ELKO — Most 14-year-olds don’t have to worry about the lives of 40 other people.
Leonore Rush grew up faster than most.
Her teenage years were fraught with war as she found herself miles from home in an unfamiliar city where daily bombings were commonplace. She learned young that there are good people and there are bad people in this world, no matter what the times may bring.
Ensuring the safe passage of 40 girls before coming face to face with a machine gun, crossing a river where most fell victim to gunfire, and hiding in a basement while bomb after bomb struck the city of Berlin, Rush had an unwavering determination.
Her will to stay alive, while ushering others to safety as World War II came to a close, is undeniable.
“You can do an awful lot of things if you want to,” Rush said as she began to recall events starting in 1944. “You were not afraid and you don’t even think of being afraid. You have a goal and you go.”
Growing up as an only child in Stuttgart, Wurttemburg, a southern state in Germany, the war came to her family’s doorstep. At 14, Rush was drafted into a women’s work camp in an area that is now Poznan, Poland.
Under a dictatorial government, there was no choice but to obey orders and head to work on farms harvesting crops and helping where necessary.
“The government told you what to do and you better do it or you end up in a concentration camp,” Rush said.
Being a teenager, going to a work camp for Rush was a new experience in a place she had never been. She couldn’t have known that it would lead to a long, perilous journey home, dodging soldiers and constantly hiding.
“I always had to find places that I could hide in, but could get out of if they got too close,” Rush said. “I remember all of those places I tried to find.”
With a choice that was made for her, Rush’s parents said goodbye to their only child and she left for camp.
German work camp
By the time the war reached 1944 there was shortage of hired help, as the able-bodied were fighting. That left young girls. The 40 girls in Rush’s camp ranged from all walks of life, some who had never used spoons or forks before, others who had maids growing up. Economic status didn’t matter in work camps.
Rush was required to work in the camp for six months. Each girl had to make their way to ranches and farms to help wherever they were needed. When the weather turned cold, Rush was taught to spin and knit.
The days were organized. The girls would eat breakfast, enjoy a half hour of singing, then head to their work stations. Each night, Rush would play the accordion for the girls before bed. Music was a staple in the camp.
Every so often, they practiced an escape plan should they need to flee. For six months, the routine worked and Rush was happy learning new skills that proved to serve her later in life. She was also promoted to quartermaster.
After six months, Rush had a choice. She could go to work as a streetcar conductor in Berlin, work in an ammunition factory, or stay in the camp. Staying in the camp seemed to her and her parents the safest.
One night in January of 1945, Rush was finishing office work when a call came over.
“Hey you girls, what’s the matter with you guys? When are you leaving,” Rush recalled a man saying.
“I don’t know,” Rush answered.
“You guys better get on your way because we are leaving. The Russians are on their way, you can almost hear their tanks.”
Fear took hold of the girl leading the camp, making Rush the unspoken leader of the 40. She made name tags with each girl’s respective addresses made out. This small act turned out to be a blessing as some girls were numb with fear and could not even recall their names.
The emergency plan was to head to a camp on the outskirts of Berlin that was said to have enough supplies for additional workers. Rush knew two things: They had to head West and there were railroad tracks going in that direction. With communication lines down and no definitive direction, Rush made the decision to head for the railroad tracks and make passage to Berlin.
The 40 girls packed what they could with a few bicycles in tow, and made their way to the tracks. The trip was about 30 miles amidst harsh weather conditions.
Rush managed to barter their way onto a train car, cramming in what belongings they could.
She made it safely to Berlin without losing a single girl along the way, however she found herself even further from home, facing a more dangerous road ahead.
Danger in Berlin
It was early 1945 and although no one knew for sure, they could feel the war had turned, Rush said.
“You knew the war wasn’t going very good at that time because we knew the Russians were coming; they were behind us,” she said.
As they reached the camp, a new set of girls began to arrive for work. Rush knew it was only a matter of time before the camp would be raided. She made the decision to send the girls back home, sending them off with anything they could carry because their homes were far away.
It came as a surprise that Rush herself wasn’t sent away from the work camp.
“You can send me to a concentration camp but I will do what I want, and what I feel is right,” Rush said. “We were not the type of people (in Stuttgart) who would blindly follow somebody’s orders.”
It was said in those days that laws were made in Berlin, read in Munich and the people in Stuttgart stuck to themselves. Being only a teenager during the war, it wasn’t until after it ended that Rush learned the horrifying truth of persecution and crimes against Jewish people under the Nazi regime.
“I didn’t know. I was very young but my parents never mentioned it,” Rush said. “I didn’t even know they did all that stuff until after the war.
“We were far away from that, and I didn’t know of any Jewish person being persecuted in Stuttgart.”
Where she was from didn’t matter; Rush was in the middle of a war-ravaged Berlin and needed to find a safe haven.
During her time working on farms, Rush made friends with a girl in camp. This girl’s parents owned an apartment in the center of Berlin they left vacant as they chose to live in a Berlin suburb on the outskirts of the city.
Rush gave the girl a bicycle she was given in the work camp so she could go home to her family, while Rush took shelter in the basement of the apartment, only blocks away from where Hitler would later shoot and kill himself.
Bombings became an everyday occurrence as the Russians moved into the city. She quickly learned the sounds of planes and knew how many bombs would be dropped. She also learned to make herself look as old as possible, a safety precaution as a woman alone.
“I learned that quick or I’d be gone,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Rush could no longer stand the confinement of the basement.
Her sights were defiantly set on returning home, however, she lacked transportation.
She took the streets on foot and began to make her way to the suburb to retrieve her bicycle.
This would be the beginning of Rush’s long journey back home. Fear did not stop her from traveling alone amidst a dangerous city.
With the subways removed and bridges blown, the trek to retrieve her bicycle was not an easy one. At one point Rush shimmied across railroad tracks that were the only thing remaining of a demolished bridge.
The suburb, she found, was also occupied by Russians. The saving grace was her friend’s father, who worked as a pharmacist before the war.
“They (the pharmacist and his family) were treated nice because they (the Russians) needed him,” she said.
Although Rush was safe for the time being, her bike was in a guarded building and unreachable as long as the war raged on.
Victory in Europe Day marked the end of the war for many. For Rush, it was her chance to grab her bike and finally begin her journey home.