Bill and Pat Bremen wanted to visit Germany to see where Bill was born, but the Swansea couple couldn’t afford to go together.
“Our daughter (Lela) said, ‘Hey, Dad, there are people on the Internet who will send you places,’” said Bill, 73, retired from selling car insurance, and later, cars.
Her advice led them last winter to Senior Wish of a Lifetime ( seniorwish.org), based in Denver.
“To apply, he wrote his story on the computer,” said Pat. “It was 6,000 words. He pressed ‘enter.’ They only accepted 1,000 words. He stayed up till 4 a.m. to get it down to 1,000 words.”
“I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in Hades,” said Bill, sitting across the table from his wife of 50 years. “By the time I was done, I was so rattled, I didn’t know what I had submitted.”
“A few weeks later, they called us,” said Pat. “They said they were kind of interested in his story.”
Senior Wish wanted names and contact information for the Bremens’ German relatives. They wanted to know if the Bremens had passports. Yes. Would someone be able to pick them up at the Frankfurt airport? Yes.
“This started in February (2014),” said Pat, a Busch Stadium usher.
In June, the Bremens received an email. It read in part, “We were blown away by your story. We want to send you and a companion to Germany.”
Pat and Bill were excited, but skeptical.
“I kind of didn’t believe it,” said Pat. “I got to thinking, maybe this is a hoax. It could be a big ripoff. I called and said, ‘I would like an itinerary.’”
They left Sept. 20, flying from St. Louis to Dallas to Frankfurt.
“(Cousins) Helga and Manfred (Gegner) picked us up,” said Pat. “They looked on Facebook and knew who we were. They took us to their house in Fulda, Germany (five hours from where Bill was born). It had been 1952 since he had seen his Aunt Christa. Cousins came. They were wonderful. They were so much fun. The whole family participated in everything. All these guys were between 21 and 28. They partied with us. We just had the most fantastic time.”
Senior Wish paid for five-days’ stay in Germany, including up to $800 for food and $200 for gas. The Bremens stayed at a hotel in Gorlitz, Germany, near the village where Bill was born. They also visited Bavaria and Prague, Czechoslovakia.
“We were there nine days. The other days, we stayed with cousins,” said Pat. “They were so wonderful to us.”
“We have a photo in front of the sign from the little Polish town where Bill was born. We talked to people everywhere. My husband speaks fluent German. A lot speak English.”
“I had a 10-year-old’s vocabulary of conversational German that I could get by with,” said Bill.
“I didn’t understand German. I could count on fingers and toes how many times I had to say ‘English.’ (Cousin) Sophia would look words up on her iPhone.”
Born in a barn
Bill was born in the little town of Haidewaldau, Germany, (now Zagajnik, Poland). His given name was Hans Joachim.
“June 26, 1941,” said Bill, “during World War II.
“In Europe, the farms were like they were in the Middle Ages. The house was above the barn. The animals kept the place warm. Along with the manure.”
His mom Margaret was a radio operator in the German Air Force. His dad was in the German army. He lived with his grandmother and Aunt Christa in Liegnitz, Germany (now Lignica, Poland) until the family left for a displaced persons camp in Czechoslovakia to escape the advancing Russians. Bill was 3 1/2.
Bill’s first memory was of the four months they lived in Czechoslovakia.
“We lived in a tarpaper shack,” he said. “There was a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. We did everything on it. Cooked on it. Used it for heat. Grandma and Aunt Christa would take rye bread and toast it on top of the pot-bellied stove. I was 3 1/2 at that time.
He remembers muddy spring days and people trying to grow little gardens.
“The next memory I have, we ended up in the Black Forest (region of Germany). We were moved by somebody to live with Frau Meier, a widow lady who had a small farm. We lived downstairs. She had pigs, chicks. She had a stove and flour to make bread and dumplings. She would hardly ever speak to my grandmother and aunt. I was 4. She liked me. I would have Sunday dinner with her.”
His grandpa “Opa” showed up there in summer of 1945, followed by his mother. His Aunt Christa, then 16, and his mother went to work for the American Red Cross.
“American GIs were not allowed to speak to Germans, but they did anyway,” Bill said. “My first recollection is they all chewed gum. I didn’t know anything about chewing gum. They were sweet guys, only 18 or 19 years old.”
A sergeant asked his grandmother to do his laundry, but she didn’t have equipment.
“She was in her 50s at the time. He showed up with tub, washboard and soap. She had an old coal iron. She would put hot coals in and swing it. He started bringing us stuff that we needed. He asked my grandma what he could bring for me.”
She told him cream of wheat, but the translation was off and he came back with a big tub of lard.
“We hadn’t had anything fried for over a year,” said Bill. “Grandma fried some potatoes. It was like heaven.”
When food was scarce, Bill and his grandfather begged at nearby farms for an apple or an egg.
“They fed sugar beets to the cattle. We would get sugar beets. That was something for us to eat. The forest was full of blueberries and mushrooms — chanterelles. They had a little peppery taste to them. We’d dry them in summer and reconstitute in winter.”
His mother met John Bremen, an American G.I., in 1946.
“I called him Uncle John.”
They lived for a time in Regensburg on the Danube.
“It was a beautiful place, saved from the war,” he said. “A cathedral there was started in the year 1,000. It was a Roman outpost on the Danube.”
His mom married John Bremen there and the three moved to America in 1952.
“I was 10. I could say ‘banana’ in English. I got off the boat, got on an escalator that took me out on the street and I got lost in New York City. I don’t know how they found me.”
They took the train to St. Louis. Bill’s grandparents lived in Fairmont City.
Life in America
Bill and Pat met in 1963 when both worked at Sav-Mart in Belleville.
“He was my boss,” said Pat, who lived the first 12 years of her life in the Dogtown neighborhood of St. Louis. “When we go to St. Louis, I tell him I lived here or went to school here.” He said in his original thing (to Senior Wish) that he wanted to take me to show me where he was born.”
The Bremens, who lived most of their married life in the Midwest, have five children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Bill is a regular contributor to the News-Democrat’s Letters to the Editor.
“I was a rural mail carrier for 23 years,” said Pat. “I loved the job but hated the ice and snow. I traded with a guy in California who wanted to come back to the Midwest. My route was in Sonoma wine country. I worked for a minor league baseball team.”
They spent 13 years in California before returning to the metro-east in 2003 to take care of Bill’s mother.
Visitors from abroad
For Christmas 2014, a gift arrived from the German cousins. It’s called a schwibbogen, a wood cutout of a village with LED lights.
“My biggest regret is not knowing his family all these years,” said Pat.
But they’re staying in touch now.
“During the second snowstorm in Boston, they called to see if we were OK,” she said.
German relatives will visit the Bremens this spring.
“On May 7, cousins Saski and Dennis are coming to St. Louis,” Pat said. “They’re taking their honeymoon in the United States, going to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They were already planning it. Once they met us, they put in a side trip to St. Louis.
“We will take them to the stadium, the Arch, Anheuser-Busch. Dennis loves spaghetti. We have to take them to The Hill.”
Pat and Bill are saving up.
“We are going to try and go back (to Germany) on our own.”