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Sat, March 23

They risked everything to escape the insanity of Nazi Germany

From their hiding place in the attic, the young couple could hear the heavy tread of footsteps below; could hear the soldiers searching for them.

They knew what their fate would be if the German soldiers carrying machine guns below discovered them – they would hang like the four men they had seen yesterday in the forest. The men with signs pinned to their bodies that said, "Deserter."

Paul Felber and his wife of 54 years, Olga, have many stories of their narrow escapes from death in German-occupied Austria during World War II.

Felber was a private in the mountain division of Hitler's army during the early 1940s and slated to be an officer before Olga convinced him to desert.

It was not easy for him to give up the philosophy of the Nazis.

Ever since 1939, when his parents moved from his mother's homeland of Switzerland to near Stuttgart, Germany, after customers boycotted his German father's cabinet shop, the Germans had indoctrinated Felber .

Felber, then a young teen, became a member of Hitler's Youth, as were all school children. He saw Hitler's politics reverse the terrible economic depression of the country – much as Roosevelt did for the Americans. The Germans told him the resulting Blitzkrieg truly was the "glorious" war. He joined in 1942.

"My father said, You'll be sorry,'" Paul recalled. "And I was," both during the brutal training for the army and after Germany ultimately lost the war a and Paul discovered the horrible abuses of the Jews by Hitler and the SS.

"How could they [the SS] be so full of hate to do these things?" he asked himself, and felt terrible having been part of such a cause.

During his service, Felber had gone all over the country with the German army fighting resistance to the Nazi regime, including Yugoslavia and the Russian front lines where a shrapnel wound forced him to return to Bavaria.

"I was 150 percent Nazi at the time," he said, and very devoted to Hitler's ideology. "I was convinced the war would be won."

Felber said most of the people in Germany did not know about the Concentration Camps, only that the German system of government was superior to other governments and the world should be converted – by force.

Olga on the other hand, knew better.

"Lots of people disappeared," she said, including her father, who verbally opposed Nazi politics and was taken away when German occupation troops moved into the small Austrian town where they lived. Olga never saw him again.

She also saw their Jewish neighbors on hands and knees forced by the Germans to scrub painted symbols off public roads with toothbrushes. They, too, disappeared.

"We didn't know where they went," Olga said.

It was a stroke of luck or fate when Felber got yellow fever and was reassigned to Austria with the German troops outside Vienna.

That's where he met Olga.

The two young people saw each other in an Austrian park. Felber was in the German uniform of his country, and Olga, the daughter of a Nazi resister, was passing by.

But they were just two teenagers who were attracted to each other.

"We were so in love, philosophy didn't matter," Olga said.

The young couple never spoke of their philosophies – no one did.

"People were afraid to talk about anything. There were spies everywhere," Olga said.

Felber and Olga's destiny was changed forever the night President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, April 12, 1945. The Russians and Americans were converging on Vienna and Felber could see the Nazi cause was lost. He feared for his life.

Many of his fellow soldiers committed suicide after believing so long they would win. Olga encouraged Paul to desert.

"There were no trains, no buses, no communication," she said. The Nazis had wiped everything out.

So Olga and Paul hijacked a delivery truck and hid among the boxes. German stormtroopers checking the truck, failed to detect them and waved it on.

They jumped out near Olga's aunt's house. It was then they came across the deserters hanging by ropes in the forest.

"I'm a deserter," Paul whispered to Olga. "It gave me goosepimples."

When they arrived at her aunt's house, four German soldiers were playing cards. They noted Paul's uniform and that his unit was not in that immediate area.

"I had all kinds of excuses," Paul said.

But ultimately, he knew they did not believe him and he could suffer the same fate as the men in the forest.

After the soldiers returned in the night and failed to find them in the attic, Olga and Paul dressed like old people in baggy clothes with hats and canes and walked five miles to Olga's mother's apartment near Vienna.

On the way, they hobbled right between a group of storm troopers. "Nobody stopped us," Paul sighed.

The young couple spent the next two in her mother's apartment hiding and praying. There was no water, no electricity, no toilets. At night, the Russians bombed the town, raped any women who were not hidden, robbed food and stole everything of value.

"One soldier I saw had watches from his wrist to his elbow," Olga recalled.

Another close call for Felber came when a woman of the Nazi party made a surprise visit to the apartment and saw a glimpse of Paul retreating into the bedroom.

"I'll report you to the Russians," she threatened Olga's mother, who begged her not to take her children away. Her mother wisely told the woman she would expose her to the Russians. In the end, the woman gave her word not to say anything about the German deserter.

"To explain is very hard. Every day it makes your heart jump – the things going on," Olga said.

Eventually, a jealous girlfriend of Olga's betrayed Paul. The Russians strip-searched him looking for the SS tattoo of Hitler's elite soldiers. It was not there and they set him free, unlike so many others who merely disappeared.

On Paul's birthday, May 8, 1945, the war was over, but the fear was not.

Olga and her mother came down with typhus. Paul would bicycle five miles to town and work in a field, taking his payment of milk and bread home. Once, a soldier stopped him and took not only the milk and bread, but also his bicycle.

The danger for Paul was intensifying in Austria.

Olga once again saved his life, managing to smuggle him onto a train bound for Germany.

"You have to take one more chance to survive," she told him.

At stops along the route, Paul would cling to the bottom of the railroad cars between the tracks to keep from being detected by soldiers.

When he finally arrived at his home in Germany after almost a year away and with no communication, his parents were shocked to see him.

"They had decided I was dead," Paul said. "My mother collapsed."

To top it off, when he explained his desertion, and said he was going to marry an Austrian girl, his parents opposed the marriage.

Ultimately, he married Olga.

It was a warm, sunny spring day in Prescott when the Felbers related their war experiences. Paul talked in a monotone voice, as if by not getting emotional, he could squelch the pain of remembering.

Now, more than a half century later, Felber still knows without a doubt that his wife both spared his life and changed it.

"That was a miracle – to get Olga," he said.

"I don't like to think about it. Sometimes it's hard to believe we went through it," she added.

The Felbers immigrated with their two children to Canada in 1956, to Michigan in 1961, and have been in Prescott for 10 years. Paul was an engineer for General Motors.


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