Tetzlaff.

His father began looking at other locations to move the family, and after three more years in West Germany, the family came to America in 1952. Relatives lived in Minnesota and the United States government allowed families to come, provided there had families and jobs here. Transportation was provided.

When the Tetzlaffs moved to Minneapolis, his father worked in a machine shop. The children, except for Henry, attended school and began learning English. He went to work in a garment factory.

Later he went to vocational high school and then the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He was employed at Toro for many years.

As he attended classes, he worked at a job to support himself and pay for tuition.

"The first five years we were here it was a struggle," he said. "But we banded together and continued."

He did return to his family's farm many years later. He and a sister traveled there and met the people who live and work on the farm now.

"It is kind of strange to go back to a place where you have lived," he said. "They were happy we came."

He and his family have lived here in Minnesota for more than 60 years. This is home, something they are happy about.

"I am a full-blooded German, he said. "But I am an American."