Jul 29, 2014
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Living History

Canton's Erna Richards survived three months in an internment camp.

Living History

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Erna Richards. Patch regrets the error.

When you have the privilege to not only meet, but hear the stories of people who have lived history about which you have only read, one column is not enough.

Meet Erna Richards, an 83-year-old Canton resident who survived three months in an internment camp during World War II.

She and her husband stopped by Joyful Acres Farm in Ball Ground some weeks back to watch the harvesting of chickens, and to get eggs. I was helping with the harvest, so I didn’t shake her hand.

Erna remembers raising chickens when she was a child. Born in 1927 to German parents, she spent her early childhood in Wilhelma, what was then a colony in Palestine.

"We all lived together," she said. "Like normal neighbors. Germans, Arabs, Jews, the Brits. No problems."

She was 12 when the British took her family to an internment camp in Africa. It was 1939, the start of World War II. The British were rounding up Germans. Men were taken to one place, women and children to another. They were allowed to bring only the clothes on their backs. Erna, her mother and three sisters were taken to a dilapidated, old hotel. They had mattresses on the floor, but no linens, and by morning were covered in bed-bug bites. 

"We looked like we had the chicken pox," she said.

After three months, those in the interment camps were given a choice: stay there until the end of the war or go to Germany. Because they had a grandfather who lived near Stuttgart, Germany, they chose to leave. Coming from Africa, they were ill-dressed for the colder climate. They had a long, miserable and frostbitten journey to their homeland.

Erna walked me around her organic garden, which was brimming with an amazing variety of vegetables, fruit and flowers. I stopped in front of a tall, white and green bank of plants I’d never seen.

"That is Snow on the Mountain," she said. "The first time I saw real snow was when we arrived in Germany from the camp."

I asked her about what happened to the Jews, what she remembers the grownups discussing.

"We knew nothing about nothing," she said. "There were rumors, but no one talked about it. We saw that if you asked questions, poof! You were taken away."

It wasn’t until after the war that she found out the truth: Dictator Adolf Hitler orchestrated the murder of more than 6 million people.

"We were horrified," she said. "Horrified."

Erna looked sad and shook her head.

"My grandfather believed Hitler a great man," she said. "He was stunned to find out the truth."

Coming Aug. 23: Meet Joseph Richards, a World War II Army hero who parachuted into Japanese-held territory, conquered the enemy and saved a 5-year-old girl left in a rice field. Erna came to America in 1950 to work as a nanny. She spoke no English. Within a few years, she met Joseph. They married in 1958.

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