Austrian Brigitte Roschitz experienced a tumultuous journey to the United States
By Shellie Sullivan
A retirement community in Lenexa, Kansas may not sound like a place with much international flair. Perceptions can be deceiving. Lakeview Village is home to residents from three different continents, including Brigitte Roschitz who was born in Austria.
Austria is a land-locked European country bordering the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. Brigitte was 11th out of 12 children in her family. Her father was a master tailor and ran his own business in their home, where her mother helped, as she was a seamstress. Brigitte remembers being happy growing up, that is until 1945.
Post-WWII Austria was a tough place for German Austrians
After WWII, Austria was divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones. Brigitte’s family, the Steins, lived in the Soviet zone. In the Soviet zone, Yugoslavian Partisans gathered up all the German Austrians, and put them in concentration camps. Brigitte was 10 years old in the spring of 1945 when soldiers came to her home in the middle of the night and took her father and oldest brother. The family didn’t know what had happened to them or where they were taken. A week later, more soldiers returned for the rest of the family.
When the soldiers started to come into the house, Brigitte said her mother had the children layer their clothing and wear their coats, since they were not able to pack a bag or take anything but what they had on their bodies. Her mother had the children roll money up in their sleeves and hide some small jewelry in their clothes. She told them they would need it along the way. The soldiers checked everyone for money and jewelry, but because of how smart Brigitte’s mother was, they missed their hidden treasures.
Everyone from her town, minus the able bodied males, was moved to town churches or schools. The soldiers then released all the non-German people, of which Brigitte’s family was not included. The people who remained, which Brigitte estimated to be around 8,000 or so, marched to the next town. Once they arrived, they were moved into the town church. A woman, who was a friend of the family, arrived in town looking for the Steins. She brought Brigitte’s family to her house where she cared for them until the Partisans came a week later and took everyone in the house to the train station. They were loaded on the train and rode for two hours. When they arrived at the other end, there were more Partisan soldiers waiting to shuffle them to their new residences.
Their new residences were homes that belonged to other Germans. Brigitte explained that most homes at that time had two sections. One was larger and designed for a growing family with children, while the other was smaller and typically housed grandparents. When Brigitte’s family arrived, the current owners were moved to the smaller part of the house, and several other families were put in the main house to share. Essentially, they were imprisoned in this house and town. The town was heavily guarded and referred to as “camp.”
Young and old started to die in the camp. Throughout these moves, the Stein family still didn’t know what had happened to their father and brother. As it turned out, they had been working in a lumber prison camp not too far from the rest of the family. The prisoner “grapevine” allowed Brigitte’s father to learn where his family was being held, and he and her brother were able to sneak into the home and stay there with the family.
“Oh that was a happy day!” said Brigitte with smiling, misty eyes.
Brigitte’s older sister smuggles Brigitte and her little sister out of the camp
After a few months, Brigitte’s older sister, a nun who had not been living with the family, Sister Engelfriada ( meaning angel of peace), was permitted to visit her family inside the camp. She had heard about all the prisoners in the camp being sick and dying, so she talked her way in with a suitcase full of medicine and food to give her family. Little did she know how perfect her timing was as her family was suffering from Typhus and very, very sick. Brigitte says that within three days of eating and taking the medicine, the entire family recovered.
Sister Engelfriada was able to return again, and this time Brigitte’s father told the older sister that she was to take Brigitte and her youngest sister Agnus with her when she left. He wanted to save them, and he told Engelfriada that they would die if she didn’t get them out, because they were too young to survive at the camp. Sister Engelfriada smuggled Brigitte and her sister out of the camp and onto the train. Once on the train, they sat on a bench and were not allowed to make a sound for fear someone would hear the girls speak German and put them in danger. Her sister took them to the house of someone she knew, where another sibling, Sister Evelina and their brother, who was a priest, met them. Brigitte’s brother took her to Zagreb, Croatia and Sister Evelina took little Agnus to her home. They were separated for a year, then were reunited in Croatia and stayed with Engelfriada in her “Mother House” where they lived for four or five years. While in Croatia, Brigitte attended school. Brigitte said it was difficult because they did not know the language. “It was not fun,” she said. “But we had to learn because it was not good to be a German during this time.”
Several years later, the rest of her family finally succeeded in escaping the camp by crawling on their bellies in the snow under fences in the middle of winter. They were able to make it to the border into Austria and to one of the refugee camps where the Red Cross helped them.
Brigitte is reunited with her family and meets her future husband
Eventually Brigitte and her little sister were reunited with the rest of family in the Austrian refugee camp. It was there that she met her husband, although she didn’t know he would be her husband until years later. The Steins lived in the same barracks as his family and were in youth group together. Brigitte continued to go to school, eventually attending seamstress school where she learned sewing and business. She took a bus every day and finished when she was 18.
It was hard to find a job, but a priest friend told her that the children’s surgical hospital needed nurse aids. She was able to get a job there and, even though she had to move away from home, she really liked it! Brigitte worked for three years, and then heard about a seamstress job for a hospital in her family’s town. She took that job for better pay!
Brigitte and her future husband had stayed in touch over the years, but then his family moved to America. He didn’t want to leave Brigitte, but he went with his family and came to visit her. He missed her so much that on one of his trips in 1964 he asked her to marry him, and he stayed so they could be married.
It took a while to get the approved paperwork for her to leave the country and move to Kansas City. Her husband Ernest was a home builder. They lived with his family in Strawberry Hill until they could afford an apartment on their own. She loved Strawberry Hill, which she described as ethnic and community-oriented. It was so different starting a new life and only knowing German and a little Croatian. She learned English from evening classes, citizenship classes and everyday living. She liked that she had to learn about the United States. Even though it was to pass her test, she thought it was so interesting. Brigitte was happy to come to this country because, “the U.S. had so much opportunity for jobs,” she said. Eventually Ernest and Brigitte were able to buy a house, fix it up and raise two daughters, who still live in the area.
Ernest has been gone for 17 years. Brigitte moved to Lakeview in 2014, and said she loves her apartment and being served, loves that her church is across the street and she can hear the bells, and loves that her grandchildren go to school across the street. Once you meet Brigitte, you will see that she is full of love and joy! She told me that it comes from the great gift her parents gave her – faith. “I thank the Lord every day for living here at Lakeview,” she said.