Guenter Henschel, Elkland, sees America and immigration differently than many of his neighbors in rural southwest Missouri. 

As a boy, Henschel experienced his father giving his life for freedom of religion, being forced into the Hitler Youth, fleeing his home and being poorly treated as an outsider in his own country.

Henschel was born and raised in a small community of seven farm families in far east Germany. His family’s original farmland is in modern Poland, just foot steps from Russia. 

World War II largely did not affect Henschel’s area in the beginning. 

“Industry was in the West,” Henschel said. His area was known as the breadbasket due to its food production. 

The largest imposition, he said, was Hitler’s prohibition of religious instruction to youth. 

“You could not instruct youth in churches,” Henschel said. “[Hitler] wanted to train and brainwash youth.”

Despite breaking the law, Henschel’s father knew Hitler would be gone some day, and if no one instructs children in religion, religion would be gone, too, he said. Henschel’s father taught religion to community children until he was caught in 1944, he said. His options were to be drafted to the Russian front or go to a concentration camp. 

“He chose the Russian front and never came back,” Henschel said. “I consider it he gave his life for freedom of religion.” 

 Community children then had to join the Hitler Youth and learn Nazi ideology. In the Hitler Youth, Henschel and others focused on sports and physical fitness, he said. 

“{ Hitler}  thought if you cut down on sickness, people won’t die,” Henschel said with a head shake of astonishment. 

Most German adults already supported Hitler because of his promise for a better life, Henschel said. After World War I, Germany was in havoc, and in even worse shape after the global Great Depression of 1929. 

“He built the autobahn (highway system]. It was his brainchild,” Henschel said. “Germans didn’t have cars yet, so he started VW and made a plan for people to have cars. He gave child support. He captivated the public.”

Germans believed Hitler could give them the way of life that was taken from them because of World War I, he said. 

“I thank the Lord Germany did not use the atomic bomb,” Henschel said. “Hitler would have been a god.” If the war had lasted another six months, Hitler could have won, Henschel said. 

In January of 1945, Henschel, his mother and two younger siblings were given a one-hour notice to evacuate their farm due to the approaching Russian front. The family packed a horse and buggy and left their home.

“Our neighbors said, ‘We’ll wait until the morning.’ The Russian army came and killed them on the spot,” Henschel said. 

They only traveled 20 miles by horse and buggy, until it was confiscated. 

“I was 12 years old, but I remember the chaos,” Henschel said. 

The family took as much as they could in backpacks, he said. They walked to the harbor at Danzig in an attempt to leave the east on a ship. 

“I had a little wagon, and they could not separate me from the wagon. My mother was already on the ship, and she came off because I wouldn’t get on,” Henschel said. 

The ship used to transport evacuees from East Germany, MS Wilhelm Gustloff, was hit by Russian torpedoes later that evening, Jan. 30, 1945, and quickly sank in the cold northern water. It killed more than 9,000 people, about half of whom were children, according to Time Magazine and the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum.  

As the Russian front continued westward, the Henschel family and German military retreated along the same route.

Henschel’s mother carried his 5-year-old sister until the two were hit by a military truck while trying to cross the road shared by foot traffic and military vehicles. 

They took the girl to the hospital, only to see the war end the next day. Uncertain times between Russian and Ally control scared doctors into fleeing, Henschel said. 

“The doctors tried to leave. The hospital went one day and one night without personnel,” Henschel said. “Gangrene came in, and when they brought the doctors back, they removed her leg.” 

Despite the war’s end, travel remained highly regulated between east and west Germany. The family stayed in the east for a time, until there was barely enough food to eat, Henschel said. 

“Mother said, ‘Maybe we can go west,’” he said. “Our train was the last train to leave the east.” 

The family was allowed to enter the west only because they proved residency using their grandparents’ address, Henschel said. 

They couldn’t go home because their home was now part of Poland, and west Germans treated eastern refugees poorly, he said. People in each region had different standards of living because of western industry and eastern farming. 

In West Germany, Henschel learned to be a shoemaker, met his wife, Elisabeth, at church and worked in coal mines for 10 years before taking the leap to emigrate to the United States. 

The Henschel couple knew a young woman who visited the United States and talked about it excitedly. Henschel joked if she would marry a rich American, the three of them could move to America. 

A middle-aged American man sent their friend a ticket and a “no strings attached” offer to meet him and return to Germany if she didn’t want to marry him.  

“She somehow felt God’s direction in it,” Henschel said. “They came back and married in Germany because he could take back a wife, but not a single woman.” 

The American man also sponsored Guenter and Elisabeth Henschel for their first five years in the U.S., he said. The government held him responsible for the couple during the five-year sponsorship. 

The Henschels came to the U.S. with one month’s rent and a trunk of belongings. He worked as a shoemaker, then as a minister. Both Henschel and his wife learned English from their employers, he said. They did eventually become citizens after taking citizenship classes. 

“We had a green card till citizenship. We had to report every year where we were,” Henschel said. 

“I have feelings for immigrants. I’m an immigrant, too,” he said. 

The U.S. should allow immigrants like himself, but they should come the legal way, he said. He knows from personal experience what it is like to be a refugee, an immigrant and to be treated poorly. 

“I did not leave (the east) voluntarily,” he said earnestly. 

He spent the majority of his working life in the United States, but wishes people would see there’s more to the world than just America. 

“I recommend every young person to make a trip to Europe, or to wherever else they want to go in the world,” Henschel said. Henschel’s teenage grandson, Aaron, learned a new outlook of the world after a trip to Germany two years ago, he said. 

“I am American. I am probably more American than you are,” Henschel said with dignity.

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