SHERIDAN — She doesn’t know why she grabbed the wooden spoon branded with her father’s initials the night her family fled from a Russian army in February 1945. It was just there.
Marianne Bales took that spoon and a few other belongings to the train station in Breslau, Germany. She kept it as the train steamed west across her homeland, as German soldiers drove the refugees north to safety, and as she huddled in Dresden, a city that became a grave site for an estimated 25,000 civilians when it was bombed by American and British forces not long after she left.
Bales remembers the sound of Russian planes over the city that hid under darkness like a child beneath a blanket. People feared a lit cigarette would become a beacon for the enemy.
When Bales roomed with a family that farmed near Kitzingen, she held onto that spoon. And when she met the American soldier who changed her name from Marianne Thau to Marianne Bales in June 1948, she brought the spoon from Germany to Sheridan, Wyoming, where she started a new life in a new country as one of an estimated 20,000 German war brides.
That spoon is now framed in the Colorado home of Bales’ daughter, Virginia Bales Ellis, a relic of a childhood evacuated by world war and of love across enemy lines.
Bales was born June 21, 1927, in Breslau, the capital of Schlesien in eastern Germany. She is 90 years old now, a resident at Westview Healthcare Center in Sheridan.
Proud to be German and more proud to be American, she tells her story with dry wit and snippets of her mother-tongue mixed in. Ellis fills in when her mom’s memory fails.
Bales was 10 years old when she was required to join the Bund Deutscher Madel, the female branch of the Nazi Party’s Hitler Youth. She wore a white blouse, blue skirt and black neckerchief during weekly meetings that featured sports, crafts, theater and community service.
“It was fun,” Bales said. “We went for walks, we played games, we sang.”
For Bales, Hitler Youth was a group of friends. It wasn’t political.
She remembers food rations and coffee made out of grain, but her stepmother cooked and Bales didn’t care about the particulars. Bales does recall with an impish grin the way she used to water the geraniums on the balcony and “accidentally” spill on passersby below.
Other than the grief of losing her baby brother to diphtheria, Bales had a good childhood that was strained but not scarred by World War II — until that knock on their door and the command to flee.
At 18, Bales was an adult, but she left childhood comforts more abruptly than most as she faced an unknown future.
On the run
The Russians bombed Breslau twice before the evacuation, but it “amounted to nothing” and the Thaus believed their city would be spared. Even when the soldier gave evacuation orders, Karl Thau told his daughter to hide their fish dinner beneath the sofa for later consumption.
“Let it go, let it go, we’ll be back,” he assured.
After the residents of Breslau left, the German army blew up every bridge and road into the city to protect it from Russian advance.
The fish dinner rotted in their abandoned home.
By the time Bales was given a place to live with the Spitzig family near Kitzingen, she weighed 97 pounds. She remembers delighting in receiving an entire egg to eat.
On Easter 1945, American soldiers occupied a German air base near Kitzingen. After three days of hearing gunfire, Bales made up her mind.
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die with my parents,” she said.
The family took refuge in the basement of a house down the road, the home of nuns. When they left, Bales heard rumors that American soldiers raped German women so she made herself as ugly as possible as she walked by. Then she saw an American soldier at a water pump brushing his teeth. If they brush their teeth, she thought, they can’t be that bad.
Love your enemy
After returning to the Spitzig’s, Bales sought work as an interpreter on the army base in Kitzingen. She spoke German, English and a little French.
Sgt. Walter Bales was the head of maintenance and supply on the base. He came to see Bales “all the time.”
“I didn’t like Walter too well when we had our first dates,” Bales wrote about the soldier. “He was an American, and I was a German, and we just lived through the biggest battle in history.”
Still, they attended dances, discussed history and found they liked each other’s presence, at times.
When the sergeant asked Bales to marry him, she realized she loved him with all her heart.
An American dress for a German bride
There were no wedding dresses in war-torn Germany. In fact, marriage between American soldiers and German women was banned by the military until December 1946.
Bales wrote to her future mother-in-law and described the kind of dress she wanted — satin with a long veil — tucking hand-drawn pictures into the envelope to illustrate. The dress was purchased at Stevens Fryberger in Sheridan and shipped overseas.
Meanwhile, Bales waded through government “red tape.” She had to present 17 pages of health, background, employment and character assessments to prove she would be a worthy bride.
On June 19, 1948, the couple was married by the Justice of the Peace. On June 21, Bales wore her American dress and married Sgt. Walter Bales in a church wedding. They sent a telegram to Sheridan to let his family know the knot across enemy lines had been tied.
A month later, the Bales boarded the USAT General Daniel I SULTAN and sailed to America.
“Sob, sob, cry, cry,” Bales said about saying her goodbyes.
German stoicism couldn’t stop the tears that came into her father’s eyes.
In America, Walter Bales worked as a ranch hand on the Wrench Ranch. Marianne Bales sailed through the immigration process and became an integral part of life in Sheridan.
She sang with the Mothersingers, The NoteAbles and choirs at Immanuel Lutheran Church. She joined the Big Horn Homemakers Club, knitted sweaters for 4-H fairs, took Spanish classes, fed branding crews and worked for 33 years in area schools. She was runner-up for Mrs. Wyoming in 1956, and she was the first Wyoming recipient of the Daughters of the American Revolution Americanism medal, awarded for her “outstanding contributions to our American way of life.”
Walter and Marianne Bales had four children — Walter, Virginia, Pamela and Annette.
Through it all, Bales’ faith, German grit and zest for life prevailed.
When Ellis was a child, nobody told her she should be proud of her mother. Now she realizes she was raised by “a diamond.”
“She climbed every ladder she saw,” Ellis said. “And all that time, she took her kids to church. To this day, I tell her, ‘You have saved the souls of your children.’”