VALRICO — Memoir writer Ingeborg E. Ryals, of Valrico, had an idyllic childhood in the rural Pomeranian province of Germany with her parents and two younger brothers. The children ran through meadows chasing butterflies, swam with friends in the nearby river and rode atop wagons piled with sweet-smelling, fresh-cut hay.
She said everything changed, however, in 1941, when she was 14. World War II started, followed by the Russian occupation.
“It was OK for a while but quickly turned bad,” she said. Men, including her father and even her 14-year-old brother, were drafted by the Nazis and sent to fight. Her brother, small for his age, snuck off and ran home from the front. Their father never returned. Other villagers came back with severe injuries.
Food was scarce. The family lived on boiled potatoes and milk, until Russian soldiers took their cows. Ryals and her teenage cousin and friends often had to hide from inebriated soldiers to avoid being raped. Not everyone was spared.
Ryals was one of two girls from her village chosen by the mayor to be sent to work at a Russian labor camp on Usedom Island in the Baltic Sea. Eventually she escaped, making it to her aunt’s home in Berlin with just the clothes on her back. There she survived Stalin’s attempt to starve the city (the Berlin Blockade).
“We had such a solid childhood, I guess it prepared us for these times. You do what you have to do,” she said. Besides hiding and running, she also wore disguises, acted insane and escaped into her imagination to protect herself from the horrors.
In Berlin she met a polite young American named John D. Ryals Jr., who worked for the U.S. high commissioner for Germany. She married him in August 1950. The couple moved to his home state, Florida, where their five children were born.
Her husband, with co-owners Robert Jaeb (the philanthropist) and Rufus Rayburn, opened the Brandon Supermarket at the corner of Brandon Boulevard and Bryan Road. The building now houses Lighthouse Ministries Family Store.
Ryals, 85, lives in Valrico, in the home she and her now late husband built in the 1960s.
As a frequent speaker about Germany at her children’s Brandon-area schools during and after the war, she compiled notes about her life, which she published as a memoir, “The Tears of War” (iUniverse, 2012).
She dedicated the book to civilian casualties of World War II, writing that she hoped her story would honor their memory and encourage people to not judge “by nationality, race or religion but by the kindness and compassion one shows toward his fellow man.”
“We knew they (Nazis) were persecuting the Jews, but didn’t know the extent of it — the shop windows of a Jewish merchant’s store in the next town were smashed. The family disappeared. It was rumored that they went to America,” said Ryals, who has a Jewish son-in-law and is a member of Limona Village Chapel United Methodist Church.
“When I saw the first movies (of Allied troops liberating concentration camps), I sat there and cried,” said Ryals. “When I think about the suffering, I just could not believe that some of the Germans under Hitler did these atrocious, horrible things. How can people so educated do this? We were such a cultural society, we had music, Beethoven, Bach ... and here this horrible, unbelievable thing happened.”
“The Tears of War” is available online at Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and Amazon.
Send news of community interest to Barbara Routen, freelance writer, at Barbara.Routen@gmail.com.