On April 18, 2016, Randolph-Macon Academy was fortunate enough to receive a unique guest speaker with a significant story to tell. The man spoke to the students of his experience as a young child caught in the crossfire of one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Rolf D. Schmidt was just five years old when Joseph Stalin’s Red Army began their onslaught against the city of Berlin, Germany. Once the smoke cleared, the Battle of Berlin claimed over 200,000 lives. Prior to the battle, Schmidt ran back and forth from his grandfather’s apartment to the concealed bunker five stories below. This was almost a daily routine for 18 months to avoid becoming a casualty of war from British and American air-raids; he was the only child in the bunker. His food came from the meat of slain horses, clean water was only available when it rained and the stench of the bunker was horrid.
Germany finally surrendered on May 8, 1945, and ended the war in Europe. People all over the world rejoiced in the good news, but Schmidt had little reason to celebrate. The aftermath of the war showed a ruined Berlin along with a devastated population. Schmidt recalled the sight of destructed buildings reduced to rubble with people sifting through the ruins in an effort to find their loved ones. Orphans wandered the streets looking for anybody that would take them in. Running water was undrinkable due to Hitler’s final order to flood the subway systems to eliminate the tunnels as a strategic asset for the Red Army. Hitler gave the order knowing that German civilians used the tunnels to avoid allied air-raids thus contaminating the water supply with the corpses of innocent civilians.
As the aftermath continued, so did Schmidt’s struggles. The winters of 1946-47 were especially difficult to bear. There was no heat, extremely limited electricity and no windows to shield him from the elements. Schmidt and his family burned everything in their apartment to keep a fire going, including the furniture. Schmidt said he will always remember the frigid night when his mother wrapped him in curtains and warned him not to fall asleep because he would not wake up.
The students were intrigued by Schmidt’s experiences having been intertwined with such a significant part of history. One student asked how the morale of the German population was during this time. Schmidt explained how devastated and shocked they were by the end result of the war, especially with the suicide of their fuehrer Adolf Hitler. “The German people believed in this man… when he killed himself they felt abandoned,” he explained to the students. Another asked him what he thought of the war itself. “It was not needed,” he said, “I don’t understand it… what Germany was doing at that time.”
Despite the chaotic events of his childhood, Schmidt has overcome his early struggle. He has traveled the world and lived in many different countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, Italy and the United States. In an effort to tell his extraordinary story he started to write his memoir in 2006, which can be found online at rolfslife.com.