Retracing a wartime journey
Anna Shearer was surprised how familiar her hometown looked, even after 67 years away. She was almost 11 when her family fled Osijek, Yugoslavia and the Nazi occupation there.
When she returned to Osijek a few months ago, Shearer easily led her daughters through the town’s streets, remembering the families that had lived in the neighborhoods and finding the schools she and her brother had attended as children.
“Kathleen was in awe sometimes – amazed by all the things I remembered,” said Shearer of her youngest daughter’s reaction to the homecoming.
Since 1944, when Shearer and her family left Yugosla-via, the country has been divided up into different nations. Osijek is in present-day Croatia.
Even though the political boundaries have changed, many of the landmarks from Shearer’s childhood and her family’s journey toward the United States were still there.
Two of Shearer’s three daughters, and their husbands, accompanied their mother on the two-week trip. They began in Munich and travelled through Austria, where Shearer’s family spent many years working on farms to survive in the years after World War II.
From camp to farms
After visiting Osijek, the group visited the area near Villach, Austria, where Shearer, her parents and brother, spent many months in a displaced persons camp. Many other families, uprooted by the war, lived in the camp, too.
“It was miserable there,” Shearer remembered.
“There was very little food and it was cold. You could look through the building and see icicles,” she recalled.
“I was miserable. I got pneumonia from malnutrition. The doctor told my parents there was nothing they could do. ‘She just needs to eat,” he said.”
Shortly after her illness, a farmer from nearby came to the camp with a kettle of bean soup.
“He was trying to get us to work on his farm,” said Shearer. Her family and several others did just that. “We moved out of the camp and lived on the farm. It was somewhat better.”
The family later moved to another, bigger, farm. Her brother, three years older, broke both of his legs there while working with a tractor.
Shearer clearly remembers the Christmas her family spent on the farm outside Villach. The land and houses belonged to a British general, George Montgomery. Shearer’s father took the children of the farm to the main house to entertain the general and his friends, she said.
“He taught them Christmas songs and they sang to the generals. They had cookies and chocolate for the kids,” Shearer recalled.
When she was 14, Shearer’s family moved back to Gut Schottelhof, the farm where they had first lived. Then old enough to work, she joined others sorting potatoes, and later worked alongside a threshing machine in the field.
Both of the farms were famous in the area, and the people Shearer talked to during her travel last spring knew them well and could tell her how to find them.
Carrying an old photo taken of her family outside of a barn on that farm, Shearer and her daughters were able to trace the barn, which is slated to be torn down next year.
During the trip, Shearer was reminded of the school in Linz where her family first hid when they fled Yugoslavia.
Shearer’s family was placed in a girls’ school, right across the street from Hermann Goring’s factory.
That steel plant and factory, which made tanks for the Nazis, was heavily bombed by U.S. Air Force during an air raid the day after Shearer’s family left the city for a farm on the Czechoslovakian border.
Zones separated cities
Describing her family’s movements after the end of the war, Shearer recounted how cities and towns were cut into Russian and U.S. zones, or sections run by the British.
In the Russian zone of Linz in 1946, Shearer’s family sat in the railroad station for a week waiting for the train to take them east. During her travels in Austria, Shearer returned there.
“As soon as I saw the rooftop, I knew it was the same place,” she said.
From Linz, the family took the train to Vienna, disembarking into the Russian zone there.
The city was partitioned into four pieces, and her father was able to move the family into the British zone because he was trained as a barber and the British wanted his services.
Making it to America
Eventually, Shearer and her parents and brother were able to move to the United States. She was 17 when they arrived in New York City on May 2, 1951.
“When we came over, it was like hitting the jackpot of $10 million,” she said.
They lived in New Market, Va. and Washington, D.C., where Shearer met her future husband, Jim. She got her American citizenship five years later.
The Shearers eventually moved to Berkeley Springs where they raised daughters Angela, Theresa and Kathleen. Jim Shearer passed away last year.
Lifetime of memories
“We covered a lot of territory and saw a lot of things,” Shearer said of the trip back to her childhood home.
Kathleen Lieberson, Shearer’s youngest daughter, said the family had been talking about such a trip for the last 20 years. But the war in Croatia in the 1990s and other family considerations kept putting it off. Finally, they decided it was time to quit waiting.
“It was wonderful. They, of course, were interested because they’ve always heard about it,” Shearer said of her daughters.
Both daughters got emotional during the trip when Shearer showed them the landmarks of her youth.
“We all wanted to go and see what we heard about our whole lives,” Lieberson said.
“You linger for it. You don’t want to go back, but you’re curious,” Shearer admitted.
“After 67 years, it was nice to go back to where you were hatched,” she said.