Everybody has a story.
Antanja Schlaile’s story begins halfway across the globe, in another world, and for much of her life, it was filled with unimaginable sorrow. But like all great tales, hers is one laced with love and kindness, and an ending that reminds us there is light even in the darkest hour.
An Unlikely Meeting
For nearly a year, Antanja Schlaile had been only number 11325. One morning, in the winter of 1943, German soldiers stole her from her home. They forced her to dig bunkers, dumped her in a concentration camp, and then allowed her to be sold like an animal at market.
But still — she had endured and she had been freed. She was still Antanja Kushewa from a tiny village in Belarus; she still remembered her mother and sisters. And at 17 years old, Schlaile had all the grinning, ski-jump-nosed cuteness of Judy Garland, but the wide, dark eyes that would make Natalie Wood famous in just a few years.
So when Schlaile’s boss told her she must work late to serve dinner to some newly arrived soldiers, she was not immediately yielding.
But he insisted, so she readied herself. Hard work was the thread that tied together the disjointed pieces of her life. Adaptability and tenacity? That’s just how she had survived.
“They came and we served them dinner,” Schlaile recalled, sitting at the kitchen table of her Polson home one morning in early August. “I never knew, of those two men, that one of them will be my husband.”
Erich, an American soldier straight from a Norman Rockwell painting, had already fallen in love with his Russian waitress. He was shy and the two barely spoke that night. But he came back again and again. Schlaile noticed he was different from many of the soldiers she served.
“He was polite,” Schlaile recalled. “He was very kind and had very nice manners.”
Today, Schlaile is without Erich. It’s been just over a year since he died after suffering a second stroke, and Schlaile is still learning to navigate a world without her constant companion.
“Now you are in Germany”
Schlaile grew up the youngest of three sisters in an eight-house village in Belarus. Her father died when she was very young, so Schlaile was raised by her mother and sisters. She attended school nearby and helped with the collective farming made central in Stalin-era Russia.
Schlaile remembers the war first came to Belarus in 1941, but it was not until 1943, when the Germans started losing the war, that they forced the young people in her village to work. Clad in white uniforms, the soldiers came to her door, she said, because they needed help digging bunkers and trenches.
“Every morning they came by to the houses and took whoever was available to dig trenches,” Schlaile recalled. “My sister had just had baby, my mother was old, so they took me.”
She and the other young Belarusians dug ditches until evening and then returned home. Day after day the process remained unchanged.
“One morning, nothing unusual, they told us to go and we went,” Schlaile remembered. “That evening they didn’t let us go home. They said ‘You can’t stay because tonight there’s going to be lots of shooting here.’”
So, the soldiers took them away to another village, and then another. Whenever they stopped, Schlaile and the villagers would get out and dig bunkers for the Germans. Eventually, their route ended at the railroad tracks. There was no station, but a train was waiting.
“We look behind and there’s a group of people there, behind them another group, and behind them another group,” Schlaile said. “People as far as you can see and the train was very long — it was a cattle train.”
Guards were posted at the door, then the train started rolling.
“Of course we didn’t know where we were going,” Schlaile said. “We started getting hungry and somebody had to use the toilet but there was no toilet, so they found some straw.”
The train took them across Poland and unloaded its human cargo in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.
“Lots of barracks was there; there was an electric wire fence and so on,” Schlaile recalled. “They took us in one of those barracks and said ‘now you are in Germany.’”
The Camps — One Day at a Time
Digging, that was easy, that was life on a farm. But Schlaile and her people had been living, for the most part, a secluded life with no radio or television and they had little knowledge of the war and their role in it.
Upon exiting the cattle train, they were forced to shed their clothes and march in line to shower. Schlaile’s long dark hair was shaved to her scalp. It wasn’t until much later she learned that many of the camp’s residents were gassed.
“There were lots of other people but we couldn’t talk to them,” she said. “The people there were very weak. They give you maybe 100 grams of bread and margarine, a greenish soup that tasted bitter — you kind of just eat because you’re hungry.”
They were called by their numbers to work on German farms. Day after day, enslaved people from the camp were shuttled to local farms to pull weeds by hand, always surrounded by gun-wielding Nazi guards.
“The farmer give us dinner — a good meal, just like a regular meal you have at home — bread, meat, vegetables, dessert even,” Schlaile said. “So, after a while, we’d like when the farmer’s truck came by so we can have a good meal.”
This routine lasted for eight or nine months. Then one morning, her number was called and she was loaded onto a truck, but this ride took her away from Dachau, never to return.
Schlaile spent maybe a week at Buchenwald, one of the first and largest concentration camps on German soil.
“People here, people there, people sick and in pain,” she said. “It was worse than what we experienced in Dachau because people had been there quite a while.”
All of the bottom bunks were full, so Schlaile and the new arrivals had to climb to the top bunk, despite their own weary condition. They slept on straw with no blanket.
“In the morning when we got up we saw a couple people were dead, and that was the first time I saw dead people in a camp like that,” she said.
Breakfast and lunch were served in the town.
“It was not better food than Dachau but it was in town,” Schlaile said. “People would look at us and the people in the street sometimes would throw a bread roll across the street to us — of course everybody was grabbing that — but we thought the people was nice.”
After a few days there, Schlaile was taken, again by train, to the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the Austrian border in southern Germany.
“We were about 50 people in a group, lots of people were standing outside and we were wondering why we were in town and no longer in the camp,” Schlaile recalled.
Listening to the chatter around them, Schlaile and the others began to make sense of the situation.
“They were telling people in German ‘You just go ahead and choose which one you want to take,’” she said. “We realized that those people was there to choose one of us to go and work in houses.”
Schlaile and her friend, Sonja, began to worry. The two had been together since the very beginning and couldn’t bear to be apart.
“We just hold hands, we don’t want to be separated,” she said. “One lady pulled my friend off and another lady pulled me and we say we don’t want to go and we started crying.”
Suddenly, this little old woman stepped in and demanded that both girls come with her. She took them to a hospital for German soldiers who were badly wounded; many did not have arms or legs.
“We just cannot believe that we are in a normal room, wearing normal clothes,” Schlaile said of her new barrack-like living quarters.
The girls were dirty and hungry, so they washed their faces and hands and waited for the woman to return. Present day Schlaile smiles at the memory, points to the table and describes what happens next: Bread, meats, vegetables, plates and forks, she recalls in a husky voice between laughter and tears.
“She says, ‘You just go ahead and take your time and eat but don’t overdo it because you might make yourself sick,” Schlaile recalls. “After eating, we just lay in bed and rest. We just cannot believe all of that, from all that we had experienced, it was so different. We were not afraid that we were going to be killed anymore.”
And then, one morning, Schlaile woke up to American soldiers in the hospital.
“They came in and said, ‘you are free, you can go,’” she said. “But we didn’t know where to go.”
Something Old, Something New, A Parachute and Something Blue
“I just miss him still,” Schlaile said of her late husband, Erich. “Sometimes I wonder, really, what brought us together to be husband and wife. I just wonder if we hadn’t had to wait to serve him, would I ever have met him?”
Perhaps it was Erich’s unusually loud dinner mate or the group’s late arrival that made that first encounter so memorable. Maybe it was destiny.
“Later on he says ‘can we got to the movies some time?’ and I say ‘OK,’” Schlaile recalled.
So began Erich and Tanja’s courtship. On their first date he took her on a picnic. Another time, they rode the train to the resort atop Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak. They ate at the restaurant; outside other young people were skiing. On other dates they boated in the mountain lakes.
“Sometimes we don’t know what the other is saying,” Schlaile recalled of the broken German-Russian-English the pair would fumble through at first.
After two years, Erich had finished his service. He told her, ‘I’m not going to be here anymore;’ and then he said, ‘I’d like to marry you.’ But Schlaile was hesitant; she hadn’t been able to contact her family since she was taken away from home almost three years earlier.
“I was waiting because I wanted to hear from somebody,” she said. “I wanted to find out if my family was alive or not.”
Erich wrote to her family who approved the union, and the two were married at the city hall by a German judge, 9 a.m. on Nov. 13, 1948. About 50 people celebrated the marriage with a dinner Erich paid for with cigarettes he’d saved.
“You couldn’t buy them and the Germans loved to smoke,” Schlaile said.
Dressed in an exquisite white gown with a veil of sheer fabric that reached the floor, the young groom’s thrifty ingenuity made more than the celebration possible.
“I did not have a wedding dress and after the war, you cannot buy any white material,” Schlaile said. “I told Erich about it and he said, ‘I think I know what you can use.’”
Her soon-to-be-husband returned with a white parachute.
“We bring it to my seamstress and she says, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be great,’” Schlaile recalled. “I wore that dress to our 25th wedding anniversary, too.”
A Sixpence in your Shoe — America
The newlyweds moved to the United States the following month and resided in Maryland, where Erich’s family lived. Her husband studied chemical engineering at the University of Maryland while Schlaile adapted to life in America.
“I started reading the comics to learn English,” she said.
Erich’s first job took them to Oklahoma, and then back to Maryland, but for 42 years, they lived and raised a family in Pasadena, Texas.
“Our daughter used to live in Polson,” Schlaile said. “When we visited, we really liked the town.”
In 2002, they bought a lot and started to build their home on the hill, with big windows framing picturesque Flathead Lake.
It would be 22 years until Schlaile returned to her homeland, Belarus, in 1965.
Her mother was sick, but still she was not allowed beyond the city of Minsk and could not visit her small town because she was now an American tourist in communist Russia.
“It was a very sad reunion because so many years went by,” she recalls. “My sister’s 2-month-old baby was 22 and that’s the first time I saw her.”
Schlaile’s oldest sister had died during the war. She was working in a northern German town where many people starved to death during the cold winter months when food was scarce.
“Some people either don’t believe or they just don’t know about the concentration camps,” Schlaile said.
“My friends, they want me to write a book, but I said no, too many have been written.
“They say, not about your life; but I think everybody have your own life story.”
Schlaile pages through an album of photographs of her and Erich, taken while they were still in Germany.
Antanja and Erich Schaile on their wedding day, Nov. 13, 1948.
Schlaile shows off her parachute wedding dress at her Polson home.
Today, she is without Erich. It’s been just over a year since he died after suffering a second stroke.