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  Eric Talaska 

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Erika Talaska's Flight to Freedom
Exodus from East to West Germany in 1954


The exodus from East to West Germany in 1989 has brought back memories to Erika Talaska, for she also made her escape in 1954. At age 15, she boarded a train out of her hometown of Schmolln, 40 miles south of Leipzig, Germany's second largest city. She took the train as far west as it would go, and reached the border city of Eisenach. Eisenach is where Erika sometimes vacationed. Erika would stand and view West Germany from Wartburg Castle. It was within sight of this castle where Erika made her escape. On the train she met another woman, also seeking freedom. Together they reached the border, waited till dark, and walked at night. They reached West Germany and got on another train, and went as far west as they could go. Erika went on till she came to a town close to Luxembourg. She thought the furthest west she could go, the safer she would be. "You see on television how the people are now waiting in camps," she said, speaking of East Germans entering in the west in 1989. "I didn't do any of that. I was illegal," she said.

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Former East Germany


Erika got a newspaper and found a job as a housekeeper/nanny for a family. They knew where Erika had come from, and began harassing her to go back to her mother. West Germany was not too obliging to East German refugees and the family Erika was staying with did not want to get in trouble. "They harassed me constantly. So, I left," she said. Erika changed jobs frequently, so her address could not be traced. About a year after she had first left her hometown, she crossed back over into East Germany to see her mother, and snook out the same way she had the first time. "There were loopholes in the early days," Erika said of the security, consisting of a wall (sometimes barbed-wire and posts), dogs and security towers with armed guards. Erika said had she been caught, she feels like they would have just kept her in the East, and kept an eye on her. She admits, though, that she could also have been shot.


Finally, she got a West German passport, became legal and got a job as a bookkeeper (and/or cashier?) at an American Air Force base in Spangdahlem. She met serviceman Leo John Talaska there. They, married, and she eventually obtained a VISA and came to the U.S. in 1959. Why had Erika, at age 15, left her family, with only the clothes she had on and just enough money for train fare? "For anyone else, it's hard to understand," she said.


Erika was born in a country in the midst of WWII. "From the time I was born, until kindergarten I stayed a lot in the basement," she said. Her town got shelled by Russians, then by the U.S., then by Russia again. When she was very young, her father, Rudolf Erler, was drafted in to Hitler's army, as was every male between the ages of 14-65. "It was either be drafted or be shot at gunpoint," she said. Her father was sent to the Russian Front, and Erika and her family never heard from him again. A friend said her father had been shot in the arm. Erika believes her father survived and was one of 25,000 POWs the Russians had kept because Rudolf was a talented engineer. Erika's mother, Lotte declared Rudolf dead so that she could obtain social security benefits. According to the death certificate, Rudolf was killed in action in Pampali, Republic of Latvia (formerly western Russia) on December 22, 1944. "I despise Hitler more than anyone," Erika said, "because he's the reason for my father being sent away," Erika reminisces the atrocities of WWII and says, "We (German military) did terrible things. But we've paid for it."

Erika's mother reared both Erika and an older sister, Doris. Her home was a three-story building, with a machine shop on the bottom, where her father had built bicycles and worked on sewing machines and the like. It was a second generation business. Her mother rented rooms upstairs, and continued ownership of the building, despite discouragement from the government, until 1986. By then, Erika's mother was ailing, and her home needed repairs. The government refused to maintain a private building, so Mrs. Erler signed it over to the government. Erika, in turn, signed over her inheritance. A restaurant then became where Erika's father once worked on his machines. The store is one of "many of its kind," Erika said. Fortunately, the state remodeled the building to be very beautiful. The building then became Euronics, selling electronic appliances. Erika's son, Eric feels the building should have been given to Erika to be kept in the family. But at least it looks real nice now.

When Erika went into kindergarten, she, like every other child, joined the "Young Pioneers and F.D.J.." This was a political organization, which Erika said they brainwashed children into accepting Communist ideology. She continued in the Pioneers throughout school. Her forced Pioneer and F.D.J. membership didn't alter Erika's beliefs, though. In 1953, Erika participated in the workers uprising. She and other students went to school, tore up East German and Russian flags and posters. An associated Press news article reported that the 1989 protests were the largest in East Germany since the uprising in 1953.

Erika was required to participate in physical education in grade school and she became an excellent swimmer and a life guard, winning a few medals. She says that's why you see Olympians form communist countries doing so well, because they are strongly encouraged and virtually forced to become great athletes. Erika's original swimming certificate is in her master album. It is for swimming for 45 minutes non-stop.

In Germany you finish school in the 10th grade, at age 15 and go to work, unless you have very good grades. The government allows these "A-B" gifted students to continue their education, and sends them to college, all at government expense. Erika had just finished her 10th grade and was one of the ones accepted into college. Instead, she boarded her fateful trip to Eisenach. "It didn't matter if I went to college or not. If I had become a doctor or whatever, we would have been paid the same amount of money," she said.

Erika had talks with her family about a better life. She said her maternal grandfather told her that there were other countries where she could go. She remembers the grandfather Louis Erler saying to her in a rhyme, "Erika geht nach Amerika," meaning "Erika goes to America." So, Erika longed for a life of freedom. She wanted to go wherever those chocolates, coffee, oranges, and other smuggled goods were coming from. There were many reasons for Erika to come over to the West. Luckily, she made it. Erika has been a U.S. citizen since 1973. After she had come over with her husband from the service, it took her many years to get used to things. She spoke only German, and didn't know American culture.

In 1974, Erika went back to see her mother. This was her first legal trip to East Germany since she had escaped. Then she saw the Communists had done a big job in brainwashing a generation. She was surprised to see young people's attitudes were pro-communist. When she was young, it was the young people who were most defiant against Communism. Erika was treated rude there. She found that she had to change out of her American clothes and wear no makeup to blend in the crowd.

In 1974, she had long talks with her mother, but not at her home. There was always the chance her mother's renters could overhear conversations that where perhaps negative about Communism, and turn Erika and her mother over to the authorities for doing so. So, they talked in the park.

Mrs. Erler passed away in 1987, so Erika again returned to East Germany. "This time things were different," Erika said. She said the East Germans were interested in what was going on in the West, and most young people were anti-communist. Erika said to herself, "Some thing's going to happen." As for the East Germans seeking out refuge in 1989, she says, "I hope they all make it. But it's not likely."

Erika often missed her hometown, Schmolln. "Even though it's Communist, it's home," she said. She missed her mother's cooking. "Sure it's plain and simple," she laughs, but to her it was a taste she'll never forget. And she misses what family and friends she has left in East Germany. "But I'm thankful I'm here," says Erika. "I would never live anywhere else."

In addition to the extreme hardships Erika went through in East Germany, she has also had hardship in America. She has had to adapt to the American way of life and struggled to speak English (she can now speak English very well). She has had to deal with occasional hostility against "foreigners" and then after moving from Ohio to Texas, some hostility against "Yankees". Erika lost a child, Johnny who died at age 5. Erika has suffered chronic asthma related illnesses since moving from the north to the south, but the chances are she would have had inferior health care in East Germany.

The most noticeable qualities of Erika are that she is a very giving and loving person that many people like and model after. She has devoted much of her energy towards volunteering in the Yarborough Landing Volunteer Fire Department - Laddies Auxiliary in Ashdown, by Millwood Lake, Arkansas. Erika liked to cook, talk to friends, garden, sew, make crafts and watch TV - most with the companionship of her Chihuahua, Rudy. Her house was filled with German decorations and such. She was always on the lookout for German food.

A few quotes Erika has used from Germany include "Lebe, liebe, lache" meaning "Live, love, laugh", "Ve get too soon oldt undt too late schmart" meaning "We get too soon old and too late smart" and "Wie man's macht es ist falsch" meaning "No matter how you do it, it is wrong".

Erika has been married only one time - to Leo John Talaska for 50 years and they have three children, one grandchild and four great-grandchildren, which are the only children to take after her, her husband, and her parents.

Erika Lina (Erler) Talaska was often on the lookout for anything she can do to help others in need and attended church regularly.




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