ELDORADO-- As Iowans, it may not occur to us regularly, but there are about thirty million displaced people in the world-- often those forced to leave their home by conflict. Of that number, over ten million are refugees, having crossed an international border for safety.
An Eldorado woman and her siblings know exactly what it's like to be refugees, having arrived in America in 1952, hoping to make a new life. Twelve years after being forced to leave their home in Kulm, Bessarabia, the David and Ottilie Rauter family made the decision to start a new life in America. That was sixty-two years ago, but Lilli Rauter Gross still remembers the hardships her family endured as they sought to escape political oppression.
In a book printed by the family after Ottilie moved to a nursing home, Lilli's mother remembers, "Hard years came over us, from one year to the next, more tax was assessed making it difficult to come up with the money. We were under pressure." By 1940, the village of Kulm had become a very prosperous place. But the good times didn't last long. On June 26, 1940 Bessarabia was occupied by Russia.
A few months later, on September 5th, a resettlement agreement was finalized between Adolf Hitler and Russia. Ollie wrote in her memoirs: "All the people of German ancestry would be relocated. All of us were ready to go, as we had no other alternative. Either relocate or be sent to Siberia. The corn and grapes were still in the field. What would become of us? Only our Father in heaven knew. What we harvested we had to deliver without payment for it."
She continues, "In the middle of the village stood a row of buses. There we were loaded and taken in the direction of Galatz. That's how we left our homeland." On a recent Sunday, Lilli Gross, who was the oldest of the Rauter children when they left Kulm, retold for members of the congregation at St. Peter Lutheran in Eldorado, how the Rauter family struggled as refugees.
She remembers a woman begging her mother to leave behind their youngest child, baby Heinz Paul, suggesting he would never survive the cold winter that was upon them after being born Dec. 18, 1944. In mid-January 1945, the family was on the move again as they moved toward Germany, fleeing a Russian invasion. Lilli remembers her father cutting tallow from a dead cow left by the roadside to provide 'fat' for the family's broth. For fourteen days they lived in a forest with just brush laid over them for shelter.
From the time the family left Kulm in Bessarabia (what is now the country of Moldova, tucked between Ukraine and Romania), the Rauters traveled through southern Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and then Austria, before arriving in Germany. Eventually, the Rauter family moved on to Poland, and then back to Germany, with World War II ending about that time. But life was still a struggle. As the oldest daughter, Lilli finished 7th grade but went to work in a tobacco plant making cigars. Her siblings Herta and Gerhard would pick up large snails and sell them to restaurants for a penny each. "Everyone tried to help sustain the family in one way or another," Ottilie wrote.
By 1952, a family in America, (Iowa, more specifically)-- was willing to sponsor them, and they decided to establish new roots. "People that heard of our attempts to emigrate to America told us we'd get there and they'd put a sack over our shoulder and make us pick cotton. But David didn't care. We were looking for the freedom that America promised." Sponsored by Herman Doscher, the Rauters moved into a stone house near Hawkeye, provided with food and furnishings. David and Ottilie's brood by this time included children Lilli, Gerhard, Herta, Ella, Heinz Paul, and Lydia. The children ranged in age from four to seventeen.
Over the next several years, the parental Rauters moved to other locations, but Lilli, having met her future husband, Alvin Gross, made her home near Eldorado. Later, David and Ottilie also returned to the area to farm and joined St. Peter Lutheran Church, where they remained members until their deaths. "My parents chose this church because it was like their church back home in Kulm," says Lilli.
Even though it has been decades since the Rauter family made their way to America as refugees of Germany, America continues to be a country of refuge, resettling about 70,000 refugees each year. Northeast Iowa's history and culture is enriched by their stories.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.