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From memories to memoirs of war

Jane Stebbins

MONTEZUMA – Alf Tieze hasn’t opened up to many people about his childhood experiences during World War II, but lately he’s ready to share those stories, in part so people don’t forget the terrors war brings, but mostly to bring himself closure to the trauma that plagued his life.Tieze’s life story is recounted in a recently published book, “The Minefield of Memories,” written by his daughter, Karine Wetherbee, who culled the nightmares and remembrances from her father.Tieze might have been more willing to talk about those harrowing years, but for decades doing so would bring on a good case of the shakes. As the years rolled on, however, Tieze realized he wanted his family to know his history, so he agreed to submit information to Wetherbee – sometimes mere snippets, more often pages and pages of stories – to make the book.”In doing so,” he said from his home near Keystone, “I finally was able to get it off my back, my soul.”The story starts with Tieze, a German-speaking Austrian, living in Europe as a child before World War II and continues through years spent in refugee camps, where his family broke apart due to death, hunger and constant mobility.

Tieze grew up in Jagerndorf, Austria (now Krnov, Czechoslovakia), on a farm with his Oma and Opa, Uncle Alois, mother, and sister, Gerti. He and the neighborhood boys – one of them a best friend named Gerle – spent their better days in school or down on the banks of the Gold Oppa River, not knowing how their lives would dramatically change in the months and years to come.The changes were subtle at first, and the adults tried to keep news of the conflict from the children.But one day, Tieze’s grandfather hustled him into the house where the adults were talking about the Germans and their impending advance on the town. Within days, posters appeared all over Jagerndorf. Airplanes dropped leaflets from the skies.Adolf Hitler was coming to town to tell them about his New World Order.A few years went by and life began to deteriorate for the city. Food rationing began. Men, including Teize’s father, were conscripted by Hitler to the front lines and women were forced to work additional hours in the factories supplying woolens for the war effort. Trains rolled through town, some filled with people heading to unknown destinations.Tieze and his friends tried to live a somewhat normal life, playing on the banks of the river, skiing on their wooden skis and enjoying the apples in their yard, but a somber mood had fallen over town due to constant uncertainty. There were unanswered questions and worry.Soon, the family received notice that Tieze’s and Gerle’s fathers had died.

Finally, the troubles of the world around them struck the city. Tieze’s mother and sister were sent west to an unknown future. The family took Gerle under their protective wing after his father’s death, promising him safety they were not sure they could deliver.The remaining family moved into refugee camps, where days blended into night and nights into days, with little more than sleep, hunger and the constant stench of latrines to fill them.In one of the first camps, Tieze was overcome by the temptation to challenge gunfire and dash across the road to a bombed-out store, where he twice retrieved food for those at the camp. At another camp, he apprenticed with a brewer. At another, he tended to the horses and plants and harvested food. At another, he would sneak out at night under the sweeping searchlights to return home to raid the family’s pantry.At one point he was summoned to an apartment where his mother and beloved sister were living, but his mother slammed the door in his face – a sub-theme that plays out to a surprising end in the book. Weeks later, he witnessed his mother die on the streets and the Nazis gather her body and toss it on a wagon filled with others who had died.He lost his friends along the way – friends he’d promised to take care of.He has, however, found his sister, Gerti, and visits his native country to attend reunions of those who survived. He still has faith that he will find others.Tieze admits he’s surprised he survived the Nazi war crimes.



“I’m not done by any means,” he said. “But I’m mellowed out; I’m more relaxed now. I finally have closure.” Tieze eventually made it to New York City, where he lived with relatives. He was drawn to the Rocky Mountains by their resemblance to his native Alps. He moved to Summit County in 1961 and began work at Arapahoe Basin as a ski instructor. He met his wife of 40 years, Sunni Dercum, while skiing and helped start an amputee program after the Vietnam War. In later years, he designed homes and owned the Gasthaus Bavaria, now the Goat in Keystone. He still builds homes, but purchased a second home in Taos, N.M. to spend part of his time at a lower elevation.To this day, Tieze questions mankind’s pursuit of war.”It (the memoir) certainly is a reminder that we shouldn’t have any more wars,” he said, shaking his head. “But did we learn anything? We still keep having more. What does it solve? At the end, it’s the innocent people who take the brunt of it.””The Minefield of Memories” is available at Borders Books.


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