At our annual Torbeck Family Reunion this past July at the Senior Citizen’s Center in Vandalia, I arrived with my family and looked around to see who was already there.
As I looked around the room, I saw some of my immediate family, and cousins of my dad, the oldest members of the family. In the days of my childhood, the numbers attending the reunion numbered 100, but now it is down to the 20-plus dutiful family members, for the most part descendents of Johann Joachim Torbeck, who was 3 years old when his parents sailed to America.
My eyes rested on Mike Koehler (pronounced Kee-ler) from Mt. Pulaski, and I scanned the room, looking for his wife, Berniece, my dad’s cousin. This is when I learned that she had passed away in February.
Berniece and Mike were some of the faithful to travel the distance from Mt. Pulaski each year to visit with her family in Fayette County. Berniece was a sister to the late Virgil Torbeck of Brownstown.
Mike invited the women to visit a side table where he had placed odds and ends of jewelry belonging to his late wife that his daughters, daughters-in-law and grand-daughters didn’t want. At the end of the day, there were some items left, and I put them in a bag and brought them home.
That is when I got the idea to make Mike a jeweled picture frame using the unwanted pieces of Berniece’s jewelry, interspersed with broken jewelry that I had in a box.
I telephoned Mike to tell him what I was doing, and he tried to dissuade me from wasting my time on such a project. All of the women in his family had been through the jewelry a number of times, and flat out didn’t want it.
Wait and see, I told him.
Among the various earrings, pins, bracelet charms and pearls was a small American flag. To me that represented Mike, who was a prisoner of war during World War II in Camp “4-B” near Leipzig, Poland.
Mike told me that he was housed with other men in a big barn of a building, with barbed wire nailed all around the outside of the building so there would be no escape. A smaller work camp more than a mile away could hold 35 men, and he spent time there, as well.
The prisoners were members of a work detail, and marched – under guard – three miles to the train station, where they boarded a train to take them to where the railroad had been blown up by allied bombers the previous week. Mike chuckled when he said that the guards thought the Americans were some of the slowest workers they had ever seen.
One of the work detail guards was an 84-year-old man they called "Kraut." When news came that the Americans were coming, Hitler first ordered the POWs to be shot. The guards refused to do this, knowing the retaliation they would face.
Then, it was decided to march them to the Russian border, but then the German guards would be Russian POWs, and that was unthinkable.
It was then decided to march the men to the Americans, who were only one mile away. The German guards would then be prisoners of the allies.
Mike, along with two of his fellow POWs, a man from Indiana and another from Kentucky, later located their kind octogenarian guard and had him liberated from an American POW camp. They also interceded for him, and he received a full pardon.
The three then accompanied the man they called "Kraut" to his home in Leipzig, where his aged wife awaited his return. Two soldiers went in first, then the old man and then the third soldier. The old woman almost swooned, thinking she would be murdered – then she saw her husband, and Mike said it was as though they were young lovers.
The couple’s three sons had been killed in the war, and their four blonde-hair and blue-eyed daughters had been taken for breeding with SS officers for Hitler’s super race. They never saw them again.
The three American soldiers returned to their base, and then boarded a ship for America. Mike had suffered from rheumatic fever as a prisoner, and it was the old guard who encouraged him to keep going because if he stopped, he would be taken out and shot. Mike was hospitalized for 12 months after his return home.
A week or so after I began work on arranging the jewelry on the frame, it was done. I hurriedly clipped a picture of a rose from a handy magazine and placed it in the frame. Carefully packing the frame in a box, I mailed it to Mike, with a note to replace the hastily chosen rose picture with another that he liked better.
Mike said he was sitting on his porch with his daughter-in-law when the postman brought the package. As Mike opened the box, the sun glinted on the crystals and rhinestones, and he said the beauty touched him.
I had encouraged Mike to pass this memento on to a female family member, but he has chosen to keep it on the table beside his easy chair. There, he sees it daily and enjoys the sparkles as the sun shines in through the window.