Gunther Schiwy, a long time member of the Centreville Rotary Club is an individual “Distinguished Partner in Service” on the basis of his financial generosity in supporting charities through Rotary. He is a “Distinguished American” in other ways. His life story is most inspiring and serves as a reminder of the many blessings and opportunities we enjoy as Americans. On June 10, 1952 he, along with Regina and daughter Ursula arrived in New York City on the last ship of World War II displaced persons immigrating to the United States.
The “Gunther Schiwy Story” begins in January 1945. The end of World War II n Europe was in sight. American forces were advancing against Germany from the west and the Russian army was approaching rapidly from the east. Gunther was fourteen years old, living on a farm in the most eastern part of Germany with his parents and five siblings. German families in the path of the Russian army were terrified, convinced they would end up in Siberia. The Schiwy family loaded food and personal belongings into a covered wagon and headed west. The Russian army was only ten miles behind!
The going was agonizingly slow. Roads were clogged with thousands of other refugees moving in the same direction. After traveling for two weeks they learned that the Russian army had driven a wedge to the south and west of them, meaning the only opportunity to escape was to the north. At this point the Russians were only 500 yards behind! Gunther’s family abandoned the road and headed north across snow covered fields – and luckily escaped being captured.
Around the 4th of February they reached Fresh Sound, a body of water ten miles wide and 60 miles long. The sound was frozen and many other wagons had crossed it earlier. The family believed they could cross the ten mile stretch in one day. As they neared the opposite shore at day’s end, they found that Russian planes had bombed the ice. They had no choice but to turn north and continue traveling on the ice, staying well away from the bombed shoreline. All night they slowly made their way further north, carefully checking for holes in the ice. The following day they came to a makeshift floating bridge to dry land and a temporary respite at the seaport of Pillau.
There, German soldiers instructed all women and children to board a freighter to the port city of Gdniya, but Gunther’s father and all other men had to stay behind to help other refugees. They stayed ten days in a Gdniya refugee camp and passed up a chance to leave on a ship named “Gustloff” because Gunther’s mother did not want to leave. Two days later they learned the Gustloff had been torpedoed and sunk with 5,000 refugees on board.
In mid-March they and 4,000 others boarded a cruise ship designed for 800 passengers. Within two hours the ship hit a mine, which blew a large hole in the side of the ship. Water tight doors were closed to keep it from sinking, but all power had been lost and they were adrift. Finally a tug boat came and towed them for six days to Copenhagen, but not before they were bombed by a Russian plane.
The refugees traveled in cattle cars to various camps throughout Denmark. Gunther’s family was taken to Giskud along with 170 others. A four classroom school had been converted into a refugee camp for this large group. Life there was relatively good. Refugees were allowed to walk around the village and get acquainted with local citizens. Danish boys came with a soccer ball, and they played Denmark vs. Germany.
This all came to a halt on May 5, when the war ended. A fence was built around the school yard, food was rationed, Gunther’s younger brother and four other children died by the middle of June. Gunther spent two months in a military hospital with typhoid fever and hepatitis. They were then moved to a large refugee camp where Gunther became friends with a master electrician and a 16 year old boy who was a radio technician. The three worked in the camp maintenance shop. They scavenged parts from a nearby junk yard to build a power supply for a projector they had repaired as well as a radio. This became the start of Gunther’s knowledge of electrical equipment. Among the refugees was a retired vocational teacher who had taught courses in electrical and radio theory. Gunther and a few other boys would spend time each day learning from this new friend.
They had not heard from Gunther’s father in over a year, since boarding the ship in Pillau, and did not even know if he was alive. Fortunately, the Red Cross was eventually able to locate him in Wahnbeck, West Germany and by Christmas 1946 they were on a train to Wahnbeck. A farmer in Wahnbeck gave Gunther’s mother a basket of potatoes, which she boiled. Gunther claims that was the best Christmas dinner he has ever had!
To help with family finances and to provide more room for the family in their one room apartment, Gunther and his brother took a job on a farm, working for room board and $5.00 per month. Eventually, the family was able to rent a two room apartment, and Gunther secured a job with the English Army as an automobile electrician. One day, while still working as a farm hand for $5.00 per month, Gunther observed an attractive young girl riding by on a bicycle. She had a basket and two milk cans strapped to the front of her bike. He thought he would like to meet her – and he did. Her name was Regina – and the rest is history, Mrs Gunther Schiwy!
Regina was a fellow refugee. She, her mother, and six year old brother had pulled a small wagon loaded with their belongings along a snow covered road to flee the advancing Russian army. In a few days they were all captured. Small children and their mothers were sent one direction. All others, including Regina, were loaded into trucks to be sent to Siberia. During her transport she jumped off the moving truck and ran. Two years later she caught up with her mother in northwest Germany.
During the summer of 1951, an American commission traveled through West Germany to identify displaced persons and offer them farm jobs in the United States. The offer sounded good, so Gunther and Regina applied. Finally, in April 1952 they learned they had been accepted and would have a farm labor job in Knox, Indiana. On June 1, 1952 they and daughter Ursi boarded a ship and started the ten day trip to America with high hopes for the future. Gunther remembers vividly the joy of the passengers as they sailed past the Statue of Liberty! -- Passengers who had witnessed so much death, starvation and fright, but now had so much hope and anticipation.
Gunther’s and Regina’s excitement was soon dampened when all of the passengers were met by their sponsors and departed the pier - except for them. Soon, a lady from Travelers Aid approached and told them their sponsor from Indiana had changed his mind and did not want them anymore. What a disappointment! She took the Schiwys to a hotel and said she would return the next day with some information. By the next morning she had found a replacement job opportunity. A farmer, Charles Rathel from Wye Mills, Maryland needed help on his farm. Travelers Aid provided tickets for the one day bus ride to Wye Mills.
As they neared Wye Mills, the bus stopped at Lawrence’s Service Station and Mrs. Lawrence asked Gunther “Are you German”? Yes, he replied and told her where they were from in Germany. “My brother , Heini Behrens lives there” she exclaimed! “I know Heini Behrens” Gunther replied. This was the start of a new friendship.
After arriving at the Rathel farm, they were served a good meal and Mr. Rathel said he would call Gunther at 4:30 a.m. to get started with the farm work. Regina would be called at 6:30. Pay was $30.00 per week for the two of them, and they were grateful for the opportunity. Unfortunately, all their luggage had been shipped to Knox, Indiana. To them, this was a small problem in light of what they had endured.
Mrs. Lawrence, whom they had met earlier at the gas station , took them to church on the first Sunday and introduced them to her sister, Hanna Wilke, and other church members. They were warmly received, and each Sunday some church member would invite Gunther’s family to their home for lunch after church and return them to the farm. They had made instant friends, and life in Wye Mills seemed good. They were glad that the farmer from Knox, Indiana had changed his mind!
Gunther continued working on the Rathel farm for four years, until 1956. However, in 1953 he took a second job at a gas station, working 25 hours each week-end. By 1954 he had saved enough to purchase a building lot for $500.00 and set about building his own home. The bank was so impressed by his work ethic that they accepted his promise of his doing the heating, plumbing, electrical and painting work as down payment on the loan!
In 1956 Gunther accepted a job with Gale Electric Company in Denton. There, he polished the electrician skills he had developed in the refugee camp in Denmark, and in 1961, with only $278.00 in his bank account, started his own electrical contracting company – Gunther’s Electric.
At that time, construction activity during the winter months was extremely slow due to the prominence of oyster harvesting activity in the area. There was not enough electrical business to justify keeping his employees, and he did not want to lay off anyone. So, he put them to work building a nicer home for his family. He had experienced plenty of hardships in his life and could not bring himself to lay off a loyal employee if there was any possible way to avoid it. Until the Eastern Shore economy grew to support year around construction, Gunther’s people stayed busy during slow periods by building over 30 homes. You might call this “Gunther’s Unemployment Insurance Program”.
Over the years, the business grew and prospered. Any problems seemed minor compared to those he had already overcome. In 1992 Gunther retired on advice from his doctor and turned the running of Gunther’s Electric over to his son Mike. Both Gunther and Mike are active members of the Centreville Rotary Club, with Mike serving a president in 2006-2007. Each year, at the Rotary meeting closest his June 10 anniversary of arriving in America, Gunther contributes a “Happy Dollar” to the charity fund and expresses his gratitude for being an American and for the freedom and opportunity that America represents.