War and a woman with children

Family united after a lifetime of separation

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2011

It was 1993 and Jim Daniel of Bend, Ore., was going through family papers from his deceased parents’ estate when he came across his birth certificate. The 1947 document listed his place of birth, Juneau, and his mother, Charlotte Hoepfner. Until that moment Daniel had been certain the two people he called mom and dad were his biological parents.

Something else surprised Daniel about the birth certificate; it listed a brother and a sister, Peter and Anita Hoepfner. Daniel’s girlfriend urged him to call Juneau and see if his family was still there. He picked up the phone.

Peter Hoepfner was lying on the couch in his Juneau condominium when the phone rang. His wife, Donna (Williams) Hoepfner, answered.

“It’s for you,” she said.

It was Daniel, who asked Peter if his mother’s name was Charlotte Hoepfner.

“I said yes,” Peter said, “and he said, ‘Well, I think I am your brother.’ I almost choked. I never had a clue.”

Where it all began

Anita and Peter Hoepfner were born in Germany in 1937 and 1941 respectively. A 1943 photograph taken during World War II shows the two children with their mother, Charlotte, and father, Walter Hoepfner. Walter was wearing a German Army uniform. He was home on leave, said Anita.

Peter has no clear recollection of his father.

“I have this image in my mind of getting ready for him to arrive,” he said. “I remember there was a special dinner and things felt different. That’s the last we saw of him.”

Soon after, his father was reported missing on the Russian front.

The Hoepfners lived in a small farming community about 60 miles southwest of Berlin. The town was located near Magdelburg, an industrial center that by 1945 had been flattened by bombs.

Although only five years old in 1945, Peter remembers many details about the war such as running down to the air raid shelter and the sounds of falling bombs.

“They sounded exactly like they do in the movies,” he said.

After a raid, the family returned to their apartment by climbing up a staircase on the outside of the building.

“You could see bomb holes all around us,” he said.

It is difficult to exaggerate the chaos that enveloped the area of eastern Germany where the Hoepfners lived. As the war ended in May 1945, 10 million German refugees facing starvation and trying to escape the Russian Army fled west. Millions of slave laborers freed by Allied armies roamed the countryside looting and looking for food. As combat ended, a drunken Red Army, encouraged by Joseph Stalin to revenge German crimes in Russia, engaged in an unprecedented assault on the female civilian population. Mass gang rape ensued.

“My mother was a very determined woman and she wasn’t afraid of anything. She wanted to get us out of Germany and either we got out or I wasn’t going to make it,” said Anita Hoepfner, who was eight years old at the time and suffering from severe malnutrition. A year later in Juneau, classmates would look at her and ask her if she had been in a concentration camp.

A mother determined

If you compare Charlotte Hoepfner’s circumstances to a poker game, she held some aces. Charlotte and her two children were American citizens. Her father had been a merchant marine and had lived with his family in New York prior to the war. A brother lived in Juneau. Charlotte’s problem was living long enough to play her cards.

An Empire story about the Hoepfners’ October 1946 arrival in Juneau reported that Charlotte contacted the American consul in Berlin with her old passport to make travel arrangements. Making “travel arrangements” seems a ghastly understatement considering her situation. If making contact meant traveling the 60 miles to Berlin this would have been an extraordinarily dangerous trip for a single woman. And any kind of contact with the American consul in the Russian zone of occupation meant risking arrest by the NKVD, the Russian secret police, and a one way trip to Russian slave labor camps.

The arrival of a Russian Red Cross card at Christmas 1945 with a note from her husband saying he was a prisoner of war working in Siberia only made her decision to leave even more wrenching.

However she managed it, an American army jeep arrived in the middle of the night in August, 1946 to assist the family’s departure. Anita remembers being sick and confused while shuttling around on trains at night.

“We were so packed you couldn’t even move. When we stopped my mother would help me climb out the window to go in the fields. It was like cattle herding,” she said.

Their journey ended when the family arrived in Juneau on the Princess Louise.

“I can still remember pulling into Juneau. Of all things it was raining,” said Peter, laughing.

The missing link

Unbeknownst to Peter and Anita, their mother was pregnant. Jim Daniel was born in June 1947. Anita was attending a Girl Scout camp when her mother gave birth. ‘When I got back my girl friend kept telling me, ‘Oh your mom had a baby. She had a boy.’ And I said ‘No she didn’t.’ My mom looked the same and I never really knew until Jim contacted us.”

“Anita was elated when Jim called,” said Peter. “I was at first too. But then shock set in and then anger. Thirty years went by where we had no brother. I still get angry at that mentality. In those days you just didn’t talk about something like that.”

After working as a hotel maid and secretary, Charlotte died in 1958 at age 48 of cancer. Walter was released by the Russians in 1949 and died in communist East Germany during the 1980s. He never saw his children again. Anita married James Bukowski in Juneau and they moved to Chicago and had five children. Peter recently moved to Washington where his wife, Donna, died of cancer in December, 2009. They have one son, Chris Hoepfner who lives in Oregon. Jim Daniel is married and lives in Oregon. Peter, Anita and Jim Daniel met shortly after making phone contact and have stayed in touch since.

• Mac Metcalfe, of Juneau, is retired from public school teaching and from the Alaska Army National Guard.

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